Series: The Small Gods #1
Published by Paper Gold Publishing Ltd on 25th January 2015
Amazon UK, Amazon US
A hundred times a hundred seasons have turned since the Goddess banished the Small Gods to the sky, leaving the land to mankind alone.
For Prince Teryk, life behind the castle walls is boring and uneventful until he stumbles upon an arcane scroll in a long-forgotten chamber. The parchment speaks of Small Gods, the fall of man, and the kingdom’s savior—the first-born child of the rightful king. It’s his opportunity to prove himself to his father, the king, and assure his place in history. All he needs to do is find the man from across the sea—a man who can’t possibly exist—and save mankind.
But ancient magic has been put in motion by a mysterious cult determined to see the Small Gods reborn. Powerful forces clash, uncaring for the lives of mortals in their struggle to prevent the return of the banished ones, or aid in their rebirth.
Named in a prophecy or not, what chance does a cocky prince who barely understands the task laid before him stand in a battle with the gods?
It rained fire the day the Small Gods fled.
Balls of flame fell from the sky, shattering homes and skulls alike, burning gardens and turning forests to ash, setting alight both farmers’ fields and farmers’ lives with disregard. Much later, it would be said the Goddess banished them for their wicked ways, but on that day, the Small Gods were naught but men and women afraid for their lives. In the eyes of history and legend, the width of the line between banishment and flight is thin.
“Watch out!” the priestess Rak’bana shouted, ducking behind Love—one of the granite Pillars of Life.
A ball of flame hammered into the earth with a spray of dirt and the stench of burnt grass. She covered her head, waiting for the ground to cease shaking before she peeked out from behind her arm to find her twin brother. Ine’vesi peered back at her from around the corner of the next column in the row of nine—Trust.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
The crackle of flames all but kept his voice from her ears, but they were well enough connected she knew what he’d ask without needing to hear. She nodded in response and he crept out from behind the column, the roll of parchment in his hand.
“Time is short, Vesi,” she said. “The Goddess is angry.”
Ine’vesi made no effort to hide the sneer upon his lips as he hurried across the ruined garden to her side. Before he opened his mouth to spill out the blaspheme imprinted on his brow, she raised her hand and gestured with her fingers. A thick stream of water the height of five men rose from the river and flowed across the air. It splashed into the newly lit fire with a hiss of doused flames and white steam billowing toward the sky. Another ball of fire crashed into the top edge of the nearest wall, sending chunks of stone tumbling to the ground. The twin siblings ducked their heads.
“We have to go,” she urged.
“Out of the city.” Ine’vesi brandished the roll of parchment. “Once we have inscribed the scroll, it will not be safe here. The wrong hands will find it.”
A fiery ball crashed into the base of a towering pine, its flames leaping up the trunk, spreading through its branches, jumping to the next tree like a playful squirrel, then skipping to the next. Rak’bana raised her hand again, intending to call the river and extinguish the fire to save her garden, but Ine’vesi caught her by the wrist.
“Let it burn, Bana. Let it be a testament to the unjust wrath of a jealous Goddess.”
The priestess’ eyes widened and she shook her head, unable to comprehend why he’d speak such blasphemous words. She pulled her hand free of his grip and faltered back a step toward the river.
“You are a priest, Vesi. You know as well as I that we have brought this on ourselves. Righteous anger falls from the sky, not jealousy. The Goddess gives what is deserved.”
Another ball slammed into the pine. The great tree leaned with a creak of wood, bending slowly at first, then the trunk split with a crack louder than thunder, and the tree that had grown in the courtyard for a dozen hundred seasons toppled, spilling flame across the dry grass. The fire raced toward the siblings, fueled by a swirling fireball, then another. A third pelted the ground, the closest yet, and the impact threw Ine’vesi into his sister, his momentum carrying them both into the river.
The frigid water clung to Rak’bana as she clutched her brother, and the red rage of the Goddess’ flames shone through the shimmering river. She understood that, if they surfaced, the fire would hunt them mercilessly, never giving up until the blaze consumed them. Deserving of the Goddess’ wrath or not, the priestess could not let that happen before they’d completed their task.
She held Ine’vesi tight to her chest and swirled her free hand, manipulating the water around them to increase the river’s current. It bore them away from the garden, away from the courtyard, but the red and orange glow above them brightened and the water grew warmer, heated by the anger of the Goddess. Worry burned in Rak’bana’s chest along with her held breath—if they didn’t leave their warning, this would all happen again. They’d both seen it in their dreams.
The water shivered around them as the Pillars of Life toppled, thumping to the ground. Ine’vesi jerked in her grasp, fighting the current and the heat, but she held him and gestured again. The river flowed faster, carrying them along like autumn leaves fallen from a dying tree, dragging them on until the light disappeared.
They’d entered the channel beneath the temple.
The river cooled again, but Rak’bana held them under, allowing the raging current to carry them deep into the heart of the temple and away from the Goddess’ fury. Only when her breath threatened to explode in her lungs did she allow the river to bear them to the surface. Ine’vesi’s head emerged from the water and he gasped a ragged, angry breath.
“Are you trying to aid the Goddess in killing me?”
“I saved you, ingrate.” The priestess stroked toward the side of the channel, pulling her brother along behind. “You should thank me for not letting you burn.”
They reached the side and she hooked her arm over the edge, pulled Ine’vesi close to allow him to do the same. No light penetrated so far into the tunnel, leaving them in utter darkness, but she knew the door to be directly in front of them; she sensed it as surely as she sensed her brother at her side.
“One way or another, you were going to get me here, weren’t you?” he said, pulling himself out of the water to stand on the narrow stone path beside the channel.
“You know it must be here.” She climbed up alongside him, rested the palm of her hand against the door.
“It won’t be safe here, Bana. The scroll might fall into any hands. It must go to Teva Stavoklis.”
Rak’bana hesitated before opening the door. They’d had this discussion and thought they’d decided the matter, but it appeared Ine’vesi remained unconvinced. Her mouth opened to argue the point, but the stone of the tunnel shook minutely with an impact to the building above them, stopping her.
“Come,” she said instead, and pushed the door open.
The pristine chamber beyond gleamed, its white marble walls and soaring granite pillars flickering with the orange light shining through the high windows. Rak’bana hurried into the room and down the three steps to the floor, sparing a brief glimpse for the massive suits of armor standing guard beside each of the four columns.
“Hurry,” she said as she swept across the chamber toward her goal at the far end: a marble lectern that sprang up out of the floor as though carved of the same block of stone.
Droplets of water fell from her hair and dress, spattering on the smooth marble. The air in the room smelled old and unused, as well it should; no one had entered this room since the building of the temple. Thousands upon thousands of times the sun had risen and set, shining its light through the high windows, and the Sek’bala had stood watch beside the gray and white flecked granite columns, but no foot had touched the floor until Rak’bana’s. The immensity of it was not lost on her but, with fire falling from the sky to spread the Goddess’ punishment, no time for emotion and awe remained.
She reached the podium and glanced back across the room at her brother near the entrance. Ine’vesi stood motionless, staring at the imposing guards with their horned helmets and gleaming weapons.
“Vesi,” she cried, waving for him to join her. “Bring the parchment.”
He set one foot in front of the other and crossed the room slowly without tearing his gaze away from the Sek’bala. Outside the sanctuary, something rumbled. Rak’bana raised her eyes to the high windows, the flicker of flames shining through the narrow frames. Vesi had paused halfway to her, the roll of paper dripping as he held it out toward her.
Time is running short.
The priestess came around the lectern and jumped down the three stairs to the floor, her sandals slapping wetly on the white marble. The time for waiting and marveling had passed.
“Give it to me, Vesi.” She held out her hand, expectant. “We must speak the words to prevent this from happening again.”
Her fingers brushed the edge of the paper, felt its roughness, its power, but then it disappeared. Ine’vesi pulled it away and glared at her, his brows drawn together.
“Prevent it?” he asked, incredulous. The priest shook his head without removing his gaze from her eyes. “We must take this to Teva Stavoklis and leave instructions on how to bring us back.”
Rak’bana’s mouth fell open. How did she not see this coming? She’d heard his words bordering on sacrilege, seen his disdain toward the Goddess in this time of judgment. But her sight had been clouded by the dreams, her mind filled with visions of the gray man, the Mother, the man from across the sea. She’d neglected to think for a moment that her twin brother—the man with whom she shared the priesthood and trusted more than anyone short of the Goddess herself—could have anything but the same goal as her.
How wrong she’d been.
“We can’t let this happen again, Vesi.” She despised the desperation creeping into her voice. “The generations that come after us must know.”
Another rumble echoed through the chamber, this one louder than the last. Ine’vesi sneered. “We are in agreement, sister. This cannot happen again. The Goddess cannot be allowed to treat her loyal subjects in this manner. They must be given a way to prevent it, and bringing us back is the way.”
“No. We deserve it. The Goddess never intended us to live this way. We–”
The priest took a step back and her gaze fell to the parchment he held in his right hand, out of her reach. The visions that visited her dreams meant nothing if she did not set them to words on the scroll, left them to be found when the time they were needed came. If she didn’t, she’d have failed the Goddess.
“The scroll will go to Teva Stavoklis, to be used when the Goddess again over-steps her bounds. To ensure her subjects are never again punished for being human.”
Rak’bana narrowed her eyes. “We are no longer human, Vesi.”
“No, I suppose not,” he conceded and took another step back. “We are closer to gods, aren’t we? Small gods, perhaps.”
She bit down hard and fought against the oncoming tears choking her throat. A louder rumble, and this time the walls trembled. The long pike of one of the Sek’bala warriors shivered in its hand, the metal shaft rattling against its gauntleted fingers. Rak’bana directed her gaze toward the massive suit of plate, lowered her chin and raised her hand. She wiggled her fingers the way she did when she called the water to her bidding and her brother realized her intent. Ine’vesi’s head snapped to the side, eyes wide as he looked to the Sek’bala, expecting it to come to life.
Rak’bana leaped toward him and snatched at the roll of parchment, her fingers grasping the edge. It took only an instant for Ine’vesi to realize she’d tricked him. The priest danced back two steps, but she’d gotten a grip on the scroll and it unrolled between them. They both stared at its blank surface as another ball of fire struck the building and a shower of sparks spilled through one of the high windows.
They raised their heads; their eyes met.
“Bana,” he said, voice calm and even, though his eyes reflected different emotions. “Don’t do–”
“When days of peace approach their end.”
“And wounds inflicted are too deep to mend.” Fear and disappointment surged through her, but she forced herself to speak clearly, drawing out the words to their full power, ensuring the parchment heard her over the reverberating impacts shuddering the walls. “A sign shall come, a lock with no key.”
“Borne by a man from across the sea.”
The wavering light of the flames licking the world flashed on Ine’vesi’s blade. Rak’bana had an instant to recognize the slender knife before he jerked her toward him and plunged the tip between her ribs.
The wicked point tore through her flesh, found its way between the bones, and pressed against her heart. The agony of the wound stole her breath, but the anguish of her brother’s betrayal crushed her soul. He pulled her close, the loose parchment folding between them, and a fresh wave of pain crashed through her, transported along her veins to the tips of her fingers.
“I am sorry, Bana, but it must be this way” he said, his tone quiet amongst the thunder of the Goddess’ judgment. “We are gods.”
Unable to do anything more, she stared, open-mouthed, at her twin brother, the priest to her priestess, the man for whom she’d always thought she’d give her life if necessary, and now he’d taken it.
Ine’vesi pressed harder on the stiletto and the point pricked her heart. The priestess gasped; her skin went cold as hoarfrost. Her brother pulled the knife out and jerked away, attempting to wrench the parchment’s edge from her grasp, but her fingers held fast. The paper stretched, then tore, the sound of it ripping echoing through the marble chamber. Ine’vesi stumbled back, caught his balance, and advanced on her, his expression pulled into an angry shape that made him nearly unrecognizable to her.
Another fireball struck the temple. Then another, and another. The armor of the Sek’bala shivered and rattled, their weapons clattered in their grips. Ine’vesi glanced away from his sister at the towering guards, the sparks cascading through the high widows, and stopped, the anger on his face melting to fear.
He brandished the half of the parchment he still held. “This is all I need,” he said, backing toward the door.
“Vesi.” Rak’bana reached her hand out toward her brother. “Please.”
The priest stopped short of the doorway, gazed back at his sister. For a second, his expression appeared regretful, and she thought he might return to her, help her complete what must be done. Instead, he shook his head.
“This wasn’t what I dreamed, Bana. I saw a world where we can be what we are, and not be judged by a jealous Goddess. I dreamed of becoming the Small Gods we are meant to be.”
He hesitated a second before disappearing through the doorway and into the channel beneath the temple. Rak’bana stared after him, her belly clenching at the thought of losing him, but soon, it would no longer matter. Soon, they’d all be gone, but she had one last task to perform before the end.
She glanced at the red stain spreading across the front of her dress, the droplets falling to the white marble floor, running along its veins, filling them. The temple shuddered under the Goddess’ wrath and the priestess raised her head, gazed toward the lectern.
It seemed so far away.
Rak’bana put her left hand on the wound in her chest, felt her life force pulsing out of it, making her fingers sticky. With careful, plodding steps, she crossed the smooth floor, smearing her blood behind her as she went. It spread out along the stone, coloring it red; the Sek’bala watched, unconcerned.
A few paces from the goal, the fingers of her left hand tingled briefly, and then she lost feeling in them. The tingling climbed up her arm, racing toward her chest. Her breath shortened, cold sweat fell like winter dew on her brow, her knees trembled. She stumbled the last few steps, caught herself on the lectern’s edge before her legs gave way and spilled her to the floor.
The priestess spread the parchment across the podium, holding one edge with shaking fingers, weighing the other down with her dead hand. The blood of her heart smeared across the paper, sticking in its texture. Thunder shook the walls, lightning flashed, tears streaked paths along her cheeks. Rak’bana drew her dry tongue across her icy lips and spoke the words given her by the Goddess in her dreams.
“When days of peace approach their end,
And wounds inflicted are too deep to mend,
A sign shall come, a lock with no key,
Borne by a man from across the sea.
A barren Mother, the seed of life,
Living statue, treacherous knife.
To raise the Small Gods, a Small God must die,
When the stars go out, the end is nigh.”
She paused to draw a weak breath and watched her blood etching the cursive lines of her words across the paper. The walls shook and she raised her gaze for an instant to see the marble had gone red with the life dripping from her heart. She returned her attention to the final stanza required on the scroll.
“One must die to raise them all,
Should Small Gods rise, man will fall.
One can stop them, on darken’d wing,
The firstborn child of the rightful king.”
As the last word crossed her lips, a wind carrying swirling flames howled through the high windows. Rak’bana titled her head back, watched the fire snake toward her and closed her eyes, waiting for the Goddess to cleanse her and free her from her sorrow and pain.
And the flames consumed her.
Ine’vesi stumbled out of the tunnel into what had once been a picturesque courtyard filled with gardens for prayer and fountains for bathing. Now, instead of a place of beauty, it was a conflagration. The water for washing billowed from the fountains in clouds of white steam, the flowers and trees were ash, all but one of the Pillars of Life had fallen, and the river itself boiled and bubbled in the heat of the inferno.
The priest raised his arm to his face, protecting himself from the blaze as he fell to his knees, the roll of parchment pressed to his chest. His nostrils flared at the stench of his own hair melting, the stink sickening him, but he ignored it, thankful he’d paused in the channel to set the words of his dreams on the paper.
He lowered his arm and held the scroll on his lap, closed his eyes. Flames licked at the sleeves of his robe, crackled in the grass on which he knelt. It singed his flesh, but he’d prepared his entire life to concentrate on the task that needed his attention to the exclusion of everything else, including himself.
Ine’vesi ran his reddening fingers along the surface of the rolled parchment. Its coarse texture instilled hope in him and he brought to mind the solemn, sparse temple in Teva Stavoklis. He imagined each grain in the wood of its posts and beams, every rock and pebble strewn across its dirt floor. Bundles of protection herbs hung on spikes protruding from the walls; greasy smoke snaked up from tallow candles. He breathed deeply and, instead of scenting the blazing gardens, he inhaled the unsavory odor of the burning fat.
The priest opened his eyes and found himself in the temple. He rose to his feet, knees creaking and vague pain crawling across the surface of his flesh, but he ignored it, concentrating on the table set in the middle of the room.
When he took a step toward it, pain shot up his spine. Ine’vesi gritted his teeth and pressed on, covering the distance with a stumbling gait. He reached the table and leaned against its edge, raised his hand to place the scroll upon it. Flames flickered along his sleeve, and he fought the urge to shake his arm in an attempt to extinguish them. They’d not be put out.
With greater effort than expected, he extended his arm and set the roll of parchment down. The flames on his sleeve leaped to his hair and he released his grip on the scroll lest the blaze make its way to the paper. As soon as his fingertips left the surface of the scroll, the humble place of worship disappeared. Fire filled the priest’s vision and the stink of burning flesh replaced the scent of protection herbs and melting tallow.
He stumbled back, his foot teetering on the edge of the boiling river. A bolt of lightning rode a thunderclap down from the sky, striking the base of the last of the nine Pillars of Life: Faith. The column tumbled, and Ine’vesi watched it fall toward him. He raised his flaming hands and, an instant later, the heavy stone crushed him.
On the last day the Small Gods walked the land, fire fell like rain from the sky.