Chapter One

One hundred and thirty eight years ago I was appointed as the seventh elder archaist of the Loraean Isles. My elevation was the result of a natural death in the Council, a rare occurrence among the elders, but one that left a vacancy to be filled. At the date of his death, Elder Hazran, having held his seat for a full two and a half centuries, was the oldest among us. His wisdom, and the great depth of knowledge of which the guild was deprived upon his death, is still sorely missed. Even now, at times I am hard pressed as his successor to fill the void he left.

In the century and a half since my induction, more than half of my time has been spent as a sojourner in foreign lands, some of them so far removed from the Isles that often I feel as though I have broken free of the bounds of this world. I have been to the farthest regions of Entebay, where the warring clans have so long cultivated their ancestral hatred for one another that few bother to even speculate on its origins. I have walked among the deepest chambers of the Memnon tombs in Karnak, where it is said the archpriest Akhenaten was eternally laid to rest after the wind god Sekhmet-Ra replaced his heart with red clay from the River Anubis. In the jungles of Mbelaka I have watched the sun rise over the Roaring Falls, beyond which it is rumored the last Ndoki temple lies guarded by the horned demon Madzou, who devours the souls of unwary trespassers. I have seen a host of wonders: hidden places of forgotten times, most of them so heavy with age that they seem relics of another world.

Rarely do my expeditions last fewer than three years, and almost invariably do they begin with a map. More often than not it is a decrepit and soiled scrap of paper bought off a foreign merchant at exorbitant price. But other times it is discovered among the wreckage of a ship or buried city at the periphery of civilization. The map, if it is deemed authentic, is presented to the Council of Elders. The council studies and analyzes, and if their judgment considers it worthy of verification by exploration, an expedition is launched. An expedition: men, tools, years. In this way, the Guild has been flinging archaists across the continents for the past seven centuries.

But to what end our tireless searching?

Our answer is no secret. We toil in order to sweep back the curtain of the unknown, to lay bare mysteries, to discover and to learn, to get wisdom and understanding. But most of all, we seek to find our place in history. To find this place—and of more pressing importance, to understand it—we must also understand the world in which we live, and how it came to be as it is. We must know those who came before us, those who shaped it. And if we do not find the answers in our lifetime, we must leave behind as much as we can for the seekers who come after us.

Such has always been the goal of the archaists.

All of which brings me to the barren shore of Shallai.

Once a vast and noble empire, Shallai exists now only as a name on a map. Gone are her people. Ruined are her cities. And if her interior is but half as desolate as her coast, then it seems certain that all of Shallai has been swallowed up by a vast and lifeless desert. Such is the condition of things, and the great mystery of her demise has yet to be explained.

Spanning nearly three and a half centuries, the history of Shallai is a phenomenal one. Rising to power in a steady surge, its impetus was conceived and sustained by a steady line of ruthless warrior-kings and the battle prowess of the now legendary seraphim. Little is known even now of those indomitable warlords, but they are alluded to with fear even in the folklore of distant lands. By sheer force the incipient nation claimed an entire continent as its own, established rule, and raised cities from nothing. In less than two centuries the newborn empire had sprawled across the continent. With an unmatched explosion of wealth and power, Shallai established diplomatic relations with every kingdom within reach. Ships were built, armies raised and battles fought. Trade routes were carved across plains and over mountains.

And then abruptly, it was gone.

Under normal circumstances, the spans of time in which empires live and die are enormous. Empires do not die quickly. They are not like men, whose fragile lives can be snuffed out by one thrust of the sword. Be they conquered by outside forces, or made brittle and frail by corruption within, the decline of an empire comes like a slow weight from the heavens.

In Shallai we have found the exception.

When death came for Shallai, it came quickly. Diplomatic communications ceased. Trade halted. Entire fleets of Loraean, Shadrakan and Vaagan merchant ships bound for ports along Shallai’s coast returned to their homes without ever having docked at the ports of Shallai. Their captains and their crews swore that the cities of Shallai were gone, the land blighted. Those that threw anchor in her harbors and ventured ashore in search of answers were met with an endless wasteland. Some of the braver crews claimed to have struck inland as far as a hundred leagues. No life was found.

Rumors abounded, fear took root, and all of Shallai was proclaimed cursed. For the past decade her ruins have lain buried beneath a wasteland of heat and sand as though she never existed. The death of such a great empire, being both sudden and inexplicable, is an enigma of legendary proportions, as rife with mystery as her rise was full of glory.

On the day our ship anchored in the bay where the port of Valtyr used to thrive, I walked up to the bluffs where the municipal palace once overlooked the sea. It seemed I stood at the seam binding two disparate worlds. To my right spread the ocean, a deceptive, rolling wasteland of fathom stacked upon fathom. To my left, the carcass of Shallai.

Never before, in all the journeys of my life, have I ever seen such complete desolation. Once bright with life and civilization, this parched land is now sundered and dying of thirst. It stretches flat and broad to the horizon, an arid plain of despair beneath a sun that sits its throne like an angry god. There is wind here, but little else; it is hot and constant, like the slow breath of a sleeping beast. It scours the land, prying at the splits in the ground and moaning with the voices of the dead. And yet a mere ten years ago, if I were to stand in the places through which I have walked these past days, I would have found myself in a land of prosperity. I would have strode beneath Sarsicca’s gates of silver and bronze, through throngs of people crowding the markets by the wharf. The streets would have been packed end to end with traders and merchants, all baying stridently to attract the interest of passersby. There would have been boats tied at the docks of the port at Valtyr, masts like a forest of headless trees where gulls wheeled and wove between them in thick, bumping clouds. There would have been ships anchored in the bay, great vessels of trade and of war. Farther west, in the city of Tassandra, I would have stood at the steps of the monumental temple of the Arrad Brotherhood.

Now, none of it exists.

Atop the bluffs are the ruins of the palace—if they can rightfully be called ruins. They are scarce almost to the point of nonexistence. The remains of marble pillars jut from the ground like the bones of broken fingers, and they crumble at a touch. There is little else to be found, only the rare indication that a vast civilization once prospered in this place; here a crumbling wall, there a pile of bricks. While wandering a lonely slope of beach I discovered the broken arm of a bronze statue, half buried in the hard ground.

I have never known a city to disappear so completely. Shallai has scarcely left her footprint on the world. She has gone with barely a whisper. This seems a world dead for thousands of years. Prior to coming here, I had imagined more than statues and pillars would remain to tell the tales of this dead empire. Instead, it seems as though Shallai has been rubbed from the face of the world.

I have crossed an ocean to come here, but my journey is yet in its infancy. I stand at the cusp of a formidable expedition, and I cannot say to what far reaches of this dead place my journey will take me, or what might be waiting there for me. I can only say that I have come to discover, to unearth—to pull away the layers of years and reveal a past that has remained hidden for too long.

I have come to exhume an empire.