In honor of this e-book publication, there is a giveaway happening for a short time in which if you buy The Burning Land, you can enter to win its sequel! See more below about it, right after the excerpt!
Victoria Strauss, who holds a degree in Comparative Religion, builds a unique world both religious and fantastical, culminating in “a deeply felt and richly imagined tale that explores issues of faith, destiny and the fallibility of human nature” (Jacqueline Carey, author of Kushiel’s Dart).
Strauss, a one-time judge for the World Fantasy Awards, is the author of nine novels for adults and young adults, including the Passion Blue series. A prolific book reviewer, her work has appeared in Writer’s Digest, among other magazines. In 2009, she received the Service to SFWA Award for co-founding Writer Beware, a publishing industry tell-all guide for writers.
After four months of travel, they came to the most hostile landscape they had yet encountered: a vast plain of pebbles packed flat and hard as pavement, polished by time and the elements to the reflectiveness of glass. A wind blew off it, like the breath of a furnace. Even the most desolate of the dunes had supported some vegetation, but there was none here, nor any other sign of life. Far away at the southern horizon, a range of twilight-colored mountains poked up into the sky, some of them showing the flattened cone-shape of volcanoes.
The party made camp, while Teispas dispatched scouts to survey the terrain. They returned exhausted and sunburned, with tales of infernal temperatures and light so intense they had to bind their eyes. They had traveled for two days, and seen no sign of change.
There seemed no choice but to try and go around. To the east the plain curved north, so the party turned west. After a day and a half the plain’s margin dipped sharply south, and the mountains drew closer, revealing fold after fold of fire-colored cliffs descending from their flanks. Now, suddenly, the Dreamers’ Dreams acquired definition, producing an array of symbols that, according to Rikoyu, meant human life and work–still south, somewhere beyond the pebble plain.
They had, it seemed, found the lost Âratists.
But the plain ran on, and scouts sent ahead reported no end in sight. After a week of this, Teispas called a meeting. He and his second in command, Aspâthnes, were present, as were Gyalo, Rikoyu, and Vâsparis. Outside, the sun was slipping over the edge of the world in a glory of gold and orange cloud; its fading light filtered through the canvas of Teispas’s tent, enveloping the men in a ruddy gloom.
“We’re sure now that what we’ve been sent to find lies on the other side of that plain,” Teispas began. “Probably in those mountains. Do you agree, Brother Rikoyu?”
“Yes,” said Rikoyu hoarsely. He looked terrible, his hollow cheeks covered with an unkempt beard, his scalp patchy where skin rashes had caused his hair to fall out.
“But it’s been over a week, and still the plain goes on. And the Dreamers have begun to lose focus again.”
“We have supplies for only a year. We’ve been traveling more than four months, and it’ll take us at least that long to return–longer, if the lost Âratists are with us. We have no time to waste. But that is exactly what we’re doing–wasting time. For all we know, this ash-cursed plain goes all the way to the sea.” He paused. Like all of them, he had lost flesh; he had not had much to spare to begin with, and now was gaunt as a ghost, his clothing hanging on him, his skin stretched tight over the bones of his face. With his tangled hair and overgrown beard, he looked like a castaway rather than the leader of a military expedition. “We must try and scout a crossing.”
For a moment there was silence.
“There’s bad places in the Burning Land, but no place crueler than the pebble plains.” Vâsparis sat crosslegged, his hands resting on his knees, self-contained and easy as always. Of all of them, the journey had changed him least, for he had been whip-thin and sun-black long before it began. “There’s a little one west of Thuxra City. My partner and I tried to cross it once, but we had to turn back. ‘Twasn’t for lack of supplies or water–it was the heat. The sun pounds down on those stones till you’d swear you were frying on a griddle.”
“We can travel at night, and take shelter by day.”
“That’s fine for men.” Vâsparis shrugged. “But what about the camels? Nothing for ’em to eat or drink out there. They can go maybe ten days like that–and only if there’s good forage at the end of it.”
“We can’t carry more than ten days’ supply of water in any case,” Teispas said. “So their limit and ours is the same. We’ve seen rain clouds above the mountains–it seems likely there’s good land there. The scouts can try at the most southern point, where the Dreamers’ Dreams were strongest. If they can break through in eight days, it shouldn’t take the main party more than ten.”
“And if the scouts can’t break through?” asked Aspâthnes, Teispas’ second. “Or if they don’t return?”
“Then we’ll move on and try another route. And if that one doesn’t work, another.” Teispas fixed Aspâthnes with a hard black gaze. A strained quality had come upon him over the past weeks, a kind of wire-strung tension, as if the barrier of the plain was finally more than his stoic endurance could support. “And if that one doesn’t work, I’ll concede defeat, and we can go back to slogging along the edge of this bloody plain, until our supply situation forces us to turn tail and go back to Arsace without completing the mission that right now, this moment, is finally within our reach.”
“Very well,” Aspâthnes said. “If the scouts can cross in eight days, and find good land at the exit point, I agree it should be tried.”
“And you, Brother.” Teispas turned that gaze upon Gyalo. “What do you think?”
The question was only a courtesy–Gyalo was in charge of the vowed Âratists, but he had no voice in the mission’s command, and any disagreement would be overruled. But he did not disagree. Since the Dreamers had begun to Dream, a blazing excitement had filled him. He was as impatient as Teispas to break past this final barrier and confront the truth they had sought so long.
“Crossing will be risky,” he said. “But every day we travel the Burning Land is a risk. I agree we should try to find a way.”
“Good.” Teispas’s nod was approving. He looked toward Aspâthnes. “See to it. Two men. They’ll leave this night. We’ll follow in the morning.”
The scouts departed, with four camels and ample water. The main party came on at a slower pace, until they found the red and gold marker the scouts had planted at the point at which they had decided to try a crossing. There was good camping close by, a small oasis where water bubbled up to form a pool and a grove of ghost oaks cast a whispering shade.
The party waited, using the time to patch tents and clothing and repair frayed harness, and to increase their food stores by hunting the large lizards Vâsparis called greenback dragons. On the fifteenth day the scouts emerged, exhausted but triumphant, to report that it had taken them seven nights to reach the far side of the pebble plain, and that verdant land such as they had not seen in all their months of travel waited on the other side.
They set out the night after the scouts’ return. The water barrels were full. Inessential items–spare canvas, clothing, cooking pots, the remaining marker posts–had been unloaded and left behind, and the difference made up with green fodder for the camels, to buy extra crossing time should it be needed.
They rode till dawn beneath the cold-starred sky. The waxing moon stared down, a half-closed eye; around them the plain lay flat and featureless, glistening with reflected moonlight like a plaque of beaten silver. There were no variations, no landmarks, nothing at all with which to measure motion–a monotony as difficult to bear, in its way, as any physical hardship.
At dawn they halted. Looking back, Gyalo could see no trace of their starting point, nor any sign of the land ahead other than the hazy mountains. Tent pegs could not be driven among the packed stones, so they spread the canvas of their tents across the camel-saddles, and beneath this low shelter passed the broiling day. Gyalo dozed and woke and dozed again, tangled in dreams of fire and suffocation. When evening came, the blankets he had lain on were soaked with sweat, and the stone of the plain burned his feet through the soles of his boots.
The camels bore up well for the two nights the fodder lasted, and for two foodless, waterless nights after that. On the fifth night they began to slow, raising the possibility that the journey might take longer than the nine nights Teispas had estimated. The water allowance was reduced (except for the Dreamers, for whom nothing was ever rationed); the thirsty men grumbled, but were not ready to listen to Vâsparis when he suggested, seriously, that they drink their own urine–a survival technique, he claimed, that more than once had made the difference between life and death for him.
At sunset on the seventh night, the travelers crawled from their sweaty burrows to begin the labor of saddling and loading. Gyalo was unhobbling Cirsame–not that she really needed hobbling, for she was by now too depleted to wander–when he heard a shout:
“Look! Over there!”
It was one of the camel handlers. He stood beside the water barrels, pointing south, toward a peculiar disturbance in the sky. Above the plain the air was trembling, shimmering like the heat-haze above a sunstruck rock. The margins of this area were blurred with iridescence.
“What do you think it is?” Sittibaal, who had spread his canvas nearby, came to stand beside Gyalo.
“I don’t know. It reminds me–”
Gyalo shook his head. What it recalled to him, strangely, was Shaper sight: the air around a substance about to be transformed often looked just so.
Faintly came a long roll of thunder. Storm clouds, thick and gray and turbulent, began to unfold at the disturbance’s center, slowly compounding and enlarging. They pulsed and shook with sullen lightning. A swirling irregularity appeared at the storm’s eastern edge; after a moment a column of cloud slid smoothly downward, like a long black finger. It touched down, lifted, touched again.
“I’ve never seen a storm like that,” Sittibaal said. “Have you?”
“No. No, I haven’t.”
For a while they stood watching as the cloud-finger investigated the ground, sweeping east, then west, then slowly east again, almost as if some invisible hand were shepherding it. At last they returned to their preparations. Gyalo had forced Cirsame to kneel and was loading her when the thunder suddenly boomed louder. He looked up and saw the storm had grown, eating up much of the southern sky. It was still expanding, the clouds swelling, the black column engorging, like a bladder pumped with air–
No–not expanding. Approaching. The storm was coming toward them, racing along the pebble plain at unbelievable speed. In the instant Gyalo realized this, the first winds struck, pressing his clothes against his body, lifting the canvas behind him. The air darkened. Wetness struck his face–rain?
Another clap of thunder split the air. Cirsame bellowed and tried to rise; he pulled her traces, attempting to hold her down. There was a confusion of running men, of shouting–“Bring the camels down! Bring the camels down!” “Hold the canvas!” “The god save us!”–and then the storm struck, a screaming madness of wind and rain. Lightning flashed, blinding; the thunder that followed was like the earth cracking in two. The wind tried to pick Gyalo up; he wound his wrists with Cirsame’s traces and hung on for his life.
There was another flash, another crack. The wind wrenched him savagely around. Pain burst in his shoulder, like nothing he had ever known. Something struck him, crushing him to the ground. And then there was nothing in the world but agony and the storm.