Excerpt: Always Masked

It was chilly for an autumn night; winter a good two months away but already he could tell it would be long, hard, and bitterly cold. Naoki was definitely not looking forward to it. Sustenance would be so much harder to obtain when there were piles of snow smothering the landscape.

Alcohol buzzed in his blood, but it would only last a few more minutes. Once, it would have longer. Now, he was lucky to feel anything. It had been a stupid way to spend his spare bit of coin, but it had been nice to sit in a corner of the tavern and drink and pretend he fit in.

He also enjoyed the artificial warmth of the alcohol, and the artificial mellow, for as long as it lasted. All too soon, he would begin to feel as cold inside as the weather was making him feel outside.

Shivering slightly, Naoki pulled up his ratty cloak and threadbare scarf, shoving bare hands deeper into the pockets of an equally worn, homespun jacket. He tried not to think about the days when he had worn fabric that could endure any temperature, when his casual clothes had been fine linens and silks.

He could live without the luxury, though. It was the human warmth he truly missed. Growing up, he had always shared a bed with his brother. Several of his masters, he’d slept alongside for the purposes of security. And sometimes…sometimes he’d had a lover to sleep with. Walk with. The coldest, most snow-covered night felt as pleasant as a warm spring evening when he’d had someone to walk with, talk to, laugh with, smile at.

These days, beyond the odd bit of brief conversation necessary for making a purchase, he spoke to no one. Certainly he could not talk to his meals.

He ran his tongue over his fangs, stifling a sigh. Being cursed, in and of itself, was not so bad. One could get used to anything, even drinking blood.

It was the fear of him that never stopped hurting; the hate. The isolation that was a result of both those things. He did not want to be alone. He’d always had the clan, a master to protect—

But he could bemoan the same thing over and over, as much as he liked. Brooding would not change reality, and the reality was simple—he was cursed, and cursed meant he was alone.

He reached up to touch his mask, the changes which had been made to it normal now. At least, he consoled himself for the thousandth time, they had let him keep his mask. If they had taken this one vital piece of him, this piece of his soul, he really would have become the monster they feared he would someday be.

The breeze kicked up, and Naoki shivered again. Another mile or so, and he would be home. Then he could…

His senses sharpened to alertness. Danger and fear were on the air—and now came the scent of fresh-spilled blood. A cry of pain, angry shouting. Faint, very faint, but he could hear them. Hunger stirred alongside his finely honed instincts, and Naoki ran toward the source, the moonlight all he needed to see his way.

He reached the clearing at the bottom of a hill just a couple of minutes later. There were six men, mercs to judge by the way they moved, the things they called to each other. They were attempting to capture a seventh man, and though he was keeping them at bay that would clearly not last forever.

They never saw him, never heard him. Cursed he might be, but he’d lost none of his edge. Those of the Clans never lost their edge. Naoki struck with swift, brutal efficiency, killing the men one by one.

Dropping the last body, he regarded the man who was staring back at him in wide-eyed disbelief.

“You—you’re one of the Masked,” the man said. “I can’t—I’m honored. Thank you for saving me. They came prepared for all my usual tricks, and without them I’m just a short, scrawny guy against six giants.”

Naoki snorted softly behind his mask. He could not be more than a finger’s width taller than the man. As to scrawny, they were both lean, compact. The man was not likely to have quite his strength and abilities, but he had lasted alone against the men for at least a little while. So why was he playing himself down? Perhaps it was a strange custom. “Why would six men attack you in the night, all the way out here? It’s a poor hunting ground for robbers, and you do not seem much of a target, so far as wealth goes.”

The man laughed, but it was a weary, tired sound. “They didn’t want what I carried—they wanted me. Every last part of me. Blood, bone, seed, and all the rest; I was bound for the black market in bottles and bags and boxes.”

“You’re a creature of magic,” Naoki said, surprised. The magic of the Clans was rare enough. Most of the world did not even believe in magic. To come across a true creature of magic… “It is I who am honored I could assist you.”

Laughing again, the man replied, “You need not be, I assure you. Most would not have considered my death any great loss to the world. I am far less potent in pieces, and so far easier to deal with. But, please, I do not mean to ramble. Thank you, Masked, for saving my life. I hope the rest of your night is more pleasant. If there’s anything I can do to repay the favor, you’ve only to say.” He drew closer, smiling, pushing back dark hair that could have been brown or black, and looked at Naoki. “My name is Gosse, should you ever desire to call in the debt. I doubt one of the Masked would ever have need of my skills, but they are at your disposal, should you…” He trailed off, brows furrowed—then they rose in surprise. “There’s magic afflicting you. I thought I was just feeling the power of the Masked, but there’s some dark magic upon you.”

Naoki said nothing, only stepped back, bowed, then turned to go back to where he had veered off his path home.

“Wait—please—” Gosse cried out, coming up behind—

Spinning sharply, Naoki caught the hand that had tried to grasp his shoulder. “What?”

“Sorry,” Gosse said, seemingly unperturbed by the way his hand been so easily and firmly grabbed. “Only—I’m an expert at magic. There must be some way I can help, if you’d let me. It’s the least I can do.”

“There is no cure for my affliction,” Naoki replied levelly, slowly uncurling his hand and letting Gosse’s drop. “But I thank you for the offer.”

“What—what is the nature of your curse that you think it cannot be cured?”

Naoki hesitated, then gave a mental shrug. The worst that could happen would be that Gosse bolted, and he would be alone again. Nothing new in that. “I was attacked seven months ago, and struck with the Blood Curse.”

Gosse winced. “You’re right, there is no cure for that. I’m sorry.”

“There is no need for you to be sorry,” Naoki said impassively. “I do appreciate the offer. Will you be safe enough on your own returning to the village?”

“Oh, I wasn’t headed for the village. People…especially the non-magic ones…can be difficult for me. They’re drawn to me without knowing why, and I do not always have the energy to fend them off, especially when I’m hungry.” He smiled wryly. “But, you would understand, wouldn’t you? How hard it can be to be surrounded by people when you feel hungry?”

Naoki frowned. “What are you?”

“I’m surprised you can’t tell,” Gosse replied. “But, it’s said the Masks contain powers untold. Perhaps it shields you.”

“Perhaps,” Naoki agreed, not quite willing to baldly admit that it did shield him. Even the Clans did not fully understand all that their masks could do.

“Ah,” Gosse said. “Um. You need blood to survive. I need lust.”

Naoki’s frown deepened—then comprehension dawned. “Oh. You’re—that’s why they wanted to kill you so badly, and…” Use the pieces, he did not bother to finish adding.

“Yes,” Gosse said, staring down at his feet. “Technically, I’m only a Halfling, but that’s as close to pure as anyone is likely to come across and survive.

An incubus. Naoki could not believe it. One vial of incubus blood could be worth anything from five hundred to fifty thousand on the black market. Incubus seed could go for a hundred thousand or more, at only one quarter purity.

“You are lucky to be alive,” he said. “You are also remarkably foolish, to surrender such information to me.”

Gosse smiled. “You’re one of the Masked. There are three things always mentioned when people whisper of the Masked. Their masks, their unmatched skills, and their honor.”

Naoki grunted an acknowledgement.

The wind kicked up, and he could not quite repress a shiver. He would never grow used to this wretched cold.

“Cold?” Gosse asked. “Lift a better cloak from one of the mercs. They hardly need them.”

Naoki grimaced at the idea of taking anything from corpses, but there was a saying about beggars and choosers, and he was certainly a beggar these days.

Gosse suddenly laughed. “You have very telling silences. Wait here a moment.” He dashed off, as seemingly unhampered by the dark as Naoki. Kneeling, he fumbled with one of the body’s, removing its cloak and several other items. Then he moved on the next, meticulously working his way through each corpse, until he finally strode back to Naoki overburdened with supplies. “One good thing about mercs, they travel prepared for everything. I got a bit carried away relieving them of things they no longer need. Take the one on top.”

Bemused, and intrigued by Gosse despite himself—and company was company, and almost anything was better than being alone—he reached out and took the cloak. It was a good one, sturdy wool, lined in fur, treated for inclement weather. He quickly located several secret pockets, containing food, weapons, medicines, and enough gold that he would not be a beggar for some time. A pleasant surprise, that. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure. Shall we divide the rest of the spoils?”

“Very well,” Naoki replied. He reached out to take some of it, to carry to a suitable place, but as he did so a single flake of snow fell upon his hand.

He glanced up, and watched as clouds finally devoured the moon. Snow began to fall in earnest then, slow and light, but he sensed that would rapidly change. So early for snow—winter would indeed be unpleasant. “Come,” he said, and taking half the pile in Gosse’s arms, led the way to his home.

Home was an old, long-abandoned cabin he’d found shortly after arriving on this small continent he had chosen to make his destination. It wasn’t much, but nothing but two small rooms and a stable he did not use, but it was sturdy and he’d many improvements since claiming it. Combined with what furniture he’d been able to make or acquire, it was humble, but warm and dry. He would definitely survive the winter in it.

So long as he could find a steady supply of food, anyway, but he would not worry about that tonight. Tomorrow, hopefully, would be soon enough.

Depositing his bundle on the table, he moved to start a fire, lingering in front of it until he finally felt thawed. Then he stood and lit the two small lanterns in the room, and finally turned to regard his unexpected guess.

Gosse was a beauty, but being an incubus—even just a half—Naoki supposed beauty was only to be expected. Long, dark brown hair, straight and thick. Eyes the same color, or so they seemed in the quiet orange-yellow light of the fire and lanterns. His face was elegant, smoothly cut.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” Goss said, setting down his own burden and beginning to organize everything. “It was not my intent to make a nuisance of myself.”

Naoki shrugged. “It’s fine. Having company is a nice change.”

Gosse nodded, then hesitated, but finally asked, “So, I never caught your name. Or is it a Masked thing not to give it?”

“It is usually for our masters to share our names,” Naoki replied. “However, I have no master. Nor have I clan. My name is Naoki.”

“Naoki,” Gosse repeated, saying it precisely as Naoki had said it, rolling everything perfectly. He either had experience with the language, or was simply good at them. “It’s an honor to make your acquaintance.”

Nodding, Naoki moved to the stove. “Tea?”

“That would be appreciated.”

Curious despite himself, and perhaps simply eager for conversation, Naoki asked, “So you said you are Halfling. Does that mean you need both food and…lust?”

Gosse laughed. “I can survive on food, but not well. Eventually, I always need to feed properly. But tea is nice to have from time to time. I’m sure you must feel the same?”

“Yes,” Naoki said quietly. “Tea is nice to have.”

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