Susan, The Self-Chosen, gave the Keeper of Tomes a hard look. It was the sort of look which says, “Are you messing with me? Because I think you’re messing with me, and that’s just not a path towards longterm happiness.”
Being a self-taught savior is not all it’s cracked up to be. Susan was learning one of the great and terrible lessons of life: working in customer service is one of the surest ways to realize that being crushed under the ruthless boots of a ruthless Dark Lord is way more than most of humanity deserves.
“I said,” repeated the Keeper of Tomes, “that if you want to access the Forbidden Books, you must first defeat me in single combat.”
Susan examined the Keeper of Tomes closely. He was not a very tall man, though he was taller than Susan; that wasn’t hard to do, as Susan was extremely small.
“I. am. a. child,” she said. “Adults aren’t supposed to hit children.”
“And children aren’t supposed to be in the Forbidden Library. Yet here you are.”
Susan sighed. It was a sigh which was meant to emanate from someone about fifty years older. “Look, I had to get past a Dragon to get here. A Dragon. Now I just want to read some stuff, and then I’ll go away. Don’t give me a hard time.”
The Keeper of Tomes shook her head. “You need to learn how to get past me. That’s how it works.”
“Why? Who says? Why does being the Chosen One involve jumping through a series of seemingly-arbitrary hoops?”
The Keeper of Tomes looked down at the child. “Have you always talked like that?”
Susan shrugged expansively. “I spent half a year with a Dragon. And came through unscathed, thank you.”
The Keeper of Tomes looked pointedly at her left foot.
Susan flushed. “Almost unscathed! I made one mistake! You would have been eaten; don’t you criticize me.” And then. “…and that was a lucky guess.”
“I could tell by your walk.”
“There’s nothing wrong with how I walk!”
“I didn’t say it was wrong. I said I could tell.”
“You can’t see that in a walk.”
“No, you can’t. Which is why you won’t defeat me.”
Susan’s voice rose. “I won’t defeat you because you’re twice my age and size! And also because, apparently, despite being surrounded by books and seeing almost no people, in an actual hidden stash of books at the end of a cursed forest, you appear to have wasted part of your life learning how to beat people up.”
The Keeper of Tomes smiled. And no matter how infuriating you might imagine that smile to be, particularly coming from an adult in a position of authority, directed towards a teenage human in a position of asking for assistance, I can assure you: it was worse than that, at least for Susan.
With a very passable yell and not-unreasonable form (Susan watched everything, including the training of troops who were out looking for her; granted, she sometimes watched in unmitigated horror and had nightmares, but such are the trade-offs we make)—the self-proclaimed Chosen One launched herself at the book-hoarder.
As with the smile: no matter how rapidly you imagined Susan’s attack being brushed aside, and Susan immediately flying through the air, let me likewise inform you: this happened much, much faster than one would guess.
The Chosen-ish One flew in much the manner a bird might, if that bird were an ostrich, which is to say, very, very briefly. This part was more pleasant than the bit where she landed, ungraciously, undamaged, but not unbruised, upon her butt. She did not have sufficient knowledge to understand, at that time, that it took both skill and care to insure that the untrained girl wouldn’t, say, land on her head and break her neck; and if she did, she wouldn’t have appreciated it.
From the ground, the little ball of Susanic rage said, “What, in the name of Hells seven through nineteen inclusive, possibly leaving out fifteen because you might enjoy it, what, exactly, was that?”
“That was an adult, treating you like a human, and not like a fragile toy. It’s called ‘respect’.”
“This is stupid!” Susan shouted. She realized she couldn’t get a good head of steam going while supine, and slowly got to her feet, wincing all the while. “Do you think I’m going to get into a fistfight with the Dark Lord?”
“First off,” said the Keeper of Tomes, “You might, at that—and then, what would you do?”
Susan gave a world-class glower, which, considering the level of competition at that age, was no small feat.
“Secondly,” continued the biobliomonger, “I wouldn’t say that I don’t care if you defeat the Dark Lord, but I don’t care much. I care about my library. And before you get righteous on me, bear in mind: the Dark Lord is a reader, and loves our reference section.”
“Half a year, and you don’t call it by its name?”
“No, I don’t,” snapped Susan. “Especially not to strangers. Do I look stupid because I’m small?”
“It has nothing to do with size,” replied the Wardress of Manuscripts.
It would be nice to say that Susan’s second attack fared a half-second better than the first, at least, but that just wouldn’t be true, and I’d hate to break the trust we’ve established by voicing a lie. It was, however, impressive even (however much the feeling was hidden behind uncountable rage) to Susan, the way she ended up in the exact same place, landing on exactly the same bruises. Over Susan’s howls of (rage? Pain? Determination to exact revenge?), the Defender of Scrolls said, calmly, “I don’t think you’re stupid at all. And I’d apologize for giving you little tests; but you don’t seem to enjoy the big test, either.”
“I didn’t come here to learn how to punch things,” Susan spat. “I assumed the Dragon sent me here because this was the next part of my quest.”
“Oh.” The Document-Defender looked abashed. “Oh, it didn’t give you that lesson yet?”
Too tired to respond with much heat, Susan replied. “We spent the first four months just learning how to communicate. The Dragon said I wasn’t worth talking to until I could formulate interesting thoughts.”
“And since that treatment was rude and unkind, you left.”
“No! I stuck around to learn. Because I was going to learn useful things from a Dragon. Listen: the idiot kids of my village did not like me. We got into a lot of fights, and no, I did not win. They were bigger and stronger. Just stupid; but that didn’t help me any.”
“It would,” said the Librarianess placidly, “if you knew what I know.”
“How is this supposed to help me defeat the Dark Lord?”
“Don’t you want to read the forbidden books?”
Susan looked at the Book Guardian as if she were a special kind of nitwit, grown expressly for the purpose of making Susan annoyed.
“Let me tell you what’s going on here,” said the Keeper. “It’s entirely possible that your Draconian friend knows something about this that I do not, but the likeliest explanation is that it wanted to send you wherever it thought might be most helpful. I’ve never lived with a Dragon, but their ideas of ‘most helpful’ have somewhat less regard for survivability than ours might.
“I doubt there’s some convenient series of steps for defeating the Dark Lord—”
“Don’t I need to fulfill the Prophecy?”
The librarian looked sidelong at Susan. “Do you know what it is?”
“…no,” Susan replied.
“Then hopefully not.” The Tome-Keeper resumed: “This is a place of considerable power and knowledge and, I will note, it’s only the forbidden knowledge that requires defeating the guardian. As long as one can survive getting here—I won’t ask what you did with the basilisk, by the way, but congratulations; I’d really hoped that beast would keep things quiet for several more years, and now I’ve got to find something new to put in its place—if you can get here, you can learn quite a lot. And all you need to do is knock me down in a relatively fair fight.”
“Fair?!?” exclaimed Susan.
“In a situation where I’m reasonably ready,” replied the librum-sentinel wearily. “I mean, you can’t just trip me sometime when I’m tired and expect to get away with it. That’s just common sense.”
“Why do I have to go through anything at all? If this is NOT part of some plan, why are you placing arbitrary barriers in my way?”
“It’s not all about you.”
“I’m the Chosen One!”
“First, you want to be the Chosen One. Wanting something doesn’t make it real, kid.”
Susan’s right foot ached, specifically, the place where she had a reminder of several lessons in adulthood from a vast lizard. So rather than an angry retort, she just nodded. “Point taken.”
“But secondly, to me, you’re just a tiny part of the Tale of the Library, of which I am a slightly larger but still a very, very small part. It’s difficult because we’d like to restrict the number of people who can gain access to knowledge. There are a limited number of Golems, agreeable Giants, walking sharks, and other needful beasts to guard this place. All you’ve done for me so far is make my job harder.
“For your reference, we have some, though not total, discretion in the nature of the trial. I need combat practice. You’re here. I’m willing to settle for a takedown. You’re lucky. When the Dark Lord was here, it was a battle of psychic wills. It took three weeks, our physical bodies died and had to be brought back by clever machines, and I was a quivering jelly of madness at the end. You? Like I said, you just gotta knock me down. Take me down once, fair and square—not with a trick alone, but with the kind of insight you need in order to go from a sloppy kid to someone who’s grasped the basics of combat—and the world’s hidden knowledge is yours to read.
“And in the meantime, you’ll find the “open library” has a very reasonable selection of works on, among other things, ‘martial arts’. You’ll want to start with your footwork.”
“…is that a reference to my toes?”
“First, footwork where I would start anyone, but also: yes. Turn your weakness into a strength; learn how.”
“And what’s second?”
“I’ll show you later.”
The Tome-Keeper shrugged. Then she indicated the forbidden books, slightly behind her and darkly misted with peculiar air molecules. “And this awaits you.”
Susan looked at the books, then at the librum-hoarder. She sighed.
“What do I need to do?”
The Chosen One (in potentia) assumed something closer to fighting stance. She looked the Tome-Keeper in the eye, then looked at her waist, instead. (she had read at least one book), and adopted what was (if you were quite inexperienced) a passable fighting stance.
She launched herself the Book-Guardian, throwing a knee into the other’s chest.
The librarian sidestepped the knee, not leaving too much room, staying in close and tight, turned sideways, put her leg behind Susan’s leg, and just let her arm sweep down on Susan’s collarbone, at a moderate pace. Minimal bruising at best.
Susan hit the dirt.
“We’ll have to teach you to fall,” the Tome-Keeper said.
Susan gritted her teeth, and got up.
“How do you expect me to defeat you?” Without waiting for an answer, she put her head down and bulled straight towards her insistent opponent, who had the kindness to turn the attack with her forward hand and bring an elbow down on the thoracic vertebra, which was quite painful for the young girl, but meant that the charge ended in a collapsed heap, rather than a headlong crash into yonder wall. .
“Easy,” said the librarian, as the Chosen One (hypothetical) lay on the ground, catching her breath.
“Do I just keep coming at you, day after day?”
“That’s recommended. I also suggest reading some of the very fine books we have on the subject.”
“….and even if all I have to do is knock you down, you’re going to sprawl me on my butt—”
“—or worse, dozens…hundreds of times.”
Susan looked at her.
“So I become slowly, slowly better at fighting you, at the cost of knowing that every day will be at least one more fight, several more bruises, and humiliating defeat?”
Susan thought back to her time with the Dragon. She thought farther back, to her time at the butter-churn and the household chores.
“So this isn’t just a test of combat. It’s a test of persistence.”
“It tests combat, persistence, courage, ability to take pain, ability to learn, persistence, martial spirit, persistence, and, if I have not mentioned, it is an intense and helpful learning process, so long as you are willing to ‘eat bitter’—to work hard, to hurt every day, and to keep going.”
“Is this some kind of metaphor?”
“No,” said the Librarian, taking, for the first time, a real fighting position, front leg bent and out, left leg firm.
“Metaphors exist to describe what you’re doing now. This is an actuality. You fail, you fail harder, you fail faster, and you keep failing, getting better, until you succeed.”
“And if I quit?”
“Then you leave, completely free, with the knowledge that you weren’t what you think you are, and aren’t what you hope to be.”
Susan put up her hands. “How many tries do I get in a day?”
The Tome-Keeper put up her own hands. “You have until I need to do chores, or until you bore me.”
This time, Susan threw an almost-reputable straight punch. Again, the Esoteric Bibliographer sidestepped, this time putting her forearms against Susan’s lead arm, and this time, she struck Susan very lightly in the floating rib, the back of the knee, and (much less gently) the femoral artery. Susan staggered.
Susan turned. They looked at each other.
“Want to leave?” asked the Guardian?
“Hell. No.” said Susan.
“Very well. I’d be much obliged if you head over to the “Mythical Beasts” sector of our library. We’ve got a monster to replace, and that’ll take research.
Limping, Susan trudged towards the section on Myths. She had a dozen bruises, and she’d barely gotten started.
She smiled a small, feral smile.
This wasn’t going to be easy. But she could tell, even now, that it was going to be good.
My name is Jeff Mach (“Dark Lord” is optional) and I build communities and create things. Every year, I put on Evil Expo, the Greatest Place in the World to be a Villain. I also write a lot of fantasy and science fiction.. You can get most of my books right here. Go ahead, pre-order “I HATE Your Prophecy“. It may make you into a bad person, but I can live with that.