‘Sandstorm’ hits on Thursday – Prologue peek

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Finally! Sandstorm: The Second Sark Brothers Tale will be released on Thursday, Aug. 1.  Ready to follow Winch and Cope into the Golden Desert on their next adventure? Well, get started with this peek at the prologue. It introduces an old friend of the Sark brothers, Professor Bringhurst Dart. Brin is an archaeologist in search of … well, you’ll find out.

Enjoy.

* * * * *

Prologue

496 P.C. (PostCommonwealth)

Tuesday, Fifteenth of Octaron

It was unbearably hot.

Bringhurst Dart doffed his hat and sopped up the sweat cascading down his brow with a handkerchief. His cap was khaki, and he quickly donned it so as to not let the bald spot at the top of his head get sunburned. At the rate his hair was thinning, he’d be as bald as his dear father in ten years. He wore the long-sleeved guayabera, a white shirt the Caminante prized for its breathability, with tough khaki trousers constructed for desert climes. He reckoned they were the finest Caminante garments for desert work. The effect was somewhat harmed by the long, flowing robes the merchants wore as they guided caravans.

The heat was suffocating.

Out here, in the midst of the Golden Desert, he was eight miles from anyone who cared for his sense of fashion. Here there were only curved dunes and craggy cliffs, both as tall as buildings, the dunes colored a goldenrod that hurt the eyes and the cliffs a faded brick brown. Brin’s post was on a blanket spread on the sand between a stack of crates. Behind him, three gigantoraptors fanned themselves with feathers as long as a man’s arm. Their bodies were covered with pale brown feathers edged with green, muted in comparison to the brilliant blue feathers and skin of their heads. The feathers along the tops of their backs were streaks of gold. All three were fitted with saddles and rigging for carrying the aforementioned crates.

It would have been far easier to have driven motorwagons this far, or landed his aeroship, but the Caminante would kill anyone who put manmade machines on their precious sacred sand. It was beasts of burden or nothing.

Brin ignored their grumblings as he stared down at the work area a good twenty feet down the dune’s slope. The workmen were all dressed in the white and tan desert robes. They dug in the sand with shovels and chipped away at rock debris with pickaxes at the bottom of a bowl-shaped depression. One section of the cliff facing Brin, stretching thirty feet up and about ten feet wide, was lighter in color than the rest. It had been touched by man’s hands centuries before. Four columns were carved into pale red stone. They towered over the men. Friezes of heroic figures adorned in crowns and capes rode on dromornis and gigantoraptors across dunes etched onto the flat surface between the columns. Symbols were carved into the rock here and there, but one symbol dominated the rest: a full sun that radiated forty beams and bore the face of a solemn man with blank eyes.

The tomb of Duarte Nunez de Anza. “The lieutenant of Antoine Vincente Galdes himself,” Brin whispered aloud. He could scarce believe he was this close. After six years. Were the men as excited as he? Their voices, chanting in unison as they pulled, sounded cheery. He couldn’t see their faces under the wide brims of their hats.

I wish you could see it, Katya. Mayhaps you can.

A tiny lizard the color of the sands, its skin riddled with knobby protrusions, skittered across his knee. Brin brushed it away. He took a swig from his canteen. Must keep up with the water. What did the Caminante say? Sin agua no hay vida. No water, no life.

“Brin!” Javier scrambled up the dune almost as well as the lizard had done. His skin was bronzed brown and his eyes dark, intent on their target. “The foreman says they are near the chamber block.”

Brin smiled. “Good show, Javier.” He set his cap into place and took a short swig from the canteen. He fastened it to his belt, secure under the loose folds of the guayabera. “Let’s not have them dally.”

Javier led the way, sliding down the dune with the practice of a man born and raised in the GoldenDesert. Brin had a tougher time. He lost his footing twice. He thanked the Allfather he’d found such a skilled assistant at El Brazo. “Goodness knows the university would never spring for an extra hand or two,” he murmured.

Javier shooed a dromornis out of their path, whistling sharply. The flightless bird, standing a good two feet taller than Javier, balked at him. It flapped its stubby wings and shook feathers as sooty in appearance as coalcite dust. Javier took hold of the reins tied to the leather saddle on its back. “Hey! Someone get this bird up to the rise with the rest of the pack animals! Vamos!

A workman came running. He had the pale blue slashes of the Caminante painted on his face. He scowled briefly at Brin. A familiar expression. The man mounted the dromornis and rode it swiftly up the rise toward the crates.

Brin stood back from the workers. They mobbed around a single rock larger than two men. The elders remained at a distance from the workers. Their beards were a glaring white and far bushier than Brin’s. He’d acquiesced to their tradition years ago and grown a short, well-groomed beard about the same shade of brown as the men’s skin. They directed the placement of the ropes and cajoled the younger and stronger men into pulling for all their worth. Their rhythmic chanting and the sound of the rope twisting made Brin’s heart race. Soon. After all his work!

“Bring it down!” Brin slapped his hat against his trousers, raising a storm of dust. “Pull, tarnation!”

They gave one last mighty heave. The rock tumbled aside onto the pile of debris and sand. The sound echoed off the dunes like thunder and startled Brin. The workmen fell back into the sand. Their cries were a mix of joy and surprise.

And there it was.

Agua bendita.” Javier stared and did not move.

It was the dark square of an entryway. Brin stared in shock. “There…there should be a seal. Over the opening. This is not right. Where is the seal?”

Javier shouted commands in his native tongue. He rounded up six young men, taller and burlier than the rest. All had wide leather belts that held two items: scabbards containing curved rapiers and holsters bearing pearl-handled revolvers. An older man distributed torches. He gave Brin the last one in the bundle.

“Thank you.” Brin walked to within a few feet of the entry. Cool air blew across his face. Goosebumps rose on his arm. He struck a match on the mantle.

Onward and inward. Brin stepped in front of Javier and the six other men. He would be the first to enter, confound it.

The flickering torch cast eerie shadows all about. Moisture beaded on the walls, their surface cold beneath Brin’s hand. Sweat ran in rivulets across down his beard.

He immediately found the answer to his question about the missing seal. Rocks the size of the haversack slung over Javier’s shoulder littered the entryway. Brin picked up one piece. “Sun rays.”

Javier crept behind him. “This was part of the seal stone?”

“It was.” Anger welled up inside Brin. “Branter-spit. Someone’s been here before us.”

Javier barked a command. The men drew their pistols. “The letter said there was a single tunnel that runs three hundred feet directly to the tomb itself.”

“If there is anything left.” Brin swept the torch up, illuminating a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel. It was small. Perhaps it was a ventilation shaft. “I’ve long since memorized the letter, Javier.”

“Of course.”

“But I thank you for the reminder, nonetheless.”

Javier tapped the side of his nose. “Do you smell that?”

Brin sniffed. It was a bitter aroma, strong enough to overpower the stale air of the corridor. “Poison gas.”

Tóxico.” Javier ran his finger along the rock wall. The tip came away pale green. “Belladonna and verdigris, finely mixed with chalk. The same as the previous tomb that cost us five men.”

“Someone’s triggered the gas.”

“Then I guess we don’t need these.” Javier patted his rucksack.

“Distribute them to the men anyway. There may be enough left in here to incapacitate us.”

Javier reached into the rucksack and wordlessly handed him a breathing mask, then distributed the rest to the six workers. Brin pulled the goggles over his eyes and made sure the leather straps held the metal breathing box secure over his mouth and nose. For some reason it reminded him of a canister of olives with holes poked in the front. It was a crude design, but Brin thought Javier should be proud of his work.

They explored the remainder of the tunnel in silence. The sight of shoe prints in the dirt kept Brin on edge. The six workmen accompanying them stayed alert. Not that Brin expected people to still be here. But one of the abandoned tombs he’d excavated last year had turned out to be home to some rather hungry dire-wolves.

Hence the swords and guns.

Something glittered in the torch’s light. Brin thought his heart would stop.

Javier picked it up off the ground. “Gas mask.” It seemed to Brin a more polished, less crude version of Javier’s model, with a shiny brass box for a breathing apparatus. Javier brushed sand from the lenses.

“Tarnation,” Brin said.

They reached the door to the tomb. It was wooden and metal, secured with three heavy hinges affixed to the stone itself. The same solemn sun face adorned the center as was carved into the cliff above the main entrance. The only difference was that this one was two feet in diameter and made of silver. The eyes were not sightless. A pair of sapphires as big as a man’s eyes stared back at Brin. He could see that the door was a good half a foot thick, because it was resting partway open.

Brin ran his hand across the face. How long it been since tomb robber had beat him here? Days? Weeks? Months? He grabbed the door handle. It was slick with cold in his fingers.

Open it.

Brin yanked hard on the handle. The door was heavy. It swung ponderously open.

Ceramic pots lay shattered on the floor just inside the doorway. The smell of gas was strongest here, even through his breathing apparatus. Apparently whoever had gotten here before him had known to be on guard for possible traps. Brin’s men had triggered the same kind of ancient containers at the dig that had claimed his five workmen.

Brin tore the mask off. They’d left a right mess of the place.

It was a chamber the size of the parlor of an average house back in Mintannic, fifteen feet on each side. The walls were decorated in bright mosaics, a rainbow of greens and golds and reds, depicting scenes of brave adventurers crossing a barren land. In the center of the back wall of the round chamber, a splash of blue surrounded a sailing vessel. Definitely mid-Commonwealth design.

“The mosaics are intact.” Javier sounded relieved.

“On any other dig, that would please me immensely,” Brin said.

The sarcophagus lay before them. A lid of heavy stone tilted off one side. Shadows jumped in the chamber as Brin panned his torch about the inside of the sarcophagus. It was empty.

“Tarnal blamed branter-spit!” Brin threw his mask against the wall. The goggle lenses shattered and the metal breathing apparatus crumpled.

Javier knelt beside the sarcophagus. The effigy carved into the lid depicted a man with his eyes shut. He wore ornate armor and a cape, and he had a long, flowing mustache. Javier reached inside the resting place. His hand emerged bearing a few scraps of linen wrappings as dry and desiccated as Brin’s hopes.

“They took the body,” Javier whispered.

Brin leaned against the door, suddenly weary. “What about the dune’s astrolabe?”

“Gone as well,” Javier muttered.

“Then we’re all in grave danger.” Brin staggered through the door. He pushed his way past the befuddled workmen. “I’m sorry, Katya,” he whispered. “The scoundrels beat me to it.”

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