This book is free on these days only – 06/28/2013 at midnight PST until 11:59 pm on 06/30/2013. If the dates are the same that means the book is free one day only.
For generations, the Gods have been at war. Two rival pantheons, the Old Gods and the New Order, have been vying for the faith of the mortal realm. Bound by the covenants between mortals and themselves, the Old Gods have all but vanished from the land. Now Malik, the God of War and Peace, has devised a plan to champion the war and win back the faithful they have lost. He has created nine swords, each a godslayer in its own right, designed to be given unto the faithful, with the mission to seek out and slay the Gods of the New Order! However, even the best laid plans of a God can go awry, and the swords were cast into the mortal realm, ensorceled in a prophecy that has bound the Gods to a new set of rules, a set that requires their creating a mortal agent in the world to seek out the swords and assure their purpose be carried out.
Targeted Age Group: 14-30
The night wind blew cold and damp through the loft in the blacksmith’s shop. The forge had long since been dampered for the night and the fiery heat that had originally been so inviting had escaped into the night’s air.
Avery shrugged. The chill had set into his bones like a spirit possessing a corpse. This thought sent a new chill through his frame, as he convulsed with the imagined feel of invisible, ethereal fingers prickling along his upper back and neck, searching for a purchase in life, hoping that his spirit would flee its mortal shackles to give it a new berth.
Avery clutched his satchel closer to his chest. His few possessions in this world would offer little protection against fleshless ghouls of the afterlife, yet he nonetheless felt some comfort in their closeness. Fear was nothing new to him, but it still visited upon him the same helplessness it always had. It was not enough to fear the real world and its consequences; his mind had to create phantom menaces to terrorize him, as well. And the soulless wind that blew tonight fed into his primitively superstitious mind.
By the Old Gods, Avery thought. If it is my soul you want, fiends of darkness, take it already and be done with it! Better to end his life now than to continue in prolonging his miserable existence in terror.
Avery took a deep, steadying breath. At least, he wanted it to be steadying. He tried convincing himself that there was nothing to fear. The old blacksmith had not seen Avery when he had scaled the outer wall of the building, nor heard him as he had silently settled into the loft for a sheltered night of seclusion.
The evening squatter had thought that the forge would be an excellent place to wait out the evening’s chill, but had not realized that the smith had little need to keep his edifice sheltered from the winds when the building was near inferno temperatures when occupied, even without insulation of any kind. Consequently, Avery’s perch in the loft was little better than outside at all. Yet it was not outside and it did provide some safety he would not have had trying to sleep under a bush or some hollow in the woods.
Yes, he was safe. And surely the smith’s building was not haunted by disembodied banshees in search of a hapless soul to feast upon. Only the night and its cold wind encircled him, nothing more. Or so Avery kept trying to convince himself.
No matter how hard he tried to dispel his fears though, once awakened, images of soul-stealing apparitions dominated his mind’s eye. And the sleep he so desperately craved remained as elusive as those self-same spirits.
You’re a coward! he cursed inwardly. Yes, but one that keeps surviving because he knows to be afraid in the first place, he answered himself.
A small star peeked into the loft through a crack in the roof. The twinkle of the light drew Avery’s eyes’ focus momentarily away from the shadowed corners of which his imagination had populated with all the wicked soul-stealing demons his mind could conjure up.
Oh, Sarla, the frightened man thought. If only you and your kin still watched over us, perhaps I would not be the fearful wretch I am today.
But the Old Gods were gone, dead now lo these three hundred years. Everyone knew that. Or so the priests of the New Order preached. Sarla, Goddess of Earth and Sky, had been dethroned by Ava, the Sun God, and his mistress, Alana, the Moon. And Sarla’s dominion over the land had likewise been usurped by Galanor, the Knight of the Fields, Urlock, the Mountain King, and Davini, Maiden of the Soil.
So many Gods reigned in the New Order. Avery could never remember them all, even when he was a man of faith, and he held the secret belief that not even the most devout clergyman could possibly know them all, either. It would have been so much easier only needing to know the nine members of the Old Gods. Those he could have remembered easily, he was sure. As it was, the disuse of their names made it a struggle to recall all of them at one sitting for Avery these days, but in his younger days he had surely known them all.
There were prohibitions, yes, but there were still those who held to the old faiths, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that their Gods were gone. After all, how could the New Order have gained such a staunch hold if the Old Gods still lived? Surely, the elder pantheon would have thrust the younger upstarts out of their domains if they had lived. That they did nothing to curb the encroachment of this New Order for several centuries spoke for itself, so many thought, Avery amongst them.
Of course, there were always new prophecies cropping up from time to time foretelling the fall of the New Order and the re-ascension of the Old Gods. But that was little more than wishful thinking of the hopeful, fewer and fewer with each passing generation. In another hundred years, perhaps, there would not be any at all.
As the star’s light passed out of alignment with the breach in the roof, Avery thought it poetically similar to the passing of the Old Gods from the mortal realm. One moment in time here, the next gone out of sight with no sign that they had ever truly been there at all.
No, that was not completely true. There was still the old magic of the Game that persisted. That was a mystery, since none of the New Order took responsibility for that! In fact, anyone found playing the Game would be lashed, their homes raided, their wealth (if they had any after tithes) taken in the name of “purifying” their souls. For, it was said, that the Game could only be bought with wealth, and if wealth a man had, then taking the temptation from him would save the soul.
In his wanderings, Avery had seen the Game once or twice, but only at a distance enough that he was sure he could have been mistaken. He knew well enough to stay away from any concept of fortune manipulation, and if he saw a man practicing the forbidden ritual of the Game, he wished to be nowhere near such a man!
The Game had persisted after the rise of the New Order, or so the old people said, but no one could recall exactly when or where it had come from, either. Most ascribed it to the Old Gods, but none knew what God may have created it if it did. It was clearly a magic separate from the New Order, however, and that alone seemed to suggest some lingering power other that they controlled still existed. And if not the old Gods, then from whence did such power come?
As he watched the blackness now that occupied the space in the ceiling, Avery reflected on his earlier thought that he could have more easily have remember the Old Gods’ names in favor of the endless host of the New Order. Could he even now recall all of them? He remembered that each of the Old Gods was a dual deity, presiding over parallel spheres of influence. Like Sarla, who was Goddess of both Earth and Sky. Who else? he mused sleepily.
There was Sarla, of course. Then there was Malik, God of War and Peace; Airek, God of Charity and Greed; Dariel, God of Truth and Deception.
Why am I stuck on recalling only the names of the Gods, and not the Goddesses?
Oh yes, there was Karmel, Goddess of Magic and Chance (always a strange duality in Avery’s mind, since was not magic a form of chance?); Naris, Goddess of Love and Hate; Charith, Goddess of Life and Death…
Who am I forgetting? That was how many? Seven, so two more…
Of course, there was Olgoth, God of Knowledge and Mystery. And…
Lendos! That was the last one. He was God of Bounty and Famine. Odd that under his current circumstances that that would not have been the first God on his mind.
Yes, that was all of them. He smiled drowsily. Yes, it would have been much easier to be expected to know only the Old Gods…
Avery suddenly jerked awake. Had he heard something? He had begun to drift asleep and something had set him awares. He held his breath close, hearing the beat of his heart thundering in his ears. The sound thrumming through his ears made it difficult to hear anything else, but he still strained to hear whatever it had been that alerted him to its presence.
Avery tried to recall if there had been a noise but could not remember anything specifically. His chest felt tight as he forced his breathing into a harsh rhythm that would not be heard by anyone else in the building, though to his own ears, his breathing seemed even louder than the pulse beating in his head.
The smell of mold seemed stronger with Avery’s senses heightened by his fear. The blacksmith used hay and straw to absorb any leakage from the roof, and the rot was keenly apparent to anyone even entering the loft. Avery had not minded the smell then, but now the stench overwhelmed him. His nose twitched at the odor and he had to pinch it to avoid sneezing.
Several minutes passed and Avery could not sense anything amiss. Maybe it had been nothing more than his imagination after all. He tried to force himself to relax, but he could not stop the sudden shivering that had overcome him. Perhaps this place was haunted. He certainly had not been able to relax since he had come here…
I’m a coward, he cursed at himself again. I’m a grown man huddled in an empty building frightened by imagined specters going bump in the night!
He had not always been this way. Once he had enjoyed a modicum of success as a barter’s apprentice. He had worked out of a small hamlet named Kellenburg, some leagues distant from where he lay now. Truth to tell, he would have been hard pressed to give even a rough idea of how far away his former home lay, or even the exact direction. His wanderings had certainly not carried him in a straight line away, that was for certain.
But his former life had ended shortly after a priest of Anlar the Hunter, Rantell by name, had moved into town, setting up a shrine in his God’s name there. Everyone was expected to tithe the shrine, to show reverence to the deity that now was said by Rantell to shelter the town under His grace. Most of the townsfolk were timid and feared to speak out against the words of the priest, feeling unsure of whether it was proper to resist, even if none in the community had ever directly worshiped Anlar before the priest had established His shrine or not. Kellenburg was largely isolated from the larger urban areas and the etiquette of how to handle a priest of the New Order was beyond the experience of the simple folk of the town.
At the time, Avery was barely fifteen summers and he was apprenticed to the owner of the local trading post, one Master Farun. Avery had been orphaned before his first ten years and Farun had been without child to inherit his business. It had been an arrangement made out of convenience and amicability, though had over the years blossomed into sincere devotion between the two, if not outright love.
The trading post trafficked in furs and preserved meats mostly, with occasionally more exotic goods finding their way to Farun’s keep. Due to the business owing its existence primarily to hunters and trappers of surrounding territories, it quickly became a focal point of opposition when Farun would not pay the tithe demanded by the priest. He had enjoyed success before Anlar, he was heard to say, and he saw no need to lose profit now on the whim of one mortal man, no matter how holy he professed to be.
Within days of this fateful declaration, Farun had been felled through the heart by a “stray” arrow near the edge of town. Rantell was quick to declare the shaft to have been diverted by Anlar himself to strike down the man who had spoken such blasphemy against the God only days before. The priest did not dispute that the hand that had fired the arrow was likely mortal, and to the archer it would have seemed a stray shot, but in where it ended up attested that it was the will of Anlar that had truly declared its path.
None dared to dispute the priest’s words, fearful eyes darting between the woods and the man standing before them. None doubted that Rantell had had a hand in the execution of Farun the barter, but also none knew whether or not he had acted alone. In recognition of a possible assassin watching their every move, no man nor woman would speak further.
Avery had returned woodenly to his workplace only to discover men whom he did not recognize loading the shop’s stores into a wagon. Rantell had wasted no time in ordering the business seized and its assets sold to pay the “debt” to the shrine for the barter’s insolence, it seemed.
Avery had been enraged, attacking the men without thought of the consequence. He was, of course, overcome easily – it had been four fully grown men against a slight teen. Beaten into submission, he was dragged to the shrine where Rantell awaited him. What the priest had to say would forever thereafter be etched into young Avery’s mind:
“The evil of the barter lives through his disciple,” emoted the priest, “yet since a life has already been paid for the barter’s insult, this young man’s shall be spared.” But it came at a cost, a hefty one: Avery would be branded a heretic.
The priest did not wait for anyone to speak on Avery’s behalf before reaching to a brand he had already prepared beside the alter. As the four large men held the hysterical young man, Rantell had seared the mark of the heretic into Avery’s arm where it met his wrist, forever branding him an outcast by command of the New Order. Under the laws of the New Order, no man branded a heretic would be made welcome before any hearth nor within any shelter. He would have to forage for himself to survive for none could offer him succor without being cast out themselves.
After the brief ceremony, or lack thereof, was completed, Avery was carried bodily by Rantell’s men to the edge of town and cast into the mud. One of the men declared for any who might hear that Avery was banished from Kellenburg for the rest of his days, upon penalty of the death he had been spared should he return. And with that, the men simply turned and left. Avery was no longer deserving of their time nor attention.
And so Avery was sentenced to a life in exile from all civilized society, left to wander as he would, ever in search of comfort he was forever denied by other men. Avery no longer cared to learn the names of the countless towns he had wandered through, the one he presently sheltered within being no exception. This existence had become his lot in life, and though depression and hopelessness had burdened his soul every day since, somehow he had always managed to find a way to stay alive, albeit a life worth less than a common vermin’s. At least a vermin garnered attention long enough to exterminate it – the New Order forbid actual killing of its heretics, considering them warnings to those who might otherwise speak out of place.
Of course, priests did not outright declare heretics’ being protected as being abject lessons for the masses – their actual words were that to actually slay him gave him attention he was no longer worthy of – but Avery knew better. His existence was a warning: speak out and be cast out. Otherwise, he would have been executed and his corpse cast beside his master’s all those years ago.
Avery scratched at the scar on the back of his right wrist as his mind cast backwards through the memories. It was too dark to actually see the inverted pair of horns that marked a heretical outcast of the New Order, but the wound was always visible within Avery’s mind. Years had passed since the priest had set the iron brand to Avery’s flesh, searing away forever any hope he might have had of ever again returning to a normal life. Heretics were the pariah of the New Order, lepers of religious stature, forever shunned and scorned for defying the will of the Gods.
It was no God that wielded that brand, thought Avery. Though in truth, he had to admit that at least the heat of the brand had to have been magical in nature since no fire had been started to heat it. The iron had been leaning against the alter, not in a bed of coals or any other visible means of heating it. For all intents and purposes, the metal should have been cool to the touch, but once in contact with Avery’s flesh, his skin had blistered and hissed as if it had recently been pulled from a furnace.
Yet regardless of whether it was mortal or Godly design, the end result was the same. The power of the brand through the perception of those who saw it was to effectively ostracize Avery from every community, from every habitated domicile, from any form of civilization. Occasionally, he could get aid from servants of the Old Gods who had refused to bend to the will of the New Order, but for the most part, Avery had to rely upon himself to survive. If he could not catch, trap or steal it, he went without. And far too often, that meant going hungry or staying cold.
It was a rare night when Avery could enjoy the luxury of a sheltered bed. Even the cold, drafty loft where he presently had secured himself should have been exquisite to him, even with all its imperfections. Yet somehow the place roused new anxieties within him that he had not anticipated. This was not the first time he had stolen into an empty building at night, either. It was not a common thing, but not so uncommon, either. So why was he so on edge tonight in this place?
There! Avery sat bolt upright with the urgency of the feeling. There was someone – or something – in the dark, in here with him! He had for a moment felt the tingle of recognition, not quite heard a soft sound just beyond what he would normally have been able to hear. He felt it more as an absence of real sound than anything truly audible, but he could not mistake that something was out there in the dark…
Avery could feel the dampness on his forehead, the breeze chilling the perspiration against his skin. He shivered as the cold, nettling tingles ran once again down his spine. He realized his jaw was clenched, but when he tried to relax it, his teeth began to chatter so badly he was forced to clench his jaw again to stop them. Then, of course, the chattering echoed out into his body and he began to tremble all over.
If someone were down below in the forge and heard him, there would be little he could do to escape. The opening he had crawled through had been precarious at best to reach in the waning light of day. At night, he would break his neck trying to climb down, even if he were not in such a hurry to get away.
He had been beaten before for trespassing. The laws of society did not punish heretics – they were, after all, nonentities – but they did not protect them either. The laws of the New Order may have prohibited outright killing of a heretic, but they tended to turn a blind eye to beatings. A property owner affronted by a heretic could meet out any punishment they desired, short of death, as consequence for any crime committed by a heretic without fear of reprisal. Heretics were considered nonexistent; They were not members of society, but something society was plagued with, nevertheless. To see a heretic was seen as an affront, but to be victimized by one was inexcusable.
The New Order encouraged harsh treatment of its outcasts and made it a matter of doctrine to punish those whom it had set aside to be persecuted. It was not only acceptable to treat heretics with malicious contempt, it was divinely ordained! All the ills of society could be heaped upon the heretics, all the pent-up hostilities people faced everyday could be vented their way. It did not matter that that very treatment was what necessitated the need of a heretic to steal and trespass in order to simply survive in the first place – what mattered was that the priests of these new Gods had villains to blame the woes the people suffered under their doctrines upon.
So Avery fully knew the consequences he would face if he were discovered in the loft. And suddenly his fear of being discovered outweighed his need for a secure place to sleep for the night. He was possessed with a great urgency to get out of that place before whatever it was moving around at the edge of his senses in turn caught hint of his presence, as well.
He could not leave by the way he had come in, though. Not in the dark. He would have to crawl down from the loft into the main work area of the blacksmith’s shop. And whatever lurked just outside his ability to detect could just as easily be below as outside.
Avery tried to control his shaking as he gathered up the blanket he had rolled out upon the damp straw. It was ratty and worn, with probably just as much mold in its fabric as the hay it lay upon, but he could not leave it behind, no matter his urgency. It would be all that existed between him and the cold that he would now have to sleep in outside. And besides, it was his oldest remaining possession.
Once the blanket was rolled into a small, tight bundle – the cord he had once had to tie it had broken days ago – Avery threw his satchel over his left shoulder, using his right arm to carry the blanket roll. Once he was in a more lighted area, he could try to find something to lash the two bundles together, but that was simply something he could not spare the time for here. True, there may well have been old string or cord from hay bails in the loft, but he would have spent far too much time feeling around in the dark than he could afford. It was far more important to get out of the building before his sense of dread overwhelmed him and he bolted recklessly into flight. Yet he needed stealth to win free without detection, no matter how strong the urge to panic really was. Running blindly through the dark would only decrease his chance of escape, and escape he desperately wanted to do.
Slowly, Avery crept to the edge of the loft and looked into the room below. A soft orange glow could still be seen around the edges of the kiln door where the blacksmith smelted his ore. During the day, that furnace would be the sole source of heat for the entire operation. Now it contained little more than embers and its warmth only emanated a few feet from its door.
As Avery paused in his wait, he cast back over a memory of a time when he had slipped into a foundry and had the opportunity to watch a smith at work. That had been a blacksmith shop of somewhat more repute than this one, for certain. That had been a maker of fine weapons and armor. Yet he had been fascinated with what he saw, and though Avery had understood little of the actual procedures he had witnessed, he had walked away from the experience with a rich appreciation for the metalworker bending raw elements to his will.
The erstwhile trespasser strained his ears, listening for anything that would betray the presence of a sentry or fellow trespasser. After several minutes, he still was not convinced that he was truly alone, but he could not make himself wait any longer to escape.
Avery carefully tossed down his satchel and blanket roll, tensing in the dark as they each made a soft impact on the dirt floor below. Again he waited, this time to see if anything stirred in response, but only for a few seconds this time. With care, he lowered himself bodily over the ledge, holding on by his hands alone for a moment before dropping lightly to the ground himself.
Avery reached out and slowly pulled his bundles closer to him, straining to hear if his movements had been noticed before moving towards the back wall in search of an exit. He would prefer not to leave by the front door that faced the main street through the town if he could help it. And besides, leaving by the rear would put him closer to the edge of town, if he was not mistaken.
It took him several minutes in the dark shadows of the shop to finally locate the back service door and several more anxious minutes trying to undo the fastenings that held the door closed. He could only go by feel in the darkness, and with each passing moment, his own anxiety worked more and more against him as his fingers became less focused on the task, more desperate. Somehow though he finally felt the catch release and a quick press against the door opened his way to the outside world. He waited not a heartbeat in lurching out the door into the night air.
In the shadow of the building, Avery glanced furtively in either direction, trying to recall in his mind which direction the edge of town, and the safety of a wooded grove he had seen upon entering, would lay.
“Hey there!” came a voice out of the darkness. Avery froze, hoping that the voice’s owner were not calling to him. His hopes were cast down though as two figures emerged into the moonlight and made quickly for him. “I see you there,” called one of the men approaching. “What were you doing in Master Kinsel’s forge?”
Avery abandoned all pretense and fled into the night. He could hear the two giving case, but he did not dare turn back to see how closely. All he knew in his panic was the need to keep moving. He had been seen exiting the shop and no explanation would win him free if he were caught. One glimpse of his brand would condemn him.
The full moon cast its light upon the sleeping town, making him an easy target to follow. Avery cursed his misfortune as he tried weaving in and out of shadows in his flight. Tonight, of all nights, had near perfect light to see by, with clear sky and a pie-sized orb shining down upon the land. He quickly changed his mind about trying for the shadows though and counted at least one blessing in his favor as he saw the edge of the treeline appear before him as he rounded a corner. At least he had run in the right direction. He could just as easily have set off into the heart of town!
The woods offered less shelter than he had hoped, however. As he crossed under their boughs, the moonlight cast a seemingly unnatural glow amongst the trunks of the trees. Avery ran full on for several minutes before he heard the sound of his pursuers’ footfalls on the leaves carpeting the ground. He could also hear at least three voices calling between themselves as they came. Someone else had joined in chase, apparently. At this rate, Avery fretted that a mob would be searching the woods before daybreak. And what were his chances of escape then?
Avery became acutely aware of the sound of his own feet making crashing noises through the underbrush and realized those behind him were following his flight by ear more than anything else. Yet he feared to stop lest they overtake him. He still was unsure exactly how far behind the men were. There did not seem to be a solution one way or the other…
Without warning, something drew his attention to the side as he ran. With a compulsion he did not at all understand, he dove toward whatever had called his attention without even knowing what it was nor why he should. In a moment of clarity, he recognized the foolishness of what he had just done, but he was by now on his belly in the underbrush. All he could do was pick himself up and frantically scurry for cover before his pursuers caught up to him.
As he scrambled backward in panic, Avery’s hand unexpectedly came upon something cold and hard under the leaves. His first impulse was to pull back as though he had been struck, so sudden was the icy contact. However, some dim awareness recognized the feel of worked metal and quickly moved to uncover the object, momentarily forgetting the peril of his circumstances.
The leaves were several inches thick here, the underlying layers already in decomposition. But the metal knob of the object that he had felt proved to be an easy guide, as his hands worked quickly around a large root that the object seemed wedged under. In the moonlight, the object soon took on definition and he recognized it for what it was.
“It’s a sword,” he marveled in awe before he thought better of it. The object thrusting from below the tree root proved to be a finely worked sword pommel, the hand and guard of the sword protruding up out of the ground. The pommel was ebon black, visibly unmarked in any way, with the fine silver of the metal at its end glinting brightly in the moonlight. It appeared possible that the tree had grown around the sword as it had lain upon the ground, or possibly even that the sword had been pushed upwards to the surface by the tree’s roots. Yet the handle itself looked clean and unmarred, giving the appearance of being freshly cleaned and oiled.
“I heard him over this way!” came a voice from somewhere close by in the woods. Avery scolded himself for letting the words slip from his tongue, for now he could see the shadow of his pursuers moving through the trees toward where he knelt hidden in the brush. But he would not stay hidden long. There was not enough brush to hide him from direct line of sight.
Without thinking, Avery’s hand gripped the pommel and gave a hard pull. He could not have expected the sword to have come clean all at once from its resting place, but Avery somehow had thought it might do just that. The sword, however, seemed possessed of a different mind and remained embedded below the tree root, though he thought he felt it give some all the same. He realized instantly that one of the guards was hooked below the root, stopping the sword from coming clear. Briefly, his mind cast back to the solid muscles of the smith he had watched make just such a sword once, wishing he possessed even a fraction of that raw power now that he needed it most.
Casting caution aside lest his prize be lost, Avery rose to squat over the sword, leaning his back against the tree, pulling with all his might as he twisted the pommel to try to clear the sword from its earthen home.
It came as a shock with the sword did pull free. Avery sat shocked, finding himself leaning against the tree with a five foot blade of polished steel wielded dangerously mere inches from his face. It took a moment to recognize that the sword was in his own hands, not those of someone else. The sword’s sheathe lay half-exposed, still in the ground where it had also come partly clear before the sword withdrew from its confines enough to leave it behind.
Avery’s sense of accomplishment was short lived though as one of his pursuers came into view, turning directly toward him, their eyes meeting through the branches of a large bush. “I see him!” the man called, momentarily slipping behind a tree as he moved to weave around the thicket between he and his quarry.
It suddenly occurred to Avery how he would appear to the men chasing him: a heretic squatting in the dark wielding a great sword menacingly in front of him to ward off his antagonists. He had only made his dilemma worse. Not only did he possess no skill with a blade whatsoever, it was forbidden for a heretic to even possess such a weapon, much less threaten others with it!
Oh Gods! he thought. They’ll think I stole it from the smith!
Avery closed his eyes, his mind racing over what to do. The smart choice would have been to throw down the sword and run again, but he could not get his body to comply. Instead, he sat rooted to the spot in fear, unable to even lower the blade so it did not seem so threatening.
Oh, please don’t see me! Avery thought hopelessly. Let this be a bad dream! I’m not here. Don’t see me! Don’t hear me! Please, don’t find me!
A strange tingle scratched at his palm, making Avery shift the sword in his grasp. Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the other man standing right over him. Avery quivered in his position, pushing himself up against the tree as if he could hide in the grooves of the tree’s bark.
“Where did you see him?” came a voice further away.
“He was right here,” came the thundering response, directly over the top of him. Now Avery could hear the man’s heavy breathing, smell the odor of his sweat. “He was hiding right here beside this tree! I saw him!”
Avery hesitantly opened his eyes, afraid the man was only teasing him with some horribly cruel joke. Just as his other senses had confirmed, the man stood directly at his side, breathing hard, leaning his hands upon his knees as he caught his breath.
“That little pest can move, I’ll give him that,” breathed the man as a second came out of the woods, followed shortly by a third. Both of the newcomers cast their glances directly at where Avery huddled by the tree and moved on, searching the surrounding trees as though they had not seen him at all!
How is this possible? screamed the voice of reason in Avery’s mind. There was not even shadow enough to cover his backside here and the sword clearly glistened as it reflected the light of the moon. How could they not see him?
It was a game. It had to be. They were waiting for him to relax, to drop his guard and lower the sword. Then they would pounce on him and beat him mercilessly.
Avery’s legs began to cramp and he slowly edged himself upward with his back still firmly pressed against the tree. He stood there watching as the three men made as if to search the surrounding woods, seeming to take great effort to listen for any telltale sign that would reveal where their quarry had gone.
Maybe if I surrendered, they would not hurt me as badly, thought Avery miserably. Not giving himself time to reconsider the sensibility of his plan, he lowered the sword, still hoping against reason that he genuinely was unseen and that some great magic guarded him from their sight.
His pursuers’ reactions did not change, even after Avery knelt and placed the sword across his knees in submission. His heart beat madly against his chest as he opened his hands and splayed them before him to prove he was not otherwise armed.
“I think we’ve lost him, Strom,” said one of the men, addressing the first.
The first man nodded reluctantly. “I think you are right,” he sighed. “I don’t much like leaving the little thief to wander and possibly break into another place, this time perhaps some family’s home, not knowing the harm he could do. But there is no doubting that he has gotten himself cleanly away from us this night.”
Casting one last hopeful glance around him, Strom turned and led his fellows back through the woods towards the town, leaving a terrified and mystified young man alone in the dark.
Avery’s eyes immediately fell upon the sword as soon as the men’s footfalls could no longer be heard. It lay distinctively outlined against the leaves where it overlapped his legs. He then cast his glance to the half-exposed sheathe lying partly bent as its stiff material lay revealed to the night. What brand of magic is this?
His hands shook as he knelt down to pull the sheathe free from the earth. It offered no resistance and his hands marveled at how clean and smooth the leather seemed to his hand. His fingers brushed over the ridges, noticing that the leather was embossed with fine, intricate designs all along its length. His eyes drew back to the sword, now lying upon the ground where he had knelt, where he could also see matching designs etched flawlessly into the blade.
As he bent to pick up the sword, Avery noticed a mark he had previously not seen on the pommel. In fact, he had been quite sure before he had drawn the blade that the pommel had been completely smooth and unmarked. Yet now, there was clearly an embossed ivory die upon the pommel with a single red pit in its center.
“One,” he muttered.
“So, if you’re the first,” he addressed the sword, holding it up to shine brilliantly in the moonlight, “how many others are there like you in the world, I wonder?”
About the Author:
Ron Glick (born January 20, 1969) is a community activist, and is presently active in several charitable enterprises – including running a safe and sober gaming program called GameHearts (http://GameHearts.org). He was born in Plainville, KS. After living in various states, he currently lives in Kalispell, MT. He is unmarried, with ambitions to someday change that. He is the author of The Godslayer Cycle, Chaos Rising and Oz-Wonderland series, and he is presently writing the second novel of the Oz-Wonderland series, Dorothy Through the Looking Glass.