ising columns of smoke signaled the devastation of Kraan long before the city could be seen over the horizon. She had ridden straight from the Sanctuary toward Kraan, climbing to a height she considered proof against missiles. Her heart sank at the sight of the large, billowing black smudges, and her apprehension and dismay grew stronger as she approached the settlement.

Flying over the city on the upwind side, her anxiety became alarm at the extent of the destruction. Whole buildings which she had known for years had been reduced to smoking piles of rubble. Fires raged uncontrollably in many residential areas; fanned by the wind, they greedily consumed the small homes. The complete stillness made the situation even more disturbing; she detected no movement on the streets below. From the number of broken and bloody bodies that littered the ground she concluded that everyone had been killed. She had been too late to save the life of even one person. She felt hollow and cold.

The spectacular architectural beauty of the Council Chambers had not escaped destruction. The top of the dome, which had once been its most impressive feature, was now entirely gone. She was easily able to guide Alata into the gigantic, roofless chamber.

Only the floor and portions of the walls were now recognizable as the bird touched down. The beautiful spiral stairway, and the spectacular dais to which it had led, had been reduced to broken shards of stone, scattered across the floor. The richly detailed supports around the circumference of the chamber were now jagged fingers pointing mindlessly into the sky.

She walked silently among the ruins, her mind reeling, her gut churning. Not a single soul had survived. The council members had been repeatedly stabbed. From their slumped and bloody forms protruded almost every imaginable form of weapon. The brutality was staggering, even to her. She felt flushed and nauseated, not only by the level of violence, but by her utter failure to protect any of them.

At last she found the Elder's remains. Her eyes widened and her mouth fell open at the deliberate cruelties that had been inflicted upon him. The bloody stains contrasted sharply with the whiteness of his robe. His severed head lay several feet from his supine body, intermittent smears and pools of dark red on the floor appearing to connect the two.

The sight of this final indignity was devastating, and she suddenly wished herself dead. Her stomach conceded defeat, and with a painful spasm she abruptly vomited the contents of her breakfast onto the dusty floor. She stood doubled over with hands on hips, eyes watering, and was racked by a violent series of dry heaves. When the episode finally passed she spit, wiped her mouth, and availed herself of her canteen before returning to the desecrated corpse.

Looking more carefully at his body, she saw something glinting in his hand. She stooped down and observed a medallion, its leather strap clutched in his stiffening fingers. Frowning, she pulled it free and studied it closely. It was heavy, and made of base metal plated with nickel. It had been stamped with a strange reverse-Z symbol. She reflected on her extensive knowledge of local cultures, but did not recognize it.

Seething with rage, she stood, clasped the amulet close to her breast, and looked up at the sky through the jagged ruins of the dome. Her duty was clear. Face set like flint, she mounted the bird, and they were off to begin the search.

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