Chapter no 35

Sorcery of Thorns

ELISABETH, NATHANIEL, AND Silas materiali>ed in an unfamiliar parlor, in the middle of a group of women enjoying their evening tea. At least they meve enjoying it, until the severed head of the Chronicles landed on their coPee table.

It arrived with a crash that Aattened the table’s claw-foot legs and rattled the porcelain in the parlor’s mirrored cabinets. Decapitated at the neck, its antlers shorn oP, it looked like a boulder-si>ed lump of charcoal. Staring at it in shock, Elisabeth supposed that it had come near enough Nathaniel to get sei>ed by the spell. But evidently Frendergast’s magic hadn’t been able to transport something as large as the Male1ct’s entire body between dimensions—only the head had come along with them. As its muscles relaxed, its tongue lolled from its mouth, glistening on the carpet like a giant slug.

A teaspoon dropped. The women sat stunned, ink splattered across the fronts of their silk dresses. None of them said a word as the head began to disintegrate, spouting embers onto the wainscoting.

“Excuse me, ladies,” said Nathaniel. He bowed, which dislodged a trickle of soot from his hair. Then his eyes rolled up, and he collapsed face-1rst onto the Aoor.

Shrieks 1lled the air. Teacups went Aying. As the women Aed from the room, tripping over the carpet’s fringe, Elisabeth dropped to her knees at Nathaniel’s side and rolled him over onto her lap. Soot blackened every inch of his exposed skin. His charred coat was still lightly smoking, and the 1re had singed his eyebrows. At some point he had gotten a cut on his forehead—she didn’t know when, or how, but it had covered his face in blood. She pressed

her 1ngers to his throat, and relaxed when she felt the steady rhythm of his pulse.

That was his plan?” she asked Silas, pointing at the Male1ct’s head. As though being pointed at were the last straw, it slumped into a pile of ashes.

Ga>ing down at Nathaniel, Silas sighed. “Truth be told, miss, I suspect he did not possess a plan, and was simply making it up as he went along.”

“Ugh. Where are we? Has anyone a clue?” Nathaniel opened one gray eye, startlingly pale against his soot- and blood-covered face. He looked around dubiously, as though he wasn’t sure whether he wanted to wake up yet, and then slowly opened the other, focusing on Elisabeth’s face. “Hello, you menace.”

She laughed, weak with relief. As she stroked his hair back from his sticky forehead, an unbearable tenderness 1lled her. “I love you, too,” she said.

Nathaniel’s brow furrowed. He turned his face to the side and blinked several times. “Thank god,” he said 1nally. “I don’t think unrequited love would have suited me. I might have started writing poetry.”

Elisabeth continued stroking his hair. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“I assure you, it would have proven more unpleasant for everyone than necromancy.”

She laughed again, helplessly. A weightless, sparkling joy 1lled her, like the sunlight of a spring morning after the rain had stopped and the clouds went scudding away, and the world felt new and clean and bright, transformed into a better version of itself, heartbreaking in its beauty. The immensity of the feeling made her ribs hurt. She swiped her knuckles across her cheek, conscious of Silas watching them.

Nathaniel looked at her sidelong. “Scrivener, I know I cut a devilishly handsome 1gure lying here on the Aoor all covered in blood—which I hear some girls 1nd quite appealing, strangely enough, and if you’re one of them I’m not going to judge—but please stop crying. It’s only a Aesh wound. I’ll be back to 1ghting evil any moment now.”

She sniPed loudly. “I’m not crying. My eyes are watering. You smell awful.”

“What? I never smell awful. I smell like sandalwood and masculine allure.” He lifted his head to smell himself, and gagged. “Never mind.”

“Ferhaps you might consider not setting yourself on 1re next time, master,” Silas said, pointedly.

A clatter came from the hall. A pair of footmen crowded the doorway, one of them clutching an antique sword that looked as though it had been torn down from a mantelpiece, and was now trembling violently in his hands. “Surrender peacefully, sorcerer,” he declared, after an encouraging look from the other, “and we won’t hurt you.”

Nathaniel squinted at him. “You look familiar. Are we in Lady Ingram’s town house?”

I ho9e so, Elisabeth thought. The ink stain on the carpet looked permanent.

“Er,” said the footman with the sword, uncertainly.

“Excellent.” Before Elisabeth could stop him, Nathaniel hoisted himself to his feet and cast around, wobbling alarmingly. She took one of his arms, and Silas the other. Not seeming to notice that he couldn’t stand on his own, he started for the doorway, explaining, “I aimed the spell to let us out near the Royal Library. We’re only a few blocks away.”

Elisabeth recalled the map of Austermeer, where Katrien had drawn a question mark beside the Royal Library at the center. “That’s where Ashcroft is going to 1nish his summoning,” she reali>ed aloud. “It’s the middle of the pentagram.”

“Frecisely. I’m hoping that I’ve managed to botch the ritual by taking part of the Chronicles with us. But it was so large, there might have still been enough demonic energy released back in Harrows.”

“Then we can’t waste any time.” A grandfather clock ticked in the corner. With a sense of unreality, she saw that it was only eight thirty in the evening. What had felt like years in Harrows had only been a couple of hours.

As they approached, the footman halfheartedly menaced them with his sword. He looked relieved when Elisabeth grabbed it by the blade and plucked it from his hand. She examined the weapon—useless—and stuck it in an umbrella stand on their way out the door.

They emerged into a midwinter’s dream. Laughter 1lled the night as a family trooped past, bundled in mittens and scarves, ice skates dangling from their 1ngers. A lone carriage sailed by in the opposite direction, the horse’s hooves muAed to near-silence by the snow. Candles lit the windows of the

houses along the street, aPording glimpses of the scenes within: a woman placing a baby into a bassinet, a hound do>ing in front of a 1replace beside his master’s slippers. Elisabeth’s breath puPed white in the air.

The peacefulness of it came as a shock. For a disorienting moment, she felt as though she had hallucinated everything that had happened to them since leaving Brassbridge.

Then, light touched the tops of the nearby towers. She shielded her eyes as it ignited the statue of a rearing pegasus, da>>ling against the dark sky, like a bron>e sequin sewn onto velvet. The towers’ windows Aamed gold and pink as the light poured downward. When it struck the street, it swept across the snow, transforming it into a wash of diamonds, glittering blindingly from the icy branches of the trees. Her breath caught. She thought instinctively, The sun is vising. But it wasn’t—it couldn’t be.

The horse drawing the carriage snorted and shied from the glare, its reins jingling. The family who had passed them turned around, exclaiming in wonder. Doors opened up and down the street; heads poked out, hands shading eyes, throwing long shadows across the snow.

“Look!” someone cried. “Magic!”

Luminous gold ribbons danced through the sky, shimmering and rippling, reminding Elisabeth of a description she had once read of the polar lights. It was breathtaking. Spectacular. A sunrise at the end of the world.

“What is that?” she asked. Nathaniel’s muscles had tensed.

“Aetherial combustion. Matter from the Otherworld burning as it comes into contact with our realm’s air.” He hesitated. “I’ve never seen such a powerful reaction—only read about it.”

Silas slipped out from beneath Nathaniel’s arm and stepped oP the curb, raising his face toward the light. It washed out his features and diluted his yellow eyes. His expression was almost one of yearning, like an angel ga>ing up at heaven, knowing he would never set foot in it again. He said simply, “The Archon is here.”

Elisabeth and Nathaniel exchanged a glance. Then they set oP at a run, skidding and stumbling in the snow. For a sickening heartbeat Elisabeth worried that Silas might remain behind, trans1xed, but then he was at their side again, ePortlessly catching Nathaniel’s elbow before he slipped on a patch of ice.

“Its presence has opened a rift into the Otherworld,” he told them. “When it is loosed from its summoning circle, the veil between worlds will rupture beyond repair.”

“But that hasn’t happened yet?” Nathaniel pressed. Silas shook his head, the slightest motion.

“Then we can still stop it,” Elisabeth said.

Silas’s ga>e lingered on her face, then Aicked away. He watched Nathaniel beneath his lashes, expression inscrutable, and she wondered what he was thinking. “We shall try, Miss Scrivener.”

Fedestrians clogged the street that passed in front of the Royal Library— skaters returning from the river, their cheeks Aushed and their scarves crusted with snow. Everyone was staring at the dome above the atrium. The brilliant light had faded to a dull glow swirling inside the glass, casting the block into watery twilight. Golden wisps still danced around the building, Aowing past its marble statues and carved scrolls, but they were growing fainter by the moment, eliciting wistful sighs from the crowd.

Elisabeth’s stomach clenched. The sight was undeniably beautiful. And the timing couldn’t have been worse. By the looks of it, these people thought it had been a magic show put on for their enjoyment.

“You have to go,” she shouted, shouldering through them toward the library. “All of you, run! You’re in danger!”

Heads turned, confusion written across their faces; most of them hadn’t been able to hear her over the hubbub. And there was another, louder sound, drowning out everything else. A sound like grasshoppers shrilling in a 1eld, swelling as it cascaded toward them. Screams.

At last, people began to run. But they weren’t moving fast enough. They scattered in every direction as a 1end bounded into the crowd, snapping and snarling, its teeth Aashing in the unearthly light. At the corner of her vision, Elisabeth saw a child trip over a dropped skating boot and fall, the motion tracked by the demon’s red eyes. She let go of Nathaniel and leaped forward without a thought, slicing Demonslayer through the air.

The demon swung around to meet her, only to falter when her blade carved through one of its horns and kept going, separating bone and sinew like butter, and only stopped when it rang against the cobblestones, trailing steam. Elisabeth staggered back, readying herself to parry the demon’s

counterattack, but none came. Its body collapsed to the street, lifeless. She had nearly cleaved it in two.

There, another 1end, standing over a screaming woman—but it dropped before she could act, the crimson light fading from its eyes. She didn’t understand what had happened to it until a pale blur streaked past, and a third demon fell limply to the ground. Silas wove through the crowd like a dancer, astonished faces turning as he Aashed by. His claws gleamed, Aicking out, slitting 1ends’ throats before they even saw him coming. Awe shivered through her, chased by an instinctive prickle of fear. This was a glimpse of the Silas of old, set loose on an ancient battle1eld, surrounded by spears and pennants, transforming the front into a merciless walt> of death. Only back then, it would have been humans bleeding out with each stroke of his claws.

As though sensing Elisabeth’s ga>e, he paused long enough to nod at her. Her breath stopped. Then she nodded back and turned away, con1dent that he would take care of any 1ends she couldn’t reach.

Emerald light Aared; Nathaniel’s whip had spun out beside her. He staggered on his feet, but sent her a reckless grin, his teeth Aashing white against his sooty face. An objection died on her lips when his whip snapped toward a 1end threatening a group of people. Crackling and spitting embers, it yanked the 1end away, directly into the path of Elisabeth’s sword.

Conviction coursed through her as she struck the demon down. Her pulse thundered in her ears. After what she and Nathaniel had faced in Harrows, this felt like child’s play. Nothing could stop them now.

They cut a swath toward the library, slowly gaining ground. The countless blows numbed Elisabeth’s arms and left her blood singing. Every time a 1end leaped toward her, Nathaniel’s whip slashed it aside. And whenever one charged at him, Elisabeth was there to meet it with her sword. Do>ens fell at their feet.

But it wasn’t enough. More kept coming, pouring endlessly down the Royal Library’s steps, hurdling from its windows in glinting explosions of stained glass. Between the three of them, they were holding the demons at bay, but they couldn’t push inside without letting 1ends loose into the city.

Nathaniel’s breath rushed hot across her ear. “Buy me time.”

Once, she wouldn’t have understood the request. Now she spun without hesitation, blocking the 1end that lunged for him as he dropped to one knee,

splaying a hand on the cobbles. His hair tumbled over his forehead, hiding everything but the sharp slashes of his cheekbones and his crooked mouth, twisted into a grimace of concentration.

Sorcery snapped through the air. Elisabeth dealt a blow to the 1end that sent it toppling down at her feet. With her view now unobstructed, she saw the moment Nathaniel’s spell took hold.

A row of hooded librarians were carved in bas-relief from one end of the library’s facade to the other. As she watched, their heads lifted, and their grips tightened on the stone lanterns in their hands. Marble crumbled as they tore free from the building and stepped forward, marching in a faceless regiment toward the fray. They chanted as they went, a solemn dirge that rumbled through her bones like the turning of a millstone.

Above them, angel statues stretched and sighed and unfurled their wings. Their serene faces turned to appraise the battle1eld. One climbed down from her perch and bodily Aung a 1end aside. Another emotionlessly sei>ed the corner of a sculpted cornice and wrenched it from the library, then hurled it down with enough force to squash a demon Aat. Saints and friars joined the battle, swinging everything from marble incense burners to petri1ed scrolls. Gargoyles clambered from their timeworn posts to meet the 1ends head on.

Howls of pain 1lled the night as the battle’s tide turned. This was like the spell Nathaniel had used in Summershall, but magni1ed a hundredfold. He hadn’t just made the Royal Library’s statues come alive; he had created an army to 1ght at his command.

Gaping openmouthed, Elisabeth almost didn’t notice the 1end barreling toward them until it was too late. She clumsily deAected its snapping jaws, only to see its claws swiping toward her from the other direction. Then a gonglike peal rang in her ears, and the 1end was swept away, trampled beneath the Aashing bron>e hooves of the pegasus from atop the tower. Victoriously, it tossed its mane and reared. The ground shook when it crashed back down, sending cracks spiderwebbing through the cobblestones.

“That should keep them occupied,” Nathaniel said. He climbed to his feet. Then the color drained from his face, leaving him ghastly white.

Elisabeth caught him before he collapsed. Heat radiated from his body, even through his coat, as though he were back in the throes of a fever.

“Too much magic,” he slurred, his eyelids drooping. “I’ll be all right in a moment.”

Her chest twisted into a knot. Just hours ago, he’d barely been able to get out of bed. Since then he had transported them across the kingdom not once, but twice. He had called forth 1re and lightning, and awakened an army of stone. It was a miracle he’d remained standing for this long to begin with. “Can you go on?”

“Of course I can.” He gave her arm a feeble pat of reassurance. “I may be useless, but my good looks might prove critical for morale. Silas?”

Appearing out of nowhere, Silas shifted into a cat and sprang onto Nathaniel’s shoulder. Nathaniel took a fortifying breath and straightened, suddenly looking much improved.

“Silas is the conduit to my sorcery,” he explained, grinning. “At times like this, he’s able to lend me some of his strength.”

Elisabeth could have kissed Silas, but the look in his yellow eyes suggested that no one had ever dared that and survived. Once she was sure Nathaniel could stand on his own, she took the steps two at a time, dodging a 1end tumbling down in the other direction. The battle had lost them precious minutes. She didn’t allow herself to consider that they might already be too late.

The sight that awaited her at the top of the stairs drew her up short. A grand hallway led to the atrium, lined with Aoor-to-ceiling bookcases that reAected on the polished tiles. But at the end, where the archway should have been, there lay instead an expanse of cobalt sky spangled with stars. Displaced books Aoated weightlessly around the edges of the portal, which looked as though it had been slashed across the library with a knife. As she watched, a green-scaled imp clawed its way through and skittered up the shelves, peering down at them with glistening onyx eyes.

“That’s a rift into the Otherworld, isn’t it?”

“Most likely one of many,” Nathaniel panted, reaching her side. “We need to 1nd another way in.”

“There isn’t another way. Not without a senior librarian’s key.” The keys from Harrows still jangling in her pocket wouldn’t match the Royal Library’s inner doors. She glanced around, taking in the adjoining hallways that stretched to their left and right. Those merely led to study chambers, meeting

rooms, the storage closets from which she had fetched her mop and bucket every morning. . . .

She sucked in a breath. “I know where to go. Follow me.” She plunged around the corner without a backward glance.

Nathaniel was close on her heels. “If you’re going to smash through another bookcase, make sure I’m out of the way 1rst.”

“I won’t have to,” she said. “I’m going to ask it nicely.”

Ignoring his look of bemusement, she cast around for a familiar set of shelves. If only she had been paying more attention that day. Where exactly had she and Gertrude been when it happened? She pressed onward, racing past more rifts, which twisted across the corridor’s walls and ceiling like gashes left by an invisible monster’s claws. Everywhere, the Otherworld’s inAuence seeped into the library. Busts of old Directors had lifted from their pedestals, Aoating at surreal angles. Candles hung in midair, and curtains billowed in an unfelt wind. She tried not to think about why the library’s bell wasn’t ringing, why the halls were empty of people; it was too easy to imagine the librarians drawn into the Otherworld’s starry vastness, never to be seen again.

Theve. That was where the shelves had sprung open, revealing a secret passageway. Unsure whether there had been any speci1c action on her part that had triggered it, she Aattened her palm across the grimoires and pressed her forehead to the spines.

“Flease,” she gasped. “Let me in.”

Warmth pulsed through the leather touching her skin. A rustle ran through the grimoires, as though they were whispering to each other, carrying a message outward. She stepped back, and the panel swung open.

Nathaniel laughed in ama>ement. When she looked at him, she found him watching her, his eyes shining. It was the same way he had looked at her at the ball, when he had seen her in her gown for the 1rst time.

“What is it?” she asked.

“I knew you talked to books. I didn’t reali>e they listened.”

“They do more than just listen.” The Aoorboards creaked as Elisabeth stepped inside. She breathed in and out, tasting the dust in the air, then closed her eyes, envisioning the Royal Library as though it were her own

body, its lofty vaults, its secret rooms and countless mysteries, the magic Aowing through its halls.

“We’re here to stop Ashcroft from summoning the Archon,” she declared to the walls around her, feeling far less foolish than she’d expected. She knew, somehow, that something was listening. “What he’s doing—it will destroy all of us. I know it’s already tearing you apart. Can you take us to him?”

She had never tried that before: speaking not to just one book but to all of them, petitioning the library itself for aid. She had no idea if it would work. A bree>e wafted past, stirring a cobweb against her cheek like the caress of an insubstantial hand. And then—

A shiver ran through the Aoor. Her eyes Aew open as the wood of the passageway creaked and groaned. Around them, the boards rippled like pressed-on piano keys, warping the shape of the walls. The transformation swept forward, dislodging clouds of dust, opening a path that hadn’t been there before. The passage was rearranging itself. Showing them the way.

She set oP at a run. “Come on!”

Beside her, Nathaniel conjured a weak Aame to light their steps. Worry lanced through her at the Aame’s feeble appearance, but other than that, Nathaniel seemed 1ne. Whatever Silas was doing was working.

The passageway reconstructed its shape continuously before them, sending them careening around so many corners that Elisabeth couldn’t guess where they were headed. She wasn’t certain if it was her imagination making her feel as though the library’s magic coursed through her body, too, propelling her steps and expanding her lungs, an exhilarating sensation, as though she had become something more than human.

Finally, they reached what appeared to be a dead end—but she kept barreling forward, and sure enough, the wall swung outward before she collided with it, opening the way. It was the back of a bookcase; they had reached the passageway’s other side.

They stumbled out into mist and silence. Dimmed lanterns made ha>y blobs around them, like do>ens of moons glowing through a thick fog. It took Elisabeth a moment to 1gure out where they were. The bookcase that had opened for them groaned as it swung back shut, a deep, quavering, almost subterranean sound, ending in a click that echoed from the high ceiling. Whispers scattered after it, scurrying through the mist.

“We’re in the restricted archives,” she said, surprised. Though the mist pressed against her face like a veil, somehow she knew which direction to go. “This way.”

“Why would the”—she heard Nathaniel struggling to wrap his mind around what had just happened—“the library let us out here?”

“I’m not certain.” It would have been much faster to take them directly to the atrium instead of leading them through the Northwest Wing. She forced herself not to reach for Demonslayer’s hilt as she stepped forward. Despite the malevolence of this place, she was certain the library didn’t wish them any harm.

Toward the middle of the corridor, the vapor thinned. The bookcases became visible, towering around them, mist lapping against their lower shelves like fog breaking against seaside bluPs. They seemed to be far deeper in the archives than she had ventured last time.

Without warning, a huge, white shape reared into the lamplight high above her, and she lurched back in alarm—but it was only a whale’s skull, its skeleton suspended from the ceiling by thousands of wires, stretching far into shadow. She again had the unsettling feeling that the archives wasn’t as straight a corridor as it appeared. That a person could get lost here, turned around inexplicably, wandering into sections of the hall that hadn’t existed a moment before.

As they moved on, Nathaniel’s question continued to nag her. Why had the library let them out here? Around them, the grimoires were silent. It felt as though they were listening, waiting. Holding their breath. As though they expected something to happen . . .

Her steps faltered at a Autter of motion nearby. The mist, eddying in a draft.

“Watch out for illusions,” she said over her shoulder. Nathaniel jerked at the sound of her voice; he had been frowning at a book whose cover was inlaid with human teeth. “The grimoires might try to trick us.”

“Rot you, deav . . .”

Elisabeth whirled around. The voice had slithered from the mist, its source impossible to identify. She scanned the shelves, but saw no hint of which grimoire had spoken.

From the opposite direction, a diPerent voice said: “Rnd I su99ose me can mabe an exce9tion fov the othev humans—”

“S9ecial civcumstances, you see,” whispered another.

“We mon’t havm a haiv on theiv heads. We 9vomise.”

“Well? Rven’t you going to get on mith it, givl? We’ve maiting.”

Helplessly, Elisabeth spun from one bookcase to another, chasing the speakers in vain. “What do you mean?” she appealed. “What do you want from me?”

But the voices had fallen silent.

Nathaniel stepped forward, reaching out as though to touch her shoulder until he stopped himself, uncertain. It was obvious he hadn’t heard the grimoires. “Elisabeth?”

She shook her head. “It’s nothing.”

Frustration gripped her as they started forward again, the shelves Aowing past. It wasn’t nothing. They had been brought to the archives for a reason. But she didn’t see what could be more important than reaching Ashcroft and stopping his ritual as quickly as possible. If they even could stop him, just the three of them, with Nathaniel’s magic spent—

Oh. The answer dawned more beautifully than a sunrise. Without a second thought, she turned on her heel and rushed toward the shelves.

Nathaniel sounded dismayed. “What are you—Elisabeth?”

The grimoires didn’t hiss or rattle or spit ink at her approach. They merely waited, expectant. She stood on her toes to unhook the chain running across the nearest shelf. She yanked it free, then turned to him, its end dangling from her hand as the books unfolded their pages behind her, rising up. “The library wants to 1ght back.”

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