Silas stood like an obstinate ox, planting his feet. “I’ve changed my mind.” He felt like a little boy afraid of the dark. His hands were shaking and he balled them into fists. The darkness surrounding them was off putting. He felt awkward and small even though he was by far the largest of them. “ I don’t want to do this.” He sounded weak and childish to his ears.
“But, but-“ Anise had to quell the anger that flashed up inside her like a small spark. She tamped it down again, with difficulty. “We came all the way here!”
Silas shook his head, his dark hair blending with the dark around them so his face seemed a strange off-kilter shape. “I don’t care,” he said petulantly, cringing at his childishness. “This place…it bothers me.”
Anise knew exactly how he felt. Even though she was no longer a stranger to the mysteriousness that was the Consortium, with their cryptic symbol of a simple dot within a circle, the only thing besides the address to this abandoned warehouse that was on their calling card, she also still felt…odd. It was probably the fact that she was surrounded on all sides, penned in – that the circle of light in which they all stood was a prison and Watchers stood all around it, hidden, watching, staring at them from the safety of the darkness, their wardens. When they could see nothing. She wondered what would happen if she left the barrier of light, and stepped into the dark. Impulsively she thought why not? It would make any story she ended up writing about this all that more interesting. Tentatively, she took a step forward with her left foot. The light grew around her foot like spilled water creeping across the floor. She moved her right and light bloomed around it.
“This clearly isn’t working.”
“What?” Eleanor asked with a puzzled look.
“Never mind,” Anise mumbled as she reached in her bag and surreptitiously removed a book of matches. She always carried matches with her. You never knew when they would come in handy. Like now.
She tore one free of its jacket and struck it. It sparked and died. She tore a second one out and this time the flame took hold. There was a collective gasp from around the room. How many people are here, watching us like insects under a spy glass?
“What are you doing?” It was the voice of the Consortium, and it sounded frightened.
Without replying, she plunged forward quickly. The island of light didn’t have time to react and the darkness engulfed her. Moments later, hands engulfed her as well, all over. In the feeble, flickering light of the match she saw snatches of subdued colours – mustard yellow, rust orange, forest green, midnight blue. A strange hand grabbed her own and the match fell from her fingers, and burned uselessly on the ground for a moment before a foot, covered by the hem of a robe smothered it.
The hands grabbed her anywhere and everywhere they could – arms, legs, shoulders - not caring about propriety. There was a whispering sound and Anise realized it was the shuffle of robes. Instinctively, she struggled and tried to kick out. When it came down to survival, you fought, simple as that. It did no good, the hands tightened almost to the point of pain on her arms.
She used the only other option left to her. She screamed.
Trevan, Eleanor and Silas leapt toward the sound of her voice. Before they reached her she realized that she had been placed gently, so gently she hadn’t noticed right away, on the cold hard dusty floor and the multitude of hands had released her. She was alone in the darkness, but she felt the heat of many bodies all around. Then her companions were there, bringing the pool of light with them. Eleanor was by her side first. “Are you alright?” She helped Anise to her feet.
Anise raised her hands, fluttering them, embarrassed. “Yes, yes. I’m fine. I’m not hurt. They just…put me down.”
“What were you expecting to accomplish with such foolishness!” shouted Trevan, glaring at her.
“I-, I didn’t really think...it” she cast her eyes downward, “It just came to me all of a sudden. I was just curious what would happen, is all.”
“You didn’t think!” Trevan shouted again, his face colouring under his neatly trimmed beard. “It was obvious you didn’t think!” He turned his face away.
“I don’t think they are violent. I don’t think they would want to hurt me, or meant to hurt me,” she rubbed her arms, soothing the stings of many fingers pressing hard into soft skin.
“I didn’t mean for you to get hurt!” It was Silas. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh it wasn’t because of you at all. It’s not your fault. I just wanted to see…what would happen if I left the light.”
A voice boomed from all around them. “People have tried to test us many ways, in the past. People by nature are curious about things they do not understand.”
“Or can’t see,” grumbled Trevan.
“Why do you stay hidden? Why do you hide in the dark behind robes?” Anise asked.
“That is unnecessary for you to know. We are deciders of fate, that is all. We have our reasons, which are not of your concern. How the Consortium operates has no impact on your life other than accepting or denying whether you will continue on as a Secret Carrier when you leave us.”
“What happens if you are denied?”
Silence reigned once more, broken only by the soft swishing of robes, as if the Consortium members were talking amongst themselves.
‘We deal with those cases as and when they occur.” The voice had become harsh and clipped.
“So, they do happen? Not everyone is chosen as a Carrier?” Eleanor’s voice was full of soft awe.
“Of course. Not everyone is suitable. Not everyone is the same. It takes a certain type of person to be a carrier. Each of the secrets is vastly different in scope. They each have different responsibilities inherent with them.”
“So you’re saying I might not even become a Secret Carrier after all?” Silas asked. His voice rose an octave with excitement and relief.
“Yes, you are correct, Silas St. Claire.”
A sigh escaped him in a loud whoosh. “Okay. I’ll do it. I’ll take the test, now that I know it’s not set in stone.”
Anise opened her mouth, but snapped it shut again. She was going to say it is set in stone, once you are chosen, once you get the words and symbols etched permanently into your skin, there is no turning back then, no changing your mind. She had found that out too late, the wrong way around.
There was a murmur of agreement throughout the darkness. “The Consortium are glad to hear it, Silas St. Claire. You come highly recommended.”
“Recommended? By who?”
“By your friend, William McDonnaugh. There is no one else that would recommend you.” The Consortium sounded confused. “Did William not speak to you of his intentions?”
Silas dropped his head, his shoulders drooping. “No. He didn’t get the chance. It was too late to ask questions.”
“We understand.” This time the voice was heavy with sympathy.
His feet felt like they were made of lead, but eventually he reached the door over which the pale blue light shone above.
When he stepped out of the room, even from this distance, Anise saw he was as white as a sheet, and as she watched, he ran an arm across his brow. On unsteady legs Silas made his way back to them. He looked on the verge of collapsing.
“How did it go?” Eleanor asked earnestly, hopeful, resting a hand gently on his arm. He sagged slightly. “I’m not sure. I don’t really know. I don’t know what to think. I don’t even really understand what just happened.”
The four of them stood, lined in a row, awaiting Silas’ fate.
The seconds stretched to minutes, and the minutes into longer and longer chunks. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen, then twenty.
Anise was on the verge of just getting up and walking out, back into the outside world instead of remaining cooped up in this claustrophobic darkness. They were getting anxious – pacing nervously, looking at hands, and picking absently at fingernails.
Without warning the voice spoke. It spoke softly, but the suddenness caused all of them to jump in surprise.
“Silas St. Claire, you have failed the test.”
“What?” He said, incredulous even as relief swelled inside him like a wave, ready to crash on the shores of hope. He was echoed by a shocked Eleanor, a stunned Trevan and an irate Anise.
“What do you mean he failed?”
“There is nothing else we could mean by that answer.” The Consortium said, serious, confusion tinging its words.
“No, I mean how? How did he fail?”
“He did not respond to the stimuli how she should have, in the way that is expected,” they replied matter-of-factly.
“But that doesn’t mean he’s not suitable!” Anises’ voice rose and her eyes flicked back and forth across the darkness, searching for eyes to meet that she wouldn’t find. It was very disorienting talking to people you could look in the eye, or the face.
“He did not pass the test,” the monotone repeated with simple finality.
“We came all this way for this?” This time it was Trevan, and he had stepped forward, broken the human chain they had formed.
Silas raised his hands in front of him. “It’s okay,” he said, trying to keep the relief from his voice but failing miserably. “It obviously is not meant to be.”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Anise shouted, her voice bouncing back to them from the corrugated metal walls of the warehouse. “Of course you are! If your friend William chose you, wanted you, he had a reason. A good one,” she added. Without meaning to, her thoughts slipped back to the village inhabited only by children – with no adult in sight to guide or guard them. She shuddered. William must have had a good reason for that, she thought. Silas would have more common sense than turn a whole town into one only of children, of that she was certain. That was a sort of cruel and unusual punishment.
“Re-test him!” The words came out, hot and angry.