Chapter no 34

Sorcery of Thorns

THE HEART’S VEINS pulsed with emerald light. They began to spread, to grow, twining rootlike along the chains, sending branching tendrils outward. Elisabeth’s paraly>ed thoughts 1xed on the illustration of a nervous system that she remembered from one of Master Hargrove’s anatomical texts. The Chronicles was growing into a Male1ct, beginning with its heart.

Within seconds, the Male1ct’s expanding form crowded the inside of the column. Clawed 1ngers curled over the lip of the opening, their exposed tendons dripping ink. She remembered the shadows of those claws stretching across the Royal Library, reaching for the wardens as they wheeled its cage along the hall.

Ashcroft stumbled back, clutching his hand to his chest. Wild-eyed, he dove for the sword lying discarded beside the sigil. Not Ashcroft any longer— Hyde. Ashcroft had 1nished his work and relinquished his hold on the body, leaving Hyde at the mercy of the Chronicles of the Dead, just as he must have done to Irena after releasing the Book of Eyes.

The Male1ct’s hand shot out. Metal rattled as it jerked to a halt mere inches from Hyde, reaching the limits of the chain wrapped around its wrist. The links warped under the strain as the claws stretched closer, grasping for him.

Determination hardened Hyde’s face. He hefted his sword. “Not on my watch,” he growled. “Not while I still live, abomination.”

“Then die,” the Male1ct whispered, in a voice like wind rushing from a sepulcher. One of the claws straightened and touched Hyde’s cheek.

Hyde’s face emptied. Green light Aowed up the veins in his neck, rippled through his cheek, and traveled into the Male1ct’s claw. He blinked once. Then he toppled over dead, striking the Aoor as a blanched and withered

corpse. His body exploded into dust upon impact, as though it had lain desiccating in a mausoleum for centuries.

The Male1ct’s hand shuddered as the stolen life pulsed up its wrist. Cracks spiraled around the column. That was the only warning before the pillar burst, sending chunks of obsidian Aying. A tall, gaunt shape unfolded from the wreckage, obscured by swirls of dust. Broken chains dangled from its wrists, and a pair of antlers crowned its brow.

Elisabeth had seen that shape before, during the night she had spent with Nathaniel in the Blackwald. The grimoire’s heart—Baltasar had torn it from one of the moss folk. A giver of life, transformed into a taker of it; she couldn’t imagine anything more profane.

As though sensing her thoughts, the Male1ct’s head snapped around. Its green eyes burned through the dust. It stared at them for a long moment, perfectly still. Though it wasn’t much taller than the Book of Eyes, its presence exuded an ancient, festering malevolence that sent terror washing over her skin in frigid waves. Her instincts screamed at her to reach for Demonslayer, but she couldn’t move.

After a few more seconds, the monster appeared to lose interest. It turned and made for the passageway, stepping through the dry section of the channel before it disappeared into the darkness beyond.

The key ring jingled in Elisabeth’s pocket. She was shaking as though she had spent a night outdoors in midwinter. Even so, she wiped her palms on her coat and redoubled her ePorts to push open the portcullis. If the Male1ct were allowed to escape, countless people would die. After what she had just seen, she wasn’t certain if the wardens could stop it. What if it followed the Inkroad all the way to Brassbridge, sucking the life from entire towns as it went, leaving only dust behind?

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Nathaniel staring after the Male1ct. “Nathaniel,” she gritted through her teeth. “Help me.”

He didn’t tear his ga>e from the passageway. “Didn’t you hear that?” he asked.

His voice sounded strange, almost dreamy. She paused, taking in his expression. He looked far calmer now than he had a moment before. But his eyes were bright, as they had been on the laudanum. Even the reddish glow of the vault failed to mask his pallor.

“The voice,” he went on. “It was speaking . . . it wanted . . . you didn’t hear what it said?”

A chill ran down Elisabeth’s spine. She glanced at Silas, who gave a slight shake of his head—he hadn’t heard anything, either. Carefully, he placed a hand on Nathaniel’s arm. “Master,” he said.

Nathaniel’s brow furrowed. He scraped a hand through his hair. “Sorry,” he said, sounding much more like himself. “I don’t know what came over me. Of course I would be happy to join you in a life-endangering act of heroism, Scrivener. You must only say the word.”

Nathaniel braced his hands against the bars, and they pushed together. With one last agoni>ed groan, the portcullis bent outward enough for them to squee>e through sideways. Silas leaped after them in the form of a cat, balancing on Nathaniel’s shoulder. His tail lashed as they ran across the bridge, the heat of the still-steaming channel gusting over them like a forge.

Elisabeth forced herself not to look down when they passed Hyde’s empty uniform, or to lift her ga>e to the other Class Ten grimoires, roused from their stupor by the Chronicles’ escape. Lightning crackled through the Librum Draconum’s pillar, and a faint music emanated from the Oraculis, like chimes blowing in a distant bree>e.

She reached the passageway 1rst, and drew up short. The Male1ct’s stink of rot and stone hung about the entrance. Every 1ber of her body rebelled at the thought of entering, but she clenched her jaw, drew Demonslayer, and pushed onward. A moment later a green Aame ignited in Nathaniel’s hand, illuminating the sheen of sweat on his forehead. He shot her a grin as he dashed beside her, but she knew it was only a front. He had to be even more frightened than she was. He was about to face the stuP of his nightmares. But the way he had looked a minute ago, almost peaceful . . .

Unease gripped her. “What did you hear the Chronicles say?” she asked.

He glanced at her quickly, and then away, 1xing his ga>e ahead. “I think I must have imagined it.” He laughed unconvincingly, then forced out, “It wanted us to come—to go with it. Join it. But that doesn’t make any sense. Why on earth would it want that?”

Elisabeth hesitated. The Chronicles had spoken to Nathaniel alone. She doubted its invitation had been meant for all of them. “If it speaks to you

again,” she said, “promise me you won’t listen. That you’ll do anything you can to block it out.”

Nathaniel’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. “I will,” he said. Grimly, she hoped that would be enough.

The Male1ct wasn’t lying in wait for them; it had gone ahead. As the tunnel sloped upward, the 1rst thing she heard was the Great Library’s warning bell tolling mournfully through the stone, a sound that poured courage through her veins like 1re. If the wardens had rallied in time, hope still remained.

The passageway ended in a steep Aight of stairs. At the top, it looked as though the Male1ct had burst through the remaining earth by force, creating a shattered opening 1lled with a circle of night sky. As they clambered over the erupted Aagstones, they emerged into the chaos of a battle.

Cold struck Elisabeth like a slap across the face. Cannons boomed, red Aashes lighting up the Great Library’s salt-encrusted courtyard. A tang of gunpowder 1lled the air. Wardens pounded past, too engaged to spare her and Nathaniel a glance. Between each cannon blast, screams tore through the ringing in Elisabeth’s ears. Ahead, a section of the wall had been breached, its machinery a smoking ruin. As she stared around, trying to get her bearings, a warden staggered back through the breach, grayness creeping across his features like frost. When he had almost reached the library’s doors, he collapsed into dust.

The next cannon barrage illuminated a 1gure rearing above the rampart, the tines of its antlers stretching toward the moon. With a sideways slash, the antlers took out a cannon, tossing it aside in a spray of masonry.

Elisabeth took a faltering step backward. It didn’t seem possible, but— “It’s gotten huge,” she shouted over the din.

“It’s drawing strength from each life it takes,” Nathaniel shouted back. “It will only keep growing larger and more powerful.”

She turned to him, the wind tangling her hair around her face. “We have to stop it.”

Nathaniel’s gray eyes lingered on hers. Then he nodded. He bowed his head, his lips moving. Clouds swept over the moon and engulfed the stars. For a moment, the wind stilled completely. An eerie calm descended over the courtyard as the cannons ceased 1ring, unable to spot their target in the dark.

Even the tolling of the bell sounded muAed. In the sudden quiet, Nathaniel’s incantation seemed to grow louder, the Enochian syllables echoing from the walls.

“It’s the sorcerer,” a warden called out. “There he is!”

Elisabeth had been afraid of this. With no evidence of Ashcroft’s involvement, Nathaniel appeared to be responsible for the Chronicles’ escape. As wardens pelted in their direction, she stepped in front of him, Demonslayer at the ready. Silas leaped from his shoulder, human again before he struck the ground.

Demonslayer clashed against the closest warden’s sword, the vibration shuddering up her arm. He had the advantage of skill, but she was taller and stronger. Farrying recklessly, she managed to block his strikes until their blades locked.

“He isn’t the saboteur!” she shouted over their crossed weapons.

The warden didn’t listen. Veins stood out in his face as he pushed against her, his sword screeching dangerously along Demonslayer’s edge. Her stomach turned when she reali>ed she might have to start 1ghting him in earnest—perhaps even risk killing him. She couldn’t hold him oP for much longer without one of them getting hurt.

Nearby, Silas neatly sidestepped another warden’s swing, appearing behind him in the same breath. He sei>ed the man’s wrist and twisted. There came a sickening crack, and the warden yelled and dropped his sword. Before the weapon fell, Silas had already moved on to the next attacker in a blur of movement. One by one, wardens dropped like chess pieces around Nathaniel, left moaning and cradling their broken limbs.

Wind sliced across the courtyard. Nathaniel raised his head, his hair wild, his eyes rimmed with an emerald glow. Fire danced along his 1ngertips. He looked like a demon himself. Through bared teeth, he uttered the 1nal syllables of the incantation.

Elisabeth gasped when she lifted from the ground, the toes of her boots weightlessly brushing the Aagstones. Electricity snapped through the air, crackling over her clothes and standing her hair on end. The energy built and built until she thought her eardrums would burst—only to release in a rush that pulsed through her body, accompanied by a boom of thunder that felt as though the sky had plunged down to slam against the earth. Gravity yanked

her back to the ground as a bolt of lightning Aashed on the opposite side of the wall. It struck once, twice, three times, and kept going, each blinding, si>>ling blast twisting between the Male1ct’s antlers and coursing down its body in rivers of green light.

When the lightning 1nally ceased, her vision was too full of smoke and blotched purple afterimages to see what had happened. But she was able to venture a guess when a tremor ran through the courtyard, as though something heavy had fallen, and a cheer rose from the ramparts.

With a great shove, Elisabeth heaved the warden away. He stumbled, appearing uncertain. More wardens had arrived on the scene, but they hung back, staring at Nathaniel.

His chest heaved. Sparks Aickered over his body; miniature bolts of lightning crackled between the tips of his 1ngers and the Aagstones. As if that weren’t enough, he was grinning.

One of the wardens started forward.

“Stand down,” snapped a voice from above. A stocky woman with close-cropped hair stood on one of the stairways that >ig>agged up the inner side of the rampart, watching them. She vaulted over the railing and landed beside Elisabeth. “The battle isn’t over yet,” she said in a tone of authority, “and these two aren’t our enemies. Those of you who can still walk, clear a position for the sorcerer on the rampart. He’s a magister. We need him.” When none of the wardens reacted, she shouted, “Move!”

Before Elisabeth could respond, she found herself hastened alongside Nathaniel toward the stairway. The warden in charge watched them askance. “You had better not make me regret this. Have either of you seen the Director?”

“The Male1ct killed him,” Elisabeth said hoarsely.

She looked grim, but unsurprised. “I suppose that means I’m the Director now.” She paused, glancing at Silas before her eyes Aicked to Nathaniel. “That’s your demon, I take it?”

“Ah,” Nathaniel said, shaking a few last sparks from his 1ngertips. Deliberately, he avoided looking at the injured wardens still rolling around in the courtyard, clutching their broken legs. “I’m afraid so, Director.”

The warden—the new Director—was frowning. Elisabeth braced herself for disaster. But all she said was, “He’s a bit small,” and turned back ahead.

Their boots clattered on the metal grating. When they reached the top, smoke billowed over them in rancid clouds. Amid the ha>e, the wardens toiling over the cannons were little more than dark smudges picked out by the glow of torches. Elisabeth rushed to the crenellations and looked down. A smoldering mass lay crumpled at the base of the wall, surrounded by toppled barricades, whose spikes combed the smoke as it streaked away in the wind. But the fallen Male1ct wasn’t disintegrating into ash.

“It isn’t dead,” she shouted back.

“I would be greatly obliged if you could make it dead, Magister,” the Director said. “As quickly as possible, for all our sakes.”

Veiled in smoke, Nathaniel and Elisabeth exchanged a look. She knew the truth: there was no way to contain a monster this dangerous. Ashcroft hadn’t given them a choice. She imagined the Chronicles getting loose and rampaging through Brassbridge, smashing towers with its claws, leaving a trail of dead and dying in its wake. How would that compare to an invasion of demons? How many casualties, how much destruction? She did not know. It was as though she stood behind a scale, blindfolded, and it was her responsibility to weigh one disaster against another, to choose the way in which the world would end. As she and Nathaniel ga>ed into each other’s eyes, the fate of thousands hovered in the air between them, and there was no time to speak or even think—only to act.

“Yes,” she said, each word an agony. “Do it.”

“I doubt more lightning will work,” Nathaniel said, turning back to the Director. “I’ll have to try something else. Give me a moment.” He closed his eyes.

Elisabeth’s free hand clenched as she stepped back beside Silas. He was ga>ing out over the rampart, expressionless, the wind stirring his hair, which was beginning to come loose from its ribbon. She grasped at one last hope. “Isn’t there anything you can do?” she asked him.

“I am not capable of miracles, Miss Scrivener.” His lips barely moved, as though he were truly carved from alabaster. “I cannot 1ght the creature; it is the creation of my former master. Baltasar’s orders forbid me, even centuries after his death.”

She hesitated as an idea occurred to her. Silas’s claim wasn’t entirely true. If she freed him from his bonds, he would no longer be constrained by

Baltasar’s orders—by anything. He could stop this from happening. He would have the power to save them all.

“But I would not,” he murmured. “You know that I would not.”

His tone stopped her cold. “I’m sorry,” she said, though she wasn’t certain what she was sorry for, precisely—for the thought she had had, or for the hunger in Silas’s eyes.

He inclined his head. Then, suddenly, his eyes widened. “Down,” he spat. “Down!”

It was the 1rst time she had ever heard him raise his voice. Everything turned sideways as he sei>ed her and Nathaniel and Aung them to the ground. The Male1ct rose up over the rampart, smoke pouring from its mouth and slitted nostrils, eyes fulminating a foul, necromantic green. Silas pressed them Aat as a colossal arm swept over the crenellations. Wind howled over Elisabeth, battering her senses, tearing at her clothes. A horrible sucking grayness dimmed her consciousness; she felt as though her life were a guttering candle being buPeted by a gale. Her hearing faded, and her vision dimmed. There came an eruption of green Aame before the world split apart, shattering like a kaleidoscope.

Fragments of sound. Motion. A voice. “Elisabeth.” The voice belonged to Nathaniel, tight with barely controlled emotion. “Elisabeth, can you hear me?”

His face hovered over her, a pale, blurry smear against the dark. Soot marked his cheek, and green embers swirled through the night behind him. He was cradling her with one arm, the other gripping her hand, squee>ing it desperately. Her breath caught when she saw her 1ngers, shriveled and leached of color. But as she watched, the Male1ct’s touch receded. Sensation returned to her hand in a rush of pins and needles.

Nathaniel helped her up when she struggled to stand. Around them, devastation. Emerald Aames licked over the battlements and danced along the empty uniforms scattered across the rampart. A lone cannon boomed, and a shriek reverberated through her ears—the Male1ct. Nearby, the Director was barking orders, trying to rally the remaining wardens.

“I’m all right,” Elisabeth said, adjusting her grip on Demonslayer. “I’m ready.”

Nathaniel had a peculiar look on his face. He glanced meaningfully at Silas, then took a step backward. A protest rose to her lips even before he spoke. “I’m going to draw it away—”


“I have to. I’m the only person who isn’t aPected by its magic.”

“Wait,” she said. “You shouldn’t. The voice—you might not be able to resist it.”

“Don’t worry. I have an idea. There isn’t time to explain, but . . .” He was already turning, a 1ery whip unraveling between his hands, its light transforming him into a tall, slim silhouette. The last thing she saw was a hint of a smile. “Trust me.”

Ahead of him, the Male1ct 1nished raking its claws through a tower and turned, chunks of masonry tumbling down its shoulders. Though it resembled the moss spirit they had seen in the Blackwald, the bark that made up its hide was darkened and decayed, split in places to reveal an inner green glow. Nathaniel looked impossibly small walking toward it, his whip a mere thread of light.

Elisabeth wasn’t going to stand by and watch. She shoved Demonslayer through her belt and dashed toward the nearest cannon, its previous operator nothing but a uniform and a pile of dust. Sweeping the remains aside, she climbed onto the gunner’s seat.

The device was a far cry from the medieval-style cannons she had read about in books. Like the rest of the Great Library’s mechanisms, it was a complex instrument riddled with gears and pistons. She sei>ed a wheel and experimentally wrenched it to the left, its metallic chill biting into her 1ngers. Machinery rumbled to life, shaking the seat so violently that only her grip on the wheel prevented her from being Aung oP. With a protesting groan, the cannon’s barrel swung several feet to the left. Now, up. She heaved on an adjacent wheel, and the barrel rose. All that remained was a lever beside her hip. That had to be what 1red the cannon.

Nathaniel’s whip spun out, readying to strike. But he didn’t follow through. He stood still, ga>ing upward as the Male1ct stooped over him. Her heart skipped a beat, remembering the trans1xed expression on his face in the vault. Moue, she urged. right.

In the silence, the forest exhaled a breath. Wind swirled over the rampart, fetid with decay, as though issued from the mouth of a corpse. Boughs bent. Branches creaked. And a voice whispered, “Thovn . . .”

“Don’t listen to it!” Elisabeth screamed. Her pulse throbbed against the collar of her coat as she rammed the lever down.

A rattling sound came from within, like chain links winching upward. The barrel shuddered, its mouth glowing red-hot. Then the cannon bucked in recoil, rattling her teeth and numbing her arm to the elbow. Somehow, she didn’t let go.

There came a thin, high whistling, and then a thud. She stood, clutching the wheel for balance. Green light roiled around a metal ball embedded in the Male1ct’s chest. Elisabeth knew the cannonball must be huge, but against the monster’s colossal frame, it appeared no larger than a marble.

The Male1ct had barely reacted. She began to wonder whether this had been a foolish idea. Then, the cannonball exploded.

The Male1ct shrieked as splinters of its barklike skin went Aying. A white cloud puPed around the crater left behind—salt. The cannonball was an iron-coated salt round.

Far below, Nathaniel shook his head as though trying to clear it of cobwebs. His shoulders tensed, and he swept his whip through the air, the Aame si>>ling as it wrapped around one of the Male1ct’s wrists. Jerking the monster oP balance, he raised his other hand, which let loose a volcanic blast of green 1re. Thrown back, the Male1ct caught itself by clamping its claws down on a battlement. As the smoldering embers fell, it regarded Nathaniel at eye level, near enough to reach out and sei>e him.

“I bnom you,” it whispered instead. “Son of House Thovn, mastev of death.”

“No,” Nathaniel croaked, stepping back.

“Why do you hide youv natuve? Deny the call in youv blood?”

Terror lanced through Elisabeth’s chest. “Nathaniel!” she shouted. He didn’t react, didn’t even seem to hear her.

“I see,” the Male1ct said. “You mish to s9ave the givl you loue. But you bnom the tvuth of magic. The gveatest 9omev s9vings only fvom su$eving.” It drew closer to him, its spindle-toothed mouth seeping smoke. “Join me,” it whispered. “Mastev of death, become the davbness that haunts you. Mill the givl.”

Nathaniel’s arm drifted to his side, the whip 1>>ling out. Slowly, he turned. Elisabeth didn’t recogni>e the expression on his face. His coat was torn, and his eyes were rimmed in red.

Mouth dry, she spun the wheels, angling the cannon into a new position. She slammed the lever down again. As Nathaniel strode toward her, Aames rippled over his shoulders and down his arms like the blossoming of some strange, translucent Aower.

The cannon coughed. Stone sprayed several yards in front of the Male1ct, a miss. She couldn’t aim directly at its head without risking hitting Nathaniel. Green Aashes lit the rampart. The sky above them roiled, a violent, churning mass of storm clouds. Surrounded by a corona of 1re, he looked

barely human, untouchable.

Elisabeth’s hands trembled on the controls. “Nathaniel, stop!”

He wasn’t listening. As he continued to advance, lightning streaked through the sky, arcing between the peaks of the mountains. The earth rumbled as snow cascaded down a nearby peak, the avalanche boiling over the trees that dotted the slope with enough force to level a village. Elisabeth had never seen such raw destruction. Worse, Nathaniel didn’t appear to even be aware that he was doing it.

A terrible thought struck her. She could adjust the cannon’s aim. The cannonballs were made of iron; he wouldn’t be able to stop one if she 1red it at him. If that was what it took—if that was the only way to end this, to keep him from becoming another Baltasar—

A cool touch stayed her hand. “Wait,” Silas said. His hair had come free, Aowing in the wind. She didn’t understand how he could look so calm.

Nathaniel was almost upon them. Sorcery gla>ed his eyes. Flames rolled oP his body like a cloak. In a moment, it would be too late to stop him.

“Elisabeth.” His voice echoed unrecogni>ably with power. He held out his hand. The 1re billowed back, away from his sleeve, so she could take it.

Tvust me, he had said.

She remembered the day that they had met, when he had oPered her his hand, and she had hesitated, certain he would hurt her. But the horrors she had imagined, those evil deeds—he had never been capable of them. Not Nathaniel, her Nathaniel, who was tortured by the darkness within him only because he was so good.

The Male1ct’s words repeated in her mind. The givl you loue. The truth of it rang through her like the tolling of a bell.

Slowly, she climbed down from the cannon. Heat shimmered in the air, but she felt no pain. It was as though she had donned a suit of armor, become invincible. She stepped toward the emerald Aames, and they parted around her, curving away from her body like cresting waves. Nathaniel’s hand waited, outstretched.

Their 1ngers met. He closed his eyes. That was when she saw it: Frendergast’s vial hung empty at his chest.

The Male1ct howled in fury, sensing the trick too late. It surged toward them, mouth agape, its head looming closer and closer, fetid breath washing over them, as the magic sei>ed them and Harrows spun away.

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