The Masks of Shandar
Chapter 1; Interlude
All around the Rune Sea, there are discussions of why Shandral wear masks. It seems to be almost a compulsion, this need to keep a mask on at all times, and confuses people from other city-states. The masks can take any shape, any style, and really, there doesn’t seem to be anything in common between them, except for the fact that they cover at least half of a person’s face.
There have been cases where some people will want to conceal their identity by wearing a mask and proclaiming to be Shandral. Some stylish women of high culture will mimic the various styles of veils that some Shandral women wear, which bear the same commonality (and lack thereof) as masks, except that instead of covering the area from the upper lip and higher, they cover from the eyes down. What sets these people apart as decidedly not-Shandral, is the cavalier attitude they take towards casting off their mask when it becomes inconvenient. To those that know the difference, this is a dead giveaway, since a true Shandral won’t remove his or her mask even if it were lined inside with ground hot peppers.
There are very few instances where Shandral will remove their masks. Intimacy can be measured by the knowledge of another’s face underneath their mask, or in cases where continuing to wear their mask could get them killed, such as a damaged mask on a battlefield. There have been reports from old wars where Shandral soldiers who had lost their mask or had it damaged during a clash have immediately set about tearing strips of cloth to make new masks as soon as they had breathing room.
The reason why has recently been shared by the popular bard, the famous Saim Salimbra. Saim is the most notable and famous member of the Shandral Salimbra family, a traveling bard who ventures across the Rune Sea, sharing tales of the world past and exploits of great people. Some people assume that Salimbra is a pompous storyteller, spinning tales with the desire to keep audiences enthralled and money coming in. Others, however, contend that Salimbra speaks truth in his tales. The truth is somewhere in between, with Saim telling stories passed to him through a decade of research and travel to learn about the tales from men and women of different city-states, and yet, telling them with a certain flair to make them entertaining and fascinating. His events are grand affairs, even if simply seated by a fire in the cool of the evening, telling tales to travelers having lucked into a performance that could cost a good deal of gold elsewhere. Saim is not a small man, standing over six feet, speaking with a sonorous voice that carries like the boom of cannons or the whisper of the wind.
But, in recent years, the story requested most of the man has been one he simply calls “Why Do the Shandral Wear Masks?” He considers the title almost insulting simplistic, but the name has spread like wildfire, so he acquiesces.
Saim starts by referring to another tale of his, the story of the Fay War. The Fay of Old were the overlords of the world, working great powers of wonder across the lands, and creating the races known as the Faykin. They are not Fay themselves, but from the old records, they are noted as being the creations and higher servants of the Fay, made to help the Fay order the world and relay their orders, desires, and directions to the humans that the Fay had found when they came to our world. They created the Elves, the Night Elves, serpentine Ophidians, and the massive Ogren. The Fay of Old ruled over the world as they saw fit, shaping the land, seas, and people with magics that only they could comprehend. They created artifacts that still exist in the world, with wonderfully utilitarian properties or great weapons that have stood the ravages of time.
It is here that Saim Salimbra lowers his voice, evoking the imagery of dark clouds overhead and tells of the emergence of Those Who Live Beyond. They came into the world and assaulted the Fay, ripping their way into the reality we all know, and striking out. Their corruption destroyed lands, altered people in horrific ways, and unmade the work of the Fay with terrible efficiency. They struck out with claws, with tentacles, with horrid visions, and with other weapons that were so terrible that people who witnessed them did not live to record. Those Who Live Beyond battled the Fay for years, trying to crush a powerful foe. It is in this conflict that a horrible weapon was created: the Keras.
While the Fay taught the mortals of the world in many magics, including the magic of the Shadows, the Keras seemed to live in and be made of the inky blackness. Salimbra’s lip snarls at this point, disdaining fears of creatures under the bed or in closets, saying that they are but pale imitations of the terror of the Keras. Those Who Live Beyond created the Keras as a weapon to strike out and take the Fay when unprepared. With horrid hands tipped by razor sharp claws, the Keras would appear and rip the Fay apart, it’s glowing eyes blazing in a seething violet light.
Saim pauses, to let the weight of this sink in. A creature, made as a weapon to strike down the mighty Fay? How could life still be in the light of such a terrible foe? The Keras, as it turned out, was a creature that did attack, but only where directed, and disdained to lower itself to attack the faykin and humans. To rouse the Keras, Those Who Live Beyond had to force their will against his, pushing it to action. They had created the most terrible hunter they could imagine, but had not given it the will to stalk like an unrelenting predator. It sought prey it would revel in slaying, but to stalk prey that could not even pose an interesting chase or fight back, it had no interest.
There are stories, says Salimbra at this point, about the Keras clashing with the mighty Fay known as the Redcap. There are stories of the battles between the Keras and the fearsome Fay Dullahan. These stories tell of amazing clashes, of fantastic battles raging across days and hundreds of miles. But, these are stories for another time, says Salimbra, and not the end of any of their tales.
Despite the Keras’ lethargy towards the mortal races, it was discovered that on the occasions the Keras did stalk the land, one thing could raise its awful ire. Humans, elves, night elves, ophidians and ogren alike all bore one thing in common that the Keras grew to hate with unrivaled passion: a face.
In faces, the Keras saw a reflection of its enemies. In faces, the Keras saw expressions of emotions it did not tolerate. Joy, sorrow, fascination, concern, contentment and any other emotion you could think of roused such terrible hatred from the Keras, for it was created only to hunt and to rest. So, on nights when it found itself restless, the Keras stalked the land, ripping away the faces of those it found. These nights of rage would carry on until one night, a group of men discovered the key to survival. A group of men that had gone out, attempting to find remains of valuables in what had been their village. They had tied masks soaked with wine to cover their mouths and noses from the smell where a horrible attack had burned their homes down around them. When one man had stopped, tearing off his mask to retch at what he had seen, the Keras struck, ripping away the man’s face and leaving him dead on the ground.
The other men looked at one another, eyes wide with what they had just seen. As one, they turned and fled, trying to get away from the terrible creature that stalked the night. They ran, trying to find shelter, and as they did, the mask of one of their number slid and fell, the cloth hanging around his neck. The Keras took him a moment later, ripping away his face and throwing the body ahead of his companions. Another man tripped and fell over him, losing his mask as well. But this last one was spurred on by cleverness or desperation, and placed his hands over his face, covering his nose, his mouth, his cheeks, his chin. He felt cold breath whisper past his ear. He heard the snarl like nothing ever made by man, like metal slowly grinding. He saw the long, tall form of the Keras walk past him, claws and scales glittering in the moonlight, and its violent eyes lingering on him for a moment before it vanished into the dark.
These men were from a village near the town of Shandar, its own name lost to time. But, in Shandar, they told of what they had learned. Shandar was the largest town in the lands the Keras prowled, and as years turned to decades and decades turned to centuries, Shandar grew into the massive city known today. But they never forgot their lesson. They teach this lesson to their children, as soon as they are old enough to hear the words, with the rhyme every Shandral knows.
Show your face, show your face, Keras take it all away.
Hide your face, hide your face, Keras in the shadows stay.