The Thieves’ Way
Kate and Silas plummeted down through the hole and plunged feet first into deep black water. Kate’s blood pulsed deafeningly in her ears as she fought hard to swim up to the surface. Her heavy clothes pulled her down, but she kicked hard and burst, gasping, out into the air.
‘Artemis!’ she sputtered, as the secret door ground back into place above her head.
Kate struggled against Silas’s grip as he dragged her up on to a wide point of stone that jutted out into the calm river, and then the shock of the cold water hit her, making her shiver as she cried for her uncle, her only chance to help him lost. ‘We left him behind,’ she said. ‘I can’t believe we left him behind.’
‘Do not waste your time crying for a fool.’
Kate glared at Silas, angrily wiping her tears away.
‘You are out of Da’ru’s reach,’ he said, looking out across the water. ‘We have the book. That is all that matters.’
The stone they were sitting on was all that was left of an old jetty. Most of the wooden landing stage had rotted away, leaving behind only the mooring posts where boats had once been tied. The skeletal remains of a forgotten boat lay mouldering beneath the water, a large oil lantern spluttering light from the ceiling was dangerously dim and two more lanterns further along had already gone out. No one had been to fill them in a long time.
‘I know this place,’ said Silas. ‘It is the Thieves’ Way. A smugglers’ tunnel.’
The light splash of oars echoed through from the walls and a puddle of light turned around a distant bend.
Someone was heading their way.
‘Stay here.’ Silas slipped silently back into the water, as lithe as a fish, and disappeared beneath the surface. Kate clambered to her feet, soaked to the skin, and looked up. Artemis was so close, but the shaft she had fallen down hung over the water and the ladder that had once led up to it was long gone. There was no way to reach it, and even if she could the walls were far too steep for her to climb.
She looked out over the river, trying not to think about how far underground she was and how far she was from home. There was no sign of Silas. He had not even come up for air and there was only a faint ripple in the water to mark where he had been.
The sound of oars splashed closer and the dark shape of a rowing boat paddled into sight. Kate could see two men on board. One holding a lantern out over the front, the other rowing steadily behind him. The boat travelled low in the water, weighed down by sacks overflowing with bones and old pottery that were slumped around the two men.
Kate did not like not knowing where Silas was and she definitely did not like the look on the lantern carrier’s face when he spotted her standing there alone, soaked and shivering in the dark.
‘Hey! What do you make o’ this?’ he said, patting the shoulder of the man behind him. ‘Where do you think this ’un came from?’
Kate stepped back until her spine was pressed against the wall.
‘Looks like a runner,’ said the rower, twisting his neck to look around. ‘Serving girl maybe. Reckon there’s a reward going? Rich folk’ll pay good money to get their servants back.’
‘The whisperers haven’t said anything about a missing girl.’
‘Maybe she’s fresh out. The whisperers mightn’t even know about her yet.’
The lantern carrier grinned. ‘Turn the boat,’ he said. ‘They’ll name her soon and we’ll be ready when they do.’
The side of the little boat scraped against the stones as the rower steered it in to the bank, and the lantern carrier stepped off on to land before it came to a full stop.
‘Nice an’ easy,’ he said, approaching her warily, as if she were a wild animal. ‘Don’t want no trouble now, do we?’
Kate spotted a short knife tucked into his ragged belt.
‘That’s right. Nice and—’ The man’s sharp eyes locked with hers and he stared at her, fear claiming his face as his hand reached quickly for his knife.
‘She’s one o’ them!’ he cried. ‘Get out of here, Reg! Row! Row!’
The man turned on his heel, skidding on the wet ground in his hurry to get back to the boat. But his friend was already gone. The oar blades lay abandoned on the water and Silas stood in the centre of the little vessel, dripping wet, looking wilder and more dangerous than Kate had ever seen him before. The lantern carrier gave a small cry of fear. Silas leaped for the bank and with one sharp snap the man’s neck was broken. His body slumped on to the jetty and one lifeless arm stretched out and floated upon the water, bobbing gently beside the boat.
‘Get in,’ Silas said to Kate. ‘And throw some of these sacks out. They’ll only slow us down.’
Kate stared at the dead man. It had been so quick, so sudden.
Kate climbed into the boat and pushed the bags out one by one while Silas balanced the lantern on the bow. He had killed the two boatmen just for being in his way and seemed to have forgotten about them the moment they had breathed their last breaths, but Kate could not take her eyes off the dead lantern carrier. If she leaned out far enough, she could reach his hand: the same hand that had held his useless knife, which was now sinking to the bottom of the river.
Silas dipped the tip of his sword in the water, letting the ripples reveal the current’s direction, and when he looked away, Kate pushed out one last sack and reached out to touch the dead man’s hand, hoping it would be enough.
‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered, feeling the energy of the veil rushing to her fingers and leaping out like lightning through her skin. The man had not been dead for very long and she did not feel the same pull into the veil as she had felt with Kalen. She was not even completely certain that anything would happen, and so she jumped when the man’s neck cracked suddenly back into place and his hand moved slightly in the water. The lantern carrier’s eyes snapped open, his pale face caught in sheer surprise as life flooded back into his body.
‘Sit down,’ ordered Silas, taking his place at the oars.
Kate looked back as the little boat headed out into the middle of the river and there, in the very edges of the lantern light, she saw the man’s chest heave in a sudden, living breath. He sat up, one hand going immediately to his neck, watching the stolen boat float away.
With a few powerful strokes the boat soon left the lantern carrier behind and Kate sat on her narrow seat, hugging her knees and resting her head upon them, wondering if he was going to be all right.
‘That piece of filth would have sold you to the wardens for a pitiful price,’ said Silas, looking up at her from beneath his eyebrows, letting her know he knew exactly what she had done. ‘Your compassion was undeserved. Do not waste your time on his kind again.’
The Thieves’ Way was a sluggish river, its current too weak to carry the boat very far. Silas had to work for every foot they travelled and the boat cut slowly through the tunnels, the silence broken only by the slap of the oars and the squeak of rats scuttling away from the light. Kate wrapped herself in a blanket to keep warm and, if she concentrated hard upon the sound of the water, it was almost possible to forget that Silas had just killed two men, that Artemis was still trapped and Edgar was missing. But when she closed her eyes all she saw was the fear on the lantern carrier’s face - the same look that Artemis had given her in the library. The last thing she had done was betray him. She had left him behind and now she might never see him again.
‘It will take some time to find our way out of here,’ said Silas. ‘I know some of these tunnels, but there are many paths in which to get lost. I will need to get my bearings and there is no use in you just sitting there wasting time.’
Silas took Wintercraft out of his coat. The leather pouch was damp, but it had protected the book inside from the worst of the river water.
‘Read it,’ he said. ‘There is a lot in there for you to understand.’
Kate did not want to read anything. She wanted to throw the book into the river, tear it or burn it, but she knew Silas would stop her.
‘Greater minds than yours have hunted for that book for centuries,’ said Silas, noticing the look of rebellion on her face. ‘Many would kill to possess it.’
‘Just like you,’ said Kate coldly.
‘Exactly like me. And you are here to make sure those people did not die for nothing.’
Kate heard the darkness in his voice. He was in no mood to be challenged and she was too cold to argue with him.
‘You should appreciate this opportunity,’ said Silas, his oars splashing across the water as they passed beneath the dark shape of a ceiling lantern that had flickered out. ‘Wintercraft is unique and as a book alone it should be of interest to you. The people who wrote it had their own ways of dealing with the veil. They did not see the point in being able to glimpse one of the greatest mysteries of the world and not do anything with it. They were Skilled, like you, but they pushed themselves further and deeper into death, stretching the bond that linked their spirits to the living world. Many went too far and died for their work, but that, I believe, was the point. Very little worth knowing is discovered without risk.’
‘Have you read the book?’ asked Kate.
‘I know enough to be sure that it is no use to me without someone who understands the veil completely,’ said Silas. ‘You are that person. You cannot doubt that you have a natural ability. This book will help you to hone that ability even further.’
‘I don’t see how,’ said Kate.
Silas scowled at her, impatience spreading across his face. ‘You will not find the writers of Wintercraft mentioned in your history books,’ he said. ‘Your ancestors, and people like them, called themselves Walkers. Some lived among the bonemen, but they had more of an affinity to the veil than most of the people who worked with the dead. Walkers embraced their higher level of natural abilities and trained their own spirits to walk fully into the veil, as you have already done. The Skilled did not agree with what the Walkers were doing. They preferred to watch the veil, not enter it, and they continued to study it from a distance, choosing not to push themselves into the unknown.’
‘So the Walkers knew how to go into the veil,’ said Kate. ‘That’s what Wintercraft is about?’
‘There is far more to it than just that,’ said Silas. ‘Every one of the Walkers had one thing in common that ordinary Skilled did not. Whenever they entered the veil, frost spread across their skin, just as it spreads across yours. It is a phenomenon so rare that no one has even tried to understand why so few people react that way to the veil and others do not. The Skilled chose to ignore it, seeing it as something to be prevented rather than explored and, at the time Wintercraft was written, they turned their backs on anyone who could enter the veil in that unusual way. The people they cast out grouped together and so the Walkers were formed. They decided to examine their “abnormality” and explore it for themselves and, judging from that book, many of them succeeded. You should be looking to them for your answers, not to the Skilled.’
The book felt warm in Kate’s hands, so warm that the watery cold that had gripped her fingers slowly began to fade away. There was something very strange about that book. It felt as if she had owned it for a long time and the longer she held it, the more she felt as if it belonged to her.
‘The Skilled would have driven you out eventually,’ said Silas. ‘They would have lied to you and stripped your abilities down until you were as limited and closed-minded as they have always been. No good can come of a Walker who lives their life in their hands.’
A gentle whisper echoed around the river walls but Kate ignored it. She had to think. Anything else was just a distraction.
‘I have no reason to lie to you,’ said Silas and, despite everything else Kate knew about the man, she believed him.
She opened the book reluctantly and, in the light of the boat’s swinging lantern, began to read.
Wintercraft was divided into seven sections, each one with a title that would make anyone but the most determined reader put it down and never open it again. The title of one section - ‘The Tearing of a Captive Soul’ - made Kate think the Skilled might have been right to turn the Walkers away, but as she read on, the book revealed its own strange story.
From the different coloured inks and styles of handwriting, it seemed at least twenty people had contributed to the creation of Wintercraft over a long period of time. Most of them had been obsessed with stretching the essence of a person’s spirit to breaking point, but as far as Kate could see, they had only ever experimented upon themselves, leaving what was left of their notes to be finished off by someone else after their death.
The others were only slightly less aggressive in their approach.
The neat handwriting of one Walker detailed her early experiments into using the veil to heal the body. She had included a list of complex equations that Kate did not understand and detailed instructions for a process she called ‘Focused Reunification’, which could magnify the healing energy of the veil by focusing it on a specific spot instead of spreading it across the entire body at once. That one woman had suffered dozens of deliberate injuries in order to test her theories, from a cut hand to a broken leg, and had to instruct an apprentice to apply her healing techniques when she discovered that no one could channel the veil to heal themselves.
Wintercraft was a complicated text, meant to be studied slowly, not skipped through in a single night. Kate found herself leafing through many of the pages, overlooking the more intimidating subjects such as ‘Compelling the Dead To Speak’ and ‘Wearing the Second Skin’, which - in spite of its gruesome title - was something Kate had already managed to do when she had seen the world briefly through Da’ru’s eyes. She turned instead to the section that looked most useful to her. Named simply ‘Life & Death’.
The writing there was small and cramped, and extra pages had been pushed in to accommodate the extensive research that had been done into the subject, but the central concept was simple enough. According to that section, the Walkers saw the worlds of the living and the dead as exactly that: two separate worlds overlapping one another, which a person’s consciousness could eventually move between at will. To help Silas pass into death, all someone had to do was open a tear in the veil and let his spirit wander through. That was the theory, but Kate read that section twice and was still none the wiser about how she should go about it. The book might as well have asked her to jump from a tower and trust that she could fly.
Silas was guiding the boat steadily through a junction of seven maze-like passages when Kate reached a section of the book where the ink was mostly green instead of black. She tried to concentrate on the words, but she had been reading for hours and the events of the day were starting to catch up with her. Her eyes became heavy, the oars broke the water like a heartbeat and she fell asleep clutching Wintercraft tightly in her hand.
Kate woke suddenly, not realising she had been asleep, and found herself huddled on the floor of the boat, leaning against the stern. Shadows hung around her, thick stifling blackness, and her heart sank. They were still underground.
She pulled herself up into her seat. Silas was working the oars at a steady speed, but the candle in the lantern had burned most of the way down. He must have been rowing for hours, though he did not look tired. He did, however, have a rag wrapped over his nose and mouth that hadn’t been there before. Kate’s nose twitched, instantly becoming aware of a foul smell lurking in the air. ‘What is that?’ she asked, trying not to breathe.
She glanced over the side of the boat. Somewhere along their journey the underground river had fed into the city’s system of sewer tunnels. The water was filthy and thick. Kate choked on the stench and dragged her blanket up to her face, struggling to block it out. She couldn’t be sure, but she thought Silas’s eyes were smiling. Beneath his mask he was laughing at her.
Silas steered the boat down the central tunnel where the river split into three. Ladders led upwards at regular points along the walls, but he was in no hurry to use just any of them. Instead, he counted them carefully and turned the boat in towards the wall at the fourteenth. ‘This shaft leads into a quiet part of the city,’ he said, tying the boat to the lowest rung. ‘Climb up and do not draw attention to yourself.’
Kate scrambled on to the bank, dropped her blanket and pushed the book into her coat pocket, needing both hands to climb the ladder. By the time she reached the top her eyes were watering with the smell. She forced a circular door open through sheer strength of will, then heaved herself out between a cluster of short black towers and slithered on to the cobbles. Silas stepped up smoothly behind her, threw off his rag-mask and looked around. It was early morning and his eyes reflected the light of the winter sun as he pulled Kate to her feet.
‘It is the day before the Night of Souls,’ he said quietly. ‘This way.’
The snow had melted and most of the streets were empty except for the most dedicated of carriagemen trundling round looking for an early fare. Silas ignored them, preferring to stay on foot, and he kept to the lesser streets where the towers were built closest together and the paths were too narrow for the carriages to pass through. Kate followed behind and was just starting to think that the collections of towers looked somehow familiar when they stepped out on to a wide street, right opposite the abandoned museum.
Kate and Silas climbed the steps to the main door, and there Silas hesitated. The door hung limp on its lowest hinge, its lock smashed, the way beyond exposed and black. He drew his sword, wrenched the door the rest of the way off in one pull and stepped inside.
Someone was in there, he could smell them.
Whoever it was, they had not entered quietly. The huge main hall was completely ruined. Display cases had been smashed, upturned and gutted on to the floor, an old wooden counter had been crushed in two, and the skeletons of creatures hanging from the ceiling had their wires cut, leaving their bones scattered and unrecognisable on the floor.
Silas stepped further in, watching for any movement and picking a path through the debris. He did not care about being quiet. Anyone inside that building would be dead soon enough. He descended the stairs to the lower levels like a shadow. The pillar room was a mess: specimen jars smashed, work tables demolished and the floor covered in slick shards of wet glass.
Kate followed him deeper down to the rooms he used as his home, but those rooms were even worse than the first. Someone had torn their way through them, leaving Silas’s possessions strewn everywhere. He kept going along towards the room where he had taken Kate before. The door’s hinges hung loose, the fire was out, but someone had lit a small lantern upon the wide stone hearth, and the remains of a meal were left on the table.
Silas crept in, sword at the ready, and a deep scratching noise scraped behind the fireplace making Kate stop in the doorway. Silas heard it too. Loose soot trickled down the chimney and he advanced upon it, pressing his ear to the wall. Lightning-fast, he ducked into the chimney, reached up and grabbed a foot that kicked out in the darkness, sending soot spilling into the room. He dragged the foot and twisted it, making the chimney-climber lose his grip and fall down hard, flailing and fighting as Silas pulled him out.
‘Let me go! Let me go!’
Silas pinned him down with a foot upon his chest and raised his sword with two hands, its point down ready to strike. The squirming prisoner fought for his life, trying to push him away. His face was filthy, and half-covered by the black hood of a warden’s robe, leaving just one frightened eye visible in the lantern light.
‘Stop!’ shouted Kate, but too late.
The blade flashed as Silas drove it down.