At five years old, Sergio lost his mother, Alina, to a crew of greedy sea raiders. They ravaged the port town of Bród and took everything they could haul away in one load. Alcohol, treasure, and women; they took everything their dark hearts desired.
Sergio’s dad, Bartholomew—a gaffer—tried to fight them off, but he proved too weak for the task when the captain hit him over the head with the hilt of a black cutlass. Bartholomew went unconscious and woke up to a burned down shop and a weeping child who yearned only for his mother’s embrace.
Years went by. Sergio attended school, and his dad divided his time between working for a local textile merchant and drowning his sorrow in continual pints of ale.
At school, Sergio mostly kept to himself, except for a budding friendship with his teacher, Ms. Fletcher. She knew he didn’t have a mother around, so she took extra care in making sure he had everything he needed. Sometimes she’d send him home with food, knowing there was no one to cook for him.
Lessons at the school lasted until noon, and as soon as Ms. Fletcher dismissed the class for the day, Sergio darted home. Over the years, he collected an array of masks and used them to act out different scenes and characters in the field behind his house.
He had a troll mask and a dwarf mask. He pretended he was a knight with an old bascinet helm he found discarded behind the blacksmith shop. The barber gave him some old hair clippings, and with glue made from birch tar, he put together a were-hound one. Sergio had animal masks, and he made some that resembled citizens of Bród. The baker, the cobbler, and the stonemason all had representations hanging on Sergio’s wall. Since the raiders took his mother, he accumulated over thirty disguises, some that came with costumes to dive fully into the experience.
One day, he wore his butcher mask to school, replete with large, round eye sockets, and a black handlebar mustache. Ms. Fletcher never reprimanded him, as long as he only wore his masks on Fridays. That was their agreement. But a kid wearing a mask was a prime target for bullies, no matter what day it was.
Godric was two years older than Sergio and a foot taller. He didn’t have Sergio’s creativity or intellect, but he had arms like rods of iron.
While at break on that Friday, the boys took turns throwing rocks to see how far they could throw, but Sergio sat at a tree, imagining himself slaughtering a complete cow, twisting his mustache and chopping his hand down with an invisible butcher knife.
With a twist of his body, Godric hurled a rock at Sergio. “Watch out, you churl!”
The rock hit the trunk of the tree only a few inches to the right of Sergio’s face. He took off his mask and ran behind the tree. “L-leave me alone, Godric. I did n-nothing to you!”
Godric walked with his posse over to Sergio. “You were born.” He formed his hand into a fist and swung it at the tree. “Don’t even think about running away this time.”
Sergio walked out from behind the tree, head hung low. “If you do anything, I’ll tell Ms. Fletcher.”
He threw his fist into Sergio’s stomach. “Do that and I’ll rip apart your precious little mask.”
Sergio hunched over, Godric breathing hot air over him. “Please. Don’t.” Cough. “I won’t say anything.”
“That’s right, you won’t.” He grabbed Sergio’s mask and ripped in two, anyway. “Maybe if you weren’t such a freak, your doxy mom wouldn’t have left you for some sea captain.”
Eyes wide and nostrils flaring, Sergio punched Godric in the chest. “Shut up!”
He laughed. “Check it out, boys. Sergio isn’t a chump, after all.” Godric turned around and took a step. Sergio thought the exchange was over, watching his enemy walk away, but Godric suddenly pitched a knuckle-sandwich into his eye. “No one gets away with hitting me.” He spit on Sergio when Ms. Fletcher walked out of the schoolhouse.
She was about to ring the bronze bell, but she walked over to the boys instead. “What’s going on here?” Ms. Fletcher asked.
“Oh, nothing, Ms. Fletcher,” Godric said, blinking his eyelids rapidly. “We’re just playing around.”
She ran to Sergio, who knelt on the ground, holding his eye. “It doesn’t look like nothing, Mr. Adley.” She threw her arm around Sergio. “Tell me, did these boys do this to you?”
Sergio looked up and saw Godric glaring at him. “No, Ms. Fletcher. I tripped and fell on a rock. Godric was trying to help me up.”
“You see,” Godric said, smirking, “we’re all friends here.”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Well, okay.” With her hand under Sergio’s armpit, she lifted him up. “Everyone, get inside,” she said. “I’ll take care of Sergio.”
For the rest of the day, Godric pretended to be an angel, and Sergio held his face, thinking about his mother.
After school, Sergio went home to remake the butcher mask in his bedroom. It took him all afternoon. When his dad came home that evening after a couple of hours at the tavern, Sergio put on the last touches of his new art piece. It was better than the one he had before.
Bartholomew heard Sergio rustling around in his room, so he barged in. “What’ya doin’, kid?”
Sergio lifted his creation, smiling. “I made a new one. What do you think?”
“I think ya should spend more time with girls than playin’ with some stupid mask.”
Sergio looked off in the distance. “They’re not stupid.”
Eyebrows furled, Bartholomew stumbled toward Sergio and grabbed his chin. “What happened to yer eye?”
“Some kids at school picked on me.”
“And whad’ya do to them?”
Sergio pulled away. “I couldn’t do anything. It was six to one.”
“You weakling,” Bartholomew said, grabbing Sergio by his shirt. “You coulda at least put up a fight.”
Bartholomew slapped him on the side of his face with the black eye. “Didn’t try hard enough, did ya?”
He slapped Sergio a second time. “The strong take from da weak, and we can’t do anythin’ ‘bout it.”
“Stop it, Father.”
“Weaklings like ya are da reason they took yer modder.” He slapped Sergio, again and again and again, until he ran out of breath. He dropped his son on the floor, face red and swollen.
“Me thinks me needs anodder ale. See ya in da mornin’.” Bartholomew stomped out of the house and left Sergio to fend for himself.
The next day was market day, the time when merchants without storefronts came out to sell their wares. Every once in a while, Sergio could find a mask he liked. He would help the merchant for the day, and as payment, he’d receive the mask as his reward.
Perusing the streets at the center of town was usually a welcome change for Sergio. He didn’t like people, but he liked to be noticed even less. On market days, he could hide within the throng of shoppers and sellers without being seen.
With his face puffy and cheeks stained with tears, he was glad to hide. He put on his smiling jarl mask and veiled his melancholic disposition even more. The fake smile on the outside would inspire joy on the inside, but it proved futile. Sergio simply wasn’t feeling the excitement of the day, but it was still better than being at home with his father.
As he walked through the mob, he searched for specific venders with whom he had previous dealings, but their canopied tables were empty of the type of items he desired. He continued through the middle of the street until he spotted a dark alley he had never seen before.
In between the grocer’s shop and a building Sergio couldn’t identify, there was a cobblestone walkway covered in shadow and void of any visitors. He took off his mask and walked down the alley. He kept looking behind him to make sure he never lost sight of the exit.
At the end of the lane, a bejeweled man sat under a purple tent. He had rings on every finger, different gems around his neck, and ornaments down the front of his green tunic. There was no sun to reflect off of the man’s jewels, but still they shone, glistening like each one had captured heaven in its small container.
He leaned forward. “My shop is open for trading to those who wish to make a good deal.”
Sergio cocked his head to the side. “What are you selling?”
“Nothing to sell. Only trade.”
With his hand on his hip, Sergio’s eyes wandered the table and the items hanging from the ceiling of the tent. Landing his eyes on a unique mask that nearly rendered him speechless, he forced two words out of his mouth and pointed. “T-that one.”
The man detached a gold-plated mask from its hook on the back wall. “You have good taste, sir. This is the Mask of Avelli, rumored to give unparalleled power and influence to the wearer.” He placed the mask in Sergio’s hands.
It was heavier than it looked, like holding a small boulder. “What's the story behind it?”
“I’m glad you asked, kind sir.” He stroked a ruby on the mask’s forehead. “A wise king, Avelli, ruled in these parts many generations ago. To secure his reign, he commissioned an artisan to build a symbol worthy of his majesty. With the purest gold in the kingdom, mined from the caves outside Forest Vagary, the artisan hammered a mask in Avelli’s likeness. He then fastened a ruby to the forehead and presented it to him.”
“How did you come to have it?”
“Please listen, young sir.” He sat back in his chair and stroked his chin. “The king found the artisan was worthy of creating genuine beauty. Instead of paying him for his work, the king became jealous, so he thrust his sword into the artisan’s gut and killed him. Blood soaked into the ruby, and the mask glowed like fire. The king put the mask on and immediately felt a power surge through him—a searing bloodlust. It started small at first, but he soon went on a killing spree, beheading all who disagreed with him, going to war with every nation who dared to exist outside of his authority. The mask turned the wise king mad, but he had secured his rule for many generations. When the king died, his servants threw the mask into the sea, and I eventually found it on the shores of Shikari. I learned of the tale through much patience and searching.”
Sergio laughed. “That’s quite a story.”
“A fanciful story for a fanciful mask, I suppose.”
“I appreciate your time, but there is nothing I own that could equate to such an item.”
"What about the mask you hold?”
Sergio shrugged. “I’m afraid you would come up short on that deal. My mask is not so beautiful as yours.”
“Please,” the man said, extending his hand. “Let me look at your goods.”
Sergio gave it to him.
The man brought it up to his face and stared at it for a few seconds. “Did you make it, sir?”
“I can see you are quite the craftsman,” he said, placing the mask on the table. “If you will trade, I will give you the Mask of Avelli for this distinct representation of the jarl.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but it doesn’t seem like a good deal for you.”
“I am a master appraiser of all things exquisite, and I declare it to be a good deal. Do you accept?” He reached out his hand to shake Sergio’s.
With wide eyes, he shook it. “It’s a deal.” Sergio walked away with a bigger smile than that which was on his jarl’s mask. When he turned around to thank the man for his time, he and the tent vanished, and the shadow in the alley broke with a ray of sunshine.
Sergio shook his head and moved on, jogging back to his house to try on the new mask.
When he arrived in the field behind the house, he glimpsed the mad king and his sinister grin in his mind’s eye. “It’s just a story. There’s no way it’s true.” He raised the mask to his face and secured it. Firmly attached around his ears, the mask made Sergio feel nothing. Like he suspected, it was merely ornamental. He had nothing to fear from a stranger’s fable.
Now that he was the king, he traipsed around the field, transforming his hand into a sword and cutting down all of his enemies. He spun around in circles like a lunatic, slaying every invisible foe who stood in his way. He laughed so hard, his stomach ached, so he laid in a patch of tall grass.
A mouse scurried next to his head and stopped, nibbling on a mushroom. Sergio sat up and stared at the field mouse, wondering why it seemed so comfortable. Most creatures, big or small, didn’t care to be around him, but this mouse was friendly.
Sergio gently scooped up the mouse in his hands and watched it continue to eat away at the fungi. He gripped the mouse in between his hands until it squirmed. Sergio squeezed tighter and tighter until he squished every bone in the defenseless creature’s body. He still didn’t feel the power of the mad king surging through him, as the story suggested. Neither did he feel anything. He stared at the dead mouse with a slack expression. And then he dropped it.
For the rest of the afternoon, Sergio foraged mushrooms and hunted other field mice. By the end of the day, he caught three. When he went to bed that night, he dreamed about other creatures he could hunt the next day. He fell asleep with the mask on, forgetting it was even there.
Sergio wandered through town on Sunday, everyone commenting on how much they liked his new mask. He internalized every word of praise, lifting his chin with a newfound confidence.
When he walked by Godric’s house, he waved. “How do you like my new mask?”
Godric raked leaves in his front yard. “You still look like a freak.” Godric’s dog barked at Sergio. “Even Nosewise agrees.”
You’ll learn to love me, Godric Adley. This entire town will love me when I’m done with it. Sergio shook his head and went on by continuing his trek to the house of Edith Leubast, the girl in school over which all the boys pined. She was also the jarl’s daughter.
He strode up to her house at mid-morning and knocked on her door. A servant answered. “May I help you, sir?”
Sergio lifted the mask to the top of his head. “I’m here to see Edith.”
“Please wait a moment, sir.”
Edith came marching down the stairs a few moments later. “Hey. Sergio, right? How are you?”
“I got a new mask, and I wanted to show you.”
She snickered. “You couldn’t wait until school tomorrow?”
“Ms. Fletcher doesn’t let me wear masks except on Fridays.”
Edith looked down at the floor. “Oh, that’s right. Well, it’s a fine mask, I guess.”
“Truth be told, I came here for another reason.”
“And what reason is that?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
Sergio took a step over the threshold and wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her into him. Before she reacted, he laid a kiss on her. To his surprise, she kissed back. He figured she barely knew he existed, and here she was—the girl every guy wanted—giving him more than a mere acknowledgement. A new desire awoke in her. He could sense it. She belonged to him. Unfortunately, he still felt nothing.
Sergio let go of her and pulled the mask over face. “See you at school tomorrow,” he said, blowing her a kiss.
She caught it and held it close to her chest.
He closed the door and meandered away, heading home for lunch. He walked past Godric’s house again, and he was still doing chores. His dog, Nosewise, barked at Sergio, who stopped and stared at Godric.
“Get out of here, you freak,” Godric said, shooing him away.
Sergio chuckled, plotting in his mind a way to get back at Godric once and for all. Hands rubbing together, he walked away with a new determination to exact his revenge. The rest of the day he spent executing his plan.
He wore his mask to school on Monday, but before lessons began, Godric waited outside the schoolhouse with a piece of paper in his hand, trembling. “We need to talk. Now!”
“Let’s go behind the schoolhouse,” Sergio said, “so no one can hear us.”
Once they were in the back, Godric reached out and yanked Sergio’s shirt. “I’m going to kill you.”
“So, you got my gift?”
“I woke up this morning to this note that read, ‘Freaks may wear masks, but bullies wear the blood of their loved ones.’ Then I looked at the foot of the bed and found my dog ripped apart. You really are a freak!”
Sergio frowned. “There you go again with that word. I don’t think you realize how hurtful it is.” He grabbed Godric’s hand that was holding him and bent it back with a superhuman strength. His eyes glowed like fire as the bones in Godric’s hand cracked. “No one will call me a freak ever again. Do you understand me?”
“Okay, Sergio. Whatever you say. Just let me go.”
“You will feel the pain that you’ve inflicted on others.”
“I love to hear those words, the sound of the weak crying out for mercy.”
“I’ll do anything you want. Just let me go!”
“From now on, you and your posse will call me, Your Majesty.”
“Please let me go, Your Majesty.”
Sergio's entire body tingled at the hearing of his new title. He closed his eyes and savored the moment, dropping Godric's hand as Ms. Fletcher rounded the corner.
“If you boys aren’t in your seats by the last ring, I’ll mark you tardy.”
“Yes, Ms. Fletcher," Sergio said, opening his eyes. "We’re on our way.”
“And what did I say about masks?”
“I’ll put it away as soon as I’m inside.”
Ms. Fletcher stood dumbfounded, watching Sergio help Godric to his feet and leading him inside.
For the next few days, Sergio was the king of break time. He chose the games the boys played. He decided what they had to say and when they were to say it. Edith also joined their group, hanging on Sergio’s arm every chance she got.
The agreement Ms. Fletcher made with Sergio was that he couldn’t wear his masks in the schoolhouse, except on Fridays, but he found a loophole. He put it on the second he made his way out of the schoolhouse, especially on breaks.
Usually, Ms. Fletcher let the kids play at a distance, but she noticed some concerning changes with Sergio, so she watched how he interacted with his classmates. She wondered how he got every child by the end of the week to join in a game he called The King’s Rules. The rules dictated every student had to worship Sergio or risk banishment from the group. Ms. Fletcher could hardly believe the timid Sergio could command such respect from peers who until a few days ago only bullied him.
On Friday, Sergio refused to take off his mask at all, per his agreement with Ms. Fletcher, and the entire day he was disruptive. He acted like he was no longer in control of his own actions, especially since he had nothing but respect for Ms. Fletcher the week prior. It caused his teacher to pay extra attention to him, even outside of school.
In the afternoon, Sergio gathered his new posse to a well close to his house and gave them some instructions. “There is one student who remains stubborn. We must deal with him.”
Sergio waited on his front patio with Edith while Godric and the others found Henry at his dad’s blacksmith shop. They gagged him and took him while his dad was busy at the forge. The townspeople thought nothing of a group of students huddled together, playing games. It thrilled many of the parents to see how well their kids were getting along.
Godric and the others brought Henry back to the well, where Sergio met them.
Sergio put his hand on Henry’s shoulder and untied his gag. “Worship me, or risk banishment.”
Henry looked into Sergio’s eyes. “This isn’t you. Snap out of it.”
“One more chance. Bow to me.”
“Take off the mask and let’s talk about this.”
He furled his eyebrows. “What mask are you talking about?” He then nodded to Godric, who put the gag back on Henry and pushed him down the shaft.
Sergio dispersed the group after that to hide any wrong doing.
Later that night, Henry’s dad, Elias, organized a search party for his son. Ms. Fletcher was the only woman who joined. They searched every crevice of the town with torches in their hands, but he was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until the early morning hours that they walked past a well near the field behind Bartholomew’s house. There they heard a shallow whimpering coming out from the well. Within minutes, the search party had Henry out of there. He had a contusion on his head and a broken leg, but he was alive.
They tried to question Henry, but the whole incident was a blur to him. Sergio stood on the outside of the group, smiling behind his mask.
At sunrise, Godric confessed to having a fallout with Henry that got heated, resulting in Henry falling into the well.
“Are you sure?” Ms. Fletcher asked. “No one put you up to this?”
“No, ma’am. I acted of my own volition.”
She looked at the jarl. “Godric doesn’t know words like volition. Something's wrong.”
Out from the group came a faint laugh that grew louder and louder until it turned into an uncontrolled roar of folly.
Everyone turned to Sergio.
“You fools,” the mad king said. “You risk your rest for one hopeless soul, when it’s all of you who are hopeless. Bow to me and I will show you the path to true enlightenment, as I’ve shown your children.”
Ms. Fletcher saw that Sergio’s eyes no longer shone with his usual kindness and innocence. They burned with devious purpose. She ripped the mask from his face and threw it on the ground, burning it with her torch. "Come back, Sergio!" she yelled.
In a flash, he and the other students woke up as if from a deep sleep, not knowing what happened. The mob took the students back into town to sort things out while they assumed the mask burned to ash.
The jarl wanted Sergio to be thrown in the dungeon for his crimes, but Ms. Fletcher convinced him otherwise and took full responsibility for the boy. She took him back to her house to care for him.
Over the next week, the students were off from school and spent time with their families, trying to process everything that happened. They had a shared nightmare—of which they remembered little—that brought them closer than ever before. Even Sergio and Godric became friends.
When Sergio went home for the first time in two weeks, he found his father laying on the floor in the living room. He ran to his father’s side, but there was no breath in his frame. Dead. Bartholomew held a jug of mead in his hand and the Mask of Avelli rested in broken shards on his face. He found the mask by the well a few days prior, and tried it on, but it turned against him. The mad king’s bloodlust demanded that someone die and found a proper recipient in a depressed drunkard. Sergio stood over his dad with equal parts of relief and sadness. The mask purged the weakness out of his family, but it came at a heavy price. And he finally felt something. A tear rolled down his cheek.
Sergio moved in with Ms. Fletcher, who later that year adopted him. He never wore a mask ever again because he had no more need to escape reality.