From Chapter One – False Gods
Jarod ran down the narrow lane connecting the main bazaar to the side roads of Jos Hollow. Behind him, he heard vendors hawking their wares—the bustle of the city streets—and the pursuers who were chasing him. His breath came in ragged gasps. He’d been running for several minutes, and he was exhausted. Rivers of sweat ran down his face, soaking his shirt and stinging his eyes. His muscles screamed in agony from the exertion, but he dared not stop.
“Hold up, you coward!” The taller one was closer, the shorter one falling behind. Feet slapping pavement, breathing hard—closer now. He could feel the violence reaching for him like a heavy hand. He was terrified.
At a fork in the road, Jarod chose left, hoping he could lose them by cutting through the park, mingling with the crowd surrounding the fountain. Arms and legs pumping, chest heaving, the last hundred yards seemed a thousand or more.
Jumping and dodging, weaving and ducking, he made it to the fountain as the other men caught him. The taller one grabbed him, taking him down, they rolled for several yards, dust and gravel flying. The shorter man caught up and straddled his chest, raining blows on his face and shoulders with clenched fists, screaming obscenities.
Jarod curled into a tight ball and tried to protect himself with his arms—his tears mixing with the blood streaming down his battered face, his nose shattered and twisted at an odd angle.
A giant of a man with long black hair and piercing blue eyes grabbed the two attackers by the collar of their shirts, throwing them to either side of the helpless man. He stood over Jarod, glaring at the other two, demanding answers. “What in the name of all that’s good is goin’ on here?”
The fountain was typically crowded with people, and today was no different. Men surrounded the brawl, shouting encouragement or derision, eager for tales for their next trip to the saloon. Women hid their faces and whispered to each other. Children were pulled behind mothers, hands held over small ears and eyes, protecting them from the carnage.
“So, let’s have it!” The big man wasn’t satisfied with the attacker’s silence. “What on Erador is all this?”
The taller man was the first to regain his composure. The shorter man lay in the dirt where he’d fallen, glaring at Jarod, bleeding and broken on the ground ten feet away.
“He said our Lord Kavan was a False God!” The taller man said, pointing at Jarod.
The big man chuckled. Several people in the crowd hissed, and several others laughed—a few made no sound at all, but hate poured from their eyes: some for the broken-bleeding man—some for the other two. Hushed whispers passed through the throng. Mothers grabbed their children, herding them away.
“So… this is about whose God is the real God?” The voice came from the edge of the crowd. Everyone turned. A tall thin man with a long flowing gray beard, dressed in red robes, pushed his way through the masses. Approaching the big man, he made a sign in the air with one slender finger, thin trails of red fire carving a shining rune in space before him.
The stone in the circlet on his forehead glowed with a crimson light. He raised the staff in his left hand and brought the end down against the earth with a resounding thud, shaking the ground beneath the gathered crowd. Sparks of red and amber erupted from the base of the staff. The big man staggered back several feet, leaving the injured Jarod undefended on the ground.
“I am a Herald of the God Zaril, and this man has been wronged!” His voice had changed: it sounded like the earth grating against itself—like a volcano erupting. The light surrounding the fountain dimmed as dense clouds passed overhead, streaks of blue lightning crawling across their gray faces. Thunder echoed in the distance.
The crowd fled—thirty people running in as many directions. Screams of women mixed with the cursing of men—some were too afraid to move and became witness to the slaughter.
The Herald raised the staff above his head, turning toward the two assailants—they tried to run. Both ends of the staff glowed a hot red, and flame burst forth: two beams of searing fire, consuming the pair before they could move. Engulfed in flames, screaming in agony, they died where they stood, charred beyond recognition. Two blackened stumps remained, the bittersweet smell of charred flesh mixing with those of sweat and fear.
The big man grabbed the Herald by the neck, one massive arm lifting him from the ground—his fingers tightened around the Sorcerer’s throat, choking the life from him. The Herald spun the staff around, striking him on the side of the head. He lost his grip long enough for his victim to fall to the ground, choking, trying to catch his breath.
The big man pulled his broadsword free—fire from the staff reflecting in his eyes. The blade made an evil-sounding hiss as it cleared the leather scabbard. The Sorcerer regained his feet, raising the staff, muttering something in the Cirrian speech, when the broadsword blade entered his neck from the left side. Blood erupted, showering the ground around them as the severed head flew into the air, propelled by the force of the blow. The lifeless body fell like a sack on the ground, twitching and writhing in the throes of death.
The big man reached down, wiping the crimson stain from his blade on the red robe of the dead Adept—the cloth turned a deep black. He looked at the head, the lips still moved, mouthing whatever spell had almost been cast. He sheathed the sword and picked up the staff, snapping it across his left knee—he tossed the two halves into the dirt.
The remaining crowd milled about, like sheep in a thunderstorm. One man, a short blond fellow who’d seen the whole thing walked over, curiosity conquering fear.
“Tell me, friend… w-what is your name?” he stammered.
The big man looked at him, gave a curt nod, and walked away. Ten yards passed when he pivoted and stared at the blond stranger. He walked back and placed his right hand on the man’s shoulder.
“Do you believe in these… Gods?” His voice was deep but melodious.
The blond man looked into the big man’s eyes—all he saw was