The Hangman

Snowy_Clearing.jpgTakashi crouched in the freshly fallen snow as he looped a thin wire around the corpse of a dead sparrow. The bird was thin from the harsh days of scavenging in this unending frost and would provide little sustenance on its own, but alongside the bloody rabbit already hanging from the hunter’s belt it was beginning to look like a proper meal. Hauling his prize into the air, Takashi stopped and began to slowly survey the area around him.

The thin trees on the mountainside provided little cover and the fresh snow crunched under the slightest of pressure. It wasn’t hard to miss the hulking form approaching from the East. Turning his body away from the intruder, Takashi began to pluck feathers from his kill as he bent his knees and readied himself to act. The ranger did well to hide the tension in his muscles as handfuls of loose feathers fell to the snow in clumps, but his already aching bones still pained him in the cold. As the approaching form drew within ten feet of the hunter, Takashi dropped the bird and spun around, simultaneously drawing his bow and notching an arrow toward the intruder.

“Good afternoon.” Jorael’s eyes peaked out from beneath the hood of a heavy winter coat draped tightly around his shivering form. He spoke slowly and deliberately, showing no reaction to the ranger’s actions. “I’m not one for the cold, you see, I hail from much warmer shores, but I do greatly admire the fallen snow. It hides such dangers beneath its fragile and inviting surface.”

“If you’ve come for a fight, I don’t envy your chances.” Takashi spoke calmly as he squinted his eyes and drew his bowstring tighter. The tip of his arrow gleamed in the glint of the setting sun as it pointed straight toward Jorael’s unprotected throat.

“I’m certainly looking for a fight, but not with you, friend. You are the ranger known as Takashi, correct? The monks at the monastery said I could find you out here.”

“Did they?” Takashi asked skeptically. He slowly lowed his bow and look the elf over. “And what would you want with me?”

“I need a guide.” Jorael rubbed his hands together as he took a few quick steps toward the ranger. Takashi tensed up at the rogue’s approach, but Jo was quick to veer away and keep his distance. “I’m looking for a certain herb that’s said to grow on these mountains, perhaps you’ve heard of it? The Okraire root?”

“And what need would you have of such a plant?” The ranger was still skeptical, but he allowed his weapon to rest against his thigh.

“I’m interested in its alchemical properties. I’ve heard it could be made into quite the poison with the right skill.” The rogue casually shook the snow from his coat and Takashi caught a glimpse of the many tools hanging from Jo’s belt.

“Okraire causes a minor rash, or worst-case scenario, minor anaphylaxis if the wrong person chews on it. It’s not poisonous.” Takashi noticed the hilt of the deadly looking rapier gleaming from beneath the rogue’s coat strapped alongside a tight bundle of thieves’ supplies. Stranger was the thick coil of rope which hung like a noose from the rogue’s belt.

“Not on its own, no. But with enough testing, I may be able to put it to better use. That’s why I need you to guide me across this mountain and help me harvest enough for my studies.”

“And what would you need poison for?” Takashi asked with suspicion in his voice.

“The only reason anyone does, to kill someone.” The rogue answered without hesitation. He spread his arms wide and shook a small bag of coins. “So will you help me? It should be simple work and I can pay well.”

“No.” Takashi answered bluntly, shaking his head. He plucked his catch from the snow and pushed past the rogue heading into the blowing wind. Jo had to cover his face as he turned to face the retreating ranger. “I’m not in the business of helping would-be assassins commit murder.”

“The murder will happen whether you assist or not, but if it helps you sleep at night, know that it is fully justified. I’m just ridding this world of the evil scum who prey upon the innocent and naive.” Takashi stopped at Jo’s words and turned around to face him.

“You think you can rid the world of its evils? A rogue who can’t move five feet in the snow without alerting every creature within earshot? A man who’s clearly never drawn his sword for real combat? You’d have a better chance taking that noose and hanging a man from a tree branch than you would slipping poison in his drink.”

“No, this is for someone special.” Jo replied faintly tapping the noose hanging from his belt. He tossed the sack of coins to the ranger and it buried itself deep in the snow with a thud. “Donate it to the monks if it makes you feel better, but I am staying out here until I find my prize. I’ll likely die without a good guide, of course, but I doubt that will bother you. Just one more would-be assassin gone from this world.”

Jo smirked at the ranger through his tightly drawn coat as he turned and began to trudge wearily through the snow. Takashi stared at the rogue’s form as it began to disappear in the encroaching darkness, trying to force himself to turn around and leave the man to his death. With a last sigh, the ranger stooped low and plucked the sack of coins from the snow before following his new companion.

Takashi placed the last rock over Jorael’s tomb before wiping the sweat from his brow. The corner they had buried the rogue in was quiet and hidden behind a sturdy rock column. There was no guarantee that the ghouls would remain at bay for long, but it was the best the group could find. After Severius had spoken a few words over the body and the group had said their goodbyes, Takashi had taken it upon himself to complete the burial and bless the tomb with Ulaa’s protection.

Takashi retraced the symbol of Ulaa engraved on the shale wall overlooking the rocky tomb and turned the heavy rope noose over in his hands one last time as he questioned why the rogue had failed to return from the afterlife. Unable to find an answer, the ranger reluctantly hammered the noose into the wall and stepped back for one final word.

“Good bye, my friend. Perhaps you’ll find the peace you were seeking in the next life.” Takashi placed a gentle hand on the rocky tomb for a moment before stepping away. A loud crash brought him spinning around in alarm. Lying embedded in the stone floor was the rope noose. It had pulled loose from the nail and crashed with enough force to shatter the hard stone. Before Takashi could make sense of what had happened, he felt the world spinning around him and nearly toppled backwards as everything went black around him.

The air was cold as it entered his lungs and Takashi opened his eyes to a shadowy blue haze covering everything around him. He was in an unfamiliar place, but he could tell it was underground from the damp stone walls around him. Shadowy banners and insignias littered the walls around him, and he swore he could make out symbols of Ulaa and Gorm among them. Before he could inspect them further, flames erupted from the center of the room drawing his attention.

He realized that he was standing atop a large chessboard of sorts. All around him, unfamiliar pieces stood in deathly silent poses. One such piece was currently resting in the direct center of the board. The figure of a tall man in an executioner’s hood holding an axe and a swinging noose lay broken in a pile of rubble. Fire ate away at each piece, and Takashi watched the floor break apart beneath the pile and slowly swallow it whole.

Takashi felt the heat of the fire rush past him and swung around to see the banners of Ulaa and Gorm catch ablaze. Flames spread across the thick tapestries leaving long trails of cinder and ash in their wake. As the fires died down and extinguished themselves, Takashi could see the vast damage done to each symbol. Before he could react, loud violent laugher erupted from the other side of the room.

Turning his head, Takashi could see the gruesome silhouette of a figure standing among the chess pieces on the opposite side. The vicious laughter pounded on the ranger’s ears, and he was forced down to his knees under the pressure. As the world around him once again began to fade to black, Takashi caught a quick glimpse of one last chess piece standing prominently on his side, a large stone hammer resting against a grey marble slab. Though the hammer was within arm’s reach, Takashi couldn’t bring himself to grab it before the world collapsed around him.

Takashi could feel Serverius shaking him awake, but his ears were still ringing too loudly to hear what the cleric was saying. As the ranger’s eyes opened, he saw the thick rope noose still nailed against the shale wall and heard a voice whispering in his mind.

“The second piece has been lost, the Hangman is gone. Be wary, or more will soon follow.” And with that, all was silent once more in the rocky halls beneath the mosque.

The Hangman

Tales from Elrond taddow Gunsmith