The Sign of the Raven
Men forget things. Sometimes it is the accident of consciousness. Other times it is the writers of the history books, filled with anger, who cast hero as villain and villain as "reformer". But other times, other more fearful times, history is the chain of events we choose to remember. The darkness men would like to forget is left out, hoping that by fading from the collective memory of man, it is as if it never happened. It was by this method that man forgot a war. I do not refer to the war that happened in the East halfway through the last century. It still rests in the history books. The one I speak of is much, much older, and remembered by none except myself.
It was at the very dawn of the sixteenth century after His Coming, that there was a young boy born under the sign of the raven living in the city of Munich on Isar, known to him as München. He was not a child, but neither was he a young man. His family name was Zahn, as his Christian name has been lost, even to me. Zahn lived with his mother's brother, a merchant, since his own parents had been lost to him at a very young age. His hair was like his father's—brilliant orange. It was neither red-brown nor the color of peaches, but instead was like the orange flame of a hot candle. Some say that evidence of Zahn's lineage was in the form of a bird-like birthmark on his right palm, but this is hearsay.
The boy was too young to help his uncle at his work, and most of the time he stayed at home. His uncle was a learned man who kept a shelf of books, and it was from these books that the boy with hair of flame learned first to read and then to write. It was then no great surprise that one cool summer afternoon, he was reading in a chair next to an open window. It was a surprise when someone asked, "Why young master, what are you reading?" Zahn looked around the room, but saw no one, and went back into the pages of his tome. "My apologies, master, but I thought that you might be able to listen." Finally the boy spotted something on the open window—a large white bird whose head nearly reached the top of the frame two and one-half feet above it. "Pardon me, bird, but are you the one that…?" The bird shook its head in a manner that suggesting nodding. "Yes, master, it was I. I was afraid that you could not listen, but I am pleased that you can." The boy closed the book, and looked at the bird. He had heard the bird give a series of deep, hollow caws, but he heard a man's voice at the same time. "How is that you are speaking, bird?" The bird shuffled. "All birds speak, master. Most cannot hear us, and many of those that one could have forgotten how. Your father could hear us, and it is now certain that you can as well." Zahn looked at the white bird, whose shape looked somewhat familiar. "What are you called, bird?" "You may refer to me however you choose to do so, master. Your father called me Malachi the raven. Raven is man's name for my kind." The boy remarked that he had never seen a white raven before, and the raven remarked that his color was rare, but no so rare as brown among his kind.
Malachi talked with the boy, and told him that ravens and their lesser cousins, the crows, respected the Zahn, and shared all they found on the world with his father. The boy asked what his father had done. The white raven answered that he had been a hunter. The boy asked what sorts of beasts his father had hunted. "Not beasts, master. He hunted The Enemy." "The Enemy?" "They Who Were Once Men." It was then that the boy's uncle returned, and Malachi left, telling him that if he did not leave that people would think the boy mad. Zahn went back to his books and soon forgot the incident.
It was some months later that the boy was sent on an errand. After finishing his task he ate his lunch sitting on a fountain in the middle of a square. "So, is he the one?" "Yes he is." "Young master, hello!" As he sat, a couple of crows landed nearby…then a raven…then a rook…then a few more crows…a few jackdaws…and then a few more ravens. Soon, dozens of black birds sat in front of him, talking with him. The crows were quick to bicker and argue and interrupt their fellows, while the larger birds showed more patience. He asked about the white raven, Malachi, and one black raven explained the bird had passed away recently of age. The birds had been looking for him to warn him. Several ghastly murders had occurred during the recent weeks, and the Bürgermeister, despite his best efforts, had been unable to find the murderer. One man had stepped forward, claiming that he could find the murderer, and in exchange, he wished to be named the new Bürgermeister.
The conspiracy of ravens, parliament of rooks, and murder of crows had learned a secret. The man asserting that he could end the murders was himself the murderer. He was also one of The Enemy. The birds told of him of what his father had done. Zahn whittled several sticks to a point and gathered wild roses. He drew the monster posing as a man into attempting another murder, and under the watchful eyes of the city's elders, destroyed the man for what he was, the murderer's blood turning to harmless dust. It was then, at the age of twelve, that Zahn became a hunter.
Zahn stayed in Munich for a few years before he wandered the countryside. With the gossip and knowledge provided to him by the crows and ravens, he learned the sword and other methods by which the They Who Were Once Men could be defeated. Some had degraded and lost their humanity and fought as feral beasts. The ones that remembered their human lives were much deadlier. He fought on their terms, as strong and clever as to make him their equal, though he was much weaker than They were, yet he defeated and destroyed them. He soon found that his ability extended beyond merely conversing with the corvids, and that after practice, he could himself become a raven, though somewhat larger than any natural bird, for short periods of time. He used this as a means of surprise and for getting to places that were inaccessible on foot. In a few years, he was regarded as the world's most famous hunter in the small circles that spoke of such things, and most of the laymen of Europe had forgotten his actions and chalked it off to legend.
After a while, his hunts, and the birds that followed him came up dry. He "retired" and took to a more normal occupation. He found a wife, a woman with long blonde hair who was just as cunning and smart as he was. They soon had a son, with the same fiery hair as his father. They named him Leif, in honor of the love between them. Zahn was content leaving his sword above the mantle, and he hoped it would stay that way. But you know just as well as I that nothing in this world is forever.
Zahn with the hair of flame had not totally wiped out his enemy, for like evil itself, it could not totally be extinguished. It was true that he had slain a good deal of The Enemy, and they had gone into hiding in order to survive. After a few years, their numbers bolstered, they attacked Europe thirty years into the new century, while Zahn's child was barely an infant. This was the Forgotten War. Three thousand souls lost their lives prematurely in what later would be written off as "regional tensions" or "mass hysteria". The Church refused to help, or even acknowledge the threat, although a few town priests helped the hunters.
The Forgotten War was also forgotten because it consisted not of pitched battles between noblemen's armies on green fields, but of raids and skirmishes. The hunters fought in the daytime, rooting out their prey and protecting their families, while the demons attacked under the cover of the moon. At first it was about even in terms of losses, but as the war drove on, man was in danger. They Who Were Once Men had stopped merely killing hunters, but instead corrupted their souls and minds and added them to their ranks. While Good's forces drained, Evil's swelled. The hunters needed a leader to rally behind, and they called upon the man with the sign of the raven to help them. But Zahn wanted nothing to do with the hidden conflict. He convinced himself that it was nothing, and resolved to stay and raise his family. It was then The Enemy attacked him and his family. The man with the hair of flame drew blood on his home's own threshold, and when a band of hunters arrived moments later, he took the sword off the mantle and resolved to end the war for the sake of his wife and child.
Zahn turned out to be charm needed. He fought the demons at night, surprising them, and using their own tactics against them. During his absence, Zahn's wife gave birth to their second child, a girl, whom she named Sigrun. In less than a year, the tide of the war swung drastically in favor of man. The carrion crows that once signified the blood spilt by The Enemy now was a symbol of their feathered downfall. In fact, soon, there was only a single band of the demons left in all of Europe. These creatures had gathered around a prophecy. The hair of flame shall be greater than their father, and with it become the downfall of The Night. The demons could not kill Zahn, but they found another way to change their destiny. They Who Were Once Men captured him, and despite his best efforts to resist, sullied his soul. The man with hair of flame was consumed by the deepest of madness, and the cursed blood that now ran in his veins gave him new power. The ravens, crows, rooks, and daws that had once aided him could now be bound to him in heart and soul. Zahn could summon a swarm comprised of every bird for fifty miles, and he could command them with mere thoughts. He could blend in with them, and vanish by trading places with any of the birds. And whenever he was injured, a raven would be crushed in sacrifice, its blood ripped out of its body instantly and added to his own, which would heal him in moments.
In less than one month, with the mad Zahn leading The Enemy, the hunters were all but wiped out. They managed to kill the rest of Zahn's new demonic allies, but they were slaughtered whenever they tried to attack him, either by the ravens, or his sword. Finally, on one day that rained under clouds so thick that day became night, Zahn's path of blood led him to a house east of Munich. When he drew near, the ravens and crows stopped following his unbreakable orders. Most simply flew in a large, lazy circle above the roof, while others tried to make a barricade of feathers to block the doors and the windows. They all cried out the same phrase, over and over: "Leave this house!" Zahn finally had to hack his way through mountains of corvids to reach the front door, which he kicked down. Inside was a woman, screaming. Zahn calmly walked up to her, and sliced a hole into her chest. An infant screamed and a newborn cried. The woman said with the last of her rapidly fading breath, "I'm sorry. I had to protect them, my love." She then expired in Zahn's arms.
With that, the madness that had consumed Zahn in the past month instantly left him, and the horror of what he accomplished came to him. He had slaughtered hundreds, his fellows, his friends, and now his beloved. He screamed. It was then that three of his former comrades arrived at the house. They were the last three hunters on Earth. He who was once the champion of the hair of flame could do little more than sit on his knees and beg his friends to kill him, and take care of his now motherless children. With a mélange of tears and pity, his friends obliged. Zahn smiled as he was consumed at first by flame, and then by dust.
The Enemy had been wrong in their prophecy. They did not avert their fate, but merely ensured it would happen, for they overlooked one little word in the sutra they had followed: their. The prophecy referred not to Zahn…but his children. Both the infant Leif and little Sigrun had inherited their father's hair. One of the last hunters, a blacksmith named Drayton, took the boy with him back to England, while another, a minor Austrian noble named Rabe, took the girl with him to Styria. Although not born that way, their blood became mixed with that of The Enemy, but it did not consume them; instead, they benefited from the abilities of their mixed blood, and became greater than their father. Leif and Sigrun Zahn are still greater than their father, even to this day and age. For they…they are the children, born under the sign of the raven.