“So, tell me about your findings,” the Curator says.
We are standing on the top of the ruins of the Old Town wall. On one side the silent ruins of Old Ankhar lay in the silence of centuries, keeping the memories of times when demons roared beneath the surface and people died terrible deaths. This portion of the wall, that surrounded the ancient Ankhar, is still standing, thanks to the prevention efforts of the Curatorium. The demolished buildings, destroyed homes, shattered stones of the old streets are still in their ruined form to remind the people that humans are fragile. It serves as a monument of horrible ancient powers, as well.
On the other side of the wall, Ankhar City buzzes with energy. The sun makes the White Towers so bright it pains to look at them. I hear the constant buzz of cars and people from the Malachi avenue near to us. I watch an airplane climbing higher and higher on the other side of the city, towards the white streaks that other flights left in the sky.
“The book might be original,” I say.
The Curator lifts one eyebrow. “Might be? It either is or isn’t.”
I quickly add, “I mean, the chemical tests proved that the paper and the ink are several centuries old.”
“We knew that already. Tell me about your trip.” The Curator turns and watches the ruins, as if waiting for an ancient demon to emerge to confirm his theory.
I hesitate. In the pub, with a bear in my hand, I would tell my story without hesitation. But the Curator isn’t a half-drunk buddy who would believe anything for another round. He is the head of the Institute of Archeology.
“Don’t tell me you have spent the considerable amount we provided you with, for nothing.” His voice is calm, but I hear the menace between the lines.
I clear my throat. “I found evidence.”
The Curator turns back to me, lifting both eyebrows.
“We started,” I continue, “in the ancient city under Old Ankhar. We found all kinds of artefacts that other archaeologists discovered already. Wooden cutlery, clay bowls and drinking cups, furniture and such. Everyday items. But we looked into places no one did before.”
I swallow. Now comes the hard part.
“And?” The Curator’s voice is urging.
“We found a skeleton of a goblin.”
“A goblin? How do you know?”
“If you saw it, you wouldn’t question it. It was much smaller than a human skeleton, but not like a child’s, rather deformed, in places bent unnaturally, other parts were bigger than they should have been. And the skeleton. Believe me, it wasn’t human.”
“Tell me more.”
“We went deeper, down to the belly of the mountain, even down to the roots of the mountain. We found an entire city. Houses, smitheries, workshops, dining halls, remains of clothes. Every kind of everyday artefacts. They were small, as if made for children, but at the same time thick and strong and robust. The people that once lived there must have had been short ones, this high.”
I put my open palm at the height of my stomach.
“Dwarves,” the Curator says, I cannot miss the excitement in his voice.
“Dwarves,” I confirm. “We have found remains of other creatures too. They had wings, and they resembled bats.”
“Like in the book of Malachi,” says the Curator. He starts to pace, deep in thoughts. He motions with his hands urging me, “Tell me more.”
“We went even deeper. So deep we thought we would never see the sun again. And we have found the lake. And the throne.”
The Curator stops in front of me and grabs my shoulders. “THE Throne?”
“Tell me you have brought evidence!”
“As many artefacts as we could carry. And we filmed everything.”
“I want to see them!”
“Or course. We left them with the guards in the House of Malachi.”
He paces again, excited.
“You realize what it means?”
I do. And I say so. “The book is accurate. Which means magic existed.”
I always believed that the Book of Malachi was a fairy tale. I mean, come on. Magic? Even when a lucky digger found the Wayward Magicians under an ancient ruin, everyone thought it was fiction. An adventure story to entertain yourself in your spare time. But when more and more archeological artefacts were discovered that matched the book, archeologists raised serious questions. And then they found the entrance to the underground city. It changed what we thought we knew about our ancestors.
“I trust you have received your payment?” the Curator asks.
Indeed, the Institute paid me handsomely. Because I did what earlier expeditions failed to do: to push forward, to reach the deepest depths. The belly of the earth.
But I don’t tell him about my biggest reward. I’m not ready yet. Best to keep it as a secret until I master it.
“My detailed report will be in your inbox within a few days,” I say.
“Well then,” the Curator says. “I let you rest after your hard journey.”
I get the message, and I say my respectful goodbye. He leaves with long, energetic steps, and I’m sure his way leads to the House of Malachi to see the artefacts with his own eyes.
I lean to the remains of an ancient wall and pretend to watch the ruins of Old Ankhar. When I’m sure I’m alone, I take out the Wayward Magicians from my satchel. I start to read, and it sucks me in again. The characters of the story are so different from us modern people it fascinates me. I drink in the parts about strange magic. I cannot have enough. This is not a normal adventure book I’m used to. Each chapter is told from another characters’ perspective, which feels strange at first, but it’s interesting at the same time. When reading a story, I always wondered how a minor character would perceive the story. This book gives me a taste. The perspective of the small lizard seems odd, but it’s funny if you think about it.
The sun sets on the horizon, painting the ruins with yellowish red and making the shadows stretch longer and longer. In the twilight, before full dark comes, I put away the Wayward Magicians, and grab another book from my bag. A copy of the Book of Malachi.
I look around to be sure that no one is around, and then I open it to the page that I chose carefully. I read the instructions. I know them by heart by now, but I read them again.
Then I brace myself before I say the words and do the proper gesture. Then, with a pumping heart, scared but determined, I do what I always dreamed of. I perform my first magic.
Visit Joseph Robert Lewis’ website for the Wayward Magicians.
Two of the three characters in the following unconventional review are invented by Michael J. Sullivan. I give him full credit. The third one is mine.
Dear Michael, I hope I don’t offend you with this unconventional review. I was getting bored by the “normal” reviews and added some spice to mine. The following piece is a tribute to you from me, your loyal reader.
The night is scarier than I expected. If it weren’t about The Book, I wouldn’t have left the safety of the town at this hour. There is hardly any light, the moon is playing hide and seek with the clouds, peeking out sometimes as if to see if I have shit myself already. The abandoned ruins around me are full of shadows and evil places. I press myself to the wall of a broken tower, hoping that the men arrive at the promised time. Why in Novron’s name did I accept this god-forsaken place for the meeting?
I hear something. It sounds like talons scratching on the stone. I shiver, trying to become one with the moss-covered stone.
Then I see a figure between two ruined buildings. He walks casually, as if strolling on the main street of the town. I know it’s Him, because I can see the silhouette of the enormous sword on his back. He carries three swords. Who would need three swords, anyway? Men have only two hands.
He stops in a stone-throw distance and waits.
“He’s alone.” The raspy voice comes from right next to me, and I jump and yelp. My heart wants to break out of my chest. A hooded figure separates from the darkness and stands in front of me. He is shorter than the other one, but somehow much more menacing. I cannot see his face, but I know he is watching me. It would unnerve me if I wasn’t already dead-scared.
“Now, now, my friend,” says the big one with the three swords. “No need to worry. I’m sure you understand that my partner, Roy wanted to be sure you didn’t bring unwanted company.”
I swallow but cannot say anything. He walks to me and stops next to his partner. The moon gives enough light to see his face, which looks amused. Now I remember his name: Hadrian.
“We’ve got what you wanted,” he says.
My excitement washes away the fear.
“Really?” I manage to ask.
“Sure. You hired us to get the book, so we got the book. We even got another one, if you are interested.”
I waited so long for The Book that my hands are shaking from the expectation.
“Let me see it,” I blurt out.
“Of course,” Hadrian says. He pulls a thick book out of his satchel and hands it over to me. I touch the leather cover hesitantly, and I still cannot believe that The Book can be mine. Then I take it carefully as if it were a baby and look at it in wonder. In the moonlight, it’s beautiful. I run my fingers over the intricate patterns.
“Well, we kept our promise,” Hadrian says, “now it’s your turn.”
“Of course, of course!”
I push my purse into his hand. I cannot take away my eyes from The Book.
Hadrian puts away the purse with a satisfied grin.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you,” he says.
“You don’t count it?” I ask.
He shrugs. “You look trustworthy, my friend. And smart. Smart enough not to cross us.”
He has a point.
“Are you heading back to town? You can come with us, it’s safer than wandering alone.”
There is nothing I want more than to read The Book, but he is right. It would do nothing good if I got robbed. I could lose my newly acquired treasure. The thought itself is terrible.
“Sure, thank you for your kindness,” I accept his offer.
We leave the ruins and walk along the road. Hadrian walks next to me with the confidence of a man bearing three swords. His partner disappears in the shadows of the forest next to the road.
“Don’t mind Roy,” Hadrian says, “he likes to scout ahead. And he isn’t that chatty person, anyway.”
I kind of feel better without him.
“So,” Hadrian says, ” you are a librarian.” It’s more like a statement than a question. “I like books too.”
I’m surprised. I never would have considered him as a reading type, the swords and all. But whoever wants to talk about books finds me an excellent company.
“Are you? What kind of books you like?
” I liked that one.” He points to the book I hold dearly to my chest. “It’s quite a good one. Did you know that…”
“Please don’t!” I interrupt him.
In the moonlight, I can see his arched eyebrows.
“Sorry,” I explain, “I want to read this book myself. I waited for it for so long, I don’t want anybody’s opinion to ruin my pleasure.”
“Hm, usually I prefer a storyteller in the inn with a mug of beer, but I think I understand your point.”
We walk in silence for a minute. I’m glad he accompanies me, the shrieks and howls from the forest make me nervous.
“What about the other book?” Hadrian asks.
“What other book?”
“You were so happy when you put your hands on that one, you didn’t even hear that we got another one.”
I spent all my savings on getting The Book, but I cannot resist talking about having another one. I’m a librarian, after all. Sometimes I think that letters are flowing in my veins instead of blood.
“What is it about?” I ask. It costs nothing just to talk about a book.
Hadrian pulls the book out of his satchel and holds it up for me to see. In the moonlight I see a leather-bound book with a contour of a dragon on it. It isn’t like The Book, of course, but still looks nice.
“This one is about adventure. Actually, I liked it more than the other one. Do you know what I liked the most?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer. “The dragon.”
“Really?” I’m not really into the cheap tales that storytellers tell, shouting from their podiums in dramatic voice, showing laughable pictures, trying to make it more interesting, then going around asking for payment for the poor show.
“Really. Especially because how it was made.”
“They made it?”
“With magic. A girl made the first one by sacrificing her best friend, a wolf. Then the elves made more and used them in the battle.”
“There is a battle?”
“Oh, yes! Between man and the elves. And there is this guy, Tesh. Amazing fighter. He learns sword fight from elite elven warriors called the Galantrians. I wish I could learn from those guys.”
He sounds wishful, and glancing at his giant sword, I understand.
“He kills almost all of them, because they destroyed his village and killed his family.”
“Don’t tell Roy, he has some elven blood running in his veins. Anyway, the elven were full of intricacy and conspiracy, and their head was full of themselves, so they kind of deserved what they got. I mean, in the book. You know that the elves were the ones originally using the Art?”
“No way!” I object. But then I realize he is talking about a story, not real-life facts. “Well, I didn’t know.”
“It’s true, according to the book. One of their tribe was the master of the Art and ruled over the other tribes. It’s kind of weird, but elves were elves, weren’t they?”
Hadrian distracts me from the terrors of the night, so I encourage him to talk more about the book.
“Listen, you must read it. The ladies in the book are amazing. They are strong and brave and beautiful. Well, there is this woman, Tressa, who isn’t… anyway, I wish I could meet one of them. I mean, I give all the courtesy to a delicate lady when I meet one, but when I will grow old and settle down, I want to spend my last years with someone as wise as Persephone or as brave as Brin.”
At the mention of Brin I perk up.
“What was she like? According to the book.”
“She was beautiful and smart. Did you know she invented writing? With some help from the gods, but still… Amazing girl.”
“Is it true that she died and came back?”
That’s a miracle in itself. My ears itch to hear more, but most probably I will read about all of this in The Book, so I don’t press.
“So, are you interested in the book?”
“What’s the title?”
“Age of Empyre.”
I haven’t heard about it.
“I would,” I say with a wishful sigh, “but I just gave you my last saved coins.”
“It’s a pity,” he says in a disappointed tone. He puts the book back into his satchel.
My mind works hard to find a way how to put my hands on more coins when Hadrian halts and puts his hand on my arm to stop me. He tilts his head, listening to something. I cannot hear anything. Even the forest noise has died out.
“What?” I whisper.
Roy appears next to us. He makes me jumpy again.
“Four men at the bend of the path,” he says.
Hadrian nods. “Not fair, but at least we can have some exercise.”
What in Novron’s name he is talking about?
Roy disappears again.
“Come on, my librarian friend, don’t make them wait, they might change their mind and flee.”
I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.
We walk down the path towards the bend. I let Hadrian lead and follow him. He has all the swords, after all.
My heart skips a beat when I hear the shriek. I stop and cannot make my feet to take even one step forward. My chest is so tight from the fear that I hardly can breathe.
A dark figure drops from a tree and attacks us. Another two jumps out from the bushes and run toward us with war cries. The moonlight shines on their swords. It happens so fast that I don’t have time even to think about running away. They are upon us before I could say library.
Hadrian meets them with two swords in his hand. How did he unsheathed them so fast? He blocks one blow with his long sword and another with his short one. The third never comes, the third man falls down to the ground, grasping to a knife that is sticking out of his chest. Hadrian blocks another blow and then he counterattacks. He slices the thigh of his attacker, who cries out. Hadrian is all over them, blocking and giving blows. In the moonlight, I gaze with aw at the three figures dancing. Or, at least Hadrian is dancing and the two others are trying to learn the steps.
“Finish them already.” The voice comes from right next to me and I yelp. Cannot this man approach someone without making him pee himself?
I cannot believe my ears, but in between the frightening noise of the colliding swords I hear Hadrian sigh. Then he makes a few fast moves and his two opponents fall. All the three are dead.
Roy casually walks to the one who fell first, pulls out the knife from his chest, wipes it off with the dead man’s clothes and sheaths it.
Hadrian sheaths his swords too.
“Why cannot I have some fun?” asks Hadrian from Roy. “I could have played with them some more.”
“You three were so noisy, you woke up the entire town.”
“You said there were four.”
“Initially. The fourth one is under that bush.”
Hadrian looks that way, but doesn’t bother checking it.
“Well, where were we?” He turns to me as if nothing happened. “Come on my friend, it’s time we escort you home.”
I couldn’t agree more. It was too much excitement already. I walk with Hadrian again, trying to overcome the shaking of my hand.
Fortunately, we don’t talk much, and my fear ease when the familiar town streets welcome us with the streetlamp lights.
“So, are you interested in the other book?” asks Hadrian once we stop in front of my house.
Strangely, I find myself quite interested. But I have to refuse.
“As I said, I don’t have coins left.”
“You know what? I give it to you in exchange of a favor.”
“You do? What favor?”
“Next time we come into this town, you help us.”
“I don’t know, to find someone, to show us around, things like that. You know the place much better than we do.”
He probably has a point. I have a feeling that this favor might be a tad more dangerous than what I would like, but Hadrian has the book in his hand already and offers it to me. I hesitate, but I cannot resist at the end.
“Deal,” I say.
“Deal,” Hadrian says with a grin. “Good night my friend.”
He and his partner disappears in a side alley.
I rush in and bolt my door carefully. I light the candles in the candelabrum, then I hurry to my study and place the two books on the table. I put aside the Age of Empyre, I will certainly read it, but not now. Instead, I turn to the other one. I marvel at the beautiful cover again.
Then I open it, and with thumping heart, I read the title: The Book of Brin.
I close the door behind me. Eight spikes slide into place. I walk to the kitchen island where I left my laptop earlier. I boot it up and log into the house alarm system. Six cameras shows distinct parts of the house. No movement. Good.
I pour a glass of vodka on ice, dim the light and settle down on the couch. I pull my phone from my pocket and press my thumb to the right place. No one else can unlock my phone, so no point in stealing it. Unless they take my thumb too. But they would have to come close, and that would be a mistake. I’m quite attached to my thumb.
I sip some vodka. It’s ice cold, but burns my throat. I like it.
I open the app and locate the file. I tap Download and watch the clock-like icon to grow and become full circle. The file is not as big as the others, but important nevertheless.
I put my earbuds in and tap Play.
The story is brief, but tense. I know the man from another story, so I need no introduction. I follow how he notices the woman for the first time and realizes that she is with the guy against her will. The man recognizes the signs of rudeness and harassment. It comes with his profession. He must help the woman, and I agree.
He is a professional. He does recon at the guy’s house and hacks his alarm system. I’m happy that I introduced several layers of security, and any hacker who wants to get into my alarm is up for a surprise.
The guy is crazy. Drugs and guns crazy. But it isn’t a problem. The man dealt with his kind before. He has a plan.
As it turns out the guy and his bodyguards disagree with the plan, but the man doesn’t care. The guy is an animal who doesn’t deserve to live.
There is blood. Shots are being fired. Knife is in use. And by the end, what has to be done is done.
The girl is free.
The file ends, and I sit in silence for a while. My glass is empty, and I like the nice fuzzy feeling the vodka left. Then I tap on my phone’s screen. I need to send back my evaluation to the people who provided me with the file. That’s the gentlemen’s agreement between us. I get a nice discount and they get my professional opinion. I tap the star on the right, and all five stars become yellow. Then I start to type and don’t stop until I write all. Then I tap Send.
I put away my phone and I think about the file. How I should have done it? Probably with more bullets and less knife-work. But in my profession there is no wrong or right way to do it. The result that counts.
Then I get up to pour another vodka. There are more files to evaluate.