The Guardian of Tomes

The door to the archives was cracked. In his 217 years guarding the ancient tomes, the door had never once been opened by anyone else. And he had not opened the door this time.

He pulled the scepter from where it hung across his back, waving a palm over the glittering orb at its apex. The crystal pulsed with light as he thrust it forward into the dark interior of the archives.  As he swung the scepter in an arch with his right hand, his left moved in a quick, fluid gesture around the silver staff. 

Power reverberated around him as a protective barrier was activated. For this door being open could only signal danger. Malik was the only man alive with access to the archives, and it would take a powerful mage to break through the enchanted locks and wards surrounding the kingdom’s sacred books. 

Malik’s life force had been bound to the books the day the last Guardian passed on. With the ties that ensnared him came a strength few mages would ever know. Not only was he given the scepter to unlock and protect the archives, but also the might of the tomes themselves. For these were no ordinary books.

He held the scepter lightly, ready to swing it at the first sign of trouble, as he weaved through the cold stone shelves. He heard a crackling sound as he stepped up to the next row. He shifted the scepter toward the sound, but he already knew what made the noise.

The orb on his scepter absorbed the sparking flames, accepting the offering from the fire tome to its familiar protector. The magic of the books would only be bestowed upon those they deemed worthy, which is why few took the risk of trying to steal the rare volumes; they were nearly useless to those who desired power or cruelty. Still, every few hundred years someone would try, hoping to learn the secret to the mysterious spells. Which was why the Guardian of Tomes existed, why Malik had given his life force to the books. Because it had been done before, only once, and they could never let it happen again. 

A quiet shuffle sounded behind him. Malik didn’t hesitate. He turned and flung the scorching magic from his scepter at the cloaked figure that was sneaking toward the exit. The fire roared around the mage’s shield, but Malik had expected that. Any decent mage would have a barrier up if he was attempting anything dangerous. 

Malik let his momentum carry him, and spun toward another wall to his left, stretching his scepter toward the shelves. The books answered his call for aid with a crack of lightning that vibrated down the staff. Continuing his turn, Malik launched the oncoming storm at his foe. The man didn’t turn to fight him, but raced for the door with his head bowed forward. The lightning jolted him, and he stumbled with a hiss of pain. The intruder’s shield had absorbed all it could of the powerful magic. If Malik acted quickly, he could take the man down before he cast another shielding spell. 

With his left hand, Malik wove a spell to prevent the warding gestures that he expected from the stranger’s own hands. But that is where the intruder took him by surprise. The man didn’t try to protect himself from the onslaught; he simply got up and ran for the door once more. And now Malik had wasted precious time on an unnecessary spell.

He pressed forward, as the stranger neared the exit, eyes scanning the shelves for the right books to aid what would likely be his last attempt at stopping the intruder. When Malik neared the right section, he slashed the specter toward the tomes before swinging his arm back and up over his head. Ensnaring vines writhed toward the cloaked man, as he shot out the archive doors and dove around the corner.

The instant the man passed the threshold, Malik felt it. An emptiness echoed through him like the ripples in a pond. He had never felt this sensation before, but he knew precisely what it was. The thing all Guardians were taught to fear. The man had taken possession of a sacred tome. 

Weeks passed without a whisper of the magic of the tome being unleashed. That didn’t mean the thief wasn’t planning on using it to conquer and destroy. He could still be trying to access the magic within. It might even take years, but Malik didn’t have that kind of time. 

He had failed at his only duty as Guardian of Tomes, and he was paying the price. Until he returned the powerful book to its proper place, the others would continue to turn on him, sucking away the strength that they had offered him upon the binding. Even a normal mage needed trinkets to sustain them as their spells took a toll throughout their lifespan, but for the Guardians, with their extended lifespan and the powerful enchantments they wielded, this was even more true. The tomes were their wellspring of life.

Malik grew weaker as time dragged on without a trace of the missing book. The archives remained sealed. He no longer spent his days wandering their shelves and basking in the lifetimes of knowledge they had to offer him. Now he spent his nights hunting. 

He eased himself from the chair where he rested, ready to set out again. He planned to speak with an oracle in the outskirts of the old city, at a loss for any other way to find out what he needed to know. He clasped the scepter, the once-familiar weight now a heavy burden, and strapped it to his back.

Malik paused as a painful throbbing filled his chest. He fell to his knees and reached for the scepter once more. Footsteps echoed through the entryway to his home, and a cloaked figure, not unlike that of the book thief, appeared. 

Malik tried to grasp the scepter or work a spell, anything, but the throbbing had spread to his limbs now. He couldn’t move.

A low menacing laugh sent a chill down his spine.

“How did you get in here?” Malik rasped.

“The same way I got into the archives,” the man answered.

“Why are you here? Why did you take the book?”

“It wasn’t about getting the book, not exactly. Everyone knows the tomes are useless without the power to wield them. And who can wield them, but the Guardian? I knew there must be a way, for someone accomplished it before. I set out to discover the way to unlock the magic, but the only answer I found was that there was no way. ‘You must be the Guardian to receive the power of the tomes,’ I read over and over until my vision blurred.”

The man began to pace.

“Finally, I realized what that statement didn’t say…how to become the Guardian of Tomes. Tradition says the new Guardian was chosen by the Order at the death of the prior Guardian. But was that the only way? I began to wonder. So I searched for the answer to a new question, and I found what I had sought. There is another way to become the Guardian and wield the unparalleled magic of the tomes. Win the Guardian’s scepter, and kill him with it,” the thief finished.

Malik’s eyes widened as he grasped what this all meant. He wasn’t scared for himself; he had lived a long life already. No, Malik was terrified for the books.

For the tomes and their magic were as alive as any man. And Malik had sworn to give his life for them long ago. 

But Malik had failed. He was the first Guardian in many millenia to allow a book to be stolen. And he would be only the second in the history of the Guardians to allow a creature vile as this to wield their power. Malik had discovered the sought-after answer to how Zaros had done it, but now it was too late.

He lifted his eyes to the thief, and a fire burned in them. 

“You won’t get away with this. The books will never serve you.”

“You would like to believe that, wouldn’t you? But you won’t live to find out.”

The man wrenched the scepter from Malik’s back and pointed it right at his heart. He pulled a tome from beneath his cloak, readying himself to absorb its power after the killing blow. 

Malik felt all strength leave him, and he hunched forward against the scepter, awaiting death.

A crash of waves sounded, and Malik lifted his eyes. Water flowed from the tome into the scepter. The man laughed.

“The book has already accepted its fate. It lends me the power to kill you.”

Malik should have been saddened, but he was only grateful. For he took this for the gift it was. One last taste of the tome’s enchantment, even if it was the end of him. The only farewell the book could offer him now.

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