The Spirit Wheel
Silas ducked through the low tunnels and strode across underground bridges. He moved so fast, Kate found it hard to keep up, and when she lagged behind he dragged her along until they were far enough away from the red-bricked cavern for her to be impossibly lost.
‘You look weak,’ he said, leading her through the dark. ‘Weaker than I expected.’
‘You didn’t have to kill that man.’
‘I am an honourable man and honourable men do not lie. You were warned of what would happen if you drew attention to yourself. The consequences are yours to bear.’
‘What about Mina?’
‘Her life was unimportant and her death was convenient. She knew her time had come.’
Silas stopped at a crossroads with nothing but darkness on every side and he stood there, listening for something, before pulling Kate up a steep staircase to a pair of arched metal doors. ‘Do you know where you are?’ he asked.
Kate could barely see anything up there, but a thin strip of daylight filtered in through the gap between the doors and Silas let her step forward to take a look.
‘We’re on the surface,’ she said.
Kate recognised the smoky smell of the streets, and the doors looked straight out on to an alleyway with a cluster of tall black towers gathered at its furthest end. They could have been anywhere in the city. She had only seen a small part of it and it had all looked the same to her. There was no way she could know where they were about to come out.
‘And this?’ said Silas. ‘What do you make of this?’
Kate turned, and when her eyes became used to the shadows again she saw a carving set into the wall. It was a stone circle, measuring about one foot across, with a row of circular tiles sunk into a channel around its outer edge. Each small tile carried a different symbol, and the large circle in the centre was carved with the shape of a crescent moon. She had never seen anything like it before in her life.
‘This is a spirit wheel,’ said Silas. ‘Part of an ancient system that the bonemen once used to help people find their way around Fume and the City Below. Place your hand on the moon and ask it where we are.’
‘It’s a wall,’ said Kate. ‘It can’t tell us that.’
‘This is far more than just a wall,’ said Silas. ‘There are thirteen of these circles in the City Below, seven in the City Above and four that have yet to be uncovered, though they certainly exist. Each one of them can remember more than a single person could experience in ten lifetimes, and inside each of their hearts is a soul locked away for eternity to serve the needs of the living. Most of these circles have gone unused for centuries, the souls within them knowing nothing but silence. For that alone they deserve your respect. Now, do it.’
Silas pushed Kate towards the wall. Her hands went out in front of her, her right palm touched the moon, and the symbols around the circle began to move. She tried to step back, but she could not pull away. Her hand was stuck fast.
‘Stop struggling,’ said Silas. ‘It will only take longer.’
Kate watched as the stone tiles ground steadily around the circle, sinking back into the wall one by one, switching places and rearranging themselves, all of them moving at once. Kate recognised many of the symbols easily: a book, a bird, a skull, a snake, a flame, an eye, an arrow, the sun. Then the air rippled gently in front of the stones and some of them flipped over to reveal secondary symbols on their undersides, mostly numbers and arrows, as well as more complicated carvings that she did not understand.
The tiles began to slow. Kate’s hand still would not come away from the wall and, when they stopped, one symbol glowed very gently at the top. It looked as if a tiny flame was flickering behind it, drawing her attention to a tile carved with a single flake of snow.
‘It recognises you,’ said Silas. ‘That same symbol was found on the coffin where Da’ru first found Wintercraft. It knows you are a Winters. And here,’ he pointed to a second symbol illuminated a quarter of the way around the wheel. ‘A crescent moon. The wheels use their central carvings as reference points. Simply put, it is telling you that a Winters is standing by the wheel marked by the crescent moon. It appears the spirit inside it is still reliable.’
‘How do you know about these wheels?’ asked Kate.
‘They are well known to anyone who has lived in Fume for any length of time,’ said Silas. ‘When people first moved into the city, they saw them as wonders and used them almost every day. The technique is very simple. You interpret the symbols in terms of your question. Each tile can have many meanings, but the simplest is usually correct.’
‘So, there is a spirit trapped somewhere inside there,’ said Kate. ‘How does it know my name?’
‘Fume has many secrets, Miss Winters. It is no concern of mine that you are ignorant of most of them. Now, ask it if it knows where to find your uncle.’
‘Da’ru has sent many servants and wardens into the City Below these last few days,’ said Silas. ‘Your uncle was bought at the station and sent down among them. I believe Da’ru has those people working on something and I intend to find out what. Ask.’
The tiles moved immediately without Kate even thinking about it and one illuminated near the bottom of the wheel: a single open eye.
‘That means “yes”,’ said Silas. ‘If not, the closed eye would have been chosen. Where is he?’
Kate hesitated, torn between the danger of leading Silas to Artemis and the need she had to find him herself. Some of the tiles around the wheel tapped together but did not move, as if sensing her indecision.
‘I will not ask you again.’
Kate had no choice. Her thoughts cleared and the wheel moved at once. The tiles rattled and scraped for a lot longer this time, and Kate and Silas watched as four bright symbols settled together in a group at the top. The snowflake, a book, a doorway and a key.
‘What does it mean when they’re together like that?’ asked Kate. ‘Where is Artemis?’
‘Da’ru has opened it,’ Silas said quietly.
‘Opened what?’ said Kate. ‘Where is Artemis?’
Before Silas could answer, something sharp pierced Kate’s palm from inside the wall, and the circle released its hold on her. She snatched her hand away and a bead of blood gathered on the surface of her skin as a tiny glass point sank back into the centre of the moon, taking some of her blood with it.
‘What was that?’
‘A spirit wheel only tests a person’s blood when they ask about areas restricted to the bonemen,’ said Silas. ‘A group of tiles are meant to be read together. The snowflake represents your uncle, the book and doorway indicate a place of books, and the key means a secret or a lock. If this is correct, Da’ru has somehow found her way into the bonemen’s ancient library, one so well hidden that it has proved impossible to find for centuries. It was said that only the bonemen could ask the spirit wheels for its location. Da’ru makes every one of her new servants use one of the wheels, just in case they carry the right blood to be shown the way. I doubt it is a coincidence that she found the library the very day your uncle was sold into her service. And if he carries the blood of the bonemen …’ The wheel sprang into action and Silas smiled ‘… that means you carry it too.’
This time it was not only the outer symbols that moved. The central moon sank back as well, turning on its axis to reveal a reverse side carved with a perfect spiral.
‘The blood of the bonemen is the key to more knowledge than you can imagine,’ said Silas. ‘Da’ru has been searching for their library for years. It is no secret that the Skilled already know its location and she believes they have hidden Wintercraft inside. I need that book, Miss Winters. We must find it first. Ask the wheel to show you the way.’
Kate pushed her hand warily against the stone and the tiles settled into place at once. Silas studied them closely, but Kate already knew what they would say. If she was going to hide something important, there was only one place it would be. In the deepest place, the darkest place. Four tiles were illuminated: a skull, an ornate number three, a horizontal line and an arrow pointing down.
Silas translated them out loud. ‘Third tomb cavern. Lowest level. This way.’
The City Below Fume was even larger than the one above. Hidden beneath the foundations of its tall black towers were staircases that curled impossibly far down into the darkness and paths so narrow they were no more than cracks in the earth. As they went deeper, those narrow ways widened into vast chambers linked together by corridors like beads on a string. More stone bridges hung over dizzying drops and from them Kate caught glimpses of eerie streets and buildings flecked with distant lantern light.
‘The Skilled are not the only people who hide down here,’ said Silas. ‘Keep moving.’
Silas did not seem to mind the darkness and the dank that closed in around them. He moved like a shadow, with a stolen lantern in one hand and his blue-black sword sheathed at his side; Kate wondered again why a man as strong and ruthless as him would want to deliberately end his life.
Kate’s reflection followed her along the windows of a sunken street and twice she jumped, thinking that the face she could see in the ancient windows was not her own. She began to sense movement everywhere, in every shadow, every window, and she could hear strange sounds whispering on the air. Each time she heard something it became harder to dismiss it as pure imagination, and when she reached a corner filled with black windows she heard a shade’s voice clearly for the first time.
Kate felt something break, as if a barrier had fallen, and a wave of cold wrapped around her, drowning out everything except the presence of hundreds of spirits that she could not see. She sensed them as they had been in life, their stories flashing through her thoughts as one.
‘… she is listening …’
‘… travelling with him …’
‘… Silas …’
Some of the voices shrank back in fear as Kate stood still, not knowing what to do.
‘… he cannot hear us …’
‘… find the book …’
‘… keep it safe …’
‘… she can release us …’
‘… prisoners …’
‘… bound by blood …’
Silas stopped up ahead and looked back at her with suspicion. Kate forced herself to catch up, her heart racing as she ran. Ghostly forms gathered in every window around her, whispering to her, watching her, but she dared not look back.
‘… guard the book …’
‘… return for us …’
The voices faded as she left the windows behind, stepping at last into the safe glow of Silas’s lantern light. ‘You look pale,’ he said.
‘Just tired,’ lied Kate.
Silas looked back down the tunnel and saw nothing but the dark. ‘Stay in the light,’ he said. ‘This is no place to be lost on your own.’
After what had happened in that tunnel, Kate found herself wanting to stay close to Silas for protection and became worried every time he walked too far ahead. There was no way to know how long they had been underground. Other than giving her directions on how to negotiate difficult steps and corners, Silas did not speak and the silence was so complete that she could hear her pulse rushing in her ears as she walked.
‘There,’ Silas said at last, pointing towards a distant light. ‘We are close.’
Kate’s heart lifted. Her only thought was of Artemis being somewhere nearby, and she followed Silas to the very edge of the tunnel mouth, overlooking the wide gulf that was the third tomb cavern.
The tunnel emerged halfway down the side of the cavern and it was so deep that Kate could not see the bottom or the top. A few graverobbers clung to ladders and harnesses on the opposite side, dodging swinging oil lamps and falling rocks as they grabbed on to tiny ledges and scraped their way into the sealed tombs that had been hollowed out of its walls. Each one of them looked filthy and wild, and they crept like spiders through cracked openings in the rock, stripping them of everything that the dead people possessed and sending them up in wire baskets to the top.
‘This is where we climb down,’ said Silas, rattling a long ladder that led deep into the bottomless gloom.
‘I can’t,’ said Kate, ducking back into the tunnel.
‘You will, or I will leave you here and you can try to find your way back alone. I’m sure those thieves will find your bones sooner or later.’
Silas stepped confidently on to the ladder, hooking the lantern on to his belt as he descended quickly into the dark. Kate looked out over the edge, clinging to the side of the tunnel mouth for safety. The ladder looked old, but given the choice between trusting it and being left there alone, she would take the ladder. Artemis must have come this way. And if he could climb down that ladder, so could she.
She swung her first foot out on to a rung, then the next. The wood felt firm under her feet and with both hands gripping white-knuckle tight, she trusted her weight to it and followed Silas down.
Each step felt like an eternity. Kate had never had a great fear of heights, but this place was different. It felt as if the depth of the cavern was making her body twice as heavy, trying to pull her down faster than she wanted to go. If she could see the bottom it would not be nearly so bad. Silas took the ladder two rungs at a time, taking the light further and further away until Kate was hunting for rungs in the dark. She tried to catch up, gaining confidence with every step. Then her foot slipped, a rung snapped and her feet flailed out. She screamed as her hands lost their grip, her fingers slid from the wood and she fell back, plunging straight down towards the distant chasm floor.
She fell down … down … trying to snatch hold of the ladder in the dark. Silas’s lantern blinded her as she passed it and something tugged hard on her arm. Silas looked down at her, a strong hand clasped around her wrist. Kate reached up to hold on to him with her other hand and he lifted her up with impossible strength until she was high enough to reach his shoulders.
‘Climb on to me,’ he said.
Kate reached out and wrapped an arm around his neck, bringing the other round to join it as Silas let her go. She clung on for her life as he continued to descend, keeping her eyes closed, willing it to be over, until at last Silas stepped off on to solid ground.
‘There are wise ways to enter a tomb cavern,’ he said. ‘Falling is not one of them.’
Kate dropped down from his back and her knees weakened under her, sending her falling back on to the floor. She didn’t care. She had never been so happy to see a pile of rocks and dirt in her life. She tested her wrist where Silas had grabbed her. A bruise was blossoming around the bone and it was difficult to move her hand.
‘You were lucky,’ said Silas. ‘An inch further and you would have been out of my reach.’
He held out his hand to help her up and Kate saw that he too had not come away unscathed. His wrist joint looked misaligned, and the bones cracked loudly as they straightened themselves again, making him wince with pain.
‘I wish mine would do that,’ she said.
‘You are not badly hurt,’ said Silas, pulling her to her feet. ‘Your body will heal itself just as surely as mine, given time.’
Kate looked around. The cavern was long and narrow at the bottom, shaped like a long wave carved into the earth, but there was no sign of any library or anything else down there. It was hard to see past the chunks of stone that covered the place and the clouds of dust thrown up by their feet as they negotiated a path around the edge. It looked like the graverobbers had thrown anything of low value down on to the cavern floor, littering it with broken pottery, pieces of wood and loose dirt and bones excavated from the tombs.
Silas tested every raised stone in the wall in case it was a handle of some kind and while the two of them hunted for hidden doors, Kate took her chance to ask him something.
‘If we do find the library down here,’ she said, ‘will you help my uncle?’
‘You will be safe for as long as I need you,’ said Silas. ‘The same applies to him.’
‘But if he’s down here, could you help him escape?’
‘Why would I want to do that?’
‘You were the one who brought him to Fume. What if … what if I promise not to try and escape again. If I get you the book, whatever it takes, will you help him then? Will you protect him from the wardens? Help him stay alive?’
‘You will find the book simply because I demand it of you,’ said Silas. ‘Your promises mean nothing to me.’
‘I’m just asking you to let him live. Please. You’ll still have everything you want.’
Silas lowered his scarred hand from the wall and turned to face Kate. ‘You are not responsible for his life,’ he said. ‘We all live and die alone. You will learn that in time.’
‘He is family,’ said Kate. ‘We look after each other.’
Silas turned back to the wall. ‘That is something I know nothing about,’ he said. ‘Families lie. They leave and they forget.’
‘Are you talking about your family?’
‘I have my crow,’ said Silas. ‘That is the only family I need.’ His eyes were distant and Kate saw a flicker of sadness within them. ‘We do not have time for this,’ he said firmly. ‘As long as you obey me, the bookseller will live. Now do as I say and find this door.’
Kate did not know how Silas expected her to find a door down there. It was pitch black and the spirit wheel’s directions had not been very specific. The fire-glow from the graverobbers’ swinging oil lamps flickered like stars above them and Silas’s lantern light reflected from tiny pieces of rough gemstones embedded in the walls, making them sparkle and move as he hunted for anything that looked out of place.
They had walked more than a thousand steps and searched only a tiny fraction of the cavern when Kate stopped. Everyone who had ever searched that cavern would have done exactly what they were doing now. They were going about it the wrong way.
She stood still, letting Silas wander ahead, and as the light of the lantern moved further away, she tried to put herself in the place of the people who had built the city below. Kate guessed that the library had to be easy to find if Artemis had found it so quickly. Maybe people with the blood of the bonemen just knew where it was. What if they were drawn to it but she had not been listening?
‘The spirit in the wheel deceived us,’ said Silas up ahead. ‘There is nothing down here. Just bones and rock.’
Kate was not so sure.
She closed her eyes and concentrated on finding the door. Nothing happened. There was no sudden pull. No sign to point the way. She opened her eyes again and found Silas standing right in front of her.
‘You won’t get very far like that,’ he said.
‘This cavern is old, isn’t it?’ asked Kate.
‘One of the oldest.’
‘What did it look like before the graverobbers came?’
Silas touched the wall and a fragment of blue gemstone broke off under his hand. ‘Most of it was lined with lapis before they stripped it away,’ he said. ‘This lowest section is supposed to have been decorated with a mosaic of an ocean, with fish and other useless things set in precious stones across the floor and the walls. I never saw it for myself. It had all been chipped away long before the High Council got here.’
Kate tried to picture it as Silas had described. ‘What about light?’ she asked.
‘It is a tomb cavern,’ said Silas. ‘The dead do not need light.’
‘But we do. And so would anyone else who came down here.’
‘If this is your attempt to waste more time—’
‘Why do the graverobbers hang their oil lamps down on ropes?’
‘In case they need to escape quickly from a warden patrol,’ said Silas. ‘They can pull everything up and be gone in moments. What is your point?’
‘Da’ru and Artemis would have carried their light down here, like us. So would the bonemen.’
Silas looked at the lantern, then at the walls. ‘I fail to see the relevance of any of this,’ he said.
Kate grabbed the lantern and walked back to where the ladder met the floor. A small metal hook was sunk into the wall beside it and she ran her hand across the ruined wall, feeling the deep welts in the stone where the graverobbers stealing the lapis had cut too deep.
‘Where are you going?’ demanded Silas, already right behind.
‘Everyone assumes the bonemen wanted to hide the library,’ said Kate. ‘But what if they didn’t? What if it was just an ordinary place to them in their time? And when they disappeared, people just assumed it was a secret place because no one knew how to get into it.’
‘Except for the Skilled,’ corrected Silas.
‘Maybe. But Artemis is not one of the Skilled. He can’t do anything any ordinary person can’t do. If he found it, anyone can.’
‘Why would the spirit wheels test for the blood of the bonemen if the library was not a secret place?’ asked Silas.
‘There are places in the council chambers where ordinary people can’t go, aren’t there? The council don’t want people wandering around their private rooms; maybe the bonemen didn’t either. People were able to visit Fume back then, to come and pay their respects to the dead. What if the bonemen wanted to keep some areas of the city to themselves? They didn’t need wardens to stand guard over everything; all they had to do was restrict information to anyone who asked about it.’
‘You are making a lot of assumptions,’ said Silas.
‘The graverobbers didn’t find the library because they weren’t looking for it,’ said Kate. ‘And I think the wardens did not find it because they were looking too hard. Here!’
Silas followed her to where another metal hook jutted out of the wall just above her head, exactly like the first. ‘And?’ he said when she pointed to it, clearly unimpressed.
Kate lifted the lantern up on to the hook and let it swing there as she studied the wall more closely. ‘Why would that lantern hook be there if there wasn’t something around here to see?’ she said. ‘If that mosaic was still intact, I bet we’d be able to see the door easily, but with all the damage the graverobbers have done to the walls, no one has noticed it. The bonemen must have made the door blend in with the wall and they wouldn’t ruin the look of a mosaic with a big door handle. So if there’s no handle, there has to be another way to open it.’ Her hand went to a small black stone, too neat and square to have been part of the cavern rock, and she pushed.
Something rumbled gently within the wall, a small door swung slowly back and the smell of old ink and leather wafted from the depths of a shadowed corridor lined with books.
The two of them stood staring into the dark.
‘See?’ said Kate quietly. ‘It wasn’t so well hidden after all.’
Silas left the lantern on its hook and drew his sword. ‘Stay close,’ he said, walking forwards as distant voices carried from within. ‘And say nothing. Leave everything to me.’
Kate followed him in, hoping that Artemis was still somewhere inside. Then there was only the smell of the books, the sprung feeling of a wood floor beneath her feet and the sound of a lock dropping into place as the door closed quietly behind them.