the Grinning Skull

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The Hanged Man

Awareness bloomed from a single point in space like the layers of a flower's petals. At first there was only the sense of being. No feelings, no thoughts; just existence. There was the sensation of being cast adrift, a ship carried on the ocean's waves with no sight of landing. He tried to project his subsistence outwards to get a bearing on his surroundings, but instead found himself anchored to a single spot.

In what seemed an eternity to the disconnected conscious, his awareness began to expand. As it did, sight and hearing accompanied it. The first thought that entered the Conscious was; Must find the One. Who or what this was though, he didn't know. There were vague impressions of faces, filled with fear and their actions fueled by anger.

I died, was the man's realization, but there was no sadness in the thought. From two cavities the world appeared to him. A red sky highlighted the walltops of a city in the valley below. Haowind, and the first substantial emotion touched the Hanged Man. Loathing. He had been dragged to the clifftops surrounding the city, pleading and screaming. His assailants had beaten him into silence, and when he protested again later, they cut out his tongue.

No, don't think of that, the soul thought, pushing away the memory. A silhouette stepped out of the blind spot of his sight. The strange part was that it lay dead center in his vision. The Conscious knocked against its imprisonment, but there was no sound and no motion. What vessel held him?

The man that materialized was a Lancer from Bardona. The Conscious knew this because his visitor possessed the copper skin and dark hair of that region. An eight-foot spear rested diagonally between his shoulder-blades. The Lancer had the relaxed but ready stance of an experienced warrior. The exhaustion of a man too often burdened in life was embedded in the deep grooves of his visitor's face.

The Lancer spoke some things that confused the Conscious. It seemedto him that the warrior was seeking answers, but the Conscious simply didn't have them. He kept pushing against the barriers of his imprisonment, reaching out a tendril to connect with the man. But the Lancer was already retreating from his influence. The Conscious bobbed anxiously up and down, invoking a strange clattering sound.

When three others came to visit him later, the Conscious' cognition had further developed, and its senses were sharper. He could now cast forth tendrils of his mind, exerting mild influence on the citizens of Haowind. A stray thought, an impression, fanning the flames of lust or greed or anger. Under the Conscious' direction, a woman offhandedly added a generous amount of henbane to her husband's tea. She had been poisoning the man for several months now, but had never added enough henbane to outright kill him.

Something the latest arrival said drew the Conscious sharply back to its anchoring point. "They're falling upon a double squad of Edgers as we speak, intending to burn their corpses." This statement intrigued the Conscious in a new way. In his excitement to seek out this menacing occurrence, he shook the walls of his prison.

When the Conscious found the site of the foretold event, the Lancers had just descended upon two squads of Edgers. The Spearmen charged their opponents with the sun against their back. It had not yet set here. Temporarily blinded, the Edgers fell into defensive stances with practiced ease. Righteousness shadowed the Lancers' feet, spurring them onwards. They engaged the Edgers, wielding short, one-handed spears made for close combat. Each barbed tip was burnished with poison.

The Edgers' pallid skin quickly blackened when the poison entered their blood. Men dropped their weapons and fell to the ground, screaming in agony. The Lancers promptly advanced, thrusting spearheads into bowels, hearts, and throats.

When the grisly fight was over, only one Edger was left alive. He lay bound with several puncture wounds to his arms and legs. The rage had leaked from the Lancers now that the battle was over. They had built a bonfire, so large as to be seen from a league around. One by one they burned the Edgers' corpses. The task took more than half a day, and when at last it was finished, the Lancers separated the skulls from the bodies. Thrusting their butts of their longspears into the ground, the Bardonians mounted the skulls on the spearheads. With grim faces the Lancers collected their captive and headed home.

The Conscious observed all this with detached interest. When it returned to its prison, it was to find that his three visitors had left him alone again. A late afternoon sun radiated a muted light that provided no warmth or comfort with its presence.

The Hanged Man's fifth visitor came several days later, when the shadowed fires of burning Haowind drank the deepness of night. What had started the conflagration, the Conscious didn't know, for he had been probing the minds of the Vessels of Harany at the time. A sense of satisfaction filled the Conscious at the sight, and a peace rested over him like a warm cloak.

When the Conscious zoomed in on the city till he could practically feel the flames' searing heat, the dark silhouette of a figure arose before him. With hunched shoulders, the person leaned on a staff taller than himself. It seemed to be the only thing that kept him on his feet. The Conscious couldn't make out the stranger's face, and no eye whites penetrated those shadows. For the first time since his Awakening the Conscious knew fear.

The flames lapped around the figure's body, kissing his skin with soft touches that didn't burn. Was he the one who set Haowind ablaze? To what end? The Conscious felt somewhat cheated of his revenge by this stranger.

'Who are you?' The Conscious demanded, thrusting the thought like a knife into the person's mind.

The voice that came back was one of imperious control, raspy with age and as quiet as the flutter of a bird's wings. 'The Arcana should not have Returned you,' the stranger told him. 'You failed in one task while alive, and so now you must serve another in death.'

The Conscious realized then that the person he had been searching for before he was tortured and hung, was this very man. Still though his face was invisible to him. Was it the darkness of the night, or the darkness of his mind? Was the stranger cloaking himself, controlling the shadows as he controlled the flames?

'Did you do this?'

The man didn't move, but the Conscious had the sense that the stranger was shaking his head. A deep sadness rumbled behind his words. 'No, that is the work of the Hunters. They have crossed the skies and lands from the Rift. The Spearmen held them back for a time, but they were quickly overcome and devoured. Now they run in the vanguard of the Hunt.'

The soul that was now only known as the Hanged Man, considered these words carefully. The implications of everything he had learned over the last several days did not rest comfortably in his mind. War erupting between Velthea and Bardona just as the Rift had opened to release the Hunters was most likely not a coincidence. Had the ten Edgers that initiated the Death Circle known that the Wild Hunt was about to begin? Were they counting on it, to distract the Lancers whilst the Edgers creeped upon their borders?

'There is a force driving the Hunters farther into the kingdoms than ever before', the stranger said, reading the Conscious' thoughts. 'I fear that the Wild Hunt will continue for as long as they remain undefeated.' Always before had the Hunters returned to the Rift after thirteen days. The Spearmen were a special force of Bardonian Lancers dedicated to eradicating as many Hunters and their Hounds as possible during that time, so they wouldn't claim more souls to swell their ranks.

'But if the Wild Hunt doesn't end after thirteen days...'

'Don't think that your Awakening was a coincidence either,' the stranger cautioned. 'The Arcana have plans for us all.'

'And what is it they want of me?'

When the stranger whispered the answer to him, the Hanged Man pulsed inside his confines with a mix of trepidation and excitement. This time when he pushed against his walls, it was deliberate. The skull's jaws parted slightly, and the Hanged Man grinned.

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