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Sorcery of Thorns
Author: Margaret Rogerson

ONE

 


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.

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