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A Desert Torn Asunder

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A Desert Torn Asunder

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Author: Bradley P. Beaulieu
Publisher: Gollancz, 2021
DAW Books, 2021
Series: The Song of Shattered Sands: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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The plans of the desert gods are coming to fruition. Meryam, the deposed queen of Qaimir, hopes to raise the buried elder god, Ashael, an event that would bring ruin to the desert.

Çeda and Emre sail for their ancestral home to bring the traitor, Hamid, to justice. To their horror, they discover that the desert tribes have united under Hamid's banner. Their plan? A holy crusade to annihilate Sharakhai, a thing long sought by many in the tribes. In Sharakhai, meanwhile, the blood mage, Davud, examines the strange gateway between worlds, hoping to find a way to close it. And King Ihsan hunts for Meryam, but always finds himself two steps behind.

When Meryam raises Ashael, all know the end is near. Ashael means to journey to the land that was denied to him an age ago, no matter the cost to the desert. It now falls to Çeda and her unlikely assortment of allies to find a way to unite not only the desert tribes and the people of Sharakhai, but the city's invaders as well. Even if they do, stopping Ashael will cost them dearly, perhaps more than all are willing to pay.


Chapter 1

An age had passed since the elder gods left the world. In the time since, the goddess Tulathan had felt anger and resentment over her abandonment. She'd grieved, knowing she'd never again feel the touch of the first gods. Sometimes she'd lashed out, destroying that which the elders had wrought. Rarely had she felt anxious--for so long there had been nothing to be anxious about. As she floated through the air toward a misshapen hill of red sandstone, however, she found her chest tightening, her heart pounding.

And why shouldn't my soul be stirred? The decision I make this day will decide my fate.

She alighted on a rock. As the sunbaked stone warmed her feet, a hot wind blew. It toyed with her long, silvery hair, throwing it about like gossamer. The wind's scent, redolent of sandalwood and myrrh, was peculiar to this part of the desert and yet another reminder of the long-lost elders. The unique scent had been Raamajit's doing. Tulathan had loved it once. Now she loathed it.

Sailing in this part of the Great Shangazi was particularly dangerous. Stones plagued the sand. Many stood out starkly like foreboding sentinels and were easily avoided. But more lay just below the sand's surface. Stones that could ruin a ship's skis, or worse, shatter its struts. They were the very reason most ships avoided sailing in this part of the desert and, in a roundabout way, the reason King Ihsan, one of the Sharakhani Kings, was sailing these treacherous sands.

In the distance, his ships, a trio of royal galleons, snaked their way through the towering stones, moving ever closer to their destination: one particular cove. Tulathan swung her gaze to her right to look upon it, a patch of hidden sand all but indistinguishable from thousands of others sprinkled throughout the desert--except this one had secrets buried within it, secrets the King had come to collect.

What King Ihsan didn't know was that a fleet of junks lay hidden beyond the cove's craggy arms. The junks were owned and crewed by a Kundhuni warlord, and bore fierce grassland warriors. There were more besides--three full companies of Mirean infantry plus several qirin warriors--an indicator that Sharakhai's conqueror, Queen Alansal, had a special interest in this particular mission.

At a disturbance beside her, Tulathan turned to find her sister, Rhia, suddenly standing on the same sun-baked stone. Her flaxen hair was plaited. Her golden skin glittered beneath the sun. Her eyes were dreamy, half-lidded, an indication she was sifting through the sands of fate, searching for the bright grains that would reveal the path to the treasure they all sought.

"Return to me, sister," Tulathan said in the desert's most ancient tongue. "I have need of you here. We all do."

Rhia blinked, then regarded Tulathan with a wounded expression. "I have much to attend to, even now." Her eyes shifted to the royal galleons wending their way among the rocks, then the bay with the Kundhuni junks. Moments later, her gaze drifted beyond the horizon once more.

Deciding to let her be for the time being, Tulathan turned toward a colorful thread of light hovering in the air nearby as her brother, Bakhi, stepped through it. He wore high leather sandals, a belted chiton, and a laurel wreath. His beard was trim, his brown hair tousled. Of them all, he'd always been the most sanguine, but just then he looked as troubled as Tulathan felt.

After a nod to Tulathan, Bakhi strode past dream-eyed Rhia and regarded the galleons. "So the Honey-tongued King has come at last."

There was a crunch of footsteps below. Rounding an outcropping of rock farther down the tilted landscape was the fourth of their number: Thaash, god of war. He had a bright shield strapped to his back. The golden sword given to him by Iri hung at his side. One could hardly look upon Thaash without thinking of war, an effect that was only enhanced by his bronze skin and coppery hair. He marched up the incline and came to stand beside them, silent and brooding as a golden roc.

Despite Tulathan's vow not to dwell on the past, their somber gathering was made all the more subdued by the absence of two. Four centuries earlier, when they'd begun their quest to reach the farther fields, none of them had been confident they would succeed, but each had been willing to gamble on it, thinking the worst that happened would be simple failure. None feared death, yet two of them had died. Yerinde had been slain by the mortal, Çedamihn, in the stronghold of the thirteenth tribe, using a sword forged by Goezhen. Goezhen had followed his sister into death mere months later. Fixated on the struggle between the Sharakhani Kings and Queen Meryam in Mazandir, Goezhen hadn't sensed Nalamae's approach. She had trapped Goezhen in a pool of water and used Yerinde's adamantine spear to pierce his heart. The twist in fate had created a sort of ruinous chiaroscuro, the weapon of each being used to kill the other.

"Have you managed to catch Nalamae's scent?" Bakhi asked, echoing Tulathan's own thoughts.

"Alas," Rhia replied, "our sister remains elusive."

Rhia's gifts had led their grand plan to the very brink of fruition, but even foresight had its limits, and Nalamae had learned how to foil Rhia's visions. She'd learned the trick of rebirth as well. Time and again, just when they thought they were rid of her, she would return in a new form. And while the rest of them had to take the utmost care when meddling in the affairs of mortals, Nalamae, who'd resigned herself to remaining in this world, never to see the elders again, had no such limitations and was using that to her advantage.

The end game had come. Nalamae was no longer content to hide. She had become the hunter, they the hunted. If they grew careless now, all would be for naught.

"She will not have remained idle," Thaash said in his throaty voice. "We need to know what she's discovered, what she has planned."

Rhia turned toward him, her eyes regaining their focus. "Nalamae is but part of the challenge that faces us."

"Perhaps," Thaash replied, "but she's the most dangerous part."

Rhia gave a knowing smile, the sort that infuriated Thaash, who too often found solutions to his problems on the edge of a blade. "Danger comes in many forms, brother. Would you have me find her, only to lose our path to the farther fields?"

Thaash's expression turned stormy, but he said no more. He wanted revenge for the deaths of Yerinde and Goezhen, but he wouldn't trade that for his place in the next world. If any of them meddled too much in the affairs of mortals, it would bind them to this world and prevent their passage to the farther fields. But Rhia was special among them, her gift of foresight crucial to their plans--if she used that gift too heavily, or too often, she might lose the objectivity she needed to see clearly. It could leave all four of them them stranded in the world of mortals forever.

"We're here for King Ihsan," reminded Rhia.

Tulathan waved to the nearby bay. "The Mirean queen, Alansal, has learned of his destination. Her water dancers saw it. She knows he's on a journey to reclaim the Blue Journals, and she wants the prize for herself." The journals King Ihsan meant to retrieve were filled with prophetic visions penned by King Yusam before his death. "The question before us now is, do we allow it?"

After four hundred years, they'd reached uncharted territory. The asirim had culled tributes from Sharakhai. Those tributes had been given to the adichara trees, which had fed on their blood. In turn, the trees had slowly fed the crystal in the cavern below Sharakhai. They'd been certain that when the crystal shattered, a rift between worlds would be created, allowing them to step through to the farther fields. And their plan had nearly worked. The crystal had shattered, and a gateway had opened, but not far enough. They couldn't step through. Not yet.

Everything now rode on the move they'd come together to discuss: allow Ihsan to take the journals and it may lead to all they hoped for. But the danger was just as great that, if they let him live, he would find a way to close the gateway for good.

They turned to Rhia. Worry creases marked her brow; her lips were pinched into a stark line. Though she'd guided them unerringly thus far, of late she'd been plagued by indecision, making it clear her prescience was uncertain at best, the way ahead filled with fog.

Thaash snapped his fingers before her eyes.

When Rhia blinked, the confidence she'd displayed moments ago was gone, making clear it had been vain optimism all along.

"Do we allow King Ihsan to continue?" Tulathan repeated.

"I cannot say," Rhia said in a tremulous voice.

Thaash's look darkened further. "Has your power been stripped from you, then? Has the loss of your brother and sister undone you?"

Rhia looked suddenly vulnerable and mortal, a being who sensed her end was near. "I... I don't know."

"I consider it a good sign, not ill," Bakhi said.

All turned to him, disbelieving.

"Our fate now intertwines with Ashael's," Bakhi went on. "The very fact that our sister can no longer see our future is an indication that we're following the right path"--he waved to the desert, to the trio of sandships--"that what we do here today will lead us to the farther shore."

They all knew their decision to put Queen Meryam on the hunt for Ashael, the fallen elder, was a dangerous one, but there had been no choice. Had they done nothing, Nalamae would have succeeded--the gateway would have closed and they would be forced to begin anew, or resign themselves to this world until the end of days. But give Queen Meryam Ashael's scent and they might yet make it. Ashael might be vile-hearted, but he wanted the same thing they did: a path to the farther fields, the consequences to the world they left behind be damned.

"Let Ihsan have the journals," Rhia said into the still, hot air. Her tone was buoyant--overly so, it seemed to Tulathan, as if she were trying to convince herself.

"We must be certain, sister," Tulathan said.

Rhia said nothing. What could she say? They all knew it was a calculated guess.

"Who will do it?" Bakhi asked.

"I've meddled enough," Tulathan said immediately.

"As have I," Bakhi added.

When they looked to Rhia, she blanched. "I must remain on the outside of events, to better view the threads of fate."

And so they turned to Thaash, who, of them all, had taken the lightest hand in the manipulation of mortals. Leaving everything he could to the others was a gambit, a way to ensure his place in the farther fields. His silence spoke of guilt over his own inaction, as did his siblings' flat stares.

He turned and looked at the bay where the Kundhuni fleet was anchored. His severe expression turned grim. "So be it," he said, and headed down the slope toward the bay, unslinging his shield from his back as he went.

Bakhi, clearly pleased, re-formed his wavering thread and stepped through it.

Rhia dissolved to dust.

Tulathan regarded the Sharakhani galleons, then disappeared in a twinkling of sunlight.

Copyright © 2021 by Bradley P. Beaulieu


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