“You need to go, and go quickly.”
Jamana looked up to see Master Korda’s imposing shape looming in his doorway. Since their arrival in Tenjkidi five days ago, his mentor had barely spoken to him, let alone come to his room. Jamana scrambled to his feet from behind the desk.
Master Korda glanced out into the hallway, but did not move any further. He shifted his feet, appearing almost nervous, a concept Jamana had never associated with this man.
“Go where, Master?”
“Back to Zes Sivas,” Korda answered. He took one more look down the hallway, then entered the room. In two long strides, he stood beside the desk and in front of Jamana. He glanced down. A History of the Lords’ Betrayal lay open on the desk where Jamana had been studying it. “And take this book with you. Neither of you are safe here any more.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Must I spell everything out for you?” Master Korda bent over the book and paged through it. Finding the page he sought, he pointed to a paragraph. Jamana looked down and read it. He started out loud, but Master Korda hushed him, so he continued silently.
“Prior to the Great Cataclysm, all of the nations boasted their own gods. These were dark times. The gods were capricious, throwing nations into conflict at a whim, or demanding undue sacrifices. Akhenadom’s proclamation of a single god, one that loved his people, came as a great relief to many.”
Jamana looked up. In his time reading this book, the same theme had recurred multiple times: the dangers of the ancient gods of the early nations. And now, after a thousand years, those gods were returning. Two of them roamed this very palace. Of course the book was not safe. But why him?
Master Korda bent in close and spoke in a very low voice. “The remaining Masters on Zes Sivas must know about what is taking place here, and they are not responding to my messages. I don’t know if they’re even being received. You must go in my place and tell them all.”
Jamana nodded. “But why is it not safe?”
Master Korda closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he looked to the door once more and then back at Jamana’s face. “Because you, my acolyte, know the truth. You have a strong faith in Theon. I have noticed this about you. I do not believe you can remain silent for long in these conditions.”
Jamana hesitated. His faith in Theon had been strong a year ago. But so much had happened since then: the earth shaking, the murder of some of the Masters, Dravid’s injury, Volraag’s murder of Lord Sundinka. It seemed much harder to believe in a god who ruled over such chaos. Yet if the book were true, these “returning” gods were far worse.
“If anyone asks, I gave you permission to visit your family,” Master Korda said. He stepped back and spoke louder. “Pack your things and hurry on, acolyte. Things are happening that you will not want to miss!”
Jamana bowed his head and closed the book. As Master Korda left his room, a sense of urgency overtook him. He scrambled to find a satchel large enough to hold the book along with his few belongings. Within a few minutes, he finished packing, left his room, and made his way toward the palace doors.
“Why do you doubt, acolyte?”
Jamana almost jumped out of his skin. Komadi, the court mage, approached him from the palace doors. He gave his blue robes an extra flourish as he came to a stop.
“What do you mean?” Jamana asked. He shifted the satchel on his shoulder. Komadi eyed it before responding.
“I saw you approaching the doors with a bag, as if you were going somewhere. So I asked myself: why would anyone choose to leave when facing such historic and world-changing possibilities? The only answer I could come up with was… doubt.”
“Master Korda has given me permission to visit my family,” Jamana said. “I haven’t seen them in over a year now.” He felt a twinge inside, since that much was true. Actually visiting his family had vanished from his thoughts the moment they had entered the palace and met the gods.
Komadi studied him for a moment. The smile that spread across his face unnerved Jamana more than his challenge. Komadi had been instrumental in the arrival of the gods to Tenjkidi. He never stopped bragging about it. If Jamana were truly in danger, Komadi would be his most dangerous foe aside from the gods themselves.
“Family is important, even for we mages,” Komadi acknowledged. He started to turn, then paused as if struck by another thought. “Before you go, acolyte, I must show you something.” He took a few steps down an adjoining hallway and motioned for Jamana to follow.
Jamana glanced toward the palace doors, so near. He took a deep breath and turned to follow Komadi.
The other mage led him toward the east side of the palace. A sprawling construct, the palace contained more rooms than any building in existence, as far as Jamana knew. Perhaps the citadels on Zes Sivas would rival it, if they were counted as a single structure. But at least the layout of this palace made sense.
“As you know, other worlds adjoin ours,” Komadi said as they walked, speaking in an almost-condescending tone. “Harbinger and Nummotem speak of one close to ours, where the gods have chosen to dwell. It is from there they came to us.” He led the way up a flight of stairs to the second floor.
“The Otherworld,” Jamana said. “A friend of mine visited it.”
Komadi shot him a skeptical look. “When Nummotem came to us, he brought something else from that world,” he went on. He stopped walking and gestured down the hallway, where it ended in a balcony. “Come see.”
Jamana stepped past him, noting how Komadi’s eyes darted briefly toward his satchel. “What are we—” He broke off as he looked down from the balcony.
Below them lay a high-walled courtyard. At one time, it had no doubt housed a pleasant garden with walkways between flowering plants and shady trees. Several other such gardens lay at various points along the palace exterior. But this one had been torn apart. Trees lay split apart on the ground, their roots ripped from the earth. Flowers, grass and walking trails alike had been crushed beneath heavy footsteps. Claw marks decorated various points along the brick walls, some of them frighteningly close to the top.
And in the center of this devastation lay the creature responsible. Jamana’s hand trembled as he rested it on the balcony’s railing. He had seen large creatures during his travels, and his friend Dravid had regaled him with stories of even more down south in Kuktarma. But this… nothing he had seen or heard of compared.
The creature’s hairless skin appeared covered in large hexagonal scales with occasional rough protuberances. Its four legs lay under it as it rested, but not asleep. Its cat-like eyes moved back and forth above its curved snout. It looked more muscular than any creature Jamana knew. How did the walls even hold it in?
Seri. She had seen one of these when she visited the Otherworld. It terrified her then and it terrified Jamana now.
“Spectacular, isn’t it?” Komadi asked. “Such a monster of pure power. Yet it bows to Nummotem at a single word. Truly, only a god could control such a thing.”
“Amazing,” Jamana said, and meant it.
The creature rose to its feet and shook itself, cascading dirt all around. It took a few steps toward the palace, revealing three massive claws on each of its front feet.
“Tunaldi, they called it,” Komadi said. “The gods use them to ride… and to hunt.”
Komadi looked at Jamana and his smile returned. “When unleashed, the tunaldi can find sources of magic, or… those who use magic. They are relentless. Unstoppable. Yet totally within the control of the gods.”
Jamana could not repress a shudder.
“Yes, frightening. But also inspiring, don’t you think? That the gods could command such power. And they offer it to us to do with as we will.”
“What about the Laws?” Jamana said before thinking.
“The Laws of Cursings and Bindings?” Komadi snorted. “The gods are beyond them. And soon they will set us free from them as well.”
“Why would you want that?” Jamana exclaimed. “Do you want people able to harm others without consequences?”
Komadi rolled his eyes and sighed. “Acolyte, you have much to learn. For serious crimes, the gods themselves will execute punishment. There will be difficulties, of course, but the freedom offered by the gods is worth it. Freedom from the Laws. And freedom from Theon.”
“How can— but—” Jamana sputtered out. He didn’t know what to say in response. Of course some people hated the Laws, but he had always assumed those people to be the ones who would commit crimes if they were able. But freedom from Theon? The very idea was blasphemous.
“Think carefully, acolyte,” Komadi said, turning away with one last pointed look at the bag. “Enjoy your time with your family. But don’t be gone long. We have a pilgrimage to take.”
Jamana glanced down at the tunaldi, then started down the hall. His curiosity overtook him. “A pilgrimage to where?” he called.
Without looking back, Komadi answered, “To the high place in Kuktarma.”