Collaborative Writing Challenge

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
― Helen Keller

ESYLD'S AWAKENING
Short Story Winner

In every collaboration you will find a short story published at the end. The story will be in the same genre as the book it features in, and was the winning story in a competition we run alongside each collaboration. 


The winner is featured below. This story is exceptional and it was a very tricky choice to choose a winner. Congratulations to J.K. Harrison.

Winner


He who wields Discernment will fall to no blade.

Sloan read the inscription again. Heaviness settled in her chest, making her heart beat faster. She tightened her grip on the sword and focused on her breathing.
Cian glanced restlessly around the small hut. “What do you see?”

“Nothing.” Her voice wavered with the effort of lying through a prophecy. Power surged through the smooth sword hilt, radiating up her arm. Sloan could see whole armies fail to strike down any man who wielded the Jade Hilt.

He tilted his head perceptively. “Sloan. You’re seeing something.”

She took a deep breath and returned her focus to her surroundings. Cian’s gaze waited, as deep and enigmatic as the sea. Sloan pushed that aside. “The inscription is true.”

A grin, like a flash of sunlight, broke across his face, careless of its affect. Cian pressed his mouth to her cheek, an oblivious, habitual gesture. Then he left, leaving Sloan’s hut feeling hollow and dull. His presence always made her feel a little drunk and his departure too much like being hungover.

Sloan pushed herself off the floor to go wash away the weight and burn of the sword. Her legs protested, and her head swam. Staggering toward the open hearth, she had to catch herself on the center post. The spirit bells overhead offered a shower of tinkles she wanted to ignore.

Dipping her hand in a bucked of water did nothing to soothe the sting. She turned it over to find blisters speckling her palm.

“You should not have touched that.”

Sloan sighed, massaging her hand. “I know, Grandmother.”

She would not have touched it for anyone else in the village, though she did wish it had been anyone else who asked.

Twilight bled color out of the day when Cian leaned inside Sloan’s doorway, offering another burst of brightness. Her pallid complexion gave pause to what would have been a passing greeting. “Are you unwell?”

She finished tying the drawing poultice bag before forcing a smile. “Just a little tired.”

“Did you cut yourself?”

She glanced at her wrapped hand. “I—yes.”

Cian noticed her gaze drift to the sword he still carried. “This? You didn’t even look at the blade.” He pulled the sword free of the scabbard to admire its gleam in the fading light.

“I didn’t need to.”  She was about to feign another smile when he frowned at her. She knew the words would be useless, like so many things she’d told Cian, but like all the others, she felt compelled to say them. “There is more to the Jade Hilt than what is etched there. Any man who wields this sword brings his own destruction.” 

He flashed a reassuring grin. “Your kind feel that way about all swords, Sloanie.”

Defeat settled into her bones.

The bells announced Grandmother’s presence again. “You have known his path since it intersected yours.”

“Yes, Grandmother.”

“And what is it I told you that day?”

Sloan sighed and wished a simple smudging would chase Grandmother away.

“I am too strong for that, child.” The ghost often seemed to know her thoughts. “What did I tell you?”

“That a warrior and a shaman could not walk together.”

“Yet you are no more willing to heed my words than the warrior is to heed yours.”

“Be gone, Grandmother.”

“You let the darkness in, child. Best for you to rest.”

Though nothing stirred, Sloan sensed the emptiness in her hut as Grandmother’s presence left.

Feverish dreams terrorized Sloan all night; images of death and chaos forged by the Jade Hilt. Each time the wielder fell to the prophecy, they had Cian’s eyes, emptied and staring.

The ting of bells pulled Sloan awake when dawn was just a smear of color along the horizon.

“The darkness has found a weakness inside you to feed on,” Grandmother scolded.

Sloan ignored the aches throughout her body and the pain throbbing up her arm. “I’ll be fine.”

“Your poultice did not work. Your mind was too distracted when you made it.”

During their long relationship, there had been few times Grandmother had irritated Sloan as much as she did now. She didn’t need to be reminded of failures, shortcomings, and futilities.

“A shaman must know her place,” Grandmother said gently. “More than anyone in the village, your path must be clear.”

“And a shaman is the only one who can help Cian now.”

“No.” Grandmother’s harshness caught Sloan off guard. “Only Cian can walk his path, and he chose it. When he was a boy, he chose his path. Daily, he chooses it. And yesterday, he chose it again when you told him what that sword was, and again when he saw how it poisons you.” 

“And I choose my path.” Sloan rose unsteadily to her feet, the room spinning for a moment as fatigue and illness tried to pull her down.

“Sloan Worldwalker, do not do this.”

Waving her hand as if to cut through smoke, Sloan shooed away the presence and turned to pack offerings into a leather sack.

“Let me cleanse it.”

Cian’s amber brows knotted as he took in the hollowness under Sloan’s eyes. “You don’t seem fit to cleanse anything this morning. You ought to be resting. Go back to bed, and 
I’ll have Shae sent with tea and broth.”

Sloan’s glance tugged toward the sword resting next to Cian’s mat. The hilt’s jade inlay seemed unnaturally dark in the shadow of the hut. “I will not get better until I have cleansed that sword. You don’t understand what taints it.”

“Even in the height of battle, I did not feel as much a warrior as when I grasped that sword. I didn’t feel anything bad in it. Every warrior in Taniga seeks the Jade Hilt, but that is 
not something a shaman can understand. You ought to keep to consulting smoke and watching birds fly. Warfare is beyond your realm.”

“You brought it to me because there are things I understand that a warrior does not. There is a darkness in that thing.” Sloan pursed her lips and looked away, continuing with a soft voice. “What will a shaman’s ritual hurt to something of such renown?”

Sighing wistfully, Cian turned to retrieve the sword. A patronizing smile broke over his face as he offered it to her. “Do as you like. I suppose you’re right about the ritual.”

Not even the strongest hunters would enter the Forest of the Restless. Staring at the tall, slender trees, with leaves dark against the sun, fresh sweat prickled out of Sloan’s pores, and her chest clenched around her heart. The throbbing in her arm threatened to overwhelm everything else, but she set her jaw and trudged forward.

A silent partner for the entire journey, Grandmother’s presence receded as Sloan neared the trees. It left her feeling oddly exposed to the sun’s rays beating down from its zenith. 
The sword, slung against her back, seemed to grow heavier with each step. A welcomed relief from the heat, the protection of the leaves quickly became an eerie chill.

As her pupils dilated, Sloan could see rocks and boulders scattered among the tree trunks. Animals did not trespass here; there were no game trails to help navigate the forest floor. Picking her way carefully didn’t stop Sloan from rolling her foot on a stone. A cry burst from her lips when she caught herself on her sick arm, sending a jolt of white-hot pain.

As the throbbing eased to a bearable level, the first whispers slid through the ominous trees to reach Sloan’s ears. The still air made breathing hard, feeling too heavy for her lungs.

Sloan righted herself and continued to pick through the trees as the first tendrils of hopelessness wove around her. A shaman could resist longer, but anyone who remained would eventually succumb to the darkness. With each step, she felt the Restless surrounding her, blanketing her with animosity.

The trunks looked the same, but she felt it when she neared the one she sought. Just like last time, it drew her. This time, however, she felt the tree’s history—a shadow of what was. Tall and foreboding, the tree stood like all those around it. Despite the whispers engulfing her, Sloan could hear the echo of a creak from the tree’s past.

Pulling a breath deep into her chest and ignoring the invasive spirits turned away at her lips, Sloan steadied herself. Everyone here fed off weakness, so she did not allow herself to hesitate before looking up.

Graceful branches, slender leaves, and nothing more obscured the sky. The sun had been bright when Sloan had entered, and it was the middle of the dry season, but from here, she thought the sky could be overcast forever.

Looking like all the others, the branch holding the weight of her mother drew Sloan’s eye. Less than ten seasons had passed, but not even the rope remained. She did not know what had become of the rope or her mother’s bones; nothing but leaves and rocks littered the ground.

Studiously ignoring the invisible whirl of emotion consuming her and inhaling deeply to slow her heart, Sloan removed the contents of her sack and the sheathed blade. 
No fire would spark to life here, but she hoped the ground bone and blessed meat would be enough.

“Mother,” she called, scattering the bone dust in a circle around her and the Jade Hilt. “I invoke you.”

The whispers grew to a muffled howl, but none answered her.

“Mother,” Sloan called again, holding out her hand. “With the bond of blood, I invoke you.”

Tightening her fingers around the bone handle of her ritual knife, she drew it across her outstretched palm. The glassy blade parted her flesh more cleanly than any steel. Her blood pattered over the cursed sword before she felt the sting of the wound. Even as she knelt, watching the patterns her offering made over the weapon, she felt the gaping of her flesh more than any pain.

A sharp chill cut into the air, standing her hair on end and driving a shiver down her spine.

“There is no mother here, fool,” a deep voice growled. “You wield no power among these trees.”

She gritted her teeth and stiffened her lips to keep her voice steady. “Blood holds power anywhere.” The truth she spoke emboldened her. “I entreat you to cleanse the curse from this sword.”

The presence swirled around her but offered nothing else.

Her fist clenched around the cut. “I compel you!”

The air around her split into a roar that bore into her bones. Primal fear and unfathomable anguish filled her with insurmountable hopelessness. Her eyes fell to the black knife she still gripped. Even in the gloom, the obsidian gleamed.

A small bubble invaded the darkness, filling her and pressing against the inside of her ribs. It burst with a sharp pain and something too faint to hear; a little more than a foreign feeling urged her to run.

Snatching the sword, Sloan pushed to her feet, spinning toward the way she’d come. She broke through the circle of bone dust, silencing the enraged roar but not easing the despair inside her. Last time, her mother’s ghost had been there to help; this time, Sloan had only that old memory to guide her and panic to drive her.

The wash of sunlight shocked her as she burst from the stoic trees and ocean of whispers, but Sloan didn’t slow her pace. Half blind, she stumbled along until the Forest of the Restless faded behind her and her pupils constricted to pinpricks.

In the heat of the day, during the peak of the dry season, Sloan was halfway home and drenched with sweat before the chill had dissipated. The sharp cramp in her side finally brought her to a stop, her feet churning puffs of pale dust. Still clenching the sword and knife, Sloan braced her hands against her knees as she gasped for breath and waited for the pounding inside her skull to ease. She expected Grandmother’s reprimand to start at any moment.

As her heart slowed and her breath quieted, the silence elongated. The air felt empty around her, and after another moment, Sloan started for home again. Aches throughout her body and the safety of the bright sunlight kept her pace slower now. Perhaps Grandmother had found something better to do or intended to give her the cold shoulder.

Cian wasn’t anywhere in sight when Sloan returned, and she was too exhausted to look for him, so she entrusted the Jade Hilt with Shae, his young sister. He might not give her the sword a second time to cleanse, but the bone-deep weariness she felt prevented Sloan from determining that today. She was tired of looking at the cursed thing.
The tinkle of the spirit bells woke Sloan that night.

“It’s late for a lecture,” she called drowsily. The weight of the proceeding silence pulled Sloan fully awake. “Grandmother?”

“Grandmother is not here.”

Iciness stabbed her gut at the sound of the deep voice from the forest. Crawling clumsily off her mat to the open hearth, Sloan’s pulse hammered against her ears, muffling everything else except the sound of her breathing.

“You are not welcome here.” Her voice came out strong, despite burning her fingertips in her frantic attempts to stir the coals to life.

The orange glow consoled her the slightest bit but didn’t keep her hands from trembling when she reached for a bundle of sage drying overhead. Once she had the sage smoldering, the earthy, pungent smoke offered more comfort.

She raised the sage in one hand, using the other to waft smoke around her. “You are not welcome here.”             

The presence made no reply, but Sloan could still feel it. Angling the bundle of incense downward so it would burn better, she swept through the hut in a widening circle, doing a full smudging. The ancient song came from low in her belly, rising and falling as she moved. Sloan always felt a deep connection to her ancestors when she sang their words, and the weight of balancing the other world with her own settled into a somber determination inside her. When Grandmother had told her that a shaman could not walk with a warrior, she spoke too of the importance of this balance and of how only the shaman could keep it.

Sloan was still smudging her hut when early-morning light streaked through the flaps of her door, illuminating the heavy smoke hanging in the air. She’d gone through enough sage to smudge every hut in the village, but she could still feel the presence defying the sacred smoke and the words as old as her people.

“Sloan.” Cian’s call broke through the stillness.

“I’m awake.”

Parting the animal hides, he waved the sage smoke from his face as it escaped around him. The heavy cloud wasn’t enough to distract him from his mission this morning, though. “Shae is ill. We need you.”

The girl’s face was colorless, except for the lavender rings around her eyes. Sloan would have thought she was looking at a corpse if not for the irregular rise and fall of Shae’s chest.

“She does not wake,” her mother murmured. “She complained of an aching head last night, and now she does not wake.”

“Burn sage next to her constantly. Bathe her in the smoke every hour, and if she wakes, give her pale tea.” Sloan rose to her feet and turned to Cian. “Give me the sword.”

“Now is not the time to worry about my sword—”

“Give it to me.” Something from deep inside Sloan moved through the words, and it was enough to keep Cian from arguing. Sloan took the weapon in her injured hand and walked away from the village again. This time, though, she went to the Blessing Stone, where she could walk the seam between the two worlds. She ought to have come here yesterday, but she wanted to lift the curse from the sword and nothing more. It was too late for that, and now Shae was sick from her foolishness as much as Cian’s. 

All the ghosts were silent that day, including Grandmother, and Sloan felt the presence from the forest lingering at the base of the Blessing Stone. It would not come into this sacred circle of rock, but it waited for her.

Settling into her seated position, Sloan closed her eyes, breathing deeply and pushing everything from her mind. The crackle of a small wood fire before her was the only thing to break the quiet. A slight wind shifted, blowing the acrid smoke into her face. The smell pulled forth a hazy memory.
When she was a child, before most in the village knew she had the ghost tongue, Grandmother told her stories, teaching her in a way a child’s mind would understand. She recalled one about the Angry Man and the Righteous Sword.

As she remembered the story, Sloan’s chest tightened, and her heart beat faster. The Righteous Sword fell every enemy it crossed. It discerned justice for each person who came before it, telling the wielder if they deserved to live or die. This knowledge of truth soon conquered entire armies without a drop of bloodshed.

And then the Angry Man possessed it. Scorned by a woman who favored another warrior, the Angry Man drew the Righteous Sword against this man, but the sword judged that the man should live. In a fury, the Angry Man killed him anyway, and then the woman, then everyone else in the village.

When the next dawn rose, the Angry Man realized what he’d done, and sorrow and fear filled him. He fled, running for days, as though he could escape his actions. But the land, seeking justice, moved to stop him. Tall trees rose like prison bars, and stones rolled beneath his feet so he could not run. Forced, then, to face his anguish, the man turned the sword on himself. The Angry Man’s betrayal crushed the weapon’s soul, its blade drenched in the man’s blood, and a cursed prophecy stained the Righteous Sword.

The ancestors were silent; they all knew what Sloan had to do, and it was a path they could not walk with her. The presence in her hut knew too. Yesterday, her blood fell where his once flowed, and they were bonded together now so Grandmother could not return to her. She would not be there to help Sloan heal the village, and the sickness inside Shae would spread to others as long as the Jade Hilt remained.

The sword grew heavier with each step, and the silent presence of the Angry Man dragged against her more and more the nearer she drew to the Forest of the Restless. As the tall, slender trees emerged with their leaves dark against the sun, each step took all Sloan’s effort. She tried not to wonder if Cian would miss the sword she cradled more than he would miss her.

For one brief moment, she stood on the edge of the trees, ignoring the way the Angry Man’s ghost nudged her, and reveled in the heat of the sun’s rays beating against her.

She pulled in a final, hot breath and entered the forest.

J.K. Harrison

Curse the Sword


COMING SOON