Kate felt warm and peaceful. Time stretched around her and sounds faded into silence as her thoughts travelled deep into the veil, slowly leaving her life behind. She could feel the gentle emptiness of the current spreading around her, but there was no pain, no struggle, no thought beyond the certainty that what was happening was right. The current could have carried her forever and she would have been completely at peace.
But there, in the midst of it all, something distracted her.
Da’ru was beside her, battling against death, fighting against it with all her strength, so desperate was she to return to life. Kate tried to forget her and let her mind become empty once again, but then something happened that she did not expect. Something moved close by: a dark shape surrounded by an empty void of black. Death drew back from it as it forced its way into the flow and Silas stepped into the current, as immovable as a rock in the face of a storm.
‘Silas!’ Da’ru reached out when she saw him. ‘Help me, Silas!’
Silas looked at the glass locket hanging from her neck, its surface stained with his dead crow’s drying blood. ‘After everything you have done,’ he said. ‘You still think I would help you?’
‘You have no choice!’
‘Yes,’ said Silas. ‘I do.’ He grabbed the locket and snapped the chain from around Da’ru’s neck.
‘No!’ she cried. ‘Stop!’
Something moved beside Kate. A shade, darker than the rest, crept past her and started wrapping itself around Da’ru, holding her like a spider binding a fly.
‘Life is too good to waste on you,’ said Silas. ‘Your life is over and death is a pleasure you will never know.’
Da’ru struggled to free herself as the shade clung tight, gaining clearer form whenever it moved close to Silas. For one brief moment, Kate was sure she saw grey eyes within its darkness and then she knew what she was looking at. Silas’s broken spirit - the part of him that had been left behind within the half-life - had joined them in the current.
‘Silas!’ Da’ru cried, her voice echoing out across the city square. ‘You cannot do this! You are bound to me, Silas!’
‘The ways of death are familiar to me now,’ said Silas. ‘Because of you, I can never know the peace of it. You betrayed me, as you have betrayed hundreds more.’
He held the locket in his scarred hand. The fire in his palm had burned away, but the old mark left by Da’ru’s blade was still deep and dark.
‘Twelve years ago, you made a mistake,’ he said. ‘You made an enemy of me and now you will feel the emptiness I have known for yourself. Your soul will scream and no one will hear you. It is over, Da’ru. I will make the half-life your prison for as long as I live. And as you said: immortality lasts a long, long time.’
The shade smothered Da’ru like an oily web, capturing her spirit and dragging it out into the empty void of the half-life. Silas watched Da’ru’s body release its final breath and the shade pulled her spirit down through the stony ground, into a deep level of the veil that the circle could not reach.
The last few members of the crowd who had dared to stay in their seats now fled with the rest, pushing themselves up against the outer divide, desperate to escape before they faced the same fate, and Kate felt her connection to her own body start to weaken and break. The sudden feeling of separation took her by surprise. Her spirit caught upon the gentle flow of the current and her body fell to the ground, detached, empty and still.
Silas saw Kate fall and he crouched down beside her, brushing a strand of hair from her half-closed eyes. It looked as if all the life had gone from her, but he knew better. Da’ru was gone, yet the circle was still active. Kate’s spirit was not lost yet.
Silas lifted Kate up in his arms. Every step was a struggle and with every inch he gained, death willed him more powerfully to turn back. Its promise of peace overwhelmed his thoughts and smothered his senses, but still he walked forward, knowing better than to listen to something that could never be his. Da’ru was right. No matter how much he longed for it, death did not want him.
With one last immense effort, Silas broke out of the current and into the half-life, carrying Kate’s body through the veil and hesitating on the edge of the central circle just long enough to hear Da’ru’s screams echo distantly upon the air. For twelve years he had longed to hear that sound, to finally be able to repay her for what she had done to him. He had always known it would be worth it. He had been right.
Silas closed his eyes, allowing the call of death to tempt him one last time, then he opened his hand and let Da’ru’s glass locket fall to the ground. The little sphere fell slowly, as if all those years of waiting had been crushed into those last few moments and, with the quietest of tiny sounds, it smashed.
A patch of blood stained the ground among the broken shards and a thin trail of white rose out of it, twisting and splitting into many separate threads, snaking up to link with some of the shades around Silas before each thread snapped and faded away. His may have been the only spirit Da’ru had bound into a cursed life, but it was not the only one who had been denied the path into death. Whatever bond that blood had created between Da’ru and them, it was broken now.
Shouts of surprise spread around the crowd as the candles in their hands illuminated one by one. Each one had been carried there to remember a life that had been lost, and the spirits who had lived those lives drew closer to those who were remembering them, relighting the flames and showing them that there was no reason to be afraid.
Many in the crowd stopped trying to run and reached out to the spirits of their ancestors, to lost parents, children and friends. The current of death continued its journey through the half-life, shining with inner light as the freed souls drifted peacefully into it, completing their journeys at last. And for a short time the Night of Souls was what it was always meant to be: a time of peace, remembrance and joy.
Kate’s skin was deathly cold and her lips touched with blue as Silas carried her out of the mist and into the central circle. The call of death severed from him at once as his feet touched the symbols, and the pressure of the living world returned to him like an iron weight dropped upon his shoulders. Kate’s energy spread through his blood like hot needles, connecting with the circle until its light faded and died. The circle’s energies collapsed, reconnecting the city square with its rightful place in time. The mist dispersed and the bonfire blazed suddenly back to life.
With the shades gone, the crowd overran the few remaining wardens, tearing open the upper doors and pouring out into the city like ants. One of the councilmen stood up to speak to the fleeing people, but his voice was lost among the frenzy of stampeding bodies and Silas caught only three words of what he had said. Three words that were set to shape his future.
Silas Dane. Traitor.
Silas laid Kate carefully on the ground. There was movement around the table as Edgar and Tom ran to free Artemis from his ropes, and he limped straight over to her, sending Silas’s hand instinctively to his blade.
‘Stay back!’ said Silas. ‘This is no time for you.’
Artemis stopped, not daring to move any closer. ‘Is she all right?’
Silas ignored him, pulled a bloodstained cloak from the shoulders of a dead warden and covered Kate with it.
‘What happened?’ Artemis asked.
Silas glared up at him in fury. ‘If you want this girl to die, keep asking foolish questions. If not, get out of my sight.’
Edgar stepped forward, holding the book of Wintercraft out for Silas to take. ‘I don’t know if it’ll help,’ he said quietly. ‘But … here.’
Silas took the book from him, and Edgar took hold of Artemis’s arm.
‘What is he doing?’ demanded Artemis.
‘It’s all right,’ said Edgar. ‘We can trust him.’
‘Trust him? After everything that’s happened? Why should we trust him?’
There were many things Silas could have said to a man who had allowed himself to be taken prisoner, relied upon his niece to help him escape and then dared to complain at her not being unscathed at the end of it. Instead he shot Artemis a look that would have made anyone wither. Edgar led the limping man away.
‘You did well, Kate,’ said Silas, as he pressed a hand against her forehead, using the veil’s energy to call her spirit back into life. ‘There are few people who could have done what you did tonight. Your idiot uncle will never understand it, but you should be proud of yourself. You did many souls a great service today.’
Silas looked over at what was left of the High Council. They were talking amongst themselves, no doubt discussing how best to make a dignified retreat. Some of them were smiling deviously, despite the gruesome scene of death around them, and Silas realised that it would be so easy for him to end them all right there. In just a few moments he could rid Albion of its greatest threat.
He considered it carefully, noticing the thinly-disguised fear in the men’s eyes as they made their way out of the circle.
No, he decided. Now was not the time.
Gradually, the colour started to return to Kate’s skin. She opened her eyes and Silas lifted his hand gently from her head.
‘It appears I am not the only one who can look into the face of death and survive,’ he said. ‘I was starting to believe you had gone too far.’
‘Where’s Artemis?’ asked Kate, sitting up. ‘And Edgar?’
‘They are here. We have both done as we promised. I may not be dead, but I am free of Da’ru and your uncle is still alive. My honour is satisfied, as is yours. As of this moment, we owe each other nothing.’
Silas held Wintercraft tightly. The book’s ancient leather felt rough against his fingertips as he passed it to Kate, and he felt a warm flood of energy rush across his skin as the new blood within him reacted to her being close by. ‘This book is as much responsible for my situation as Da’ru herself,’ he said. ‘It has made me what I am and I do not want anything more to do with it. It belongs with you now. Keep it safe. Let no one know that you have it, and do not be afraid. You will become used to the veil in time.’
Kate looked down at the book, not knowing what to say.
‘Many souls are free because of what you have done tonight,’ said Silas. ‘Da’ru never could have opened this circle on her own. If it belonged to her it would have died when she did, but she was not in command of it. You were. Your energy created this circle and your link to it acted as a beacon when you fell into death, allowing lost souls to pass freely into death’s current and letting them finally find peace. You have a rare gift, Kate. Do not turn your back upon it.’
Silas stood up. ‘There is no place for me in this city any more,’ he said. ‘I suggest you leave here as soon as you can. Hundreds of people saw your face here today. Many of them will fear you, and there are those who will hunt you for what you can do. You must disappear. Do not let them find you and, more than anything else, be careful of whom you trust.’
Silas turned to walk away and Kate called after him.
‘Goodbye,’ she said. ‘And thank you … for what you did.’
Silas looked back and nodded once. ‘Goodbye, Kate.’
Then he stepped out of sight behind one of the council carriages, and was gone.
‘Kate!’ Edgar ran up to her with Artemis and Tom close behind, and Artemis pulled her into a crushing hug.
‘You’re alive!’ he said, almost squeezing the life back out of her. ‘I thought you were gone. I thought …’
Edgar hung back awkwardly as Artemis took his time and, when he finally let her go, Kate hid Wintercraft under her coat before letting Edgar help her up.
‘Things got a bit crazy out there, didn’t they?’ said Edgar. ‘Silas is gone, so it looks like everything’s … Hey! What happened to your eyes?’
‘Why?’ said Kate. ‘What’s wrong with them?’
‘Nothing’s wrong, exactly. They’re just a bit … different.’
Kate headed to the nearest carriage and looked at her reflection in the dark window. Her eyes were a completely different colour; her irises were rings of deep black, edged with blue, and her pupils were glazed with a sheen of silver that could only be seen when the light caught them a certain way.
‘Most of the Skilled spend years looking into the veil before it affects them like that,’ said Edgar. ‘But I’ve never seen silver in anyone’s eyes before.’
Kate looked towards one of the lower gates just in time to see Silas riding a stolen carriage horse out of the square.
‘Do you feel all right?’ asked Edgar.
‘I’m fine,’ said Kate, not wanting to admit that her eyes felt like she had been staring too long at the sun, and when she looked down at the ground the symbols closest to her feet still looked like they were glowing with gentle light.
‘The wardens won’t just let us go, not after all of this,’ said Artemis nervously. ‘Edgar, can you drive a carriage?’
‘Tom’s a better driver than I am. Why?’
‘I think we should take one and find somewhere safe before the council send their men back here to find us.’
‘If we need a place to hide, we should go to the Skilled,’ said Edgar. ‘Tom and I know the way. They trust us.’
‘No!’ said Kate. ‘I can’t go back there. Silas killed two people while I was with them. They’ll think I did it!’
‘Then we’ll just have to put them right, won’t we? Those eyes of yours will definitely give them something to think about. They won’t turn us away.’
‘The Skilled it is then,’ said Artemis, nodding with the wariness of someone not used to making big decisions.
‘Kate?’ Edgar said carefully. ‘Are you sure you’re OK?’
Kate was looking up at the galleries as the last few people trickled out of the city square. Even though it was no longer active, she could see the symbols around the edge of the enormous listening circle as clearly as when it was linked to the veil. She could see traces of hidden energy sealed within its central stones and as she walked over the symbols she could feel it too, like gentle vibrations beneath her feet. If this was what Silas had been talking about, he was right, it was definitely going to take some getting used to.
The moon hid briefly behind a bank of purple cloud and the stars shone down upon the glowing circle. The energy was so clear, Kate did not know how she could have missed it before. And she was not the only one attracted to its light. A large black bird flew smoothly across the empty square, spread its wings and soared powerfully over her head, swooping down to land upon the bloodstained table.
‘Can you see that?’ she asked, as the bird perched beside the body of the dead crow.
‘See what?’ asked Edgar.
Kate walked slowly up to the bird, not wanting to scare it away and when she got closer she realised that she could see right through it. Its feathers had no substance and it passed in and out of sight, watching her all the time.
‘It’s Silas’s bird,’ she said.
‘Yeah, I know,’ said Edgar, thinking she was talking about the body on the table. ‘It’s a shame, I suppose. Who wouldn’t want a crazy feathered thing flying around taking orders from a madman? If you ask me, it got off lightly. Who’d want to spend all their time with someone like Silas? It’s probably relieved to be free of him. I know I am.’
Kate stood beside the crow’s body and watched its bloodied feathers ruffling in the wind. Silas had saved her life. He had spared Edgar and saved Artemis, and that bird meant something to him. If its spirit was there, maybe it had not yet gone fully over into death. If there was any way to thank Silas for what he had done, surely this was it.
Gently, she picked up the body - it was lighter than she had expected - and balanced it carefully between her hands, concentrating upon healing the wound, just like she had done with the man in the river. Nothing happened and she was worried the bird might have been dead too long. But then, like a subtle heat growing from her bones, she felt the energy of the veil pass softly through her hands, spread into the crow’s delicate body and out across its skin, healing the muscles and binding the flesh until the faint throb of a heartbeat fluttered against her palm.
The crow’s spirit gathered into a thin grey wisp and sank like smoke back down into its body. Kate waited, hoping that the heartbeat would last … until one limp wing flapped back into life, then the other, striking the air and sending the crow tumbling out of her hands and on to the table. It scrabbled drunkenly up on to its feet and shook its feathers before screeching out a call that echoed loudly across the city square.
‘Go to your master,’ said Kate, picking up the crow and holding it high in the air. ‘Go to Silas!’
The bird took flight, swooping across the square and soaring out over the city, calling out victoriously into the night.
‘Come on,’ said Artemis, climbing into a carriage as everyone else watched the bird fly away. ‘We’re wasting time here.’
With everyone safely on board, Tom steered the horses expertly through the square’s lower doors and out into the streets. The roads outside were littered with the remains of the night’s celebrations and, despite what had happened in the city square, there were still hundreds of people dancing together, sharing stories of what they had seen, determined to keep celebrating until the sun rose again.
Edgar sat next to Kate, his hands and face cut by the broken window during the warden attack, and Artemis sat opposite them, his leg stretched on the seat beside him, his forehead wrinkled with thought. Kate wanted to heal them both, but she knew she did not have the strength. Using the circles had left her weak and tired, and healing the bird had taken the very last piece of energy she had. All she could do was sit there, watching the city pass by, feeling the secret weight of Wintercraft hidden safely beneath her coat.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Edgar. ‘The Skilled will help us. I’m sure everything will be all right.’
After all that had happened, Kate wasn’t so sure about that. All she had at that moment was the brief safety of the carriage and the rhythmic rumble of its wheels as it carried her on towards an uncertain future in an unfamiliar city.
‘I hope you’re right,’ she said.
Halfway across the city Silas and his stolen horse thundered along the streets, racing towards the southern gate and the freedom of the wild counties beyond. Silas knew every inch of that city and most of the City Below, but Fume was no longer his home. To him, its walls had been a cage for too long. Now he was free.
The gate guards saw him coming long before he reached them, his grey eyes gleaming fiercely in the dark. They unbolted the gate without waiting for his command, letting the horse and its rider gallop out into the wilds, leaving Fume and all its history behind. Silas carried with him questions the city could never answer and an ambition the city could never help him reach. As a traitor he would be a hunted man, so he would find a ship and travel to the Continent, far away from Albion and the High Council, its laws and its men. Kate Winters had allowed him to take revenge against his greatest enemy and she had given him his freedom. The rest he was going to find on his own.
Silas followed a gravel road running alongside the red train’s tracks and he came across an old signpost marking a trader’s path that was long overgrown. There, sitting on top of the sign was a crow exactly like his own, except for a short line of white feathers running right down the centre of its chest. A spark of familiar intelligence shone in its eyes and Silas slowed his horse to a stop beneath it.
The bird sat still, its eyes still fixed upon the path.
Silas was about to snap the reins, cursing his mistake, when the crow looked at him, spread its wings and circled him once before flying down to take its place upon his shoulder. Silas ran his fingers down the bird’s white feathers where the wound from Da’ru’s blade should have been.
‘Well, Miss Winters,’ he said, looking back at the city one last time. ‘It seems I do owe you something after all.’