The High Council
Kate woke to a dull thumping sound. She was underwater, but she was breathing somehow. Her hands went quickly to her face, where a mask covered her mouth and nose, feeding air into her lungs. She panicked, dragged the mask off and thrashed her arms, fighting her way to the safety of the surface, only there was no surface to reach, just a hard barrier closed tightly over her head, sealing her in. Kate slammed her hands uselessly against the glass as a face appeared behind it: a face that was not Silas.
She choked in a mouthful of water and snatched at the bubbling mask again, terrified she was going to drown. Then the face stepped back, a deep grating sound rumbled around her and the water level plunged, draining away quickly through a metal grille beneath her feet. Kate dropped to the floor, choking and gasping for breath as Da’ru peered in through the glass.
‘That was your first failure,’ she said, her voice echoing around the tank. ‘As a Skilled, you should have been able to see me and speak with me inside the veil without returning to full consciousness. I am disappointed in you, Kate.’
The room outside the tank was lit by dozens of candles and Kate saw a group of people gathered in the light. She was not in the museum’s cellars any more. She was in the centre of a grand room, surrounded by twelve men in formal clothes seated behind a curved table draped in green cloth. The vial of blood Silas had drawn from her lay half-empty at the very end of the table, and the man closest to it was hunched over a pile of papers, writing notes. Silas had taken her to the High Council. The experiments had already begun.
‘She did not even enter the first level of the veil,’ said Da’ru, turning away. Kate watched her through the glass, glaring at her with pure hate. ‘I should have let her drown.’
‘That would have been a mistake.’
A dark shape moved in one of the corners and Silas stepped into the light of the room. He blended into the shadows so perfectly, Kate had not even seen him.
‘Immersing the girl was pointless,’ he said. ‘The elements do not react to her in the same way as the rest.’
Da’ru ignored him as if he had not spoken at all. ‘We shall attempt a more direct approach,’ she said. ‘The bloodbane dispersed extremely quickly in her blood. That is a small sign of potential at the very least. She may yet prove interesting. Release her.’
The boy from the museum scuttled out of an alcove in the wall at his mistress’s word and unclipped four heavy clamps that kept the tank fixed to the floor. The glass shuddered, and with a sudden creak of wheels and rope the tank’s walls rose up into the air, leaving Kate standing clothed and dripping wet on the round grate. She could not remember anything that had happened between the museum and where she was now, but whatever danger she had been in with Silas, her situation had clearly become much worse.
‘You promised us results,’ said one of the councilmen. ‘This child looks like yet another pointless waste of our time.’
‘Excellence takes time,’ said Da’ru. ‘Manipulating a subject’s connection to the veil is a delicate procedure. It cannot be rushed without forcing them too far into death. If my studies are correct, this girl may be able to manipulate the veil in ways we have not yet seen, even without the tools and careful conditions usually employed by the Skilled. If she is useful to us, you can be sure I will discover it.’
Da’ru gave the boy a signal and he darted forward again, clipping one end of a short chain to Kate’s ankle and the other to the grate in the floor.
‘Name’s Tom,’ he whispered, keeping his head down and his voice so quiet Kate almost didn’t hear it. ‘Edgar’s brother.’
Kate’s confusion must have showed upon her face. She didn’t even know Edgar had a brother.
The boy sniffed. ‘Guess he didn’t tell you about me, eh? Doesn’t matter. Ed said to tell you he’s out of the cell. He knows you’re here.’
Tom tightened the last lock as slowly as he could. ‘He knows where your uncle is, too. But there’s a problem …’
Before Tom could tell Kate any more, Da’ru ordered him away. ‘Bring in the body,’ she commanded. ‘And be quick!’
Tom scrambled to obey and disappeared into the next room, emerging moments later pulling a low table behind him. A dark red cloth covered whatever was on top of it and Kate stared at the body-shaped bulge, expecting the worst. What if it was Artemis under there? What if that was the problem? What if he was dead? She tried to prepare herself for the worst, determined not to react too strongly if it was true. Then Da’ru nodded, Tom pulled back the cloth and the dead person’s identity was revealed.
Kalen’s body looked almost exactly the same as the last time Kate had seen it, grey and cold and still, except that his sunken chest was bare and the wound Silas’s sword had made had been stitched together with crosses of thick black thread. The sight of him laid there made bile rise up in Kate’s throat, but a deeper part of her was glad to see him again. There was the man who had stolen her parents, laid out, dead and cold. The manner of his death no longer mattered to her. Silas was right, Kalen had earned his death. All that mattered was that he was gone.
‘This body is all I want you to concentrate upon now,’ Da’ru said, as Tom wheeled the table right up in front of Kate. ‘One of your townspeople stole this man’s life and now you will return it to him.’
‘The townspeople?’ Kate’s eyes flashed towards Silas.
‘Quiet!’ Silas said firmly. ‘The councilwoman did not order you to speak.’ He glared at Kate with such fury that she did not dare say any more.
‘You are here to work, girl. Not to talk,’ said Da’ru. ‘You will show the High Council exactly what a Skilled mind can do. Now, return this man’s soul.’
‘I can’t,’ said Kate. ‘I don’t know how to do that. And even if I could, I wouldn’t.’
Da’ru’s back straightened, her eyes bristling at Kate’s brazen challenge to her authority. ‘You will.’
‘Not for you.’
Da’ru moved towards her like a snake ready to strike. Kate thought she was going to hit her, but instead Da’ru smiled calmly, snatched hold of Kate’s hand and pressed it hard on to Kalen’s chest. Kate immediately felt dizzy, as if she had been spun round too fast, her head pounding as the coldness of the veil closed in around her again. But this time was different. She felt like she was falling forward, falling into the dead man himself. The veil descended quickly, swamping her senses before she had a chance to fight against it, and the twelve councilmen all watched with anticipation.
Whatever Da’ru had done, it felt as if something had broken within Kate. She tried to fight back, but she didn’t know how. Then her mind lifted and, instead of a flood of memories, she saw something she had never seen before.
She was standing within a vast hanging mist of silvery light, as if time had stopped in the middle of a moonlit rainstorm. The air shimmered with tiny lights, but when she held out her hand, she could feel nothing except the cold. At first, she was sure she was alone, but if she concentrated she could hear faint voices all around her, gentle sounds that whispered and moved.
‘Who’s there?’ Her voice was swallowed by the mist, carrying much further than she would have thought possible, until it reflected off something in the distance and returned to her as a tiny echo. Then something answered, whispering her name as the mist closed in.
‘She has passed into the second level of the veil!’ said Da’ru. ‘Silas. Do you see her?’
Kate did not hear Silas answer, but Da’ru’s voice reassured her that - wherever she was - she was not completely lost. She started walking through the mist, concentrating on her voice as the only connection she had back to her life. But the further she walked, the less anything seemed to matter. She felt so peaceful in that place, so content and relaxed that she was tempted to give in: to let go of the testing room, the High Council and Silas, and let the veil claim her completely. But then she thought of Artemis and Edgar, of Morvane and home, and she knew that somehow, she had to get back.
Kate stopped walking and focussed on picturing Kalen’s body on the table in front of her, ignoring the overwhelming feeling that was desperately trying to pull her on, so close and so beautiful … and then something changed. The tiny lights faded to a distant glow and Kate no longer felt as if she was being drawn along. Something like water lapped gently over her feet, the whispers died away and Kate had the feeling she had done something very wrong.
The silver mist cleared a little around her feet and she looked down at a reflection of herself cast upon shallow water. Her boots were submerged - and she then looked out across the perfect waters of a wide blue lake. She listened for Da’ru’s voice again, but heard nothing. Even the water was silent.
All she could do was stand there, stunned by the complete beauty of the place, until she sensed something moving beside her. In any other place, perhaps she would have been afraid, but instead she reached out, calmly brushing her fingertips through a surging current of invisible energy that felt ready to snatch her up if she got too close. She knew at once she was looking at the way into death, the only safe path leading directly through the veil to whatever lay on the other side. All she had to do was let it take her.
Kate did not know how long she stood there mesmerised by the gentle call of death, and she only stepped away from it when she sensed the air around her shift and become heavier, distracting her from its presence long enough to break its hold upon her. Something had moved beside the energy current: a pocket of dark energy that disrupted everything around it like a stone in a fast-flowing river. The water shrank back away from it and even death moved aside as something stepped out of the rippling void.
Kate’s first thought was of Kalen - she did not want to see him, dead or not - and then the shape took on a more solid form, moving towards her until it was as real as anything she could reach out and touch.
‘Impressive,’ said Silas, stepping out of the mist as casually as someone walking across a room. ‘To come this far yourself … even Da’ru did not expect that.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Kate. ‘What’s going on? How did I get here?’
‘You resisted death. By connecting you with Kalen’s body, Da’ru exploited a weakness in the veil, allowing your spirit to be drawn through to this place. But there is more to do if you are going to save yourself. My plans do not involve your death, so you must do as you were instructed. Return Kalen’s soul to his body, before Da’ru decides you cannot control your skill enough to be of use to her.’
Kate’s consciousness switched briefly back to the testing room, where she saw her hand still pressed to Kalen’s stitched wound.
‘Find him,’ said Silas.
‘No,’ Kate said firmly. ‘He deserves to be dead.’
‘And do you want to join him? Da’ru will do it without hesitation. She will sever your spirit from this life at the first sign of failure. Her ruthlessness has led many of the Skilled to their deaths. Do not let your stubbornness lead you to yours. There is a time for everything, and this is not the time to fight her.’
Kate did not see Silas step behind her. He moved as if he was a part of the veil, not caught within it, and he reached around and held his hand against her forehead, forcing her to focus upon what she had to do. She did not feel the touch of his skin, only a brush of cold air. There was energy within it: a force that intensified slowly, radiating out from his palm.
‘Do not fight against the veil,’ he said. ‘Embrace it.’
The silvery mist flooded all of Kate’s senses at once. Suddenly she could smell the water, feel the touch of the wind and hear whispered voices drifting close to her again, only now she could also see the whisperers themselves; shadowed forms caught within beautiful flashes of dancing colour, filling the surface of the lake like patches of floating moonlight.
‘These are the lucky ones,’ said Silas. ‘Each one of these souls has a chance to enter death when they are ready for it. Kalen’s death was a clean one. He should be here.’
‘I can see him,’ said Kate, her eyes drawn to an energy drifting alone near the centre of the lake. A bubble of hate rose up inside her, but she forced it back down.
‘Good,’ said Silas. ‘Allow him to see you.’
Silas helped Kate bring Kalen’s spirit closer. The soft shape gathered form as it moved towards her, becoming more solid, more human, its face twisted into a dark mocking smile. Silas sensed her anger growing as Kalen drew near enough for her to touch, and in the moment when Kalen’s cold soul connected with hers that anger flared up against him, fierce and uncontrollable.
Silas let go of her and shouted, ‘Now!’
Kate’s consciousness plunged back into the testing room as energy burst through her hand and struck Kalen’s chest like a lightning bolt. Kalen’s body heaved in an impossible breath and his eyes glared wide and furious as his spirit settled back into life.
Kate’s hand sprang away from him. Silas was standing right beside Da’ru, looking as though he had not moved an inch, and the twelve councilmen were completely transfixed by the man on the table: the man Kate had managed to bring back from the dead.
‘It is not possible!’ said one of them, daring to stand up, before Kalen’s arm snapped out and clutched Kate’s throat in a deadly grip.
‘Gotcha now, girly,’ he grinned, poisoning the air with a glut of rotten breath. ‘Thought you’d got away from me, did ya?’
Silas rounded the table and Kalen’s mouth drew back into a snarl. ‘You!’
Silas struck instantly, plunging Kalen’s silver blade straight down through his neck, ending his life before he could say another word.
‘Silas!’ Da’ru’s face contorted with rage. ‘How dare you interfere!’
Silas left the dagger where it stood, the silver ‘K’ still shining in the candlelight. ‘My duty, as always, is to the High Council,’ he said. ‘This man’s mind was gone. He would have killed the girl and without intervention he could have easily turned upon you or any number of the councilmen in this room. I could not take that chance. The girl has proven her worth, but the subject’s actions made him a threat. I was forced to eliminate him.’
Da’ru glanced round at the councilmen, who were all still staring at Kalen in disbelief. ‘You have gone too far, Silas,’ she said quietly.
‘I did only what had to be done.’
Da’ru walked towards him and Silas met her gaze, revealing nothing.
‘Perhaps you are right,’ she said, her words dripping with threat as she glanced back at the listening councilmen. ‘This will not be the last time the girl is put to work, after all.’ She turned to address the twelve men, hiding her anger with Silas beneath a dark mask of authority. ‘I am sure we can all agree that this experiment has been a fine success.’
Kate’s body was shivering. She sat down on the floor as the councilmen all spoke at once, each demanding an explanation for what they had just seen. She was too weak to move. Too tired to think. This was more than bringing a bird back to life. To be able to reverse death … to make a long-dead body breathe again. It should have been impossible - yet she had seen it with her own eyes! She did not know what to believe any more, but if this was what being a Skilled meant, then she wanted nothing to do with it.
At last the talking was over, and when the last of the councilmen had left the room, Da’ru ordered Tom to wheel Kalen’s body away as she turned her attention back to Kate.
‘Up,’ she said, signalling a warden to pull her to her feet. ‘We have a cell waiting for you. You will rest there tonight and recover your strength. I have more tests to prepare. We shall continue our work in the morning.’
Kate looked up at the councilwoman’s face and saw something moving around her. The air shifted as the veil drew closer. Images swept across her eyes and her thoughts were lifted suddenly out of the tower and into a vision of a place she had never seen before.
She was standing in a crowd of people, somewhere out in the open. The crowd were wearing feathered masks - the kind usually worn upon the Night of Souls - and Da’ru was there, with a bonfire blazing beside her, her eyes dangerous and wild. Silas was behind her, his blue blade drawn ready for battle. Kate could not see what he was looking at, but fear rippled through the crowd as many of them tried to run. She did not understand what the veil was trying to show her until everything faded except for Da’ru, and in the distance Kate saw the silver current of death slowly closing in.
‘What is it?’ demanded Da’ru, breaking Kate‘s concentration and making the vision fall away. ‘Silas? Explain this. Did you see the girl’s eyes? What just happened here?’
‘The experiment has exhausted her,’ Silas said quickly. ‘I will take her to her cell myself.’
‘Speak, girl! Tell me what you saw.’
‘It was the Night of Souls,’ said Kate. ‘Everyone was afraid.’
‘Delusions,’ said Silas, pulling her away. ‘Your fantasies are of no interest to the councilwoman. Save them for your cell. You will have plenty of time to indulge them there.’
‘Wait,’ said Da’ru, forcing Silas to stop. ‘The Night of Souls is still two days from now. What else did you see?’
Silas shot Kate a warning look as she tried to remember.
‘There was a ceremony,’ she said. ‘You were wearing a locket. A glass one, I think. It looked like it had blood on it.’
‘The locket?’ Da’ru glared at her suspiciously. ‘What do you know about that?’
Kate looked straight into the councilwoman’s green eyes and saw uncertainty in them for the first time. She knew then what the vision had been showing her, and the thought of it made her smile. She slid her arm out of Silas’s grasp and faced Da’ru without fear.
‘At that ceremony,’ she said. ‘You are going to die.’