“Calm down, calm down!” I tried to calm her, accidentally holding the head towards her as I did so.
“Get away! Get away! GETAWAYGETAWAYGETAWAY!” Panicked, she backed away until she fell off the altar as I dropped he head. I walked around the altar slowly, seeing her looking around with wide eyes as she frantically tried to disentangle her legs from the sheet she was covered with.
“Easy there.” I said in a calm voice, holding both my hands to my sides, palms facing her. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
“Why? Why why why????” I started to creep forward a little but froze as she immediately started freaking out again.
“Look, what do you remember? Let’s start with that.” I asked in a calm tone.
“I. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW!”
“Easy now, easy. Take a deep breath. That’s it.” I spoke calmly, as if I were trying to coax an injured wild animal into trusting me. As I did, I looked her over. She was thin and wispy like an elf, with long dexterous fingers. She had an emerald ring on one hand, and a green sleeveless dress trimmed in brown. She was barefoot, and I caught flashes from a small ankle chain. “Feeling a little better?”
“I. I’m not sure. Where’s Charles?”
Fuck. That wasn’t the conversation I was wanting to have with her first, but from the glint of steel I caught in her green eyes I knew that she wouldn’t budge about hearing it. “Was Charles your husband?”
“Nothing official, though we were looking to make it official eventually. A few months more wage’s from Lord Lucifer and we will have enough for the ceremony.”
“I see.” I said, at a loss at how to proceed. “I’ve met Charles, but what’s your name?”
“Zoraya. A lovely name. I’m Angus, and my friend over there is Inkler.” I said, motioning to the cat before shaking my head. He had chosen that moment to tap at the balloon weapon of one of the clowns, leaping backward with his tail straight up as it popped.
“Adorable.” She giggled, covering her mouth for a second. At that moment, I could easily see why Charles fell for her. She just seemed so innocent. Which made this next part so hard to lay out for her.
“Zoraya.” I said with a sigh. “I’m afraid I have some bad news. Charles was framed by Lucifer for murder. They hanged him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Lord Lucifer would never betray those sworn to his service. He’s a good, kind master.”
“He’s a master vampire, and centuries ago framed your lover for murder and had him hanged.” I insisted, shaking my head. “All the while, those five priestesses have been keeping you in some sort of suspended life, forcing you to summon creatures of light for Lucifer to feast upon.”
“That is not something you should be even joking about stranger.”
“I know, which is why I’m not joking. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the summoning circle over on the other side of the altar. You’ll see that it has been there for a while, a long while indeed.” Wary of me, she walked around the opposite side of the altar. “Inkler, come on over here for a bit buddy.” I said, wanting him out of her way. She did manage to give him a bit of a smile as he ended up throwing a Victorian era doll around by her dress.
“This? What is this?” She asked, as she looked at the circle. Covering up her horror with a hand to her mouth, she quickly paled. “This is WRONG! Who would summon a light being into a binding circle like this?”
“Ones who wanted a slave for food rather than help.” I grimly answered as I stood up.
“You. You said you spoke with Charles.” She said, spinning to face me. “Bring me to him!”
“One moment, I need to loot the bodies first.” I said, finally walking around the altar. They didn’t have much, though each did have at least a gold coin. Some rare quality robes went into my inventory, increasing mana regeneration and decreasing spell costs. The mother superior dropped the fourth key to the mansion, a risen sun that was sending out seven rays. The largest and brightest of which was heading straight down from the sun, as if landing on the field. “Thanks. Now, let’s head outside and over to the large tree.”
I went first, Zoraya following behind me. I smiled a bit as Inkler was by her side, getting his share of scratches between his ears. Traitorous cat. Once we left the chapel, we saw a much transformed Hanging Tree. All the leaves were gone, and its skeletal limbs were covered in green flames. As we neared, I saw the executioner standing beside a phantom steed that was hooked to the wagon. Charles was still standing in the back, noose around his neck.
“ZORAYA!” He cried out, and she burst past me with a surprising speed. She leapt over the sides of the cart in a move that would make any parkour practitioner proud, coming up to him and trying to put her hands around his face, only for them to move through him. “I’m sorry my love, but I am no longer of this world. And yet I remain bound to it.”
“Oh my Charles, how long have you been tortured like this?”
“It doesn’t matter my love, for you are finally free.”
“For what? How can I live without you in my life? What will I do, down here in the dark? Where the sun may never reach?”
“Can I see you smile, one last time?” He asked, and though I couldn’t see it I could tell she gave him a sad smile. He returned it, saying, “How could the sun compare to a smile like that?”
“So, what’s your story?” I asked the executioner, who all this time was simply standing there watching.
“Oh, I’m trapped here, same as them.” He said, nodding at the back of his cart. “Bound by my rage, and my desire for vengeance.”
“Vengeance?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“It started like that. I was the father of the family that man was accused of slaying. Lucifer bound my soul to the tree, offering me a chance to be the executioner for the man he said slew my family. I agreed, especially since he originally summoned me into the same room where my family’s bodies still laid. Once I saw them, well, all rational thought went right out the window.”
“Over the long years, I’ve lost the desire for vengeance and only wish to move on to the afterlife with them. I know Charles there didn’t do it, as one of Lucifer’s men came home drunk one night and was bragging of it.”
“Wait, when I first got here you called Charles a murderer. What happened?”
“Forced conversation from the binding. Once I get Charles set up to hang, then I am free to talk as I like.”
“Ok, that makes sense. And you haven’t left, why exactly?”
“Did you not hear the part where I’m bound to the tree? I’m stuck here, same as Charles.”
“Angus!” Zoraya called from the back of the cart. “Is there nothing we can do to free ourselves from these curses?”
“If someone were to kill the tree, that could probably do it.” The executioner said.
“I don’t have the ability to slay something like that.” Zoraya said, and Charles gave her a sad smile.
“What do I have to do to kill it?” I asked, knowing that I was the only one with the ability.
“Cut it down.” The executioner said with a shrug. “There’s a soul stone in there somewhere that’ll need to be destroyed, but if you cut its contact through the trunk to the earth that’ll kill the stone as well.”
“Soul stone? Hmmm.” I muttered, getting an idea. “[Death’s gaze].” Staring at the tree, I saw a red dot just below where the first branches split. “I think I found it.” I said, hoping that the only way to deliver a critical strike to a tree like this one would be to strike it in the soul stone. Leaping into the back of the cart, I used dancing shadow steps to teleport up into the branches of the tree. Walking along the branch, I made it to the split with no issues.
Staring back at me was a blackened, heart shaped stone. I started by trying to pry it out, but the wood of the tree would heal immediately after I tried. Even [Reality slash] couldn’t do enough damage to let me pry out the stone.
“Alright, we smash it right here. [Mana shockwave].” I muttered, smashing the stone with my hammer. ‘Hyaaaah!” I might have screamed a bit as the stone repelled my attack, sending me flying down and landing rather roughly in the back of the cart.
“Thought you were going to smash something in the tree?” Charles asked with a chuckle.
“Ugh, it had a slight disagreement with my methods. Did you know it can reflect mana?” I asked with a groan, content to just lay there for a bit.
“I could have told you that.” The executioner said from by his horse.
“Then why didn’t you?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“Of course. So. Is there a way to actually damage this corrupted soul stone? Preferably in a way that doesn’t injure me in the process?”
“Oh sure. You need to attack it from the spirit world. That’s where it’s anchored.”
“Lovely. Anyone got any spirit world attacks? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?”
“Who is Bueller?” Charles asked.
“Nobody. Don’t worry about it.” I replied, sitting up. I looked up into the tree, and I swear the flames were flickering as if they were laughing at me. “[Dancing shadow steps].” Once again I moved up into the top of the tree, and headed toward the trunk. “For Thanatos. [Soul strike]!” The blade of my scythe turned grey, and started emitting tendrils of a whitish fog. I plunged the blade into the heart, and I swear I heard the tree screaming on some level. Charles and the executioner fell to their knees, well as much as Charles could with a noose still around his neck, and I saw my blade drawing in the magic of the tree. Green flames flickered and flowed through the branches and into the heart, and after a few minutes the heart lost its inner glow and split right down the middle.
“Everyone all right?” I called down, turning to see Charles laying down in the back of the cart with his head on Zoraya’s lap. The executioner was leaning against the side of the cart, shoulders heaving as he breathed deeply. I jumped down out of the tree, rolling a bit at the end to bleed off momentum. “Ugh, I don’t care what the movies say, that still hurts the knees a bit.” I muttered, heading over to the back of the cart. As I got closer, a swirling portal opened up and Thanatos walked out.
“Lord Thanatos?” I asked, frozen in place.
“Indeed. You have done a great service in destroying this abomination of a tree. I have come to personally collect these two remaining souls.”
“Two souls? No, I’ll not be separated from my Charles again!” Zoraya cried.
Thanatos looked at the two in the back of the cart for a second, before responding. “I see you two souls have been bound, of your own volition. Very well, I shall take all three of you to the next life.”
“Thank you, Lord Thanatos.” Zoraya said, bowing her head.
“Before I go, might I give the one who freed me something for his troubles?” The executioner asked. At Thanatos’ nod, he walked up to me hoding out his hand. “I believe you would need this. The final piece of the key to the manor.”
“You knew?” I asked, surprised.
“Of course. Those of us who hold the keys can sense when they are gathered. You’ve been shining brightly in my vision ever since I met you. Take this, and my thanks for freeing me to rejoin my family.” With a smile, he patted the back of my hand and walked into the portal that Thanatos came out of.
“Lord Thanatos, might I gift Angus something as well?” Zoraya asked. She jumped out of the back of the cart, walking over to me. “Thank you, for everything you have done. You not only freed me, but reunited me with my love. I can’t thank you enough for that, but I can gift you something that I won’t be needing where I’m going. I feel in my heart, that Belisama has long since been replaced. As such, I can’t give you any of my cleric skills, and only her lower level summons remain. Though her domain was light and rivers, and my elven brethren preferred plants, my talents lay with the earth. A talent I detect within you, though it is withered and atrophied. Allow me to pass along the spells and training I have learned. To pass on a legacy, as I will never be allowed children with my love.”
“I would be honored.” I said, and she came forward and kissed me on the forehead. I felt the knowledge transfer in, but held off on the notifications for now. I watched, silent, as Zoraya and Charles walked hand in hand towards the portal. Eyes on each other, they stepped forward through the portal at the same time. Thanatos followed shortly after, and the portal closed.
You have not only freed the hanged man’s lover, but broke the chains on him and his executioner. In the process, you have freed hundreds of trapped souls and destroyed an abomination of a tree.
Final key to the manor
Zoraya’s knowledge of earth spells (all lowered to beginner level 1)
Hidden quest complete!
You have broken a ritual that prevents souls from moving along in the cycle of life. Though you did it without expecting a reward, Thanatos has decided that you deserve one. For the next month, you are exempt from the sacrificial requirements for the church.
Bio: I'm a chemist that gave writing a try, and loved the results. Everything is mostly for fun right now, though I might try and get some things published eventually. Certain traits of my daughter have made it into bits of my stories, and she sometimes keeps me company when we both have trouble sleeping.