Act I is about two more scenes toward completion - coming up to 34,000 words. Just need a little more done and then finished. There will probably need to be some reorganization afterward - as I'm hitting past the 25% of the manuscript mark that I'm aiming for at this point.
Still, a huge cause of celebration!
To celebrate, I thought it would be a good time to share A Sanctum of Swords' first chapter in its entirety - pre-editor, but post a number of self-edits. I hope you guys enjoy!
Gates of Her Palace
Souls marked for death by the divine rarely assumed the guise of simple prey. Enigma understood that lesson long ago, in a decade since faded to time. Avaricious kings and demented priests. Tyrannical Demi-gods and notorious seekers of forbidden lore. All blackened souls to the last man and woman recorded throughout time’s annals.
Enigma reaped their souls, building a mythical legend out of a personal menagerie of severed skulls–all given in offering upon Goddess Zahira’s altar.
Goddess Zahira, Gatekeeper of the Mortal Sands and the Final Judge, committed each of their names to a contract given in due time. Her whispers attracted the spirits of the dead roaming the light-less depths underneath the continent of Khios. Handing down contracts written by her own hand, these enduring souls passed her every decree to her mortal disciples.
The Ashen Blades of Sukhan Kingdom, Enigma’s order of penitent assassins, devoted to their goddess’ grim creed–their mission to pay penance in the lives of those more wicked than themselves.
He heard his master, the Banished Blade, calling through the Southern Wastes’ haunting wails. Like that of a mourning widow, Enigma thought, as the nightly gust sifted through the pallid dune sea.
His master spoke, “I’ve counted seven cycles of the moon in the desert sky since our departure from Suann Sanctuary. You’ve done well to avoid the blistering sun of the Southern Wastes, but don’t you ever tire?”
Enigma intentionally failed to register the Banished Blade’s politely guised suggestion. Garbed in the midnight black silk uniform of the Ashen Blades, both of them appeared near invisible beneath the cover of night. He paused, sparing a moment to take in their surroundings from any horizon to the other.
Beneath a black sky teeming with countless thousands of twinkling starlight scattered about its vastness, the dunes of the Southern Wastes appeared like a secluded valley in the near distance, forgotten by mother nature. Farther toward the unending horizons, the same wasteland arose out of the earth like much smaller mountains.
An endless sea of sand, pallid and tranquil, like a forgotten beach a man could stumble across along more northern shores. Searching, Enigma failed to find even traces of stone scattered amid the dunes–nor signs of any life in immediate reach.
Enigma answered his master with a silent shrug. He said, “Should I sleep on the dunes then, Banished One? I’ve little reason to stop our journey for the night… you said that Azzar Sanctuary wouldn’t be too far a couple nights before this one.”
A pleasant laughter followed Enigma the moment he made to journey onward. His master spoke, “So you’ll just run into the Den of Vipers, sword raised, and hope you’ll match each one of the Sanctuary Guardians without effort?”
He continued, “You were always talented, Enigma, a masterful pupil and wielder of the Art of Death. Yet I fear even you’d fall beneath the swords of your peers before you descended too far into that sun-less realm.”
Enigma turned back toward the rail-thin figure standing gracefully upon an overlooking dune’s height. Clothed in nothing but black silk, Enigma almost thought him a reaper, waiting for him to notice and submit himself to Zahira’s last call. Matted hair, an oily black and barely tamed like it had grown unchecked for months, shrouded the specter of a man’s eyes.
He recalled his master’s piercing stare of luster-less amber, something he hadn’t seen in person since their final years of training together.
Enigma sighed, trying in vain to find an answer that would both satisfy his master and let him continue on toward the Sanctuary in peace. Eventually, he said, “Let us find an oasis nearby–should there be any in the near distance. I suppose all of our brethren in the Ashen Blades could wait until the wane hours of the morning.”
The Banished Blade didn’t make the slightest move in response, save for a subtle nod of approval. He pointed with a gaunt chin toward the northwest. He spoke, “Follow the sound of your memories, my apprentice. You remember the path–there doesn’t exist an Ashen Blade that has truly forgotten.”
Enigma scoffed aloud, waving off the old apparition with a flick of the wrist. He turned toward the path picked out by his mentor, resuming the arduous trek to escape the secluded valley of dunes. He said, “Some decades have passed us both since you taught me the way. We’ve never returned to the Sanctum through this route in all the years since.”
A woman’s voice interrupted him, blown by the wind across the sands from scant feet away. She asked, “But a son of Sukhan should always remember the way home, no matter the length of the journey or time’s passing.”
Enigma registered the stranger’s familiar tone, recalling her name from a list committed to memory long ago. He recognized her enigmatic accent–one of incredible rarity throughout all the continent. Turning around on a heel, Enigma came face to face with a woman seated on the same dune he meant to surmount.
Unusually sunny eyes, nearer to granite’s hue than any other color, watched him, their shape almost feline. Oily black veins spread through much of the white ringing the irises. She looked up, sitting near enough that Enigma could lean in and tap her on the shoulder.
A woman of middling years, Enigma noticed, though her youth had endured time passing a good amount better than even he had. A handful of old scars ran down the length of her face and bare limbs in serpentine patterns, their color a fleshy shade of cerise. Upon a greater canvas of light taupe skin, each outlived wound stood out like dark wine spilled into brightly colored silk.
Falls of combed hair, lustrous like cocoa if one could pour its essence into a precious stone, cascaded past her shoulders, ending upon her chest. Like the Southern Wastes’ pallid sands, a wardrobe tailored from thick sand beige silk wove itself around her chest like a partial warrior’s robe. Her silk covered only her left chest, revealing a satin tunic of the deepest velvet underneath, emblazoned with a minute scrawl of an ancient language forgotten in the entire world of Thearus.
Both articles of silk clothing vanished underneath an emerald satin sash tied around her midriff. A midnight black saora, heavy loose trousers fashioned from silk, dressed her from the waistline down to the sandals fastened around her ankles.
Enigma’s head tilted at an angle, taking in her beauty but for a moment. He said, “Amunet. Fate must conspire against me again for you to wait on me. Patient of you, daughter of the forgotten empire, but you come at an urgent time.”
Amunet’s stare didn’t waver, her granite eyes catching enough of the moon’s light to make them gleam eerily. She spoke, “Your crossing out of the dunes struck me more as tire-less rather than urgent, but we understand enough about one another, Enigma, that you could save yourself from many perils just by sparing me a moment.”
She said, “I’ve advised a select few of the Ashen Blades’ most storied legends during my time. I admit for the first time that you’re the only warrior I’ve ever noticed speaking with your own thoughts. It’s a strange sight, hearing your reaction to every lengthened period of silence. Like a chronological argument between two souls, but with all the words of the second individual written with an invisible ink on a page, otherwise unwritten.”
Enigma didn’t turn back to where he knew the Banished Blade stood upon the dune behind them. He heard his master call out to him, able to hear the prophetess’ curious remark as if she had spoken to him. The Banished Blade said, “It isn’t the time for indulging in forgotten desires, my apprentice. We should press on toward the sanctuary, lest we may never reach the Den of Vipers at all.”
Enigma ignored the warning, but made apparent his undesire to idle any further, either. He spoke, “I’ve time for a lesson given with haste, but nothing more.”
Amunet didn’t withhold her answer, her given truth a blunt disillusionment. She said, “Your master won’t tell you that entering the Den of Vipers will be the end of your life. Fear the Sanctum Guardians if you wish, but you know as well as I do–none of them will halt your approach to the Sanctum Queen’s throne.”
Enigma blinked, head still locked at a subtle tilt. He spoke, “Maybe he only believes that your opinion isn’t the truth?”
Amunet looked away from him, taking in the dusting of sand dancing along the wind’s current. Clucking her tongue once, she said, “You maybe a master in your own art of death, Enigma, but remember that Karyan made you in every aspect of your legend. Upon approaching her throne in the Den, your transgression will force a conflict–one you cannot simply take back, not for any future generations that may follow in the Ashen Blades.”
Enigma didn’t respond before Amunet could ask. She spoke, “Does your master not realize that his death is permanent due to what you are trying to do now? Maybe you could say the Banished Blade is less than dead, cursed to linger between life and death, until oblivion comes crawling to swallow him into nothingness.”
Enigma asked, “So you can see my master standing on the dune behind me?”
She said, “No, I cannot, but I see a burning candlelight in the area you describe where there should be nothing. What is the old man telling you?”
The Banished Blade’s voice spiked in volume, almost until it roared inside Enigma’s skull. “She speaks about me being less than dead, but wanders the world of the living like a specter, outliving every meaning of her existence!”
Enigma said, “My master believes that the three of us are perhaps the same so far as our immortal fates go…” He continued, “But that aside, you cannot simply ask me to step aside without understanding the truth the Sanctum Queen keeps locked away in her head. I believe her immortality is a lie, something not granted by Goddess Zahira as she would to an actual daughter.”
Amunet shrugged, then spoke, “Are you certain you’re prepared to face the horror behind that truth? You think your own queen an anathema to your order’s creed to the Art of Death and Zahira’s mandate… you believe the Goddess of Death will hand you a contract for the Sanctum Queen’s skull?”
Enigma mirrored the way she heaved her shoulders, considering the implications behind the question. He said, “I believe Zahira has desired Karyan’s head for many countless moons… if human histories have any weight to their truth, then she has lived in that sun-less realm beneath the surface since time immemorial. If you cannot reveal the answer, Amunet, then I will face that inevitable coming to terms with the truth behind what grants our queen of shades such forbidden strength. Are you going to stand between Karyan and me?”
She scoffed aloud, almost choking on her mocking laugh. She said, “I won’t stand between you and your true master, Enigma. Karyan will just snap her fingers, then watch you dance to her every impulse like a puppet propped up on her strings. The moment she tires, she’ll sever those strings, and you’ll collapse into your grave, useless without life… Are you willing to turn away after hearing the inevitable?”
Enigma didn’t respond too quickly, realizing that not even the Banished Blade dared blind him to the reality behind Amunet’s prophecy. After a period of silence, he shook his head in refusal. He said, “I cannot step aside. Not to avoid an inescapable curse that will rear its hideous head at me at some point or another…” He trailed off, then asked. “Are you coming with me?”
Amunet spoke, “For what it’s worth, I actually thought about saying yes when I realized you would ask. Instead, for an eldest friend and a forgotten lover of mine, I will aid your descent into the Den with but an offered gift. When you reach the passage leading into Akara Sanctuary–take the offering abandoned upon the altar in the Mausoleum of Shades. You will come to understand its use when you most need to.”
Enigma turned back toward the Banished Blade, meeting the old mentor’s gaze, hidden underneath a dark shroud. His master didn’t answer in any meaningful way, not even after a moment of thought. He turned back toward the Raven Soul, blinking upon realizing he stared at nothing but the dunes of the Southern Wastes.
The Banished Blade spoke again, quick to ask after his apprentice’s opinion. He said, “Maybe your words came nearer to the truth than she realized. Do you think Amunet maybe dead in the same way I am cursed to be?”
Enigma made a light scoff, turning back toward the hidden route before him. He resumed the arduous journey toward Azzar Sanctuary. Knowing the Banished Blade followed him always, he spoke, “Amunet? No–she certainly lives, Banished One. She just has a few more ways of tapping into the plane of the mortal sphere than you do. I suppose it doesn’t matter, but I’ve an inkling she maybe watching us despite saying she wouldn’t.”
His master said, “Azzar shouldn’t be much farther. Focus less on missed opportunities and more on the art of death you mastered. You will need all the storied skills whispered about by those inspired by the legend that is Enigma.”
Akara Sanctuary, of all the havens hidden throughout the Southern Wastes, looked nothing out of the ordinary upon Enigma approaching the disguised gateway. He had spent another two hours trekking across the dunes, stumbling across an oasis where the wasteland became flat like an arid plain.
He found the natural fountain a welcome moment of respite, a crystalline pool of turquoise water, surrounded by an overgrown field of emerald grass and thick crimson reeds. Choosing to heed the Banished Blade’s advice, he came to rest by the placid oasis for another hour.
Seated amid a sea of grass and red reeds, Enigma listened to the chitterling sound of birdsong upon the night wind. A chilling breeze pushed through the thriving oasis, bending the foliage until the land droned constantly in his ears.
Surrounded by life, Enigma took little comfort from the illusion of peace it offered for the weary. He could think of nothing else whenever glancing through the open gates of Akara Sanctuary. A decrepit wound hollowed into Thearus’ surface, running deep into the heart of the broken world.
He had almost failed to discern the metallic gateway jutting out both the chasm mouth’s flanks, visible by only a small fraction beneath the moonlight. He stared into that deep descent, spotting a solitary light burning from much farther inside the passage itself.
It appeared comfortable to Enigma, like returning home after an uncertain altercation meant to steal away a moment before it’s coming.
Enigma glanced back toward the Banished Blade, watching him preoccupy himself with meditation amid the red reeds and fluttering groups of bright-feathered birds. He said, “You were right to suggest we rest while we could. An hour has come and gone, but a brief reflection appears to have restored the mind and body.”
His master spoke, “Even before reaching the Den of Vipers, Akara Sanctuary has its own share of perils. Are you prepared to face them in one continuous trial? You won’t be given the fortune of respite or haven once the Ashen Blades understand your purpose.”
Enigma gracefully stood out of the knee-length grass, coming back to his feet. A sheathed blade–a gladius by the name of Dominion’s End, he kept clutched between gentle fingers. With reverence, he fastened the scabbard and the weapon at rest within it, back onto the raven black sash tied around the Ashen Blade’s midriff.
Nodding once, he said, “We’ve wasted enough time playing around the inevitable. I’d just like to see our destiny played out and the deed finished. I will take lead, just aid me in any way you think useful.”
Approaching the sanctuary’s gates, the cavern entrance awaited them both, unbarred and without guardians. From inside the cavern’s mouth, Enigma heard gentle subterranean streams flowing deeper below. Combined, the rushing waters almost sounded like music to combat the silence of emptiness.
Groves of blooming cerulean petals attached to leafy emerald stalks dangled from the cavern walls. Enigma passed through the sanctuary gate into the morbid darkness before him. Yet something about Akara’s morbid atmosphere appeared unfamiliar. An eerie turquoise glowing from the Lantern Stalks’ every blooming petal. Pulsating, all the groves produced a gentle natural illumination throughout the descent.
A quake from deep underneath the cavern gave Enigma pause. A subtle disturbance at first thought, growing until the entire passage shook with violence. Out of the dark, a tremulous breath deafened him, inhuman in the way it shuddered with undisguised aggression. Enigma fell into a combat stance, the approaching creature’s every anxiety-inducing breath rattling the bones underneath his skin.
A pulse, usually undetected, became noticeable beneath each wrist. A quickening in heart beat thrummed in the chest, but Enigma ignored the warning. He kept an un-moving stance, one hand clutched around Dominion’s End by its leather wrapped hilt. Head bowed, he calculated an estimated distance between the approaching foe and himself.
His master spoke. “And so the gauntlet begins. Show me you remember your training and what has become of Enigma’s myth during my absence.”
Enigma answered the Banished Blade with a silent nod, leveling his gaze into the dark. For the approaching doomed challenger, he said, “honor my blade with your skill.”