5e, Game Mechanics, Items, Tales, World Building

A Matter of Masks

by Jonathan D.

The following is a short story from our upcoming campaign setting, featuring the city of Cantovar. At the end of this post, you’ll also find a fancy new magical item featured in the story. The final published setting will include the adventures of Copper Vrie and several others, along with some of the items, locations, and NPCs featured in them.  Please enjoy!

Copper Vrie skidded across the rooftop, sparks flying from her shoe studs as she drove them deeper into the soft wood of the beam. Sharp furrows stretched in two parallel lines from her boots to the soot-black chimney on the far side of the building. Displaced rain slats clattered down the sides of the roof, gleaming red in the noonday sun as they tumbled through the air and shattered unceremoniously on the distant ground below. She brushed her windswept golden bangs out of her face and glanced over her shoulder at the rocky escarpment behind her. The unsettling robed figures remained yet at the edge of the cliff, staring calmly from empty eye sockets, expressions of consternation or anger hidden behind those dark, impassive masks. Her heart skipped a beat and she shivered involuntary. Seas, but her nerves would be shot after this. The Nameless One only knew why anyone paid to see the shows put on by those creatures. Gistik was right. The old bastard was always right, of course, but this time he was more right than usual. Copper wouldn’t dare to steal from those creeps again.

But the reward, she reminded herself. She would be eating well for a month off of this job. No zwill and porridge for Copper Vrie for a few moons. Mead and seafood, and maybe even a trip or two to the Bohemian. That would be nice, if imprudent. She would have to leave most of the cash with Kartouk, of course. As much as she loved showing off, well, the quickest way to lose a fortune was to let your friends know about it. She used the term ‘friend’ loosely, as of course you had to in her profession. Shouts from the streets below snapped her from the daydream. Now was not the time to count her fortune. Now was time for the fun part. And it would be fun. She was determined to enjoy at least part of this day.

Copper sucked in several deep gulps of the chilly morning air that whipped about her, counting beats in her mind as she regulated her breathing. She tasted the salt spray on the breeze and relished the moment, letting her eyes wander over the red brick and rich brown of rooftops, gangplanks, and barges of Cantovar city, then onward to the sparkling green and foamy white of the distant waves in the harbor. She could probably afford to wait a few more minutes to enjoy herself and catch her breath. She would need to be at her best for what came next. Suddenly, the yelling resumed, louder and coming closer. Someone had caught sight of her perched atop the building. She would have liked to stay here longer, but such was the lot of a thief.

Copper Vrie dashed gracefully over the remaining expanse of rooftop, gathering momentum and throwing herself across the fifteen-foot gap between adjacent roofs. Cool wind lashed her face, straining ineffectively against her lithe body. For an instant, she felt her stomach lift inside her as that wonderfully familiar vertigo mixed with a burst of adrenaline and surged through her. Then, she hit hard on the wood of the roof, her feet skidding as the spurs sliced through the wood, the resistance gradually eroding her speed. She lifted her weight off the spurs and transitioned back into a run.

Leaping from rooftop to rooftop, she let instinct guide her as she chose a path across the upscale merchant dwellings bordering  the tower district. The wooden homes and shops would give way to barges farther out into the harbor, and in this part of town they took good care of their roofs. It was always embarrassing and painful when a roof caved in beneath the force of her jump. She proceeded across the city’s pinnacle, faster by far than any of the circuitous routes below, which wound among the buildings along bridges and alleyways. And then, after all too short a journey, she chose a convenient set of drainage channels to scramble back down to street level. She stood with her back against the building she had clambered down and her front facing a large industrial barge. She glanced down the alley, but saw no one in either direction. This was definitely the right place. Copper knelt at the edge of the wooden quay, and she pumped her fist triumphantly as she found the tiny yet distinctive markings she had etched into the pier. It was always the worst when she misplaced her cache, but she had to hide the indicators well, or else someone else might find it. She quickly followed the marks to a thin, almost invisible wire, and gave it a firm tug. A small black container jolted to the surface, dangling at the end of the line.

She lifted the container from the water and depressed a small button on the front. The cover popped open, and as quickly as possible, she withdrew a small bag of fabric – her ordinary street clothes. She removed her wig and wiped her makeup onto a small cloth before stowing them within the bag and pulling her street clothes over her thief’s outfit. While she skimmed the sky, she was the Kestrel, one of the best thieves in the city of Cantovar. Down here, without her disguise, she resumed her life as Copper Vrie, inconsequential scion to a destitute minor noble family.

She smiled. Being inconsequential was almost as good as being invisible. She strode down an alleyway, climbed some painfully steep and narrow wooden stairs, crossed a water-damaged, partially rotted bridge, and emerged onto a bustling thoroughfare, moving with a confidence born of years spent winding through the labyrinthine byways of the city. Her escape had taken longer than expected, and she had little time to waste. Still, she thought, as a warm yeasty aroma tickled her senses, she did have at least a little time. A few minutes and two of Pella’s signature sweet buns later, Copper emerged from the shop with a skip in her step and a grin on her face.

The cloaked man was already waiting when she arrived several minutes ahead of schedule. She always hated his fashion sense. She supposed that anonymity was useful in their business, but come on—everyone who saw him immediately thought that he looked suspicious. Besides, black really just lacked the flare that made a thief’s life worth living. The man was quite a bit too serious for her tastes, but even so, he generally didn’t arrive early. She clucked her tongue. Ol’ Stekkard’s client must really want this mask. She considered inspecting it before turning it over to the man, then shrugged her shoulders. The less she knew, the better.

“You have the item?” came a distinctive gravelly voice. Cinnet, her contact in Stekkard’s organization. His hooked nose, pale skin, and powder blue eyes always struck Copper as strange. She wondered if he might be albino, which would at least explain his appearance. Not that it concerned her in any way, but the cloak continually obscured his features and made it hard to get a read on the man. She wondered if that was intentional.

“Money first,” said Copper. She wouldn’t take any chances.

The man nodded hesitantly, and produced a small bag of coins from somewhere inside his long black cloak. He proffered it to her. She hefted the bag, listening to the pleasing clink of metal, then opened it up and peered inside. It looked and weighed about right, and it had the clink of real gold.

“And what about my bonus for quick service?” she asked.

The man grunted.

“You receive the agreed-upon sum,” he replied. “As usual. The item?”

Copper sighed, and handed the bundle over to the man. It was worth a shot. She pocketed her payment and turned to go.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” she called over her shoulder, then stuck her tongue out at the tall man.

Copper strode away, contented. It had been an exhilarating day, and she could go home with her pockets that much the heavier for the gold that now resided inside them.

As she left, the cloaked man turned and stepped into the shadows, where another figure waited.

“I delivered, as promised. You’ll let the girl go?” the second figure asked in a grating, nasally voice.

Cinnet nodded, tucking the mask into his cloak.

The second figure stepped forward into the half-light, revealing the pocked features and thin nose of a middle-aged goblin.

“And the fake? Stekkard will be furious if he discovers we’ve tricked him out of his prize,” the goblin replied.

“Here it is,” Cinnet replied, producing an identical bundle to the one he’d tucked away a moment before. “And Gistik? Thank you. It would not have been good to allow one of these out of our clan.”

Cinnet reached up to his face and pulled.  The skin peeled away to form a mask in his hand, revealing a the face of a young elven lad of perhaps eighty or ninety years. The face of Dras Markeli, an adopted child of the Markeli clan. He was not Cinnet, and had never been.

“And Stekkard’s agent, this Cinnet? You will give him the fake?” Dras asked, his voice hale and free of the gravelly tone.

“Yes, yes, of course. I’ve simply delayed him by having one of the lads slip something in his drink. He’ll be here shortly. And I’ll pay you back your fee once I have it from Cinnet. Now, be on your way, or he’ll suspect a rat.”

“Thank you once again, my friend. We Markelis owe you another debt,” the elf replied before turning to leave.

“I’ll have you fulfill your debts soon enough, I think,” Gistik called after him.

Gistik hated betraying one of his own people, but Copper would never be any the wiser, and, competent or no, she couldn’t afford to offend the Markeli players. If she wouldn’t look to her own welfare, Gistik supposed he would just have to take care of her himself. He chuckled at his own private joke as he awaited the arrival of the real Cinnet.

Magic Item: Wood Striders

It had taken her some time, and a lot of bruises and sprained ankles, but once she learned to use them, Copper had to admit that the boots were everything the broker had advertised. Were it not for the steep learning curve, she expected every thief in Cantovar would have a pair already. Well, that and the price tag. Experimental or no, you couldn’t get enchanted gear without expending a pretty penny. Not that she begrudged them the price, she admitted. The boots never wore out, and no matter how much wood they sliced through, the spurs remained as sharp as ever. Actually, exactly as sharp as ever, which meant they always slowed you down at exactly the same rate.

Wood striders make use of several low-level enchantments to achieve a useful effect. By combining a simple conditional grease enchantment with a couple of perpetually sharp spurs, the boots allow the wearer to travel across wood much as ice skaters can move along ice. While quite dangerous for new users, the boots allow veteran wearers to control their momentum and land difficult jumps across long distances, as long as they stick to wood. Unfortunately, the boots also leave behind deep furrows as the spurs cut into the wood underneath. Wood striders are illegal in most cities for this reason.

Wood Striders

Wondrous item, uncommon

If you are not proficient with wood striders, you have disadvantage on Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks and on Strength (Athletics) checks made to jump while wearing them, and you treat all terrain as difficult terrain.  After you roll five such checks over the course of at least a week of time, you gain proficiency with wood striders.

If you are proficient with wood striders, you instead have advantage on all Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks while on wooden surfaces and on Strength (Athletics) checks made to jump to or from a wooden surface. Additionally, your speed is increased by 15 feet while moving on wood.

Image by Raventhorne from Pixabay

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