The dead of Loraille do not rest…
From Margaret Rogerson, author of Sorcery of Thorns and An Enchantment of Ravens, comes a YA fantasy about a teen girl with mythic abilities who must defend her world against restless spirits of the dead. We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Vespertine, publishing October 5th with Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The dead of Loraille do not rest.
Artemisia is training to be a Gray Sister, a nun who cleanses the bodies of the deceased so that their souls can pass on; otherwise, they will rise as spirits with a ravenous hunger for the living. She would rather deal with the dead than the living, who trade whispers about her scarred hands and troubled past.
When her convent is attacked by possessed soldiers, Artemisia defends it by awakening an ancient spirit bound to a saint’s relic. It is a revenant, a malevolent being that threatens to possess her the moment she drops her guard. Wielding its extraordinary power almost consumes her—but death has come to Loraille, and only a vespertine, a priestess trained to wield a high relic, has any chance of stopping it. With all knowledge of vespertines lost to time, Artemisia turns to the last remaining expert for help: the revenant itself.
As she unravels a sinister mystery of saints, secrets, and dark magic, her bond with the revenant grows. And when a hidden evil begins to surface, she discovers that facing this enemy might require her to betray everything she has been taught to believe—if the revenant doesn’t betray her first.
“Dead. Dead! Dead!”
I jerked awake to the sight of Trouble’s beak poised above my face, his angry gray eye glaring down at me. As my brain scrambled to catch up, he hopped over me with a flick of his tail and snatched the round of cheese from Leander’s half-open bag. He flapped away triumphantly, his cries of “Dead!” muffled by his prize.
By the time the revenant spoke, I had already thrown back the blankets and reached for my nonexistent dagger. “There isn’t anything here—the bird sensed me, that’s all. We’ll have to be careful about that in the future.” Balefully, it watched Trouble flap away into the stable. “We could always eat raven for breakfast instead.”
The revenant had to settle for a couple of wrinkled apples. I was back on Priestbane and following Trouble again before the sun appeared on the horizon. I flexed my hands on the reins, testing the gloves I had scavenged on our way out. They were too large for me, so I had tied them around my wrists with twine.
The man on the road had mentioned my scars. In all likelihood, that was the way the Clerisy would try to identify me. I didn’t stand out otherwise; my pale skin and black hair could belong to hundreds of other girls in Roischal. I was lucky that this time of year, no one would think twice about a traveler wearing gloves.
My robes, on the other hand, I’d had to leave behind in the village. Their distinctive appearance instantly marked me as a Gray Sister. I still had on my chemise, my boots, and my stockings, but I had found a linen tunic and a tattered, mouse-gnawed woolen cloak in one of the houses to replace the robes. Among all the refugees fleeing their homes, I wouldn’t attract attention. Except for the fact that I was riding a Clerisy warhorse.
Priestbane was well rested and energized by the morning chill. His head bobbed in time with his eager strides, and he looked around with his ears pricked forward, seemingly interested in every dripping branch and dew-silvered cobweb. When we flushed a rabbit from the bushes, he snorted at it in challenge.
Saint Eugenia’s reliquary bumped against my ribs at the motion. I felt around its edges, ensuring that the shape was still hidden underneath my clothes. As long as I kept the cloak on, I was fairly confident no one would be able to tell it was there.
“Stop doing that. If you keep touching it, someone’s going to notice.”
The revenant was probably right. I moved my hand away, then felt a flicker of unease. I was beginning to listen to it as though it were a bizarre traveling companion—someone who shared my goals out of more than mere necessity. I couldn’t drop my guard.
Last night, I had been lucky that it hadn’t tried to betray me. I suspected that my physical weakness had bought me time. It had brought up the consequences of its vessels pushing themselves too far for a reason, and it knew that I wouldn’t surrender without a fight—that I would rather die than allow it to possess me. It likely couldn’t afford to risk my body failing in a struggle. After what had happened to its previous vessels, it had reason to be cautious.
“Nun, I’ve sensed something.”
I twitched upright in the saddle. “What is it?” I asked roughly, pushing my thoughts aside as though it had walked in on me writing them down on paper.
“I’m not certain,” it answered after a hesitation. “But whatever it is, it’s nearby.”
So far that morning, we hadn’t passed any signs of life. Right now Priestbane was carrying me through an abandoned field, his hooves crunching over the stubble of harvested grain. I stopped him to listen. Straining my ears, I thought I could hear bells tolling faintly in the distance. And something else—the distant cries of ravens.
Trouble circled above us and cawed once as though in reply. Then he soared like an arrow over the hill ahead, fading to a white speck against the clouds.
Feeling the change in my posture, Priestbane danced forward. I shortened the reins to keep him from breaking into a canter. He took excited, mincing steps all the way up the hill.
When we reached the top, I could only stop and stare.
Below us lay a valley filled with mist. A city’s towers speared from the mist into the sky, their points lit reddish gold by the rising sun as their long shadows spilled over a half-obscured jumble of battlements and rooftops below. I struggled to make sense of the bewildering image. I had never seen a city before, or even a building larger than my convent’s chapel. This place could swallow the convent whole without noticing.
The clear faraway tolling of a bell carried across the valley. Pennants streamed from the towers, flashing white and blue.
“That’s Bonsaint,” I said stupidly. It had to be. Bonsaint was the capital of Roischal, famous for its colossal drawbridge, which had been constructed over the banks of the River Sevre as a defense against the Dead. Crossing it was the only way to enter the city.
“It’s nothing compared to the cities that stood before I was bound,” the revenant answered scornfully. “Look, it was even built using the stones of an older one.”
I stood up in the stirrups for a better view. Sure enough, the ancient-looking gray stone of Bonsaint’s fortifications matched the look of the numerous ruins scattered across Loraille, one of which stood near my old village. The children had been forbidden from playing there, for good reason. Most of the ruins from the Age of Kings had been abandoned because they attracted too many spirits, their lingering taint of Old Magic irresistible to the Dead. I had heard that in Chantclere, daily rituals of incense and prayer were required to drive away the shades that accumulated in its streets. It seemed likely that similar measures were necessary in Bonsaint.
I could hear the ravens cawing more loudly from my current vantage point, but I still couldn’t see them. They had to be down in the valley, hidden by the mist.
As soon as I had that thought, the wind shifted. The sound of the bells grew louder, and with it, men shouting and the distant, tinny clash of steel against steel. The mist was beginning to burn away, peeling back from the green valley like a shroud.
“I can smell powerful Old Magic,” the revenant said at once. “It’s coming from the city. That’s why I wasn’t able to tell what I was sensing earlier. Old Magic, and spirits—nun, there are hundreds of spirits here. No, thousands. Thousands of them, and not just shades . . .”
It trailed off as the mist blew away from the base of Bonsaint, revealing what I first took to be another layer of mist covering the valley, silvery and low to the ground. Then I realized I was looking at a mass of spirits, so densely packed that their shapes blurred together into a silver mass, an endless sea. An army of the Dead.
They were held at bay by a thin line of soldiers curved in a defensive half-circle in front of the river, fighting for their lives against an almost equal number of their own possessed men. They were hopelessly overwhelmed, about to be overcome at any moment. Behind them, an encampment of civilians stretched along the bank. Even from a distance I recognized the battered tents and wagons of refugees who had fled their homes. People who had come to Bonsaint for refuge but hadn’t been let inside.
The giant drawbridge stood upright on the opposite bank, unmoving.
A thought struck me like a single clear toll of the bell echoing across the valley: these people had been condemned to die. The Divine of Bonsaint was prepared to sacrifice them all to protect her city.
I didn’t pause to think. I turned Priestbane toward the valley, urging him first into a trot and then a canter.
“Nun, wait. You aren’t trained—you need to be careful. You can’t ride straight into a battle—nun!”
As far as I could tell, that was exactly what I needed to do. “If you guide me, I’ll listen to you.” A fierce certainty gripped my heart. “We’ll fight the way you used to, before your vessels forgot how to wield you.”
The silence stretched on for so long that I started to wonder if the revenant wasn’t going to reply. The valley drew nearer and nearer; Priestbane’s stride leveled out. Then it said decisively, “We need a weapon. There.”
The body of a dead soldier lay in our path, his sword jutting from the ground. I seized the hilt as we passed and freed it in a spray of dirt. Trees flashed by, flickerings of sun and shadow. Then we exploded into the battlefield’s chaos.
The first line of spirits broke against Priestbane like waves crashing against a stone. I knew the Clerisy’s warhorses were shod with consecrated steel, but I wasn’t prepared for the bravery with which he charged into the fray, snorting and trampling spirits beneath his hooves. Blight didn’t harm animals the way it did humans, and he had been trained to endure the stinging cold of the spirits’ touch.
“First we free the thralls,” the revenant said rapidly. “If the soldiers haven’t been possessed for long, some of them might still be strong enough to fight.”
A gaunt flitted toward us—more by accident than on purpose, I suspected. With the revenant guiding my arm, I cut it down, and saw its shocked expression as it dispersed. Priestbane charged onward. I had slain several more spirits before I found the breath to ask, “Can you handle that many at the same time?”
“We’ll have to do two passes.” A swift, calculating pause. “Ride toward them from the east. Most of the spirits won’t have adjusted to their human senses yet, and with the sun behind you, you’ll take them by surprise.”
As Priestbane forged us a path, I laid about with the sword. I could feel the revenant drinking everything in: the wind against my face, the flash of sunlight on metal, the shifting of muscles beneath my clothes. Its power soared through my veins like a battle hymn. I had never felt this alive before, as though I were experiencing every sense for the first time, and I understood how one of its vessels had fought until her heart burst. I could fight like this for days without stopping; part of me never wanted the feeling to end.
Through the haze of exhilaration I noted that the spirits around me were all Second and Third Order, their ranks dominated by a type I had never seen before, luminous and indistinct with shifting dark patches, like clumps of slag on white-hot metal. “Blight wraiths,” the revenant supplied. As their name suggested, blight wraiths were the Third Order spirits of those who had died of blight—previously rare in Loraille, now a testament to the number of bodies left abandoned in Roischal’s villages.
Soon we had gained enough ground to see the soldiers ahead. Their formation had dissolved into a ragged line. Some of the men had lost their helmets, and horror showed beneath the smears of mud and blood on their faces. The thralls they were fighting were their own friends, and would need to be killed to be stopped.
At the revenant’s prompting, I released the reins to stretch out my hand. Power funneled through me, and the nearest soldiers crumpled in a wave, the expelled spirits pouring from their bodies. For a heartbeat their former opponents stood stunned; then they set upon the spirits with a roar of victory.
I turned Priestbane away. As we carved an arc toward the other end of the line, a cry went up: “Vespertine!” And again, louder, triumphant. More soldiers joined in. “Vespertine!” It was a rallying cry, a roar of desperate hope.
The battle demanded my full attention. “What does that mean?” I asked, watching a gaunt disperse around my sword.
“It’s what you humans call a priestess who wields a Fifth Order relic,” the revenant said tersely, preoccupied. I felt it moving from place to place inside my body, driving back the blight from dozens of glancing blows. “On your left—watch out.”
I cut down spirit after spirit without effort. For a strange moment I felt as though I were watching myself from afar, a lone cloaked figure cleaving through an ocean of the Dead. The chant of “Vespertine!” shook the ground like a drumbeat. I could feel it in my bones.
Excerpted from Vespertine, copyright © 2021 by Margaret Rogerson.