PROLOGUE – RISE OF A FANATIC
The old man collapsed to his knees on the cold marble floor, clasping his hands together and begging. Tears streamed down his face as he stared fearfully at Ziyaad Salim. “Please, please, do not kill me,” the old man mumbled.
Mahdi found it difficult to watch. He, like so many others, had been raised to respect and honour the Elders of Cubra, yet here one of them begged for his life, spit dribbling down his mouth as he cried. Mahdi glanced at the others. Though their faces were hidden, he saw the unwavering loyalty in their eyes to Salim.
Salim drew his curved knife, the golden hilt glinting in the firelight. “You do not deserve life.” His voice dripped with venom. With unflinching speed, Salim buried the knife in the Elder’s chest. With a final jagged breath, the man fell to the floor, his blood pooling beneath him.
Wiping his blade clean on the Elder’s robe, Salim looked at Mahdi. “Has there been any word yet on Malak?”
Mahdi shook his head. “No, not yet. The last I heard was that the palace guard had barricaded themselves with the High Elder.”
“A futile display of defiance.” Salim rummaged through the robes of the Elder, pulling out a silver coin. He showed it to Mahdi. “Do you see? Greed fills their hearts, not faith or belief. Their pockets line with coin, while their people, my people, starve.”
Mahdi took the coin, turning it over with his blood-stained fingers. It was not a coin used in these lands, but in the South. The object brought horrifying memories of his family, butchered by those that called themselves sophisticated. With anger he tossed the coin aside, clattering loudly on the marble floor.
He followed Salim outside to the balcony, overlooking the burning city. Screams pierced the night as fires raged, burning buildings to the ground. Mahdi felt ash land on his face, carried up by the hot air.
“What do you see, my friend?” Salim asked calmly.
“I see the faithless killed for their crimes. I see the sinners punished for all to see. I see…” Mahdi felt the urge to say he could see his city, his home, burning but he stopped himself. “…I see many things,” he added quietly.
Salim nodded. “Yes, there is much to see. But I see more than that. I see corruption rooted out from our homeland. Word will spread, and all who live in Noshi will know that the false gods have been driven from our lands. Shuma rules the desert, and I am his prophet.”
Mahdi listened to Salim, feeling admiration fill his heart. The image of the Elder quickly disappeared from his mind.
The large, thick doors at the back of the hall slammed open, and a group of warriors marched in, led by a tall, muscular man. His face broke with a cruel smile as he saw Salim. As they embraced each other, Salim said, “Malak! Did you find him?”
“Yes, my friend.” Malak barked a command, and the group of warriors parted, showing the High Elder standing in the center, bloodied and bruised, his soft robes ripped. He stumbled as a warrior pushed him forwards.
“High Elder,” Salim bowed.
The old man did not return it. “What have you done, Salim?” His voice was hard and stern, as if a parent disciplining a child.
“I am saving my people.”
“You are butchering them! Men, women and children, dying in the streets, and all for what? Power? Dominance? You are above such desires.”
Mahdi glanced at Salim, whose face was blank without expression. “The faithful die unjustly under your rule. I am saving them. If you cannot see that, then you are as corrupt as our enemies.”
“Enemies? And who are they?”
The High Elder blinked. “The Agarians? They are not our enemies…”
“They do not believe in Shuma; therefore, they are heretics and must be purged.”
“What?! They have a choice…”
“And their choice is to be heretics!” Salim screamed, silencing the High Elder. Salim pointed to outside. “Do you hear that? Do you hear them scream? That is what the Agarians do to my people, but you refuse to listen. Rape, murder, pillage, those are the tools Agarians adopt to subjugate the innocent, yet to their sympathisers they offer coin. Tell me, how long have you been pocketing from the suffering of my people from the Agarian scum?”
The High Elder’s face turned red. “They are my people too,” he said with a quivering voice.
“Not anymore.” As Salim drew his knife, Malak placed a hand on his shoulder. He whispered something into Salim’s ear. He nodded, and Malak clicked his fingers.
A warrior left, returning a few moments later with another prisoner, but this was no Noshien. His gold armour was smeared with blood and dirt, and his hands were bound. He ignored the sharp pushes of his captors as he strode towards Salim.
“Agarian filth,” Mahdi heard one of the Noshien say.
“Who are you?” Salim questioned the man.
The Agarian raised his chin. “My name is Officer Tasius, acting emissary on behalf of King Arcavius and the Kingdom of Agaria. I am here to discuss new trade opportunities.”
Salim spat on the ground. “A likely tale from Agarian swine.”
“It is the truth.”
“Truth? You believe your own lies. I will not believe them.”
“Listen to the man!” the High Elder begged. “He tells the truth!”
“And why should I believe anything you say? You and your temple are paid with Agarian coin. I will not listen to this.” Salim walked away, towards the balcony.
But the Agarian, Tasius, spoke out. “I request safe passage out of your city.”
All eyes turned on the man, then to Salim, who turned around very slowly. “What did you say?”
“I said I request safe passage. I am an emissary, and therefore exempt from having any action taken against me. I will of course report to King Arcavius of what has happened here, and we will allow you to settle your affairs, however if I am to come to any harm, I guarantee it will be looked upon most sourly.”
No one spoke, the only sounds coming from the screams outside. Mahdi could not believe how cool and arrogant the Agarian was, even when surrounded by those who hated him. He felt a sudden urge to remove the man’s head from his body.
Then came the unexpected. Salim laughed. It was hoarse and deep and took everyone by surprise. He turned to Malak. “Was he with anyone else?”
“Yes. Four warriors were with him, but one escaped. I have men searching the city for him.”
“Hmm. Come with me,” he said to the Agarian.
Tasius glanced around uncertainly, until he was forced to step forwards by the men behind him. Both Salim and Tasius stood on the balcony, with Mahdi and Malak behind, watching closely.
“I respect your courage, Officer Tasius. Many men would cower beneath my ferocity, yet you would stand tall against me. Tell me, is this a quality of all Agarians?”
“To stand up against a threat? Yes,” Tasius replied confidently.
Salim nodded. “Thank you for your honesty.” Tasius bent over and groaned as Salim punched his knife into the Agarian’s belly. Salim twisted the blade, making Tasius groan with pain.
“I… cannot be… harmed…” Tasius tried to say, until Salim withdrew the blade and threw Tasius over the balcony. His scream was cut short as he hit the ground.
“Bring the other one,” Salim demanded, and the High Elder was brought forth. The old man’s face was white with fear. “Is there anything you wish to say?”
The High Elder swallowed. “Only this. You have damned us all. I have kept the peace with the Agarians for decades, keeping our people safe from their ambitions. What you have done is an act of war, and that will only mean death for our people. My only wish, is that you will face the people’s wrath when it comes.”
Salim gave the old man a cold look. “Finished?” The High Elder gave a nod, and it was the last thing he ever did. Salim drove his knife into the High Elder’s throat, savagely slicing through skin and muscle and bone until the head was removed. Blood covered his face.
Holding the severed head by the long white hair, Salim gave a wide smile and hoisted the head into the air. “At last, the corrupted have been wiped away from our city! Now begins the purification of Erea!”