Jamana and his traveling companion looked down at the coastline of Mandiata. The river flowed into Lake Litanu here, beside the city of Kombori. From their hilltop advantage, Jamana could see far out into the lake. Only two or three ships were visible out on the water, none of them moving very fast.
“Wind,” the old man murmured. “That is a sign. And not a good one.”
“What do you mean?”
The priest shook his head. “It means the end draws closer than we would hope. Unfortunately, it also means we must part ways here, young acolyte.”
“Already? Shouldn’t we enter the city first?”
“I am not going to the city. And neither should you, for that matter.”
“I shouldn’t?” Jamana felt foolish, repeating questions like this.
The old man smiled. He pointed back the way they had come. “Pursuit is coming. The city is the first place they will look for you.”
Jamana shifted in his saddle and stared back over his shoulder. He could see nothing along the road to Tjenkidi. How close was this pursuit?
“I told you that I did not have time to persuade everyone one at a time,” the priest said, looking down at the water. “And so, I will leave it to you to do some of the persuading.”
The strange old man turned his eyes on Jamana. “When you see the leper face-to-face, you must deliver my message to him. Not before, mind you. When you see him face-to-face.”
“You will understand.”
“But… what is the message?”
He held out a small scroll tied with a red ribbon. Jamana took it and looked it over, before slipping it into the bag with the book. Nothing this old man said ever made much sense.
“I will need my horse, I’m afraid.”
With some reluctance, Jamana dismounted and handed the reins of the horse to the priest. He had grown to enjoy riding the past couple of days. “Thank you for your assistance,” he said. “Where should I go, if not the city? I still need passage to Zes Sivas.”
The old man stared down at the coastline. His eyes moved along it toward the north, as if he could see much more than could reasonably be seen from this point. At last, he pointed that direction. “Go north along the coastline. In time, you will find the help that you need.”
Jamana scratched the side of his head. “That’s all? Just go north?”
“That will take care of everything, I believe.” The old man sat back, a satisfied look on his face. “Yes, that should do quite nicely.”
“Then… then I will bid you farewell.” Jamana pulled the bag with the book onto his shoulder. “Thank you again.”
He took several steps down the hill before the old man called out. “Wait!”
Jamana turned back. The priest dug into his large sack, moving through items Jamana could not see. “Just a moment.”
At last, he brought out something. “Ah, this should work.” He spurred the horse forward to catch up to Jamana, and offered the object down to him.
Jamana took it. He smelled it before his eyes confirmed it. “Bread?” It even felt warm beneath the cloth wrap. How was that possible?
“Yes. You may find it helpful.”
“Thank you…” Jamana opened one corner of the wrap. Bread. No question about it.
The old man spurred his horse and turned toward the south. Over his shoulder, he called, “We will meet again, young acolyte. We will meet again!”
Jamana circled the city to the north and reached the coastline, as the old man had advised. Every few moments, he couldn’t help but pause and look around. Somewhere nearby, Komadi was searching for him. Who else would it be? He had to avoid the other mage until… until he found the help the old man talked about.
He climbed over a sand dune bristling with tall weeds and slid down the other side. He stood and checked the book at his side. Then he looked up.
His heart sank. The coastline leading toward the north had to be the most inhospitable landscape he had ever seen. Uneven sand dunes covered in dense patches of weeds and tall grasses intermixed with rocks of all shapes and sizes. In some places, the vegetation seemed to shift from the sand to the rocks and back again without a break. How could he find his way through all this?
“You a priest or somethin’?”
Jamana tensed and swiveled toward the voice. To his relief, he saw a stranger. He looked like a beggar, perhaps, dressed in rags, hunched over as if he expected someone to attack him at any moment. Jamana breathed easier.
“You’re wearin’ robes.” The beggar gestured, and only then did Jamana notice he had no hands. Both arms ended in stumps.
“Mage,” Jamana said. “I’m a mage, not a priest.”
The beggar nodded, as if he understood. “You lookin’ to go that way?” He pointed with one of his stumps up the beach.
“Yes.” Jamana swallowed and looked back again. “I need to go that way.” It wasn’t the most articulate conversation he had ever been a part of, but he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“If you got any food, I can show you.”
Jamana pulled the bag tight against him as his breath caught. Food? He opened the bag, reached in, and brought out the loaf of bread the old man had given him. He looked at it, and for a moment considered putting it back and taking out some of the dry rations instead. But he knew that wouldn’t be right. He held the loaf out as an offering.
A slow smile spread across the beggar’s scruffy face. He moved carefully forward, as if afraid to startle his benefactor. He placed his two stumps on either side of the bread and took it. He cradled it between his arms, lifted it to his face and sniffed.
“Oh, that’s the good stuff, that is.” He somehow tucked the bread into a large pocket in his raggedy outfit. Then he pointed north. “This way, mage.”
Once the beggar started, he moved with surprising speed, guiding Jamana along a winding path he never would have found on his own. At times, it seemed to come to a complete end against a solid rock wall. The beggar would look around for a moment, mutter something, push aside a few weeds, and uncover the path’s continuation in another direction. Other times, it would lead into a patch of tall grass and disappear completely. The beggar pressed on, and when they emerged from the grass, the path waited for them on the other side. Amazing.
Equally amazing was the way the beggar maneuvered without any hands. He had no trouble scrambling over rocks and dunes alike, climbing up small inclines, pushing his way through the plant life. At one point, he led the way up a sheer cliff by bracing his stumps on either side of a narrow cleft in the rock and scooting his way up. Jamana had more trouble doing the same with his hands.
He wanted to ask the beggar’s story, but didn’t want to offend. After all, the beggar might leave him out here to fend for himself. He could never find his way through this maze alone. But why both hands? It could be some kind of horrific accident, of course. But it seemed rather unlikely. No, a curse would be the most likely explanation. Hands? Cursed for stealing something, no doubt. Something important.
They had been traveling for about an hour when a distant sound caused both of them to stop in their tracks. A roar echoed across the rocks, a roar unlike any of the wild beasts of this region. Though he had never heard it before, Jamana knew at once where it came from. The tunaldi.
“What is that?” the beggar demanded. He hunched down even smaller than his usual posture.
“It’s after me,” Jamana said. “Some kind of creature called a tunaldi. They’re trying to find me with it.”
“Why? What did you do?” The beggar took several steps back away.
“I am innocent of wrongdoing.” Jamana spread his hands. “If I had done evil, would I not be cursed? The man who guides this creature is serving evil, though I am thinking he does not fully understand it.”
The beggar took another step back, his eyes darting around. “How do I know? Maybe he’s in the right and you’re lyin’.”
Jamana lowered his chin and fixed his gaze on the beggar’s face. “I am a servant of Theon, and a friend to any other servant of Theon or lover of Antises,” he repeated the words the old man had used on him. “If that is not enough to convince you, I do not know what will.”
The beggar watched him for a few moments longer, then gave a short nod. “Good enough.” He turned and resumed his progress, though with a little more speed. Jamana followed with a sigh and a nervous glance back.
In time, Jamana and the beggar emerged from between two enormous rocks and looked down on an open beach. Smooth sand stretched along the water as far as the eye could reach.
“I think you can find your way from here,” the beggar said.
“Thank you,” Jamana answered. The beggar nodded and disappeared among the rocks and brush. Was he the help the old man had promised? If so, he hadn’t been around for very long. Jamana sighed, adjusted the bag on his shoulder and set out down the beach.
He soon discovered there was a trick to walking along a sandy beach. Too close to the water and his feet would stick and sink in the water-logged sand. Too far from the water, and the loose sand became even harder to walk through. He had to maintain just the right distance from the water’s edge to find the right consistency of sand upon which to walk.
Another roar echoed through the rocks behind. Jamana stumbled, looked back, and tried to pick up his pace. Had that roar been closer than the last one? It sounded louder. Or was that his imagination?
A few moments later, another roar reached his ears. Definitely closer.
Jamana spent so much time glancing over his shoulder, he failed to keep a watch on his path. An odd-shaped hole in the sand caught his left foot. He barely managed to get his hands in front of him to break his fall. The impact with the sand didn’t hurt much, but a sharp pain in his ankle did.
He lifted his face and stared down the beach. A haze hung over the sand, and the water shimmered. Gentle wavelets stirred the surface as they flowed in. A pair of dark figures pulled a rowboat to shore in the distance. Or did they? He blinked and didn’t see them any more. The haze seemed to grow.
“Jamana!” The voice rang out behind him. He climbed to one knee and looked back.
The tunaldi perched like an enormous lizard atop one of the last rocks. Two figures sat on its back. Jamana could not make them out, but the voice had sounded familiar.
Jamana moaned and scrambled to his feet. He tried to run, but the pain in his ankle almost made him fall again. He limped with excruciating slowness. The moisture fled from his mouth.
He glanced back. The tunaldi bounded down from the rock and raced across the beach. It would overtake him in a matter of moments.
He looked ahead and blinked. The rowboat and the two figures. They did exist, and they were closer than he had thought. He faltered toward them, reaching out a hand in supplication.
Something struck him from behind and he plowed into the sand again. Caught by surprise, he didn’t break his fall this time. He spit sand and tried to push up again. The weight struck him again, but this time it pressed down, forcing his entire body down into the wet sand. Water soaked into his robe and chilled his skin.
“Careful! We want the book he carries.” That voice had to be Komadi, but it came from so high above.
Jamana struggled against the unbearable weight. Water and sand pushed past his lips and into his mouth. Every time he tried to push himself up, he succeeded only in digging his hands down deeper.
A roar slammed against his ears with immense pressure, and the weight on his back vanished. Jamana flailed until he got his face up, spitting sand and gasping for air.
“If you can move, do it!” an unfamiliar voice yelled.
Jamana struggled to pull himself out of the sand, and glanced back. The tunaldi stood only a couple of feet away, though it held one front leg off the ground as if injured. He could now see Komadi on its back, along with… was that Harbinger? Wonderful. He had been chased down by a monster, a mage, and a god.
But a young man stood between Jamana and the creature. A gold-trimmed red cloak hung down his back beneath long blond hair. In his right hand, he held a sword dripping with blood; in his left, he spun an odd-looking flail. “Been wanting to fight one of these since Talinir did it,” he muttered.
“Are you insane?” demanded Harbinger. “You think to stand against one of the tunaldi?”
In response, the monster roared and lunged forward at the young man. He dodged to the side with surprising speed. A quick swipe with his sword didn’t seem to do much damage, but he grinned all the same. From this angle, Jamana could see pale skin and a short beard. Rasnian or Varioch? A long way from home, either way.
Jamana pulled his bag out of the sand and managed to get to his feet, though his ankle continued to throb with pain.
The tunaldi swiped at the annoying warrior with its massive claws. One of them snagged the edge of the cloak and pulled loose the gold trim.
“Now look what you’ve done! I really like this cloak.”
Jamana tried to blink sand out of his eyes. Who was this man? And did he really think he could take on this monster? Jamana took a halting step backward. As he did, his magical senses kicked in. He almost lost his balance again. An overwhelming source of power reverberated right behind him.
Before he could turn around, a hand rested on his shoulder. “Will you be all right, acolyte?” The voice sounded odd, as if the speaker didn’t fully understand how to pronounce each word. Jamana turned his head and looked at another young man, short and also fair-skinned, but horribly scarred across his face.
“A little help here?” the blond warrior called.
The scar-faced man turned toward the conflict. “I thought you wanted to fight it.”
The warrior dodged another lunge from the tunaldi, but lost his balance and fell. He scrambled backward on the sand. “Some of us don’t have a warpsteel blade!” he yelled.
“Wait!” Harbinger touched the creature from above and it came to a stop. He stared at the scarred man.
“What are you doing?” Komadi demanded.
In response, Harbinger swung his leg over the side and slid down from the creature’s back. He approached the scarred man with arms spread out. “Great one!” he exclaimed. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am—”
“You look like Forerunner. Are you like him?” the scarred man interrupted.
“Forerunner is one of my order. He—”
“Not any more. He’s dead.” The scarred man looked up at Komadi. “You’d better get down too. This creature does not belong in our world, and I’m not going to let it stay.”
“You?” Komadi seemed about to argue, but then gave a sudden intake of breath. Maybe he finally sensed what Jamana had from the start: the scarred man held an unbelievable amount of power within, power beyond that of a Lord, even. Maybe more than the gods. Komadi scrambled down, though not as gracefully as Harbinger. The tunaldi stood still, eyeing all of them, but poised to attack if given the order.
“Ah, this creature belongs to Nummotem, god of Mandiata,” Harbinger said. “I do not think he would be pleased if anything were to happen to it.”
“I don’t care.” The scarred man pointed at the ground beneath the tunaldi. Jamana felt vibrations through the air as unleashed power flowed from the man’s outstretched arm. The sand exploded outward in all directions. Jamana shielded his face with his arm, but tried to keep watching.
The tunaldi roared in surprise and anger. It attempted to leap forward, but its back legs had already sunk down into the moving sand. Its front legs scrambled for solid ground, but found none. In only a few moments, all four legs had disappeared into the sand. Water flowed in from the lake, and the tunaldi continued to sink. Its roars changed tone from anger to fear. Jamana turned away and tried to plug his ears. The sound was horrible, but it didn’t last long. When the sound stopped, Jamana looked back. The scarred man lowered his arm. No sign remained of the tunaldi, buried beneath the wet sand of the beach that rippled beneath a new shallow inlet.
For a moment, no one spoke. The blond warrior moved up next to the scarred man. “All right, I’ll admit it. That was impressive. I expected you to just blow it away.”
“Seri said I need to learn new ways to use my power. I’m trying.”
Did he say Seri?
“Your greatness,” Harbinger said, finding his voice. “We seem to have an unnecessary conflict here. This acolyte stole an item from the royal palace, and we were merely trying to recover it. He—”
“I know who you are.” The scarred man glared into Harbinger’s face. “You are not wanted in this world any more than that creature. Leave now, before I send you to join it.”
Komadi pulled on Harbinger’s sleeve. He hesitated only a moment before nodding and joining the mage in a quick retreat down the beach.
The scar-faced man turned and looked up at Jamana. “Are you all right?” he repeated.
“I am well, thanks to you,” Jamana said. “You are… I have so many questions. I do not know which one to ask first.”
The warrior laughed. “Pick one. And then let’s head for the boat. We should get off this beach, just in case.”
“Did you mention the name Seri?”