Kate Novak, Jeff Grubb



The Night Masks

Alias watched the young couple seated at the edge of the plaza fountain. They appeared as stark silhouettes backlit by a golden sunset. The swordswoman shielded her eyes from] the glare and picked out more detail. The boy's tender face and oversized ' jerkin were both blackened by soot, and the young woman's face and apron were dusted with flour. Apprentice smith and baker's daughter, Alias guessed. Oblivious to the presence of others, the pair sat side by side, staring wordlessly into one another's eyes. The boy leaned forward; the girl leaned forward; their lips hovered inches apart…

Then the girl turned her head and giggled. The boy scowled and frowned, certain that she was laughing at him, at something he'd done. Then the girl looked back at him; the light danced in her eyes, and she smiled. The boy's face twisted into a lopsided grin. He leaned toward the girl, and they began the courtship dance again.

Alias smiled, too, until her reverie was broken by the sharp cough of her reptilian companion, a sound akin to a sword being unsheathed.

'Fur-gathering about courtship?' teased Dragonbait. The saurial swiveled on his hips so that he stood upright, his heavy upper body balanced by a prodigious tail that now twitched back and forth impatiently. Although he stood at his full height, he had to look up at the swordswoman. Even the top of the flared fin erupting from between his eyes and cresting over his skull reached only to Alias's shoulder. Beneath his hooded cloak the saurial's face was more dragonlike than human, and his hide was made up of smooth, pebbly scales. He wore a soft leather tunic cinched at his waist with a broad belt of interlocking metal plates. In one clawed hand he carried an ornate staff of ash decorated with mouse skulls and orange feathers. He was trying to make it appear as if he actually needed the staff to walk, so would-be thieves would not be so quick to assume the staff was some powerful piece of magic, which in fact-it was. To complete the illusion of being a lame beast, he had even gone so far as to give his enchanted blade to Alias to wear on her weapon's belt.

Alias's hand slid down beneath her cape to her own scabbard, reassuring herself that her sword and Drag- onbait's weapon were both within reach. She wore chain mail over her tunic, plate protectors over her leggings, arms and shoulders, and an iron collar about her throat. Even without the armor, though, there was no mistaking she was anything but a swordswoman. Her attractive figure was muscled from years of drilling for combat, trekking about in heavy armor, and battling monstrous foes. She wore her bright red hair cropped short, and her green eyes were constantly shifting about, alert to any and all possible dangers. 'The word is woolgathering,' she corrected her companion.

Two passing pedestrians turned their heads to see if she was talking to herself, for Dragonbait had spoken in Saurial, a tongue too high-pitched for the normal human ear, while Alias had repUed in the ordinary Common language of the Realms. A magic spell gave her the ability to hear and understand the saurial's 'voice,' and even speak it, but only a decade of comradeship allowed her to pick up the nuances of the accessory scents, clicks, and postures that conveyed his mood and tone. Other reptilian creatures, such as dragons and lizard men, still often understood him more swiftly and completely than she did.

Conversely, the more subtle nuances of her language often eluded the saurial. 'Isn't wool the fur of sheep?' he asked. 'Yes, but you have to say woolgathering,' she replied. 'Why?'

Abas shrugged. 'Maybe something to do with counting sheep before you go to sleep.'

Dragonbait nodded at the wisdom of tallying a herd before resting, but still couldn't understand what that had to do with daydreaming.

'Actually,' Alias countered before her companion could distract her further, 'I was not woolgathering about courtship. I was thinking about how foolish those youngsters are. Look at them, oblivious to the world.'

'Their eyes are for each other,' Dragonbait whistled, and Alias caught a whiff of rose and honeysuckle-sort of a saurial sigh. He was thinking, she realized, of CopperBloom, his mate who had remained behind in the Lost Vale with their children. Alias also knew that the paladin had agreed to adventure so far south with her only because their mission was for the good of the saurial tribe.

'For each other, yes,' Alias grumbled, 'not for the world around them, or for their change-purses. They're oblivious to how long I or anyone else may have been staring at them. Splashing water in the fountain would drown out any sound of approaching footsteps. They're sitting ducks for any purse-snatcher, pickpocket, or grifter that happens by.'

'They should be fairly safe,' Dragonbait argued, puzzled by her assessment of the dangers. 'They are in the middle of a city with lots of people around. And surely they have friends nearby.'

Alias gave a derisive grin and snort, 'We are in the middle of Westgate, my friend. Crime is this town's hobby, vocation, and major export. Didn't you read the sign at the port entrance-'Welcome to Westgate, Home of the Deadly Night Masks?' 'I saw no such welcome sign,' Dragonbait stated. 'I'm joking, Dragonbait. Remember humor?'

'I do not understand the humor. Maybe because I'm saurial.' Alias shook her head. She switched to the Saurial tongue, 'Or maybe because you're a paladin,' she suggested. 'Haven't met the paladin yet who could catch a joke on the first bounce.'

'How many paladins have you met besides me?' the saurial asked.

Evading the question, Alias declared, 'We should get going. The sooner we find this sage Mintassan, the sooner we can unload that staff and escape this wretched city.'

Dragonbait nodded in agreement. The saurial wizard Grypht had arranged for them to meet the sage Mintassan and exchange the staff for a scrying device to help protect the saurials from attack. If not for the importance of the mission, the paladin never would have agreed to travel to Westgate. His two previous trips to this city had been fraught with peril, and he did not harbor any fondness for the merchant town.

Alias surveyed the six streets leading away from the plaza. 'This way,' she instructed, pointing down the least grand of the thoroughfares.

The two adventurers left the plaza and the young couple behind in the gathering shadows. The westward sky had turned the crimson of dragon's blood, coloring pink the mounting clouds over the bay to the east. As if in response to the dangers of the darkening city, the clouds were fleeing southward, leaving only starlight to shine over the city below.

The buildings surrounding the plaza, homes to merchants and taverns catering to traders, while not of the most recent or expensive designs, were neat and well scrubbed, and the roads immediately adjacent were spacious and relatively uncluttered. As the two adventurers probed farther into the city, the quarters became more tightly packed, the alleyways narrower and strewn with the debris of civilization. Alias, taking one shortcut after another, dragged her companion off the main flagstone roads and down alleys of hard-packed earth until the saurial paladin had seen more backsides of buildings than front. As they stepped onto another main artery of the city, Dragonbait noted that the merchants were pulling down the great overhanging wooden shutters that provided shade from the sun during the day and protection from criminals at night. Lanterns were already alight outside the bars and slophouses, though their weakly flickering flames served more for advertisement than to chase away the gathering shadows.

Dragonbait mewled once with consternation and pulled from his belt a folded piece of paper. He grasped the edges, and the sheet unfolded like a delicate Turmish paper sculpture. Dragonbait paused beneath a lantern pole, squinted at the human letters and lines scrawled in octopus ink, looked around for a landmark, then squinted again at the map. He growled.

Alias had already crossed the street and was about to plunge into a wide alley before she sensed that her companion was no longer in tow. With a huff, she stomped back across the street and tugged on the paladin's cloak. 'Will you come on?' she demanded, 'rd like to make this exchange and find decent quarters before

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