Home > The Whispering Dead (Gravekeeper #1)

The Whispering Dead (Gravekeeper #1)
Author: Darcy Coates



Chapter One



Keira cracked her eyes open. Rain fell through tree branches and pinged off her flushed skin, washing tracks of blood away from her cheek.

Footsteps crunched through leaves somewhere behind her, then faded into background noise. Keira pushed herself to sit up and swallowed a groan as pain radiated through her arm. She touched her shoulder, trying to find the source of the injury, but her jacket covered it.

Okay. So I’m in a forest, and I’m hurt. What happened?

She probed for memories but came up empty. Her name was Keira. She’d woken in a forest of some kind in the early evening, coated in mud, sore, and soaking wet. That was the extent of her knowledge.

Keira raised her hands. They seemed vaguely familiar, almost like an outdated photograph of someone she knew, but did nothing to cut through the fog.

A gunshot boomed from somewhere to her right. It was followed by a beat of silence, then a voice called a command in a language she didn’t know.

Keira stiffened. The voice wasn’t familiar, but its tone caused her pulse to spike and filled her mouth with the bitter tang of fear. Run, her subconscious urged her. Run far and fast and quiet. You’re being hunted.

She was on her feet in a fraction of a second. Her head throbbed and her limbs shook as she staggered to a tree for support. I can’t have been out for long. A few seconds at most. I feel like I just finished running a marathon and my prize was getting hit by a train.

She blinked rain out of her eyes as she tried to get her bearings. She’d woken in a small hollow between two trees. A muddy track ran down one side of the slope, apparently marking the place where she’d fallen.

The gunshot had come from her right. The rain had muffled the sound, which meant it must have been at least fifty meters away. That seemed like a lot of space and, at the same time, hardly any at all.

Keira moved in the opposite direction. Her lungs ached and a coppery film coated her tongue, but her legs seemed to know what to do. They moved quickly and lightly, carrying her over fallen branches and around holes. Her torso bent low, to make her a smaller target. Evidently, evading strangers had entered muscle memory.

The trees thinned ahead, and Keira put extra length into her strides. Despite her exhaustion, her body moved through the forest’s edge and down the weed-choked slope with animalistic agility. It would have been exhilarating if she hadn’t felt so disoriented.

Thick rain poured over her. She was in a thunderstorm, a proper, thorough one, the kind that only came a few times a year and was heavy enough to fill her mouth when she tilted her head back. Good, her mind whispered. It will mask your scent and hide your tracks. They won’t be able to use their dogs.

She tried to hold on to that thought, sensing that the mystery of her existence would become clear if she could only follow it, but then it slid back into her subconscious like a phantom eel.

A foggy clearing stretched ahead of her. Beyond that was a town where distant, rain-blurred lights promised sanctuary.

The gun cracked again. Keira automatically bent lower, moving almost parallel to the ground, and switched her trajectory toward the closest building. It appeared to be some kind of farmstead set apart from the town, and golden light poured from its windows.

The ground leveled out, making Keira work slightly harder for each stride, and the grass grew high around her boots. Fine, chilled mist swirled in the rain.

A dark shape appeared through the fog, and Keira skidded to one side to avoid it. It was tall—almost as tall as she was—and seemed to be made of stone. She wanted to stop and take a closer look, but it felt like a bad time to inspect the scenery.

Lightning cracked through the sky and bathed the world in momentary white. Another shape appeared to her right. She squinted at it as she passed, and a chill ran along her spine. It was a gravestone. She’d stumbled into a cemetery.

More and more stones appeared around her, materializing out of the mist like ships sailing through ethereal waters. The building, which she’d mistaken for a farmstead, resolved itself into a small parsonage. A cross jutted from its steeple, dripping water onto the dark roof below.

The stone house looked at least a century old, but its garden was full of wild shrubs. As she drew along its side, Keira caught strains of music floating through the air.

She pressed herself to the building’s side, where the shadows would disguise her, and looked back. The forest’s edge was barely visible through the mist. Dark figures were slinking out of the tree line. At least a dozen of them.

Keira pressed a hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding. It had taken her less than a minute to reach the parsonage; she didn’t think the men following her would be much slower.

“Please let me in.” She whispered the words as she beat her fist against the wooden door. “Please, please, please.”

The music fell silent. Keira pressed close to the stone, trying to hide inside the alcove, as she listened to footsteps move through the building. There was the muted click of a handle turning, and the door swung open to reveal a white-haired, spectacled man.

He carried an embroidered tea towel in one hand, and a threadbare maroon sweater covered gently slanted shoulders. His bushy eyebrows rose, a mixture of curiosity and bewilderment.

“Please, let me in.” She threw a glance over her shoulder. They couldn’t be far away; she likely only had seconds. “Someone’s following me. Just let me hide here until they’re gone, then I’ll leave, I promise.”

“Oh.” He said the word very slowly as his eyes skipped from her drenched form to the trickle of blood running down her face. He blinked, then he nodded, as though he’d deemed her proposal reasonable enough, and stepped aside. “In that case, I suppose you had better come in.”

She slipped through the doorway and pressed close to the wall. Her heart was thundering and her ears ringing. She could only hope she’d been fast enough that the strangers hadn’t seen her.

The entryway was warm and smelled like spices, and the jumble of mismatched furniture clustered against its walls felt homey. The pastor closed the door, then put his back to it, watching Keira with faint bemusement. “What happened, child? Were you attacked?”

Keira licked rainwater off her lips. A part of her wanted to stay silent. She only needed to hide in the clergyman’s house until the strangers lost her trail, and caution suggested she reveal as little about herself as possible.

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