Kate tried to run to Artemis but Silas kept her chain held tight. She was about to shout at him to let her go, when Silas’s eyes met hers and he glanced at the floor.
Kate looked down. The ground she was standing on was carved with thousands of tiny symbols, some of them so small that they looked like little scratches in the stone, all written in the same language she had seen on the floor of the museum. Together they made up a circle far bigger than the one she had seen there, and this one was not just surrounded by a ring of symbols, it was covered with them. The four staircases leading up from it matched the points of a compass perfectly and Kate was willing to guess that the upper level had its own row of smaller symbols running around its edge, just like the ones that she had seen around the museum’s hall.
Silas nodded to her secretly.
They were standing in the heart of an enormous listening circle.
The crowd were still chanting ominously. If any of them were against the idea of a public execution on a day meant for celebrating the dead, none of them spoke up. A few people were trying to slip quietly towards the tunnels, but the doors were locked and wardens stood guard, refusing to let them out. Da’ru clearly wanted witnesses to what she was about to do, whether they wanted to witness it or not.
Artemis struggled against the guards as they tied him tightly to the table. Da’ru opened Wintercraft and an icy wind swept around the circle as she began opening it to the veil. The carved symbols closest to her feet began to flicker and glow, the horses harnessed to the carriages whinnied and stamped, and blue light spread out across the ground, flooding the circle and creeping steadily up the staircases, parting the crowds as it went.
Then Kate had a terrifying thought.
She, Silas, Da’ru, Artemis, the wardens and the councilmen were all inside the central circle, a place of protection. If this circle behaved in the same way as the one in the museum, in a few moments the entire city square would shift into the half-life and the mist of the veil would spread around the galleries, exposing hundreds of living people to a place they were not meant to see. Every one of their souls would be vulnerable to the pull of the half-life, and Edgar was nowhere to be seen.
‘This circle will not open fully for Da’ru,’ said Silas, speaking quietly beside her. ‘This is the oldest and most powerful listening circle in Albion, capable of channelling many thousands of souls. Da’ru does not have the ability to command it herself. She will need you to complete it.’
‘But, those people …’
‘Are about to see what the Night of Souls is truly about,’ said Silas. ‘Do what Da’ru says, and leave the rest to me.’
‘You, girl,’ said Da’ru. ‘Here.’
Silas allowed Kate enough loose chain for her to walk over to the councilwoman, who was standing beside Artemis with her glass dagger by her side.
‘I am told this man means something to you,’ she said. ‘If you want me to restore his life, you will do exactly as I say. If all goes well, Wintercraft will confer upon him a life free from injury and death. He will be the first of many soldiers and will serve Albion faithfully, as every man and woman should. If you choose to do nothing, his death will be permanent and you will never see him again. Do you understand?’
One of the wardens had tied a cloth gag over Artemis’s mouth but he tried to shout through it, glaring at Kate and shaking his head.
Kate did not want to watch Artemis die, but she could not let his spirit be torn apart, cursing him to live a life of pain at the hands of the High Council. Even death would be better than that. She looked away from him as she made her choice. Silas had a plan. She had to trust him to do his part. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I understand.’
Da’ru clasped hold of Kate’s hand. ‘A wise decision,’ she said quietly. ‘Together, the two of us are about to create history.’
Kate felt Da’ru’s energies connect with her own. It was a sickening feeling that began at her fingertips and felt as if spiders were crawling inside her, burrowing beneath her skin. She let it happen, allowing the cold grip of the veil to creep over her as the mist descended and moonlight streamed down across the square. Da’ru’s eyes were bloodshot, her body quickly becoming exhausted by the effort of opening the circle, but Kate found it easy this time. She knew what to expect, she knew what she had to do and when the blue light blazed into silver across the square, she and Silas were the only ones who did not close their eyes.
The blaze of energy surged into the crowd, slamming them all back in their seats. The high walls of the surrounding buildings absorbed the greater force of it, shuddering in their foundations as the energy of the circle took hold, the light sank back slowly into the symbols on the ground and the air filled with blue. Nervous talk spread around the galleries as the mist settled. And then, from a shadowy place high above the crowd, the shades rushed in.
There were many more there than Kate had seen before. Thousands of them, travelling through the mist, all moving together as one. The bonfire crackled and died in a cough of black smoke and every candle in the galleries blew out at once. The crowd did not know what to do and most just sat there, transfixed by the eerie sight of the spirits swirling around them.
Da’ru smiled in triumph, laid Wintercraft open on the table and held her dagger high above Artemis’s chest, shouting out so everyone around her could hear. ‘With the blood of a traitor,’ she cried, “I shall conquer death!’
Kate felt movement behind her and saw a flash of blue as Silas drew his blade and swept its edge up against Da’ru’s neck. He held it there, perfectly still, savouring the look of surprise on her face.
‘You will not do anything here tonight,’ he said. ‘The girl has already told you your fate. You should have listened to her, Da’ru.’
The wardens swarmed around Silas, then they hesitated, caught between their duty to the councilwoman and their fear of the man standing before them. Da’ru signalled to them to stand back, then lowered her dagger and pressed her throat up against the sword, deliberately making a tiny thread of blood appear on her skin.
‘You cannot harm me, Silas,’ she said smoothly. ‘You have just made a very grave mistake.’
Silas turned to Kate, his face fierce and cold as the wardens backed away. ‘Kate,’ he said, throwing a tiny key towards her. ‘Unlock your chain. Take the book.’
Kate freed herself quickly and snatched Wintercraft from the table beside Artemis.
‘As you can see,’ Silas said to Da’ru, ‘our situation has changed.’
‘You will rot in the darkest cell for this,’ said Da’ru, her face seared with anger at his betrayal. ‘When I am finished here, history will remember me as Albion’s greatest protector. But you? You are nothing, Silas. Even death does not want you. I could have used Wintercraft to give you peace, but I shall make you suffer for what you have done.’
‘More lies,’ said Silas. ‘Your words mean nothing to me. They are poison. Venom. You have used them as weapons against me for too long, Da’ru. I know the truth. I know what you have done. Your words are worthless. Just like you.’
‘Seize the girl!’ Da’ru shouted to her guards. ‘Seize her and take this traitor away!’
Faced with a direct order, the wardens had no choice but to obey.
Four of them rounded the table at once, heading straight for Kate; she ducked beneath the slab of stone, crawling quickly over to the other side. Artemis tried to squirm free to help her, but he was bound fast. When another warden blocked Kate’s escape, Silas snatched Da’ru’s dagger and ended the man’s life with one perfect throw to the heart. The warden was dead before he touched the ground. Kate stared at the body for a moment, then clutched Wintercraft to her chest and pushed past him. More wardens were closing in.
Any doubts the wardens had about attacking Silas vanished completely with the death of their first man. They fell upon Silas like ants. His sword flashed and swung. Bodies fell and Da’ru backed away, untouched by it all, her eyes set firmly on Kate.
People in the galleries shouted and screamed at the sight of a battle being fought below them. Some were cheering for Silas, others were backing the wardens, but most of them had left their seats and were busy fighting their way to the exits. Some tripped on the steps and no one stopped to help them up. All any of them could care about was escape. The four upper doors being guarded by wardens were swiftly overrun, but they were all sealed fast by the circle’s outer boundary. The doors would not open. No one could get out.
A wave of panic rolled like thunder across the crowd and Kate ran towards the black carriages that were gathered together within the circle of protection. She ducked behind a pair of frightened horses and ran past five carriages lined up behind them, until a door swung open further down and a head of wild black hair leaned out.
‘Quick!’ Edgar shouted, reaching out an arm to help her up. ‘Get in.’
Kate grabbed his hand and climbed inside. Tom was in there with them, huddled on one of the seats with his knees pulled up to his chest, trying to block out everything that was going on.
‘He’ll be OK,’ Edgar said quickly. ‘What about Artemis? What’s happening out there?’
The gruesome sounds of Silas’s battle carried into the carriage and Kate let the horror of what they were hearing speak for itself.
‘I have to close the circle,’ she said, opening Wintercraft and turning desperately through its pages. ‘There are wardens behind me. Da’ru too. I don’t have much time.’
‘Wait … wait!’ said Edgar. ‘Think about this. You closed that circle in the museum, you can just do it again.’
‘I don’t know how I did that!’
‘But you still did it.’ Edgar put his hands on the book, stopping Kate from looking any further. ‘Look, I don’t know much about this stuff, but I know what I’ve seen and I don’t think this book is all it’s cracked up to be. I saw you help Silas at the museum. You helped him, Kate! And I bet this book didn’t tell you how, did it?’
‘Let go,’ demanded Kate, trying to pull Wintercraft away from him, but Edgar held on tight.
‘This book can’t make people do things,’ he said. ‘It just points them in the right direction. The people who wrote it didn’t need it to do what they did. They just wrote about it all afterwards. Think about it, Kate. I don’t know how it all works, but it does. I think you already know what to do. You just need to trust yourself. And you definitely don’t need this.’
Kate did not want to let go of Wintercraft. There was too much at stake to simply give in and trust that everything would be all right, but she felt her fingers weaken and Edgar slid the book away.
‘All right,’ he said carefully. ‘That crowd are going to start trampling each other out there soon. If you’re going to do something, now’s the time.’
‘But it’s not my circle,’ said Kate. ‘I don’t know how to stop it. Da’ru made it, not me.’
‘Da’u can’t do what you do. She used to spend hours trying to get a good circle going. With you standing next to her it took seconds. What do you think that means?’
Edgar ducked suddenly as glass splintered across the carriage floor and the window exploded against the force of a warden’s fist. A thick arm reached in to grab hold of his neck and Edgar used the book as a weapon, hitting it against the warden’s head to fend him off while Tom leaped to his aid, punching and biting whatever part of the attacker he could reach.
‘Run, Kate!’ Edgar shouted. ‘Run!’
Kate burst out of the carriage’s opposite door and saw Silas still locked in battle on the other side of the circle. He had taken at least ten of his attackers down already, leaving the ground around him stained with blood, but not all of that blood belonged to the wardens. Silas was wounded. His injuries were coming too quickly for his body to heal itself before others took their place and the wardens were brutal, surrounding him like a pack of dogs and challenging him all at once, their daggers flashing in the night. Kate could see the pain of every blow written across Silas’s tortured face. He would not be able to keep them away from him for long.
Two of the wardens tried to restrain Silas with ropes and chains, but he claimed the chain as a new weapon and strangled them with it before they could get close. His face was bloodied and twisted with rage and Kate was worried that this was a battle he would not win. Then Da’ru rounded the front of the carriage just a few steps away from her. She had hesitated too long.
‘Give me the book,’ Da’ru said, as Kate backed towards the edge of the protected circle. ‘Give it to me!’
Da’ru grabbed hold of Kate’s arm before she could move and Kate felt the veil’s energy crackle and snap beneath her skin. She sank into Da’ru’s memories, unable to break the link the circle had created between them, and the veil carried her back through time, letting Kate witness firsthand what Da’ru had done.
Her life was filled with blood and anger, torture and death. Kate saw the glass dagger and the faces of those whose lives it had claimed. She saw Edgar as a boy, half-drowned in the testing room water tank as she tested him for signs of the Skill, and then a barred door slamming shut as she locked him in an underground cell. Then she was outside Fume, joining the wardens in their harvests as she hunted the Skilled just as she had tried to hunt Kate, and in every town Da’ru went to she left her own trail of death. Informants and whisperers fell to her blade. The Skilled she discovered died within days and then there was Kalen …
Kate saw Kalen in one of Da’ru’s tower rooms, retreating from her as she raged about Wintercraft, ordering him to find the book and punish those who had stolen it from him. Da’ru had been with him on the night Kate’s parents were taken away, watching from the other side of the street as they were forced into a warden’s cage. She had searched the bookshop herself, desperate to find Wintercraft and unaware of the girl hiding in the cellar beneath her feet. When she could not find it, Kalen was the one to suffer next. A poisoned blade tainted with bloodbane gave him the scar Kate had seen across his face, along with a dose of the poison large enough to drive him into madness for ever.
Kate watched the experiment Da’ru had conducted upon Silas through her own eyes and she saw the dozens more who had died before him in the museum’s listening circle. She witnessed the moment Da’ru found Wintercraft, reaching down to lift it out of an open grave, and then the years rolled back even further, to a meeting Da’ru had with the Skilled, long before her time with the High Council. The Skilled had offered to help her and protect her as one of their own, but Da’ru had no intention of living her life below ground, hiding from the world. She had turned them away and chosen to experiment upon the veil herself.
Finally, the memories carried Kate to a time when Da’ru was only a few years younger than Kate was then, to the moment she first recognised that she had the Skill. She was in a sunlit room, lifting a dead mouse from the claws of a black cat. When the little creature squirmed back to life within her hands Kate heard Da’ru laugh as if she had found a new toy. The mouse tried to wriggle its way to freedom, but Da’ru threw it back into the cat’s jaws, waiting for it to die so she could revive it again.
Silas may have been a killer, but Da’ru was something worse. Kate could feel something dark inside that woman. She did not care about Albion or anything else. She enjoyed the destruction and uncertainty of an endless war. She wanted to damage people. She wanted to see them suffer, using her position on the High Council to wield the ultimate power of life and death.
Kate broke from Da’ru’s memories, not wanting to see any more. It had all happened in an instant. Da’ru had felt nothing and she twisted Kate’s arm cruelly, dragging her out of the safety of the central circle, deep into the wall of churning mist.
Silas watched the two of them cross into the veil as he ended a warden’s life, then another, and another. He watched the shades move apart to let the two women pass through and then close behind them, swallowing them completely into the darkness of the veil.
With the last man lying dead at his feet, Silas turned to the councilmen, blood smeared across his skin and dripping from his blade. ‘This is what you all deserve,’ he said, his words breaking a little as a handful of damaged ribs cracked suddenly back into place. ‘You let this happen. This night rests on your heads, not mine.’
Silas fell to his knees, all energy spent, but slowly and steadily his body healed. His wounds sealed themselves, his bones reset and his torn muscles knitted together again. The effort of it exhausted him. Pain clouded his mind and so he did not notice a trickle of strange blood creeping slowly down his injured chest.
The vial of Kate’s blood that he had stolen from the testing room had smashed during the battle, slicing his skin and spreading some of her blood into his own. A thread of warmth raced through Silas’s veins and he slid his hand into his coat, pulling out thin slivers of bloodstained glass. There had been no ritual. Silas had never intended for it to happen and yet he could sense Kate’s energy within him - a distant echo reflected somewhere deep inside. Her blood had been bound to his within the energies of an open listening circle. It connected them. The pulse of Kate’s life reverberated alongside his own and Silas could feel the potent rush of Kate’s fear as she walked within the veil.
For ten years, echoes of Da’ru’s spirit had crept inside him. She was arrogant, fearless and malicious. Her influence had stripped away parts of Silas that he had since learned to live without and he had fought against it every day, holding back the overwhelming force that threatened to engulf his identity fully in the dark. Silas had become used to restraining the worst of Da’ru’s nature deep within himself, but it had been a long time since he had felt true fear. Kate’s spirit did not overwhelm him as Da’ru’s had done for so long; it glowed like a hidden flame within his blood, and the fear he sensed from her was not for herself, but for the foolish uncle she had come to save: the man who was wriggling futilely against his bonds upon the stone table, incapable of doing anything for himself.
The glass dagger still sat inside the chest of Silas’s first kill. He struggled to his feet and limped towards it, unsheathing it from the man’s ribs while Artemis fought against his ropes.
‘Where is she?’ Artemis asked nervously. ‘Where is Kate?’
Silas left him bound and turned away, carrying a blade in each hand. ‘Stay here, bookseller,’ he said. ‘It will all be over soon.’
The shades gathered around Kate as Da’ru pushed her into the veil. They were screeching and screaming, their voices filling the half-life with desperate words.
‘… free us! …’
‘… help us! …’
‘… release us! …’
The shades moved gently around Kate, but when Da’ru stepped among them, everything changed. The air filled with a low hiss. The shades’ hatred spread like fire and Kate knew that Da’ru’s connection with the circle was all that was protecting her from their wrath.
‘I did not believe what Silas told me about you at first,’ said Da’ru, forcing Kate deeper into the mist with strength Kate would not have guessed she had. ‘Now I can see that he did not tell me everything. I had heard about the Walkers, of course, but I never imagined that I would meet one outside the pages of Wintercraft.’
Da’ru looked at the shades in wonder, mesmerised by the presence of so many pressing closely against her skin. She closed her eyes, absorbing the experience of being able to step physically into the veil for the very first time and her fingernails scratched deeply into Kate’s skin. Kate realised that she was holding on to her far too tightly. Da’ru was afraid of something.
As a Walker, Kate was able to step into the veil without danger, but Da’ru did not possess the level of ability to allow her to walk safely on her own. She needed Kate beside her. Without a physical link to a Walker, she risked endangering her spirit if she stayed within that mist for too long.
The shades swirled anxiously around them. Kate’s hair whipped up in the current made by their frenzied movements and she looked through the mist towards the frightened crowd. Every one of those people was in danger and she had no idea what she was supposed to do to help them. The circle belonged to Da’ru. Kate could not close it. Da’ru was its master and she was completely in control.
‘Forget them,’ said Da’ru, following her gaze. ‘Those people do not see the world the way we do, Kate. They never truly believed in the veil. The Night of Souls is just a joke to them, another excuse for a mindless celebration. They have never once dared to try and understand it. Now they can see the truth for themselves.’
Kate glanced back at the central circle. She could see Silas standing at the very edge, but he wasn’t doing anything. He was just standing there, watching her. Da’ru’s hand went suddenly up to Kate’s throat and Kate could feel her own energy draining down into the circle as Da’ru channelled it out of her, weakening her. Soon it was hard to move … hard to breathe.
‘Listen to me,’ demanded Da’ru. ‘Your life belongs to me now. Those people are going to die and, when they do, you will use my blood and bind every one of their souls to me. The council are watching. It is time for me to claim my place in history and you are going to do exactly as I say.’
Da’ru saw her looking over to Silas, and she smiled darkly. ‘Silas is not your ally, Kate. Men like him have no need for allies. You have witnessed the terror he can create and the respect he commands. With an army of people like Silas by my side, Albion will no longer need to hide in the dark. We shall conquer our enemies, make every one of them suffer, and then we shall crush them one by one. You will help me do this, Kate. Together we will make this country live again.’
Kate’s eyes felt heavy and the screams of the dead spun deafeningly around her. She could see Da’ru’s madness in her face and, struggling to take one last full breath, Kate spoke as firmly as she could. ‘I won’t do anything for you,’ she said. ‘Albion doesn’t need more soldiers or more war. It needs to be protected from people like you.’
Da’ru’s face darkened and she threw Kate to the ground.
Kate’s head struck stone and pain exploded behind her eyes. Then, like a match being struck inside her mind, her instincts took over. The mist of the half-life lifted as her eyes were suddenly able to filter it out and she saw something within it that Da’ru had not seen: the current of death moving swiftly towards them, like a silvery reflection flickering through the air.
‘You have two paths ahead of you,’ said Da’ru, standing over Kate, oblivious to the danger so close by. ‘You will join me. Or you will join them.’
The shades screamed again. Something moved behind Da’ru and a pair of solid, living arms wrapped firmly around her neck.
‘Get away from her!’
Edgar had left the safety of the inner circle and was pulling on Da’ru as hard as he could, trying to drag her away from Kate. He knew about the dangers of the veil, but he was there anyway, refusing to let Kate fight alone. The shades circled above him as Da’ru grabbed his hand and twisted him away. Then she forced him to the ground and bent over him, drawing a slim silver blade from her sleeve and pressing it against his neck.
‘That is the last time you will disturb me, boy,’ she said.
The current of death was closing in. It was just a few inches away from Kate when she gathered the very last of her weakening strength and grabbed hold of Da’ru’s dress, pulling her from Edgar long enough for him to roll out of her reach and back into the safety of the inner circle. She dragged as hard as she could until Da’ru turned to face her, and she managed to catch hold of her wrist instead.
‘What are you doing?’ cried Da’ru, but it was too late.
Her eyes widened as the current of death washed over Kate and then came straight for Da’ru, spreading through her body and rippling against her face. Kate took one last look at Edgar as the warm touch of death spread into her, making her body feel light, safe and free. Then she closed her eyes and, with one final breath, she let the current take her.