8 weeks, 4 authors, 1 story. In this SPFBO Special Edition of To Be Continued… I asked the Finalists to write a story together based on my prompt, without knowing who takes part. They each had 2 weeks to write their part before I forwarded it to the next person to continue. Each part is somewhere between 500 – 1500 words long. So, are you ready to explore The Blade of the Gods?
Part 1: While patrolling, Marten and her company come upon a mysterious tower, also known as the blade of the gods, that is rumored that anyone who reaches the top can change the fate of the world. And so the race begins.
Part 2: We learn a bit about Marten’s background, and when he catche up with Guithart, she makes a decision that will set unexpected events into motion. Marten, Guithart and Rayston finally step up to the tower.
The story is To Be Continued by:
Hi! I live in a big house in rural Australia with my awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction. You can visit me online at https://suzannahrowntree.site
If you like the mythic fantasy of Stephen Lawhead, S. A. Chakraborty or Naomi Novik, you’ll probably like my stories too!
The wall certainly looked solid. But it parted around her like cold vapor. Marten heard Guithart cry out, felt him let go of her hand as they went through. She emerged on the other side with a shout of her own, whirling the Sabre to a guard stance.
No Guithart. No Rayston. No shriek from the Sabre in her hand. Nothing but the homely flicker of firelight, and the smell of freshly-baked cinnamon scones.
Nothing but a small round room—no, by the Destroying Goddess: a bakery. Sacks of flour, a broad table covered in rolling-pins, kneading-troughs and milk-jugs. Stunned, Marten let her guard drop. She was certainly in the tower’s lowest level: the walls shimmered with translucent green light, and when she tilted her head back she could see all the way up the hollow core of the building, an impossible stair winding its way up the structure like the rifling in a gun-barrel until it vanished into impenetrable darkness towards the pinnacle.
Marten swallowed hard and looked down, finding herself once again in the bakery. A tray of cinnamon scones, fresh out of the oven that flanked the fire, were cooling on the table. A growl in her stomach reminded her that she hadn’t eaten since dawn. She hesitated a moment—the tower was obviously strong magic, and the milk-jug made no sense, for the nearest milch cow must be one and a half hours’ ride in the direction of Forhythe.
Still. If Fate wanted to do her in with cinnamon scones exactly like the ones she remembered from her childhood, it could have her and welcome.
It wasn’t until she leaned across the table to grab one that she realised she wasn’t alone.
A man sat cross-legged on the hearth with his back to her, watching the steaming pot that hung above the dancing flames. Orange syrup, her nose told her. For pouring over the scones, to serve them piping hot and soaked in sweetness. For a good year you hadn’t been able to get them anywhere else in Carstow, because that brilliant idea had first belonged to—
The baker turned.
Marten’s Sabre fell to the stones with a clatter.
“Tarik,” she whispered.
“Marten?” He jumped to his feet, and Marten stepped back, snatching her weapon again.
It was impossible. “You’re dead,” she accused him, back on guard again, though the tip of the sword was shaking. “You disappeared on patrol, what, twenty years ago! The Blackwood took you! You’re bloody dead!”
“I’m…” He blinked at her and shook his head, the gesture pulling free memories she’d forgotten decades ago. He was older now, crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes, patches of white in his beard, his stocky physique comfortably padded—a dependable-looking man, save for the weeping sores spreading from beneath the thrall-ring on his neck. “I’m sleeping. I must have nodded off.” He smacked himself in the face. “The karabari will have me flogged. Wake. Wake…”
Karabari. Marten’s heart stood still. “That’s a Nessani word.”
“The king’s steward,” Tarik stopped slapping himself. “Wait…”
Hope like a poisonous flower bloomed within her. “The Nessani took you?”
“You didn’t know?”
“Destroyer, Tarik, did you think I would have wasted my life traipsing around this godsforsaken jungle for the last twenty years if I’d known you were still alive? Where are you exactly?”
“No. No, Marten, it’s too—”
“You’re with their king, aren’t you?” She glanced at her Sabre, a plan forming in her mind. It was out of the sheath now and there was no going back. She might just do it.
If only she could reach the top of the tower before the others.
“Stay alive,” she told him. “I’m coming for you.”
She wheeled towards the tower stair—and nearly collided with Rayston and Guithart. Guithart’s mouth hung open. Rayston scoffed.
“That’ll be one for the poets to make songs about. Marten, Hero of the Age, storming Nessana to rescue a…cook?”
Marten threw a glance over her shoulder. Tarik had vanished, along with the fireplace, the table, and (damn it) the cinnamon scones.
“Get out of my way,” she said very quietly, levelling her Sabre.
“Or what?” Rayston taunted, stepping back and coming on guard himself. “You’ll kill us? Don’t you realise that’s what the tower wants?”
“What do you know about it?”
“Only what me mam used to tell me when it was time for bed. Don’t you know the rules? No one gets into the tower alone. No one comes out in company. Power demands blood. No pain, no gain. No sacrifice, no glory. And the greater the sacrifice, the greater the glory.” He threw a sidelong glance at Guithart. Shadows thickened on the edge of his Sabre, murderous purpose made visible. “How about this? First we kill the boy. Then fight it out ourselves.”
Guithart backed away, his eyes widening. “You’re insane.”
“We’re not killing the kid,” Marten growled.
“Well, then, I guess you’ll never make good on that promise.”
“I just want my brother back.” Her voice was shaking. “It’s not a lot, but it’s everything to me.”
“If it’s money you want,” Guithart put in desperately, “you’re much better off keeping me alive.”
With a Sabre-wielding madman facing her, Marten had no time to unravel what that was supposed to mean. “What do you want that’s worth killing for, anyway, Rayston?”
“Nice try. You’ll just have to…”
It happened in the blink of an eye. One minute the room was barren and empty. The next it contained the interior of one of the small wattle-and-daub huts clustering in the protective shadow of the fort at Forhythe. Marten recognised the woman who stood at the doorway with her back to them—Ashunti did washing for the regiment. Marten had never particularly liked the woman, but then, she’d never expected to like anyone who spent a lot of time with Rayston.
Ashunti looked nervous, though, the door held open a crack, her shoulders heaving with quick breaths as she watched whatever was going on outside. Suddenly, she threw the door open. “Rayston!” she called.
But it wasn’t Rayston who shoved through the door. Marten caught her breath at the first Nessani warrior she’d seen since the bad old times when the Nappan river was a front line instead of the edge of a demilitarised zone: white tunic, lapis beads, silver buckler—and a slim curved Sabre, its edges wreathed in steaming red as it plunged through Ashunti’s midsection.
Rayston swore violently.
With a dim gasp, the laundress folded around the hilt of the Sabre. It blazed bright as a flame and Marten heard the dying wail, felt the pull at her own soul as Ashunti’s essence was drawn into the black blade. Within moments it was over, Ashunti’s corpse a blackened husk on the ground. The Nessani stalked right toward them, sweeping Ashunti’s poor belongings from the shelf, kicking over the chest at the foot of her bed, stabbing her pillow till the feathers flew.
With something suspiciously close to a sob, Rayston lifted his own Sabre. It flashed with angry red light in the dim green light of the tower. And then the room was empty.
There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the sound of Guithart being sick—again.
“Destroyer,” Marten breathed, glancing at her own Sabre. So that was what the soul-drinking sword looked like in action. No wonder a condition of the tenuous peace between the Senate and Nessana demanded the Sabres be kept sheathed.
Power demands blood. And right now, the thought of power was irresistible. How many souls were trapped within her own blade? Enough to get her to Tarik?
Rayston erupted into a stream of curses, some of which were new even to Marten. Then he whipped around, Sabre on guard. Red smoke writhed around the blade.
“You’re standing in my way,” he said.
Marten hesitated. How many Sabres at Forhythe? Twenty at most, including the ones she and Rayston carried? If the Nessani crossed the river and hit the fort in any significant numbers, Ashunti was dead. So was everyone else, from Yarrid himself all the way down to Tamer, the grubby little boy who delivered milk to the mess hall twice a day.
Was she really considering sacrificing them all for a brother she’d thought dead until five minutes ago?
“Stand down, Rayston,” she snapped. “That’s an order.”
“You can take your orders and—what the hell?”
Once again, the tower changed. This time it was the interior of a richly-decorated pavilion, the kind of place Marten could never have dreamed up herself: full of coloured silks, rich carpets, carved and inlaid furniture like she’d never seen. A Nessani lord waited in an armchair wearing a simple muslin tunic, a gilded, jewelled sword, and a string of pearls Marten had trouble believing were real. The bodyguard behind him was a more familiar type: from his stance and the way he caressed the hilt of his own Sabre, he had to be an elite warrior, the kind to inspire campfire legends.
Rayston’s voice cut in. “We in your head again, Marten?”
“Are you joking?”
A man entered through the flap of the pavilion. Unarmed, he wore a cotton gown, his hands folded within his sleeves; but there was a steel cap on his head, and the telltale chime of chain mail as he bowed repeatedly to the Nessani lord.
“Your majesty is gracious to honour this worthless rebel with an audience.” As the unarmed man straightened, Marten caught her breath.
No longer a boy, but a man. Still short and wiry. Watchful eyes. A glint of steel through the thin cloth he wore.
What the hell was right, Marten decided.
The Nessani lord—no, she realised, the king—rose from his chair. “Brother,” he announced, his voice thick with emotion.
She couldn’t see Rayston, but she heard him choke on his own shock.
“Truly the poet has said, that it becomes a king ill to hold grudges,” King Arpand went on, satisfaction warming his flowery words. “Equally ill, it becomes a brother to war against his brother. I have accepted your surrender; now I offer my mercy. Come to my arms.”
Guithart obeyed, unfolding his hands from his sleeves. Marten, like the king, saw it an instant too late: the crooked dagger concealed in his right hand, the steel tiger-claws welded to the rings on his left.
Before the king could cry out, Guithart slashed with the claws, ripping open his brother’s gut.
King Arpand staggered back cradling his gashed stomach, fumbling for his sword. “Treachery,” he gasped, sweeping the blade out.
It was a jewelled toy, not a soul-drinking Sabre. It rebounded from Guithart’s armour with a dull crash. The next instant the younger man closed the gap between them, plunging the dagger into Arpand’s throat. A spray of blood from the severed artery painted his face red, but Guithart didn’t hesitate as the bodyguard recovered from his surprise and tore the Sabre from its sheath, screaming its death-song.
Not quickly enough. Before the larger man could come on guard, Guithart lunged from his knees, burying Arpand’s sword to the hilt in the bodyguard’s gut.
But for the bodyguard’s fading groans, silence descended. Guithart rose to his feet and turned, breathing hard. The flap of the pavilion opened, letting in a retinue of servants and guards to find the rebel prince standing over the body of their king.
Guithart shook blood from his tiger claws.
“I am Guithart, son of Gopind, by the will of the gods King of Nessana,” he announced.
The servants hesitated, their faces turning grey. Then, one by one, they knelt.
With that, the vision cleared. Marten looked at Rayston, who had gone as pasty as the servants in the vision. Then both of them turned to the boy who knelt on the green stone floor at their feet, a string of vomit still hanging from the corner of his mouth. His shoulders heaved. He looked as though he might like to be sick again.
“What…” Marten gasped. “Who…”
“He’s a prince… He’s a bloody Nessani prince.” Rayston turned on Marten, his Sabre beginning to glow red-hot, forge-bright. “Were you in on this? Were the two of you working together? That why you drew the Sabre? That why you broke the Pact? You meant to bring those savages down on us! Gods! You filthy traitors!”
She had no opportunity to say more. No opportunity to point out that the boy might be their only hope.
Rayston wheeled. His red-hot Sabre hissed through the air. Straight for Guithart’s head.
To Be Continued…
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Suzannah Rowntree‘s SPFBO 6 Finalist novel is A Wind from the Wilderness, advanced to the Finals by The Fantasy Hive team. Make sure to check it out!