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«The Mage In The Iron Mask», Brian Thomsen

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Prologue

Donal Loomis was a dwarfish gnome of a man, which is not to say that he claimed any blood lineage to either the dwarves or the gnomes but rather that his overall appearance, unfortunately, seemed to emulate the least favorable attributes of both races. With his bulbous features, stunted stature, and obese waistline, he was easily considered an unsightly wart on the face of humankind.

The jagged facial scars that decorated his hairless head, unsightly reminders of the painful removal of tell-tale tattoos, did not help the ugliness of his physical appearance. Had he not retired to "the Retreat" he would have been a focal point for ridicule and persecution almost anywhere he went.

The Retreat, as the members called it, was originally a place of study, refuge, and retirement for those who wished to devote their lives to the study of mage-craft and other magical arts. Scholarship alone, however, ceased to be enough of a reason for being or means of survival in the dour political climes of the Moonsea region, and the elder wizards who founded the Retreat many years ago decided that it had become necessary to widen their membership to certain other members of society who might help to subsidize their institution through financial endowments, political protection (whether by favors, military aid, or just good old-fashioned blackmail), or diplomatic influence. As a result, the institute of learning and refuge also became a place of sanctuary for political outcasts whose assets or knowledge could benefit their foundation, spies from the south or the west en route to the east or vice versa (Harpers were usually particularly welcome temporary guests whose incurred debts were always paid in a timely and generous manner); or just a convenient and permanent hiding place for offspring born on the wrong side of the blanket by royals or soon to be royals whose legitimate heirs had reason to worry about potential rivals.

As long as the accounts were met, no questions were asked, nor information given out. As a result, numerous members of the peculiar institution who had come to accept their lives of study had no knowledge of their parentage or lineage, and possessed memories solely of their lives within the monastic walls, nor did they desire such information nor opportunities for adventure. Loyola Ignato, one of the Retreat's founders and, according to legend, a mage of some note, had prided himself on his abilities to indoctrinate the young and inexperienced into the ways of life in the monastery. He was known to boast that if you gave him a youth between the ages of two and twenty, the Retreat would have him for life, and many nobles were more than willing to accommodate him. Without exception the Retreat had never lost an initiate to temporal temptations that lie beyond the monastic walls.

Donal, however, was not one of these members for he had actually chosen the sanctuary of the Retreat (seeing few alternatives) for himself, and, furthermore, was more than partially acquainted with his own lineage and parentage, no matter how hard he tried to forget.

The self-labeled wart of humankind rubbed the scars that adorned his bald and wrinkled pate. I wore my tattoos with pride, he thought to himself, if I regret anything it is their removal. With them, I had respect, power, and prestige despite my godsforsaken appearance.

Donal sighed.

And with them, I was soon a marked man, he continued in his reflection. Such is the case when one finds oneself on the wrong side of a revolution, and Szass Tam was one lich who definitely didn't forgive and forget.

Donal had had his telltale tattoos painfully burnt off his facial skin, and had applied for sanctuary at the Retreat, supplementing the mercy and pity that the elders felt toward him with promises of devotion and the sharing of numerous secrets of conjuration. To them, he was just another poor wizard who had fallen victim to hard times and misfortune, and so he was accepted and put to work to earn his keep.

Originally the former Red Wizard had had illusions of safety in his anonymity, and dreamt of secreting a small fortune by which he could leave the Retreat and live out his days in a secret location at a higher degree of comfort, but these hopes were soon dashed when Nathor, a fellow conspirator from that ill-fated revolution had also turned up at the steps of the Retreat.

Donal still remembered the Thayan refugee's rant to the elders trying to make them understand his dire straits.

"Have you gazed upon the Runes of Chaos, beheld the thing which sits upon Thakorsil's Seat, held the Death Moon Orb in your trembling hands, wielded Nyskar's Nightblades, entered the Devouring Portal and walked the Paths of the Doomed, or sat at the left hand of Szass Tam during the Ritual of Twin Burning?"

The others had felt pity toward him, and suggested that he be taken in until he could be handed over to the authorities as a madman in need of incarceration. Donal knew differently.

"I have done all these things," Nathor had confessed, "and each day I pray for forgiveness, and each night at sunset I pray for deliverance from the evils that stalk me. I pray, but I fear that no gods will listen."

Donal still remembered the chill that went through him when their eyes met. From that point on, the refugee remained silent, almost as if he had gone into a fear-induced catatonic state.

The emissaries from the asylum were due to arrive in four days.

Nathor disappeared after three days, and was never heard from again.


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