The Collector’s Room
There was a loud click, a buzzing sound in the wall and a thin fuse burned along a glass tube in the ceiling, lighting a row of lanterns that illuminated the room with a faint orange glow. Kate looked for another way out. There were at least a dozen doors scattered around the room, but no way of telling which of them led out of the cellar or which were unlocked.
‘I should have anticipated what happened at the station,’ said Silas. ‘Edgar Rill is well known for his inventiveness, though not for his success. The fireworks were an interesting choice of distraction, but failure is a habit your friend cannot seem to break. As it stands, your “escape” was both temporary and convenient.’
‘I’m not going anywhere with you,’ said Kate.
‘Then you clearly do not understand your position. I am not giving you a choice.’
‘You stay away from her!’ said Edgar.
‘There are only a few hours before I must deliver you to the High Council,’ said Silas, walking towards them. ‘We have work to do. We shall begin now.’
That was too much for Edgar. He grabbed Kate’s hand and pulled her towards the first door he could find, leading her on to a staircase that led even deeper into the depths of the old museum. The steps were steep and uneven. There was no handrail, so they relied on each other to reach the bottom, fleeing through the dark with no way of knowing where they were or how far Silas was behind.
Edgar stumbled when they came across a small landing and knocked his hand against a handle in the dark. ‘Doors!’ he said, grabbing it at once. There were two, one on either side of them. Both locked. The only way open to them was down.
‘Can you hear him?’ panted Edgar, running for his life. ‘Where is he?’
Kate kept running, trying to keep her balance on the awkward steps. None of this felt right. Why were they going down? They should have been going up. Into the city, into the light. The air changed as they ran, becoming stuffy and dank, but they kept going, right to the bottom of the steps, bursting through into the only unlocked room they could find.
‘Check the walls!’ said Edgar, slapping his palms against the stone. ‘There has to be a way out.’
Their bootsteps echoed from the stone walls, but the staircase remained silent. Either Silas was still waiting for them up there, or he was lurking somewhere in the dark.
Edgar lit a match and looked around. ‘Oh no,’ he said, his face glowing in the light of the flame.
They were standing in a square room with three doors squeezed together along one side, each with a collection of switches and levers beside it. Edgar used the match to light a lantern hooked on to the wall and he held it up.
‘These must be Silas’s holding cells,’ he said, testing the first door. ‘Every collector has a couple of places where they lock people for interrogation before handing them over to the High Council.’
‘So this is a prison?’
‘How do you know that?’
‘I just do. This is not a good place to be.’
‘We have to get out of here.’
Kate tried the other two doors. The first was locked, but the second swung open easily. Inside was a cell just a few feet wide. It smelled musty, as if it had not seen fresh air for a very long time.
‘No wonder Silas wasn’t following us,’ said Edgar, pushing past her and feeling along the cell walls. ‘He knew where we’d end up.’
A strong hand reached across Kate’s face, stifling her before she could scream and the cell door thumped shut, sealing Edgar inside.
‘What made you think I wasn’t following you?’ asked Silas, his voice faceless and terrifying in the dark. ‘Since you are so interested in disturbing my work, Mr Rill, it is only right that you should take a closer look at it yourself.’
Edgar’s lantern light shone out through the cell window. ‘Let me out of here!’ he shouted, banging his fist against the glass.
‘Let him go!’ Kate tried to reach the handle, but Silas held her still.
‘I warned you,’ he said. ‘This boy is not the escape artist he believes himself to be.’
Edgar rattled the door, but it was stuck tight.
‘Let him out. Please!’ said Kate. ‘He doesn’t know anything!’
‘It’s not him I intend to question,’ said Silas. ‘You are coming with me.’
Edgar’s face was pressed up against the glass, watching them as Silas dragged Kate away.
‘We can’t just leave him in there!’
‘He has served his purpose,’ said Silas. ‘It is time for you to serve yours.’
Kate struggled against him as he dragged her back up the staircase as far as the first landing, where a door now stood open.
‘After you,’ he said, forcing her inside.
Kate blinked in the bright light of a lantern that was already lit upon a low table and Silas picked it up, leading her through a maze of rooms linked by archways. The museum may have been huge on the surface, but those main floors were only the uppermost levels of a much deeper space. Most of the lower rooms held storage crates filled with forgotten pieces of bone, metal, coins, books and everything else Kate could imagine, but the further they went, the neater the rooms became, until they reached some that Silas had obviously claimed for himself. There were chairs to sit in and old paintings and weapons displayed on some of the walls, suggesting that this wasn’t just an ordinary collector’s hiding place. It was Silas’s home.
Soon they reached a large room that looked much older than the rest. A fire crackled under an ancient stone mantelpiece set into the main wall and the air hung with the warm smell of old leather. Silas’s crow was there, perched sinisterly upon a bookshelf in the corner, watching Kate keenly as she stepped inside.
She tried her best to look calm when Silas pointed to a chair by the fire.
There was no hope of escaping this time. The museum’s lower floors were like a maze. She would only get lost if she tried to run, so she did as she was told.
Silas took a plate of food from a table and passed it to her. ‘Eat,’ he said. ‘I have no interest in food any more, but I find prisoners usually require it.’
Kate’s stomach growled at the sight of fresh bread, biscuits and cheese, and the crow skittered closer, watching every mouthful that she ate.
Silas pulled over a second chair and sat down. ‘It is time for you to understand. Your life as it was is now over,’ he said. ‘Your home is gone, your uncle has been taken and you are only just beginning to recognise the lies that have been told to you all these years.’
‘What lies?’ asked Kate. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘That is because you have been encouraged to be ignorant. There are those who have tried to protect you by hiding the truth about what you are, but I will not lie to you. Being one of the Skilled brings nothing but persecution, fear and death. You can accept it or try to hide from it, but you cannot escape it.’
Kate put down her plate, unable to stomach the food any more, and the crow fluttered down, stole what was left of the cheese and scuttled under the table to finish it off.
‘Why did you bring me here?’ she asked.
Silas sat back in his chair, studying her face. ‘Do you know what began the war that has made Albion what it is today?’ he asked.
Kate did not answer.
‘For generations the leaders on the Continent have tried to cross our borders,’ said Silas. ‘And every battle that has been fought - every death, every kill - was caused by one single secret. That secret was the Skilled. The High Council are not the only ones who recognise the value of your kind. As a people, the Skilled are unique to Albion. There are no reports of anyone on the Continent having access to the veil. No one knows why, but while the Skilled have thrived here, other countries have long lived in the peaceful ignorance that this world is the only world there is.’
‘That’s because it is the only one,’ said Kate.
‘Really?’ said Silas, looking genuinely surprised. ‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Of course I am.’
‘Then you have far more to learn than I realised.’
Silas stared at Kate, letting the silence grow between them until she was forced to look away. ‘Believing in a lie can be a comfort,’ he said. ‘But continuing to believe it when you have already seen the truth can be dangerous if people decide to use that lie against you. You cannot deny what you have already seen. The High Council has always known about the Skilled, but it has been many centuries since they have shared the same goals. Almost four centuries ago, at the beginning of the last era, the High Council were tempted by science and turned against the old ways of the Skilled. They wanted to study them. Understand them. Pick apart their minds to find out exactly how they can do what they do. Their greed for knowledge drove the Skilled into secrecy and the council still hunt them to this day, believing that they are the weapon that will win this war once and for all, even though they were the ones who caused it.’
‘The Skilled didn’t start the war,’ said Kate.
‘No, the High Council did that by bragging to every Continental leader who would listen about how the Skilled can see into the world of the dead, heal the sick and see the future. The Continent wanted a share of that knowledge. They wanted the Skilled and the High Council refused to part with them. Curiously, to those who cannot enter the veil themselves, the secrets of death are a prize worth dying for. Tensions grew between Albion and the Continent over many years until eventually war began.’
‘Why would anyone go to war over something like that?’ asked Kate. ‘Most people don’t even believe in the veil.’
‘Believing is not the issue,’ said Silas. ‘The Skilled can prove the existence of life beyond this world. Knowledge like that is without price.’
Kate did not know whether to believe Silas or not. No one in Albion really knew what the war was about. It had been a part of life for so long that no one even questioned it any more.
‘The existence of the Skilled caused the war that generations have lived with every day,’ said Silas. ‘The promise of their knowledge was enough to throw our world into chaos, but instead of standing up beside our soldiers to fight, the Skilled went underground, leaving the rest of Albion to fight its enemies alone. I have no love for the Skilled, Miss Winters. It is because of them that I have seen the veil for myself. I have seen the path of death and it has turned me away.’
Silas drew the silver dagger he had stolen from Kalen’s body, held out his hand and drew the point of the blade across his palm, slicing it open so a trail of blood shone like a string of beads in the light. Kate watched in disbelief as his skin began knitting together before he had even finished the cut and the blood upon it dried to a faint red dust.
‘That is what the High Council believed,’ said Silas. ‘Before they were proven wrong.’
‘How did you do that?’
‘Twelve years ago a member of the High Council uncovered a rare book in an old grave not far from here. The grave belonged to a long dead member of the Winters family. Your family. And within that book, she discovered a way for the Skilled to harness the power of the veil more deeply than just looking into it or using its energies to heal.’
‘Was that Da’ru?’ asked Kate.
Silas nodded once. ‘Da’ru believed she could use the book’s techniques to alter the link between a person’s body and their spirit, and I was part of an experiment to prove that theory. Dozens of other subjects had already died from their exposure to the veil. I was the unfortunate one. I survived. Because of this, my blood does not flow like that of normal men. My injuries heal as quickly as they are made. My lungs breathe, but I have no need for air. Poison cannot kill me and fire does not burn.’
Kate looked at Silas and saw the man in front of her clearly for the first time. There was something not quite right about him. Something beyond the fear that he instilled in people with his presence. Anyone could do that with practice. What Silas possessed was deeper than that. That cold feeling that Kate always felt around him; the way his grey eyes reflected nothing of the man behind them. He felt empty to her. It felt as if he was already dead.
‘Imagine then a thousand more men like me,’ continued Silas. ‘An army like that would be unstoppable, making Albion more feared than any other nation. That is the power the Continent wishes to claim for itself. The High Council are working towards the same goal, but the force of Wintercraft almost killed Da’ru the night she made me what I am. She would not survive a second attempt. For that, she needs someone who possesses a greater natural ability than herself, someone whose family possesses an instinctive connection to the veil. That is why she needs you.’
Artemis had always taught Kate to trust only what she could see and feel. To him, the veil was a fantasy created by people who could not face the finality of death. But sitting there with Silas, the line between what was true and what was not blurred suddenly. Kate had never fully shared her uncle’s scepticism of the world and she could not help believing that at least part of what Silas was telling her was the truth.
‘If that is true,’ she said, ‘why isn’t Artemis one of the Skilled? He is a Winters, just like me.’
‘As I told you before, the Skilled are a dying breed,’ said Silas. ‘The ability is not always passed down through blood, and fewer are born with every generation. Your father had the ability to see the veil, your uncle does not. It is not unusual to see a difference within families.’
Silas’s crow shook its feathers and flapped up on to the fireplace, where it stood pecking at its claws.
‘Are you one of the Skilled?’ she asked.
‘I was an ordinary man once,’ said Silas. ‘Now I am something else.’
‘But … when you send your crow after people … you can talk to it, can’t you?’
‘My relationship with the veil is very different from that of the Skilled,’ said Silas. ‘Animals use the veil far more than any of us. They understand it. All I have to do is listen.’
‘Then … you can hear what it says?’
‘No. But there are ways to communicate that go far beyond the basic senses. You experienced that yourself when you saw through Da’ru’s eyes at the boarding house. You were not using your own eyes at that time, you were using the veil. That is what I do. The crow’s eyes become mine. We hunt together.’
Kate tried to imagine how such a link could be possible, but after what she had already experienced of the veil, she realised that she was in no place to judge what was possible and what was not any more. ‘If Da’ru almost died doing what she did to you, what makes her think that I won’t?’ she asked.
Silas leaned forward in his chair, his eyes meeting hers, as if this was the question he had been waiting to answer all along. ‘Because the book of Wintercraft was never meant for someone like her,’ he said. ‘Each person has their own level of potential and Da’ru reached hers long ago. However much she might deny it, her level of Skill is accomplished but not extraordinary. Her ambition far outweighs her talent and it has taken her a long time to accept that. Wintercraft was written by your ancestors and was meant to be used by people with a far greater level of Skill than Da’ru. Your parents both came from families with strong Skilled abilities and you may well be the last of a pure Winters bloodline. Generations of potential exists within you. You are Da’ru’s best chance of using Wintercraft to get what she wants. She does not care if it will kill you or not, but she intends to make you try.’
‘But … I don’t know anything about any of this,’ said Kate. ‘The Skilled … the veil. And if you are one of Da’ru’s men, why didn’t you hand me over to her? What do you want me to do?’
Silas stared at her as if the answer should be obvious. ‘I had to judge your abilities for myself,’ he said. ‘You may be the most vital part of my preparations; the key to something I have looked forward to for twelve long years. You, Miss Winters, are going to help me to die.’