Ravencaller is the second novel in David Dalglish’s new epic fantasy series, in which a warrior priest must protect his world from monsters once believed to be no more than myth.
The Day of Viciss’s Arrival
Dierk knelt on the cold floor of his family’s cellar, the Book of Ravens in one hand and a dagger in the other, and stared at the man he’d killed. There wasn’t much to him, just bruised skin, stained slacks, and a faded shirt with multiple holes. The blood trickling from his punctured neck seemed clean compared to the rest of him. The ropes binding his wrists and ankles likely cost more than anything the ragged man once possessed.
Dierk turned to the side and vomited up his breakfast. It left the muscles of his scrawny abdomen tight and his throat burning raw. All his well-crafted plans collapsed into disordered panic. He’d layered towels underneath the body but there was already so much blood. The smell of it mixed with feces. Sisters be damned, the man had defecated himself upon dying. Was that normal? Or had he done it to spite Dierk just before the dagger pierced his throat?
“This was a mistake,” he whispered. “I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t have, oh damn it all to the void, what have I done?”
When he was ten, he’d trapped a cat in the cellar and come back a week later armed with a knife he’d stolen from the kitchen. He’d spent hours cutting into that dead tabby, flaying off the fur, untwining muscles, and sliding guts out in long, thin loops. It wasn’t quite pleasure he’d felt, but something to the right of it. A satisfaction he’d unknowingly craved, each new cut or tear like a scratch upon an itch in his brain.
Then his father found out, and Dierk had learned to be much more careful over the following six years. Dogs, cats, squirrels, and rats, all easily disposed of in some gutter alley of Londheim’s many disgusting districts. He’d bled, cut, and skinned all manner of creatures, but never a human. Never before today.
The ground shook, and a bottle of wine rolled off one of the racks and shattered upon the floor. Dierk screamed in surprise. That was the third quake this morning, as if the world itself were angry with his arrogance. Or maybe he overlooked the obvious. For years he’d dabbled in practices considered heretical to the tyrannical Sisters. Perhaps they had turned their eye upon him, and they were not pleased.
Dierk glared at his copy of the Book of Ravens as if it were responsible for his current predicament. One of his father’s guards, Three-Fingers, had given it to him as a secret present on his fourteenth birthday.
“I know about your more ugly habits,” the scarred man had whispered, his breath heavy with the scent of alcohol. “This’ll give them purpose. Make it mean something.”
It was the greatest gift Dierk had ever received, and it awakened a part of his mind he’d never realized was closed. What had been random cuts became runes and symbols. What had been sweaty silence became whispered prayers to the void. He’d cupped the severed head of a dog and pressed his lips to its forehead to breathe in its essence during the reaping hour. Each time he felt the tantalizing call of something greater. Fleeting ephemeral lives of animals could not compare to the eternal memories of the soul.
He was licking dew off leaves when, just outside his reach, there awaited a river.
Three-Fingers had brought him the homeless man that now lay before him. He’d given him the knife. He’d looked upon him with respect and admiration Dierk had never experienced from his father.
“When you kill him doesn’t matter,” Three-Fingers had said.
“The reaping hour is when the magic comes. That’s when you’ll finally be a true Ravencaller.”
A true Ravencaller. The sound of it had tickled his senses. He cherished the idea of his needs and impulses, always strange and discordant with society, leading him to something meaningful. A purpose to remove the aching loneliness he felt when watching others his age grow their wild interlocking relationships of love, loyalty, and respect.
But right now he felt ready to lose his mind. Someone would find out, a servant most likely. This wasn’t something he could hide like a dead cat. Would he be banished from his home? All of Londheim? Or might he even be hung from the city gates and denied the dignity of a pyre?
“Stop it, Dierk, stop it, stop it, stop it,” he cried, accompanying each request with a vicious punch to his leg. He had to get himself under control. Tears were rolling down his cheeks. Such a disgrace. Who ever heard of a Ravencaller bawling over some dead homeless man? Dierk curled his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth in the dark. The body was still bleeding.
Maybe it wasn’t too late. He could come clean to his father. If he blamed the whole thing on Three-Fingers, he may have a chance. He could show him the Book of Ravens and claim it was thrust into his hands unwillingly. If—if he removed the ropes, maybe he could say the homeless man attacked him. Self-defense, you could kill in self-defense and no one would blame you, right?
Again the ground shook. The Cradle was laughing at him.
Cradle never laughs. Cradle is angry. Cradle meant to be a garden, not a prison.
Every single muscle in Dierk’s body locked up. That voice, it wasn’t his, yet it slid through his mind as familiar as his own skin. It was as peaceful as a winter morning, and just as cold.
“Who’s there?” he asked the dark cellar.
Suddenly the cellar was dark no more. A light manifested in the air before him, taking the slender shape of a long-bodied reptile with tiny catlike paws. Instead of scales, its pale blue body rippled with soft fur akin to a rabbit’s. Though its face resembled that of a child, it bore only smooth divots where its eyes should be. From nose to tail, it was barely longer than his hand.
Human is crying, spoke this hovering being of cold light with a voice that echoed inside his skull. Human is afraid. I come. I choose. Human gives doubt to choice. I choose wrong?
“What?” Dierk asked. He quickly wiped at his face, trying to clear away the snot and tears. “No, I’m not afraid.”
Human is a liar.
Its mouth didn’t move but Dierk knew it spoke. It bore no eyes but he felt certain it watched him closely.
“And who are you to call me a liar?” he asked, trying to salvage some semblance of pride.
I am nisse.
“Nisse?” Dierk said. “What—what are you, Nisse?”
I am nisse as Dierk is human. I am many names. I, Vaesalaum.
Nisse? Vaesalaum? Dierk had never heard anything of the sort. A wriggling fear in the back of his mind insisted he’d gone insane. This little creature did not hover and bob in the air in front of him. The murder had broken him. Surely this was his brain’s feeble attempt to re‑create order.
“How do you know my name?” he asked.
Human mind is a book. I read pages.
The creature, Vaesalaum, floated to the cooling corpse, traversing through the air in an S‑like motion with its snakelike body. Dierk’s curiosity pulled him out of his shock.
“Why are you here, Vaesalaum?” he asked. The name clunked awkwardly off his tongue.
I seek an answer. I seek a promise. I seek a disciple. I offer much for all three.
“A disciple?” he wondered aloud. “And you’re to be my teacher?”
The nisse sank lower to the ground. Its bluish light shone across the corpse, granting an unwelcome clarity to the stiffening limbs, lifeless eyes, and drying blood. The otherworldly being turned its body into a circle and settled atop the dead man’s forehead.
Teacher. Partner. Master.
“And why would I accept?” he asked, trying to hide the fear growing in his chest. What if this wasn’t some cracked creation of his mind, but an actual being that existed? It shouldn’t. Monsters, faeries, and dragons weren’t real. They were stories, fables, and entertaining myths. Humanity had wisely disregarded them and moved on, except for the Sisters, which they still clung to in their naïveté. But who was he to challenge his senses? How could he deny the voice whispering in his head?
Dierk desires what Vaesalaum offers. Dierk desired it since childhood.
A glowing symbol appeared upon the man’s forehead, carved from the touch of an invisible knife. Dierk recognized it at once. It was the inverse of the symbol of the Sisters, that of a circle enclosed around a small, upward-turned triangle. Even wearing it as a charm or necklace could earn you a week of hard labor, for that was the symbol of the Ravencallers, and the Keeping Church had done everything in its power to banish them into oblivion.
Come closer, Vaesalaum ordered. Do not fear.
Light shimmered across the symbol. Dierk’s breath caught in his throat. No, it couldn’t be. It was only midday, and far from the reaping hour. That was not the light of the man’s soul shimmering into the air. That wasn’t his eternal memories and emotions licking the dark cellar air in thin, weblike threads.
Power in purpose, that cold voice spoke. Life amid death. Come breathe.
Dierk’s feet moved of their own accord. The symbol of the Ravencallers blazed upon the corpse’s forehead. Silvery threads waved an inch above the charred flesh, and they were growing longer. Dierk dropped to his knees. His eyes watered. The Book of Ravens had talked much of this moment, of the sacredness of the reaping hour and the separation of the body from mortal flesh. The Soulkeepers carefully guarded humanity from that power. They buried it in rituals and masks and forced separation and distance from the weeping and the mourned.
Dierk lowered his face to the circle formed by the nisse’s body, put his lips to the blasphemous symbol, and obeyed. Lips parting, tongue trembling, he breathed.
The cellar turned black. The body vanished, the nisse with it. He heard no sound, and he felt no sensations, not the cool stone against his knees, not the chill, musty air. Dierk knew he should be afraid of such sudden emptiness, just as he knew it was dangerous to put his hand to a fire, but he was not. The void encapsulating him brought sudden relief from an unknown pressure banding around his head. It was the removal of a dozen nails secretly lodged into his hands and feet. Dierk felt he belonged, this void a more welcoming presence than his pale, skinny physical body.
The darkness parted before a sudden light. It hovered in the air, at first nothing more than a faint blue spark, but it steadily grew like a well-oiled fire. Human features distinguished themselves amid the burning haze, though they never lost the cold blue shade. At last a grown man stood before Dierk, and it took him a moment to realize who it was: the homeless man he’d murdered. Except now his clothes were neat and prim, and his skin and hair immaculately clean.
“Where am I?” the ghostly man asked.
Dierk swallowed down a sharp stone in his throat. The void’s comforting presence threatened to leave him. He didn’t want to talk to this man. He only sought the power of his soul. And whoever he was, how would he react if he realized who Dierk was, and remembered?
“I don’t know,” Dierk said. “It is new to me as well.”
The ghostly image didn’t seem too upset with the answer. He looked around, mildly curious as to his apparent lack of surroundings. Before Dierk could say more, Vaesalaum shimmered into existence, the strange creature circling above the homeless man’s head like a crown.
Behold human, now an open book. Vaesalaum controls the pages. Dierk reads the words.
A shudder ran through the man, and then he split in two, his front half cleaved off like a split log. The man shrieked even as his mouth elongated into an inhuman shape. Flesh peeled like smoke, and he screamed, still alive, still sentient, every piece of his essence swirling toward Dierk, and Dierk was screaming, too, just as loud, just as horrified.
A bright forest replaced the void. Dierk leaned against a tree, his arms crossed over his chest and a smile upon his face. Except his name wasn’t Dierk any longer; his name was Erik. He inhabited the memory, his identity superimposed over Erik’s. His movements mimicked history, his emotions echoed those of the previous time. A young woman swayed in a plain brown dress before him, shaking and tapping a tambourine as she sang. The sunlight seemed to touch her blond hair in such a perfect way that it shone like spun threads of gold. Dierk felt happiness eager to burst from his chest. He thought he knew what it meant to be happy, but this showed him how wrong he was. At best he understood contentedness. This was better. So much better.
The forest shimmered, and now he made love to that same woman. His hands massaged her breasts as he kissed the woman’s pale neck, purposefully marking it with a bruise to playfully point out later. Dierk had never seen a woman naked before that wasn’t drawn in a book or painting, and the idea of having himself inside another person seemed weird in a way he could never verbalize . . . but while inhabiting Erik it felt so good, Dierk wanted to push harder with his hips, he wanted to send his hands wandering everywhere, but he was not in charge of this existence, Erik was, and Erik kept his movements slow and steady as his cock stiffened, harder and harder until it felt ready to burst. And then it did, and the waves of pleasure left Dierk exhausted and overwhelmed.
As Erik rolled onto his back and put his arm across his forehead, Dierk saw Vaesalaum hovering near the rooftop of the cabin, and then the world changed again. Erik was older now, his wife (Lisa, her name was Lisa) rocking in a chair beside the fire. Her breasts were exposed, and a young infant suckled one of them. Erik stood in the doorway of the cabin, his feet frozen in place by the beautiful sight. He didn’t move. He didn’t want to move, only smile and laugh at her when Lisa glanced his way and asked if something was the matter.
Though Erik was smiling, Dierk wished to burst into tears. By the void, this was water on a tongue that had known only thirst. The companionship, the love, it was so simple and easy, it hurt him, hurt him in a deep, confusing way that inspired sadness as much as it did happiness.
Does Dierk not desire joy? It was Vaesalaum’s voice piercing the suddenly frozen memory. There are other experiences.
Before Dierk could answer, the memory shifted, becoming another moment, another reenacted moment in time. Erik was running. His love and happiness had been replaced with stark terror. His cabin was on fire. Strange men surrounded it, and they wielded weapons. Lisa was crying. So was their child, but Lisa’s hands were empty. The wail grew. The fire spread.
No more, Dierk screamed, but Erik’s mouth would not cooperate. Stop this, pull me out, pull me out!
The void returned. The nisse shimmered into view. Though it lacked eyes, he felt the creature’s stare boring into him.
Dierk not like violence?
“Not like . . . not like that,” he said. “I never want to feel that again.”
Vaesalaum bobbed up and down. Dierk swore its body had grown several inches since when it had first appeared.
Human has more pages. I know what Dierk seeks.
A dirty street of Londheim replaced the void. Erik huddled at the entrance of an alley. The sky was bright with stars. All he had were the clothes on his back and the leather shoes on his feet, and they were a pitiful protection against the cold wind blowing in from the west.
“Ye’ awake?” a gruff voice asked. Erik looked up to see a mirrored reflection of himself. The other man was just as destitute, just as broken. There were only two differences between their haggard selves. One was that this new man was barefoot. The other was that he held a knife.
“Get lost,” Erik said, refusing to reveal any fear.
“Yer shoes. Give ’em.”
Erik glared him in the eye, too cold and tired to give a shit about some short, rusted blade.
The man jabbed the knife at the air between them. The movement was quick, unsteady. His other hand reached for Erik’s left foot, and when his fingers closed about the heel, he pulled.
Erik felt everything inside him break down, and what was left was decidedly not human. He leapt on the man like a savage animal. He was just another dirty, broken soul of Londheim forced to live in squalor, but to Erik’s eyes, he was a piece of meat to be ripped apart. His fists rained down on him, breaking his jaw and knocking loose teeth. They wrestled, the knife fell to the street unbloodied. Erik’s hands wrapped about the man’s neck, and feral strength flooded his fingers. The man gasped and gargled as his face turned to blue.
And in that moment, that wild, vicious space of time strangling the life out of an enemy, Dierk felt alive. His every sense burned at heightened levels. Struggle. Fight. Crush. Watch the life leave the eyes of another. Dierk felt tightness in his groin and a pounding in his neck.
The moment ended. The emptiness around him returned, but only for a moment before it, too, broke. Dierk’s eyes crossed, and suddenly he was back in his cellar, in his own body, feeling his own emotions. Erik lay before him, the symbol of the Ravencallers having faded away. Vaesalaum hovered a few feet above the dead man’s body. Dierk pushed himself to his feet, and he realized with detached awkwardness his pants were wet with semen.
“His—his memories,” Dierk stammered. “You gave them to me?”
Not gift. Taken. Lost upon reaping hour. Dierk accept?
Accept? How could he refuse such a tantalizing promise? What other wonders might this strange little creature teach him? The feeling of the convulsing man’s throat crushed between his hands lingered in his mind like a pleasant warmth.
“Of course I accept,” he said. “But what could I possibly offer you?”
The nisse hovered closer. Earnestness tinged its cold voice.
Bring Vaesalaum bodies. Together we share. Together we grow strong.
Dierk quivered. He was not strong like Erik had been prior to being sucked dry by years of homelessness and abandonment. Perhaps Three-Fingers could bring him another, but how would he dispose of the bodies, or keep them from being discovered?
“I don’t think I can,” he said. “I’m not strong, and I’m no good with weapons.”
Vaesalaum floated over to his copy of the Book of Ravens, which lay discarded on the floor.
Read, the nisse said. Book is key.
Dierk tried to tamp down his excitement. The Book of Ravens was notorious for many reasons, but one was the complete anonymity of its author. The Keeping Church had launched multiple investigations, but the book appeared as old as the church itself, and its mysteries unassailable. This bizarre creature . . . might it be the author? Was it connected to that forgotten age when magic was real and sacrifices of blood and flesh might harness power of the void?
“Are you a raven?” Dierk asked. “A true raven, like what we aspire to be?”
Not raven, Vaesalaum said. Friend of raven. True ravens are the avenria. Dierk holds avenria words. Words give power. Dierk will harness that power.
What was an avenria? And what power did the nisse intend him to possess? He joined the floating creature at the book. Pages flipped untouched until it settled on a page Vaesalaum intended him to read. It was the ninth chapter, and one he’d read many times before. On one side it detailed the hypocrisy of the Soulkeepers and their elaborate rituals and pyres. On the other, it listed the chant that Soulkeepers once used to dispose of bodies. The words seemed to glow before him, and before he realized, he’d begun repeating them aloud.
“Anwyn of the Moon, hear me! The soul has departed. This body before me, once sacred, is sacred no more. Make this empty vessel return to the land as ash. Give me the fire. Send me the flame. Create in me your pyre so I might burn.”
Fire burst about Dierk’s hands, an all-consuming blaze of yellow light. He stared at it in awe, for only a shred of its heat bathed his skin, and his hands felt only a pleasant kiss of its fury. He did not ask the nisse what to do with it, for the desire was clear enough by the chant. He plunged both hands into the chest of the corpse. It immediately erupted in flames. They burned with terrifying swiftness, and neither flesh nor bone could resist its sudden rage. The body withered to ash. Even the blood cracked and peeled into tiny gray flecks. Dierk’s eyes watered but he refused to look away.
This power. This fire. It came from within him. He wasn’t helpless. He wasn’t weak. With Vaesalaum’s guidance, he could be more powerful than he ever dreamed.
Quick as it appeared, the fire faded, leaving only a small circle of ash upon the warm stone. A heavy knock on the cellar door banished the silence. Light from upstairs flooded down the stairway. Dierk squinted against it as he scrambled to his feet. He expected a servant, but instead down came the square-jawed opposite of everything Dierk was. His hair was black, his eyes gray, and his suit immaculately pressed.
“Dierk?” asked his father, Soren Becher, the Mayor of Londheim. “I sent a servant to fetch you twenty minutes ago. What are you doing down here?”
Dierk shrugged, incapable of providing a good answer. Vaesalaum floated above Dierk’s shoulder, yet somehow his father gave no sign of worry or care. Instead he cast his bespectacled eyes about the cellar, no doubt searching for signs of a skinned animal. He found none. What he did notice was the stain on Dierk’s trousers. His stern features hardened.
“Go clean yourself up,” he said. “You’re disgusting.”
The heat in Dierk’s neck felt unbearable. He retreated up the stairs and down the hall to his room.
“Can no one see you?” he whispered quietly while buttoning into a new pair of pants.
Nisse seen when wanted seen, Vaesalaum answered.
“I’m jealous,” he muttered.
Dierk exited his room and slowly wandered back to the main foyer. The anxious looks on everyone’s faces as they rushed about kindled his curiosity. Had something happened? It seemed every day Londheim dealt with some new emergency, but this was different. He thought he saw poorly hidden fear in the eyes of their servants.
Dierk did not address his father upon entering the foyer, only waited to be noticed.
“At least you’re presentable,” Soren said after a cursory examination. “Come. We’re expected at the wall.”
The wall? Not some family meeting or dire, droning funeral presided over by a Pyrehand?
“Why?” he dared ask. “Are we under attack?”
“I don’t know,” Soren said. “We’ll soon find out.”
A servant stepped in and bowed.
“Royal Overseer Downing has arrived,” he said once Soren had acknowledged him. “He waits with his soldiers by the front steps.”
“Impatient as always,” Soren said, adjusting his tie so its sapphire pin was perfectly centered above the knot. “Come, Dierk. Keep quiet, and if you are afraid, keep it to yourself. We must project strength before the unknown.”
Dierk did everything he could to avoid glancing at Vaesalaum floating over his shoulder. He’d look like a maniac if he spoke to the creature in the presence of others, but he desperately wished to ask the nisse if it knew what his father referenced. Strength before the unknown? What could he mean?
He means the approach of the demigod of change, said Vaesalaum, startling Dierk.
You can read my thoughts?
Humans are books, the nisse said, sounding exhausted. I read pages. Dierk is slow?
His neck flushed with anger and embarrassment, but he did not answer, not verbally nor inside his mind.
Dierk followed his father out the front door. Four armed soldiers stood stiff and passive around a well-dressed man in a tan suit. His hair was cut close to the scalp, and his smile was as bright as his skin was dark. A pendant hung from his neck, that of a scepter held in a closed fist. His name was Albert Downing, and he was the Royal Overseer elected by the landowners of West Orismund to rule in the Queen’s stead. He approached the end of his second ten-year term, and all expected him to be serving a third. Dierk wasn’t surprised. Albert was handsome and intelligent, and he greeted everyone as if they were a childhood friend. As politicians went, he was honest and fair. Among all of his father’s stuffy, self-important asshole friends, Dierk found Albert to be a uniquely likable presence.
“Greetings, Overseer,” Soren said while dipping his head in respect. “My apologies for keeping you waiting.”
“Save your apologies for actual transgressions,” Albert said. “Instead walk with me. I do not want to be gone long from the wall.”
The seven of them exited the estate grounds and marched through the streets of Windswept District. The two older men conversed easily. Given their respective duties, they often consulted one another, each heavily influencing the other when it came to policy and law.
“When did you first see it?” Soren asked as they walked.
“My advisors tell me they spotted it this morning,” Albert said. “At first we thought it a trick of the light, or perhaps a strange cloud of smoke.”
“And you no longer think that to be the case?” Soren asked.
“I no longer know what to think,” Albert said. “You’ll understand when you see it for yourself.”
Most people on the road gave way and then bowed upon their passage, but Dierk was shocked that once they were out of Windswept District, many began shouting questions as they passed. Such rudeness unnerved him. Their questions made no sense. Refugees? Black water? A mountain? Not helping was the distant sensation of the ground rumbling beneath his feet. What had Vaesalaum said earlier, something about how the Cradle was angry? Dierk was starting to believe it.
With Dierk keeping a respectable distance behind the two politicians, he could not hear them over the noise of the crowds and the rattle of the city guards’ armor. More guards greeted them upon reaching the western wall at a station near the entrance. The group passed through a portcullis to reach the stone stairs upward. Dierk followed, eager for a look at whatever was causing this much commotion.
Whatever he’d expected, it was a pale comparison to the sight of the crawling mountain. Even Soren and Albert looked shaken. Six enormous legs slammed into the earth and dragged craters open with their claws. Its belly cut a groove with its approach. The sound of its passage was like thunder.
“It’s so much closer,” Albert said. “I was not even gone an hour.”
“Will it stop when it reaches the city?” Soren asked. He’d taken off his spectacles and begun cleaning them with his shirt, a tic Dierk knew to mean his father was nervous and trying to hide it.
“I don’t know.”
“Should I order an evacuation?”
Again Albert shrugged.
“I’ve spoken to a few of the refugees coming in from the west. If that thing bears ill intent, we are already beyond hope of evacuating in time.”
“So we sit here and watch?” Soren asked. “Is that all we have to offer?”
“It’s that or we launch an attack against a mountain,” Albert said. “You’re good with numbers. Pray tell me, what do you consider the odds of that succeeding to be?”
Dierk’s father had no good response, so they waited, and they watched. Minutes passed with agonizing slowness. Dierk shifted his weight from foot to foot as the mountain crawled closer. The demigod of change, Vaesalaum had called it.
Will it destroy us? he asked the nisse.
Time will tell.
Panic threatened to overcome him when the mountain opened its mouth and belched a tremendous river of star-filled black water north and south. Soldiers cried out in fear. The city trembled. Grass withered gray. A third wave rolled toward the western gate of the city, but it forked at the last moment, sparing them. It seemed every guard along the wall sighed with relief. The mountain settled down, its legs sinking into the soft earth.
Dierk gazed upon the magnificent, awe-inspiring presence that Vaesalaum had called the demi-god of change. His father and the Royal Overseer asked questions of one another, and they fielded more from a seemingly endless stream of wealthy elites scrambling to join them upon the wall. Dierk ignored them all.
What does this mean? he asked Vaesalaum. The mountain’s arrival . . . my summoning fire . . . you? Is the world ending?
The little creature bobbed up and down, and he saw the faintest hint of a smile on its youthful face.
No, not ending, its cold voice spoke within his mind. He sensed within it a powerful promise, and an overwhelming sense of excitement.