Home > Vespertine (Vespertine #1)

Vespertine (Vespertine #1)
Author: Margaret Rogerson

 

 

ONE


If I hadn’t come to the convent’s cemetery to be alone, I wouldn’t have noticed the silver gleam of the censer lying abandoned at the base of a tombstone. Every novice and sister carried one, a thurible on a chain to defend ourselves against the Dead, and I recognized this censer by its shape and its tracery of black tarnish as belonging to Sophia, one of the youngest novices, brought to the convent only last winter. When I crouched down and touched it, the metal still felt warm. I had to press my wrist against it to be sure, because my scarred hands weren’t good at telling temperature.

I knew right away that Sophia hadn’t dropped it while climbing trees or playing among the tombstones. She wouldn’t have burned incense unless something had really frightened her; even children knew that incense was too precious to waste.

I straightened and looked toward the chapel. A bitter wind whipped loose strands of my braid around my face, lashing tears from my eyes, so it took me a moment to locate the ravens sheltering beneath the eaves, huddled against the mossy gray stone. All of them were black, except for one. He sat apart from the rest, nervously preening his snow-white feathers, which the wind kept ruffling in the wrong direction.

“Trouble,” I called. I felt in my pocket for a crust of bread. As soon as I held it out, he launched himself from the roof in a wind-buffeted flurry and landed on my arm, his claws pricking through my sleeve. He tore apart the bread, then eyed me for more.

He shouldn’t be alone. He was already missing a few feathers, cruelly plucked out by the other birds. When he’d first come to the convent, they’d left him in a bloody heap in the cloister, and he had almost died even after I’d taken him to my room in the dormitory and pried his beak open every few hours to give him bread and water. But I was an older novice and I had too many responsibilities—I couldn’t watch over him all the time. Once he’d healed, I had given him to Sophia to look after. Now wherever she went, Trouble followed, especially indoors, where she had a habit of upsetting the sisters by hiding him inside her robes.

“I’m looking for Sophia,” I told him. “I think she’s in danger.”

He fanned out the feathers on his throat and muttered to himself, a series of clicks and grunts, as though thinking this over. Then he mimicked in a little girl’s voice, “Good bird. Pretty bird. Crumbs!”

“That’s right. Can you take me to Sophia?”

He considered me with a bright, intelligent eye. Ravens were clever animals, sacred to the Gray Lady, and thanks to Sophia, he knew more human speech than most. At last, seeming to understand, he spread his wings and flapped to the tumble of earth and stone that shored up the chapel’s rear wall. He hopped along the length of a slab and peered into a dark space beneath.

A hole. Last night’s storm must have eroded the chapel’s foundation, opening an old passageway into the crypt.

He looked back at me. “Dead,” he croaked.

My blood ran cold. Sophia hadn’t taught him to say that word.

“Dead,” Trouble insisted, puffing his feathers. The other ravens stirred, but they didn’t take up the alarm.

He had to be mistaken. Blessings reinforced each stone of the convent’s walls. Our lichgate had been forged by holy sisters in Chantclere. And yet…

The passageway yawned beneath a fringe of dangling roots. I had approached it without thinking. I knew what I should do—I should go running back and alert Mother Katherine. But Sophia was too young to carry a dagger, and she’d lost her censer. There wasn’t time.

I unhooked the censer that hung from my chatelaine. Gritting my teeth, I forced my clumsy fingers to open the tiny hatch and fumble with flint and incense. The scars were the worst on my left hand, where the shiny red tissue that roped my palm had contracted over time and pulled my fingers into permanent claws. I could close them into a loose fist, but I couldn’t open them all the way. As I worked, I thought of Sister Lucinde, who wore a ring set with an old, cracked ruby. The ring had a saint’s relic sealed inside, whose power allowed her to light candles with a mere gesture.

Finally, the spark caught. I blew on the incense until embers flared. Then, wreathed in smoke, I stepped into the dark.

Blackness swallowed me. The smell of wet earth closed in, as smothering as a damp rag clapped over my nose. The opening’s thin, watery light faded away almost at once, but like all girls taken in by the Gray Sisters, I possessed the Sight.

Strands of light swirled around me like cobwebs, their ghostly shapes resolving into a contorted face, a reaching hand. Shades. Groups of them congregated in places such as these, drawn to graves and ruins. They were a type of First Order spirit, frail and nearly formless. Their fingers plucked at my skin as though searching for a loose thread to unravel, but they posed little harm. As I hurried past, the smoke that spilled from my censer mingled with their translucent forms. Sighing, they dispersed along with the incense.

Shades were so common that Trouble wouldn’t have paid them any mind. Only something more dangerous, a Second Order spirit or higher, would have caught his attention.

“Sophia?” I called.

Nothing answered but echoes of my own voice.

The wavering ghost-light revealed niches filled with yellowed bones and scraps of decayed linen. Nuns were traditionally interred in the tunnels surrounding the crypt, but the age of these remains surprised me. They looked centuries old, crumbling and clotted with cobwebs—older than the Sorrow, when the Dead first rose to torment the living. If this section of the tunnel had been sealed off at some point in the convent’s distant past, it was possible a spirit had risen from one of these piles of bones and haunted the catacombs for years without anyone knowing.

A sound shivered through the passageway’s thick underground silence, almost too soft to identify. A child’s sob.

I broke into a run.

The shades whipped through me, each touch a sudden shock of cold. My censer banged against my robes until I wrapped the chain tightly around my hand. I drew it in front of my face in the defensive position taught to me by Sister Iris, the convent’s battle mistress.

A glow bathed a bend in the tunnel ahead. When I rounded the corner, my stomach turned to stone. Sophia had climbed into a niche to hide, her face buried in the knees of her robes. Hovering just outside, a ghoulish form peered in at her, the crown of its bald head visible over a hunched and knobby spine. A shroud flowed weightlessly around its cadaverous body, shining with an unearthly silver light.

For a heartbeat, I stood frozen. The last seven years melted away and I was a child again. I smelled hot ash and burning flesh; my hands throbbed with phantom pain.

But that had been before the Gray Sisters found me. Before they had saved me—and taught me that I could fight back.

I slid my dagger from its sheath. The spirit whipped around, alerted by the whisper of steel against leather. It had the hollowed face of an emaciated corpse, its lips shriveled back from an oversized set of teeth that took up nearly half its skull, bared in a permanent grimace. There were no eyes above, only empty sockets.

Sophia lifted her head. Tears shone through the dirt on her cheeks. “Artemisia!” she yelled.

The spirit’s form blurred and vanished. Instinct saved my life. I turned and swung the censer, so when the spirit reappeared a handspan in front of my face, the incense held it at bay. A groan shuddered from its jaws. It flickered out of existence again.

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