The boy ran up the side of the hill, the peak glinting golden yellow in the sunset, occasionally stumbling over loose grass and caked rocks. He scrambled for leverage at the top and hoisted himself up, settling carefully on the peak. His entire body shuddered as the force of his exhaustion finally came crashing down upon him. His arms were limp and his palms had been run raw and ragged by the journey uphill. Soon his breath steadied and he looked ahead, where the Kingdom of Allirea lay. The castle walls were all but demolished, people were screaming in the streets, smoke rising from the watchtowers while the castle still lay aflame, the embers not yet content with the damage they had wrought to the city.
This was his only chance to make things right.
He opened his satchel and gulped down some water before taking out a compact leather-bound book, one that could easily be mistaken for a lovelorn teenager’s diary. But if you looked closely, the faint shimmer around its edges and the spectra that lay in it revealed a far more important item hidden under a glamour. The boy held the book close to his mouth and whispered a phrase in a language most believed never to have existed. The book fell down with a dull thud, and began unfurling itself, each page as though alive. Once it lay open, the boy peered down to see a wall. Not a special wall, lined with important items or possessing fantastical engravings, but a blank stone wall.
He stepped on the open book and felt himself wedged between a bookshelf and the very same unimpressive wall. Once he fell through, the book folded in on itself and each page fell through to reform into the book in the boy’s grasp.
His arms were pinned to the wall but he managed to bend his legs enough to kick off from the wall and topple the bookshelf backwards with his own weight. He felt the hardwood dig into his back and he got up, groaning slightly and viewed his surroundings.
The castle library was most definitely not a sight to behold. With plain unadorned stone walls and a simple glass ceiling, this room didn’t feel special or important in any way. The bookshelves were almost too tawdry, holding books in simple horizontal shelves.
It was all a ruse.
The books were magic, and so was the entire room, it reeked of it so much so that the hair on the boy’s arms stood on end. The room was meant to be so plain so as to avoid pillaging in case of an invasion, even now it was clear that the fire had not, and could not it seemed, burn its way towards a treasure trove of flammable items. The room operated on a simple principle: you didn’t choose the book, the book chose you. The why and how of it were irrelevant because the books were rendered alive and would only allow themselves to be read by those they deem worthy. You could spend a lifetime in the library unable to read the name on the cover or the pages within; neither could you take it out of the library or harm it in any conceivable way. It was ancient magic, binding and costly; the fear of the cost kept the visitors from breaking the rules.
The boy held an image in his mind, of a silvery lake by the full moon with nary a living creature in sight. He held his arm out, fingertips gently grazing the spines of the books beside him and began walking along the line of bookshelves. The spines were all blank and it seemed unknowable how much time had passed, as the boy refused to eat or drink and simply kept walking, re-treading his steps with his head held high.
It had been a week.
The library had begun to show signs of decay, the walls had cracks and the glass ceiling shuddered as the rest of the castle began its collapse. A full smile filled the boy’s previously vacant face, for the very books that had judged him unworthy of their secrets were doomed to destruction in the room to which they were bound. As the walls began to crumble, so did the magic. Words appeared and disappeared off the covers, books flew out of their shelves and some began tearing themselves apart, eager for a quick death.
The boy knew which book he needed. He’d recognised it on the first day, for its thrum against his fingertips had been more insistent than the others’ , as though it knew what he desired from it and it seemed loath to provide it. He ran towards it, ducking and weaving to avoid the onslaught of flying books, breath catching as finally, finally the work he had sought to complete now lay within his grasp. The whole row was empty save for that one book. Its cover kept glitching, it was focused on its desire to remain unread. He pulled it out and opened it, delighted to observe that the failing magic was steadily removing the vitality from the book. Once it realised the same, it tried to tear itself apart but the boy was ready for that, he’d taken out a vial of cerulean liquid from his bag, dipped his index finger in it and ran it down the spine of the book in a perversely loving manner.
He whispered to it as the last vestiges of life left its pages, and if the book were alive, the hatred it felt for the boy would cleave the moon in half in retribution.
The glass ceiling shattered into a billion tiny shards as it came crashing down and the walls rumbled as they finally gave in and turned to rubble, destroying everything the library ever was and all it could have become.
The boy woke up in the desert.
His head was lightly scraped but otherwise he was relatively unharmed, still clutching the book so tightly as though his life depended on it. The sand caked his body in a faint coating but he seemed unaware, or simply didn’t care. There was a manic glint in his eyes, a reckless plan coming to fruition.
Above, the sky rumbled, grey with storm clouds casting a deep shadow across the desert. The lightning flashed, clear arcs of bluish white illuminating the barren landscape. The boy sat down and began to read.
Twilight came with vivid purple hues crashing down upon the orange sand. The boy rubbed his eyes wearily and stood up, swaying slightly. He walked up a sand dune only to see the expanse of the desert stretch out in all directions around him. The sweltering heat distorted his vision, his eyes unfocused as he took a step forward and went stumbling down.
A loud thunderclap woke him up, the storm clouds returning after the brief respite they offered him to leave; the desert itself was opposed to his presence. The lightning was blood red as it arced across the sky, almost searching for him to strike down.
The boy was weakened by a week with no sustenance, barely able to stand. The thunder boomed louder and in rapid succession and the boy had had enough; didn’t this stupid desert understand he was here to set things right? The way it should have been? Didn’t it understand that he’d lost more than it could ever imagine, this puny desert above which he had flown with ease back when it was still an ocean?
But he couldn’t anymore. The boy fell to his knees, broken by the sheer enormity of the weight of memories in his mind, he had to do this, he had to…but he couldn’t get up. It was too difficult, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t move-
-The storm had stopped. Not passed, stopped. Something stopped it…for him?
A voice rang out in his head, clear as a bell, as joyous as the first time he heard it:
‘You’ve done magnificently my love.’
‘You’re so close, just a little further and then you can finally rest. You just have to come to the lake.’
‘Where, where are you?’
‘Look up and follow me.’
The boy blinked in rapid succession as his vision adjusted to the dim light. It was night-time and the moon was full. There were no stars in sight.
Look up and follow me.
He began running towards it, feet sinking with every push of his feet into the sand but he was too impatient to care because he was finally here and he could finally get what he wanted. He ran till his lungs constricted in the harsh grip of exhaustion and his muscles were on raging fire. The moon came closer and closer till it seemed to be floating a hair’s breadth above: a silvery lake.
The boy had made it.
A single palm tree stood tall beside the lake’s tapering end, the sand dunes framing the backdrop against the night sky to make it look like an oil painting and of course, the moon.
Adrenaline coursing through his body, he set to work, letting the spells of the book flow through his mind as they guided him on how to untangle all the chains holding the girl in place. As he worked, fingers weaving through the air in complex formations while he maintained a monotone chant, she slowly revealed herself.
They’d met back when Allirea stood tall, its enchanted library known for shining light on those in the dark. She’d found a book when she was a child; the runes were unintelligible but even then she knew in her heart of hearts that it was important. He’d met her later, studying forbidden underground magic cobbled together by amateurs and enthusiasts, amateurs like him.
Once they learnt what the runes meant, she stole the book. And she paid the price.
He was here to make things right.
His magic had been dying for a while now, corrupted and infected, leaving him reduced to a fraction of the sorcerer he once was. Still, he had relied on magical artifacts to get the job done so far; he had enough saved up for one final use. The library was under ancient magic, magic that had barely been tamed before it was forced to obey the spellcaster, magic that was yearning to break free. And it could, if someone went against it. A life for a life, and the life she’d stolen was a book, so she would suffer the same fate: eternal limbo like an unfinished book, unable to show anyone the few pages within. She was frozen in time, out of sync with reality but tethered here, between the moon and this oasis. Held in place, shackled, with no knowledge of her imprisonment and no means of escape.
She was floating within the lake, eyes open but unfocused, and looked like a fly in amber.
To free her, all he had to do was take her place.
He’d lived countless lifetimes but one memory was always clear, never forgotten. A teenage love, full of devotion and idolisation, for her friend who taught her magic, who taught her to read runes, who told her of a book in a magic library that could cure anything. Of course, she went to get it, and the book allowed itself to be taken, sensing altruism and earnestness in the young girl’s heart. She thought the cerulean liquid was ink, to gain access to add to the wealth of knowledge within the book; not to kill it. She ran away with the book and confronted him but soon enough the price came seeking payment and the book fell to the floor, right at his feet. It held the cure to everything, even death.
He’d lived countless lifetimes. Even when he no longer wanted to.
The boy was almost done.
He looked at the moon.
‘Tamara, my love. I’ll see you soon.’
He freed her and dragged her body ashore. She coughed up some water, still recovering and experiencing a nervous shock after eons of sensory deprivation. She was still the same, a harsher form of immortality. She has a chance now, he thought, to live a life, a better one than all of mine combined. He took off the satchel, dropped it beside her and stepped into the lake.
The water under the silvery sheen looked like liquid mercury as it wrapped itself around his feet in tendrils, winding upwards encasing him, preserving him forever. But not to live, he thought, thank god it’s not to live. He sunk down without a splash or even a ripple nor the faintest sound.
When the girl came to, she found herself in the desert at an oasis. There was a satchel next to her. Within it, a book, an open leather-bound diary, a vial, and a whole host of other items. She took out the diary first, dropping it at her feet with a startled gasp when it began opening itself up.
She peered down at it.
She saw the world.