Life Masks by Mark Peters

Mother Lara rummaged through the death masks, disheartened only a few would fit in her basket. The horde was rapidly approaching, and dozens of masks were kept in the shrine; how could anyone choose under such constraints? She drew a calming breath. There was no benefit in overthinking, so she trusted her instincts, selected three that felt right, and rushed upstairs to the great hall.

Smoke wafted through the embrasures, filling her nostrils with an unpleasant aroma. Was the courtyard ablaze? She could hear shouting, closer now. Ever closer. How many attacks had she survived over the long years? Too numerous to count, but this seemed different. Weeks earlier, the stars delivered their prophecy in the constellations, which shifted forms in front of her eyes. Perhaps folly drove her choice to stay, but presently that mattered little. Any opportunity to escape unscathed was gone. Mother Lara looked at her surroundings, at the stone walls, which once provided warmth and safety to herself and others. This was her home. This was where she would die.

A thunderous boom rocked the world as a section of the eastern wall crumbled and spewed dust. The trebuchets were out, and time dwindled. After twelve centuries of life, she struggled to comprehend the possibility of losing everything within minutes. Had there been mistakes? Of course, but she remained steadfast in her belief that any blood shed by her hands served a justifiable cause. Others interpreted matters in a different light.
Setting her basket on the oak dining table, Mother Lara removed the death masks and laid them in a row. Time was nigh to determine how she would proceed, so she studied each item.

The first mask was cast from a young woman who had arrived at the castle on a tide of shattered dreams. She’d spent her formative years in the far lands, studying mystical arts under the most brilliant scholars of the era. All she’d desired was a place in the queen’s mage battalion, and she’d exhausted her paltry life savings in pursuit of this goal. When the rare need arose to recruit a new member, the queen had passed her over in favor of someone from a more notable family. The woman, with no wealth or status of her own, grew heartbroken. But when she’d stepped into the hall where Mother Lara now stood, she’d had a renewed sense of purpose.

The second came from a man, already elderly when he’d arrived so long ago. A dedicated and loyal field worker, mounting ailments had made it difficult to keep pace in his twilight years. Not satisfied with productivity, the feudal lord ended his decades of service and had him removed from the village. The man, bereft of funds for sustenance and shelter, had traveled as a beggar but found nary a sympathetic ear. From the instant he met Mother Lara, everything changed. Plenty of food lined the pantries, along with herbs to tend to his maladies; he would have to work no longer, and dignity returned.

The third mask was that of a prince driven by greed. He’d clawed his way to every success, caring nothing about the heads of those he’d stepped on in his ascent. Worst of all, his contemporaries regarded him as a hero. Some erected statues in his likeness and celebrated festivals in his honor. Most folk were aware of the man’s questionable methods, which included burning political opponents as heretics, but overlooked such concerns for their own benefit. He had not come to the castle of his own free will, yet still he’d reaped the rewards.

Each lost soul paid a single price for the hospitality. Upon their death, the priestess conducted a ritual under a starless sky, spoke words in an ancient tongue, and the essence of who they were in life became preserved in a new mask. The spell sealed an individual’s key attributes into the item, magnified them, and allowed the wearer to channel these aspects at will. This could mean healing properties from someone known for their kindness, destructive energy from a person of rage, or anything in between. A mask could be utilized only once and would vanish when switched. Mother Lara never made a guarantee of future use, but who wouldn’t have hoped for another chance to make a difference? The demise of her guests usually, but not always, came from natural causes.
For this, among other acts, people deemed her a monstrosity, and endless war raged. Kill one self-proclaimed savior, and two more rose in their place.

Wood splintered in the distance. They were inside the building, and for the first time in recent memory, fear took hold. She stood up from the table and made her final decision. Not an easy choice, but considering the strength of the advancing army, she selected the one she knew would serve her purpose.

Fate would eventually catch up with her, as it did for everyone. She yearned to see another day, but wisdom forced an understanding of the odds piled up against her. Mother Lara hoped the history books would tell of the good she had done, and not portray her as the villain so many wished for her to be.

Nearby footsteps heralded the inevitable conflict. She lifted the mask and told herself she would not let go without a fight. Pain surged as it bound to her, strands of wax and plaster connecting to blood and bone.

One more mask, that in the shape of a face Mother Lara had worn until only a moment ago, crumbled upon the floor. She tried and failed to recall the name of the person from whom it was cast.

Mother Lara, high priestess of a forgotten deity, a being who had worn a hundred visages over a thousand years, felt alive once again.

Flames materialized at her fingertips. The third mask grinned.


About the Author

Mark Peters is an American writer of speculative fiction. He strives to create emotionally moving stories with real-feeling characters. Recent work has appeared in Sage Cigarettes Magazine and in the 2024 charity horror anthology Broken Olive Branches. When he’s not writing, Mark enjoys watching movies and spending time with his family in upstate New York.




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