The enchanted rings Vaslek wore gleamed as he ran a withered finger along the scroll. He mouthed the words as he read them, having long ago plucked rhythms and nuances of speaking aloud from his mind to make room for yet more arcane knowledge. They sat, along with other trivial aspects of his knowledge - the feeling of sun against the skin, the sensation of love, most memories of his life - in a small glass pyramid he kept covered with a thick cloth. Beneath the cloth, the memories swirled and changed color endlessly.
His eyes, now nothing more than weakly glowing orbs, danced across the page, taking in each word of the long-dead language. There had once been a plan for all this knowledge, Vaslek dimly recalled. Some reason for plucking his death from him and hiding it somewhere. Truth be told, he had forgotten. A dead star, perhaps, or a world of ten million other deaths. The plan had been something about taking over the world, or becoming a god. Perhaps an end to all knowledge he didn't possess. But the passing of countless centuries had worn the plan down to a nub, leaving only the initial thirst for knowledge.
As his finger ran over the last word of the parchment, Vaslek turned to the cache of scrolls behind him, all bursting with knowledge. Some was esoteric and forbidden, some allegorical, some could only be understood with the passing of centuries in contemplation. But here, in his tower high overlooking the sea of grass that spread to the horizons, Vaslek had that time.
Suddenly, the alarm, a shrill chirping sound, went off. Startled, Vaslek dropped the scroll. Paying it no mind, the ancient lich swept his arms in an arc, activating the observation spell. The dull grey stone of the wall was suddenly alive with color, showing a small creature walking awkwardly on all fours through the tall blue grass. Its dead eyes stared straight ahead - straight at Vaslek's tower.
Vaslek squinted, trying to make sense of the creature. He could make it out through the window - a speck in the distant plain. Most of the beings that set off the alarms were yaks or deer that were not affected by the misdirection spell that surrounded the tower. Once or twice, an unlucky wanderer had made their way through. They were redirected or destroyed easily enough.
But this creature appeared to have purpose, stalking its way directly towards Vaslek's tower. The lich grasped for a feeling. Beneath the black cloth, the memory of fear swirled violently, dying the pyramid a dark blue.
So intently was Vaslek studying the creature that he almost missed the presence of a second. This one walked far more gracefully - its body appeared to have been made to walk on all fours - but it had the same dead look in its eyes. The fear shuddered slightly in the pyramid.
Inwardly, Vaslek felt nothing stir. He made a few sharp gestures and mouthed the words of a dead god. Outside, the creatures burst into brilliant green flame. They continued to move forward even as the fire consumed them, but after a few seconds, there was nothing left of them.
The lich turned to his books once more, trying to decide which to read next. He had settled on a codex by Seven-Deer, when the alarm sounded once again. It was another of the four-legged creatures with the dead eyes. Shifting his vision within the spell, Vaslek realized that it was not just one, but now dozens. Creatures of many sizes and shapes, some plodding, some sprinting. All on all fours, all with the same dead eyes that seemed to see him, even through the spell.
The memory of fear shuddered violently as Vaslek gathered his will in his fingers. He felt it surge into one of the rings. The dozen creatures closest to the tower were suddenly beset by stinging wasps the size of chairs. They fell, but more followed, not heeding the summoned insects. Vaslek realized that it was no longer dozens, but hundreds, that were rushing towards his tower. As they grew nearer Vaslek could make out their cries - a sort of harsh, hollow call. The memory of a raven's call swirled briefly in the glass pyramid, then receded.
Vaslek cast every spell he could think of. Freezing winds buffeted the creatures. Wild beasts grew within them and burst forth, devouring others. Sharp stones cut the flesh of the creatures to ribbons. Dozens, hundreds died, but still more moved towards the tower that Vaslek called home. The plain was black with their bodies, living or dead. Finally, Vaslek felt the tower shake as the creatures reached its base.
In their hundreds, they began to climb the tower. The croaking was now deafening.
Vaslek did what he could, summoning all of the defenses at his disposal, alternating the tower between molten hot and freezing cold, but it made no difference. The creatures continued to climb. As he continued to cast, Vaslek wondered dimly how they had found him and what they were after. All of those who knew of his location had long since died. He had no rivals that he was aware of.
Finally, one of the creatures poked its head through the tower's window, trying to pull itself up. Vaslek incinerated the creature instantly. Another appeared in the window, then another. Within seconds, dozens of hands grasped clumsily at the walls as the creatures pulled themselves through the window. There were too many for Vaslek to deal with. The glass pyramid rocked haphazardly from side to side as the fear banged against its prison.
The creatures overran the room, skittering like beetles, bowling Vaslek down. He let out a desperate, strangled moan as fell. His vision was obscured by the dozens of creatures stepping over and on him, some looking with their dead eyes. This was it, he thought, this was finally how he would die. Someone had found his death and sicced these creatures upon him. He could hear nothing but the croaking now.
He squeezed his eyes shut, hoping for the process to be quick.
But the process did not begin. Vaslek kept his eyes shut, but suddenly felt the pressure on him lessen. The croaking of the creatures began to grow quieter, then disappear altogether. After several minutes, Vaslek finally opened his eyes. The creatures were gone. The scroll that had fallen to the floor was gone. Vaslek got to his feet. The room was empty. Every last book and scroll was now gone. From the window, he could see the vast hordes of creatures rushing towards the horizon.
Vaslek gathered his will and prepared to pursue the creatures. With luck, they would still be within the range of the blinking spell. From there, he could pursue them from afar. Perhaps find whatever master they served. Plan. Retrieve. Punish.
But his will fizzled on his finger. Vaslek looked down and saw that his fingers were bare. Every single ring, each etched with a dozen enchantments, was gone. He tucked his hands under his armpits, feeling naked.
After a moment of strutting back and forth, Vaslek decided to pursue on foot. Even without his rings, he could still follow the creatures. Perhaps he could even get a few of his books back. Vaslek hoisted himself over the window of the tower, preparing himself for the odd icy feeling he always got as a result of the descent spell. He glanced at the bookshelf as he prepared to descend the wall. So many hundreds of years and billions of words. He released his grip on the window.
After falling for several seconds, Vaslek realized that there was no spell to catch his fall. Looking up, he noticed that brass glyphs he had inscribed along the tower had all been stripped out.
Even without the possibility of death, even with the cushion provided by the grass, Vaslek’s world lit up with pain as he hit the ground. It had been so long since he had experienced pain that the memory of it had almost atrophied to nothing. Now, it came roaring back.
Even as he felt every nerve ending in his body light up with agony, Vaslek pushed himself forward. The books. The rings. He had to find them.
After several hours of staggering along the trail left by the creatures, interrupted by frequent pauses to appreciate his newly-remembered agony, Vaslek came upon one of the scrolls. It had been removed from its case, and trampled on, yes, but it was still intact. As he unfurled the scroll, he gave a grunt of triumph. It was On The Nature Of The Ways by Smoking-Obisidian-Mirror. Easily the most valuable item in the whole of his collection, and discarded so casually by those thieves. Vaslek tucked it under his arm, and briefly considered simply turning back to the tower, content with his prize. After a moment, though, he decided to carry on.
As he went further, he found more and more of the scrolls and books. De Coniuratione Caules. The Parallel Analects. Volumes with names too ancient to be recalled. They all lay on the ground, strewn about in the wake of the creatures. The scrolls were all missing their cases. Some of the tomes had had gem and gold inlays pried out. Vaslek began to pile them into caches, unable to carry them all.
Finally, the trail stopped. The remaining works - books and scrolls and magical instruments of all kinds - lay in an enormous pile. The creatures were nowhere to be seen, while, on the breeze, Vaslek could smell the burning honeysuckle scent of a closed Way. Slowly, Vaslek began to root through the pile. Every single work, it seemed, was there. From The Key of Eight Gates to Wan al-Padrej, every last remaining work was there. The scrolls had been removed from their decorative casings, with their inlays of gold and silver, yes. And the books were now bereft of the embedded rubies and sapphires that had decorated their covers. But the works themselves were unharmed. Vaslek began to drag the works back to his tower.
Several worlds away, the swirling of the green and black fog that was Vaslek's anxiety slowed and finally stopped in the glass pyramid.