In the Shadow of the Mask

Leaving Pleasantries

“Cluck cluck,” the chickens pecked at the ground.

The hens casual pecked about; eating whatever lay at their feet. Their little yellow chicks tried their best to mimic their mothers, but couldn’t seem to pick up anything. Some of the hens scratched at the dirt to bring up buried bugs and quickly gobbled them down. The chicks tried this too, but most of them just ended up watching the bugs and beetles crawl by. Others ended up on their rears because they kept tripping over their own feet. Their father, the cock, stood proudly above the scene; standing on the tallest peck of the house. He stood like a stone sentry with unblinking eyes. He was the ruler of the roost and all knew it. He puffed out his chest, reared back his head and released a loud crow.

“OH SHUT UP YOU STUPID ROOSTER!” Aja yelled as she walked out the door, “It’s 6 o’clock at night! Not 6 in the morning! The sun is setting, not Rising! Stupid bird,” she grumbled.

Sparrow giggled as Aja continued to yell at the still crowing rooster.

They had just finish dinner and were still clearing a few things out of the house. When they started, there were books on beds, tables, chairs, in dressers and drawers. There were even books stuffed in the bathroom. Not only where there books, but Aja had quite a few treasure chests. Sparrow and Garth mainly moved out books, but Aja handled the chest, claiming that they were too heavy for them to lift.

“She is quite strong,” Garth commented as Aja carried out a chest as big as her.

“Yeah,” Sparrow agreed.

“That should be the last of it,” she set the chest down with an oomph.

“Aren’t you worried about your books getting ruined?” Sparrow looked at the aging books, “Surely they are very valuable.”

“They are and they were hard to come back,” Aja wiped her brow, “but it doesn’t rain here and things don’t soil. So the books will be safe.”

“It would be a shame if anything would happen to them,” Garth began to thumb through the top book from his stack, “hmm…”

“Oh looky here… a bed,” Reaver’s voice could be heard from inside.

“We found it about ten minutes ago,” Sparrow yelled in to him, “Thanks for helping us by the way,” she growled sarcastically.

“No problem,” he proudly stepped out into the yard, “Anything else I can do?”

“Empty your pockets,” Aja glared at him as she opened one of the chests, “Now.”

He looked appalled that she would even accuse him of such a thing. He overacted, making large gestures with his hand. He was just acting like that so that maybe she would just let it be. Aja wasn’t that type.

“Chest. Now,” Aja pointed to the chest once more.

His eyes shifted back and forth and then he sighed, “Oh fine. I have these kinds of trinkets at home,” he began to pulled all sorts of jewels and necklaces from his pockets.

“Reaver,” Sparrow was rather disappointed, but she expected it from him.

“Thank you,” Aja closed and locked the chest, “Now that there are places to sleep,” she slapped her hands together to shake off the dust, “The sleeping arrangements go as such. You two,” she indicated to Garth and Reaver, “will be taking the two twins in the lower bedroom.”

“How about if I take the upstairs bed and a few can join me?” Reaver had a wicked smile.

“You,” she meant Sparrow, “will take the top bedroom.”

“What about you?” Sparrow knew there was only one bed in that room.

“I don’t sleep much when I’m here,” Aja stretched, “so don’t worry about me.”

“Oh… okay,” she was still a little confused.

Later that night…

It was no use. Sparrow couldn’t sleep in the strange bed. It was a very comfortable and plush bed, but she couldn’t seem to find a good spot to fall asleep in. the covers were warm and cozy, the mattress cradled her and it didn’t squeak like her bed at the Cow and Corset. Her furry friend on the other hand was snoring and running in his sleep. She tried not to giggle as he tried to catch his dream bunny.

“Come on boy,” she whispered into his ear, “you can get that rabbit. You just have to run faster. Come on,” she cheered him on.

His legs moved faster but he still couldn’t seem to catch his rabbit.

“It’s ok boy,” she gently rubbed his head, “you’ll get him someday.”

She left him to chase whatever prey filled his puppy dreams. The star filled night twinkled just outside the window and it begged her to come and have a look. Lazily she got out of bed and headed for the window. The cool crisp air blew the stray hairs away from her face. The stars blinked in and out, making it seem like the sky was winking at the world. It was a pleasant place to be… The Homestead is what was engraved on the plaque by the front door. Apparently that was it was called. Aja said it was there when she found the place and so was all the furniture.

“Oh,” she looked down into the yard, “Garth is still up and Aja’s with him.”

Garth was sitting on a chair with a one of Aja’s book in his laps. A couple of candles and a large lantern were lit around him so he could read. The light surrounding him gave him an eerie appearance. The light flickered on his monocle; it almost looked like there was fire in his eye. Aja was sitting in a rocking chair, smoking her pipe.

“This really is extraordinary,” Garth commented as he turned a page in the big old book.

“Indeed,” she agreed, “I acquired that when I when explored the cave in the middle of Bower Lake. It used to be the Hero’s Guild you know.”

Garth looked up for a moment; “Really?” he tried to sound surprise.

“Yes,” she seemed to buy his act, “that was in what I believed to be the Guildmaster’s Chamber. Did you know the Guildmaster could communicate with any hero using the Guild Seal? That must have been really annoying,” she blew out a long plume of smoke.

“It must have been,” Garth went back to the book.

They didn’t say anymore and just sat outside.

Sparrow released a long yawn and laid her head on her arms on the window sill. She was only going to close her eyes for a moment. They were getting heavy and the cool breeze was so pleasant and refreshing. She soon fell into a deep sleep.

The next morning…

“All I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be sitting around here,” Sparrow sighed.

“I know you’re concerned Sparrow, but Aja won’t go for a couple more days,” Garth sighed with her, “She was very adamant about that this morning when I brought it up.”

“Though she hasn’t told us why she refuses to leave any sooner,” Reaver brought up a good point.

It was strange that Aja hadn’t said why she wouldn’t leave right away. She growled at Garth the moment he mentioned the idea of leaving that day.

“Maybe if we all bring it up to her, she won’t be able to say no?” Sparrow suggested.

“Yes… as long as you’re the one talking to her,” Reaver shuttered, “besides, we hired her to show us to a gate… thingy.”

“Cullis Gate,” both Garth and Sparrow corrected him.

“And she is doing this for free,” Garth pointed out, “She ever did ask for any sort of money.”

“Does it look like I need any money?” Aja appeared in the front door.

The three looked around for a moment.

“No…,” Garth finally answered.

“Um… Aja… we wanted to talk to you about something…,” Sparrow was more than a little nervous.

“I thought you would,” Aja sighed as put a big bag on the table, “so I went ahead some supplies for the trip ahead. Here,” she pulled out a box and handed it to Reaver, “Silver bullets; load them in you pistols… we’re going to need them where we’re going.”

“Silver bullets? Don’t tell me that we’re going to be facing Balverines,” Sparrow looked at the box.

“Fine I won’t,” Aja snorted, “Either way, I didn’t want to go until the full moon was over. The Balverines will be thick as we get closer to the gate… so will be the Hollow men.”

“Why didn’t you just tell us about the dangers?” Garth asked.

“I didn’t want to worry you,” she started to rummage through the bag, “Here,” she handed Sparrow something wrapped in a cloth.

“What is it?” Sparrow pulled the material away.

In the middle of her palm lay a gem. It wasn’t like any gem she had seen before. There were strange letters craved deep into it. They formed a circle around a symbol that Sparrow wasn’t sure what it was or what it was supposed to be. Though it was black and copper in color, there was a silver sheen to it.

“That is a very valuable and powerful augment. It is called the Silver Augment,” she explained, “I have one on my long sword and if we’re going near there, you’re going to need all the advantages you can get.”

“I’ve seen these before,” Reaver leaned in for a closer look, “Rather rare from my understanding…”

“Indeed,” Aja confirmed, “Augments are from the time of the Heroes or at least that is when they were used the most.”

“What does it do?” Garth leaned in for a look as well.

“It increases damage to creatures that are vulnerable to silver. Creatures like Balverines and the Undead,” she explained.

“How do you…put it on?” Sparrow continued to stare at the augment.

“I’ll take care of that,” Aja finally sat down, “just give me you sword and I’ll attach it to you sword.”

“I suppose you don’t have anything in there for me?” Garth raised his one brow.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to give you to fend against the creatures of the night,” she sighed, “Do you have any skills with weapons?”

“I normally take part in violent acts, but I can defend myself,” Garth snorted.

“Either way, I’ll give you a silver dagger just in case,” Aja sighed, “Surely you can use a small blade.”

“… I can…,” Garth admitted reluctantly.

“Good,” she got back up, “Go to the marketplace and get whatever else you may need. Pack for a ten day journey.”

“How many days will it take to get to the Cullis Gate?” Garth stood up as well.

“Only five or six,” Aja headed for the stairs, “but if this Gate works then you’ll have to get to the temple where your friend is… so figure in about three or four days. I’ll meet you at the road that leads to Rookridge. I want to leave here by noon,” she said sternly.

“I suppose we should get going then,” Sparrow noticed it was already 10:30.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t unpack,” Reaver said quietly to himself.

“I have one more thing to do before I go,” Aja was up the stairs, “So gather up your things or it’s going to stay here,” she must have not heard Reaver’s comment.

“As Reaver put it, my things are already packed,” Garth got up from the table.

“As am I,” Sparrow got up as well, “Come on boy, time to go!”

With that, clicking noises sounded above as her faithful friend jumped off the bed and hurried down to the first floor. He seemed revitalized since he had a good night’s sleep in Aja’s bed. There was a bound in his step and his movements were smooth… like when he was younger. His expression was genuine excitement and happiness. Sparrow had noticed for the last year that his expressions seemed to be put on, like he was trying to hide his true feeling.

“Let me just go grab my things,” Sparrow talked in a high pitched tone to him, “and then we can go to the market. How does that sound boy?”

He bowed down to her with his tail wiggling high up in the air. With a bark, he ran in a circle and headed for the door. He looked back, as if he was asking, “What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

“She speaks more kindly to that mangy mutt than me,” Reaver whispered to Garth.

“I’m not even going to attempt that one,” Garth sighed as he headed for the bedroom.

Sparrow smirked as she headed up the stairs to grab her things. Aja was at the top and coming down. She squeezed passed Sparrow with an ‘excuse me’ and went about downstairs finding things she needed. Garth and Reaver had already grabbed their things and were waiting outside for Sparrow. She swung her sword over her back, placed her crossbow over it. Waiting for a moment, she remembered the Silver Augment had to be placed on her sword. She really didn’t understand how it was supposed to work. Maybe she would ask Garth. He knew about these sorts of things. Picking up her bag of things, she looked about the bedroom one more time to make sure that there was nothing behind. Sure that she had everything, Sparrow pulled the covers up and placed the pillows at the top of the bed. It was only proper that she make the bed for Aja. Taking hold of the railing, she flew down the stairs into the main room.

Aja was looking through some of the chests they hadn’t moved out.

“Here’s that dagger,” she hadn’t noticed Sparrow, “All I need is my Katana and Flintlock Pistol… Wonder if Sparrow… oh there you are,” she looked over her shoulder, “leave that sword of yours here… I’ll put the Augment on and give it back when we meet up.”

“Sure,” Sparrow pulled her Longsword, “Thank you… for doing this… for everything. If here is anyway I can do for you…”

Aja gave a low growl as she took the sword, “I don’t ask for much these days. Money and jewels don’t mean a thing to an old woman like me. Just promise me that you’ll be strong and get through… whatever it is that you are doing. You have a good head on your shoulders, use it. I’m not always going to be around,” she turned and grabbed the Augment on the table, “you best get going. I’ll see you in a little bit.”

“See you in a little bit,” Sparrow waved goodbye.

Walking out into the midday sun, Sparrow felt lighter than she had in the past few weeks. Maybe it was the Homestead and its atmosphere. The air fresher than anywhere she had ever been. It seemed clearer than Oakfield. Or maybe it was because she slept more soundly. It was hard to tell. She really didn’t care. She liked this feeling and hoped that stayed with her.

Garth and Reaver where waiting for her outside and so was her dog. They headed for the portal that lead to Oakfield. It was just as strange going out as it was coming in. They all shook off the tingling feeling and headed for the market.

An hour later…

“GARTH!” Sparrow jumped up into the air so he could see her.

He heard and started to push his way through the crowd. The market was bursting with people that day. There wasn’t a place that didn’t have thirty or so people around it trying to get one thing or another. A lot of the stalls were selling souvenirs and specialty foods for the festivities. Luckily the small produce seller that Sparrow always went to when she was in town was further away from the crowded main street. He had every piece of fruit and dried meat that she needed at a good price. However, she needed to brave the busy streets for arrows and some dog bones.

“This is why I prefer to be in my tower,” Garth grumbled as he came up to Sparrow.

“I don’t blame you,” she had to agree, “Where’s Reaver?”

“Right here my dear,” he appeared out of nowhere.

“Did everyone get what they need?” Garth asked.

“Yes,” both Sparrow and Reaver answered.

“Then we should head up to Rookridge road,” he seemed more than happy to get out of that crowded situation.

Pushing and squeezing through the endless crowd, the four eventually made it to the outskirts of town. Her dog stretched as soon as the crowd thinned out enough. So many children had walked up to him and patted him on the head. He liked both children and pats on the head, but after the twentieth child, he had had enough. Sparrow couldn’t blame him. Pats on the head are nice, but best in moderation.

Just up ahead lay the stone gate the separated Oakfield and the road to Rookridge. It stood proud and silent, both welcoming and warning people depending on which way they were going. Three boulders sat off to the side of the old stone gate and on top of them sat Aja. She was picking her finger nails with a small dagger and flicking off whatever she dug out.

“Right on time,” she said as she sheathed the dagger, “I hope you have everything you need.”

“Yes… though some of them were difficult to come by,” Garth was referring to the crowds.

“You just don’t know how to work a crowd my friend. Move with them and glide through the open spaces,” Reaver advised.

“What open spaces?” Garth snorted to himself.

“Here,” Aja didn’t pay attention to them, “the Augment is in place and it should be more effective against the creatures we come up against.”

Sparrow took the sword and examined it. It looked like her old sword. Though there was a sheen to it now… like that of silver. Within the hilt itself, the augment was placed. It felt a little out of place, but she would just have to get used to it.

“Feels good? Good,” Aja didn’t wait for a response, “Put this on your belt and only draw it if your life is in absolute danger,” she held out a dagger with a gold and silver sheath.

“It’s beautify,” Garth admitted the craftsmanship.

“The blade is pure silver and said to have been cooled in holy water,” she explained, “The hilt is obsidian wrapped in the cloth of a saint… I don’t know which one… but they were supposed to be very holy.”

“No gifts for me?” Reaver asked like he was expecting something.

“I gave you silver bullets,” she flung her bag over her shoulder, “What else do you want me to give you? And I don’t want an answer to that,” she quickly warned him.

“Then you shouldn’t have asked,” he grumbled.

“If ya’ll are ready to go, let’s go,” Aja turned around and headed through the stone gate.

Not wanting to be left behind, they quickly followed her. They were on their way to Rookridge where an ancient gate lay. They didn’t know if it would take them to where they needed to go, but they didn’t have any other choice. It was a risk, but they all agreed that it was necessary.

We’re coming Hannah, Sparrow thought to herself, we’ll stop that masked man…

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