Sorcery of Thorns
NIGHT FELL AS death rode into the Great Library of Summershall. It arrived within a carriage. Elisabeth stood in the courtyard and watched the horses thunder wild-eyed through the gates, throwing froth from their mouths. High above, the last of the sunset blazed on the Great Library’s tower windows, as if the rooms inside had been set on fire—but the light retreated swiftly, shrinking upward, drawing long fingers of shadow from the angels and gargoyles who guarded the library’s rain-streaked parapets.
A gilt insignia shone upon the carriage’s side as it rattled to a halt: a crossed quill and key, the symbol of the Collegium. Iron bars transformed the rear of the carriage into a prison cell. Though the night was cool, sweat slicked Elisabeth’s palms.
“Scrivener,” said the woman beside her. “Do you have your salt? Your gloves?”
Elisabeth patted the leather straps that crisscrossed her chest, feeling for the pouches they held, the canister of salt that hung at her hip. “Yes, Director.” All she was missing was a sword. But
she wouldn’t earn that until she became a warden, after years of training at the Collegium. Few librarians made it that far. They either gave up, or they died.
“Good.” The Director paused. She was a remote, elegant woman with ice-pale features and hair as red as flame. A scar ran from her left temple all the way to her jaw, puckering her cheek and pulling one corner of her mouth permanently to the side. Like Elisabeth, she wore leather straps over her chest, but she had on a warden’s uniform beneath them instead of an apprentice’s robes. Lamplight glinted off the brass buttons on her dark blue coat and shone from her polished boots. The sword belted at her side was slender and tapered, with garnets glittering on its pommel.
That sword was famous at Summershall. It was named Demonslayer, and the Director had used it to battle a Malefict when she was only nineteen years old. That was where she had gotten the scar, which was rumored to cause her excruciating agony whenever she spoke. Elisabeth doubted the accuracy of those rumors, but it was true that the Director chose her words carefully, and certainly never smiled.
“Remember,” the Director went on at last, “if you hear a voice in your mind once we reach the vault, do not listen to what it says. This is a Class Eight, centuries old, and not to be trifled with. Since its creation, it has driven dozens of people mad. Are you ready?”
Elisabeth swallowed. The knot in her throat prevented her from answering. She could hardly believe the Director was speaking to her, much less that she had summoned her to help transport a delivery to the vault. Ordinarily such a responsibility fell far above the rank of apprentice librarian. Hope ricocheted through her like a bird trapped within a house, taking flight,
falling, and taking flight again, exhausting itself for the promise of open skies far away. Terror flickered after it like a shadow.
She’s giving me a chance to prove that I’m worth training as a warden, she thought. If I fail, I will die. Then at least I’ll have a use. They can bury me in the garden to feed the radishes.
Wiping her sweaty palms on the sides of her robes, she nodded.
The Director set off across the courtyard, and Elisabeth followed. Gravel crunched beneath their heels. A foul stench clotted the air as they drew nearer, like waterlogged leather left to rot on the seashore. Elisabeth had grown up in the Great Library, surrounded by the ink-and-parchment smell of magical tomes, but this was far from what she was used to. The stench stung her eyes and stippled her arms with goose bumps. It was even making the horses nervous. They shied in their traces, scattering gravel as they ignored the driver’s attempts to calm them down. In a way she envied them, for at least they didn’t know what had ridden behind them all the way from the capital.
A pair of wardens leaped down from the front of the carriage, their hands planted on the hilts of their swords. Elisabeth forced herself not to shrink back when they glowered at her. Instead she straightened her spine and lifted her chin, endeavoring to match their stony expressions. She might never earn a blade, but at least she could appear brave enough to wield one.
The Director’s key ring rattled, and the carriage’s rear doors swung open with a shuddering groan. At first, in the gloom, the iron-lined cell appeared empty. Then Elisabeth made out an object on the floor: a flat, square, iron coffer, secured with more than a dozen locks. To a layperson, the precautions would have appeared absurd—but not for long. In the twilit silence, a single, reverberating thud issued from within the coffer, powerful
enough to shake the carriage and rattle the doors on their hinges. One of the horses screamed.
“Quickly,” the Director said. She took one of the coffer’s handles, and Elisabeth seized the other. They hefted its weight between them and proceeded toward a door with an inscription carved atop it, the arching scroll clasped on either side by weeping angels. OFFICIUM ADUSQUE MORTEM, it read dimly, nearly obscured by shadow. The warden’s motto. Duty unto death.
They entered a long stone corridor burnished by the jumping light of torches. The coffer’s leaden weight already strained Elisabeth’s arm. It did not move again, but its stillness failed to reassure her, for she suspected what it meant: the book within was listening. It was waiting.
Another warden stood guard beside the entrance to the vault. When he saw Elisabeth at the Director’s side, his small eyes gleamed with loathing. This was Warden Finch. He was a grizzled man with short gray hair and a puffy face into which his features seemed to recede, like raisins in a bread pudding. Among the apprentices, he was infamous for the fact that his right hand was larger than the other, bulging with muscle, because he exercised it so often whipping them.
She squeezed the coffer’s handle until her knuckles turned white, instinctively bracing herself for a blow, but Finch could do nothing to her in front of the Director. Muttering beneath his breath, he heaved on a chain. Inch by inch, the portcullis rose, lifting its sharp black teeth above their heads. Elisabeth stepped forward.
And the coffer lurched.
“Steady,” the Director snapped, as both of them careened against the stone wall, barely keeping their balance. Elisabeth’s
stomach swooped. Her boot hung over the edge of a spiral stair that twisted vertiginously down into darkness.
The horrible truth dawned on her. The grimoire had wanted them to fall. She imagined the coffer tumbling down the stairs, striking the flagstones at the bottom, bursting open—and it would have been her fault—
The Director’s hand clasped her shoulder. “It’s all right, Scrivener. Nothing’s happened. Grip the rail and keep going.”
With an effort, Elisabeth turned away from Finch’s condemning scowl. Down they went. A subterranean chill wafted up from below, smelling of cold rock and mildew, and of something less natural. The stone itself bled the malice of ancient things that had languished in darkness for centuries—consciousnesses that did not slumber, minds that did not dream. Muffled by thousands of pounds of earth, the silence was such that she heard only her own pulse pounding in her ears.
She had spent her childhood exploring the Great Library’s myriad nooks and crannies, prying into its countless mysteries, but she had never been inside the vault. Its presence had lurked beneath the library her entire life like something unspeakable hiding under the bed.
This is my chance, she reminded herself. She could not be afraid.
They emerged into a chamber that resembled a cathedral’s crypt. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all carved from the same gray stone. The ribbed pillars and vaulted ceilings had been crafted with artistry, even reverence. Statues of angels stood in niches along the walls, candles guttering at their feet. With sorrowful, shadowed eyes, they watched over the rows of iron shelves that formed aisles down the center of the vault. Unlike the bookcases in the upper portions of the library, these were
welded in place. Chains secured the locked coffers, which slid between the shelves like drawers.
Elisabeth assured herself that it was her imagination conjuring up whispers from the coffers as they passed. A thick layer of dust coated the chains. Most of the coffers hadn’t been disturbed in decades, and their inhabitants remained fast asleep. Yet the back of her neck still prickled as though she were being watched.
The Director guided her beyond the shelves, toward a cell with a table bolted to the floor at the center. A single oil lamp cast a jaundiced glow across its ink-stained surface. The coffer remained unsettlingly cooperative as they set it down beside four enormous gashes, like giant claw marks, that scarred the table’s wood. Elisabeth’s eyes darted to the gashes again and again. She knew what had made them. What happened when a grimoire got out of control.
“What precaution do we take first?” the Director asked, jolting Elisabeth from her thoughts. The test had begun.
“Salt,” she answered, reaching for the canister at her hip. “Like iron, salt weakens demonic energies.” Her hand trembled slightly as she shook out the crystals, forming a lopsided circle. Shame flushed her cheeks at the sight of its uneven edges. What if she wasn’t ready, after all?
The barest hint of warmth softened the Director’s severe face. “Do you know why I chose to keep you, Elisabeth?”
Elisabeth froze, the breath trapped in her chest. The Director had never addressed her by her given name—only her last name, Scrivener, or sometimes just “apprentice,” depending on how much trouble she was in, which was often a fantastic amount. “No, Director,” she said.
“Hmm. It was storming, I recall. The grimoires were restless
that night. They were making so much noise that I barely heard the knock on the front doors.” Elisabeth could easily picture the scene. Rain lashing against the windows, the tomes howling and sobbing and rattling beneath their restraints. “When I found you on the steps, and picked you up and brought you inside, I was certain you would cry. Instead, you looked around and began to laugh. You were not afraid. At that moment I knew I couldn’t send you away to an orphanage. You belonged in the library, as much as any book.”
Elisabeth had been told the story before, but only by her tutor, never the Director herself. Two words echoed through her mind with the vitality of a heartbeat: you belonged. They were words that she had waited sixteen years to hear, and desperately hoped were true.
In breathless silence, she watched the Director reach for her keys and select the largest one, ancient enough to have rusted almost beyond recognition. It was clear that for the Director, the time for sentiment had passed. Elisabeth contented herself with repeating the unspoken vow she had held close for nearly as long as she could remember. One day, she would become a warden, too. She would make the Director proud.
Salt cascaded onto the table as the coffer’s lid creaked open. A stench of rotting leather rolled across the vault, so potent that she almost gagged.
A grimoire lay inside. It was a thick volume with disheveled, yellowing pages sandwiched between slabs of greasy black leather. It would have looked fairly ordinary, if not for the bulbous protrusions that bulged from the cover. They resembled giant warts, or bubbles on the surface of a pool of tar. Each was the size of a large marble, and there were dozens altogether, deforming nearly every inch of the leather’s surface.
The Director pulled on a heavy pair of iron-lined gloves. Elisabeth hastened to follow her example. She bit the inside of her cheek as the Director lifted the book from the coffer and placed it within the circle of salt.
The instant the Director set it down, the protrusions split open. They weren’t warts—they were eyes. Eyes of every color, bloodstained and rolling, the pupils dilating and contracting to pinpricks as the grimoire convulsed in the Director’s hands. Gritting her teeth, she forced it open. Automatically, Elisabeth reached into the circle and clamped down the other side, feeling the leather twitch and heave through her gloves. Furious. Alive.
Those eyes were not sorcerous conjurations. They were real, plucked from human skulls long ago, sacrificed to create a volume powerful enough to contain the spells etched across its pages. According to history, most sacrifices had not been willing.
“The Book of Eyes,” the Director said, perfectly calm. “It contains spells that allow sorcerers to reach into the minds of others, read their thoughts, and even control their actions. Fortunately, only a handful of sorcerers in the entire kingdom have ever been granted permission to read it.”
“Why would they want to?” Elisabeth burst out, before she could stop herself. The answer was obvious. Sorcerers were evil by nature, corrupted by the demonic magic they wielded. If it weren’t for the Reforms, which had made it illegal for sorcerers to bind books with human parts, grimoires like the Book of Eyes wouldn’t be so exceptionally rare. No doubt sorcerers had attempted to replicate it over the years, but the spells couldn’t be written down using ordinary materials. The sorcery’s power would instantly reduce the ink and parchment to ashes.
To her surprise, the Director took her question seriously, though she was no longer looking at Elisabeth. Instead she
focused on turning the pages, inspecting them for any damage they might have sustained during the journey. “There may come a time when spells like these are necessary, no matter how foul. We have a great responsibility to our kingdom, Scrivener. If this grimoire were destroyed, its spells would be lost forever. It’s the only one of its kind.”
“Yes, Director.” That, she understood. Wardens both protected grimoires from the world, and protected the world from them.
She braced herself as the Director paused, leaning down to examine a stain on one of the pages. Transferring high-class grimoires came at a risk, since any accidental damage could provoke their transformation into a Malefict. They needed to be inspected carefully before their interment in the vault. Elisabeth felt certain that several of the eyes, peering out from beneath the cover, were aimed directly at her—and that they glittered with cunning.
Somehow, she knew she shouldn’t meet their gaze. Hoping to distract herself, she glanced aside to the pages. Some of the sentences were written in Austermeerish or the Old Tongue. But others were scrawled in Enochian, the language of sorcerers, made up of strange, jagged runes that shimmered on the parchment like smoldering embers. It was a language one could only learn by consorting with demons. Merely looking at the runes made her temples throb.
“Apprentice . . .”
The whisper slithered against her mind, as alien and unexpected as the cold, slimy touch of a fish beneath the water of a pond. Elisabeth jerked and looked up. If the Director heard the voice, too, she showed no sign.
“Apprentice, I see you. . . .”
Elisabeth’s breath caught. She did as the Director had instructed and tried to ignore the voice, but it was impossible to concentrate on anything else with so many eyes watching her, agleam with sinister intelligence.
“Look at me . . . look . . .”
Slowly but surely, as if drawn by an invisible force, Elisabeth’s gaze began to travel downward.
“There,” said the Director. Her voice sounded dim and distorted, like she was speaking from underwater. “We are finished. Scrivener?”
When Elisabeth didn’t answer, the Director slammed the grimoire shut, cutting its voice off midwhisper. Elisabeth’s senses rushed back. She sucked in a breath, her face burning with humiliation. The eyes bulged furiously, darting between her and the Director.
“Well done,” the Director said. “You held out much longer than I expected.”
“It almost had me,” Elisabeth whispered. How could the Director congratulate her? A clammy sweat clung to her skin, and in the vault’s chill, she began to shiver.
“Yes. That was what I wished to show you tonight. You have a way with grimoires, an affinity for them that I have never seen in an apprentice before. But despite that, you still have much to learn. You want to become a warden, do you not?”
Spoken in front of the Director, witnessed by the angel statues lining the walls, Elisabeth’s soft reply possessed the quality of a confession. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Just remember that there are many paths open to you.” The scar’s distortion gave the Director’s mouth an almost rueful cast. “Be certain, before you choose, that the life of a warden is what you truly desire.”
Elisabeth nodded, not trusting herself to speak. If she had passed the test, she didn’t understand why the Director would advise her to consider forsaking her dream. Perhaps she had shown herself in some other way to be unready, unprepared. In that case, she would simply have to try harder. She had a year left before she turned seventeen and became eligible for training at the Collegium—time she could use to prove herself beyond a doubt, and earn the Director’s approval. She only hoped it would be enough.
Together, they wrestled the grimoire back into the coffer. As soon as it touched the salt, it ceased struggling. The eyes rolled upward, showing crescents of milky white before they sagged shut. The slam of the lid shattered the vault’s sepulchral quiet. The coffer wouldn’t be opened again for years, perhaps decades. It was secure. It posed a threat no longer.
But she couldn’t banish the sound of its voice from her thoughts, or the feeling that she hadn’t seen the last of the Book of Eyes—and it had not seen the last of her.