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Chapter no 21

Sorcery of Thorns

GREAT LIBRARY NEVER slept, even after all the people had gone to bed. Voices echoed through the atrium as Elisabeth crept along, keeping to the curve of the wall, where her white cloak blended in with the marble. Some of the grimoires snored, while their neighbors made disgruntled noises at them for snoring too loudly; others whispered, and laughed. One lone grimoire sang a piercing lament that soared high above the rest, a sound that lifted past the shafts of blue moonlight spilling through the starry dome, and rang unearthly in the 1rmament, like music played on a crystal glass.

Whenever a lantern bobbed into view, Elisabeth hid and waited until the warden had passed. The Royal Library was even more heavily patrolled at night than she had expected. She envied Silas, strolling along beside her as a cat. After one particularly close call—the warden came near enough that Elisabeth was able to see her green eyes, and count the number of buttons on her coat—Silas transformed back into a human, and caught her shoulder before she emerged from hiding.

“I must tell you something before we continue,” he murmured. “The wardens wear too much iron for me to inAuence them. If they spot you, I cannot make them turn away and forget what they have seen.”

She suspected she knew what he was getting at. “And if that happens, you’ll leave me to face the consequences alone?”

He inclined his head, the faintest hint of regret etched across his brow.

“I understand,” she whispered. “You owe your loyalty to Nathaniel, not to me.”

As they moved on, Elisabeth wondered if her own proximity made Silas uncomfortable. She wore her greatkey, and there was also the thin layer of iron that lined her cloak. Demonslayer, slipped through her belt, formed a

reassuring weight at her side. But if it did, he would have to tolerate it. She couldn’t enter the archives unprotected.

They passed several more patrols before they reached the entrance to the Northwest Wing. The skeletal angels carved around the archway stared down at her, their eyes hollow pits, bron>e skulls agleam, and the hair stood up on her arms as she imagined them turning their heads to watch her go by. But none of them moved. They didn’t need to. Far worse things awaited her ahead.

She and Silas slipped past the velvet rope. Mist spilled over her boots and lapped at the hem of her cloak. It was thicker now than in the daytime, no doubt a magical emanation of one of the grimoires inside the archives. Silas, a cat again and only visible as a swirl of movement within the mist, headed toward the gate. Elisabeth forced herself not to take in its looming presence, still fresh from her dreams. Instead she focused on what Silas had instructed her to do before they’d set out. It was going to take both of them, working together, to sneak inside undetected.

She pressed herself into an alcove in the wall and waited for a warden to pass, his lantern Aoating eerily through the mist. Then she darted back out of hiding. They had about a minute until the next warden came by.

Silas already stood inside the archives, having squee>ed between the gate’s bars before transforming back into his human shape. She followed his ga>e as he nodded upward. There, above the gate, some 1fteen feet oP the ground, hung an iron bell. She set her boots against the ironwork and began to climb.

She soon wished that she had brought a pair of gloves. Her sweaty palms found little purchase against the bars, which were already slick with moisture from the mist. It took her more than twice as long to scale the gate than she had estimated—long enough that the next patrol came walking past while she clung to the ironwork high above. She held her breath, her shoulders aching with the ePort of remaining still, but the warden didn’t look up. His silhouette faded into the mist.

Freeing a hand, she retrieved a wad of cotton and piece of twine from one of her belt pouches. She wrapped the cotton around the bell’s clapper, and used her teeth to help tie it in place. When she was 1nished, she slid back down and landed with a bone-jarring impact on the Aagstones. Silas reappeared opposite the bars. He had taken oP his jacket and now used it to

protect his hand from the iron as he turned a latch on the gate. It swung open silently on well-greased hinges.

“The gate is designed to open from within,” he had explained earlier. “It is a fail-safe, so no one is able to get trapped inside if their key is taken from them. But there is, of course, a mechanism in place to alert the other wardens should such an event occur.”

Above them, the bell swung frantically back and forth, but barely made a sound. Elisabeth’s tampering had succeeded. She slipped inside, aware the most dangerous part was yet to come.

If theiv bey is taben fvom them, Silas had said. Not if they lost their key, for no warden would be foolish enough to misplace their key ring.

The restricted archives stretched down a long corridor, lined on either side by towering bookshelves that rose from the mist and spanned upward into darkness. Lanterns hung from iron posts at regular intervals, creating a path down the center. She had the unsettling feeling that the lanterns were meant to keep people from getting lost, even though the hallway appeared to travel forward in a straight, unbroken line. Her ga>e wandered to the shelves, then darted back ahead. Most of the grimoires were chained to the bookcases. But the most dangerous ones had their own displays, raised up on pedestals or locked away in cages. During her brief look she’d caught sight of a manuscript bound with stitched-together human skin, imprisoned inside a cage studded with spikes like a medieval torture device. Another had teeth embroidered along the edges of its cover, restrained by an iron bit shoved between its pages. All of them were silent, watching her. Waiting to see what she would do.

She turned to speak to Silas, but he was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished into thin air, leaving the gate open behind him. She shouldn’t have been surprised, but his abandonment stung all the same. Ferhaps he was trying to reinforce his message from the other night: that he was a demon, and not to be trusted.

It didn’t matter, she told herself. She had only needed him to get inside.

The rest, she could do on her own.

As soon as the gate clicked shut, the muttering began. Voices of every description crept and slithered and hopped along the corridor. Her skin crawled; she could almost feel the voices reaching from the mist and grasping

at her like hands. She drew her iron-laced hood over her head, and the sounds faded to a distant, sinister mumbling.

She set out down the corridor, following the path of lamplight through the center. The Codex’s call number indicated that it was shelved about halfway down the archives. Now it was only a matter of 1nding it, removing it from the shelf, and sneaking back the way she had come. The hardest part would be climbing up the gate again to 1x the bell after she escaped. She didn’t know what to expect from the Codex—whether it would cooperate with her like the copy in Ashcroft’s study, or whether it would 1ght her all the way out of the Royal Library.

Without warning, a tall, pale form rose from the Aoor nearby. Elisabeth whirled around, sweeping her cloak aside to grip Demonslayer’s hilt. Nothing was there—only an eddy in the mist, and a display pedestal made of white stone. She had glimpsed the pedestal out of the corner of her eye and mistaken it for a person. Cursing herself, she turned back ahead.

And like a scene from her nightmares, Chancellor Ashcroft stood before her. He looked just the same as she had last seen him, but waxen, his handsome face devoid of expression, both the blue eye and the red one staring straight through her. His golden cloak seemed to be spun from lamplight and mist. With a choked-oP cry, Elisabeth yanked Demonslayer from her belt and swung it through the air.

Ashcroft stepped out of range. The faintest of smiles tugged at his mouth. She swung once more, and again he retreated, her sword missing by a hair. That slight, taunting smile suggested that he knew precisely why she was here. This time, she had no doubt that he would kill her. Even armed with iron, she was no match for his magic. But he appeared content to toy with her 1rst, and she wouldn’t go down without a 1ght, not if there was even the slightest chance of stopping him. They moved through the archives in a silent dance:

Elisabeth slicing the mist to ribbons, Ashcroft backing toward the shelves.

Then he failed to step quickly enough, and her sword slashed through him.

He dissolved into mist.

More 1gures emerged from the shadows, advancing toward her. Warden Finch. Lorelei. Mr. Hob. Even the man who had cornered her in the alley— and he wasn’t the only dead person among them. The Director also rose from

the mist, her spectral face grim with disappointment. They drew closer and closer, but Elisabeth didn’t step back, even though the Director’s expression made her stomach curdle. The 1gures weren’t real. Whoever had conjured them, on the other hand—

“Whatever you are, you’re showing me my fears,” she declared, surprised by how steady her voice sounded. “You’re trying to trap me, aren’t you?”

She sheathed Demonslayer and turned. A large, ornate display cage stood directly behind her. Had she taken even one more step, away from the illusions, she would have run into it. As soon as she reali>ed that, the 1gures subsided back into the mist.

A woman’s pale, withered face ga>ed out at her from within the cage, mere inches away, Aoating in the darkness. Or it would have ga>ed at her, had the eyes not been stitched shut. And the face didn’t belong to a person, at least not any longer: it had been sewn onto a grimoire’s cover, which levitated opposite Elisabeth amid a swirl of vapor. A black ribbon twirled through the air around the grimoire, a silver needle gleaming on its end.

“Smavt givl.” The grimoire spoke in a hissing, multitudinous voice: men, women, and children all speaking in chorus, each one as dry as sand whispering over bone. “We’ue taben thvee mavdens mith that tvicb, nom that me’ue conuinced the Illusavium to hel9 us. Too bad. Such an intevesting face you haue. Rot beautiful, but bold.”

The grimoire was unusually thick and heavily bound, 1lled with—move faces, Elisabeth thought in horror, as the binding creaked and the cover lifted, Aipping past page after page of human faces, Enochian script simmering across them like freshly laid brands. At last it settled on an empty page and lovingly caressed the bare vellum with its needle.

“We haue voom fov you, if you euev change youv mind.”

“No, thank you,” Elisabeth said, inching away.

“Ouv stitches ave neat. It mould only huvt a little 

Elisabeth squared her shoulders and wheeled around, mindful not to bump into the white stone pedestal she had seen earlier, situated just a few feet away from the cage. A plaque beneath the pedestal read THE ILLUSARIUM, CLASS VII, and atop it sat a glass sphere like a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. So much mist poured from the sphere that she couldn’t make out the shape

within. If this grimoire possessed a voice, it chose to remain silent. Ferhaps it could only communicate using its illusions.

She forced herself to keep walking and not look back, even though she could almost feel the 1rst grimoire’s needle scratching between her shoulder blades. When she drew near the section numbered on the catalogue card, her steps slowed, and her head tilted back. She swallowed.

A ladder ascended over three stories into the gloom, mist lapping at its bottom rungs. The call number suggested that the Codex was at the top, where the lamplight barely reached. She steeled herself and placed her boot on the lowest rung, ignoring the spiteful jeers of the grimoires on the shelves. As she began her ascent, they rattled their chains with enough force to make the ladder bounce and tremble. Wads of ink Aew past her into the dark.

Fart of her expected to reach the top and 1nd the Codex missing. It seemed that she had come too far, and faced too many trials, for any aspect of this mission to come easily to her. But when she 1nally hauled herself up to the 1nal rung, the Codex’s familiar scaled cover awaited her, encircled by chains. The secret to Ashcroft’s plan, close enough to touch.

She reached for the chains, and then fro>e. Her joints locked; her muscles refused to obey. She had come here to steal from the Royal Library, but now that the moment was upon her, every 1ber of her body revolted. Once she crossed this line, there was no going back. She imagined getting caught, having to face Farsifal and Mistress Wick, who had both treated her so kindly. Her heart burned with shame.

“Think of it as more of a rescue mission,” Katrien had told her during their last, brief conversation through the mirror. “I’m sure the Codex would much rather be with you than with people who think it was written by a madman. Can you imagine what that would be like, knowing some sort of enormous secret and no one believing you?”

Yes, Elisabeth thought, with a wrench in her chest. For the Codex, this place must be as bad as Leadgate Hospital. Books, too, had hearts, though they were not the same as people’s, and a book’s heart could be broken: she had seen it happen before. Grimoires that refused to open, their voices gone silent, or whose ink faded and bled across the pages like tears.

The Codex looked as though no one had touched it in decades. Dust coated its chains, and a neglected case of Brittle-Spine had left its leather

cracked and graying. It didn’t stir at her arrival, as though the passage of time had reduced it to an ordinary book.

Just like that, she found she could move again. “I’m here to help you,” she whispered. She gently unhooked its chains from the shelf. The other grimoires began rattling harder than ever, their nasty mutterings turning into desperate pleas as they watched their neighbor gain its freedom, but the Codex remained still, almost lifeless. It didn’t resist her as she tucked it, chains and all, into a sack tied to her belt.

By the time she climbed back down the ladder, the grimoires had stopped rattling. A profound hush had fallen over the archives. No sinister voices whispered. No ominous 1gures appeared from the mist. The silence didn’t feel hostile, but Elisabeth wasn’t going to linger. As she strode quickly past the cage from earlier, the pale face inside rotated to watch her.

“It’s been maiting a long time, that one,” it whispered. “So long since the Codex has bnomn a bind touch, an o9en mind. But I see nom that you ave not the same as the othev humans . . . you ave di$event, somehom . . . yes, a tvue child of the libvavy 

Elisabeth’s steps faltered. She wanted to listen to what the grimoire had to say. But right now, she didn’t have time to chat with books.

A mixture of relief and regret Aooded her as she slipped through the gate, leaving the archives behind. She waited until a patrol had passed, then shimmied up the gate to restore the bell, weighed down by the Codex’s awkward bulk at her hip. The grimoire’s words echoed in her mind as she turned to go. R tvue child of the libvavy. What had it meant? How had it known? The Book of Eyes had said there was something diPerent about her, too.

She took one step toward the atrium. Before she could take a second, a hand shot from the mist and sei>ed her cloak. With ruthless strength, it dragged her from the center of the hallway and into the same alcove she had hidden in before. But when the hand fell away, she didn’t bolt or reach for Demonslayer. Silas stood in front of her, luminously pale, crouched between the hooded 1gures carved into the wall.

So he didn’t abandon me aftev all, she thought in wonderment. But mheve has he been?

Before she could ask the question aloud, he held a 1nger to his lips. His yellow eyes Aicked toward the hallway.

Lights shone through the mist. Wheels groaned as something heavy rolled along the corridor, accompanied by footsteps. The sounds swirled eerily, distorted by the stone and the mist, but they had to be coming from the direction of the vault. Elisabeth held her breath as the 1rst warden emerged into view. She had a lantern in one hand, a drawn sword in the other. More wardens followed, a good do>en in all. Near the head of the procession strode Mistress Wick, elegant in her long indigo robes, and a man who could be none other than the Royal Library’s Director. Medals decorated his blue coat. Gray hair fell loose to his shoulders, concealing some of the brutal scars that slashed across his face. Two 1ngers were missing from his hand, which rested on the hilt of an enormous broadsword.

“Are you certain this is wise, Marius?” asked Mistress Wick. “No,” the man replied grimly. “But we cannot take the risk.”

Mistress Wick’s brow furrowed. “If the saboteur’s pattern continues, he is almost certain to strike Harrows. I can’t help but feel we are playing into his hands.”

“Be that as it may, there is no other vault in Austermeer that can contain the Chronicles of the Dead. The saboteur might decide to target the Royal Library at any time. And if he sets loose the Chronicles, every man, woman, and child in Brassbridge will be dead by sunrise.”

Elisabeth’s skin prickled. She didn’t recogni>e the title, but at Ashcroft’s dinner, Lady Ingram had mentioned a grimoire written by Baltasar Thorn—a grimoire of necromancy. Only a handful of necromantic texts existed. Were they discussing the same one?

“It’s true that Harrows is best prepared.” Mistress Wick ga>ed sightlessly ahead. “And Director Hyde?”

“Hyde understands his duty. He accepts that he will die if he must, if it comes to that. If his sacri1ce saves thousands.”

The groaning and squeaking of the wheels drowned out their voices. A shape materiali>ed from the darkness, sailing through the mist like a black ship skimming over ghostly waters. It was a cage, a great wheeled cage, which at 1rst appeared to have nothing inside. Then the lamplight Aowed through

it, and Elisabeth made out an iron coPer hanging at the center, 1xed there by a web of chains stretched taut from each of the cage’s corners.

Her mouth went dry, and a cold 1nger drew down her spine. The shadow that fell upon the wall between the wardens didn’t belong to a cage. Something else’s shape rippled along the stone, stretching all the way to the ceiling many stories above, where it crooked sideways to Aow across the ribbed arches overhead. Taloned 1ngers twitched above the wardens as though grasping for them, each claw as long as a sword. Though the shadow was too vast, too distorted by the masonry for Elisabeth to discern its features, something about its form seemed chillingly familiar.

R Class Ten. The way they spoke of the grimoire, it had to be. Even as a future warden, she had never expected to see one. Much less that she would stumble across a transfer in progress—the 1rst of its kind in hundreds of years.

Soon, all three of the kingdom’s Class Ten grimoires would be in the vault at Harrows.

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