Today, we have an annotated excerpt taken from David Dalglish’s upcoming new novel, The Bladed Faith. The first in a new series, the Vagrant Gods, here’s the synopsis:
A usurped prince prepares to take up the mantel of a deadly assassin and reclaim his kingdom, his people, and his slain gods…
Cyrus was only twelve years old when his gods were slain, his country invaded, and his parents — the king and queen — beheaded in front of him. Held prisoner in the invader’s court for years, Cyrus is suddenly given a chance to escape and claim his revenge when a mysterious group of revolutionaries comes looking for a figurehead. They need a hero to strike fear into the hearts of the imperial and to inspire and unite the people. They need someone to take up the skull mask and swords and to become the legendary “Vagrant” — an unparalleled hero and assassin of otherworldly skill.
But all is not as it seems. Creating the illusion of a hero is the work of many, and Cyrus will soon discover the true price of his vengeance.
The excerpt is taken from the second chapter of the novel. Now, over to David…
Mari slid a word-lace around her neck in preparation for her walk through the conquered city of Vallessau. The imperial tongue was still new to the island, and though she had learned much of Thanet’s native language over the past few months she’d lived there, she found it much easier to rely on the word-lace’s magic.
With Bladed Faith, I had characters from different nations with multiple different languages, plus the native Thanese, and the official imperial tongue. To save my own sanity, I introduced word-laces that translated all speech for the wearer and gave them to several main characters. Lazy? Genius? I’ll let you decide.
“Be careful out there,” said Mari’s older sister, Stasia. Sweat soaked Stasia’s body, which was naked from the waist up except for a tightly wound strip of cloth tied across her chest. The two were in what had been dubbed the ‘training room’ of their two-story house. The floor was heavily carpeted. Iron rods of various weights rest on hooks and shelves. A massive triple-wrapped sack of white sand from the nearby beach hung from the ceiling, and Stasia thundered her bare fists into it with a staccato rhythm.
“I’m always careful,” Mari said. She removed a silken green band from her pocket and began tying her long brown hair into a tail. Mari was dressed opposite to her older sister, in a long, loose black dress over a thick chemise, a shawl for her head and neck, and long wool stockings.
“It doesn’t mean I can’t worry,” Stasia said. She weaved back and forth, dodging imaginary punches. Mari knew she’d be at that sack of sand for at least an hour, beating it into submission. Her older sister always worked out when battle approached. It was how she kept her nerves at bay. “I’m going to be at the front lines tomorrow, and I’d like you there with me.”
“I’m trying,” Mari insisted, as if she hadn’t spent every day of the past months doing exactly that.
“I’m communing with a god, Stasia. Either Endarius accepts my offer, or he doesn’t.”
Referencing this communion is my first hint at what Mari is hoping to do in this chapter. Trying not to overwhelm immediately since this section is dedicated to establishing Mari and Stasia as characters and give broad strokes to their personalities.
Stasia flashed one of her cocky smiles that only an older sister could get away with.
“Don’t give him a choice. You’re Mari Ahlai. What’s a dead lion compared to my little sister?”
“Stubborn, is what he is,” Mari said. “But I’m attending a new ritual later today, so maybe he’ll finally listen.”
I love these sisters so much. They travel from land to land, aiding in rebellions, always strangers when they arrive and effectively heroes by the time they leave. And Stasia absolutely believes her younger sister is stronger and more stubborn than a god.
Stasia returned to her training. Mari wished her well and then stepped out to the streets of Vallessau. If she was to hear the whispers of Thanet’s fallen god, she needed to be immersed in its people, its back alleys, and its quiet dealings. She had a name and an image to focus upon, and let it direct her wandering steps.
“Endarius,” she whispered as she closed her eyes while standing before a tavern not yet ready to open for the new day. The wooden sign sporting the tavern’s name was scuffed beyond repair, but she saw the faintest hints of a red and white feather painted into a chipped corner. “You’re lurking, I feel it, but where?”
Two years had passed since the Everlorn Empire conquered the island nation of Thanet. During those bloody years, the Uplifted Church and its priests and magistrates had scrubbed every reference to the original gods from the land. To speak Lycaena’s name was criminal. To bear an image of the feathered lion invited whippings, and you risked far worse if you carried any of the now-banned religious tracts. But no matter how hard the church tried, the people remembered. The imperials could not replace the old gods, not immediately. Given time, and the birth of new generations, the decay would sink in. The people of Thanet, like other conquered nations of the Everlorn Empire, would pledge their hearts to the God-Incarnate and disregard the old gods as blasphemous and irrelevant.
Setting up here some of the urgency for Mari’s plight. Her focus is less on the physical warfare and more on the spiritual, in helping to preserve faith in and knowledge of the island’s two original gods. It also shows that, for much of her life, she’s failed. The sisters inevitably move on, another nation, another attempt, resulting in them being here in Thanet at the start of the novel.
Mari traced her fingers along a red feather drawn with colored chalk across a stone wall. The image was hidden in a dark alley, far from potential patrols. A member of the church might find it, in time. Until then, it was a burning reminder of the slain god, and as the red rubbed onto her fingertips, she heard the faintest sound of a lion’s roar.
“Not dead,” Mari wondered aloud. “Not gone. Why won’t you come to me then? Why avoid my call?”
Ever since arriving on Thanet, Mari had whispered for the Lion to hear her, to entreat with her. Yet he refused. He always refused.
More hints of what is to come. Mari seeks an audience with the slain Lion god, yet he refuses to grant her one. What does it mean? What does she hope to accomplish?
“That’s right, a great feast!” shouted a city crier. Mari’s wandering path had taken her from district to district until she passed through the bustling heart of the city. The crier waved small, yellow-leaf pamphlets above his head and urged anyone interested to take them. “Feasting, songs, and games! Come early if you want the best spot to witness the ceremony!”
Mari pretended not to hear him. The idea turned her stomach. Nothing better exemplified the Everlorn Empire like feasting and gaming to celebrate a deity’s execution. Criers throughout the city begged for attendance in the great field west of Vallessau, and imperial soldiers had strung up banners and streamers across every main road. Come tomorrow, the empire would celebrate the culmination of two years of work. Come tomorrow, with the entire city in attendance, the Uplifted Church’s Anointed One would execute the captured goddess Lycaena.
That is, unless the resistance Mari’s father commanded stopped them.
Two things here. One, we have a clear timeline of a significant event (Lycaena’s execution) as well as what Stasia was so nervous about at the start. Two, some nice examples of the depravity of Everlorn’s church. What most would see as horrible, the ritual execution of the island’s goddess, the church would have the people see as a joyous celebration.
Not far was an evicted two-story tenement. Thought the residents had been cleared out weeks ago, a young man with dark hair hanging over his eyes kept guard at the door.
“What are you doing here, Mari?” he asked as she approached. “All of us are way too lowbrow shit for you.”
“I’ve come for the bloodletting,” she said.
“You’re cutting it close then,” the man said, and he flung the rickety door open. “The paladin is upstairs. Should be starting soon.”
Three men and two women gathered in attendance, sitting in a circle in the pale light. A single feather lay before each of them, and a sixth feather awaited her joining the circle. Of the five present, only one she recognized, a handsome man named Amhir. He was one of the leaders of the struggling resistance, and sometimes appeared at her father’s house in need of orders. Of the others, one stood out by his garb. He wore gilded armor, a bearskin cloak, and a necklace of teeth, all of which would have him executed if seen wearing them in public. A paladin of Endarius, come to perform the bloodletting ceremony.
Of the two gods, the paladins of Lycaena tend to be the more stereotypical shining silver armor, sword and shield variety. With Endarius, I wanted to have a little bit more fun, a combination of fanciful golden armor and more bestial references to the nature of the Lion.
“What is she doing here?” an older woman asked. Her face was like leather, her dark hair tied back into a ponytail. “To invite a foreigner is an insult to our god.”
“The Coin says she attends, so she attends,” Amhir said.
The paladin drew a knife from his hip, and he watched Mari while carefully sharpening it with flint from his pocket. His head was completely shaven, and tattooed across and above his forehead were rainbow feathers.
“There is danger in this ceremony to the unbelievers,” he said softly.
“I fear no danger.”
“But do you believe?”
Mari joined the circle and smoothed out her skirt.
“I have walked your streets, heard your prayers, and felt the faith of your island settle upon me like a cloak,” she said. “Yes, paladin, I believe. The Lion lingers, angry, and eager to hunt.”
In chapter one, Endarius was killed in battle during the initial invasion. Yet here you have people still holding out hope, a stubborn faith that he survives nonetheless. Not in the flesh, for he appears to them no longer, but in a more spiritual sense. The shift has been, needless to say, difficult on his followers. Unlike them, though, Mari has been to many conquered nations where the gods were slain. She knows exactly what happens, and how the gods can linger, sustained by their faithful despite having lost their physical forms. In fact, that concept is key to what she is, as we’ll soon see.
“You believe he exists, but that is not belief in him. The difference may seem small, but in truth it is a canyon. I pray you are not swallowed within.”
“She’s not a believer, yet still attends our most sacred rite,” the first woman protested. “I do not understand why we must allow this.”
“Because I come to offer myself to Endarius so he might live again,” said Mari.
The circle fell silent.
“Impossible,” the third man said, but there was a hint of hope within his whisper.
“But it won’t be a true second life, will it?” the paladin asked. He had been informed of Mari’s purpose, though how well he understood it, she did not yet know. “You aren’t bringing Endarius back. You’re letting him use your body like a puppet.”
“More like ‘share’,” Mari said. This was a conversation she was painfully familiar with. “There is a realm beyond life, and it is there your god now resides, without a physical body to grant him a presence in our world. I offer him that body. I will take in his power, and his faith, into my heart and soul. Through me, he will live.”
“Endarius lives in all our hearts,” the first woman said. “Yet none of us would think to become the Lion.”
“None of you are god-whisperers.”
So out comes, if not a full explanation, at least a clearer idea of what Mari desires. Mari becomes Endarius, the god lives again, and he may speak with his faithful. He can fight against the corruption of his island, and rage against his fading memory… but only if he is willing. So far, he’s not been.
“Enough,” Amhir said. “Begin the ceremony, paladin. The decision is made. Carry it through.”
“You seek to create a pale shade of the mighty Lion’s former glory,” the paladin said. “But we dwell in the deepest, darkest of valleys. I shall extend to you a bit of faith, Mari Ahlai. May you repay it in kind. Now give me your arm.”
All others extended arms with the palms downward. The paladin retrieved one of the long feathers, then readied his knife.
“Pray for mercy,” he whispered. “Pray for guidance. We come before the Lion.”
The others in attendance took up a whispery chant. Each was unique, not a pre-determined scripture but heartfelt confessions by the attendee. Words flowed over Mari, spoken in the Thanese tongue, and her word-lace struggled to translate them in her mind. Pleas for guidance, for mercy. Cries of pain, sorrow, and fear for the future awaiting the island in imperial hands. The need for comfort overwhelmed everything. They were afraid, so afraid, and Mari yearned to give them some measure of peace. Their hope, their belief, refused to die. It survived, even with their god speared by a paragon, and his body left broken before the capital.
“Pray for strength,” the paladin continued. “Pray for humility. We bow before the Lion.”
The paladin cut a shallow line above the wrist and across the forearm of an attendee. Little murmurs and cries of pain accompanied it, but they only seemed to add to the chorus of prayers. Into that blood he dipped the feather, coating its white surface, before returning it to the center circle.
My initial idea was to cut the palm but then changed it because I read so many complaints about rituals cutting palms with daggers where it’s so inconvenient and hurts and doesn’t bleed right. So there. Along the arm instead. You’re welcome, random person who would have cared about that.
“By blood we prove our loyalty,” he said with each cut. “By blood we offer our faith.”
One by one, the paladin painted the feathers. The room seemed to darken with every cut. The prayers, while still whispered, grew like an encroaching thunderstorm. A chill wind blew across her that no wall could ever stop. The presence of a god. The arrival of the divine.
At last, the paladin brought the knife to Mari.
“By blood we prove our loyalty,” he said, and he paused to look her in the eye. “And it must be true.”
Mari pulled back her shoulders and lifted her head.
“By blood I offer my faith,” she said. “My blood, and I give it freely.”
His knife sliced across her forearm. Red covered the white. Six feathers, each bathed in a splash of their blood, set into a circle. The paladin bowed his head, and he lifted his arms high.
“The circle is complete.’
A fire burst between them. It burned, soft and small, and hovered an inch above the floor.
This moment, when the fire comes alive, is when I start to have fun. So far nothing truly mystical or magical has happened in this chapter. That’s about to change.
The feathers shifted, each becoming a different color of the Lion’s mane. The fire itself shimmered the spectrum of the rainbow. Mari sensed Endarius’s presence clearer than she ever had before, so near, so close, like he prowled just out of sight.
“Take our blood,” the paladin said. “Take our prayers. Take our faith. Cradle us in your wings.”
I tried hard to make this ceremony seem… legitimate. Honest. Grieving people wishing for a return for the god they and their families had worshiped for hundreds of years. They seek comfort, as they perform in secret what was once done in public. And now the feather’s shift in color, mimicking the feathers Endarius bore when last seen in chapter one, right before his death.
It wasn’t part of the ceremony, but Mari leaned forward, her fingers scooping up the feathers. With them in her grasp, so followed the rainbow flame. It hovered before her, casting its cold light across her face. She curled it to her breast as the others gasped. The light swirled into her, granting a sudden influx of emotions. Love and loss, sorrow and rage. She smelled the grass of the highlands. The blood on the feathers flared crimson, and they burned hot between her fingers. All around her, the world darkened as if night descended in an instant.
“Do you hear me, Endarius?” Mari whispered. “Because I’m ready to listen.”
The darkness enfolded her completely, and a thunderous roar signified the fallen god’s arrival. He towered before Mari, all the world fading away into a dark emptiness that stretched on forever and ever. She bowed her head, offering the divine being the respect he rightfully deserved.
“Ceaseless is your prodding,” Endarius said. His voice was deep as stone and ageless as water. “I come, god-whisperer. What is it you seek?”
I just want to share someone else’s message to me after reading this line, because it is better than anything I could ever add: “ceaseless is your prodding” JDKFKGKGGK??? Endarius really said girl shut the fuck up ☠️☠️☠️☠️
The others in attendance had vanished. There was only Mari, the Lion, and the six feathers she clutched to her chest. She looked into the beast’s rainbow eyes. His wings spread wide, and they caught light that shone from nowhere. Red and pink waves shimmered across her, and her blood seemed to boil underneath the skin the light touched.
I always want these meetings to seem otherworldly, a meager human before a divine being to where they seem to radiate light from their very essence, and that light can cause harm. I rewrote this section so many times, and am still not entirely happy with it.
“I would take only what you would give,” Mari said. “I offer you a physical form now that your old body is slain. I offer you a life to replace what you lost.”
“And in return?” Endarius asked.
“Nothing you would not seek for yourself. The death of your enemies. The slaughter of the invaders, and the blood of imperial soldiers on our tongue.”
The rainbow of colors that was Endarius’s feathery mane swirled and shifted.
“I need not your human flesh. I need not the pity of a mortal. I am a god. I will not be mocked!”
His fury was beyond any Mari had experienced in her time as a god-whisperer. In other nations she’d visited, the slain gods were eager to regain a physical form lest they fade away into forgotten memories. Endarius, though? The lion wasn’t just refusing. He was insulted.
Everything you learn about Endarius, in chapters before and after this, is that he is a very stubborn god. This is just more of the same. You’d think dying in battle would humble him, but it only made things worse.
“I offer no mockery!” Mari shouted. Here in this otherworldly place she was a visitor, and her life was far from safe. “I only ask for the strength to defeat your enemies.”
“My strength belongs to the paladins who serve me faithfully,” Endarius said. He paced before her, a towering presence worthy of praise. “But you? You hold no faith. You grant no worship. I see your heart, girl, and it is bleeding.”
Mari pulled her shoulders back, and she remembered the confidence that had brought the Lion to her in the first place.
“And what is it you would rather find in my heart?” she asked the god.
Endarius stepped closer, closer, until his flat nose pressed against her forehead. It burned her skin like fire. His warm breath washed over her, and she smelled the coppery scent of blood from those open jaws.
Rejected. Mari is finally granted an audience… and she’s rejected. She is granted no divine presence, no power, no chance to become a recreation of Endarius to aid her sister in the battle to save Lycaena come tomorrow’s execution. How does she take it? Does she convince Endarius to accept her offer? Well. Given the original chapter is 5k words long, sadly this seems the best place to stop, so I’ll repeat Stasia’s belief earlier: her sister is just as stubborn as any dead god.