The clank of a metal-shod staff heralded the arrival of Melnock the wizard to the library of Babyl-no-Ktan.
Ragna, the noontide librarian, looked up from his clay tablet and set aside the daily missive from his superior. He closed his eyes, clenched his teeth, and promised for the thousandth time that he would neither run screaming from the building nor bludgeon Melnock to death with the nearest stool.
It was the second Thirdsday of the month. Melnock always came on the second Thirdsday, and always for the same damned reason. Every month, the Magi of Magi decreed new incantations for all the city’s scryglobes, lest the Magi’s enemies in Uürk-Across-the-River divine the wizards’ inner counsels. And, as always, Melnock had forgotten to reset his scrying globe’s password.
How had it come to this? In elder days, librarians had been shepherds of knowledge, keepers of scrolls and codices, guides to the mysteries of ancient lore. The library of Babyl-no-Ktan was a temple to the mind, to questions answered and mysteries revealed. By decree of the Goddess Herself, it was open to all— a refuge to those seeking truth.
That was then. Now, it seemed that Ragna and his fellow librarians spent all their time hand-holding crotchety wizards who couldn’t be bothered to master “new” magical practices that had already been in place for decades. To make it worse, Ragna was good at it, and Melnock always sought him out.
“Ho there, boy,” the aged wizard said when he’d finally clanked his way to the desk. Melnock held up a sphere the size of a grapefruit, clouded and dark. “This wretched thing is bedeviled again. Think you could give me a hand?”
Ragna was about to answer when a cry like the screams of burning heretics split his thoughts in two.
“Excuse me,” Ragna said. He hitched up his robes, grabbed a thin blue tome from beneath his stool, and hurried up the steps to the second mezzanine. There, as he expected, sat Sister Teris deep in study. The four Shrieking Seraphim that served as her familiars had grown bored and, as their name implied, started shrieking.
Ragna had long since stopped pleading with Sister Teris to keep her seraphim under control. Instead, he laid the blue book on the floor and, careful not to look, opened it. One by one, the seraphim glanced at it and were mesmerized by the visions it flashed into their tiny minds. The book was a temporary solution, but it might buy Ragna enough time to deal with Melnock.
The wizard hadn’t moved. He’d set his scryglobe against a stack of unbound sheets, and was reading the personal missive on Ragna’s clay tablet.
“Sorry,” said Ragna, slipping the tablet out of Melnock’s fingers. He picked up the globe. “I’m sure we can figure this out.” He left the word again unsaid. “If your incantation expired, we just need to answer the riddle you selected.” We selected, he wished he could say, but Ragna never listened to the questions Melnock chose. To do so would risk a never-ending curse from the Magi of Magi, though doing so would have made his life so much easier.
“Riddles,” said the wizard. “I hate these modern riddles. What’s wrong with a nice bowl of scrying water, that’s what I’d like to know.”
Because your enemies in Uürk would read your thoughts every time you used it, Ragna pictured himself saying.
“It shouldn’t be hard. Just place your fingers like so and say ‘Reveal thyself.’”
Melnock humphed, held the globe, and repeated the words. The scrying globe spoke:
“In the fourth moon of the third year of the reign of Urystes, who sang in the garden beneath the light of Babyl’s star?”
Melnock’s face inflated. “I don’t know the answer to that!”
Ragna pinched the bridge of his nose to keep from banging his head against the desk, thinking You picked the Goddess-damned question!
Before he could rephrase his reply more tactfully, the library doors boomed open, and in poured the sound of a howling mob outside. The doors slammed shut just as loudly, and the giant who’d done the slamming pressed against them with her back.
A half-naked boy had rushed in with her. He climbed slowly to his feet, his expression matching the confusion that threatened to jostle Ragna’s self-control. The boy, no more than fifteen years old, wore a loincloth of silver mail and a chain around his wrists. His skin was pale, like that of the rulers of Uürk.
The woman was pale as well, but she had the look of some savage northern tribe. She wore heavy banded armor, a wolf-pelt cloak, thick leather boots, and well-scarred gauntlets. A black-shafted axe hung from her belt.
“Do you have something to bar the door?” she shouted.
Ragna pointed at the nearest reading table. The nearly naked boy dragged it with a screech as its legs scraped the floor. The woman shoved it in front of the doors and wedged several chairs underneath. Someone pounded from outside, but the makeshift barricade held. Satisfied with her work, she stormed towards Ragna, unslung a satchel, and dumped an ancient, battered codex on his desk.
“I need this translated.”
“I say,” said Melnock, “I believe I was here first.”
The woman unhooked her axe and dropped it on the desk with a thunk.
Something heavier than a fist hammered on the door. The barricade cried as it strained inward.
“Um…” said Ragna.
That was when the seraphim started shrieking again. Ragna spoke up over the din.
“I can’t translate an entire manuscript. Certainly not before whoever’s outside breaks in. I can bring you a dictionary if you tell me what language.”
“Language?” Between the booming at the door and the screams from above, Ragna could barely make her out. “I don’t know. Some kind of magic.”
“By the Grail,” said Melnock, raising a monocle to his eye. “That’s the Black Book of Belek. And that boy – good Goddess, woman, that’s the Prince of Uürk who’s to be sacrificed tonight. What in the devil’s secret name have you done?”
The woman lifted her axe.
“Hear me, little troll. I, Goreym of Gomara, have vowed to return this child to his family. You wizards—” She brandished her weapon at Melnock. “—say his fate is to fill Belek’s Grail with his blood. I say there’s a spell in this book to break the curse, and I’ll have it translated now.”
“Shush!” shouted Ragna. And truly, his patience was done.
If Goreym had stolen this book from the Magi, then those men trying to hammer down the door were almost certainly the Fists of the Magi, the city’s deadliest enforcers. Once they broke in, they would kill everyone present except for the Prince, and only then to save him for later. This afternoon was shaping up to be Ragna’s last, but by the Goddess he would be a librarian to the end.
“A question has been asked,” he said. “It will be answered or I will die trying.” A bit grandiose, for sure, but at least his declaration made Goreym lower her axe. The Prince peeked over the edge of Ragna’s desk as if a miracle might occur before his eyes.
Above, the Shrieking Seraphim grew louder.
“Excuse me,” Ragna said. He stomped up the stairs to where Sister Teris sat with her nose still buried in a scroll. Ragna grabbed the book he’d used to calm the seraphim, shook it a few times to refresh its potency, and waved it at the circling, squalling infants.
“This way,” he said. The seraphim followed, spiraling down the steps behind him. Teris didn’t even look up.
The seraphim followed the book like hummingbirds after nectar. Ragna climbed Goreym’s barricade and saw that the Fists had already made a rent in the library’s ancient doors. He kicked at the weakest spot, knocking a hole about a foot wide.
“Excuse me,” he said to the bewildered soldier on the other side. “Would you mind having a look at this?”
He passed the blue book through the gap. The Fist of the Magi opened it, and was immediately mesmerized. Ragna leapt sideways as four Shrieking Seraphim dove through the opening, striking the soldier in the face and starting what sounded like a riot. Ragna hopped down from the table and strode with all the confidence of a dead man to his post.
“Right. Melnock, can you at least tell me what language this book is in?”
“That’s Belek’s book. It’s written in his personal cypher. I daresay there’s no dictionary in the world that would unravel that.”
“You don’t please me, wizened one,” said Goreym. “I cut five of your brothers’ throats before one told me what this book held.”
“Wait, wait, wait.” Melnock didn’t seem as resigned to his imminent death as Ragna was. “Every wizard has a secret cypher. That’s why we use scrying tools to read them.”
“Like your globe,” said Ragna. Instead of punching Melnock, he placed his shaking hands on the wizard’s sphere. “Reveal thyself.”
The globe repeated: “In the fourth moon of the third year of the reign of Urystes, who sang in the garden beneath the light of Babyl’s star?”
“But I still don’t know the answer!” Melnock said.
The library doors splintered, making a gap wide enough for the Fists to clamber in.
“I like you, librarian,” Goreym said, hefting her axe. “Hurry.”
She ran to meet the onrushing soldiers. Ragna kept his focus on Melnock.
“Is it a literary reference? Something from a poem?”
“I don’t read poetry. Now, I do enjoy Filrod’s work, but that was in the reign of—”
“History then. What about Urystes? Was he a music lover? Are there songs about him?” Ragna could have looked those answers up himself, but judging by the limbs Goreym was hewing from the inrushing soldiers, he didn’t have the time.
“I suppose there were songs, but I wouldn’t—”
“Then why did you pick the question?” Ragna’s fury burned to heights undreamt of. “Does it have personal significance? Were you alive in Urystes’s reign? What for the love of the Goddess were you thinking?”
“That’s it!” cried Melnock. “It was a love song. There was this girl, you see, one of Urystes’ concubines’ handmaidens, and she—”
“Who sang in the garden, you decrepit waste of skin?”
“I did. I sang the love song, and dear me, that’s no way to speak to one of your patrons.”
At Melnock’s words, the globe unclouded. Ragna opened the Black Book of Belek and, looking through the scrying glass, flipped through the pages.
“Don’t wizards index anything?”
“Not as such,” Melnock said. “We just sort of write things down as they come.”
A soldier bounced off the reference desk, blood spraying everywhere from a crack in his skull. Still fighting, Goreym shouted “Hurry!”
Page after page, Ragna thumbed through the book until a group of phrases caught his eye.
“Here it is.”
Melnock leaned in. The Prince pulled himself higher.
“By this curse,” Ragna read aloud, “shall Babyl-no-Ktan forever eclipse thrice-damned Uürk in honor, wealth, and glory. By this curse shall vengeance be had on the Uürki betrayers in the war against Okkad.”
“That was in Belek’s time,” said Melnock. “Water under the bridge, as they say.”
“Skipping a bit,” said Ragna. “Neverending shame… Blah blah blah… Magi of Magi… Blah blah, here we go:
“By this curse shall in every third generation be born a mute Prince to the House of Uürk. By barter, by stealth, or by conquest, this Prince shall fall to the Magi. No feat of cunning nor valor shall save him.
“In the dark of the first moon of summer, this Prince’s blood shall fill my Grail, which I bequeath to those who follow me. By this sacrifice, this curse shall ever be renewed until the next mute Prince be born. No action in battle nor scheme of the wise shall save the Prince from his fate. This curse may never be broken unless…”
A soldier, his cuirass covered in blood, grabbed the book from Ragna’s hands. A spear exploded through the soldier’s face, and he let the book fall to the table. Goreym dropped the spear, scooped a sword off the floor, and flung herself back into battle, screaming “Keep reading!”
Ragna tried to calm himself. It didn’t work. The Prince stared at him like a kitten. Melnock scratched his nose with the hem of his robe. Ragna found the page again and read, using Melnock’s globe.
“This curse may never be broken unless… unless the following words be uttered by one whose allegiance is higher than the Magi, whose loyalty transcends the rivalry of nations, and whose heart is filled with a desire more noble than the accumulation of wealth or mastery in mortal realms.”
“There you have it,” said Melnock. “There’s no such man. Or woman, all respect to present company. ‘Whose loyalty transcends nations. Desire more noble than wealth.’ What rubbish. Belek knew best. No matter that we can read his words, no one could ever meet those criteria.”
Ragna stared at Melnock. Behind him he felt the souls of every man and woman who’d held his office since the library was founded.
“I don’t give two shits about Uürk or Babyl and their stupid feud. I’m loyal to the pursuit of knowledge. As for wealth and power, do you think I’d be working at this crummy desk if I had that kind of ambition? I told you my desire. A question was asked. I promised an answer. That’s it.”
Ragna read the spell aloud. The weight of the incantation tumbled from his lips like an avalanche.
“By This Word, may my vengeance on the heirs of Uürk be lifted. By This Word, may the glory of the Magi be broken. By This Word, may the blood of the Prince go unspilled. By This Word…”
The sound of a crack exploded through the earth. A narrow chasm split the ground between Ragna’s feet, snapping his desk in two.
“By This Word, may the warring of ages be done.”
Every Fist of the Magi dropped his weapon. Goreym did too. Silence like a breeze filled the chamber, from the flutter of a scroll falling off a shelf, to the creak of the broken table blocking the rubble-strewn entrance. The Black Book of Belek crumbled to dust. So did the chains binding the Prince.
The young man put his hand to his throat and coughed.
“Thanks,” he whispered. “I guess I’ll be going then. I think Uürk is… this way?”
He pointed to the broken door. Ragna nodded. The Prince walked out, and the Fists of the Magi parted to let him pass.
“What have you done, boy?” Melnock said. “You’ve broken the curse. The rulers of Uürk will kill us for sure.”
“I don’t think so.” Ragna felt dizzy. “Here’s your scryglobe. Maybe you should check.”
Melnock gazed into the glass. Goreym returned to the desk.
“That was decent work, little wizard.”
“I’m not a wizard,” Ragna said. “Just a librarian.”
“Whatever.” She nodded toward Melnock. “That was stronger magic than the tricks these frauds perform.”
“I don’t believe it,” Melnock said. “The Magi… All of the Magi. They’re gone. The young ones are fleeing the city. The Elders, they’ve turned to dust. Any who weren’t here in the library – this is a catastrophe.”
“Who does that leave as the ranking wizard in Babyl?” asked Ragna.
“Well. Me, I guess.”
Ragna smiled. “All hail the new Magi of Magi.”
“What’s going on down there?” said Sister Teres from the mezzanine. “What happened to my seraphim?”
“Well,” said Ragna, “you may have to fight it out with her.”
Melnock stumbled away. Goreym remained.
“I’m serious,” she said. “That was wizardry, whatever you say. If you’d like better work than sitting here reading books, come see me at the Cyclops Tavern. Come anyway. I owe you a tankard once I find the Prince again.”
Ragna nodded. He moved carefully from behind his desk so as not to fall in the crack that had opened beneath him. The Library was a blood-soaked shambles. He couldn’t imagine what his superior would say. He looked for the tablet that he’d been reading earlier and found it shattered under the body of a dead soldier. Perhaps running away with a barbarian wasn’t the worst idea.
His thoughts were broken by a polite cough. Looking up, he saw the city’s most eminent poet stepping gingerly around the corpses.
“Excuse me,” the poet said. “I wonder if you could help me locate a scroll I once read. I don’t recall the author, but it was half a cubit long and had a red tassel on the end. Or maybe it was blue.”
Jared Millet was a librarian for over twenty years before running away to travel with his wife. Those adventures can be found at TheEscapeHatch.net. His fantasy novels, The Blood Prayer and The Bone Collar, were published in June and July of this year. Jared lives in Atlanta, Georgia.