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Talion Revenant

Michael A. Stackpole

  Talion Revenant

  Michael A. Stackpole

  Copyright 1997

  ISBN 0-553-57656-9


  Chapter One Talion: Ambush

  Chapter Two Nolan: Trial

  Chapter Three Talion: Pine Springs

  Chapter Four Novice: Festival

  Chapter Five Talion: Morai

  Chapter Six Novice: Fourteen

  Chapter Seven Talion: Sharul

  Chapter Eight Novice: Fifteen

  Chapter Nine Talion: Nekkeht

  Chapter Ten Novice: Sixteen

  Chapter Eleven Talion: Lord Nolan

  Chapter Twelve Novice: Nightmare

  Chapter Thirteen Talion: Misericordia

  Chapter Fourteen Novice: Blooded

  Chapter Fifteen Talion: Entente

  Chapter Sixteen Novice: Solitaire

  Chapter Seventeen Talion: Loath: Champion

  Chapter Eighteen Talion: Justice

  Chapter Nineteen Talion: Coronation

  Chapter Twenty Justice: The Price

  Chapter Twenty-One Talion: Terminus

  Chapter Twenty-Two Justice: Cirhon

  Chapter Twenty-Three Talion: Revenant


  Author's Afterword

  About the Author

  Chapter One

  Talion: Ambush

  Had Morai given the job to anyone else, the ambush would have gotten me.

  The assassin waited just halfway up the hill on the camp's north side. New spring undergrowth covered the steep slope and a light breeze stirred things enough to cover tiny movements and sounds, yet caused nothing to obstruct the assassin's view of the camp. Sitting there, at the base of the big oak, he could watch everything with little fear of discovery.

  His position gave him an easy crossbow shot at anything in the flat clearing below. Morai's men had stripped or scattered all the cover so I'd have no place to hide if the first crossbow bolt missed. And, if I was quick enough to figure out where the bolt had come from, the only way I could get to the ambusher was a suicidal charge up the hill, straight at him.

  The only questionable part of Morai's plan was assigning Fortune the job of killing me. Fortune, the sixteen-year-old miller's son from Forest Crossing, had run away from home and decided to join the bandits who had just raided his town. The other members of the gang probably would have killed him outright or, if Chi'gandir had his way, done worse. By setting the youth out as a trap for me, though, Morai amused his men and saved the boy.

  Clearly bored out of his mind, Fortune perched on a knobby root at the base of the oak. He'd waited a long time for me to walk into his sights, and after a morning of nervous, sweaty anticipation he'd set the crossbow down. After a quarter of an hour or so he took out the gold Imperial Morai had paid him for my head and inspected it. He traced the golden profile of Ell's King with a dirty fingernail and even though he'd never held a gold coin before, the novelty of it soon wore off.

  Fortune, perhaps entranced by the omen of his name, flipped the coin into the air. The coin rang with each flick of his thumb, and sunlight flashed from the bright metal. With each subsequent toss the gold piece rose higher and higher until, at the peak of its gilded arc, it vanished into the oak's lower branches. Fortune caught it each time it fell toward the earth and slapped it down on the back of his left hand. He'd peel his right hand away slowly, smiling or frowning at the face of the coin showing. His guess right or wrong, he'd slide the coin into his right hand and launch it again.

  One final time the coin flew from his hand as before, but then glanced off a tree branch and ricocheted to his left. Landing on the hard-packed earth, it rolled around back behind the tree and out of his sight. Fortune stretched, looked down at the clearing, and rose to a crouch. He turned around the sturdy barrel of oak and stopped abruptly.

  His coin lay in my right palm.

  He glanced back at the crossbow, then at me.

  I shook my head slowly and his shoulders sagged. "I believe, Fortune, this is yours." I extended my hand toward him.

  A handsome youth, Fortune never should have worn such a look of abject terror on his face. Flared nostrils ballooned his noble, narrow nose. He held his brown eyes open wide enough to reduce them to flat white circles surrounding dark spots. Acrid, nervous sweat pasted brown hair to his forehead. His dropped jaw stretched his face—already thin like the rest of him—and made him look like a very old man.

  I saw myself reflected in his eyes, yet I knew Fortune did not really see a tall, slender, dark-haired man with bright green eyes. His horror took him beyond my physical self and he stared at what I was and what I'd become since the ritual. He did not see a man, he saw a Talion Justice.

  And he feared I was the last thing he would ever see.

  Fortune reached out with trembling fingers and took the coin. He looked at it and smiled. Then he looked at my hand and dropped to his knees, tears leaking from tight-shut eyes.

  Hidden beneath the coin until he plucked it from my hand, a death's-head tattoo had stared at him and had taken his breath away. The simple line drawing covered my palm and marked me as a Justice. From the fleshless jaw at my hand's heel to the skull's crown extending up to the base of my middle finger, the stark design watched him with cold empty eye sockets. Its memory forced a visible shiver into him.

  I walked beyond the sobbing boy, leaving him alone with his fear and a chance to conquer it. I squatted where he had waited for me and nodded grimly. I picked up the crossbow and sighted down the bolt. The brush parted just enough for me to see the entire camp. I triggered the weapon and sank the bolt into the ashes of the bandits' campfire. A little dust and smoke rose, but nothing else moved below me.

  I shivered and ground my teeth in anger. Morai knew the romance of the bandit life had attracted Fortune. Fortune's father probably had his son working hard when the boy wanted to be out courting girls or dreaming about the great warriors of legend. The bandits raided Forest Crossing, and Fortune followed them to escape hard work and reality for fame and riches.

  Without question Morai knew Fortune was not suited for anything but being a miller's son. Morai also knew Fortune could not be sent away or talked out of a life on the road. If he sent the boy away, he knew Fortune would only hitch up with another band, or would starve to death in the wilderness. The bandit leader realized the youth had to be terrified out of an outlaws' life, and Morai knew I could do that job.

  It was a job I didn't want and one more black mark against Morai that he forced me to do it.

  Part of me took pride in helping Fortune return to the life meant for him. By simply playing the boy's conception of a Justice, I could frighten Fortune enough that neither he nor his children nor his grandchildren would ever think of doing anything but milling, and milling honestly. That was good, and for that I might thank Morai. But that also meant Fortune's people would forever fear Talions—a trait too many people already shared—and I wanted no part in reinforcing that image.

  Still, I knew ultimately, as much as I detested it, Fortune's fear gave me the perfect tool to set him straight. While I would have preferred to talk him into returning to his family by explaining to him the harsh realities of life on the road with Morai, the romance of the bandits' life was fairly tough armor against a commonsense approach to the problem. Some bard had even made up a song about Morai—a version of which I had heard butchered in Talianna—making him seem more noble and gallant than he really was.

  Getting past that version of Morai—and the generally held whimsical notions about bandits—would require me to present Fortune with a big dose of reality, delivered in a manner that was anything but whimsical.

  I returned to Fortune and towered over the kneeling boy. I let m
y left hand land heavily on his right shoulder. He started and the rhythm of his sobs broke. "Morai never told you I'd kill you, did he?"

  He looked up at me. His red-rimmed eyes had shrunk in size, but they still brimmed with tears. Those tears washed a clean path through the dirt on his face from each eye to the corners of his mouth. He swiped a hand at the tears and smeared the grime back into place. "Not him." He halted and gained control of his breathing. "The others. They said you'd suck my soul out with that skull."

  "I certainly could do that." I pursed my lips and turned away. "I have that right. You meant to kill me. Although intended murder is not a capital crime, who knows what atrocities you have already committed?"

  "But I haven't done anything." Baffled innocence shot through his voice and, for a moment, set aside his fear.

  I whirled back. My green eyes narrowed as I stared down at him. "And how do I know that? Forest Crossing is a dozen leagues backcountry. How do I know you didn't help murder a small merchant caravan in the two days since you left home? Do I assume that Morai, the man who collects madmen the way a Princess might collect dolls, would take in a child unless that child fit with his group? I know Morai well enough to know that's unlikely." I paused, then thrust my snarling face at him. "So what did you do?"

  Fortune spilled backward and wailed like a lost soul. "I didn't do anything. Don't kill me. Please, don't. I'm innocent. Please, don't kill me."

  I knelt before him and grabbed his chin with my left hand. "Understand this, little boy, you abandoned your innocence in Forest Crossing. You've ridden with a pack of human jackals. You've seen them do things, bad things, and because you were in their company, you can be held responsible for those actions."

  I let him have another good look at the tattoo on my right palm. "This is a badge of my authority to deal with people like you—Morai's men. It is also a tool for me to use. If I were to press my hand against your forehead and will your soul to surrender to me, it would. You would be left here a lifeless husk, alone, dead and forgotten by everyone."

  He started to cry at that prospect and gibbered words out in between sobs and sniffling. I released him, letting him slump back as I stood. He lay on the ground and his chest pounded as if something trapped inside wanted to get out.

  I walked away from him and retrieved my horse so Fortune wouldn't see the disgust on my face. It wasn't for him, but for Morai in forcing my hand and for myself for allowing my hand to be forced. Some other Justices all but reveled in ripping a soul from a body, but I only used the ritual when given no other choice. Threatening the boy with it, while it did make the impression upon him I wanted to make, was using a spear to do work meant for a needle.

  I'd left my horse, Wolf, down behind the hill. The black stallion flicked his ears in my direction but made no noise. I patted him gently on the neck, untied the reins from a sapling, and led him back up to where Fortune waited.

  My anger with myself grew from the realization that I'd let Morai dictate, in absentia, my actions—and not for the first time, either. That boded ill for my pursuit of him, though it continued the patterns we'd played through in the past. He intended me to harvest his men one by one while he escaped, and Fortune was the first of the lot in this go-round. I decided this would be the last time we played this particular game, but before I could continue after Morai, I needed to repair the damage I'd done to Fortune.

  Fortune's unsteady approach, and the noise it created, interrupted my thoughts. Rubbery-legged and pale, he stumbled down the hill. He looked as though he might have vomited and certainly could do so again.



  "I can tell you where they went, if you want, if that will make it right." He offered the information freely, not to save his life, but to atone for the wrongs he might have done.

  I shook my head and tossed him my canteen. "Here, drink some of this; it's just water, but it will wash your mouth out." The boy drank cautiously and settled down. "Fortune, let me tell you something about the Talions. Two thousand years ago Emperor Clekan the Just created the Talions. He saw us as the instruments of his law and ordered us to travel throughout his empire. He made us independent of all authority save the Emperor or the Master of all Talions. We rode from Talianna to administer the laws and dispense justice."

  Fortune restoppered the canteen and handed it back to me. I smiled and hooked the strap over my shoulder. "After rebellions shattered the thousand-year-old empire, the Talions' role in the world shifted. The Master created new divisions and the original Talions became Justices. Though the empire existed no more, the new nations agreed to let us keep peace and order when they found it beyond their abilities to do so. Chasing down a gang like the one Morai has put together, a gang that ranges over several nations, is a very good example of the duties my Master charges me with."

  I smiled at him. "Killing boys who run away from home is not one of my duties." I rested a friendly hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. "Fortune, the crimes you've committed can be undone. You've left your mother terrified and worried about you. Your father, as you might expect, is angry with you, yet anguish eats him up inside. Your brothers and sisters don't know what to think and every gossip in Forest Crossing is telling every other gossip that they knew you would turn out this way."

  Fortune nodded his head with resignation at everything I said. "What do I do?"

  I swung into the saddle. "Go back to Forest Crossing. You're lucky in that you have a family, and doubly lucky because they love and care about you. Go home and work through whatever punishment your father gives you. Make the gossips eat their own words."

  The boy swallowed hard, sniffed, and wiped tears away. "Thank you, Talion. Here." He held the Imperial out to me. "Take this, it's not mine. I've not earned it and I don't want it."

  I shook my head. "Keep it. Morai would think of it as an investment. After all, without honest folk like you working to earn gold, what would he have to steal?"

  The boy smiled and we laughed together. "And, Fortune, thanks for the offer, but I don't need your directions for finding the others. While you waited on the hill, I scouted all over this area. Two of them went east toward the Broad River ferry. Two others headed west and the other three, probably including Morai, started north but will have to cut west to hit any of the mountain passes. I will get them."

  I reined Wolf around and started him toward the Broad River Valley. I smiled, because even above Wolf's hoofbeats I heard Fortune heading home, and the gold Imperial ringing as it flew up and down through the air.

  * * *

  I urged Wolf to set a faster pace than I demanded of him during our earlier pursuit of Morai's band. Though only an easy half day's ride from the bandit camp, I wanted to reach the Broad River Valley as quickly as possible. The two bandits riding to the ferry knew that by putting the Broad River between me and them they could earn a day or more over me.

  I had to assume they would destroy the ferry after crossing and I knew the nearest ford lay a day's ride south. If they crossed the river I'd be forced to abandon them and probably would never find them again.

  The bandits took a simple road through the Ell foothills. Broad enough for three horsemen to ride abreast, it wound through light woods that contained a few evergreen stands. The sun shined and winked through wind-rustled leaves to paint the roadway with an ever-shifting mosaic of light and shadows.

  I stopped and drank at a stream where my quarry had paused to do the same thing. The muddy bank yielded footprints that easily identified one of the men to me. The footprints sank long and deep in the soft mud. Of Morai's men, only Rolf ra Karesia carried the size and bulk needed to produce the tracks. The other tracks, more normal than the giant's spoor, could have been made by at least three other men in the band, though I did know, from vast—and unwanted—experience, that Morai had not produced them.

  In some ways knowing I pursued Rolf came as a relief. Red hair covered the human titan from his toes up to his big bushy beard and
unkempt scalp. Those who knew him said he wasn't a cruel man, just an angry one who took his temper out on anyone who crossed him while he was in one of his "moods." Five years ago he left Karesia after nearly beating his father—a local baron—to death. Then he cut a wide, bloody swath through towns and villages in the Shattered Empire until he found himself in the black heart of Chala—an area known to all as the Black Cesspit. Morai visited the Cesspit to recruit new men after I destroyed his last band, and Rolf readily joined him.

  Rolf might attack from ambush in the forest, but I suspected he'd wait for the open grasslands of the Broad River Valley before he attacked me. There, without the trees to hem him in, he could wield his double-bladed broadax with devastating efficacy. While I did not look forward to that fight, I felt I had one less surprise to anticipate on my ride through the forests.

  I concentrated on figuring out who rode with Rolf. Rejecting Morai left me with three possibilities, and I liked none of them. Grath, the poisoner, would be little or no problem to deal with. He was not trained for or well suited to open fights. Vareck ra Daar was, like all his countrymen, mad, but he'd face me openly and try to acquit himself honorably. The third candidate, Chi'gandir, left me cold. I don't like sorcerers.

  The second the thought that Chi'gandir might be riding with Rolf came to mind, I knew with a horrifying crystal certainty it was the case. The gods are perverse and enjoy toying with mortals. Not only was Chi'gandir the last person I wanted to face, but he was the one person out of the whole group who could be cruel beyond measure to Weylan, the ferryman at Broad River. I nudged Wolf into a gallop.

  Chi'gandir was a renegade sorcerer of vast power but limited outlets for that power. He's a small man with a hooked nose and a bald head. No one could even accurately guess at his age, but his description had not changed in the twenty years he'd been running loose. His left eye had a diamond tattoo around it, marking him as a Tingis Lurker, which went a long way toward explaining his ability to survive and his enjoyment of cruel displays of power.