It’s a known fact that we here at io9 are quite fond of stories set at spooky boarding schools, so we’re very excited to be sharing an exclusive excerpt from Victoria Lee’s witchy new boarding school-set novel A Lesson in Vengeance, which blends queer themes with Gothic chills.
Here’s a plot description to set the scene:
Felicity Morrow is back at the Dalloway School to finish her senior year after the tragic death of her girlfriend. She even has her old room in Godwin House, the exclusive dormitory rumored to be haunted by the spirits of five Dalloway students—girls some say were witches.
Felicity was once drawn to the dark legacy of witchcraft. She’s determined to leave that behind her now; but it’s hard when Dalloway’s occult history is everywhere. And when the new girl won’t let her forget it.
It’s Ellis Haley’s first year at Dalloway. A prodigy novelist at seventeen, Ellis is eccentric and brilliant, and Felicity can’t shake the pull she feels to her. So when Ellis asks Felicity for help researching the Dalloway Five for her second book, Felicity can’t say no. And when history begins to repeat itself, Felicity will have to face the darkness in Dalloway—and in herself.
And here’s a look at the full cover, designed by Regina Flath, followed by a sneak peek at A Lesson in Vengeance’s wonderfully atmospheric eighth chapter.
Here is the truth.
What happened to Alex was no accident. Not just because she fell, because we’d fought, or because I cut the rope—but because of what happened last October.
I’d recently decided on my thesis project: “I caution you against this,” Wyatt had said when I told her I wanted to study representations of witchcraft in literature. “You will struggle to get a thesis on witchcraft approved by the administration, no matter how good your scholarship. Dalloway is a respectable school—this isn’t the Scholomance.”
“I don’t see the problem,” I’d said. “I’m not claiming the Dalloway witches were real. Just that conceptualizations of witchcraft existed in the eighteenth century, and that those were influenced by perceptions of female agency and mental illness at the time. I want to connect the reality of their lives to the fantasy of how women were presented on the page.”
Wyatt had fixed me with a lancet gaze and said: “So long as you focus on the literature, Miss Morrow—not on flights of fancy.” And she’d signed the papers.
But when I’d told my mother about my plans, she’d been appalled.
“That school is a bad influence on you,” my mother had told me while I was home for Thanksgiving break a few weeks later. “I thought you knew better than to believe all that nonsense about witches.”
Perhaps she was right to be afraid. Of course, at the time I’d scoffed. I don’t believe in witches, I’d insisted, and it was true. Before Dalloway, I had fancied myself a rationalist—too rational, in fact, to entertain the possibility that reality might contain more mysteries than my feeble mortal mind could understand. But there was something about the Dalloway Five that drew me in, embraced me in their cold dead arms. They were real: there was historical evidence for their lives, for their deaths. And I imagined their magic stitched like a thread across time, passed from mother to daughter, a glittering link from the founder to Margery Lemont to me.
That had felt like a comfort once. After Halloween, it felt more like a curse.
By that night, I’d had plenty of opportunities to embroil myself in lore and legend. My room at Godwin House was littered with scanned grimoire pages and notes on the uncanny. Alex watched all this with a sort of academic fascination; she’d never been able to understand why I was so drawn to darkness. She had always belonged in the light of the sun.
“Don’t you think you’re taking this a little too seriously?” Alex asked the night everything went wrong, waving a match through the air to extinguish the flame. “You’ve been kind of over the top about this thesis business. Like, do you think you’re starting to get a little confused about reality here? Magic doesn’t exist, Felicity.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I mean . . . yes?”
She held my gaze for a long moment; I looked away first, back to the Ouija board set up between us. “This is important to me,” I confessed to the planchette. I dipped a cloth into salt water and wiped it over the board itself, cleansing it for the summoning. “Not because I believe in it, necessarily, but because they did.”
“And you’re obsessed with them. The Dalloway Five.”
“I’m not obsessed. This is our history—Godwin’s history. They killed a girl. That really happened, whether we believe in witchcraft or not. And we know they held a séance—that was documented in the trial. Whether they thought it was real or just make-believe, they performed a ritual to raise a ghost. And Flora died a few days later.”
The primary sources I’d read in Dalloway’s library were inconsistent as to the nature of Flora Grayfriar’s death. The account I’d read in the library described an almost ritualistic killing, Flora’s throat slit and her stomach cut open, stuffed full of animal bones and herbs. But other contemporaneous writings said she was found with a musket ball in her gut, dead in the forest, shot like a beast. It should have been a simple thing, to determine how a girl died: Was she shot, or was her throat slit? Do I trust the trial documents, or the letters written by Flora’s mother? Who had more motive to lie?
Either the Dalloway girls were witches, and they’d murdered Flora in some arcane deal with the devil, or Flora’s death had a far more mundane explanation. A hunting accident, maybe. A lovers’ quarrel. Or even a bigoted townsperson who heard about the séance and wanted to see the girls punished for meddling with powers they couldn’t contain.
After all, Flora was the first death, but she wasn’t the last. Following her, every one of the Dalloway witches died in ways that were impossible to explain. All of their bodies were found on the Godwin House grounds, like the house itself was determined to keep them. It was almost as if they were cursed, as if they’d raised a spirit that was determined to see them all dead.
The more likely explanation—that they’d been killed by religious mountain folk who feared women, feared the magic they’d assigned to women—didn’t hold the same appeal.
Regardless, Alex was right. I hadn’t been able to get the Dalloway Five out of my head for weeks. I’d even dreamed about them the previous night, Beatrix Walker’s hair like spun corn silk and Tamsyn Penhaligon’s bony fingers trailing along my cheek. They had found their way inside me, like fungal spores inhaled and taken root. Sometimes I felt like they’d always been there. I’d read about reincarnation, about girls born again and again, and imagined Margery Lemont whispering soft words in the back of my mind. Every time I touched her skull at Boleyn House, I felt her in my blood.
Maybe I was losing my mind. Or maybe this was what it was to appreciate history, to truly understand it. When I read books, the boundary between my world and others shifted. I could imagine other realities. I envisioned the tales so clearly that it was as if I lived them.
The story of the Dalloway Five was a story born in Godwin House. Why shouldn’t their legend be real?
And if this ritual worked—if we spoke to them—we could put the mythos to rest once and for all.
The scent of sandalwood rose in the air. We’d already turned off the lamp; I could only see Alex by the flickering candles, her skin glowing warm silver in their light.
“All right, then,” Alex said. “Let’s summon old dead witches.” I’d written the summoning spell in my moleskin notebook: an incantation copied from an ancient tome in the library’s occult section. The process had been painstaking; no one in the eighteenth century, it seemed, had been possessed of legible handwriting. Of course, they didn’t have Ouija boards in the eighteenth century either, and this Hasbro-branded contraption I had bought at the independent bookstore in town hardly qualified as an accoutrement of real witchcraft. But it was better than nothing.
I propped the notebook on my knees, and me and Alex both placed our fingers on the Ouija planchette, barely touching it.
And even though I hadn’t spoken yet, all at once the room seemed darker—the corners deepening, the air heavy against my skin. I took in a shallow breath and read the spell aloud.
“Nothing happened,” Alex said after several seconds. “It’s not moving.”
“You have to wait for it.”
“You know that when the pointer moves, it’s because we’re moving it, right? Like, they’ve done studies on this.”
I ignored her and closed my eyes. I’d stolen the Margery Skull; it sat at the head of our altar, close enough that I could have touched it. A part of me wanted to. The urge was almost overpowering. Maybe if I did . . . Maybe that’s what this ritual needed. I shifted forward, eyes still shut, fingers reaching. My touch grazed cold bone, and in the same moment, the planchette moved.
My eyes flew open. The pointer had darted across the board to cover the number 5.
“What does that mean?” Alex said, and I shook my head.
The Dalloway Five.
The candles guttered as if from an unseen wind. The room had gone chilly, and a strange sensation crept up my spine. My fingers quivered with the effort of keeping my touch on the planchette light; I refused to lend any credence to Alex’s theory. If the board spoke, it wouldn’t be because I forced matters into my own hands.
I’d never tried this kind of thing before. I didn’t know what to expect.
Be real. I need you to be real.
“Are you really here?” I whispered. “Is this . . . Margery Lemont? Or—”
I stopped myself midsentence and stared at the lettering on the board indicating the word yes. But the planchette had gone still, the numeral 5 still visible through its aperture.
This wasn’t enough. The incense, the candles—even Margery’s skull smooth against my palm. It wasn’t enough.
I’d read about this. I’d read dozens of books, hundreds, researching for my thesis. I knew how magic worked. I knew what these kinds of spirits required.
“We have to make a sacrifice,” I told Alex abruptly. “Like the original Dalloway Five did in their séance, with the frog. If the Dalloway Five really were witches, they were powerful. Why should they speak to us if we don’t give them something in return?”
Alex’s mouth twisted, skeptical. “Well, I forgot to bring along my handy-dandy sacrificial goat, so . . .”
But I already knew what Margery wanted.
I released the planchette and grabbed the letter opener—the one I’d used to open the Ouija board box.
“Felicity, don’t you dare—”
I sliced the blade into my palm. White fire cut along my veins, dark blood welling up in its wake. Alex lurched back as I held out my arm, but she didn’t leave the circle, didn’t retreat—just watched wide-eyed as my blood spattered the crown of Margery Lemont’s skull.
The candles blew out.
Even Alex yelped. My heart pounded in my chest—too fast, too wild. Was that a figure stepping out from the shadows, eyes gleaming in the darkness like polished coins?
Alex struck a match, and the specter vanished. The place where it had stood was pitch black, and yet I could still feel its presence. Maybe it hadn’t disappeared. Maybe instead it had expanded, consuming us.
Alex and I stared at each other across the board. Alex’s shoulders shifted in quick, shallow little movements, her tongue flicking out to wet her lower lip. It felt colder now than before, like the temperature had dropped several degrees when the candles went out.
It’s all right, I wanted to tell her, but my tongue was a dead thing in my mouth, heavy and ill tasting. As if I’d swallowed grave dirt.
Margery Lemont had been buried alive.
My blood was sticky against my palm, the scent of it high and coppery in the air, overwhelming the musk of incense. Alex lit the candles again—just the three nearest her. Their light cast unnatural shapes along the board, most of the letters fallen into darkness.
Neither of us were touching the planchette anymore, but its aperture was fixed over the word yes.
“Did you move the pointer?” Alex shook her head.
My teeth dug into my lower lip. Together, we both tilted forward once more, our trembling fingers meeting atop the wooden planchette.
“Are the stories true?” I asked. “Were you really witches?”
If the ritual account of Flora’s death was true, it had been clearly Druidic in inspiration: some bastardization of Greco-Roman reports that the ancient Celts performed human sacrifice at the autumnal equinox—that the future could be read in the way the victim’s limbs convulsed as they died. Even the way in which the sacrifice bled had prognostic value.
The town midwife’s diary told a version of the story in which Flora Grayfriar’s body was found with her skin half-burned and her clothes in ashes atop a wicker altar. Silver mullein leaves were strewn about the ground, a wormwood crown laced through her hair, her throat wet with blood.
I knew the answer to my query, but I wanted Margery to say it nonetheless.
The planchette shifted under our hands, my breath catching in my chest—the planchette moved aside, then returned immediately to yes.
So many new questions swelled inside me. Too many. It was impossible to ask all of them. Impossible to ask with a board and a pointer the question I really wanted to know:
What can you teach me about magic?
I was about to ask the Dalloway Five the purpose of Flora’s death, what ritual they were trying to perform that night at the autumn equinox—if they were even responsible for her death at all—when the planchette moved again.
“Get the notebook,” Alex gasped, and I snatched my moleskin back into my lap and uncapped my pen with one shaking hand.
The planchette shifted across the board in jagged jerks under our touch.
“I . . . A . . .”
The air was frigid now, a bone-deep ice that crystallized in my blood. I didn’t dare look away from the board, which meant that when the planchette finally went still—when I finally turned my gaze to the notebook—I could barely read my own handwriting. “What does it say?” Alex urged after I’d been silent for several seconds.
“It says . . .” I shook my head, swallowed; my throat had gone dry. “It says, ‘I am going to kill you.’ ”
I looked up. Alex stared at me from the other side of the board, both her hands clenched in white fists against her knees. Her face glowed greenish in the candlelight, eerie, and—
Something grazed the back of my neck, a cold finger tracing down my spine.
“Alex,” I choked out. “Are you okay?”
The touch vanished; I felt a breeze ripple through my hair as it passed. I was too afraid to look over my shoulder. “I swear, something just—”
The shadows deepened, coalescing like smoke. A figure rose behind Alex like a ghastly silhouette, long hair undulating like waves about its head, its hands like sharp claws reaching.
Reaching for her throat.
“Alex, behind you!”
She spun around, and in that same motion the specter vanished, bursting into shards and scraps of shadow that faded into the night.
“Nothing’s there,” Alex said.
But I could still sense her: Margery Lemont’s spirit had its talons dug deep in my heart, my blood turned to poison in my veins.
I shook my head. “It was . . . She was there, I swear. She was right there.”
How did the poem go?
And then the spirit, moving from her place,
Touched there a shoulder, whispered in each ear, . . .
But no one heeded her, or seemed to hear.
“This is bullshit,” Alex declared. “No! Alex, don’t—”
Too late. She swept the planchette from the board and stabbed the incense out. “It’s not real, Felicity. Calm down.”
No. No, this was all spiraling out of control. We had to end the séance properly. Margery was still here, lurking, the veil between our world and the shade world gone thin and diaphanous at Samhain. It was only too easy for her to shift into our sphere. I’d prepared for this possibility: a tiny bowl of ground anise and clove to be ignited over a charcoal briquette—enough to protect against the cruelest spirit, or so I’d been assured by the library’s copy of Profane Magick.
Alex scattered the spices across the floor, rendering them useless.
That was the moment, I decided later, that set everything in motion, the moment the devil’s wheel began to turn, my blood spilled on Margery’s skull and Margery’s hands tangling in the threads of our fates. We’d cursed ourselves. I am going to kill you, she’d made me say. And she was right.
It had an absurd sense of inevitability about it. I kept thinking about the séance the Dalloway Five had held, the one that was interrupted. About Flora, dead three days later. How each girl died in mysterious circumstances which couldn’t be explained, until finally Margery herself was buried alive. It was almost like whatever spirit they’d raised had cursed them—and wouldn’t rest until every one of those girls was dead.
But at the time, I let Alex convince me. Once the lights were on, it all seemed rather ridiculous: The candles had guttered because we’d left the window open, which also accounted for the chill. The figure I’d seen behind Alex was her shadow stretching and shifting in the candlelight. Everything had a reasonable explanation, and Alex was right. The spooky atmosphere, the old school legends, Samhain: we’d let it get to us; that was all.
I didn’t tell her how I couldn’t stop dreaming about Margery after that night, or how I slept with anise and clove under my pillow to keep her away.
A few months later Alex was dead, and now . . . Now I can’t hide from the truth.
Extract copyright © 2021 by Victoria Lee. Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
A Lesson in Vengeance will be released August 3; pre-order a copy here.
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