The first action-drenched novel in David Dalglish’s thrilling new epic fantasy trilogy featuring a priest demon-hunter. Perfect for fans of Andrzej Sapkowski, Anthony Ryan and Peter V. Brett
The reaping hour approached. Devin Eveson stood with the town mayor in a circle of pines, an unlit pyre between them. Starlight twinkled off the snow on the branches. The moon’s glow created a ghostly skyline of the surrounding mountains.
“I hope your presence means Milly’s soul finds rest,” Mayor Jonathan said as he huddled in his worn brown coat. His pale skin was weathered and his head shaved, but his beard was still a lively black despite his age. “For thirty reapings I never did bury a body, but these last few? It seems the Three Sisters have grown fickle. Or perhaps they have abandoned us completely.”
A young girl lay upon the pyre before Devin, seven or eight years old at most. All but her face was covered with a pale green blanket. Snow settled atop her raven hair, granting her a soft crown. It saddened Devin to see a child taken so young. Whatever disease was ravaging Dunwerth was a cruel and vicious one. Black welts covered the dark skin of her neck, and if he pulled the blanket away, he’d find dozens more across her body.
Do you hear my voice, Milly? he spoke inside his mind. Heed my prayer, and enter the arms of the Sisters. Find safety. Find peace.
“The Sisters have not abandoned us,” Devin said to Jonathan. “When faith is tested, it either grows stronger or breaks entirely. We must not give up on the Sisters, lest they give up on us.”
He used his feet to clear away snow from where he would kneel and pray. His heavy leather coat and padded gray trousers would protect him from the cold, but he’d rather not have his knees soak through.
“Maybe so,” Jonathan said. “But since the plague hit our village I’ve had to bury the last five, not burn. Never needed a Soulkeeper to help me perform the ritual, not once until this mess began.”
“And souls used to traverse to the heavens without any intercession necessary at all. The world changes, however slowly, and so we must change with it.”
Dunwerth was not alone in its steady increase in burials. Village elders and town mayors used to be sufficient for the ritual, but now all across the Cradle, the need for skilled Soulkeepers grew. Anwyn, caretaker of the dead, seemed less and less inclined to guide souls to her bosom, forcing people to bury the bodies in the hope that their souls might return on their own some future night.
Devin recited the ritual prayer, taking great care with every syllable. He thanked Alma for the granting of life, Lyra for caring for Milly during her few short years, and last Anwyn for taking her soul into the heavens for an eternity of bliss. That finished, he scooped a handful of snow and then pressed it upon Milly’s face, slowly covering everything above the neck. Mud from ocean waters was used on the east coast, rich black prairie soil in the southern grasslands, but here in the mountains, the snow would be her pyre mask.
Once it was finished Devin pulled the burnt leather glove off his right hand and carefully drew a triangle upon the mask and then a circle around the downward point. Each side represented one of the Sisters and their connections to the others, while the bottom circle was both sun and moon, life beginning and ending at the same place in the heavens. Devin clasped his hands behind his back, bowed his head, and waited.
The moon rose higher. Not a cloud marred the beautiful field of stars. In their light, at the base of the lonely mountain range that was Alma’s Crown, in a circle of trees at the edge of the Dunwerth Forest, the two waited for Milly’s soul to ascend.
Devin immediately felt the presence of the reaping hour upon its arrival. The world tensed, the animals hushed, the night fowl grew quiet and alert. Devin held his breath, his jaw clenched tightly as he stared at the symbol he’d drawn upon Milly’s forehead. His hand drifted to the pendant hidden underneath his shirt, a silver moon inscribed into the downward point of a triangle. The symbol of Anwyn, goddess of the dusk, the caretaker of souls, and the gentle hands waiting at the end of all things. The symbol of the Soulkeepers.
“By Alma, we are born,” Devin whispered into the silence. “By Lyra, we are guided. By Anwyn, we are returned. Beloved Sisters, take her home.”
A soft blue light swelled from Milly’s forehead, shining as a translucent pillar reaching all the way to the stars themselves. The triangular symbol brightened, and a little orb of swirling light rose from her forehead and ascended the blue pillar. Devin’s every muscle relaxed. The soul had separated cleanly from the body. The risk was over.
Though the Mindkeepers of the Keeping Church debated a soul’s true makeup, Devin had never wondered. In that brilliant white light he saw memories, emotions, flickering faces of loved ones. What else could the soul be but all the person had once been? The orb rose upward, slowly at first, then faster and faster as the blue pillar of light lifted it heavenward. By the time it vanished from view, the beam had faded and the reaping hour had passed. Owls resumed hooting, and in the distance, Devin heard a chorus of wolves crying to the moon.
“Thank Anwyn for that,” Jonathan said, scratching at his beard. “I wasn’t sure I could handle another burial.”
If the soul had remained within the body Devin would have buried it beneath the ground to offer Milly another chance, every quiet unwatched night, to break free of her mortal prison and ascend to the heavens. Now that the soul had parted, the body was an empty shell, cast off no differently than a snake shedding its skin. Devin removed the cap to the oilskin hanging from his belt and began splashing it across the pyre’s thin, dry wood. He put the skin away once it was emptied and pulled two flint stones from a pouch belted to the small of his back.
Three quick strikes and the sparks lit the oil. Triangular stones created the pyre’s outline, with thick, braced logs propping up the body atop a bed of thick kindling. It’d taken over an hour to build the pyre so that it would safely burn throughout the night. Come spring, life would sprout anew from the ash shaped in the symbol of the Three Sisters.
“A fine job, Soulkeeper,” Jonathan said, patting him on the back. “But I fear you’ll have many more rituals to perform if you can’t spare us from this plague. The rest wait in my home. Come see the extent of our misery.”
“Home” was a wood cabin in the heart of quiet little Dunwerth. Devin had visited many such villages across the western frontier, and he preferred their aura of kinship to the guarded hustle of the great cities. The air was quiet, the moon settling lazily above the white-capped mountains. A thin layer of snow crunched underneath Devin’s feet as they walked the main road. He pulled his coat tighter about him and crossed his arms. His position as a Soulkeeper had sent him all throughout West Orismund, but this was a place of firsts. Dunwerth, tucked deep into the mountains of Alma’s Crown, was the westernmost village in the nation, as well as the highest in elevation. It certainly felt it. The air moved thin in his throat, his lungs never quite full. As for the cold, it mocked his layers of clothing as it relentlessly assaulted his skin.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t give you a better greeting,” Jonathan said. He stopped before the door to his home and fumbled for a key. “We take pride in our hospitality. It’s a poor host who asks you to perform a reaping ritual upon your arrival instead of warming your feet by a fire.”
“I did not come for hospitality. I came to help you in your time of need.” Devin smiled at the older man. “Though I’ll admit sitting by a fire sounds divine right about now.”
Jonathan inserted his key and turned it with a satisfying click of iron.
“I wish that you could.”
Candles lit the wide main room of the home, and a healthy blaze burned in the fireplace. A long couch was pushed to one wall, a padded rocking chair against the other, each to make room for the six men and women sleeping on the floor. In the firelight Devin easily saw the dark splotches seeping into their blankets. Two children shared the couch; a third curled up like a cat in the seat of the chair. She was softly crying.
“Sisters help us all,” Devin whispered. A smell of rotting fruit permeated the air, intermixed with sweat and piss. Occasionally one of the villagers coughed in their sleep, and it was painful to hear.
“I have a single guest room,” Jonathan said. “Three more are in there. That’s where I’ve put those who still possess the strength to walk.”
“I see you’re back,” a woman said. Devin turned to greet her. She stood in the hallway leading toward what appeared to be a kitchen. Her curly hair was pulled back from her face in a bun, her brown eyes bloodshot from exhaustion. She held a large basin of water with several cloths soaking in it. “How did . . . you know. The ritual. Did it go well?”
“Milly’s body is ash and her soul is in a place of light and happiness,” Devin answered.
“That’s good to hear,” the woman said. She scooted past the two of them and put the basin on a small end table. “Milly was a precious girl, and she deserved a much happier life than what the Sisters gave her.”
“Theresa’s been helping me with the sick,” Jonathan said as the woman wrung out one of the cloths. “We’d have lost more lives already if not for her care.”
“I’m only delaying what’s certain,” Theresa said, shaking her head. “I’m glad you’ve come, Soulkeeper. Only the Goddesses can spare us from this cruelty.”
Theresa gently washed the face of the nearest sleeping man, focusing on the weeping black welts. Devin slipped past her to where the crying girl lay in her chair. She was the youngest victim he had seen so far, even younger than Milly. Her face was buried into her pillow and her blanket bunched at her shoulders. She heard his footsteps and turned, her tear-filled eyes a beautiful almond color. Devin furrowed his brow upon realizing that the girl’s skin bore no sign of the black welts.
“Milly’s sister,” Theresa explained. “Her name’s Arleen. She’s not ill but we thought it best she not be alone.”
“Do you not fear contagion?” Devin asked quietly.
“Of course we do, but no other home will take her. They’re all convinced she’ll spread the illness that claimed her aunt and sister.”
Devin understood their fear but still felt it cruel. He knelt so that he and Arleen were at the same height, pulled off his hat, and set it on his knee. The girl watched him closely, as if fearing he might bite.
“Hello, Arleen,” Devin whispered.
“Hello,” she said. Her eyes lingered on the triangle-and-moon pendant hanging from his neck. “Are you a Soulkeeper?”
“I am,” Devin said. “How did you know?”
The girl pointed at his Anwyn pendant.
“Jonathan’s told me stories. He said one Soulkeeper could fight off an entire village.”
Devin smiled softly.
“Your mayor exaggerates, little one.”
“So you don’t fight bad people?”
“Most of the time villages request my aid when they need herbal medicine, legal judgments, a wedding sermon, or a large number of reaping rituals performed. But if a village is in danger, then yes, I’ll fight the bad people. I try to use my words before I use my sword and pistol, though.”
“Are there bad guys here?”
“No bad guys, just some sick people I hope to make better.”
The girl sank underneath her blanket. Devin could see the exhaustion weighing heavily on her eyes, and his heart went out to her.
“I have trouble sleeping when I’m sad,” he offered. “Are you having trouble sleeping, too?”
“I’m trying not to be sad or cry,” Arleen whispered. “Aunt Theresa says I need to be strong.”
It hurt to hear a child who looked maybe six years old say such a thing.
“Even the strong cry,” Devin said. He reached into one of several pockets of his thick coat and pulled out a small dried root, which he held before her so she might see. “While you cry, try to remember everything good about Milly, all right? Her smile. Her laugh. The times you played together. And when you can’t cry anymore, will you do something for me? Will you chew this root?”
“Will it make me sleepy?”
“It will,” Devin said.
She took the root in hand, then swept it underneath her blankets.
“I’ll try,” she whispered.
“I ask for nothing more.”
He pulled her blanket higher over her as she curled deeper into the chair, her bleary eyes squeezing shut. A mournful shiver ran through his chest. So far the girl showed no signs of the sickness. So far . . .
Jonathan’s hand settled on his shoulder.
“Lyra’s love graces your touch, Soulkeeper. We are blessed that the Keeping Church chose you for our request. Please, follow me. We must speak plainly.”
Jonathan’s room was beyond the kitchen, a tiny square crammed full of books on desks and shelves. The bed was an incidental thing in the corner. Two lit candles slowly burned in their holders.
“I know of three more infected staying with their families instead of here,” the mayor said as he settled onto the edge of his bed. “They claim they’ll give better care than I can, and they may well be right.”
“This disease,” Devin asked. “Is it always fatal?”
“Without exception,” Jonathan said. The words left his tongue like lead. “Have you ever witnessed anything like this, Soulkeeper?”
Devin knew a hundred recipes to dry, chop, boil, and grind herbs and flowers to heal a variety of ailments, and just as many prayers to accompany the cures. But this dark rot spreading throughout the body?
“Never this extreme,” Devin said. “I know of nothing that will fight it. The best I can do is ease their pain.”
Jonathan ran both hands over his bald head.
“I thought as much. Truth be told, Soulkeeper, I did not expect that you could help these people when I summoned you.”
Devin kept his tone calm despite his sudden annoyance. Petitioning the Keeping Church for a Soulkeeper was a serious affair. There were always more in need than there were Soulkeepers to give it, and lying on a petition could result in criminal charges depending on how grievous the lie.
“I have helped many places beset by illness and disease,” Devin said. “How could you be so certain I would be of no help here?”
“Because it’s happened before,” the mayor said. “Years ago, when my grandfather was mayor. No plant or flower helped then, and I expect none will help now.”
Devin’s anger grew.
“I have sworn upon my life to bring aid to Dunwerth in its time of need,” he said. “If I am not here to administer to the sick, then pray tell, what am I here for?”
Jonathan rose from the bed, pulled a book off a shelf, and offered it to Devin. A page was marked by a long loose cloth, and he opened to it and glanced over the loose, sloppy handwriting in the dim candlelight.
I know my story will earn no belief, so I write this in secret, to be judged only after my death. I’ll care not your opinions once in Anwyn’s hands. Call me a fool if you wish, but I witnessed the impossible. I knelt before living stone and demanded its blood. I saw its face. I heard it speak its name like a woken god.
Arothk. The only cure to pock-black disease.
“That is my grandfather’s journal,” Jonathan said when Devin glanced up with a sour expression on his face. “He was a good man, and a good mayor. He told no wild tales, and he was known throughout his life as a man of honesty.”
“A faery tale?” Devin said, snapping the book shut. “I traveled all this way from Londheim to help you find a faery tale?”
Jonathan’s face flushed bright red.
“You insult my grandfather,” he said. “This is no faery tale. It is real, and it saved the lives of each and every person who had succumbed to the disease. Keep reading. He passed through the forest to the bald mountain, and at its base he met with Arothk, a creature of stone that gave of its own blood to cure the darkness.”
“Enough,” Devin said. “Why not send someone else? One of your hunters could have made the trip and back a dozen times before my arrival.”
“Because we need your skill with those,” Jonathan said. He pointed to the long, thin blade sheathed against Devin’s left thigh and the hammerlock pistol holstered against his right. “Twice I have sent hunters into the woods, and neither time did they return. That forest is a cursed place now; anyone who steps inside can sense it. Help us, Soulkeeper. People I love and care about are dying. I may be desperate, but only because the solution is before me and I lack the strength to reach it. This is not some trumped‑up tale told around a campfire. This is real.”
Devin opened the book again, glancing over several more lines. It started with the goddess Lyra visiting the grandfather in a dream and ordering him to travel through the nearby forest to the base of the bald mountain. She’d told him that a creature from a time before mankind would await him there. From it, he would receive his cure.
“Jonathan, please, listen to me,” he said. “The Sisters created the Cradle for us. Humans. They did not create monsters or faeries or whatever this Arothk creature supposedly is. We are their children, their only children. Whatever stories you’ve heard are not true, they were never true, and I will not risk my life and the lives of those here because of the ravings of a dead man’s journal.”
The mayor fell silent. Devin didn’t blame him. In many ways, he’d just pronounced a death sentence for much of the village.
“I will do what I can to ease the burdens of the ill,” he said, putting up a callous front. “For your sake, I’ll not report your real request to the church.”
“Your herbs and bandages are like pissing on a wildfire,” Jonathan said. “At least you’ll be here for the reaping rituals. Anwyn knows there will be a lot of them.”
Devin slammed the journal down upon the desk.
“Do not belittle my coming here,” he said. “I swore an oath to aid Dunwerth and its villagers, and I did not take it lightly. I would put your lives above my own, yet what options do you give me, Jonathan? Forget silly tales in hidden journals. What would you have me do?”
“There is but one thing I would have you do, and you lack any faith or trust in me to do it.”
It hurt having a man so desperate and afraid look upon him, judge him, and find him wanting. Devin rubbed his eyes as his mind whirled. Forget the stories of this Arothk creature. What was the truth hidden in the faery tale? If he pried away the fanciful retelling of dreams and ancient creatures granting cures, what might be left to explain the events that occurred?
“Your grandfather went to this . . . bald mountain, and he came back with a cure for the same disease you’re suffering from now,” Devin asked. “Is that correct?”
“More or less.”
These people were clearly in need. Every fiber in his body wished to help them in some way. He could ease their pain with roots and herbs, but that was like massaging the shoulders of a man awaiting the fall of the executioner’s axe. It wasn’t a cure. Worse, he couldn’t shake the nagging fear of what would happen if the disease spread from this little remote village to some of the larger towns, or Goddesses forbid, Londheim itself. The need for a cure would be dire . . .
“Let me rest for a few hours,” he said. “My journey here was long.”
“So you’ll go?” Jonathan asked. Cautious optimism bubbled into his voice.
“I will go, but not to spill blood from a stone. Some weed or mushroom saved your people years ago, and I pray Lyra guides me to it now. As for your forest, I have no fear of lingering ghosts. Souls reside in the hands of Anwyn, Mayor, and she does not lose track.”
Jonathan’s dire smile gave him chills.
“You dismiss much,” he said. “Keep your heart and mind open, Soulkeeper. Here in Alma’s Crown we have learned to trust what you in the east dismiss as children’s tales. We are the edge of the known world, and you soon walk into lands beyond. Tread carefully.”