Talion: Revenant Chapter One


Since the goal of the 10,000 copy sequel challenge is to sell copies of Talion: Revenant so I can afford to take the time to write Talion: Nemesis, it occurred to me that there is great incentive to serialize the novel to the web. This provides readers who’ve not had a chance to read the book to get a taste of it; and to develop a desire for the sequel.

If you’d like to purchase the entire novel from my webstore, you can click here; and if you’d like to buy the book through Amazon for your Kindle, you can click here.

Talion: Revenant is ©1997 Michael A. Stackpole

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 my 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.

“Talion?”

“Yes?”

“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.

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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.

A very promising student of magick, Chi’gandir’s impatience to learn the higher magicks consumed him. He left his tutor, traveled and studied the self-centered arts of the Lurkers, then found sorcerers to teach him irresponsible and destructive ways to channel his talents. They attempted to use him for their own ends, or so the story goes, but he destroyed them. Like a child given a dangerous toy, he set out playing with things and animals and people.

Known as “the Changer,” Chi’gandir used his power to warp creatures. At first he did it for amusement. He added a leg or head to a newborn calf just to watch the farmers react with horror. Then he learned that he could alter people and that, if they were wealthy or powerful, they would pay well to have his enchantments reversed.

“If he’s done anything to Weylan,” I muttered to Wolf, “Chi’gandir will end up begging me to reverse the things I’ll do to him.”

Anger and fear festered and raged within me. Weylan’s tragic life didn’t need complicating elements like Rolf or Chi’gandir. Weylan, despite his problems, was a good man and a better friend. Riding all too slowly through the woods, I became more and more convinced they would use him against me. Then again, if I was lucky or Weylan was lucky, Weylan and the ferry would be on the river’s western shore and I’d have the bandits all to myself before the ferryman tangled with them.

Weylan exemplified the Imperial citizen Clekan created the Talions to protect and avenge. His family had operated the ferry for more years than anyone could remember: the eldest son always inherited the homestead, ran the ferry, and raised a family to take over. For centuries the heir took his wife from one of the merchant families that passed through the valley in their travels.

Until road agents got their hands on Weylan, it was a proud tradition that had no end in sight.

Ten years ago it all changed—or so the stories I had heard indicated. Weylan never talked about what happened, but folks in the district shared the story with little or no prompting. Weylan’s entire family left him behind and traveled off with a rich merchant from Lacia to bring back his daughter Elverda to be Weylan’s wife. While they were away a group of bandits, more numerous but less effective than Morai’s pack, raided the ferry. Weylan, a handsome youth, strong from years of poling the ferry back and forth across the river, defended his birthright and killed a dozen of them before they captured him, and his captors worked on him.

The raiders bound him to a tree and deliberately maimed him. They left his body strong and straight while they smashed his teeth in and broke his face. They battered his left eye into milky white blindness and half tore off his scalp. They pulverized his nose, flattened it across his face and left him with very thick and nasal speech. It was said they watched him for several days to let the healing start so no wizard could reverse it; then they departed just hours before his family came home and found him.

His bride, Elverda, did not reject him. I don’t know what her reasons were, but she showed more nobility in that act than I’ve seen in the rest of the world. Weylan freed her of all promises and told her to leave. She refused, so he married her and then instantly divorced her. He sent her and his family away. If tavern tales had it right, she returned with her father’s caravans each spring to ask Weylan to let her stay.

Morai’s bandits followed the road as it turned north toward the mountains. I turned off onto a lesser-used trail—one Weylan had shown me years past—that led more directly into the valley and the ferry itself. I started Wolf down it and murmured a prayer that it would carry me into the valley before Rolf and Chi’gandir reached it.

The instant I saw Weylan’s log cabin I knew I’d lost the race. The sun still flew high in the sky, but I couldn’t see Weylan anywhere. The ferry floated at the dock in front of the cabin and two horses trotted wide-eyed and spooked back behind the cabin itself.

Wolf and I raced to the cabin, but the horse shied as he got close. I jumped from the saddle, tugged my tsincaat from the saddle sheath, and let the horse run off. I knew only two things scared Wolf: magick and snakes. Chi’gandir was enough magic to scare anyone, and no snake was going to worry me while Rolf lurked in the vicinity. I let Wolf run off so Chi’gandir had no chance of getting hair or blood of mine. Without some piece of me to focus his spells, his magicks would be unable to affect me.

I held my tsincaat before me and crept cautiously to the cabin’s southern wall. A faded green curtain prevented me from looking through the window, but it did little to muffle the rhythmic squeak of Weylan’s rocking chair. I heard nothing else, and hoped, for a moment, that my worst fears would not be realized.

I relaxed only slightly, crossed to the cabin’s porch, and pulled myself up over the railing. I lowered myself to the porch gently, so the wooden planks would not creak and betray me. I tested the door and it moved beneath gentle pressure. Shifting my tsincaat to my left hand and ready for almost anything, I pushed the door open.

Framed in the doorway, I stopped and could not breathe. Ten feet into the room, rocking in and out of my shadow in his favorite chair, sat Weylan.

Bright blue eyes stared at me from a handsome face, looking like matched sapphires set evenly in his head by a master jeweler. His narrow nose lent him a look of great intelligence. His long, thick, black hair hid the tops of two well-formed ears. Two even rows of white teeth flashed at me in a fleeting smile, and his strong jaw gave him a physical strength of character denied him before by his deformities.

Chi’gandir’s black arts made Weylan’s face perfect. Perfect, except for the tears rolling down the ferryman’s cheeks.

His noble head topped an atrophied, twisted body. He’d been shrunken to proportions smaller than those of a child. The sorcerer had warped and bowed Weylan’s bones like rain-soaked wood, then had swollen and knotted his joints. His ash-gray flesh hung thick and flaccid in great folds over his body the same way a father’s robe hangs on his young son.

He tried to raise his right hand toward me, but that task taxed his stringy muscles beyond their ability to respond. “Talion, Nolan, friend.” His voice still came clear and strong. “Kill me.”

I shook my head violently and stepped into darkened, dead room. “Chi’gandir, where is he?”

Weylan did not hear the full question. The mention of the sorcerer’s name tightened his face and wrung more tears from his azure eyes. “When I saw him I begged him to make me as I was. She’ll be here soon and I just wanted her to see me as I was, just once.” His lips quivered and he swallowed to choke back more tears. His hands tried to rise and wipe his face but they only reached his stomach before they gave up and limply flopped to his sides. “Kill me or I’ll drag myself to the river and drown myself before she can see me like this.”

“No!” Anger rose to my face and spat words from my mouth. “You fool, you know a sorcerer’s magick only lasts as long as he lives. Where is Chi’gandir?”

Weylan’s gaze flickered beyond my shoulder and a warning rose to his lips, but I’d already seen the shadow on the floor. I spilled his chair to the right with a kick as I drove forward and twisted to the left. The rough floorboards creaked beneath me when I landed—and exploded where Rolf’s ax tore into the floor. Without even turning to look at him, I rolled to my feet, spun, and leaped through a draped window onto the porch.

Rolf ra Karesia turned from the doorway, ax clutched lovingly to his breast, and once again the depth of Chi’gandir’s evil stunned me. Scarlet serpentskin covered the bandit and sunlight burnished gold highlights onto his scales. A forked tongue flickered in and out of the wide, lipless mouth in his muzzled, serpentine face. His narrow, slitted nostrils ran perpendicular to the sharp, black-lozenge pupils in his amber eyes. The changes melted his ears into his head, left holes where they should have been, and welded his legs together to form an undulating viper’s body.

Rolf hissed inarticulately and writhed forward. I backed up and vaulted the porch railing seconds before his ax splintered the wood. I retreated several more steps; then, as he pursued, I stopped.

Rolf rippled off the porch and his torso plunged toward the earth. His upper body teetered off balance before enough of his lower half could reach the ground and right him again. I rushed in, parried a weak ax blow with my tsincaat, and snap-kicked the tottering monster in the head. The blow smashed him back against the cabin, but he whipped his tail around and almost swept my feet out from under me. I jumped above his tail and then cartwheeled to the right out of his range, but abandoned my tsincaat behind in the dust.

Rolf flicked his tail and swept the blade from his path. He laughed, though it sounded more to me like the choking cough of a dying coal miner than any honest sound of mirth. He came for me slowly and, even in his bestial form, allowed himself to relish the idea of being the first man in a decade to kill a Justice.

I smiled at him and concentrated. I summoned my tsincaat, and it materialized in my grasp. I laughed when I felt it’s heavy hilt against the cold dead flesh of the tattoo on my right palm. I thought about drawing my ryqril from the sheath at the small of my back, but the daggerlike blade would require me to get closer to Rolf than I really wanted if I meant to use it.

Cloudy membranes nictated up over Rolf’s eyes, then flicked back down. He surged forward and rained ax blows down on me. I dodged the first two attacks, ducked the third, and closed when he raised the ax over his head for the fourth. I lunged and hit him over the heart, but the tsincaat skittered wide along his scales and did not hurt him.

Seriously unbalanced, I looked up in horror. Rolf towered over me, shifted his grip, and brought the ax haft down on my head. I twisted, but caught enough of a glancing blow on my left temple to stun me. Dazed, I staggered back and fell flat. Stars exploded and cavorted before my eyes while Rolf, all red and gold like a sunset, tossed his ax aside and huddled over me.

Rolf wrapped his huge hands around either side of my rib cage, squeezed pain through my chest, and tossed me into the air. Like a parent playing with a child, Rolf caught me around my waist with a bear hug that trapped my left arm to my side. My tsincaat slipped from my other hand and the pain prevented me from concentrating enough to summon it again. Rolf shook me twice and then, confident I could not wriggle free, tightened his arms.

I kicked weakly against his stomach and tried to escape. My left hand remained firmly trapped in his right armpit, yet could exert no pressure on nerve centers deeply shielded by scale and muscle. I screwed my eyes shut against the pain and shuddered when Rolf’s tongue played against my sweaty throat.

His fists ground my ryqril into my spine, reminding me how close it lay and frustrating me with its inaccessibility. I wrenched my head forward to smash it down into his face, but he held me too high up. My right fist beat on his shoulders with no effect. No other options lay open to me. Rolf himself gave me no choice.

I stared down at my palm, then shook my head to clear my mind. I looked down into his eyes, beyond the madness and anger, and tried to see what sort of man he had been. I pushed my pain away and smothered the regrets lingering from how I dealt with Fortune.

I pressed my open palm to his forehead. His flesh felt slick and fluidly warm, as if living copper or gold. I felt his brow ripple beneath my touch as the part of him that was a man tried to understand why this hand should be so cold, and why the animal in him instinctively dreaded my caress.

I breathed in and called his life to me.

Brief scenes, like pictures illuminating the manuscript of his life, flashed before my mind’s eye. I felt his sense of triumph evaporate and I lived through one of his rages. I saw the world through his eyes and understood how he misinterpreted innocent acts and gestures as threats. I shared his pain and deep fear of the world.

For a heartbeat, when his life had been stripped of the evil and anger, he returned to the innocence of youth, yet retained his adult comprehension of the world. He read his own history and understood the suffering he caused. He knew why I had to take his life, and he knew he had to die. His soul fled into the skull tattoo on my palm.

I peeled my hand back from his forehead and chose to leave a black death’s-head mark there. His body slackened, collapsed, and freed me of the physical pain. Life seared back into my limbs and distracted me enough that, for several seconds, I failed to notice that I’d not fallen with him to the ground. When I did notice, and looked around for the author of this strangeness, Chi’gandir contracted the spell enfolding me and held me tighter than Rolf ever had.

He rotated me through the air so I could stare at him. He strode through the cabin doorway holding Weylan by the back of his tunic. Chi’gandir settled him on the porch edge as a child might arrange a doll. Then he turned to me and gestured with my tsincaat, which he held in his left hand. “I always assumed, given the stories, that Justices were linked to their swords, but I never imagined such a strong link.”

I nodded gently. “Give yourself up now, Chi’gandir. Kill me and other Talions will never let you rest.”

Chi’gandir wheezed a nasal giggle. “Bravado hardly becomes you, Talion. It is like the ferryman’s body, inappropriate and useless.” Again he giggled and stroked the blade of my tsincaat. “Rolf’s transformation took hair and blood. I wonder what I can do with you and this sword.”

The tingle that stole over my body when Chi’gandir gestured at my tsincaat shocked away my reply to him. I felt my toes merge and lose their individuality. It started as the same uncomfortable feeling when there is something caught between my toes. It spread up through my feet as they began to flow one into the other, becoming a fertile breeding ground for fear and frustration.

I knew I had to fight him and I knew of only one way to do that. I immediately slowed my breathing, closed my eyes, and willed myself into a self-hypnotic trance. Normally Talions use the trance to monitor the extent and severity of wounds suffered, and can even limit blood flow with it, but in this case, I needed to do more with the control it gave me.

I looked within myself and cringed at the chaotic ruin caused by his spell. Chi’gandir’s magick presented a more urgent threat than the slight damage Rolf had done, so I forced my mind past the bruises and sore muscles down toward my legs. I consciously reinforced my mental self-image, down to five toes on each foot. I used the force of my will as a chisel, carefully carving away at the changes his spell had made. More easily than I expected, I broke his power and blunted his spell.

Chi’gandir withdrew and I opened my eyes. The sorcerer looked tired, and I realized I could defeat him. Rolf’s transformation must have drained a great amount of energy from Chi’gandir, not to mention the job he’d done on Weylan. He had to be close to exhaustion, because I should not really have been able to block his attack on me. If I provoked him enough, he might overtax himself and his spells would fade.

Chi’gandir’s left eyebrow rose, lengthening the diamond tattoo around that eye, and he slid my tsincaat home in his belt. “So Talions fight magick with magick?”

I snarled at him. “We’re taught to deal with all sorts of minor nuisances.”

The sorcerer angrily dropped a hand to my tsincaat. “Then deal with the river.”

I shot toward the river like a stone flung from a catapult and, landing with a splash, I sank just as fast. The spellforce, though it had weakened perceptibly, still held me paralyzed while the water chilled and suffocated me. Air bubbles trapped in my ears echoed my ever-increasing heartbeat. Water washed up my nose and tickled a sneeze of precious air from my lungs. Silt stung my eyes and ground beneath my teeth. I tightened my cheeks and expelled the foul, gritty water from my mouth.

I closed my eyes, stopped fighting the river, and forced myself to ignore the growing fire in my lungs. I had to concentrate to give Chi’gandir something other than holding me down here to think about.

I summoned my tsincaat.

My fist locked over Chi’gandir’s half-frozen hand and crushed it to the tsincaat’s hilt even before I realized he’d broken off his spell to work another. Chi’gandir’s eyes grew wide as terror gripped him. Bubbles poured from his mouth as he tried to speak a spell. The silver-white spheres raced to the surface like sacrificial smoke rising to the heavens. The sorcerer’s right hand gestured frantically, but his soaked robe just thrashed and tangled around it in a lethargic mockery of his urgency.

I drew my ryqril and drove it into his chest. Blood tinted the bubbles that escaped from the wound. Even though my inflamed lungs urged me to abandon him and swim for the surface, I stabbed him twice more and let him go only when confident I’d killed him.

I tugged the tsincaat from his belt, resheathed my blades, and struck for the surface. My lungs blazed with an ache for fresh air, forcing me to fight the reflex to suck just anything into my lungs. Part of me knew the water would quench the fire in my chest, and another welcomed any surcease from that agony. I tried to ignore all of that and worked at reaching the surface as quickly as possible.

Chi’gandir’s scarlet bubbles lazily drifted past me. The surface looked so far away. Everything darkened, including the shafts of sunlight striking down into the brown water. Odd motes of light and color shimmered before me, but I could not touch them. I stretched for the surface, up there, miles beyond my outstretched fingers, and tried to grab it. My hands closed on nothing and I knew I had lost.

I took my last look at the surface. My right hand still clawed for it. The wavering, dimming sunlight bleached my flesh and let me see it as those who fished me from the river would see it three or four days hence.

Water choked my throat as my vision faded. Even as I swallowed the river and it swallowed me, a jet of bubbles lanced down from the dry world and a foolish spark of hope blossomed in a barren, dying mind.

Image:crackedscull100.png

I awoke with a start and immediately started to cough. I rolled myself to the left with a strong push off the log wall with my right hand, and vomited into the basin set on the floor at the bunk’s edge. I retched twice more and managed, by begging it weakly, to convince my body nothing more could come up from my empty stomach. Exhausted, I rolled back, closed my eyes, and lay there trying to imagine how I’d escaped the river.

I felt a cool cloth on my forehead. “Marana?” I opened my eyes and saw a woman I did not recognize sitting on the edge of my bunk.

She smiled. She was pretty. Like Marana, her hair was black, though this woman wore it short. Her dark eyes sparkled and her smile drained my anxiety. “I am Elverda.” She took the cloth from my forehead and exchanged it for another in the bowl on her lap. “I am now Weylan’s wife, and I understand I have you to thank for that.”

I closed my eyes. I could not figure out how I was responsible for something that happened while I was a novice in Talianna. It did not make much sense, but nothing else did either at the moment. I opened my eyes again and now both she and Weylan swam into focus.

I stared at Weylan, shook my head, and stared even harder. His body had returned to normal. Once again it was tall and strong. The hands that had been unable to wipe tears from his face now rested on Elverda’s shoulder and squeezed them with loving gentleness. That did not surprise me.

What did astonish me was that his face looked as I had last seen it, but now it was truly perfect because no tears rolled from his eyes. Weylan smiled down at me with an exquisite set of teeth and a strong jaw.

Confused, I frowned at him. “I, Weylan, I don’t understand.”

Weylan sat behind Elverda and looked at me over her left shoulder. “Chi’gandir—a name I did not know until you got here, Nolan—led the bandits who attacked ten years ago. He use his sorcery to disfigure me at that time. His people had worked me over, but I never got a look at myself until after he had done his work. My understanding of magick was and still is minimal, so I thought I was forever to be disfigured. When he returned and laughingly told the other man what he had done to me, I finally understood. He bragged that he could undo it. I begged him to have pity and reverse the magick he had worked so long ago.” He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment. “You remember what he did.”

I nodded.

“So when you killed him I was restored. I ran to the river and saw bubbles. I dove in and found you. You’d taken in a lungful of water, but after a difficult night you started to recover. This morning Elverda’s caravan arrived and we will now live together as man and wife.”

I smiled and laid my right hand on top of their joined hands. I squeezed them and then let my hand drop. I drifted off to sleep before it slid back to my side, but the happiness Weylan felt was not lost on me. It made me feel good and eased me into a good dream.

I dreamed of Talianna.

__________________________

If you’d like to purchase the entire novel from my webstore, you can click here; and if you’d like to buy the book through Amazon for your Kindle, you can click here.

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3 Responses to “Talion: Revenant Chapter One”

  1. How much and how often are you planning on posting chapters. I already purchased my copy, but curious minds and all that.

  2. Mike – What’s the current count now? I haven’t seen an updated number for a while. I’ve got two paper copies (one which you so graciously autographed through the mail) and the Kindle ebook, so I’m very excited to see this project come to fruition! Thanks!

  3. Timothy Fitzgerald 09. Dec, 2010 at 2:07 pm

    Hey Mike, glad to see you are still keeping the Talion challenge on everyone’s mind. Do you have another update? the last one was from several months ago, be curious to see where it stands with Christmas around the corner. Hopefully that will spike sales!