The Secret Circle
The sword stabbed hard into the ground beside the intruder’s left ear, pinning his hood back and revealing Edgar’s frightened face.
‘So, the boy with nine lives returns,’ said Silas. ‘Where are the wardens? How many of them are here? What did Da’ru promise you in return for invading my home? Answer now … or I take the ear.’
Edgar threw his hands up to protect himself. ‘Wait! Wait! I didn’t do anything! I can explain!’
Edgar looked over at Kate and slowly let his hands fall. ‘I was just hiding down here,’ he said. ‘When the wardens came … I thought they’d followed me, but th-they wanted something else.’
‘You’ve made yourself very comfortable for someone who is only hiding,’ said Silas. ‘Why did you come here?’
‘Da’ru knows I’m back in the city. I didn’t want to lead her to Kate or the Skilled, so I came here. I figured you’d had plenty of chances to kill me so far but you haven’t. When you took me out of the station you could have handed me right over to Da’ru but you didn’t. If you really wanted me dead I wouldn’t be here right now. So when the wardens saw me … this was the safest place I could think of to hide.’ Edgar looked up the long blade beside his head. ‘I guess I was wrong.’
‘Yes, you were,’ said Silas, twisting the blade to graze Edgar’s ear. ‘If the wardens did not come here looking for you, what were they looking for?’
‘They say you’re a traitor. They think you helped Kate escape. They’ve sent the dogs out to look for your trail.’
Silas twisted the blade again.
‘I’m not with them!’ Edgar said.
‘You were once,’ growled Silas.
‘So were you.’ Edgar held up his sooty hands in peace. ‘I promise you, I have nothing to do with this. Why would I lie?’
Silas pulled his sword back, letting Edgar sit up. ‘What did the wardens want here?’
‘I don’t know. A book, I think, but I don’t reckon they found it. When I heard them heading down here I hid up the chimney, but …’ Edgar stopped himself, looking as if he wished he had kept quiet.
‘That bird of yours. The crow. I think it was in here, following me. There were wardens in the corridor and I heard noises as if it was attacking someone. Two of the wardens were laughing about it. I think they took it with them.’
Silas did not need to hear any more. Da’ru knew of his treachery and the wardens had captured his crow. It was only a matter of time before she used the veil to find him. He had to enter death. He had to break the bond binding him to the half-life and he had to do it now.
‘Bring him with us,’ he said to Kate, sheathing his sword and heading for the door. ‘It is time.’
‘Time for what?’ asked Edgar, as Silas swept out of the room. ‘Kate, what’s going on? What are you doing with him?’ His sooty nose wrinkled as she helped him up. ‘And what is that smell?’
‘You’re not too fresh yourself, you know,’ said Kate.
‘I think I can guess why the dogs haven’t sniffed you out yet,’ said Edgar. ‘I’ve been squashed up a chimney for who knows how long. I’ve got an excuse. What did you do? Go swimming in a sewer?’
‘Close enough.’
Kate glanced at the door and, deciding she had some time, pulled Edgar’s letter out of her pocket. The paper had dried out since being soaked in the underground river but the ink had run, making what he had written barely readable.
‘Ah … right,’ said Edgar, shifting uncomfortably as Kate handed it to him. ‘I can explain this. What did, er, Mina say about it?’
‘She didn’t have much of a chance to say about anything,’ said Kate. ‘Silas soon saw to that.’
‘What? He didn’t … ?’
‘Mina is dead,’ said Kate, her voice colder than she meant it to be. ‘The Skilled found me outside the council chambers, right where you apparently told them I would be. Silas followed me and now Mina is dead. What’s going on, Edgar?’
‘I don’t—’
‘Mina told me about your time with the High Council. I know you have connections with the Skilled. I’ve just found out that Artemis has been getting letters from them for years, and for some reason three years ago you just happened to move to Morvane and start working in our bookshop. It doesn’t make sense. You’re linked to everything somehow and I want to know how.’
‘I don’t know anything about any letters to your uncle,’ said Edgar.
‘Were you spying on him?’
‘No! I wasn’t spying!’
‘They sent you to Morvane, though, didn’t they? They told you to come to our town, so you could watch us for some reason. Was that all part of some plan? Did they know I was one of them? Did they know then that Silas was going to come after me?’
Edgar held up his hands. ‘Now look,’ he said. ‘No one knew exactly what was going to happen. Mina saw things inside the veil and, as usual, everything went wrong.’
‘What kind of things?’ demanded Kate. ‘What did she see?’
‘You might not know it, but your family was well known in this city,’ said Edgar. ‘Your father was one of the best healers the Skilled knew and your mother was one of the Pinnetts. The Pinnett family came from a long line of true seers. Did Artemis ever tell you that?’
‘No,’ said Kate. ‘He told me her family were bakers.’
‘Well, they weren’t,’ said Edgar. ‘Your mother told Mina that she was going to marry your father right after the first time the two of them met. She said the veil had shown her that he had a responsibility to carry on his family’s legacy and that she was supposed to help him do it. She knew she was going to die young and that her child was going to be in danger and would need Mina’s help. This was after only one meeting, remember, long before you were even born, but she was certain it was true and Mina believed her.’
‘Why does any of this matter?’ asked Kate.
‘Your mother moved to Morvane to live in the bookshop with Artemis and your father. Mina didn’t like that. She said they would be safer in the City Below. She tried to get them to move to Fume for years, but they always said no. Your father never wanted to leave the bookshop and after what happened to them in the end … I suppose Mina felt responsible. After they died, she tried to talk Artemis into bringing you to the city, but we both know he didn’t want anything to do with the Skilled; mixing with them was just too dangerous. When the wardens starting hunting the Skilled, Mina got worried and - it’s true - she sent me up north to keep an eye on you.’
‘Why?’ asked Kate. ‘Because of something my mother said years ago?’
‘It was more than that,’ said Edgar. ‘The veil warned Mina that a powerful new Skilled was about to recognise their abilities and that they were going to need her help. The warning was almost exactly the same as the words your mother had once said to her, and she couldn’t ignore it. Artemis was about as Skilled as my left boot. Mina knew it wasn’t him the veil was pointing at. It was you. She wrote letters to him, asking him to send you to her for your own safety. He wouldn’t listen. She warned Artemis that you were in danger, but he was sure Mina was just making it all up. He didn’t believe that trouble was coming, but Mina was sure it was only a matter of time. When Artemis found out that the wardens were coming, it was already too late.’
‘So that’s why you came after me on the Night Train?’ said Kate. ‘You were just doing what you were told. Doing whatever Mina asked?’
‘No! I came after you because you were in trouble. I’ve seen what Da’ru does to people and I didn’t want that to happen to you. Do you think I was just going to let Silas take you off somewhere and not do anything to stop him?’
‘I don’t know!’ said Kate. ‘Everyone else seems so sure they know what’s best for me. Why didn’t anyone just tell me what was going on? Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘Would you have believed me?’ said Edgar. ‘Would you have even listened to me?’
‘I probably would have said you were crazy,’ admitted Kate.
‘That’s exactly why I couldn’t say anything. I wanted to help you. I liked you. I hoped the “being in danger” stuff was just Mina getting things wrong, but when you brought the bird back to life in that cellar …’ Edgar’s shoulders slumped and his eyes met Kate’s. ‘I never wanted to hurt you, Kate. We’re friends. I wouldn’t want anything to change that.’
Kate wanted to believe him. She wanted to believe that Edgar hadn’t just become her friend because someone had told him to, but she still felt betrayed. No matter what Edgar’s reasons were for travelling to Morvane, she couldn’t believe that for three years he had lied to her. Kate always thought Artemis worried too much, but he had trusted Edgar, never guessing that he was anything more than a young boy looking for work in a new town. If someone like Edgar could lie and get away with it for so long, she was starting to think he had not worried enough.
‘What I don’t understand is why the Skilled trusted you,’ she said, softening a little. ‘It’s obvious Silas has known you for a long time. You were only with the Skilled a few months, but Mina told me you’d worked for Da’ru for years.’
‘I never worked for Da’ru. She bought me and my brother. We were just expected to work hard and do as we were told. If Mina hadn’t … If Mina had had a chance to tell you everything, then you would know that I already knew the Skilled. My parents were in contact with them all their lives, just like Artemis. When the wardens came to my town, they were among the ones taken away to be used in Da’ru’s experiments. Two days later I heard that both of them had died.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Kate.
Edgar looked down at his feet. ‘They knew it might happen. Mina and the others tried to get me and my brother out of the council chambers a few times, but they never really had a chance. After that, I started passing them information: who the High Council had captured, which towns they were going to harvest next, and whenever I could help one of the Skilled, I did. Me and Tom managed to help some of them escape. Most were captured again, but a few got away. When Da’ru finally got suspicious about my part in it, I knew it was time for me and Tom to get out, but as you can see that didn’t really go to plan. The Skilled sent me up north so I wouldn’t be found. They told me about a bookseller they thought had potential and so I went to Morvane, where I met you. After that … I just did my best. I was trying to help. I never wanted to lie to you, Kate.’
Kate took the letter back, rolled it up neatly and tucked it away. ‘I don’t think anything ever goes to plan,’ she said, picking up the lantern and pushing the handle into Edgar’s hands. ‘What happened wasn’t your fault, I suppose. And none of it really makes a difference now, does it?’
‘So … we’re OK?’ Edgar asked hopefully.
‘Being in this city gives you a strange view of things. All the hiding and the secrecy … and I’ve only been here a few days,’ said Kate. ‘I suppose I can understand why you did what you did. I’m just sorry you didn’t trust me enough to tell me about it sooner.’
‘Then we’re still friends?’
Kate held out her hand. ‘Friends,’ she said.
They shook hands awkwardly and Edgar grinned. ‘Silas was right though,’ he said. ‘I do have more of a knack of getting people into trouble than getting them out of it. Just look at where we’re standing!’
Kate realised they were still holding hands and gently pulled hers away. ‘Silas hasn’t done anything to either of us yet,’ she said. ‘Right now, we just have to do what he says.’
‘Wait!’ Edgar stopped her on her way to the door. ‘You’re not really going after him, are you?’
‘I have to.’
‘Because there’s nowhere else to go. Do you really think he would just let us leave?’
‘I think if we run fast enough he might not have any choice.’
‘And we’d be on the wrong end of that sword of his before we took ten steps. Look, I don’t like this either, but I have to go and find him. You can stay here if you like.’
‘I’m not leaving you alone with him again,’ said Edgar. ‘From now on, where you go, I go. Even if you are insane.’
The two of them headed out into the corridor together, took the stairs up to the ground floor and found Silas in the main hall, kicking away piles of bones, wood and fallen wire. He had already cleared a wide space and was beginning to tear up floorboards in the very centre of the hall.
‘You’re no use to me standing there,’ he said without looking up. ‘Get working.’
Kate and Edgar tugged at the floorboards, using broken boards to lever others up and push them aside. It was easier than it looked. The museum hall was ancient, but the floor was false and had been recently laid. Beneath those boards was the real museum floor and on it - being uncovered piece by piece - was a circle of symbols carved deeply into the stone. Kate stopped work, not daring to go any further, and Edgar did the same soon after her.
‘Whoa! Is this what I think it is?’ he said.
Kate touched one of the symbols. There were dozens of them, each one intricately carved and as wide as her palm. It reminded her a little of the spirit wheel, only these symbols were very different. They looked more like letters than pictures, and if that was true she was looking at a language she had never seen before.
Even though she had only ever read about places like this, there was no mistaking what it was. ‘It’s a listening circle,’ she said.
For generations people had told stories about the listening circles, about the Skilled who had first created them and of the madness said to claim people who dared to use them more than once. Most people did not know if they really existed or not, but as with any good story, the more gruesome the details, the more quickly it spread, and when it came to the listening circles there were plenty of gruesome stories to go around.
Some said the circles allowed the restless souls of the dead to enter a body and take physical form. Others said that by standing within one, a person opened their mind to the voices of the dead, which would follow that person until the day that they died. And a few even speculated that the circles had somehow been responsible for the bonemen’s disappearance, through a death ritual that had gone horribly wrong.
The only aspect of the circles that most people agreed upon was that they were carved in places where the veil between life and death was at its thinnest, and that they were made to pierce through the veil and let the Skilled see deeper into the world of death itself. Standing next to a real one for the very first time, Kate sincerely hoped that every story she had ever heard about them was untrue.
If she had known what they were uncovering she would never have begun, but most of the work was already done. Many of the floorboards were heaped up against the walls, revealing the full span of the circle, which looked completely intact. It was at least thirty feet wide with four narrow lines radiating out from it at the points of the compass, and where the lines reached the walls a further row of smaller symbols circled around the edges of the room. Kate did not know what those outer symbols were for, but she stepped into the central circle and read a curve of words carved neatly along its northern edge.
A Circle Made of Blood and Stone,
To Bind the Worlds of Soul and Bone.
A Meeting Place for Those Who Seek
The Spirit Sleeping Underneath.
Wintercraft suddenly felt heavy in her pocket, as if the circle was trying to pull it down towards the floor. Kate pressed her hand against it and a gentle vibration thrummed along her palm.
‘I don’t like this,’ said Edgar. ‘I don’t like this at all.’
‘This is Da’ru’s work,’ said Silas, standing on the other side of the circle. ‘She found this circle, restored it, and put it to use in some of her earliest experiments. You are going to finish what she started in this room.’
‘What is he talking about?’ Edgar whispered, as Kate pulled the book out into the light. ‘Is that … ? That’s the book Da’ru’s after, isn’t it? It’s Wintercraft!’
Kate did not answer him.
‘This is bad, Kate. Silas being part of some experiment definitely explains a few things, but that book is serious trouble. Da’ru talked about it all of the time. It should be kept hidden. If the wardens, or even the Skilled, find us with it, and Silas here too—’
‘They won’t,’ said Kate, opening the book.
‘How do you know?’
‘Because that’s why I’m here. Silas wants me to kill him.’
‘You!’ Edgar tried to keep his voice down. ‘Silas could stand in front of the Night Train going at full speed and it would come off worst!’
Kate did not know what she was looking for, but she was drawn to Wintercraft’s final section, the only part she had not yet read, and she looked at Edgar with the same cold expression he knew from Silas’s face. Her eyes were no longer the bright blue he knew so well. A thin shadow of black lay across them as the effects of the veil started to close in around her, magnified by the presence of the circle.
‘Maybe I can’t do it,’ she said, feeling the energies tingling in the air around her. ‘But Wintercraft will.’
‘Oh n-no. That can’t be good,’ said Edgar, backing away and pointing to her eyes. ‘What just happened there? What’s going on?’
‘The spirit has to be sent back. Just stay out of my way.’
‘The spirit what? Listen to me, Kate. This is a very bad plan. Maybe you should think about this. You’re not yourself. I don’t think you know what you’re doing!’
Silas squeezed Edgar’s shoulder, silencing him at once. ‘If anyone comes through that door, shout a warning before they kill you,’ he said. ‘You do remember how to take orders, don’t you, servant?’
‘Kate, please don’t do this.’ Edgar had heard enough about the veil to be glad that he had never shown even the slightest hint of being able to see into any world other than his own. He had enough to contend with in his own life without worrying about what came after it. But as much as he wanted to avoid the listening circle, he needed Kate to stay well clear of it as well. Somehow he doubted that was going to happen.
Kate was already standing in the centre of the room, reading the book while Silas prowled around her like a stalking cat. She was biting her bottom lip, the way she always did when she was concentrating. Edgar didn’t know if she had even noticed Silas, but Silas was not taking his eyes off her. Edgar retreated so he was nowhere near the carved symbols and Kate looked up.
‘I think I know what to do,’ she said.
Silas took off his sword and coat and joined her in the circle. ‘Then do it.’
Kate nodded and a brief flash of anxiety crossed her face. The look lasted only a second, but Edgar saw it and it gave him hope. He knew Kate well enough to know something was not right. She was hiding something.
Kate read one of the green-inked pages again. The experiments written in those pages were more rushed and random, as if the Walkers had tried to squeeze in as much as possible in a short space of time. If the main sections were daunting, the last section looked almost impossible and the warnings accompanying each technique were very clear.
One warning was written in small letters tracing around the edges of the current page, where someone had slipped a thin black feather next to an experiment called the ‘Most Dangerous and Permanent Binding of a Soul’.
The warning read in tiny green letters:
Beware This Binding Most Of All. For Once This Deed Is Done There Can Be No Reversal.The Soul Shall Remain Evermore Tainted And Broken, Unable To Walk Fully The Path Into Death. Trapped In Perpetuity, Half Within The Veil, Half Without. Bound And Subject To Thee And Thy Blood.
No Endeavour Yet Attempted Has Released A Soul Bound In This Way.
There Exists No Method To Apply.
Kate did not know what to do. She had never considered that the book would not tell her what she needed to help Silas. She tried to look confident and if Silas knew she was lying to him, he showed no sign of it.
If what the book said was true, there was no way anyone could end Silas’s life. He was a creation outside the usual laws of the veil. Even if she managed to open a pathway through the veil, it would never accept him. And if she could not send him into death, what was to stop him ending her and Edgar’s lives instead?
She couldn’t give up. She had to do something.
She turned back to the section called ‘Life & Death’, taking care not to let Silas see. If she could at least try to help him, maybe he would accept that she had done her best. Maybe then he wouldn’t—
‘Wardens!’ cried Edgar, pointing to the broken door where six black-robed men had just reached the top of the museum steps.
Silas turned to face them, leaving his sword on the ground.
The patrol leader spotted him from the doorway and immediately gave his men the order to attack. Silas tightened his scarred hand into a fist. ‘Now, Miss Winters.’
The wardens spilled into the hall all at once, daggers out, but Silas stood his ground, ready to take them one by one. Two of the wardens headed right for Edgar, who ran into the circle to protect Kate.
She was out of time.
Kate concentrated hard, summoning up every ounce of will left in her. Frost glittered on her skin as the chill of Wintercraft spread around her and, with a feeling that was a mixture between hope and dread, she reached out into the veil.