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Chapter no 31

Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH FELL. IMAGES whipped past like scenes glimpsed through the window of a runaway carriage. Darkened hills. Trees silhouetted against the night sky. Countryside spread beneath a crescent moon. And stranger vistas, like a forest of gray, twisted branches shrouded in mist, and a ruin overgrown with luminous Aowers. They were not hurtling through the mortal realm or the Otherworld, but somewhere in between.

She couldn’t close her eyes. In this place of nothingness she felt no wind, no breath, only the pressure of Nathaniel’s hand gripping her own, accompanied by the endless sensation of falling.

And then wind slammed against her body. It tore the breath from her lungs, whipped her hair around her face. Cold pierced to the marrow of her bones. The ground reeled beneath her as though she had been spinning in circles; the stars whirled overhead.

She staggered, only for her boot to meet empty air. An arm hooked around her waist and yanked her back. Stones tumbled from the lip of rock where she had stood a second before, plunging silently toward the trees far below. The three of them had materiali>ed on a cliP’s edge. Stunned, she took in the di>>ying drop as Silas dragged them away from the precipice.

“We seem to be in the right place,” he remarked, “but you may wish to take more care with your aim on the return journey, master.”

Nathaniel laughed, a wild sound. Then he bent over and retched.

Something dark spattered the pine needles underfoot.

“It is not his blood, Miss Scrivener,” Silas said when she cried out in alarm. He steered Nathaniel toward a boulder and 1rmly sat him down before he fell over.

Of course. The vial hung half-empty against Nathaniel’s chest, the upper portion of the crystal coated in a red slime. In order to harness Frendergast’s magic, he had had to drink it. He’d explained the principles of the spell as they’d leaped from the disintegrating Codex back to his study, scrambling to tug their boots and coats on over their nightclothes. This was blood magic, strictly banned by the Reforms, which Elisabeth thought he had declared altogether too cheerfully as he’d raised the vial to his lips.

“Are you all right?” she asked, a twinge of nausea stealing through her relief.

Nathaniel grinned at her, even though he still looked slightly peaked. “Don’t worry, I’ve swallowed far less wholesome substances. Once, for instance, I was permanently banned from a lord’s estate for—”

“Let us save that story for another time, Master Thorn,” Silas interrupted, ignoring Nathaniel’s frown. “If memory serves, the Inkroad passes by this hill, and the Great Library lies less than a quarter mile onward. You will be able to reach it in a few minutes.”

“Aren’t you coming with us?” she asked.

“I am a demon, Miss Scrivener,” he replied softly.

She looked down at her hands, which had curled into 1sts. Silas had fought back against Ashcroft as hard as any of them. But if he came with them, the wardens would attempt to kill him on sight. The injustice of it made her sick.

He paused, taking in her expression. “I will accompany you as far as the road. That should be safe enough, as long as I am not seen.”

They recuperated for a few moments longer before Silas vanished into the trees. Elisabeth thought she glimpsed where he had gone: a trembling branch, and a Aash of white that might have been a cat’s fur. She helped Nathaniel back to his feet, shooting him a worried glance when he stumbled. Her own di>>iness had worn oP, but she had only experienced Frendergast’s magic secondhand. Nathaniel shouldn’t even be out of bed in the 1rst place.

A springy mat of needles cushioned their steps as they picked their way down the hill, passing gnarled pines and stones that thrust from the earth like broken bones. Above them, the jagged range of the Elkenspine rose to soaring heights, the summits stark white and imposing against the night sky. Snow streamed from the peaks like pennants, blown loose by the wind. Elisabeth

shivered. The wind tearing through the branches seemed to howl forth the landscape’s loneliness and isolation; her ears had already begun to sting from the cold.

Lights glittered ahead, winking between the heaving boughs of 1r trees. That was the 1rst glimpse Elisabeth received of the Great Library. When they reached the road and the view opened up, they both trailed to a halt.

They had to tilt their heads back to see the entire structure. It rose skyward like a black citadel, carved straight from the base of the mountain. Lamplight glowered behind its tall, arched stained glass windows, their panes locked away behind iron grilles. Torches guttered along the rampart that circled it in front, so high that Elisabeth couldn’t make out anyone patrolling the top, though she knew the wardens had to be up there, watching.

Warily, they pressed onward. Barricades had been erected on the road, studded with metal spikes facing outward. She and Nathaniel traded a look. The barricades weren’t designed to keep grimoires in—they were made to keep people out. The library was equipped to withstand a siege.

As they 1nished winding through the barricades, the sound of their footsteps rebounded forbiddingly from the wall. Elisabeth saw no evidence of a gate or doorway in the riveted iron sheets that made up its exterior, towering high above them.

“Hello?” she called up. “Is anyone there?”

Her voice echoed, bouncing back and forth between the high crenellations, a thin and desolate sound. For a moment, all was silent. Then a rumbling, clanging, grinding cacophony answered her—the friction of gears, the awakening of some immense machinery buried within the wall. The ground trembled. A motion at the top of the rampart caught her eye: cannons, swiveling down to aim at them. On second thought, cannons seemed like an inadequate word. The mouth of each gun was wide enough for a person to crawl inside.

She tensed in horror. “They aren’t going to 1re on us, are they?

Nathaniel?”

His eyes were closed, his face calm, lips moving soundlessly beneath the clamor of the gears. Her ears popped as the air grew heavy with damp. She looked up to see the sky above the Great Library boiling with clouds, their underbellies lit a menacing shade of green.

Figures leaped away from the cannons as a bolt of lightning forked over the rampart, barely missing them. The machinery ground to a halt. A slot slid open above their heads, and a pair of eyes glared down at them. A warden.

“Identify yourself, sorcerer!” he called down.

“Excellent,” Nathaniel said cheerfully. “I’ve gotten your attention. I am Magister Nathaniel Thorn, and this is Miss Elisabeth Scrivener. No doubt our reputations have preceded us. We come with an urgent warning for the Director.”

If their names had any ePect on the warden, he showed no sign. In fact, he still looked as though he’d prefer killing them to talking to them. “No one’s allowed in or out of the library. Magisters aren’t an exception. Leave, or we’ll 1re.”

“Wait.” Elisabeth tugged on the chain around her neck and pulled out her greatkey, lifting it to the light. She thought back to the conversation she had overheard between Mistress Wick and the Royal Library’s Director. “I promise Director Hyde will want to see us.”

The warden’s eyes widened at the sight of the greatkey, and even further at the mention of the Director’s name. As she had guessed, that name was only known within a select circle. To most people, he was just “the Director.” With luck, the warden would assume she was here on the Collegium’s authority.

Before she could lose her nerve, she continued, “We know the saboteur plans to strike tonight. We’ve come to stop it from happening.” Further inspiration struck. “I carry Demonslayer, the sword of the former Director of Summershall.”

“Show it to me.”

Elisabeth folded her coat aside, allowing the torchlight to glitter on Demonslayer’s garnets. She hoped Irena would understand it being used this way.

The warden’s eyes Aicked between her and Nathaniel. Then the slot slammed shut. Gears began rumbling again. But this time, it wasn’t the cannons that moved. A sheet of iron slid aside, revealing a portcullis hidden at the base of the rampart.

“Step inside,” the warden’s voice commanded.

After a hesitation, they obeyed. Colossal wheel-si>ed cogs churned behind them as the wall rolled back into place. Now they were trapped between the wall and the portcullis, in a sort of outdoor prison cell. The space reeked of machinery grease and was large enough to contain a coach and a full team of horses. Judging by the signs of wear on the Aagstones, it often did so. Anyone entering or exiting the Great Library had to stop here 1rst for an inspection.

Fast the bars, torchlight lapped across a grim courtyard. The Aagstones were crusted with a white rime of what she 1rst mistook for frost, but then reali>ed must be salt.

They waited for several minutes, shifting from foot to foot to stay warm.

Finally, the warden appeared on the other side of the portcullis.

“The Director will see you. But there are conditions. No weapons, and you have to wear shackles.” His eyes traveled to Nathaniel. He lifted up a clinking bundle of chains and cuPs. “Iron shackles.”

Nathaniel grimaced. “They’ll keep me from using sorcery,” he explained to Elisabeth under his breath. More loudly he said, “Fine. We accept.”

If Nathaniel was willing to bear having his magic taken away, she wasn’t about to make a fuss about handing over Demonslayer. But she nevertheless experienced a purely physical resistance when she tried. At 1rst her hand wouldn’t release the blade, and the warden had to tug on it, sending a twinge of pain through her injured palm, before her 1ngers allowed it to slide free. He handed their belongings oP to a second warden, who vanished into the shadows. Then Elisabeth and Nathaniel turned around and allowed him to put on the shackles, binding their hands behind their backs.

The portcullis rose with a squeal. “Follow me,” the warden said.

Their shackles’ chains clinked as they passed between the two grim obsidian angels Aanking the door. The wind cut oP abruptly when they crossed the threshold, replaced by a dusty silence 1lled with papery groans and mutterings. A handful of oil lamps did little to dispel the library’s oppressive gloom. Most of the light entered through high stained glass windows, decorated with scenes pieced together in doleful shades of gray and crimson, which cast splintered pools of moonlight on the tall black shelves. A dour-faced librarian glanced their way, then shuAed oP into the warren of corridors, his stained robes Aapping around his ankles. Elisabeth had heard

rumors that librarians considered an assignment to Harrows more of a punishment than a privilege. Now, it wasn’t difficult to see why.

There was no atmosphere of warmth or welcome to indicate the presence of friendly, well-treated grimoires. Instead a clammy sense of watchfulness prevailed, and the air stank of wood polish and mildew. Unlike the other Great Libraries, no grimoires sat out in the open; every bookcase was enclosed behind an iron grate. Hisses of fury rang out from the shelves as they passed. She felt as though they were walking through a darkened courtroom, enduring the censure of its unseen judges.

“No grimoires lower than a Class Four here,” the warden explained, seeing Elisabeth’s expression. “High-security texts only.” He sounded proud.

Without warning, a shudder traveled through the marble tiles beneath their boots. More gears, she thought, until a muAed howl rose up from the Aoor—a sound that was neither human nor machine.

Nathaniel drew in a sharp breath. “What was that?”

“Captive Male1ct in the dungeon. Class Eight.” The warden gave him an unpleasant smile, clearly enjoying the rare opportunity to enlighten a sorcerer. “It guards the entrance to the vault. Sometimes, we use it for practice.”

The remark disturbed Elisabeth, but she dared not oPer her opinion. They ascended a narrow, spiraling stair, lightless and creaking, and emerged into a similarly narrow and dreary hall, at the end of which the warden rapped on a door, opened it, and stepped aside.

As they entered, the warden touched her arm. She tensed, but he only muttered, after a hostile glance at Nathaniel, “The Director is hard of hearing. Helps if he can read your lips.”

He pitched the advice for her ears alone. It took her a moment to understand why. Nathaniel was a sorcerer, an outsider, untrustworthy. She couldn’t explain the rush of anger she felt toward the warden in response. Not so long ago, she had believed the same as him. But she did not want to be this man’s ally and con1dant, even in his own mind, leaving Nathaniel the odd one out.

A 1re burned low in the room ahead, gilding the heads of the deer, wolves, and boars mounted on the walls, their plaques taking up almost every available inch of space. The 1gure who stood facing the 1re resembled a beast

himself: tall and broad, with a thick fur draped over the shoulders of his warden’s coat. Wind rattled the loose casement of his tower window, letting in drafts that ruAed the papers on his desk.

She and Nathaniel stood in the doorway like children summoned to a schoolmaster’s office, waiting for Director Hyde to turn around. Nathaniel shifted, unable to conceal his impatience.

Finally, the Director spoke. His deep, rumbling voice reminded Elisabeth of a bear. “The Great Library of Harrows has never been breached, by man or by grimoire, in the three hundred years since it was 1rst carved from the mountain. It has weathered tempests and broken every siege brought to its gates. You say there is going to be an attack tonight. How would you come to know such a thing, and why should I believe you?”

Before she could stop Nathaniel, he took one long stride toward the desk. “Sir, no doubt the warden has told you our names. Given the Chancellor’s attempt on our lives, and Miss Scrivener’s previous involvement—”

A Aoorboard squeaked as Director Hyde turned. Nathaniel fell silent, and Elisabeth fro>e. Hyde’s face was more scar than skin, lacerated by brutal claw marks that Elisabeth would not have thought survivable. Feering out from this landscape of ravaged Aesh, his eyes were bright, hard, and above all— suspicious. His ga>e raked across Nathaniel’s mouth. He had turned quickly enough to hear, or see, the end.

“What’s this about the Chancellor of Magic?” he growled.

At 1rst the question made no sense. Then, making a quick mental calculation, Elisabeth’s heart sank. She turned to Nathaniel. “No wonder the warden didn’t recogni>e our names,” she said under her breath. “They haven’t heard the news. The Collegium must have dispatched a rider to all the Great Libraries right away, but the message won’t reach Harrows until later tonight.” Uneasily, she looked back to Hyde. “They don’t know about Ashcroft.”

“Damn it all. I didn’t think of that. If only we’d brought a newspaper with us . . .” Nathaniel cleared his throat and continued in a louder voice, “Director, allow me to explain. Chancellor Ashcroft is a traitor. The night before last, he was unmasked as the saboteur.”

Hyde glanced back and forth, taking in the ease of their exchange. We’ve being too familiav mith each othev, she reali>ed. No respectable librarian would

ever speak to a sorcerer the way she had, much less a magister. As if he were a friend—an intimate. But surely that didn’t matter as much as the news they carried. Surely Hyde was taking them seriously. . . .

At last he said, “Scrivener. I know your name. You’re from the Great Library of Summershall.”

She nodded, setting her jaw against a quaver of foreboding. “The Chancellor took me captive in his manor,” she explained. “While I was there, I overheard his plans. The rest of the story is complicated. But Nath— Magister Thorn is telling the truth. A rider will arrive from the Collegium to verify everything.”

“Everything, including the imminent attack on this library?”

Nathaniel shot Elisabeth a look before he answered. His expression had become increasingly guarded. “No, we discovered that ourselves and came directly. We didn’t have time to alert the Collegium. The Chancellor is sacri1cing the grimoires as part of a ritual. I assure you I’m not exaggerating when I say that the fate of the entire kingdom is at stake.”

“Flease, Director,” she broke in. “Harrows is the 1nal step in the Chancellor’s plan. You already knew that the saboteur was likely to target this location next, given the pattern of his attacks. He could be in1ltrating the library even now.”

That seemed to be the wrong thing to say. Hyde stepped around the desk, the Aoor creaking beneath his weight. His shadow fell over her, as frigid as the draft from the window. When he next spoke, his voice was dangerously quiet. “And how is it that you’ve managed to reach Harrows more quickly than the Collegium’s fastest riders? Not you, Magister Thorn. I want Scrivener to

answer me.”

She swallowed. “Magic,” she said, her voice trembling only slightly. “We used magic.”

His face darkened. “Are you saying you have dabbled in sorcery, Scrivener?”

She couldn’t take it back. She raised her head, meeting his eyes. “Yes. And I would do it again if I had to.”

His 1st sei>ed the front of her cloak, bunching the fabric in his huge, scarred 1ngers, and lifted her from the ground.

“Let go of her,” Nathaniel snapped. There came a scuAe and a rattling of chains; he had lunged for Hyde, and the warden keeping watch had sei>ed him.

The Director paid Nathaniel no mind. His eyes roved over Elisabeth’s face from mere inches away, full of disgust. Shame burned within her—shame as real, as physically painful as the lash of a switch—but she didn’t look away. The Collegium’s teachings held power over her still; perhaps they always would. She had grown around them like a sapling around a nail, taking the foreign part into the core of herself, no matter how poisonous. But she had not been through everything she had, fought and suPered, to yield to this man’s will like a chastened apprentice.

“You’ve been corrupted,” he growled.

“If that’s true,” said Elisabeth, “then we’re all corrupted, and have been from the start. You know that the libraries we serve were built by a sorcerer. Have you ever questioned why?”

A scowl answered her. Of course. This was not a man who asked questions. He’d followed orders his entire life until he’d eventually become the person giving them, one identical cog swapped out for another to keep the library’s machinery running the exact same way it had for centuries.

Even so, she couldn’t give up hope of breaking through to him. “Have you ever seen a summoning circle, Director?” she pressed. “No—I don’t suppose you have, but surely you can imagine—”

“Silence!”

Spittle Aecked her face. She choked on her words, stunned into obedience as his other hand came up, roughly, and sei>ed a hank of her hair. Too late, she understood what he had been looking for, and what he had found. Silver gleamed between his scarred 1ngers.

“You bear a demon’s mark,” he snarled.

Silence. Hideous silence, in which she heard the rasp of the warden’s indrawn breath.

“Director,” Nathaniel interjected sharply, a note of real panic in his voice, “I speak on my honor when I say that Miss Scrivener’s mind remains entirely her own, that this situation is far more complicated than you can possibly—” He stopped there with a grunt, as though the warden had kneed him in the stomach to shut him up.

Elisabeth barely heard. Too late, too late, too late. If only she had remembered to snip oP the silver lock . . .

Hyde’s features twisted in revulsion. With a great heave, he threw her to the Aoor, sending her sprawling. She landed poorly, and cried out when the shackles cracked against her spine.

“Elisabeth!”

“I will listen to none of your lies,” the Director ground out. “You are a disgrace to the Collegium, girl. Corrupted. Tainted. Addled by demons.” Each word struck her like a kick to the stomach.

“Have you gone completely mad?” Nathaniel roared. “She risked her life to come here! She’s trying to saue you, you imbecile!”

Hyde whirled on him. “And you, no doubt responsible for leading the girl into darkness. I have seen enough of this vile display.” To the warden, he said, “Take them to the dungeon. They cannot be trusted. Only time will tell whether they are telling the truth, or are involved in the sabotage themselves.” Through a ha>e of misery, Elisabeth felt the warden wrestle her upright and march her out the door. Judging by the storm of invectives that followed, Nathaniel was being treated similarly. She had never heard him so angry. The air even held a faint tang of sorcery, as though his rage was nearly sufficient to

overcome the iron.

They were taken back down the spiral stair and past the shelves, down a few more times, and soon she stumbled over the roughly hewn stones of a dungeon passage, averting her eyes from the sputtering torches. Metal clanked; then she was shoved forward into a cell, bare aside from a bucket in the corner and a scattering of straw on the ground. Nathaniel received such a hard push that he went down onto his knees, unable to catch himself with his hands bound. The cell door slammed shut.

The warden paused before he turned away. He regarded Elisabeth expressionlessly, his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“It isn’t too late to stop this,” she said, gathering her strength. “There’s still time—”

“I don’t speak to traitors,” he interrupted. Then he left without another word, his boots echoing down the corridor into silence.

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