Home > Sorcery of Thorns(8)

Sorcery of Thorns(8)
Author: Margaret Rogerson

Pain exploded through her bare toe halfway across the atrium. She had stubbed it on something on the floor. Something cold and hard—something that shone in the dark—

A sword. And not just any sword—Demonslayer. Garnets glittered on its pommel in the gloom.

Numbly, Elisabeth picked it up. Touching it felt wrong. Demonslayer never left the Director’s belt. She would only allow it out of her sight if . . .

With a stifled cry, Elisabeth rushed to the shape that lay slumped on the floor nearby. Red hair feathered by moonlight, a pale hand outflung. She gripped the shoulder and found it unresisting as she turned the body over. The Director’s eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.

The floor yawned open beneath Elisabeth; the library spun in a dizzy whirl. This wasn’t possible. It was a bad dream. Any moment now she would wake up in her bed, and everything would be back to normal. As she waited for this to happen, the seconds unspooling past, her stomach heaved. She stumbled away from the Director’s body toward the doors, where she coughed up a sour string of bile. When she put out her hand to steady herself, her palm slipped against the door frame.

Blood, she thought automatically, but the substance coating her hand was something else—thicker, darker. Not blood—ink.

Elisabeth instantly knew what this meant. She wiped her hand on her nightgown and gripped Demonslayer’s pommel in both hands, shaking too violently to hold it with only one. She stepped out into the night. The wind rushed over her, tangling her hair. At first she saw nothing, only the twinkling glow of a few lamps still lit down in Summershall. Their lights flickered as the orchard’s trees thrashed in the wind. A high wrought iron fence stood around the library’s gravel yard, its sharp finials spearing the restless sky like daggers, but the gate hung open, warped on its hinges, dripping with ink.

Then, in the distance, a hulking silhouette moved among the trees. Moonlight shone on its greasy surface. It limped toward the village with a rolling, ungainly gait, like a malformed bear clumsily attempting to walk on two legs. There was no mistaking what it was. A grimoire had escaped from the vault. Drawing upon the power of the sorcery between its pages, it had swelled into a gruesome monster of ink and leather.

Upon sighting a Malefict, Elisabeth was supposed to alert the nearest warden or, if that was impossible, race up the stairs to ring the Great Library’s warning bell. The bell would call the wardens to arms and prompt the townspeople to evacuate into the shelter beneath the town hall. But there was no time. If Elisabeth turned back, the monster would reach Summershall before anyone even had a chance to rise from bed. Countless people would die in the streets. It would be a slaughter.

Officium adusque mortem. Duty unto death. She had passed beneath that inscription a thousand times. She might not be a warden yet, but she would never be able to call herself one if she turned away now. Protecting Summershall was her responsibility, even at the cost of her life.

Elisabeth flew through the gate and down the hill. The sharp gravel gave way to a soft, wet carpet of moss and fallen leaves that soaked the hem of her nightgown. She tripped over a root in her path, nearly losing her grip on the sword, but the Malefict didn’t pause, only continued its lumbering advance in the opposite direction.

Now she was close enough to gag on its rotten stench. And to see how big it was, far larger than a man, with limbs as thick and gnarled as tree stumps. Paralyzing waves of fear crashed over her. Demonslayer grew heavy in her hands at last. She was no hero, just a girl in a nightgown who happened to be holding a sword. Was this the way the Director had felt, Elisabeth wondered, when she faced her first Malefict?

I don’t have to beat it, she thought. If she could distract it for long enough, and make enough of a commotion doing so, she might save the town. After all, disturbing the peace is what I’m good at. Most of the time, I do it without even trying. Courage crept back to her, freeing her frozen limbs. She drew in a deep breath and shouted wordlessly into the night.

The wind tore her voice to shreds, but the monster finally lumbered to a halt. The oily black leather of its hide rippled as if reacting to a fly. After a long, considering pause, it turned to face her.

It was bulky and roughly man-shaped, but lopsided, crude, as if a child had fashioned it from a lump of clay. Dozens of bloodshot eyes bulged across every inch of its surface, ranging from the size of teacups to the size of dinner plates. Their pupils had shrunk to pinpricks, and all of them stared directly at Elisabeth. The library’s most dangerous grimoire walked free. The Book of Eyes had returned.

After gazing at her for a moment, it wavered, torn between her and the town. Slowly, its eyes began to roll back in the direction of Summershall. It must not have seen her as a threat. Compared to all those people ahead, she wasn’t worth bothering with. She needed to convince it otherwise.

She raised Demonslayer and charged, leaping over fallen branches, dodging between the trees. The Malefict’s bulky form loomed above her, blocking out the moonlight. She held her breath against its nauseating stench. Several of its eyes swiveled to focus on her, their pupils enlarging in surprise, but that was all they had a chance to see before the blade swiped across them, spattering ink in an arc through the shadows.

The monster’s roar shook the ground. Elisabeth kept running; she knew she couldn’t face the Book of Eyes head-on. She plunged through the orchard and skidded to a crouch behind the mossy ruin of an old stone well, sucking in gasps of clean air.

Somehow, hiding from the monster was worse than facing it. She couldn’t see what it was doing, which allowed her imagination to fill in the gaps. But she did determine, without a doubt, that it was looking for her. Though it moved with unnerving stealth, it was too large to pass between the trees without betraying its presence. Branches snapped here and there, and apples plopped to the ground with hollow smacks. The sounds gradually drew nearer. Elisabeth stopped panting; her lungs burned with the effort of holding her breath. An apple struck the well and burst, spattering her with sticky fragments.

“Apprentice . . . I’ll find you . . . only a matter of time . . .”

The whisper caressed her mind like a flabby hand. She reeled, clutching her head.

“Better if you gave up now . . .”

The greasy suggestion swirled through her thoughts, compelling in its bloodless pragmatism. Her mission was impossible. Too hard. All she had to do was give in, put down the sword, and her suffering would be over. The Book of Eyes would make it quick.

The Book of Eyes was lying.

Gritting her teeth, Elisabeth looked up. The Malefict stood above her, but it hadn’t seen her yet. Its eyes twisted in their sockets, moving independently of one another as they scanned the orchard. The ones she’d injured had closed up, weeping rivulets of ink like tears.

“Apprentice . . .”

Resisting the whispers was like treading water in sodden clothes, barely keeping her nose and mouth above the surface. She forced herself to stop holding her head and clenched her fingers around Demonslayer’s grip. Just a little longer, she told herself. The monster shifted closer, and a yellow eye looked down. When it spotted her, its pupil dilated so hugely that the entire iris appeared black.


She thrust Demonslayer upward, piercing the eye. Ink cascaded down her arms and dripped onto the moss. The Malefict’s bellow shuddered through the night. This time, as she scrambled away, she saw new lights winking on in the town below. More joined them with every second that passed, spreading from house to house like banked embers flaring back to life. Summershall was waking. Her plan was succeeding.

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