“Claudia?” I cautiously reached for her. She refused to look up. “Are you all right?”
“They said not to use them. To never use them.”
“Bones and black mirrors. Black mirrors and bones. Piles of bodies and ashes of the fallen. Bones of the dead, and the dead are dust because I’ve seen the raven’s wings beating against the crescent moon. The moon is a fang, waiting to sink its teeth into us all. Devouring. Devouring blood and bone until we’re dust.”
She dropped to her knees, unsuccessfully trying to pry stones up from the street. Dried blood coated the beds of her nails. They were cracked and torn to the quick.
“I hear it. It whispers to me and sometimes it’s so loud I can hardly think.”
I stared down, horrified to note the ground was scarred with several long, thin lines as if she’d been clawing at it for quite some time.
“Claudia, please.” I bent to place my hands over hers, but she craned around and hissed like a feral creature, her eyes void of recognition. I jerked away. “What happened?”
“Dust. Dust. We’re mirrors in dust. We’re skulls without flesh, bones without marrow. Death. Death would be welcome. None are welcome. And you”—her dark gaze shot to mine—“you’ll burn and burn, and the moon will have her vengeance, and the sun will swallow us whole and there will be nothing left. Stars. The stars are out, and they’re falling like feathers ripped from the mighty raven because he craves their meat and she wishes to feed him until he’s gorged, but he will never be satisfied. He is sin and is glad of it.”
Black mirrors were used for scrying, and some people also used animal bones, though Nonna cautioned against using items touched by death. She argued the future should only be viewed by the living, that things rotting deep within the soil had broken down into something else, and moved on from this realm, and therefore were no longer worried about what was to come.
As far as I knew, Claudia only used a handful of gemstones or spell candles.
She rocked back and forth, whispering. Her words were rushed and laced with a frenzied panic. She wasn’t speaking exclusively in Italian anymore, and I didn’t understand half of what she said. I couldn’t help but fear she was repeating messages from creatures I wouldn’t want to meet in the flesh. I tried reaching for her again, not wanting to leave her alone in this nightmare.
She struggled to get away, but I wrapped my arms around her, smoothing damp hair from her brow. “Shh. Shh. The stars aren’t falling. We’re all safe.”
“Safe. Safe in chains and locks and black mirrors with no keys.” Claudia rocked in my arms. “I hear it, or them. It’s hard to tell. They’re all talking at once—the bones of the dead, and the dust of the stars, and the devouring moon with its vicious grin. The goddess who is and is not, is vengeance.”
A terrible suspicion pooled in my belly. “Did you use human bones?”
“It said I would know. That they’d tell me. The dead shouldn’t mind. The dead have no mind, no will. No memory. Our minds were made for forgetting. The locks don’t fit the keys. I only used the bones because it said to. Lovely stars were supposed to light the way, lead me to them. I was supposed to help. They won’t stop screaming . . . make them stop screaming!”
“The damned! They think they burn, but there are worse fates than fire and ash.”
It was unnervingly similar to what Wrath had said earlier.
Claudia threw her head back and screamed, raising an army of goose bumps on my body. Lights went on in the monastery dorms. I held her tightly to me, trying to keep her from thrashing. She needed to be still before the brotherhood arrived.
“It’s all right. Everything’s all right. Breathe.”
“Black mirrors. Burning eyes. Death comes bearing friendship. Inferus sicut superus. The book needs blood. It craves it. Blood breaks it.” She shoved me away, and whipped around. “Hide your heart. Hide it before—” She tapped my chest, shaking her head. Tears streamed down her face. “Too late. They took the ticker, and tucked it away beneath rock and dirt. Death. Bones and dust and screams. Gone. Change is here.”
“What change did you see?”
“Angelus mortis. He’s coming and going, and is a cunning thief who stole the stars and drank them dry. He will take you. You’re already gone. In the end, you choose. But he’s also chosen. I’ll mourn. I am mourning. Like leaves on the wind.” Claudia plucked what I could only assume were imaginary leaves from the ground, and blew them from her palm. “The angel of death claimed you. Changed you. You are here, but not there, there is where you will be, your life is ended. Same but different. For eternity.”
I knew enough of scrying to know her warnings were not simply rantings, or signs of madness. I imagined this was similar to what happened to old Sofia Santorini when her scrying went badly eighteen years ago. It sounded like my friend was trapped between realms and realities, hearing a hundred different messages at once. I couldn’t imagine how terrified she must be, lost within the prison of her mind with no hope of escape. I hoped this wasn’t a result of the spell I’d asked her to work. If it was . . .
I gently took Claudia’s hand in mine. “Let’s get you to Nonna.”
“They’re all talking at once. It’s hard to understand. To listen. The same voice speaks above all others, cruel, smooth like silk and sweet like honey. Choose, it says. I wanted a taste. It was poison. I was not meant to know. He’s coming. No, no, no. He’s here, no longer there, but here. He walks among us, hidden in shadow. Like death.”
“Nonna will know what to do to help. We must go to her at once.”
She dug her nails into my arms hard enough to make me wince, and whispered, “Run.”
“You mustn’t linger; he’s searching for you.” For a moment, Claudia seemed perfectly lucid. Then her eyes went wide enough to show off the whites, and the screaming began again in earnest. It was awful; bloodcurdling and unrelenting. Like an animal caught in a trap as a predator closed in.
I fought the urge to plug my ears. Or burst into tears.
I took a few quick breaths, and pulled myself together—a spell of cleansing enchantment was what she needed, at least temporarily. But those required rose quartz, salt, water, and alkanet root. All of which were at home and didn’t help us here.
A dormitory door flew open, and a few members of the brotherhood rushed outside. I tossed up a hand to stall them, and they reluctantly paused several feet away. I internally cringed when I saw Brother Carmine emerge from the back of the group. I hadn’t seen him in years.
Long-buried memories from childhood resurfaced. When we were younger, a few years after old Sofia Santorini used dark magic, he would stand on a crate in the market, screaming about the devil. We needed to leave. Immediately. If he saw Claudia like this he’d believe she was possessed.
Fear made monsters of men.
Antonio broke away from the group, his expression filled with suppressed horror the closer he got to where we sat huddled together. He scanned Claudia’s messy hair, torn dress, and the blood splotches. “Was she attacked? What happened?”
I couldn’t very well tell him the truth—that she’d been playing with mystical forces in the holy corridors of the monastery, possibly used the bones of the dead in a scrying ritual for reasons I hadn’t yet uncovered, and had paid a steep price. “I—I’m not sure.”
It was close enough to the truth, at least.
Claudia made a high keening sound. Antonio knelt beside her. She lurched forward and grabbed the front of his nightshirt. “I shouldn’t have looked. But she told me to. We needed to know. For Valentina. Rats scurry in and out, and there are many in our midst. They helped it. Strange little vermin, dropping secrets like excrement. Now it won’t leave. He started it—his hatred and evil invited it in. She told me we needed to be sure. He is the chosen. He is death. He shouldn’t be able to leave—those are the rules. But rules are made for breaking. Like bones. He loves to break bones. I think it’s the marrow he’s after.”
“Who? Who told you to look?” I asked. Antonio raised his brows and looked me over. Clearly he thought I might be suffering from the same affliction if I entertained anything Claudia said as truth. I didn’t care what he thought. I had a growing suspicion I already knew who she meant based on the mention of Valentina, but wanted more proof. “Was it your aunt Carolina?”
“She spun stories like sugar, and they were airy and sweet until they burned, and now we’ll all burn because he’s here and mad, and the gates . . . the gates . . . she said to protect the gates. But he’s not chained to them anymore, is he? The poison was sweet, I still taste it. Lingering. Stick, stick, sticking in my throat, choking. He has secrets. He wants to devour. Empty glasses poured full of him. No, no. Empty glass. How did he do it? A chalice or vase. Vessels empty until full. He has the book. The heart. He needs the body to steal the soul.”
A flicker of movement caught my attention. I glanced up. Several more members of the brotherhood had joined us. They silently stood in a half circle, blocking us from the monastery. Some clutched long wooden rosaries in white-knuckled fists. Others looked primed for violence, their attention fastened on my friend. Claudia needed to get to safety before they tried exorcising a demon from her that didn’t exist.
“What madness is this?” Brother Carmine asked, his expression hard. My heart thrummed wildly. “Is she possessed by evil?”
“No, no. She’s all right.” Antonio waved him off. “Just a little too much to drink.”
I didn’t think members of the holy order told lies, but I was glad he did. Antonio was still on our side, no matter what his brothers might think. “Will you take her to my house? I think she must have been exposed to . . . something. She needs rest and tea. Tell Nonna she should give her some of the alkanet root she has.”