Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Portrait of a Villain: Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom

The following is my original, unedited short story which accompanied the background material I submitted to Nevermet Press for the Brother Ptolemy character, written April 20, 2012. It appears in the adventure we published in November of that same year.

Portrait of a Villain: Brother Ptolemy and the Hidden Kingdom
by: Paul M. King

A gaunt form drifts slowly through the crowd, dressed in robes of dark crimson, the color of dried blood.  A hood, pulled low, all but hides the tarnished glimmer of a smooth, featureless mask that covers his face.  Cracks like shadowy veins spider across the facade, golden paint flaking away to provide a tiny glimpse of the ancient cedar beneath.  Small bottomless wells of darkness fall into the mask, openings for the mouth and eyes, and continue to hide what lies beneath even in the harsh light of the noonday sun.  Two figures, move in step with the first, flanking him on either side.  They are all robed and adorned in the same manner and none who stand in the heavy aroma of incense and exotic spices left in the wake of their passing can spy a difference between them.

Duke Gerhardt von Brandt was a very rich and - his detractors would only begrudgingly admit - handsome man, two facts of which he was keenly aware.  One evening, while preparing to entertain his fellow aristocrats, he spied a gray hair in his ebony mane.  This sent him flying into a rage and von Brandt soon found himself consumed with searching for a means of preserving his youthful visage and vigor.  He began to travel extensively, visiting repositories and practitioners of ever deepening arcane knowledge, his desperation and determination growing with every dead end he seemed to encounter at every turn.  Eventually, in the dusky light of a Far-Eastern back alley, von Brandt found himself handing over a tremendous sum of money to a ragged thief for an ancient dusty scroll.  The scroll, the thief assured Gerhardt, held the secret to immortality.

A shadow looms over the beggar sitting by one of the city gates.  He looks up, shading his eyes against the bright sunlight to find a trio of tarnished, impassive faces silently gazing down upon him. The beaten tin cup he hesitantly extends rattles fearfully, tossing about the pair of coppers he's managed to collect this day.  The middle figure steps forward and kneels down, the aged mask drawing level with the beggar's dirty weather worn features.  A voice, like a dry autumn breeze wafting lazily through brittle fallen leaves drifts towards him. "You hunger?" A question, but not. The beggar nods with practiced humility.  A gloved hand glides forward, and hovers over the beggar's cup; he leans forward expectantly.  "When this is gone, seek us out. You need never hunger again."  The poor man is surprised by an unexpected rattle and a sudden weight in his cup.  He looks down to find it half filled with gold coins, more money than he can ever remember seeing.  The shadows pass and the beggar climbs to his bare feet. "Bless ye! Bless ye, sirs!"  The figures stop and turn.  "We are blessed, and we look forward to sharing that blessing with you."  With that, they are gone.

Years passed, and Duke von Brandt continued to travel, seeking experiences both wondrous and exotic.  As young and handsome as he was, Gerhardt was never for lack of companionship. One night, while in a tavern far to the north, he attracted the attention of a local beauty.  Unfortunately, this attracted the attention of her jealous and rather inebriated lover.  A fight ensued and a dagger found its way through Gerhardt's ribs and into his heart.  He staggered back and withdrew the blade.  The stunned silence was shattered as the mortally wounded Duke began to laugh; he suddenly lept forward and buried the dagger up to the hilt in his opponent's belly.  As the man lay dying on the floor, Gerhardt von Brandt turned and walked out into the bitter cold night.

The drought is severe this season and the local farmers are hard pressed to keep up with the demands of the city, much less keep food on their own tables.  The red monks had imported a large shipment of food and set up a soup kitchen in the center of the city; the line wrapped around nearly the entire square.  A trio of monks enters the square and heads for the kitchen.  One of them breaks off from the other two to stand on the raised dais where a statue to the city's founder gazes out serenely over what he had wrought generations before.  Gloved hands are lifted and the attention of nearly every person in the sullen, shambling line is turned towards him. "Brothers and sisters!  We are happy to share all that we have with you!  But know that this meal can only give but a temporary respite to the unending neediness of this world.  There will always be hunger, always be pain, always be fear.  This does not have to be!  There is another way - a better way! You need not be hungry! You need not suffer! You need not fear, even death!  Friends, these things no longer have any hold over us.  We are free, and we invite you to share in our freedom."

Gerhardt traveled home.  On the way, he had become increasingly aware of a smell that seemed to surround him.  He attributed this to the stench of the road; but was dismayed to find that it continued to offend his senses even after he had returned home and taken a hot bath.  His irritability grew further as each meal seemed blander than the last.  He decided to stop eating altogether; it wasn't very hard to do, as he no longer grew hungry.  One morning, as he performed his daily grooming ritual, a clump of his luxurious dark hair came loose in his hand.  As he stared at it in horror, the duke noted that the texture of his usually fair skin was changing, it was more drawn than usual and beginning to take on discomforting pallor.  He spent the next two days wandering aimlessly through the halls of his manor house, clutching the clump of hair to his sinking, perforated bosom.  On the morning of the third day, the duke called for a meeting with his entire terrified waitstaff.  They were shocked to find him dressed and packed for a journey.  They were even more surprised to hear that he no longer needed their services and that every last one of them was dismissed and to vacate the premises immediately. Then, locking up behind him, Duke Gerhardt von Brandt departed for one final journey.

The mayor stands at his office window overlooking the square. 
    "I don't trust them, I just . . . don't, and I don't know why." 
He shakes his head as his guest, a prominent merchant, moves to refresh his glass of wine. 
    "What's not to like?  They provide for the needy, have taken beggars off the streets, crime is down ever since they came to town - and no one has ever had a bit of trouble out of them.  If only all the other religious orders were as helpful as they.  You didn't seem to mind giving them a permit for their little charity kitchen down there." 
    "But why do they all have to dress the same . . . and those masks . . . "
    "Something to do with overcoming vanity or some such nonsense.  Every order has its eccentricities."
    "The people love them, and I can't fault them for it.  But . . . I wonder . . . where are all those beggars and criminals now?  And what happens when they ask for something that city will not - or cannot - agree to?"

Dust coats every surface of the forsaken von Brandt manor.  Vines snake across the walls and windows, strangling the sunlight.  The gardens, once meticulously kept and manicured are now overgrown and resemble little more than self-contained patches of wilderness.  A pair of rats meander lazily across the great foyer that once greeted nobility from nearly every corner of the kingdom.  An unfamiliar scent causes one of them pause and sniff the air.  Suddenly, a metallic scratch at the door causes them to spin about; a rasping click of the aged lock sends them scurrying for their nest.  The front doors swing inward, sending forth a gust of incense and exotic spice that cause the cobwebs to billow.  A gaunt, red robed figure walks silently into the manor and looks around.  He turns and nods to a second figure, dressed in much the same manner as he, who begins to carry in the few possessions they've been traveling with - scrolls and books, mainly.  The second figure hums quietly to himself, it is a tune he has not heard since his days as a thief living on the streets of a distant Eastern city.