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Temple of Sand
Author: Barbara Kloss


Prologue

 

 

Six Months Prior…

 

If it weren’t for the heat, Gamla never would have found the bodies.

He’d traveled this path countless times, this vague thread of sand and rock that tied the Baragas’ small mountain villages to the rest of Istraa. Where those who did not care for societal decrees dwelled, instead surviving off of the desert on their own terms.

Where life was so much simpler.

Still, sickness did not discriminate, and being that Gamla was Istraa’s alma—healer—he checked in on them from time to time. Through the years, their relationship had grown symbiotic: he would give them news of the world, and they would give him a much-needed respite from it.

Today, however, he found no rest.

An unforgiving sun boiled in the desert sky and the air shimmered with heat, warped like steam. Gamla found it increasingly difficult to breathe.

He stopped his camel along the path, dismounted, and leaned back against a rock as he gazed across the wondrous expanse of the Majutén. His loose linens clung to his sweaty skin, and when he wiped his face with the tails of his headdress, salt residue rained from his mustache and beard.

Saints, the desert was ruthless today.

His camel snorted and dug an impatient hoof into the sand. Even he did not like this heat.

Gamla took a sip from his water skin, and he was just about to push off the rock and climb back into the saddle when he caught a whiff of something foul baked into the air. The stench of rot and disease.

He knew the odor well.

For the desert was always hungry, always taking, watering its barren soil with the blood of the unprepared.

Gamla might have let it go, but he remembered the pig farmer. For months now, Junat had been complaining that something was stealing his pigs. However, his only evidence was that today he had six when yesterday he had seven. Junat blamed a wild cat; there were plenty in these mountains.

But Gamla had his suspicions. He’d had them for weeks.

Gamla pushed himself from the rock and adjusted his headdress. “I’ll be right back,” he said to his camel, and then followed the scent. Into the red rocks, and the narrow spine between the Baragas’ broad shoulders.

He navigated the uneven terrain, his keen nose directing his steps while the relentless sun beat upon his back. He descended onto a sort of natural landing, rounded a clump of red rocks, and stopped in his tracks.

Before him lay a pile of mutilated carcasses. Flies swarmed, maggots writhed, and vultures tore at fresh pig entrails. The stench was so strong, even Gamla almost gagged. Junat had been right. Someone was stealing pigs, but not just from Junat.

And not for eating.

A heavy sense of foreboding weighed upon Gamla’s shoulders, and he cautiously scanned his surroundings. A small path stretched beyond the gruesome mound, leading to a crack in the red rock wall ahead.

A cave.

The air shifted behind him, and Gamla turned. A few paces away stood a man wrapped in black cloth, watching Gamla with dark, Sol Velorian eyes. Swirling, inked glyphs painted his dark skin, his earlobes stretched long around silver loops, and red smeared his mouth, pooled in the creases. Dripped down his inked chin.

Gamla’s blood turned to ice.

He’d guessed rightly, but oh, how he’d wanted to be wrong.

“Gamla Khan.” The voice grated.

Gamla took an involuntary step back. “Who are you?” He didn’t ask what. He already knew the answer to that.

The Liagé smiled with bloodstained teeth. He waved a bloodied, inked hand and spoke a word. The spell pulsed from his palm, and Gamla collapsed.

 

 

1

 

 

Ricón held up two fingers.

Hold.

Hold.

Imari crouched, her thighs burning as she watched the sand. Waiting.

Waiting.

There.

She met Ricón’s gaze; he’d seen it too. Still, he held up his fingers, holding her off. Making her wait. This was his hunt, he had said. Let him lead.

Imari might have been offended, but she’d suspected Ricón’s command had less to do with her and more to do with his need to make up for the past—all those years he hadn’t been there as he should have been. While she appreciated his attention, she wished he’d show a little more faith in her abilities. She’d survived The Wilds; she could handle a snake. Still, she didn’t feel like fighting him, so she kept quiet and let Ricón lead.

Ricón pulled his scim free. It glinted in the dawn, catching the sky’s fire. He glanced over at Imari, jerked his chin, and Imari tossed the locust she’d caught this morning. It plunked in the sand a few feet before the pale rocks, unmoving but not dead. Not yet.

More waiting.

And then…

A shape emerged. First the head, bobbing and searching, hesitant. Its tongue flickered as it tasted the air, and then slowly it slithered over the sand, toward the locust. Sideways.

Sivetan. Sidewinder.

It was a little one, about the length of Imari’s forearm. Hardly enough for the five of them to share. Imari was keen to let this one go, but Ricón took another step and the toe of his boot grazed the rock’s edge.

But Imari was no longer looking at the sivetan. She’d gone rigid, her attention narrowed at Ricón’s feet. Ricón hadn’t noticed—she barely had—and there was no time to warn him. She grabbed the nearest rock and lunged. The sidewinder scuttled off in fright as Imari slammed her rock down with a sickening crunch.

Ricón glanced down. His eyes widened as Imari stood, both of them gazing upon the crushed skull of the enormous horned viper lying dead at Ricón’s feet.

The silence stretched.

“That should feed all five of us,” Imari said, now meeting Ricón’s dark gaze.

His lips pressed into a thin line.

“Sorry about the sivetan.”

Ricón stood quiet, then grabbed the viper by the tail. Imari was lucky to have spotted it. Its thick, armored scales blended perfectly with the rocks.

“Tama,” Ricón said, quiet. Thank you.

She nodded once, then started across the sand, toward the other three in their small convoy.

Imari spotted Jenya first, standing with the horses while shaking last night’s sand from their blankets. The woman’s black eyes slid down the length of the viper swinging from Ricón’s grip.

“He’s big,” Jenya said simply.

“He almost took a bite out of my heel, but…” Ricón gestured at Imari.

Jenya’s attention jumped from the crushed skull to Imari. Jenya was a saredd—one of Trier’s most esteemed warriors—but she was also the first female saredd Istraa had ever known. And every time Jenya looked at her, Imari couldn’t help feeling that Jenya was adding to some list, categorizing her threat. Marking her.

All of them did, in their own way.

“They might be my saredd, but they are saredd first,” Ricón had said one evening, when Imari had voiced her concern. “Never forget that.”

And their fealty is to Istraa, he had not said. He had not needed to.

According to Ricón, tensions were high throughout Istraa. These last few months, groups of Sol Velorian labor had gone missing, many of their owners hacked to pieces, and a handful of Istraan temples had been burnt to the ground with the kahar—priests—still trapped inside. The Sol Velorians had a leader, apparently, though no one knew his or her identity.

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