The white fluttering smudges flew together, holding aloft…a crucifix—it had to be—and terror gripped the acolyte’s entrails twisting them until he thought he would vomit. Could he not tell? Did he not realise?
It made no difference. The monk was jabbering with fear but he continued to brandish the hated symbol. The acolyte was held fast in the coils of the amulet but he was undecided now, torn between his duty to his superior and a deeper duty to the dead.
The voice of the darkness rumbled and snarled. The pavement buckled like a stormy sea, and the jagged pinnacles of the ruins shuddered. The voice of the older monk rose to a terrified shriek then fell silent. Stones fell about his ears, but the acolyte found that he could once more command the muscles of his legs, and he ran to where the shadows piled thickest. He ran, the amulet throbbing in his hand, and the darkness parted to let him pass.
The air filled with the beating of wings as the ravens descended, flying in their disorderly fashion in a ragged circle. Displaced air flowed like a stiff breeze around his head and he sensed the antipathy so keenly he could almost feel it scratching his skin.
The shadows moved, rippled, crawled. They scurried down the broken columns, across the pristine pavement and piled in a seething, heaving mass where the acolyte had guessed the altar to be. The pale smudge moved, jerky and rapid like a giant bird pecking. A white raven? The black birds on the ruined arch cried their hoarse cry unloosing the acolyte’s tongue.
“Get back, Brother Constantine!” His voice came out hoarse and rasping as the ravens’. He willed his feet forward but the amulet screamed in his head and he could not. The sky was dark—dried blood dark, and the moon was crimson. Shadows continued to pour down the walls, through the narrow windows, the great rose window, piling on dead sills higher and higher.
The acolyte shouted again, shrill and fearful. Soon the shadows would fill the window spaces, blotting out the light, and darkness would fill the vast hollow emptiness with its shifting forms.
The pale smudge shuddered, and two smaller smudges fluttered. Hands or wings?
“Back!” The older man’s voice was sharp and thin with the beginnings of terror.
Clouds moved across the moon’s bloody face, but even the wind was silent. No trees murmured; no leaves rustled. The acolyte, his fingers gripping the amulet, moved cautiously after the old man, his eyes fixed on the shadowy apse. There was something odd and unnerving about the darkness that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. His feet dragged as if he were walking through thick mud. The amulet in his right hand grew hot. Hot enough to burn, but he dared not let go.
The ravens shuffled and rattled their ragged wing feathers. The acolyte cringed and his shuffling steps came to a halt. He raised the amulet fearfully and pressed it to his brow. Pain seared, but he gritted his teeth, letting the images of blood and death wash, like a filthy tide, into his thoughts. Suppressing a cry, he thrust the amulet back into the pocket of his robe.
A pale smudge moved back and forth at head height—the monk—and the acolyte wondered if his superior had found the altar or just the place where it had been. He was on the point of calling out when fear froze his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
“At last,” the older monk murmured. “To have found it after so many years. And on this night of all nights.”
The acolyte gazed through the tall lancet windows, still full of light, though they seemed to let none fall into the building. Through a window of a side chapel, glassless now and empty, the moon appeared, red and bloody. The acolyte licked dry lips and tried to convince himself that this was a good omen, but his eyes were drawn irresistibly to the deep shadows that gathered where the twilight had receded. He wished that they had arrived in daylight.
The two monks stood side-by-side beneath a red sky slowly inking over with darkness, where once had arched the great vault of the nave. The older man raised his eyes and let his gaze roam among the delicate tracery of the windows, the columns and the buttresses. The acolyte knew he was seeing their former glory, not the stark ruins where no vegetation had taken hold. He looked about his feet. Not a single blade of grass encroached upon the smooth stones of the pavement, not even where they were cracked and broken. The old man was murmuring prayers. The acolyte curled his fingers round the amulet hidden among his robes.