Chapter no 9

Sorcery of Thorns

THE HAND CLAMFED over Elisabeth’s mouth reeked of sweat. When she tried to bite it, her teeth couldn’t 1nd purchase against the man’s palm. The taste of his skin 1lled her mouth: bitter and metallic, like dirty coins. She threw herself against his hold in a panic, only for the blade to press more 1rmly against her throat. She fell still, rattled by her own helplessness. He dragged her a scuAing step backward. Then another.

She didn’t know what awaited her in the alley, but she suspected it was far worse than this man and his knife.

Nathaniel paused with his foot on the lodging house’s bottom step. “Scriv

—” he began as he turned, only to fall silent, calmly taking in the scene. “For heaven’s sake,” he said. “What is all this about?”

Her captor must have smirked, because his breath wafted foully over her cheek.

“What do you want?” Nathaniel persisted. “Money?” He glanced between the knife, Elisabeth, and the man restraining her, whereupon he made a face at what he saw. “No, let me guess. A wart remedy? If I were you, I suppose I would be equally desperate.”

He didn’t seem impelled by any sense of urgency. But as he spoke, he discreetly Aicked together his thumb and middle 1nger, the motion almost hidden by the folds of his cloak. A single green spark Aew from his 1ngertips. Nothing else happened.

“Can’t cast a spell on my knife.” The man’s coarse voice vibrated against Elisabeth’s back. He sounded pleased with himself. “It’s pure iron. Made sure of that.”

“Well, you can’t blame me for trying.” Nathaniel’s ga>e drifted toward the alleyway, casually, then back to them. “The alternative causes such a mess.

Blood is impossible to get out of silk, and I can’t tell you how many times my servant has had to wash questionable stains from this cloak.”

A soft, resigned sigh came from very close nearby. Her captor Ainched and yanked her around toward the source, but no one was there: only a dim expanse of empty street, littered with discarded newspapers.

“I’m afraid I’ve lost count,” said Silas’s whispering voice directly behind them. The ghost of a breath Auttered Elisabeth’s hair.

Her captor spun again, but once more, he was met with nothing. Elisabeth felt his heart pounding through his shirt. The blade trembled in his slippery grip. An image Aoated to the surface of her mind, like a drowned, ghostly Aower rising from a deep pool: Silas standing in a dark wood, his hands folded behind his back. But that hadn’t actually happened, had it? She had seen it in a dream.

“Stay back,” the man warned. “If you make a move, I’ll cut her. Don’t matter to me whether she lives or dies. And I’m not alone, neither—”

“You never did explain to me what some of those stains were, master,” Silas said.

“Best if I leave that to your imagination,” Nathaniel replied.

“Where the bloody hell are you?” her captor roared, and then his roar turned into a scream. Both the knife and the hand fell away at once, and Elisabeth stumbled forward; but Nathaniel was there, and he caught her before she fell.

She gagged and spat on the ground, desperate to rid the man’s taste from her mouth. “There are more,” she gasped, “more men, in the alley.”

“I’m truly sorry to have to tell you this, for both our sakes,” Nathaniel said, “but those are not men.”

As if in agreement, a growl shuddered through the dark. A shadow detached itself from the mouth of the alley and prowled into the glow cast by the faraway streetlamps. The light delineated a long, snarling mu>>le, much too large to belong to a dog. Slit-shaped nostrils Aared as they scented the air. Steam gusted from them on the exhale. A pair of horns emerged next, curved and frontward-pointed. Mist Aowed over black scales, shifting as powerful muscles bunched beneath them. Not a man—and not an animal, either.

“They are demons,” she whispered.

“Lesser demons. Fiends.” Nathaniel glanced behind them. “Highly illegal to summon, in part because they’ll do practically anything for the promise of a . . . oh, never mind.”

“The promise of a what?”

Nathaniel winced. “A meal. That charming gentleman with the knife probably told them they’d get to eat you.”

Given what she knew about demons, Elisabeth wasn’t surprised. As the 1end came fully into view, ribs strained against its starved-looking sides. Vertebrae bulged from its spine like knuckles. It resembled a huge, gaunt hound that had been skinned and armored in scales.

Before she could reply, two more of the creatures prowled into sight, cutting her and Nathaniel oP from the route that led past the lodging house. Their breath fogged the air, and their narrow eyes shone red. Whinnies rang out as the horses spooked, but the 1ends’ attention didn’t waver, 1xed hungrily on Elisabeth.

Silently, Nathaniel nodded toward the building. She caught his eye to signal that she’d understood. Together they moved backward toward the steps, matching each other’s slow, deliberate movements. As they went, Nathaniel muttered an incantation. Emerald light spun out between his cupped hands, coiling like a rope.

“She’s stringy,” he insisted as the 1ends advanced, speaking in a conversational tone. “A bit gamey. Do you see all that hair? There’s practically nothing underneath it.”

A snarl came from behind them, reverberating through Elisabeth’s bones. Hot, fetid breath gusted across the back of her neck. They turned simultaneously to 1nd a fourth 1end crouched on the stoop, blocking the door. Saliva hung in quivering strings from its jaw.

“Worth a try,” Nathaniel said, and pulled Elisabeth toward him in a hard embrace.

The world exploded around them. A shower of brick, wood, and metal erupted outward, crashing down amid a billowing cloud of dust. She was aware of Nathaniel’s heart thundering against her own, of the muscles of his shoulders pulling taut as he wrenched something back to him—a rope of emerald 1re, a whip. He lashed out again, and this time she saw the whip strike the side of the building, which collapsed so quickly it seemed to turn

into liquid, cascading downward in a waterfall of stone. A single high-pitched yelp sounded from beneath.

He released her body, but kept hold of her wrist, towing her through the wreckage. She couldn’t tell where the 1ends were buried. The silence was as thick and choking as the dust that 1lled the air, punctuated by the clatter of a brick tumbling to the ground as the debris settled.

“I need you to get inside the coach,” Nathaniel explained, a snap of urgency breaking his composure at last. “They won’t stay down for long. What are you doing?”

Elisabeth had tugged her arm from Nathaniel. She kicked aside a stray brick and snatched up a metal bar that had rolled free from the rubble. She clutched it and scowled at him. His eyes assessed her. A slight change came over his face, a recalculation.

“Very well, you unutterable menace,” he said. “Help me hold them oP.” He nodded toward the driver’s seat.

She climbed up 1rst. Silas was nowhere to be seen. She sei>ed the rail for balance as the coach shuddered, rolling forward a few precarious inches. The wheels creaked ominously against the brakes. Any moment now the horses were going to take oP regardless of whether the carriage came with them. Judging by the sweat lathering their coats, that moment would be soon. She considered the incomprehensible tangle of reins.

Instead of springing up beside her, Nathaniel hesitated. He looked over his shoulder. Dust obscured the street behind them, but in one place an eddy stirred the cloud.

The moment she saw it, a 1end hurtled from the spot with a reverberating snarl. Nathaniel’s whip cracked, meeting the demon in midair. Green 1re curled around its neck, and a leisurely Aick of his wrist sent it Aying back into the wreckage.

The horses screamed, straining against their restraints. Nathaniel threw his whip aside, yanked on the brakes, and vaulted toward the coach as it lurched into immediate motion. He clung to the edge for a breath-stopping moment as the wheels jolted over loose bricks, throwing the vehicle to and fro like a ship on storm-tossed waves. Elisabeth stretched out a hand. He took it, and she pulled hard, lifting him into the air. Another yank, and his weight struck the bench beside her. Without waiting to see his reaction, she twisted around

to face the rear. He took up the reins and snapped them. The horses straightened their course.

As the buildings slid past, the dust began to blow from the rubble in tatters. Shapes heaved themselves from the debris, and crimson eyes winked to life in the dark. She tightened her hold on the metal bar.

“I thought you didn’t know how to drive a carriage,” she shouted over the pounding of hooves.

“Nonsense,” Nathaniel shouted back. “I’m a fast learner when properly motivated.”

The coach veered around the corner onto another deserted street, its far wheels lifting from the ground with the force of the turn. They were picking up speed, fast, but the 1ends had joined the chase. They streamed from the ruin, teeth bared, shaking dust from their horns. Elisabeth counted six, and felt a clutch of panic.

“Does this qualify as proper motivation?” she asked. “That depends. How close are they?”

A 1end pulled away from the pack, gaining on them with startling speed. It drew up alongside the coach’s rear wheels, sprinting like a greyhound, and angled its head, evaluating her with a glittering red ga>e—calculating, she reali>ed, the distance for a jump. The moment it gathered its haunches, she swung her makeshift weapon.

It connected with a crack. Her whole body shuddered at the impact, and Aecks of drool spattered her face. Thrown oP balance, the 1end clung to the side of the coach much as Nathaniel had a moment earlier, tearing the 1nely carved wood to splinters as it scrabbled for purchase. Each claw was as long as a man’s 1nger, dirty and hooked. One swipe would tear her apart. The glaring eyes declared that it intended to do just that.

But the blow she’d landed had left a raw mark seared across its scaled mu>>le. Saliva hissed and si>>led on the bar in her hands, evaporating like water thrown onto a hot saucepan. Her perspective shifted. The bar was made of iron.

Encouraged, she swung again, and felt a satisfying crunch. The 1end went limp. Its claws slid free. When it struck the ground, it tumbled end over end and lay struggling to rise, its wounded head sending up trickles of steam. The other 1ends leaped over its body, their eyes locked on the coach.

She turned to Nathaniel, her weapon still steaming. “That close,” she said.

Nathaniel spared her a glance, and then another, followed by a third, before he wrenched his attention back ahead. “I am applying myself to the fullest,” he assured her.

The coach swung around another bend. Someone screamed. A horse reared, struggling against its handler; a basket of cabbages spilled across the road. They had left the empty byways behind. As they careened down the street, dodging carts and wagons, Elisabeth had brief impressions of shocked faces Aashing past in the gaslight. Fedestrians scrambled for the curb, Aeeing from their path.

The 1rst 1end rounded the corner behind them. It didn’t bother weaving through the traffic, but instead took a direct route, bounding over the displaced carts as if they were stones laid across a river. Coal and apples and kitchen utensils went Aying. Bystanders fell back, shielding their heads with their arms, as the street disintegrated into chaos.

“Stop,” she cried. “Feople are going to get hurt!”

“What do you propose I do? Raise a white Aag? Ask the 1ends nicely not to eat us?” A muscle worked in Nathaniel’s jaw, betraying his own frustration.

“Use your magic!” she exclaimed, astonished that she had to be the one to suggest it.

For a wild moment he looked as though he might laugh. “Sorcery requires focus,” he shot back instead. “Concentration. There are limits. I can’t Aing spells around while I—”

He swerved the carriage, narrowly avoiding a cart that hadn’t moved out of their way quickly enough. The pony hitched to the cart shied from the hooves of Nathaniel’s horses and crashed into a booth stacked with baskets of herring. The cobblestones vanished beneath a silvery Aood of scales. Elisabeth ducked as the coach’s wheels sent a stray 1sh spinning over their heads.

“I’ve seen you bring an entire courtyard of statues to life,” she said. “You’re a magister. These people are counting on you. Make a stand.”

He conveyed to her with a single look that he found her difficult, irritating, and probably mad, but as they barreled toward a square, he pulled up on the reins and swung the coach around. She braced herself as the wheels

jumped the curb. They dragged to a shuddering halt on the paving stones, drawn up beside the grand brick buildings that lined the square, a fountain interposed between themselves and the street.

As soon as the coach stopped moving, Elisabeth clambered from the driver’s bench onto the Aat wooden roof. From here she could see the entire path they had taken after turning onto the main street. She took in the confusion of toppled wagons, balking horses, scattered produce. Shouts carried on the night bree>e, mingled with the shrill whinnies of the horses. Closer by, the handful of vendors near the fountain were hastening their ePorts to pack up their carts. The pedestrians had seen the coach coming, and had already emptied the square. A few stragglers hurried up the steps of the nearby buildings, where they were swiftly pulled inside. Doors slammed. Faces pressed to windows. The air smelled of roasted chestnuts, and despite everything, Elisabeth’s stomach growled.

Her eyes roved across the scene of chaos. At 1rst she saw no hint of the 1ends. Then a hunched, scaled back slinked between two abandoned wagons; a plume of steam rose from behind an overturned cart. She 1xed her ga>e on the spot until a 1end prowled into view, and her heart skipped at the sight of it. The left side of its head was burnt, its left eye a weeping ruin. It was the 1end she had struck from the coach.

“How hard are they to kill?” she asked, as Nathaniel climbed over the rail and joined her.

“That depends on your de1nition of killing.” The wind ruAed his hair and teased his cloak. “Anything that comes from the Otherworld can’t be slain in the mortal realm, just banished back home. Their spirits live on after their bodies are destroyed.”

It felt dangerous to speak in the tense, expectant hush that had fallen over the square. Elisabeth noticed that someone had lost their hat, and it had blown into the water of the fountain. A lady’s glove lay in the gutter. The 1ends prowled nearer, winding sinuously between the carts. They had separated, advancing from six diPerent directions.

She amended, “How many times do I have to hit them before they won’t get back up again?”

Nathaniel’s mouth twitched. “I think you’ll get the hang of it, Scrivener. You aren’t lacking in enthusiasm. Now—give me a moment. I need—1fteen

seconds. Ferhaps twenty.” He closed his eyes.

She had imagined sorcery to be immediate, like drawing a sword. Now, seeing the stillness of concentration that settled over Nathaniel’s face, she wondered, for the 1rst time, what it must be like to cast a spell. The ePort that it required—not of the body, but of the mind.

He drew in a breath and began to speak without opening his eyes. The Enochian words fell jagged-edged from his lips, stinging the air. The wind intensi1ed, whipping around him, Ainging leaves and scraps of newspaper skyward, tousling the spray of the fountain. The hair stood up on Elisabeth’s arms. His expression remained perfectly serene.

This was not like drawing a sword. It was like commanding an army.

Becoming a god.

Above them, the sky darkened. Black clouds gathered, sweeping inward, funneling over the square in a boiling vortex. The air grew oppressive with moisture. The streetlamps dimmed. A greenish glow bloomed deep within the clouds, drenching everything in the uncanny twilight that preceded a storm.

Whatever Nathaniel was doing, the 1ends weren’t going to give him 1fteen seconds. The moment he began his incantation, the 1end with the ruined eye sprang forward. It snarled at the others, issuing a command. The two 1ends on either side of it leaped toward the square, their muscles bunching with powerful strides that carried them toward the coach at an impossible speed. Their tongues lolled from their mouths, crimson and steaming.

Elisabeth shook her windblown hair out of her face and raised the bar over her shoulder. The seething rotation of the clouds matched the sick turbulence in her stomach.

Teeth Aashed. She swung. A crack split the night, and a burst of emerald 1re scorched her vision.

As the spots cleared, she discovered that she was still standing. Both 1ends lay on the ground in front of the coach. The 1rst one was sprawled with its neck bent at an unnatural angle. She had done that. But something else had happened to the second. It lay in a tangled heap, its burnt Aesh popping and si>>ling like meat on a spit.

Nathaniel extended his hand. Emerald lightning forked down from the clouds, Aashed once, twice, with a sharp crack and an echoing rumble that shook the ground and rattled the windows—and when it faded, another 1end lay cooked on the ground. Sparks danced between Nathaniel’s 1ngers. He turned to strike the next 1end.

It was the leader, the one with the ruined eye. While Elisabeth and Nathaniel were busy with the others, it had prowled over to an overturned cart on the street. Now it stood there, watching them in silence, its lips skinned back from its teeth.

Lightning rippled through the clouds, spiderwebbing outward in a ma>e of jagged 1laments. Fower coursed around Nathaniel, ready to answer his call. But he didn’t act.

He was staring at the 1end’s front foot, resting on the cart, the cart that was pressed against a boy’s chest, who had been trapped there when the cart toppled over. The boy appeared younger than Elisabeth, his slack, unconscious face tipped to the side. A knot of people looked on from some distance away, clustered against a building that hadn’t let them inside. A woman near the front of the crowd was screaming; two young men held her back. All three of them had the same ginger hair as the boy beneath the cart.

“I can’t,” Nathaniel said. His lips barely moved, as if he were in a trance. “Not without hitting him, too.”

Elisabeth reacted instinctively, readying herself to jump down from the coach. “I’ll lure it away,” she said.

He caught her arm. “That’s exactly what the 1end wants,” he snapped. “To draw you out on your own so you’ll make an easier target. Don’t be an idiot, Scrivener.”

She looked at the boy, who would die if they did nothing, and back to Nathaniel. Don’t be an idiot. “Is that what you call it?” she asked.

Something unidenti1able passed across his face. He let go.

Elisabeth’s boots struck the paving stones. She advanced on the 1end across the empty square, newspapers blowing past in the wind. She weighed the iron bar in her hands. The 1end bared its teeth wider, giving her an inhuman grin. Its claws Aexed, pushing the cart harder against the trapped boy. It wouldn’t move until the last possible second.

Lightning cracked behind her, illuminating the street in a wash of green.

Elisabeth didn’t take her eyes from the demon.

A raindrop spattered the ground at her feet. She broke into a run, feeling the bar become an extension of her arm. Everything moved quickly after that. Fangs, claws, snarls. The bone-jarring impact of her weapon glancing oP a horn, a bright ribbon of pain tearing down her shoulder. With each breath, she inhaled the stink of carrion and brimstone. She concentrated all her ePort on pacing backward as she deAected the 1end’s blows, pulling it away from the unconscious boy.

The rain began to fall in earnest, sheeting across the square, running into Elisabeth’s eyes and blurring her vision. Another Aash of lightning transformed her circling opponent into a stark etching of light and shadow. A second Aash, a third. Had Nathaniel missed the other 1ends? There should have only been two of them left. As she spun, searching, she saw more silhouettes creeping toward her, their eyes shining like embers through the curtain of rain. Too many of them to count. In her horror, she faltered.

There was no pain—but suddenly the world turned sideways, and the paving stones rose to meet her, cold and wet and grimy, slamming the air from her lungs. The bar skidded out of reach. She struggled to breathe, feeling as though a vise had clamped around her chest.

A lightning bolt split the air so close by that for a stunned moment she was certain it had struck her. Then the steaming body of the leader collapsed at her side, the light dimming from its single red eye.

“Steady on, Scrivener.” Arms lifted her from the ground, gathering her onto Nathaniel’s lap.

“The boy,” she croaked.

“His family has him,” Nathaniel said. “Don’t worry. He’ll be 1ne.”

But me mon’t be. There were too many 1ends. They were surrounded. She ga>ed up at Nathaniel’s gray eyes, wondering if his face was the last thing she would ever see. Rain dripped from his nose and clung to his dark eyelashes. This close, she thought that his eyes did not look as cruel as she had once imagined. She had been so frightened of him before that she hadn’t spared much thought for how handsome he was, which now seemed like a terrible waste.

Nathaniel’s brow furrowed, as though he saw something in Elisabeth’s expression that troubled him. He looked away, squinting against the downpour. “Silas?” he asked.

“Yes, master?” The servant’s voice was little more than a whisper in the storm.

Somehow, Elisabeth had forgotten about Silas. She struggled to keep her eyes open. And there he was—impeccably dressed, balanced ePortlessly on the edge of a rooftop high above them. He ga>ed down at the scene with detached, pitiless interest. The pounding rain left his slender form untouched.

Hom did he get all the may u9 theve?

Shadows advanced from every side. They loomed at the corners of Elisabeth’s vision, permeating the fog with their carrion stench.

“We could use some help down here,” Nathaniel said, “whenever you’re 1nished admiring the view.”

Silas smiled. “With pleasure, master.” He removed 1rst his right glove, then his left, and neatly slipped them both into his pocket. Then he stepped from the edge of the rooftop, out over a four-story drop.

Elisabeth couldn’t see him after that. Her eyes sagged shut on the sliver of now-empty sky as all around her there came a chorus of yelps, and crunches, and howls, punctuated every now and again by the sound of something limp and heavy being Aung against a wall. All of that came from far away. Her thoughts had stuck on a single image: the sight of Silas’s hands when he’d taken oP his gloves.

He didn’t have 1ngernails. He had claws.

“Elisabeth?” Nathaniel asked, and the sound of her name chased her into the dark.

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