Read Raven's Ladder Online

Authors: Jeffrey Overstreet

Raven's Ladder

Praise for
Raven’s Ladder

“Jeffrey Overstreet’s imagination is peopled with mysteries and wonders, and his craft continues to mature. Reading
Raven’s Ladder
is like staring at a richly imagined world through a kaleidoscope: complex, intriguing, and habit-forming.”

—K
ATHY
T
YERS,
author of
Shivering World
and the Firebird series

“A darkly complex world, populated by a rich and diverse cast of characters, in which glimpses of haunting beauty shine through. Sometimes perplexing but always thought provoking,
Raven’s Ladder
is the work of a fertile and strikingly creative imagination.”

—R. J. A
NDERSON
, author of
Faery Rebels: Spell Hunter

“With
Raven’s Ladder
, Overstreet does what the best fantasy writers do: he opens a door into a new world—a beautiful, dangerous world and one that stayed with me long after I closed the book.”

—A
NDREW
P
ETERSON
, singer, songwriter, and author of
North! Or Be Eaten
and
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

“In
Raven’s Ladder
, Jeffrey Overstreet continues what he began with his first two novels,
Auralia’s Colors
and
Cyndere’s Midnight
, crafting a world rich in detail, purpose, and wonder. Each page reveals new threads of a complex, interwoven story that excites and entertains while provoking deeper thought. It has been a long time since I’ve read a series as captivating, meaningful, inspiring, and beautiful as this one.”

—A
ARON
W
HITE
, writer and editor of
FaithAndGeekery.com

“Raven’s Ladder
is a fantasy gem. The story is imaginative and truthful, the characters authentic and complex. Jeffrey Overstreet has given us a gift—a fully realized world teeming with life and wonder. It is a fully human tale, with a penetrating glory throughout. Here is a heaping portion of truth, beauty, and goodness.”

—S. D. S
MITH
, author of the Fledge Chronicles serial

“In
Raven’s Ladder
, Jeffrey Overstreet weaves a brilliant tale of intricate layers, inviting his audience into a story of deeper meaning. Not mere fiction that ends with the shutting of the book, it sneakily tiptoes into your thoughts, challenging you to ponder a little more.”

—E
STHER
M
ARIA
S
WATY
,
Seattle City Guide Examiner

A
LSO BY
J
EFFREY
O
VERSTREET

Fiction:
Auralia’s Colors
Cyndere’s Midnight

Nonfiction:
Through a Screen Darkly:
Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth, and Evil at the Movies

For Anne
,

who encouraged me as I climbed in search of this story,
offered meticulous, insightful criticism,
and fed me with her poetry
.

C
ONTENTS

Prologue

 1.
Cal-raven in Four Kinds of Trouble

 2.
To Save the King

 3.
Riddles in the Dark

 4.
The Second Siege of Barnashum

 5.
A Second Exodus

 6.
Drawn by Vision, Driven by Fear

 7.
Campfire in the Cragavar

 8.
King of Birds and Mercy

 9.
White Dust

10.
The Revelhouse

11.
The Six Tricksters

12.
What Cal-raven Saw through the Glass

13.
A Traitor’s Bargain

14.
Sisters Astray

15.
Snyde’s Fall

16.
Brown and Mousey

17.
Bauris at the Window

18.
The Wall That Talked Back

19.
Queen Thesera Takes Counsel

20.
A Precarious Beginning

21.
Abascar Scattered

22.
Descent into the Bel Amican Night

23.
Auralia’s Defenders

24.
An Open Window

25.
The Glassworks

26.
A Sudden Change of Plan

27.
Helpless in the Garden

28.
Night on the Beastman River

29.
Suspicion at the Harbor Caves

30.
An Offering to the Chieftain

31.
Reunions

32.
Subterfuge

33.
What Came by Invitation

34.
Queen Thesera’s Birthday Surprise

35.
Cal-raven, Lost

Epilogue

A Guide to the Characters

Acknowledgments

C
AN
A
URALIA’S
C
OLORS
S
AVE
H
OUSE
A
BASCAR
?

In a dungeon beneath House Abascar, Prince Cal-raven befriended Auralia. She was only sixteen, but already condemned. Cal-raven’s father, the king, had imprisoned her for breaking Abascar law and revealing colors only royalty were allowed to display.

But Cal-raven saw that Auralia was a visionary, a prophet. Her cloak glimmered with colors no one had ever seen—colors that spoke of undiscovered wonders in the world.

He was even more intrigued by her claim that the Keeper had sent her. The Keeper. A creature who brings children comfort in their dreams. A shadow who looms in the nightmares of adults who feel threatened by any power greater than their own.

So the prince gave Auralia his Ring of Trust, a pledge of protection against harm. And a few days later House Abascar came crashing down, erasing Auralia—and the ring—from the Expanse.

Their home in ruins, their king buried in the rubble, the Abascar survivors followed Cal-raven into the wilderness, taking refuge in a stone labyrinth behind the Cliffs of Barnashum.

Now their king, Cal-raven has helped his people survive hardship and a siege by bloodthirsty beastmen. But he has never stopped believing that the Keeper is watching. And he has never stopped believing that there is a better home for his people, a place where Auralia’s colors shine. So he follows the Keeper’s tracks in search of New Abascar.

But the road is fraught with dangers. Beastmen. A traitor with murder on his mind. A deadly menace breaking through the ground. Wicked Seers from House Bel Amica eager to seduce and enslave his people.

There are also signs of hope. Cyndere, daughter of House Bel Amica’s queen, is conspiring with Abascar’s courageous ale boy and with Jordam—the one beastman whose heart has been healed by Auralia’s colors—to rescue slaves from the beastmen and bring hope to the Expanse…

P
ROLOGUE

R
emembering, the Treasure rose in a dustcloud from the cushions. “Mustn’t be late,” she whispered.

A lantern’s frenzied flame—the only light her captors allowed—made of her a wild shadow on walls of clay and roots. She cupped a handful of ash-dry crumbs from the bedside bowl. Then she cowled her head in a dark shawl and fitted her feet into timeworn slippers—soldier’s boots she’d snatched from a passing pillage cart and trimmed to fit.

Touching the dingy rag-weave curtain she had hung on the windowless wall, she said, “I’ll come back.”

As if in answer, colors flickered about the curtain’s edges.

The iron-barred door of her cell may once have been a garden gate before the curse poisoned the people of House Cent Regus. Locked for years, it had been her only window. But she learned to ignore the distorted shadows lurking beyond the bars—beastmen come to ogle their chieftain’s favorite trophy.

One day Skell Wra had ordered the lock undone, for where could she go? Better to let his Treasure run loose. A ghost. A boast. A reminder of the fallen house his servants had pillaged.

But he could not have guessed that a spark still burned in the Treasure’s spirit or that it had been fanned into flame by the glory of her own secret treasure. She would surprise her captors someday.

In her years of incarceration, she had lost the rhythm of sunrise and sunset. But a vivid revelation had rekindled memories long buried in ash. In the light of a shining relic stolen from House Abascar’s collapse, she remembered the ancient songs that gave order to each day. And thus she fumbled her way back into habits that once filled those measured spaces. She established the simplest ceremonies—sweeping her cell, scrubbing her feet, cleaning stone fragments for makeshift dishes.

In recovering such common disciplines, she found strength and something more—the desire to investigate all that occurred beyond her misery’s border.

During one aimless meander, she had stopped at a startling sound. Harmony.

Up a rugged stair to a low-ceilinged cave, she had moved like a moth to a flicker of light. A host of slaves, hands joined, arms bruised from long days of tunneling for the chieftain, sang House Abascar’s Evening Verse. Its melody unfurled like a watchtower’s flag. The exhausted prisoners seemed to draw strength from that rhythmic ritual, prodding at the darkness until it bled hope.

Her own particular hope intensified as she crept to the gathering’s edge night after night. If these laborers had survived House Abascar’s fall, perhaps others were searching for them on the ground that she called a ceiling. Her husband, the king. Or her son.

On this night as the Treasure crept along corridors and braved cold mockery from the parades of fang and claw that passed, her only stars for navigation were torchflares at each corner; the only moon an occasional shaft of light from the world above falling through this syrupy fog.

The vapor, pungent as boiled weeds, emanated from roots that the slaves called feelers. As the captives swung pickaxes and opened tunnels, the feelers filled them, spreading beneath the Expanse, setting a snare-net for the world. She had witnessed those tendrils drawing down prey they had caught above ground—a bird, a deer, even a man or a woman. Like a host of prowling ghosts, the feelers’ cold mist crawled over her as she stumbled, shuddering, between the vein-lined walls.

When she arrived at the foot of the long stair, she heard new voices in the melodies that descended like glimmers of sunlight through a dark ocean. New slaves.

“Marcus?” she wondered aloud. “My love?” Speaking his name made the possibility seem real. “Raven? My son?”

The Treasure ascended the steps and slipped into the bowl-shaped room beyond but stayed outside the captives’ candlelight.

When the music was over, the prisoners passed around a dish—a supper of scraps that might once have been seeds, nuts, weeds, insects—and began to whisper urgently, knowing they’d soon be bullied into silence. Stories rose in voices hushed and hoarse. Tales of a house busy with industry. Memories of childhood sweethearts, an elaborate prank on a duty guard, an incident with an ambassador’s trousers in the midst of the king’s court session, the death of a child to a winter plague. Tales of passions pursued, of dreams given shape, of creative inventions that flourished for a time.

Though these sadder stories worried the queen of Abascar like clouds of biting mosquitoes, she stayed.

“Enough.” A woman’s plea interrupted the man whose bitter tale of Abascar’s last, vivid hours was only worsening the slaves’ sorrow. “We know this tale too well. Let’s hear from some new voice. You, boy…do you have the strength to tell us a story, to help us remember who we are?”

The question struck a solemn stillness.

As the boy stepped forward, the Treasure felt a pin pierce her heart. He was bent under a burden that no one so young should carry. He cast aside his outer cloak, took up the candle, and introduced himself as an ale boy. A day in his Abascar life had been a route through the whole wide house, up from the Underkeep breweries and into King Cal-marcus’s palace. He took the tower stairs to the royal chambers, walked to the watchtowers on the inner and outer walls. He strolled the streets to the Housefolk, the officers’ quarters, the gardens and farms, the stables and mills, and beyond to the fields, the orchards, and the huts where the Gatherers labored to earn the favor of the king. The Treasure followed the thread of his words back through passages she had made herself forget.

His small voice grew fierce and eager, for he was now describing a girl, an artist, a friend, and one who dared defy the laws that the Treasure herself had made.

Auralia, he called her.

“But the king’s condemnation was a mistake,” he went on. “For when they threw Auralia into the dungeon, the heart of House Abascar broke. The Underkeep collapsed—
krash!
—deep into the earth.” As he spoke these words, he extended his arm and touched the candle to the edge of his sleeve. “And fire,” he said, “rose up to consume what remained.”

The slaves came to their feet in dismay. Some lunged forward, raising shackled hands. Too late. Flames cloaked the storyteller.

The Treasure fell backward, her arms across her face. So many of her dreams ended in just such catastrophes.

But when she opened her eyes, the boy still stood in their midst, arms raised, blazing. The people retreated as his shrill voice rose to a shout. “Don’t fear. The Keeper was there, watching over, refusing to let Auralia burn.”

His voice went on emboldened, his demeanor untroubled by the fire. Serpents of smoke slithered from his garments. His eyes shone. The slaves’ urgent concern turned to bewilderment, then terror.

The boy began to spin, faster and faster—a small whirlwind flinging flecks of light. His hand shot out to grasp the edge of a heavy tarp, the kind the prisoners used to drag up sharp stones from their masters’ mines. He cast it over himself. The cave’s bright center dimmed to a faint ring of fire on the floor until the tarp stifled even that, and the light went out altogether.

The Treasure leaned forward. The cave grew quiet for long, worried moments.

Then the boy rose and cast away the tarp. Outlined in sparks, he walked in a circle. “Northchildren took Auralia from the ashes. They cloaked her in strange new skin. They gave her to the Keeper, and it carried her away. But before she left, she told me to seek the Keeper’s tracks in the world. I’ve done so. And they led me straight to you. So listen to me.”

Oh, how they obeyed him.

“I can’t explain what brought our house down. Maybe the king dug too deep. Maybe it was a fire. Some have said there was something more.”

“I blame that wretched queen,” growled an old woman.

“But there’s something else I can’t explain,” said the boy. “How’d anybody get outta there alive? How’d I find the Keeper’s tracks in the smoke and trouble, to reach and help so many?”

“What of King Cal-marcus?” Nella Bye asked.

The boy met her gaze. His answering whisper ran through the Treasure like a sharpened spear. “He’s gone, my lady.”

“He…didn’t survive?”

“I don’t know. But he’s gone.” All glimmering and golden, the boy touched Nella Bye’s shoulder. “I can’t explain it. But I’ve seen Northchildren. They’re not monsters. They’re helpers. They give relief to the dying. Wherever the king is now, he’s not beyond their reach.” He looked up at the survivors. “We’re not either. Auralia was right all along. The Keeper will come for us, if Cal-raven doesn’t first.”

A laugh burst from the Treasure. As the slaves glanced in her direction, Nella Bye asked, “Cal-raven is alive?”

“He’s Abascar’s new king. In the Blackstone Caves, behind Barnashum’s cliffs. He’s making a plan to start again. To build New Abascar. Somewhere else.”

The Treasure covered her mouth. It was a joke. Cal-raven was just a boy. He could not lead a berrypicking party, much less direct a great house. “Does he know we’re here?” someone asked.

The boy’s eyes turned upward as if his gaze could penetrate the stone above them. “I think I’m supposed to prepare you for his coming.”

“You?” another scoffed. “The Keeper’s tracks led me here.”

The Treasure observed the hushed, haunted gallery of faces illuminated by the boy’s spark-lit skin. No longer sullen as livestock waiting for slaughter, they looked awake, alive. She knew this awakening. She had felt it when that colorful weave—Auralia’s colors, if the boy’s story was true—had flared up in her cell. She had seen it quiet the bloodlust of beastmen.

The Treasure stepped from the corner’s concealment. “I think I can help,” she heard herself say.

Faces turned, afraid. She knew what they saw—a creature the sun had forgotten, her own reflection sinewy, fierce, and white as bone.

“You’re that wretch the chieftain keeps to mock us.” The voice belonged to a toothless old man. “You brought this on us.”

“And I’m the one who knows a way out of here.” In her voice she heard a familiar fury. “What is more, I know someone who will fight for us.”

The old man went silent, mouthing at the darkness like a fish.

“Walk with me, child,” she said to the storyteller. “I suspect there is more to your story. I want to hear it all.”

For the first time the boy seemed frightened.

“Don’t trust her.” Nella Bye stood, her hair spilling down around her ankles.

But the boy drew his cloak back around his shoulders and moved forward as against a hard wind.

The Treasure led him out and down the stair. She could see in the ale boy’s smoky countenance that she amazed him—a woman free to wander the Cent Regus Core. But as this creature of courage and soot began to retell his story, his voice gained strength and fervor.

The ale boy told her of Auralia and how she flung gifts upon the Gatherers as generously as a cherry tree showers its petals. He told her of the Proclamation that had forbidden all colors and how Auralia’s revelation had thrown the kingdom into turmoil. She leaned forward. Her memory sketched faint impressions, as if the boy were painting in the rain.

She paused when a skulk of white rat-beasts—all five taller than she—rounded the corner like the groping fingers of a pale hand. One in the front pushed a wheelbarrow full of pickaxes and spades. She stepped between the boy and the rats, sweeping her outermost skirt behind her so that it settled over him.

The rat-beasts approached her, pink noses twitching and oozing. Their white fur was tinted orange in the torchlight, filthy as if it had been used to sweep cobwebs. Their red eyes examined her. “Treasure,” they whispered in reverence. One fell forward onto his hands and sniffed about the edge of her cloak. “Four…four feet?”

The ale boy leapt out. Anything the Treasure was ready to say was washed away by surprise.

The boy had become a little beastman. His face was painted with soil, and a mop of long, matted hair hung down over his eyes. His mouth was full of shiny fangs, and his hands were mittened in black gloves that thrust arrowhead claws into the air.

The rats blinked red eyes in disbelief.

And then he thrust his hands at them, which burst at once into gloves of flame. Painting fiery lines in the air, he leapt at them, fangs parting, and roared a horrible noise. A cloud of fur tufts filled the space where the rat-beasts had been.

The Treasure hastened on. Her little monster walked backward behind her, shaking his hands to put out their fire. He spat out the cluster of Cent Regus teeth he had glued together, and with smoking fingers he brushed away the wig of beastman hair. “That was very effective,” he concluded. “I should make a bunch of these.”

“Remarkable boy,” she mused. “Pockets full of surprises.” She shook her head. “I’ve some surprises for you as well, so listen close. I’ll remember it as a kindness.”

“If listening is all you need from me,” he replied.

“This queen of Abascar once knew the very colors you describe. A merchant’s young daughter she was, living with her family near Fraughtenwood. And then, on a red moon’s night, a light came.”

She lifted her hand, drawing in the air. “Sudden and strong, a light on the wall. Just after midnight. It flitted about and set the rat-catcher to pouncing. The girl thought she was dreaming. She rose and tried to touch it. The light appealed to her like nothing she had seen in her travels, like nothing her father and mother had ever offered or taken in trade. She laughed, and the sensation was like discovering she could play an unfamiliar instrument. She had never laughed like that before.”

This made the boy laugh, and the sound gladdened her heart. Nothing thrilled her quite like her son’s chirping flights of laughter.

“As abruptly as it had appeared, the bird of light was gone out the window. She felt a powerful desperation. She seized her bird net and ran into the night to catch it. But her father ran after her. He punished her.”

She stopped and leaned against the wall. “The light didn’t come again. She can still see it when she closes her eyes. She began to seek those colors in wildflowers, water, sunsets. She fashioned cages, collected bottles and vials, seeking anything that might capture the light if she found it.”

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