Sneak Peek: Soleri by Michael Johnston

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Michael Johnston brings you the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear.

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Detailed and historical, vast in scope and intricate in conception, Soleri bristles with primal magic and unexpected violence. It is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret.

Soleri will become available June 13th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

THE BLACK SAND

They used to be fishermen, but that night hunger made them thieves. Under a moonless sky the men set out from the island in small wooden skiffs, sailing across the ink-black sea toward the distant kingdom. They were crowded in the long thin boats, crammed shoulder to shoulder, some turned sideways or doubled over to shield themselves against the waves. Gusty wind and angry water forced a few ships to turn back, while others were lost to the surf, and those who journeyed onward kept their eyes focused on the horizon, searching for the dim silhouette of the Dromus. The skiff rolled and the boy caught sight of the desert barrier. The great wall was hewn from cinder-gray rock and reflected no light, its jagged ridge biting at the low-hanging stars like a blacker piece of night.

A cresting wave propelled the boy’s craft to shore. He clutched his oilskin sack and held it tight against his chest. The skiff tipped as they neared the black sand, and everyone went overboard. He was first in the water, overwhelmed by the dark, the rushing swells, the screams of men. In all his ten and five years, he had never left the southern islands. Now here he was, scrambling for footing on a foreign beach, staring at the desert wall.

As he marched up the black-sand beach, he wondered if he had made a terrible mistake, if he should turn back. Others were whispering, afraid to go on ahead.

As if in reply, the eldest among them urged them forward—reminding them that for the last several months all they had to eat were the bones of last season’s salt-dried fish and those were all gone. There was no going back now. There was nothing to go back to. The men turned once more to face the Dromus, that ash-stone monolith, onyx black, impenetrable, they said, impossible to breach—this wall that kept Sola rich, protected, and apart from the lower kingdoms. In the distance, as the sun rose and its light spread from the barrier’s rim, they saw the first glint of what they had come for—the riches promised beyond the wall—gold.

All the gold of the Soleri. The words rang in their heads, the proverb they had heard as children at their fathers’ knees, words from their deepest memories: “Before time was the Soleri, and after time the Soleri will be.” The ruling family had been in power longer than even the calendars that stretched back 2,942 years—first in stone, then clay, then parchment. Those records told a history of conquest and domination by a family descended from gods, a family older than anything in the known world, ruling with nearly absolute authority for three millennia. There was no world without the Soleri—they were the center of everything, the end and the beginning—and so it was to the center of the empire, to the Dromus and all that lay beyond, that the men from Scargill, dressed in sea-soaked rags and driven by desperation, now turned.

They pressed on, passing into the wall’s growing shadow with a mixture of dread and determination. They had crossed the burnt-sand beach and were within striking distance, but now they were vulnerable to attack from above, from the dead-shot archers of the Soleri Army. They scanned the wall for signs of its inhabitants, upward and down, following the ragged contour of the Dromus until it disappeared into the horizon. Nothing.

The line of the wall thinned out along its broad curve, and they moved more quickly now as the ground became more certain underneath their feet, the wide plain of the desert opening up around the ash-stone barrier. There it was. The Gate of Coronel, the southern gate of the Dromus, three days’ march from the city of the Soleri. The boy could see the two panels of the gateway, each one the size of a great raft turned on end. But what was this? The doors stood open.

A trap, some said. But others disagreed, said it was just a bit of luck, that the guards must be napping in the first light of dawn. They should take this chance, they murmured, while they still could. The boy remembered that the Feast of Devouring approached. Perhaps the guards had gone off to prepare for the high holdiday.

The open gate stood before them.

The elders made the decision: the fishermen of Scargill would charge the gate as planned.

They crossed the Dromus and entered the gate. Steeled themselves for spears, for swords, for fire, for the emperor’s soldiers, warriors of exceptional skill and ferocity who were bred to conquer and slay. Who were said to be able to kill with a breath, with a look.

They were ready for anything, but nothing rose to meet them. No fire. No arrows. No soldiers. The Dromus was empty. Unguarded.

There was no one there.

No soldier stood guard, and even the gold they had seen from a distance was nothing more than the sun’s first rays reflecting off the temple’s tattered dome. No army and no riches here. No food or fresh water either—the storehouses and water barrels stood empty.

The fishermen from Scargill, their limbs thin, bones poking out at the joints, who had come if not for gold then simply for food for their children, could not go home, not yet.

Past the temple, past the fields of spears and upturned earth, the men pushed onward till the air turned foul. Here at last were the mighty soldiers of the Soleri. But the fighting men were not arranged in serried ranks, nor were they spread out in a mighty phalanx of spears and helms. The soldiers lay lifeless, stacked in mounds, left to rot in the sun and the wind, left for the crows’ next meal.

The men from Scargill, woolly bearded elders and smooth-chinned boys stopped their advance. There was nowhere else to go, nothing left to see. The boy flung his oilskin over his shoulder, scratched his cheek, and spat.

Around them, the Dromus stretched to infinity—its black line holding the last traces of night.

Everything else was just sand.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael Johnston

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