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Chapter no 33

Sorcery of Thorns

“I SEE YOU’VE FIGURED it out, Miss Scrivener,” Ashcroft said, his cultured voice uncanny on Hyde’s scarred lips. “Quite honestly, I’m surprised it took you so long. After all, you’ve met the Book of Eyes.”

The Boob of Zyes.

At once, the missing pieces snapped into place. When Elisabeth had battled the Male1ct in Summershall, it had taunted her with the truth of who had killed the Director. Irena herself had described the spells it contained: magic that allowed sorcerers to reach into people’s minds, read their thoughts, and even control them. How had the Book of Eyes known the saboteur’s identity? The answer was simple—it had encountered him before. Given his status, Ashcroft would have been one of the rare few trusted to study such a dangerous grimoire.

To carry out his plans, he hadn’t needed to work with an accomplice, or even leave the comfort of his manor.

“You’ve been possessing the Directors,” she said numbly. “You’ve been forcing them to perform the sabotage with their own hands.”

“Beg pardon?” Ashcroft leaned closer to the bars and frowned, rubbing Hyde’s ear. “You know, I can barely hear what you’re saying. Quite inconvenient, really. But no matter. I won’t have to wear this body for long.” Spinning the key ring jauntily on his 1nger, he turned and strolled deeper into the vault.

Blood roared in Elisabeth’s ears. Nothing felt real. She took in the vault as though she were dreaming: an immense natural cavern, the walls glittering with pyrite. Towering angel statues stood vigil along the walls, carved from obsidian, streams of molten iron pouring from their cupped hands to the Aoor below. A circular channel conducted the liquid metal around the

room’s circumference like a moat. Ashcroft stepped Hyde’s body over a narrow black stone bridge, the edges of his coat wavering from the heat distortion. His movements were oddly clumsy, and once he even jerked sideways, barely regaining his footing before he pitched over the edge.

“Hyde is still in there,” Elisabeth reali>ed in shock. “He’s battling for control.” And then she thought, This is mhat ha99ened to Ivena.

Without warning, a blast of emerald 1re exploded past her, singeing the tips of her ears. It funneled through the grille and twisted after Ashcroft like a cyclone. But as it neared him, it 1>>led out in a shower of green sparks.

Nathaniel dropped his arm and swore. “Too much iron.”

Moving in awful 1ts and jerks, Ashcroft Aicked a residual ember from Hyde’s fur. “I know what you’re thinking, Miss Scrivener,” he said without turning. He had succeeded in crossing the bridge. “You’re wondering what it was like for dear, beautiful Irena when I entered her mind and forced her to betray everything that she loved. Foor woman—she never suspected anything. I cast the spell on her years ago in the reading room at Summershall. When you’re the Chancellor of Magic, it’s no trouble arranging a private meeting with a Director. My magic lived inside her for nearly a decade, waiting for me to activate it.”

Elisabeth sucked in a breath. As though it had happened yesterday, she recalled the choking smell of aetherial combustion that clung to the reading room’s armchair: the permanent residue of some old, powerful spell. Distantly, she was aware of Nathaniel steadying her.

“Irena struggled, too, of course. She was strong-willed, just like you. She was there with me the entire time, all the way to the vault, up until the very moment the Book of Eyes struck her down.”

A sound escaped Elisabeth, something between a scream and a sob. Ashcroft wasn’t paying attention. He had nearly reached the middle of the room.

A trio of massive obsidian columns dominated the vault’s center, stretching unbroken to the ceiling. A crossed key and quill had been carved into the Aoor between them. Ashcroft stepped on the symbol as he approached, raising Hyde’s torch. “Magni1cent, is it not?”

At 1rst she wasn’t certain what he was referring to. Then light Aooded the nearest column. Vapors swirled inside the translucent stone, wreathing a

shape that hung suspended in chains. As though agitated by Hyde’s proximity, the mist began to boil, and lightning Aashed within its depths. Each Aicker illuminated a grimoire’s cover, bound in glossy black scales edged with silver. The cover inAated and deAated steadily, as though the grimoire were breathing.

The columns weren’t meant to hold up the ceiling. Instead, they contained Class Tens.

“The Librum Draconum,” Ashcroft said, a hint of true awe softening his voice. “Created using the hide of a Lindwurm—the last dragon in Austermeer, hunted to extinction in the fourteenth century. The spells inside can summon cataclysmic storms and earthquakes, invoke natural disasters on a world-altering scale 

He moved on to the next column, bringing the torch close. He released a wistful sigh. Within the chains hung—nothing. No there was something

there, reAective and shifting, mirrorlike, its surface Aowing like water. Trying to focus on it made Elisabeth’s head hurt.

“The Oraculis,” Ashcroft murmured. “Frovenance unknown. Its spells allow one to see the future, or so the theories suggest, but everyone who’s read it has immediately taken their own life. A shame. I dearly would have liked to study it.”

He approached the third case. Through the translucent obsidian, the torch revealed the slick, pulsing skin of a beating heart. It clung to the grimoire’s cover like some hideous growth, its veins wrapped around the leather, sealing the pages shut. The veins bulged rhythmically, as though pumping blood—but the green glow that animated them was pure sorcery, the magic of House Thorn. Necromancy, keeping the long-dead heart alive.

“Ah. The Chronicles of the Dead.” Ashcroft tapped on the case, and smiled pensively when the heart spasmed in response. “Those who try to open it instantly succumb to its magic. Except for you, Nathaniel. This book is yours. It calls out to you, no doubt. How would you like to meet your ancestor’s work?”

“Don’t,” Nathaniel croaked. He gripped the bars, his 1ngers bled white. Elisabeth’s senses came Aooding back on a tide of fury. “It won’t work!”

she shouted through the portcullis. “You won’t be able to control the

Archon! It’s going to tear the world apart. When you summon it, you’ll be the 1rst to die!”

Ashcroft paused, peering at them, a hand cupped behind his ear. “I confess I’ve never been any good at reading lips,” he said 1nally. He gave a rueful laugh. “You’re asking me to stop, aren’t you? Ah, Miss Scrivener, you do not understand. You cannot understand. This is the purpose handed down to me by my father, and his father before him, stretching back three hundred years. I am part of something far greater than myself.” He tilted his head back, ga>ing up at the column. “With the Archon’s power at my disposal, humanity will be transformed. No more sickness, or poverty, or war. It will be a marvel—a glorious era in which all is possible, and every dream made real 

He trailed oP. Emotion shimmered in his eyes. Even wearing Hyde’s form, something of Ashcroft’s natural light and magnetism shone through.

He veally belieues mhat he’s saying, Elisabeth thought, horri1ed. In his heart of hearts, he viewed himself not as the villain, but as the hero.

Ashcroft cleared his throat. “Let’s see.” He paced in a circle, inspecting the Collegium sigil on the Aoor. “Cornelius faced somewhat of a problem with this library’s construction. How does one free a grimoire from an iron-1lled vault several hundred feet beneath a mountain? Fortunately, the Collegium’s own technology provided the solution.”

He moved to draw Hyde’s sword from its sheath, and stopped abruptly. Hyde’s hand had clamped around the hilt, muscles bulging with resistance. His face purpled as the two minds fought for control. Hope 1lled Elisabeth’s chest like a breath in the midst of drowning.

“The iron must be weakening Ashcroft’s spell.” She turned to Nathaniel, who was white as a sheet, staring at the Chronicles. She didn’t think he would hear her if she spoke to him. Instead, she asked Silas, “Is there any way for you to get inside?”

Silas stood several paces back, a ghost in the darkness of the passageway. He stepped forward, reaching for the portcullis. Alarm clamored through her, but his hand stopped a hairsbreadth from touching the thick bands of reinforced iron.

“I fear not,” he said. “This gate was designed to prevent beings such as I from entering. Even if I could, I would not be at my full strength inside the

vault.”

No wonder Silas had been hanging back. In the infernal red glow of the molten iron, he looked washed out, almost ill.

A ring of metal against stone yanked her attention back to Ashcroft. He had managed to free Hyde’s sword, though in doing so he had lurched forward, nearly dropping the weapon. As she watched in dismay, he dragged the blade, scraping, until it stood vertically above the Collegium sigil, his weight bearing down upon it. And then, like a key 1tting into a lock, the sword’s point slid inside a hidden mechanism in the sigil. Sweating and trembling with ePort, Ashcroft twisted it to the right.

For a moment, nothing happened. Then a clank echoed through the cavern. The Aoor shook, gears churning unseen as the Great Library’s machinery awakened. A jagged crack raced across the ceiling. On the far side of the vault, one of the giant obsidian angels began to turn, not by sorcery but by the will of the cogs, its face motionless and serene. The stream of molten iron cascading from its hands slowed to a drip. Angled sideways, it created a blockage in the channel, and the moat slowly drained away at its feet.

In the place where the angel had once stood, a passageway now yawned. But Elisabeth had eyes only for the ceiling, where the crack had snaked across the cavern and split the rock above the portcullis. When she sei>ed the bars and shook them, she felt a slight give.

Ashcroft was bent over now, Hyde’s face writhing grotesquely. He staggered to the Chronicles’ pillar and caught himself against it with a hand that clenched repeatedly into a 1st. Using the other hand, he unsteadily raised his Director’s key toward a slot in the column.

There was still time. Ashcroft missed once, twice, the key glancing from the stone. Elisabeth threw herself against the portcullis. Metal groaned as it pushed outward an inch on one side, the grille Aexing against her shoulder.

With his lips peeled back from his teeth, Ashcroft at last forced the key into place. When he turned it, a panel slid open. Green-tinted mist Aowed out of it, pouring down, lapping over Hyde’s boots.

Thum9-thum9. Thum9-thum9. Thum9-thum9. The convulsions of the dead, ancient heart 1lled the cavern, thudding inside Elisabeth’s bones. The stench nearly brought her to her knees. It was like standing at the entrance to

a crypt, breathing in rot and stone and ancient magic, the smell of skulls crawling with beetles, of moss speckling crumbled tombs.

The portcullis screeched as she wedged her shoulder into the gap, using the passage’s wall as leverage. But she was too late.

Too late to stop Ashcroft as he reached inside, and plunged his 1ngers into the beating heart.

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