the Grinning Skull

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The Magician

In the deepest hour of the seventh night following the Death Circle's enactment, a star that glowed brighter than all others, bathed the Hanged Man in its radiance. Growing with incredible speed, the star descended from the black sky like a falling meteor. It landed on Moira Knoll in a sudden, yet quiet flash. Where it dissolved, a robed figure appeared.

Resting his hands inside his sleeves, the new arrival studied the corpse. He may have grimaced or smiled, but if so it was hidden behind an expressionless steel mask. Just as Amonen had noted some hours before, the skull appeared to be grinning. Or, he supposed, frowning since it hung upside down. It was far more disconcerting to this man, for he was the Hierophant; chosen by the people and blessed by the gods, to guide mortal men in rites and passage. He was the Protector of Souls, the Memory of Tradition, the Defender of Troth. The most favorable and yet anonymous man in all of Tarrochi.

When a second light appeared on the hilltop, it was expected. Standing across from the Hierophant materialized a stately, young woman. Her exceptional beauty stood as countenance to the ugliness of Haowind's misdeeds. One of the three Monarchs that governed Tarrochi, Radine was a strong leader with eyes heavy with responsibility. A five-spiked iron crown rested atop her tidy blond hair, as ostentatious as it was heavy.

"It is a pleasure as always, My Lady," the Hierophant greeted, bowing at the waist. While the holy man's station leveled him with the Monarchs, he had not been chosen for the position of Hierophant because he possessed a higher sense of self then other men. This Hierophant respected the Monarchs, and their influence and position. They were the mortar that held the building blocks of Tarrochi together.

"I hope I have not kept you waiting," the Monarch ventured.

"You have not, My Lady."

A small smile lighted the woman's face, and for a moment pushed all the burden of her position into the background of her bearing. "Well, I hope then we will not be kept waiting long. Despite having the power of Sight, Eddis is all too often late."

When the Hierophant spoke, Radine could hear the gentle smile in his voice. "I fear My Lady, that if it is Eddis we're expecting, we may just join our friend here." He indicated the skeleton with a tilt of his head.

The joy slipped from the Monarch's face, and the man immediately regretted the failed attempt at levity. They both looked in trepidation up at the skeleton. A breeze blew past them, yet the corpse remained stationary. It gave credence to the rumors echoing from Haowind. That this skeleton was more than just a decaying warning. Entire families had been plagued by hauntings of a rotting man, said to have pitiless eyes of fire. He would stand in the corner of a house or at the mouth of an alleyway, point at a person and bequeath them with a death sentence. It was always something strange or ironic.

A carpenter had managed to drive a nail straight through a board and into his leg. The nail had sliced open an artery, and when he pulled it free, he bled to death in minutes. Another tale spoke of an experienced midwife who had successfully born six children herself. She had never lost a babe in thirty years. Quite unexpectedly, she had found herself pregnant again at the age of forty-five. There had been some complications and the woman had grown thin and ill and died. A surgeon had tried to cut the child from her womb, and it had emerged alive. Yet, the baby had been drastically underdeveloped, and no larger than a forefinger. It died within moments.

Report after report like that had reached the Monarchs' ears, and the people of Haowind - being the superstitious lot they were - whispered it was the Hanged Man's doing. No one now remembered his name or what he had done to receive such a horrible fate. They don't remember or don't want to, Radine thought sadly.

"I'm afraid that Eddis will not be joining us," a crisp voice broke through the stillness. Even as the pair on Moira's Knoll turned, a third and final light illuminated the hillock.

However, this star glared as red as drying blood and when it touched the brown grass, it sparked into flame. The Hierophant and Monarch shied back from the conflagration as it rose ten feet into the air. The flames sucked the oxygen from their lungs and burned stronger than the sun in the Badlands.

Within moments the flames had disappeared in a puff of acrid smoke. From its depths emerged the hard lines of a young man. He had close-cropped black hair with bangs that fell into eyes as cold and sharp as live steel. His clothes were simple, yet of foreign design. Overall, he was an inconspicuous man, albeit a handsome one.

And yet, the Lady Monarch thought, and her bottom lip trembled. An oppressive power emanated from this man, flattening the grass around his feet. Radine's shoulders slumped under its force. Even the Hierophant seemed to wilt a little in the presence of this stranger.

"Wh-What do you mean?" Radine managed to ask, loathing how her voice cracked. The Monarchs were all about composure, but Radine was relatively new to the position. She had expected a quiet and peaceful rule, and instead a Death Circle had been invoked. War was coming to Tarrochi, and Radine felt woefully incapable of handling it.

When the stranger smirked, it chilled the Monarch's blood. His eyes flashed with amusement as he assessed and then dismissed Radine. Instead, he directed his response to the Hierophant, who was astutely aware that the new arrival had shown neither of them respect. "The Priestess has been distracted by the return declaration of war from Bardona."

The Hierophant cocked his head. "You mean she has had a vision that the Lancers will respond?"

"They're falling upon a double squad of Edgers as we speak, intending to burn their corpses," the stranger replied, in a tone that was almost jubilant. "They will mount nine skulls atop nine spears, and the Edgers will have to respond. They may claim that the Death Circle was the independent act of ten miscreants, and that the crown did not have a hand, but it will not matter."

"Ten swords were used to perform the Death Circle," the Hierophant noted. "Yet they slew only nine Edgers?"

The stranger's face became one of dark pleasure. "Will slay nine. They are engaging them even as we speak. The tenth Edger the the Bardonians will keep, to tickle and torture; to hold as a reminder to their enemies that they will not be so easily cowed."

The tense silence that followed was interrupted suddenly by the clatter of bones. All three turned to peer up at the Hanged Man, and wondered who he was. Were the stories from Haowind true? Had the spirit of this unknown man returned to exact revenge?

"I was hoping the Priestess Eddis could tell us just why he had been executed," Radine whispered. The three Monarchs had concluded that the Prophet must have predicted something especially horrific to be given such a cruel death. The Priestess may have been able to glean some insight into the lynching from the victim's bones.

Had the clatter of bones just been their imagination? The skeleton looked as still as it had ever been. Though it had no eyes, it seemed to watch and weigh them all. "She told me before I came here that she had vision of a skull frowning, but said also that the world behind it was turned upside down." With a hopeful look, the Monarch turned to the Hierophant. "Tell me, do the gods have anything to say about this man? Anything at all?"

The holy man could only bow his head. "I'm afraid not, My Lady." But then, his head quite suddenly tilted to the side, as if listening for a noise in the distance. Before Radine could voice a question, the Hierophant's mild manner changed. He seemed to expand in size as he whirled upon the stranger. "You!" the Hierophant hissed, jabbing out a gloved hand to point at the youth. "The Arcana do not want you here. Leave Tarrochi."

"I have been beckoned, and a pact has been formed," the man stated firmly. "You cannot banish me whilst the pact holds true, Hierophant. Not even the Arcana can revoke such an ancient rite." His smirk was a triumphant one. "As you should very well know."

"The Conjurer," Radine breathed, stumbling at the impact of the realization. He was known by many names - the Magician, the Trickster, the Augurer - but always the names were accompanied by the same warning; As true as his words are, is as dark as his deeds will be.

Some time while the three had conversed, the full moon had risen like a rheumatoid eye behind the Conjurer. Resting a knowing finger against the side of his nose, the man disappeared in another flash of crimson light. With the same speed it had arrived, the light disappeared till it had become a distant red star in the sky.

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