Bruce R Cordell
A barren land smoldered beneath a cover of ash. The desert was still, grim in its isolation, and decorated with bleaching bones and drifts of snow white sand. Ripples across the dunes traced meandering lines under a merciless sun. The roar of a storm shattered the deathly quiet. The chalky stillness rose up to become a howling waste of breathless suffocation. Lightning etched jagged trails through clouds of airborne grit. Wind scrabbled over blasted stone. When the wind screamed, the desolation recalled the ancient mistake that birthed it, a mistake of such scope it doomed its perpetrators, burying their memory beneath centuries of sand. A blot above the storm twisted, strained, and ripped. Ruinous dark lay behind the dust-hazed sky, littered with debris. The aperture over the desert widened, and something moved within the newborn gap. Something terrible. A splinter of darkness slipped through the opening and fell-a shard of stone almost a mile in length-like a hungry predator bounding into unguarded territory. It slammed into the desert floor, and nearly three hundred feet of its razor-sharp length punched into the bedrock beneath the shifting dunes. Shock waves pounded out from the point of contact, clearing the air and overpowering the dust storm's constant shriek.
Moments later, the storm settled back, cloaking the waste in a roaring haze of stinging sand. The splinter remained upright, its head rising above the storm's roil as a lighthouse rises over a wave-racked coast.
In the full light of reality, the structure bore a faint purple translucence along its edges, though its core remained black. The time of imprisonment was finished. The time for sweet retribution was at hand.
Spring, 1374 DR
The vengeance taker walked steadily, not hurrying, not lazing. He ambled across a scrubland of long dead grass, his boots crunching brown blades, and his steps carrying him past stony outcrops. Sparse foliage, cactus, and an occasional squat, thorny tree dotted the endless miles. Waterless gullies sometimes splintered the terrain. The only limit to his vision was the next distant rise. Unless he counted the mountains. To the taker's left was a rugged, desolate barrier of stone. The crags of those distant heights promised no mercy on any who attempted passage. But Iahn Qoyllor traveled a path parallel to the mountains, not toward them. The Giant's Belt would not try his strength, at least not this journey. His unwavering stride ate the miles. He had been on the trail just over two months. When he received the order to find the fugitive, he accepted the task, despite its seeming impossibility. Within a few tendays, his considerable skill unearthed a trace nearly ten years cold. Until recently, his target had lived in the city of Two Stars. He wondered again why she'd left after such a long residence. Had she sensed his eventual arrival? Iahn didn't like to dwell on uncertainties. Among his brethren, he was known for his preference for action over supposition, and proof over faith. The vengeance taker was close. He no longer sustained himself by imagining the day he would finally catch her. The need for such a crutch had passed. He knew with certainty he was just days behind the woman. Maybe only one day, if she paused in her route, as she sometimes did. Iahn was a creature out of place in this too-bright wasteland. A masterwork crossbow, its arms folded against the barrel, was strapped to his left calf. His hide leggings were the color of volcanic stone, and the leather vambraces that wrapped his arms from elbow to wrist were blood red. His eyes were flecks of winter ice. In his right hand Iahn carried his dragonfly blade with its long hilt carved of lyrwood, a tree of the ancient world that now grew only behind the Great Seal. The hilt concealed a slender dagger, needle sharp, that few living creatures had ever seen. Many foes, now dead, had glimpsed its silvery line as it ended their days. He called it a thinblade. Others of his order called it a stiletto. A shriek jerked Iahn's attention to his side. His left hand was instantly in motion, anticipating trouble, before he recognized the scrub falcon perched on red-leafed chaparral. He nodded at the small predator and lowered his arm, the object affixed to his hand unused. Oiled straps secured a pitted metallic relic-his damos-to the palm of Iahn's left hand. Every vengeance taker was issued one. A damos was the only badge of vengeance taker rank. Their most feared weapon, a damos contained the baleful fuel for vengeance taker sorcery that doubled as a uniquely potent venom. Iahn topped another rise and saw telltale wheel ruts and hoofprints. Those ruts had become like a friend-obvious markers to hearten him. He no longer needed to ask the Voice for directions to stay on the fugitive's trail. In fact, the tracks revealed she traveled at a modest pace, unaware she was sought, neither speeding up to evade Iahn nor slowing down to intercept him. Something in a rut caught Iahn's notice. He approached and squatted. Unfamiliar spoor stared back. The vengeance taker frowned. Malformed hoofprints, smaller than the equine prints that drew the fugitive's wagon, partly obscured the wheel ruts. These prints were new to his quarry's path. A greenish film glistened in a few of the smaller prints. Had the woman summoned allies to patrol her back trail? Perhaps his earlier assessment of her foreknowledge was wrong. Perhaps the wizard knew fully that her heritage sought her, despite her attempt to discard all connections with her homeland. She possessed ability enough, but what clue had she found that tipped her off? Did she know a vengeance taker was after her? He continued to squint at the intruding spoor. These prints seemed somehow… ominous. Even as he studied the glistening mucous, it dissipated, leaving the prints dry. He was lucky to have noticed it at all. Perhaps the intruding sign was unrelated to his quarry, but Iahn didn't approve of assumptions. He retained life where many lesser people walked into traps because of too much imagination.
His desire was enough to cajole his damos open, like an eye dilating, revealing a dark cavity filled with oily fluid. Only a vengeance taker could hope to survive contact with the poison within a damos. The fabled magic of his ancestors assured that the reservoir would never run dry. The secrets of its fabrication were lost to time. In this day, vengeance takers counted but twenty-one, a number that equaled the remaining number of relics. With a smooth and practiced glide, he flicked two drops of venom from the reservoir onto his fingertip. The damos closed immediately of its own accord. Each bead was so potent that if introduced into his waterskin, he'd have poison enough to kill twenty people. He considered the droplets for a moment, then licked the glistening globules from his finger. His cheeks warmed and sweat broke on his brow. The desert was blotted out by a roar of light and a flare of sound. His eyes fluttered, momentarily beyond his conscious control. He collapsed to one knee as weakness clawed his viscera. The poison was loosed in his blood, scrabbling to find some small chink in his hard-won resistance. A whisper broke from the cacophony. Iahn concentrated his senses, straining to hear the words spoken.
Distinguishing the Voice from phantom noise generated by a poisoned brain was tricky. The prophetic spirit spoke to anyone who succumbed-or nearly succumbed-to the venom, but most survivors and victims failed to understand the words. It didn't matter to the victims, because hearing the Voice meant an ugly death was only a few heartbeats away. Hopeful apprentices built up immunity by imbibing minute doses of diluted poison, then stronger and stronger droplets over time, gradually and painfully, to acquire resistance to damos venom. The final test was the ingestion of a full, concentrated dose.
Failure was obvious, if unsightly. Honor was accorded to those who lived. Apprentices who spoke a true prophecy graduated as vengeance takers and took up their badge of office after swearing fealty to the Lord Apprehender of Deep Imaskar. Nausea stirred, and Iahn's muscles loosened as the cacophony intensified. Then the Voice broke through dissonance into clarity. 'More than vengeance tracks the fugitive. An entity foretold…' The message dissolved into inchoate syllables that poured into a river of relief from the damos's venom-induced pain.
Iahn's body was throwing off the lethal effects of the dose. With the return of his senses, the Voice fled. Until next time. Still on one knee, he considered the insight bequeathed him. No doubt Iahn himself was vengeance. It was the title of his rank and profession. Simple. So the fugitive was sought by someone other than himself. Which probably meant the strange marks along the wheel ruts were not the fugitive's doing, but instead were traces left by this 'other.' Iahn sighed. The damos's messages were always brief and usually truncated. A longer message required a greater dose, and to hear all that might be foretold would be the listener's first sermon of the afterlife,