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the Grinning Skull

By NocturnalNerd All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Mystery

The Ten Swords

The sun sat dying in the west, a flaming halo highlighting two forms atop Moira Knoll; a hilltop that looked down over the dying city of Haowind. It had once been a beautiful, prosperous metropolis on the border between the territory of the Edger and Lancer kingdoms. Haowind dealt in furs and spices as it did with superstition; efficiently, effectively, and with caution.

A rustic gallows had been erected atop Moira Knoll, and from it hung the slowly decaying corpse of a man. A second broad-shouldered man stood inspecting the grim sight with melancholy. Somehow while his lynchers had been stringing him up, the man had slipped his noose. As he fell, his foot caught within the loop instead. The victim had hung suspended above the ground, the blood pooling in his skull like stew that sat too long on the fire.

They were afraid, Amonen postulated as he gazed into the skull's empty eye sockets. This was sloppily done.

How long had the man hung there before he died? Had he been confused and weeping, begging for mercy and answers with no tongue? Or had he known just exactly what the Edgers of Haowind persecuted him for?

That had been almost a year ago, and none of Amonen's informants had been able to glean any further information about the incident. Only that the hanging had been an act of superstitious fear. The Vessels of Harany believed that all falsehoods died with the body, for the Arcana gods purified the soul when it came to them.

Did his soul reach them? Amonen wondered. Did Cield Rothgassi's?

Cield Rothgassi had been an aristocrat, come to Fort Huegott a week ago to check upon the Spearmen posted there. The fortification sat in the Badlands, where no substantial food could grow. Steadfastedly the Spearmen had guarded the southernmost borders of the Tarrochi empire. Against what though, most everyone but the Spearmen had forgotten.

Unhappy with their task and growing lax in their patrols, the Spearmen had forgotten they had a duty to the people as well. An unlikely town of outcasts in the Badlands had sent a messenger to Fort Huegott, bearing distressing news that would set off a series of catastrophic events.

The array of swords stood as stark omens against a bloody sky, like the claws of a massive beast breaking through the inhospitable, hard-packed earth of the Badlands. Even in the early evening hours, the sun here blazed with the same intensity found in a zealot's eyes. The sun sat as witness to the troubling sight that day as it would when Amonen stood before the Hanged Man.

When the trio approached the scene on their swift horses, it was with a mix of trepidation, irritation, and indifference. At the head of the small party rode broad-shouldered Amonen Arch. Flecks of spittle and tobacco caught in his mangled beard as he chewed, heedless of the grievance waiting for him. Behind came a sharp-looking youth with a disgruntled expression. Taking up the rear trotted a nervous lad, hardly able to be called a man. He had the olive-toned skin of a Coiner, rather than the brass tinge of his companions.

Drotten was a small and recluse village, nestled into the cranny between the Badlands and Bartony Plains' swamps to the southeast. The land here was gelatinous and only dying things grew from its soil. Stunted, twisted trees and whithered brown plants mostly. The only crops to be harvested were small and flavorless.

Redmur was the unfortunate and disgruntled youth garrisoned at Fort Huegott half a league due west of Drotten. He wrinkled his nose as much at the muck as at the corpse as the three Spearmen dismounted. Amonen was struggling to free a boot that had been lodged in the soft mud. He grunted with every tug, sweat beading on his wrinkled forehead.

"Well, what do ya think o' that?" the Coiner-born asked nervously, in the slow, thick accent that Redmur had come to associate with the uneducated. That and his beryl skin and dark hair pegged Guyer as a Coiner from the Solodrum kingdom. Trotting their palfreys down the clay-hardened road from Fort Huegott, Guyer had related to Redmur the whole sorry tale.

Guyer suffered some unnamed illness, and when it became apparent to the lad's father that he wasn't good with figures, it came down to a choice. Either Guyer went to work in the mines of Solodrum where the Black Phlegm was sure to carve holes in his lungs, or he could be adopted into Bardona. It meant a different death for Guyer, but one his father would find honor in. The people of Bardona were called Lancers for their preference of spears. Spearmen however, were a chosen force - largely comprised of outcasts, miscreants, and the desparate - given the task of monitoring the Rift. The Wild Hunt was to begin again soon, and the Spearmen were the first line of defense against the hordes of spectral Hunters and their Hounds.

Amonen had at last managed to free his foot. Striding over to the array of swords, dread balled itself into a mass and dropped into his stomach. Nine swords were thrust into the ground in a perfect circle around a body. A tenth had been embedded between the man's shoulder-blades.

"Is that Count Rothgassi?" Redmur breathed as he came upon the sight. Amonen gave a sour twist of his plump lips.

"The colors on his cloak are right," the head Spearman grunted. That's when the veteran noticed something that made his heart squeeze painfully. The corpse's blood had spread to edges of the sword ring, and stopped there.

"I'd say from the looks of things, some urchins got bored," Redmur piped. "Ain't much to do in this shithole. Probably some outcast Edgers, thinkin' it would be fun to stir trouble." He snorted derisively, kicking at a rock. The sword was the preferred weapon of the Velthea kingdom, and it's limn sigil. Blades were good for close quarters, Redmur would give the Edgers that, but you couldn't throw a sword from twenty feet away. And a spear was built to puncture tough armor, not just create sparks.

"Boy, come here!" Amonen snapped. The two lads exchanged glances, and not sure who their officer was speaking to, both stepped forward. Amonen knelt beside the blades, further inspecting them. "What do ya see?"

After a moment's inspection, Redmur merely shrugged. He had come from a prestige family, and had taken the Spearman's exalted oath to protect Tarrochi from the Hunters. The murder of a noble he knew of only by name, whose calling was to gorge himself and rest his feet on the backs of others' labors, was not Redmur's primary concern.

A strangled gasp came from the Coiner's lips. Guyer stumbled backwards, shaking his head. "Those are the Relics of the Edgers!"

Redmur gave him a sharp look. "That's nonsense! Velthea's Relics have been missing nigh on a century. Ever since the Godkeep Tenyair was denounced and executed by his own followers."

"The Fool King they called 'im," Amonen growled in his bass voice. "Thought he was the Arcana's chosen Envoy he did, to unite the four Suits." The veteran eyed the two lads pointedly. "And do ya know what they did to Tenyair?"

Guyer swallowed heavily before finding his voice. "H-He was dragged from a hole in the Badlands and beheaded with his face in the dirt."

Amonen snorted derisively. "A fanciful tale, that. Find me said hole lad. Ha! Damn Coiner, ya would too. I'd have had you diggin' out 'ere till the borders themselves broke! We'd all be dead, and the Hunters and their chariots would ride right o'er you. And you lad, would be too busy with your nose in the dirt to even look up and notice they were there."

The man's words had a profoundly sobering effect on his comrades. The Wild Hunt was a tale whispered only in the shadows, and found in the dregs in men's tankards. It was the reason that the Spearman had established several fortresses along the barren wastelands to the far south of Tarrochi, where the Rift separated them from foreign lands. Lands with soil as black as the tobacco Amonen spit onto the ground.

"I've never seen a Relic," Guyer muttered in awe as he came forward to study the blades. For the moment, his intrigue overcame his fear. The lad's brow furrowed as he noticed the fine details of the swords' cross-guards. They were fashioned in the likeness of a cloaked skeleton holding a scythe across its body. "It's a Death Circle!" The lad fell backwards, scrambling in the dust.

"What's that?" Redmur snapped, intolerant of Amonen's ambiguous words. It hardly came as a surprise that the Coiner would know of a ritual so ancient. Atop of handling the financial accounts of the four kingdoms, Solodrum also sported the world's largest library. Scholars in Solodrum devoted their whole lives to studying the histories.

In a voice that rang in the stillness like a doom bell, Amonen intoned:

"Four blades for the Heralds to mark a man,

"Three blades for the Monarchs to mark where it began.

"Two blades for Mother Justice to break the laws.

"One blade for Death to begin a righteous cause."

With that, the veteran stood and walked to where his horse patiently waited for his master. Redmur watched his retreating back. "What does that mean? Hey, old man!"

Swinging into the saddle, Amonen turned his warhorse to peer down at the two junior Spearmen in unusual melancholy. "The Death Circle is an old ritual, one that 'as not been invoked in living memory. Not even the Fool King was given this fate. You should learn your 'istories, boy. This was no mere killin'." He nodded towards the corpse. "The man's soul 'as been sealed in that ring of swords, and no mortal hand can move 'im."

Despite the sweat slipping down his fine features, Redmur felt suddenly cold. There was a power here that he did not understand. Some mystery, some resonating force beyond his comprehension. 'No mortal hand' Amonen had said, and truth rang in every word as if he spoke an oath.

"H-His soul is trapped," Guyer whispered, pushing himself to his feet. He stared miserably at the Death Circle. "The Relics can only be moved when their handlers pick them up again, or die." The Coiner met Amonen's stoic expression with fear.

Nodding, Amonen declared, "Yes lad, it means war. At a time when Spearmen cannot be spared to fight it."

The skull seemed to be smiling in grim satisfaction. Amonen had seen his share of dead men, had found the skeletal remains of lost wanderers out in the Badlands. They all had been smiling as they brought their secrets with them to trade with Death. The Arcana god himself was a skeleton aged to a sickly yellow. Amonen knew this, for he had stared into that eyeless yet seeing gaze, and heard Death's words echo in his mind; 'My brethren claim the soul, but I claim the flesh.'

No, Amonen thought fiercely. I will not think of that. Not now. The Lancer was a man of no regrets, and he would not regret now the pact that he had made.

"Did you make a deal as well?" the Spearman asked aloud. If the skeleton heard him, it gave no answer. Two ravens had alighted on the crossbeam of the gallows, looking for tendrils of flesh to feed upon. "I 'eard they took your eyes first," Amonen grunted. He felt weird making conversation with a dead man. "Scooped 'em out, then shoved knives into your ears. O' course after they took your tongue, so your screamin' wouldn't offend them."

It had been a cruel death, one born from the desperation of unbridled fear. Amonen's sources had told him that the man had been a doomsayer; predicting deaths, atrocities, catastrophies and illnesses. If the Arcana were to choose a prophet, why one in a city where he was likely to be banished or killed for possessing the Sight?

Receiving no answers and more deeply troubled than before he had come to Moira Knoll, the Spearman turned and began the return trip to Haowind. The sun had begun its slow descent beyond the horizon, and there were still more he did not know.

Amonen almost looked back at the gallows, and if he had, he would have seen the skull's rotting teeth move in silent laughter.

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