The Half-Life
Kate felt the floor shudder beneath her as the symbols around the circle began to glow. The floor was shrouded in a soft blue light that seemed to rise up out of nowhere, and any of the Skilled nearby would have felt the pulse of energy swell outwards as the lines spreading across it throbbed into life.
Edgar cried out in fright as frost whipped up his arms and face, and Silas’s grey eyes shone as the circle fed from Kate, infusing her energy into its carved symbols and spreading its own ancient power into her. He had seen this happen before during Da’ru’s many experiments into the veil and he held out his scarred palm and traced its burning pattern: the place where Da’ru had once burned her blood into his.
Wintercraft should have given Da’ru exactly what she had wanted: the perfect protector, as much a slave to her as any that was bound by a chain, but Silas could no longer be controlled by someone who had stolen his freedom and torn apart his soul. Da’ru’s blood had forged an unnatural bond between them. Now that bond was about to be broken.
Kate struggled to keep control of the energy around her. The veil descended across the entire hall, hanging like white mist that gathered upon the ceiling and crept slowly downwards, smothering everything in the room and making the outer symbols around the walls flare into life, marking the boundary beyond which it could not pass. The wardens stopped their advance and lowered their weapons, too busy staring upwards to do anything else. Silas smiled. He knew what to expect, so when the circle’s energy reached its peak, he was prepared.
Kate, Edgar and the wardens were not.
The blue light beneath the floor intensified, making the mist glow brighter until it flared suddenly into an immense burst of dazzling silver light. A shockwave of energy blazed out from the central circle, striking the wardens hard enough to slam them against the wall, knocking them into unconsciousness, while Kate and Edgar covered their eyes with their arms, shielding themselves from a glare so powerful it was like looking into the sun. Then the light began to dissipate, fading slowly back to a transparent ripple that hung in the air.
Kate checked the book. Everything was exactly as it was meant to be. According to what was written, everything within that room was about to be exposed to the unpredictable realm of the half-life, and only people who were standing inside the central circle would be protected from its full effects. The protected area was marked by the blue light that was still rising from the floor, forcing the mist back until it was moving gently around them like a gathering storm. The mist hung like a soft wall just a few feet from their faces and Edgar stared at it with fascination, reaching out to see what it felt like.
‘Don’t touch it!’ shouted Kate.
Edgar snatched his hand back at once. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘It is the veil,’ said Silas, standing perfectly still as the strange cold sank into his skin, trailing through his fingers until they were bristling with ice. ‘This is as substantial as it can appear to the human eye. Beyond this room, the world no longer exists. We are standing in a place outside the laws of time.’
‘Kate?’ Edgar said warily. ‘What is he talking about?’
‘The book says that this circle acts as a gateway to the half-life,’ said Kate, reading as she spoke. ‘It’s like we’re standing in a viewing room. The circle on the floor will keep us safe so long as we stay in the middle of it. Out there is a different story. The veil drains life out of anyone who doesn’t have enough Skill to resist it. Without a physical connection to someone grounded to the circle, any normal person - even a Skilled - would be vulnerable out there. According to this, their spirit could become trapped and their body would die.’
Edgar took a step back, keeping his hands well away from the mist. ‘So, what happens now?’ he asked. ‘I know Da’ru used to mess with circles like these but I never saw her actually use one before.’
‘That should be obvious,’ said Silas. ‘The circle has been opened. The shades are coming.’
Kate and Edgar followed Silas’s eyes up to where the mist was thickening quickly, spreading out as if it were being kept from their heads by a clear glass dome. Then, like a silent wave gathering speed, the room flooded with moving shadows as the veil opened and the shades poured in. There were hundreds of them, all massing together until the mist was filled with twisting wisps of black and grey. They swept around the circle, moving in quick short bursts, speeding around desperately like insects caught in a jar.
‘What are they doing?’ asked Kate.
‘The half-life is filled with lost souls,’ said Silas. ‘Their spirits are trapped here inside the veil. Part of them is still bound to the living world so they are unable to pass fully into death. They know you are in control of the circle. They are waiting to see if you intend to help them or harm them.’
‘What should I do?’
‘Exactly what you came here to do,’ said Silas.
The shades moved together like dark fish, shifting in one writhing mass.
‘The circle is ready,’ said Silas. ‘It is time to finish this.’
Kate realised she could not just stand there. She had to take control. So, with the book in one hand she ignored her own warning and stepped forward, reaching out to touch the misty surface of the veil. It felt like pressing her palm into a bank of snow, cold and soft. There was no resistance and, as she stepped across the protective line, the shades gathered close to her hand.
‘Kate, don’t!’ Edgar tried to grab her, but Silas held him back.
The half-life claimed Kate’s senses and nothing could have prepared her for what she felt in that place. It was not cold or warm, dark or bright. There was no feeling of any kind. No smell of bone dust that usually hung in the hall. No sound beyond her own nervous breathing. The shades moved around her, existing in a silence so complete that Kate found it disorientating. She had no real sense of there being a floor beneath her feet, the air was still and dead, and the mist that had seemed so dense before had now lightened enough that she could see Silas and Edgar clearly inside the circle. Her heart felt hollow, her mind detached and slow. This was not the same place she had entered when Da’ru had forced her to return Kalen’s spirit to life. Using the circle had opened her to a far deeper level of the veil. It was not peaceful, it was not frightening. It just was.
The shades swarmed gently, pushing past each other and brushing softly against her skin. Each touch carried with it a burst of half-forgotten memories, tiny glimpses into the lives of each shade that came close enough, along with something else. Fear.
Every one of those souls was afraid of her.
‘… help us …’ they whispered.
‘… release us …’
Kate tried not to listen. This was not what she had come to do. She couldn’t help them. She didn’t know how. She looked back at the central circle, and beyond it - just a few feet behind Silas - she sensed what she was looking for. She could not see it yet, but its energy was unmistakable. The invisible current that threaded through the half-life. The path leading directly into death.
The shades drew back from her and parted as she walked between them. Silas stayed perfectly still, his eyes following her. Standing where they were, Silas could do anything to Edgar if Kate let him down. She had to give him something and she still had no idea what.
The shades’ whispers became louder the closer Kate got to the surging current. She held out her hand to feel for the shift in energy, not wanting to wander into it herself, then a rush of movement ran across her fingertips and she stopped walking, knowing she was close.
Kate kept her fingers inside the current and with one perfect wave of clarity she sensed the presence of every shade still bound in Fume. There were spirits everywhere, wandering the streets of the Cities Above and Below, many of them clinging so strongly to their old lives they could not leave the houses they had once known, or the graves of loved ones they had mourned but never truly let go. Some of them did not know they were dead, others were confused, not knowing what was meant to happen to them next, and some were sealed away, their names lost forever, never to be spoken of again. Those were the souls trapped in the spirit wheels, the souls time had truly forgotten, and she heard their voices distantly upon the veil, sad voices, speaking words she could not understand.
The shades were prisoners, trapped between life and death by the powerful energies of the ancient city. Some were there because of Da’ru and her experiments, but many more had become bound there through neglect. Without the bonemen to see their souls safely through the veil, most of them had simply lost their way.
Somewhere in Albion’s history something had gone very wrong.
Kate stepped back from death’s current and felt the shades’ tug of desperation as she reluctantly closed her mind to them. She looked back at Silas, seeing the expectation in his eyes. He wanted death even more powerfully than the shades. He needed it and she still did not know why. She walked back to the central circle, stood in front of Silas and held her hand out to him through the mist. Edgar was shouting something, but the silence of the veil swallowed his words before they could reach her. Silas held his head high, took her hand and let her lead him into the half-life.
The veil reacted to him as strongly as it had before. A void of darkness gathered around him and the shades backed away, not daring to come close. Silas was much taller than Kate and the darkness made him look even more intimidating, making it difficult for her to do what she was about to do next.
She reached up and pressed her fingers to either side of his head, just as he had done to her the first time he had taken her into the veil. She let his void surround her and then she listened, searching out the memory that would tell her why Silas wanted death so badly. He did not resist her. Their thoughts merged into one and the memory she was looking for played out.
Kate was Silas, walking into the museum’s main hall as it had been twelve years before. He was a soldier then, but in the reflection of the glass door, he did not look a day younger than he did now. His blue blade marked him as a warden of the highest rank and he had risen quickly to a position of responsibility by proving his worth in countless battles against the Continent’s men. Da’ru had summoned him to the old museum, but he had no reason to be suspicious. She was new to the High Council and known to be a Skilled of some ability. Meeting in unusual places was often their way.
Kate saw Da’ru standing in the centre of the circle with Kalen at her side and she felt Silas’s hand twitch instinctively towards his blade. Kalen was well armed, too well armed for a simple meeting, no matter who he was protecting. Something was wrong.
Silas was suddenly wary of the new councilwoman and her guard, but to put his hand upon a weapon in her presence would be seen as treason. Da’ru greeted him in the formal way and he did the same, dropping to one knee to show respect. But when he lowered his head, Kate felt the cold stab of metal as a needle sunk deep into Silas’s neck, his hand closed weakly around the hilt of his sword and a flood of poison pulsed swiftly through his veins.
The rest of the memory came in patches. The blaze of light as Da’ru opened the circle to the veil, the cries of the shades swarming overhead and the confusion Silas felt when the current of death drew close to him. Kate had assumed that Silas had participated willingly in the experiment that had altered his life forever, but now she saw how wrong she had been. Silas had not even been one of the Skilled when he had entered that circle. The veil was as new and impossible to him then as it had been to Kate the first time she had looked into it. And despite his nature, despite a life spent defending Albion against its enemies, Silas was afraid.
Da’ru had the book of Wintercraft with her in the circle and she used its knowledge to bind Silas’s spirit to her blood. He was to be her greatest achievement. One that would secure her place in Albion’s history forever.
Kate felt Silas’s fear rise into rage as Da’ru dripped her blood on to his palm and seared it with a red-hot blade, blending it with his own. The current of death retreated from Silas, but his soul was broken. Kate felt the tearing emptiness as part of his spirit was dragged back to his body, leaving a greater part of it behind, trapped forever inside the half-life at the very edges of the veil. Silas’s lungs breathed again, his hand burned with pain and Kate shared the moment when he looked through his dead grey eyes for the first time to witness the cold look of triumph on Da’ru’s face.
After that, the memory shifted. Kate saw the stone walls of a tiny prison cell and sensed the cutting bite of chains gripping Silas’s wrists. Da’ru was standing in front of him and Kate saw countless flashes of a green glass dagger, sending cut after cut searing across Silas’s bare chest as Da’ru tested his resilience, burned his skin with flames, and forced him to drink vials of venomous bloodbane just to witness its effects. Silas’s muscles twitched with pain and Kate watched it all, feeling his hate for the councilwoman growing deeper with every strike.
Kate pulled back from the memory.
Da’ru was Silas’s enemy. The bond she had created between them on that night had condemned him to a life with only a fraction of a soul. For two years he had been a subject of her experiments and since then he had suffered constant pain as his spirit struggled and failed to rejoin.
Silas had learned to endure that suffering over time but Wintercraft had bound him to Da’ru, letting her cruelty and hate drip into him day after day. He could sense her inside him, even when she was not there. He could feel her anger and taste the venom of her thoughts, as if an echo was travelling through the veil, feeding directly from her spirit into what was left of his.
This connection had become Da’ru’s greatest power over him. She had made Silas believe that to turn against her would condemn him to even greater suffering than he already faced. She had used his early ignorance of the veil to deceive him. He had no reason to doubt her threats, but Kate knew now that there was no truth behind them. That bond had been Silas’s greatest torment. Da’ru had infected his life, forcing him to endure years in the service of his torturer, and that was something he could not bear.
Kate may not have been able to send Silas into death as he had asked, but Da’ru’s link with him had been created by the circle and that circle was under Kate’s control now. If there was even a chance she could break it, it had to be worth a try.
Kate lowered her hands and held one of them against Silas’s palm-scar. Now she was looking for it, she could see a silver thread of light trailing out of it like a spider’s web, binding what was left of his spirit to Da’ru. All she had to do was sever it. But how?
The circle answered.
Blue light from one of the inner symbols struck out like a bolt of lightning, infusing the thread with blinding light. The shades stayed well back as the entire hall began to shudder and shake, and faint cracks spread across the listening circle, crumbling many of its carvings into dust. Kate did not know what was happening. The energy spreading up through her feet was too powerful. She couldn’t stop it. Light burst through her hand, the silver thread ignited in pure white fire and the flames leaped into Silas’s palm, making his body buckle as the fire spread through his blood.
Kate closed her eyes - all she could do was let it happen - then the thread snapped in two and the two halves crumbled to the floor like fallen ash, returning its energy to the circle that had created it. The white fire bled out through Silas’s boots and down into the floor. The light faded, the mist cleared and with one last scream of anguish the souls within the circle could be seen no more.
Kate looked around, confused. She had not meant for that to happen.
She snatched her hand quickly out of Silas’s grip and he glared at her, exhausted, very angry and still very much alive.
‘What … did you do?’ he asked.
Moonlight bled in through the museum’s windows. Night had fallen over Fume. They must have been in the circle for hours, but it felt like only a few minutes. Sweat covered every pore of Silas’s skin, his breath coming in gasps as his body tried to recover from what Kate had done.
‘What did you do?’ he asked again.
Kate dared to meet his eyes. ‘You wanted my help. I helped you,’ she said. ‘What Da’ru did to you can’t just be undone. Maybe there is a way, but the book didn’t tell me how. I did the only thing I could do. There was a link binding her to you. I broke it. You are free of her now.’
Silas looked at her with suspicion, then touched the old scar on his palm. The heat that had smouldered within it was gone and the wound was already beginning to heal. Kate could not tell if he was pleased about that or not.
‘Da’ru shouldn’t have done what she did,’ continued Kate. ‘She knew she wouldn’t be able to fix it. The book warned her not to do it. She is your enemy, not me.’
‘I know what she is,’ growled Silas.
‘What Da’ru told you about the link between you … it wasn’t true,’ said Kate. She was not sure if it was a good idea to tell Silas the truth, but decided that he deserved to hear it anyway. ‘If she had died, you would have lived on. You would have been free of her. She had to lie to you. She had to protect herself. She knew you would kill her if you knew the truth.’
Silas’s jaw twitched and he turned on Edgar, who was still staring up at the ceiling, shocked by what he had just seen.
‘Give me my sword, boy.’ His voice was cold and black with hidden anger.
Edgar did not dare to disobey and he scrambled quickly over to where the blue sword lay. It was a lot heavier than he expected and he needed both hands to pick it up. ‘What are you going to do with it?’ he asked.
‘Nothing that you need care about.’ Silas took his sword from him before Edgar even realised he had moved. ‘Now get out of my sight. Both of you. Go.’
Silas grabbed his coat and pulled it on, heading past the unconscious wardens and out of the museum’s front door.
‘That’s it?’ said Edgar, gladly watching him leave.
‘No,’ said Kate. ‘It’s not.’
‘What? Where are you going?’
Kate ran across the hall, following Silas, and Edgar raced after her, not wanting to be left alone. But he was not on his own.
Hundreds of shades filled the rooms and corridors of the old museum. Attracted by the energy of an active listening circle they had drifted in from the streets of Fume and witnessed what Kate had done in that place. To sever a bond that had been created by Wintercraft required a level of Skill not seen since the book was first written, so when Edgar left the museum’s hall he had more company than he could have imagined. The shades were with him, hidden safely within the thinnest level of the half-life. Hundreds of souls all moving as one, following him and Kate out into the night.