A Song of Wraiths and Ruin Page 1



“Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!”

The griot’s voice warbled through the scorching desert air, cutting through the donkey pens and jeweled caravans that populated the tent settlement outside the city-state of Ziran’s Western Gate. On instinct, Malik angled his body toward the storyteller’s call, his grip tightening around the satchel strap slung across his chest.

The griot was a stout woman nearly a head shorter than Malik, with a face stretched wide in a tooth-baring grin. Bone-white tattoos composed of symbols Malik could not understand swirled on every inch of her dark brown skin.

“Abraa! Abraa! Come and gather—a story is about to begin!”

The steady rhythm of a djembe drum now accompanied the griot’s call, and within minutes a sizable crowd had formed beneath the baobab tree where she stood. It was the perfect time for a story too—that hour when dusk met night and the little sunlight that remained left the sky bright but the world below dark. The audience sat on overturned crates and between worn carts, checking the heavens every few minutes for Bahia’s Comet, even though its arrival and the start of the festival of Solstasia were still hours away.

The griot called a third time, and Malik took another step toward her, then another. When the Zirani had occupied his home in the Eshran Mountains, the griots had been the first to go, but the few who remained had carved their marks into Malik’s soul. To listen to a griot was to enter a new world, one where heroes danced across the heavens with spirits in their wake and gods churned mountains into being with a flick of their wrists. Malik’s body seemed to move forward of its own accord, caught on the hypnotic lure of the woman’s voice.

He and his sisters had been traveling the Odjubai Desert for two months now, with no company aside from the creaking of the false wagon bottom they hid beneath, the howling cries of the wind shifting through the dunes, and the quiet whimpers of his fellow refugees. Surely there’d be no harm in listening to just one story and letting himself forget for just a moment that they had no home to return to and no—

“Malik, look out!”

A strong hand grabbed Malik by the collar, and he stumbled backward. Not even a second later, a leathery foot the size of a small cow slammed to the ground right where he had been standing. A shadow passed over Malik’s face as the chipekwe lumbered by, throwing sand and pebbles into the air with each thundering step.

Malik had heard stories of chipekwes as a child, but none of the tales had captured the creatures’ gargantuan size. Bred to hunt elephants on the savanna, the top of its plated head could have easily cleared the roof of his family’s old farmhouse, and the sharp horn protruding from the creature’s nose was nearly as large as he was.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” snapped Leila as the chipekwe’s shadow passed. His older sister glared at him over the bridge of her crooked nose. “Watch where you’re going!”

Reality returned to Malik like drops of water from a rusty faucet, and slowly the call to story was drowned out by cries of caravan drivers to their beasts, melodies from musicians regaling audiences with tales of Solstasias past, and other sounds of the settlement. Several people had stopped to stare at the idiot boy who had almost gotten himself trampled to death, and the weight of their gazes sent heat rushing to Malik’s face. He twisted the worn leather of his satchel strap until it bit into the flesh of his palm. Shadows flickered in his peripheral vision, and Malik squeezed his eyes shut until his head hurt.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered quietly.

A small head surrounded by a cloud of bouncy, dark curls popped out from behind Leila. “Did you see that?” exclaimed Nadia. His younger sister’s mouth hung open in wonder. “It was, like—like a million feet tall! Is it here for Solstasia? Can I touch it?”

“It’s most likely here for Solstasia because everyone’s here for Solstasia. And don’t touch anything,” said Leila. She turned back to Malik. “And you of all people should know better than to just wander off like that.”

Malik’s grip on his satchel strap tightened. There was no use trying to explain to his older sister the power a call to story had over him. While he was prone to dreaming and wandering, Leila preferred logic and plans. They saw the world differently, in more ways than one.

“I’m sorry,” Malik repeated, his eyes planted firmly on the ground. The sunburned tops of his sandaled feet stared back at him, blistered from months of travel in shoes never meant for such a task.

“Blessed Patuo give me strength. Taking you two anywhere is like herding a couple of headless chickens.” Malik winced. Leila had to be really upset if she was invoking the name of her patron deity.

She extended Malik her left hand, the palm bearing the emblem that marked her as Moon-Aligned.

“Come on. Let’s go before you get sat on by an elephant.”

Nadia giggled, and Malik bristled at the jab, but he still obediently took Leila’s hand. His other hand he offered to Nadia, who took it without hesitation.

No one batted an eye as Malik and his sisters maneuvered their way through the tens of thousands of people who had flocked to Ziran for Solstasia. Refugees existed by the hundreds in the settlement outside Ziran, with dozens more arriving each day; three new ones, young and unaccompanied as they were, hardly made a difference.

“Solstasia afeshiya! Solstasia afeshiya!”

The cry came from everywhere and nowhere, a call to celebration in a language older than Ziran itself. In a few hours, Bahia’s Comet, named for the first sultana of Ziran, would appear in the sky for an entire week, marking the end of the current era and the beginning of the next. During this time, the Zirani held a festival known as Solstasia, where seven Champions—one to represent each of the patron deities—would face three challenges. They would know which god was meant to rule over the next era by the winning Champion.

“Imagine every carnival and every masquerade and every festival in all the world happening all at once,” Nana had once said, and though his grandmother was in a refugee camp hundreds of miles away, Malik could almost feel the warmth of her wizened brown hands against his cheek, her dark eyes bright with knowledge he could hardly fathom. “Even that is nothing compared to a single hour of Solstasia.”

Though Leila did not move particularly fast, within minutes sweat poured down Malik’s back and his breath came out in short, painful bursts. Their travels had left his already frail body a weakened shell of itself, and now splotches of purple and green danced in Malik’s eyes with each step he took beneath the unforgiving desert sun.

They were headed for six identical wooden platforms in a wide clearing, where Zirani officials and soldiers screened the people entering the city. Each platform was twice the size of a caravan wagon, and the travelers, merchants, and refugees populating the settlement shuffled around them, all trying to pass through the checkpoint while drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.

“Traders and groups of five or more to the right! Individuals and groups of four or less to the left,” called an official. Though Zirani soldiers milled about in their silver-and-maroon armor, Malik saw no Sentinels. Good—the absence of Ziran’s elite warriors was always a welcome sight.

Malik glanced upward at the structure towering ahead. Unlike the chipekwe, the old stories had not undersold Ziran’s size. The Outer Wall stretched as far as the eye could see, fading into a shimmering mirage at the edge of the horizon. Seven stories of ancient sandstone and mudbrick loomed over the settlement, with the Western Gate a dark brown horseshoe-shaped deviation in the red stone.