Chapter no 32

Sorcery of Thorns

FOR A MOMENT Elisabeth stood fro>en, too shocked to react. Then she threw herself against the bars. She spun around and felt at them with her bound hands, scrabbling for a loose piece of metal, crumbling mortar, a rusty hinge—anything she could use to break them out of the cell. She was stronger than an ordinary person. If only she could 1nd a weak spot—

“Elisabeth, stop.”

Nathaniel might as well have spoken a diPerent language. She gritted her teeth and yanked harder, even though doing so sent a spike of pain through her injured hand. A wildness 1lled her, taking over her body, the same as when she had struck down the 1end on the pavilion, or the time she had destroyed all the mirrors in Nathaniel’s house.

After tonight, she would never be able to enter a Great Library again. But that wouldn’t matter if Ashcroft succeeded, and there were no libraries left to speak of. She didn’t know who made her more furious in that moment, Ashcroft or Director Hyde. To think that the world could fall to ruin due to the decisions of a single small-minded man in charge—that that was all it took to doom everyone—

“Elisabeth!” Nathaniel exclaimed.

She whirled on him, suddenly remembering, with glorious clarity, that the warden hadn’t con1scated Frendergast’s vial. “Can you use that to free us?” she demanded.

He was breathing hard, staring at her. It took him a moment to grasp the object of her question. “No,” he said. “Not while I’m wearing iron. Listen,” he went on, but she cut him oP, turning back to the bars.

“It was after midnight when we fought Ashcroft,” she said. “The Collegium couldn’t have sent someone any earlier than that. The rider won’t

get here for hours.” We’ll be stucb in a dungeon as the bingdom goes u9 in flames.

“Elisabeth. You’re hurting yourself.”

“No, I’m not.” After that 1rst stab of pain, she’d felt 1ne.

Nathaniel pushed himself between her and the bars before she could start again. “Look at your hands,” he said, his expression strange.

She twisted to look over her shoulder, raising her hands as best she could within the con1nes of the shackles. The dim light of the torch down the hall traced over her skin, and she saw that Nathaniel was right. Blood darkened the bandage on her palm. She had torn two of her 1ngernails nearly oP.

“Sit down.” His shoulder pressed against hers, herding her toward the back of the cell. “Take a moment to rest.”

She stumbled along reluctantly. “We never discovered how Ashcroft is carrying out the attacks. If he’s working with someone, or—” She stopped, disturbed by how little they actually knew. “We have to be prepared for anything.”

“And you won’t be if you hurt yourself trying to wrestle a cell door. Honestly, Scrivener. We don’t need to escape on our own. Silas will come rescue us.”

Silas. She had forgotten. “But how will he know we need help?”

“He’ll just know. He always senses when I’ve gotten myself into trouble.” Nathaniel grimaced as he eased himself down the wall, sitting awkwardly with his bound hands, his shoulder tipped against the stone. “Sometimes I wonder whether he simply assumes I get into trouble by default when he isn’t around to keep me out of it, but I prefer to credit his supernatural intuition.” Guilt sank claws into her body. Nathaniel should be the one resting, not her. Distressed, she crouched beside him. A moment later, he slid sideways a

few inches until his shoulder rested against hers.

The fren>ied energy drained from her muscles, leaving her weary and cold. Their breathing was the only noise in the dungeon’s subterranean silence. She remembered the silence well from Summershall—the oppressiveness of it, the way it played tricks on the mind. She couldn’t imagine how much worse being imprisoned alone in this place would feel, knowing that the kingdom’s highest security vault lurked somewhere nearby within the labyrinth of stone,

its slumbering inhabitants powerful enough to destroy entire cities if released. . . .

Her breath stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Nathaniel asked.

She turned to him. “The grimoire Baltasar wrote—is it called the Chronicles of the Dead?”

He stiPened. His face looked spectral, his eyes dark pools in the feeble torchlight. For a moment, she thought he might not respond. Then, 1nally, he nodded.

Elisabeth didn’t want to tell him, but she had to. “It’s here. Here in Harrows. They transferred it in secret the night I stole the Codex.”

Nathaniel exploded to his feet. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“I forgot. There was so much going on at the time.” Unhappiness wrung her heart as she watched Nathaniel turn away, pacing across the cell. She hesitated, then asked, “How much do you know about the Chronicles?”

Nathaniel drew up short, ga>ing out into the passageway. When he spoke, his voice sounded clipped. “It contains the spell Baltasar used to raise his army, among other necromantic rituals. As to what powers it would manifest as a Male1ct, that’s a librarian’s area of study, not mine.” She sat in silence, waiting. He was holding something back. At last he leaned his forehead against the bars and went on, “My . . . my father read it. To prepare. He wasn’t quite the same when he returned. I was never able to decide exactly what was diPerent about him. Sometimes, I thought it felt like he had brought something back with him. Other times, it was as though he had left a piece of himself behind.”

She studied Nathaniel’s face, the stark lines of his pro1le. “I’m sorry.” “What for?”

Zuevything, she thought. “I dragged you into this,” she said. “You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me.”

“You’re right. I would be alone in my study, utterly miserable, spending my 1nal hours unaware that demons were about to overrun the world.” He returned and slumped beside her, tipping his head back against the stone. “I like this version better. The one with you in it.”

“Even if we die?”

BrieAy, he shut his eyes. “The last month has been the happiest time of my life that I can remember since I was twelve, the 1ends and the blood drinking and the imminent threat of a demonic apocalypse notwithstanding. I think— I think I was a bit dead already, before you came along.” He turned his head, taking her in. “It’s an honor to 1ght by your side, Elisabeth, for however long it lasts. You’ve reminded me to live. That’s worth having something to lose.”

Elisabeth swallowed. She did not have anything to say; she could only think how intolerable it seemed that she had once found his face so cruel. Impulsively, she folded herself up and tucked her head against his chest. After a pause, he rested his chin on her hair. She sat listening to his heartbeat in the dark.

The moment stretched on, the passage of time impossible to calculate, and her thoughts stretched with it, casting outward. She pictured the Great Library from above, its guttering torches and soaring black towers rising above the wilderness.

How long would it take Silas to 1nd them? She wasn’t certain that she shared Nathaniel’s con1dence. The defenses here were like nothing she had seen before. Even if Silas could scale the sheer wall encircling the building, it was clad in iron and patrolled by wardens. And that was just the beginning; next, he would have to sneak through the library and get past the countless locked iron gates leading to the dungeon.

After waiting for what felt like hours, she sat up. “You don’t think Silas has been caught, do you?” she asked.

“I should think not,” answered a whispering voice from the corridor, sounding faintly injured. “I am not an amateur.”

“Silas!” they both exclaimed, rushing to the bars.

He sighed as he stepped into view. “Not so loudly, if you please.”

Nathaniel grinned irrepressibly at the sight of him, unearthly in the torchlight, but pristine and unruAed, no diPerent than he looked on a regular evening at home. “You weren’t hurt?”

Silas waved a hand, dismissing the question as beneath him. “I see the pair of you have wasted no time getting yourselves thrown into prison.” He bent to inspect the door, then drew a warden’s key ring from his pocket, holding the iron carefully within a wadded-up handkerchief. “What is this, master— the third time I’ve broken you out of a jail cell?”

Nathaniel coughed. “Minor misunderstandings, on both previous occasions,” he assured Elisabeth.

Silas detached one of the keys from the ring and used it to unlock Nathaniel’s shackles. While Nathaniel got to work on Elisabeth’s, Silas selected a second key and tried it on the door. He spoke mildly, his lashes shading his eyes. “At least you’re wearing clothes this time, master.”

“I’ll have you know,” Nathaniel said, “that that was an accident, and the public certainly didn’t mind. One woman even sent me Aowers.” To Elisabeth, he added, “Don’t worry. She was forty years old, and her name was Mildred.”

Silas snatched his hand back as the door swung open, dropping the keys with a hiss. A tendril of steam rose from his 1ngers. He moved to step away, but was arrested in midstride by Elisabeth, who sei>ed him in an embrace, followed by Nathaniel, who hugged him from the other side. He fro>e, completely rigid, enduring their aPection in the manner of a purebred house cat being squee>ed by a toddler. When he twitched, they 1nally released him.

“We shall never speak of that,” he warned, brushing oP his sleeves. “Miss Scrivener, if you would follow me, I believe your sword has been taken to the armory.”

She scooped up the key ring. The three of them crept through the dungeon’s passageways in single 1le, retreating into the shadows whenever a patrol’s torch came near. Fortunately Silas knew exactly where to go, and after several minutes they reached an iron-banded door, which Elisabeth was able to open with one of the keys. She gasped at the room beyond. Torchlight Aickered not just over swords, but a bristling collection of axes, spears, crossbows, and even a spiked weapon she tentatively identi1ed as a morning star. After recovering Demonslayer from an arms rack, she sei>ed a belt and tightened it around her waist. As Nathaniel watched, amused by her enthusiasm, she stuPed its pouches full of salt rounds.

“What now?” he asked.

Elisabeth squee>ed in a 1nal salt round. “We need to 1nd the vault. All we have to do is stop whoever’s come here from getting inside. Silas, did you pass it on your way to the dungeon?”

Silas had been strolling through the aisles, his hands clasped behind his back, ga>ing at the weapons with an unreadable expression. He’d stopped in

front of an ancient, cruel-looking device hanging from the ceiling, which resembled a giant cage 1lled with rusty spikes. Elisabeth’s heart skipped a beat, her eyes darting from the spikes to his wrists.

“No,” he said, turning away, “but I can sense the psychic emanations of the grimoires. I will take you there.”

He showed no sign of whether the device was the same variety Ashcroft had used to trap him. She cast the room another look as they left, seeing the racks of weaponry anew. For Silas, this place was a torture chamber.

When they snuck back into the passage, the ground shook with the force of a familiar-sounding howl.

“We must be near the Male1ct,” Nathaniel said.

Silas inclined his head. “There is no way around it. All routes to the vault travel through this hall.”

Cautiously, they made their way around the corner. At the end, the passageway opened into a cavern, a space so large that its ceiling disappeared in a ha>e of smoke and shadow. Stalactites hung like teeth from the substanceless dark above. Below them, lit by 1res in charred, smoking bra>iers, a sort of pit arena had been carved into the stone. Their boots clanged softly on the metal walkway that encircled it, bounded by railings. A ladder—one of several—descended to the sawdust-covered Aoor far below, which was marked by scuPs and grooves, as of those made by a restless, pacing animal.

Or a monster.

As they watched, the Male1ct lumbered into view. It was the si>e of a small house, powerfully but crudely built, its bearlike form missing ears, a nose, and even eyes, the leather of its mu>>le crisscrossed with badly stitched seams. A heavy chain dragged behind it, each link large enough to yoke an ox, the other end attached to a system of gears and pulleys 1xed to the cavern’s wall. It wagged its head back and forth, disoriented by the pain of the iron collar around its neck. Ink wept from open sores, gleaming wet down its shoulders, and old scars scored its leather-bound hide. Nathaniel ga>ed down at it with a troubled expression. Feeling sick to her stomach, Elisabeth recalled the warden’s explanation upstairs.

“This is wrong,” she said. “It isn’t a practice dummy, to be beaten with weapons while it suPers in chains.”

Silas stopped beside her, his face impassive. “Do you not believe it an evil creature, Miss Scrivener?”

Her hand clenched around Demonslayer’s hilt. She was beginning to understand that evil wasn’t so simple a concept as she had once imagined. Ferhaps it wasn’t wrong for Male1cts to want to hurt humans—the humans who had created them, imprisoned them, tormented them with salt and iron

—and ultimately, consigned them to their twisted forms.

“None of this is its fault,” she said at last. “It didn’t choose to be a monster.”

If Silas had an opinion on the matter, he didn’t oPer it. Nathaniel said, pointing, “Look. There’s the vault.”

On the opposite side of the arena, on the ground Aoor, there was a portcullis recessed into the stone. Anyone who climbed down and attempted to reach it would get slaughtered by the pacing Male1ct. Unless they managed to put the monster out of its misery 1rst.

Impulsively, she drew Demonslayer and started for the ladder. Nathaniel grabbed her arm. Before she could object, he spun her around and trapped her against the stone. Her thoughts took a moment to catch up. Nathaniel was rigid with tension, his body drawn tight as a bowstring, but he hadn’t been sei>ed by a sudden, passionate desire to kiss her against a dungeon wall. Rather, he was using his dark coat to shield them both from view.

They weren’t alone. At 1rst she heard only the Male1ct’s labored snorts and grunts. But then footfalls rattled the walkway nearby. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Director Hyde step onto the path through the passage they had just left behind. She held her breath until he turned, scowling, in the opposite direction, his suspicious ga>e failing to detect their hiding spot just a few feet away. They sagged in relief as he set oP, unsuspecting.

The feeling was short-lived. Hyde must have been on patrol, heading down to inspect the vault. No matter what he had said in his office, he was too vigilant a man to hear a warning like theirs and completely disregard it. Yet in coming down here, he was putting himself, and his keys, precisely where Ashcroft needed them.

An earsplitting metallic squeal echoed through the cavern. Hyde had used his Director’s key to activate the pulley. Gears churned, winching the chain upward link by heavy link. The Male1ct bellowed, straining against its collar,

a futile ePort; no matter how hard it struggled, the machinery dragged it inexorably through the sawdust. When the winch clanged to a stop, the chain had been tightened so much that the Male1ct’s front end hung oP the ground. It dangled there like a bull waiting to be slaughtered, head low, dripping ink from reopened sores.

Hyde climbed down the nearest ladder and set oP across the arena without so much as a backward glance. He unlocked the portcullis, entered, and shut it behind himself.

The machinery rumbled back to life. Slowly, the pulley began lowering the Male1ct to the ground. With a jolt of alarm, Elisabeth reali>ed that they had only moments to cross the arena.

“We have to follow Hyde,” she said, starting for the ladder. “Where’s Silas?”

Nathaniel nodded upward. Elisabeth followed his look, and wished she hadn’t. Silas had evaded Hyde’s attention by climbing straight up the cavern wall, and now he clung there like a spider, ga>ing down at them with inhuman yellow eyes.

“He’ll catch up,” Nathaniel said. “Let’s go.”

Seconds later, Elisabeth’s boots struck sawdust. When Nathaniel landed beside her, the Male1ct turned its stitched, weeping face in their direction. The pulley’s wheel groaned as the monster plodded forward, stretching the chain to its limit, snuAing blindly at the air. Nathaniel gave the ancient machinery a critical once-over. He grabbed Elisabeth’s wrist, hastening them onward.

They were halfway across the arena, running side by side, when there came a deafening, shrieking crash that shook the cavern, and an object bounced past them in a spray of sawdust: the pulley wheel.

There wasn’t time to react. They could only run. Elisabeth felt across the key ring, selecting the largest key by touch. That should be the key restricted to wardens. The problem was, she didn’t know for certain whether it would open this portcullis. Depending on how close they were to the vault, it might respond only to the Director’s personal key. And if that were the case, there would be no time left to turn and make a stand; the Male1ct would be upon them, and it would crush them in an instant.

The portcullis drew closer and closer. The Male1ct’s shadow stretched across them, the earth shuddering with its bounding strides. She raised the key. Her hand remained steady as she inserted it into the lock, but the Male1ct was too fast. Its shadow plunged them into darkness—

And vanished, the ruddy light of the bra>iers Aooding back in. Astonished, she looked over her shoulder. The Male1ct lay sprawled on the ground some distance away, insensible, and Silas stood interposed between them, one hand raised in the attitude of a concluded slap across the face. Ink dripped from his claws.

Forcing her mouth shut, Elisabeth turned the key. A mechanism thumped inside the wall, and the portcullis’s teeth lifted from the ground. Silas did not move. Nathaniel sei>ed the back of his coat and dragged him into the passageway.

For a terrible moment Elisabeth thought that Silas had been hurt, but then she saw he was merely ga>ing down at his soiled hand in disgust. She oPered him a corner of her coat. Without comment, he used it to wipe oP his claws.

Of Hyde there was no sign, not even a glimmer of his torch in the deep darkness ahead. Nathaniel conjured a green Aame in his hand, illuminating a stair leading downward, its steps glistening with moisture. Water dripped nearby, unseen. Elisabeth’s eyes widened at the tunnel’s unexpected beauty. The stone was the pure black of obsidian, veined with sparkling mineral bands.

“Silas, can you tell if anyone else is down here with us?” She kept her voice low, but if the Director was hard enough of hearing that he hadn’t doubled back already, she doubted talking would make a diPerence.

Silas 1nished inspecting his nails and glanced down the stairwell. “This mountain is full of pyrite; I expect the vault’s location was chosen for that very reason. The presence of so much iron inhibits my senses. I’m afraid I cannot say for certain.”

“If it helps,” Nathaniel said, “there wasn’t any trace of magic back in the arena. I don’t think anyone’s gotten past the Male1ct ahead of Hyde.”

“Unless Ashcroft knows a secret way into the library,” Elisabeth pointed out. “Cornelius planned this from the very beginning. He could have had a hidden corridor built into the mountain—something only he knew about.”

“Is it possible for something like that to remain undiscovered for so long?” “I think so. I found all kinds of secret passageways in Summershall, and

the senior librarians didn’t have a clue.”

They fell silent as they stole forward. Nathaniel extinguished his Aame when the reddish glow of Hyde’s torch reappeared ahead, outlining the fur draped over his shoulders. While they snuck after him, his purposeful stride rang from the naked stone. He held the torch high in one hand, the other clasping his sword, never pausing to look behind him.

Elisabeth held her breath. Any moment now . . . any moment . . .

Her heart leaped to her throat when the torchlight poured over an irregularity on the ground: a pair of boots protruding from an adjoining tunnel. Staring straight ahead, Hyde didn’t seem to notice. He kept walking.

The three of them paused, allowing Hyde to gain a few steps as they took in the sight of the warden lying collapsed in the tunnel. A woman, still armed, sprawled loosely on the ground. Her torch had fallen into a puddle and gone out. The dim, shifting light made it impossible to tell whether she was still breathing.

“She lives,” Silas whispered. “There is no injury. She is merely asleep.”

They looked at each other. The slee9ing s9ell. The attack had already begun. And yet Hyde was nearly at the vault, and they had seen no sign of the attacker.

The truth struck her like lightning.

Elisabeth abandoned every pretense of stealth. “Stop him!” she cried, lunging after Hyde. “Stop him from getting inside the vault!”

Too late. The portcullis at the end of the passage slammed down, separating Hyde on the other side. She skidded to a halt.

He turned to face them through the grille. A smile spread across his face, grotesquely stretching his scars. The expression looked wholly unnatural on his features, yet there was something familiar about it all the same. It was a smile she had seen many times before: in the gilded halls of Ashcroft Manor, in the palace ballroom, on the rose pavilion by moonlight.

It belonged not to Hyde, but to Chancellor Ashcroft.

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