Letters is a short story written by me in 2015. I did send this one off to a magazine once. They didn’t want it. Oh well!
Having won past Guardians, spells, locks and a multitude of overly-clever traps to reach the Inner Library of the Keep, the next step was merely to open the door- and I found myself facing that step with trepidation. Once overcome, and the door opened, I thought to myself that trepidation had been the appropriate feeling.
For one, the place was huge, much larger than you’d expect for a room hidden deep inside a ruined mountain. For another it was filthy. Absolutely everything was covered in a layer of dust and cobwebs from several hundred centuries worth of spiders and neglect. I could already feel my nose starting to itch and my eyes to water, and I’d barely disturbed anything by opening the great door. Any Archivist worth their salt would be in hysterics about the mess.
Fortunately (for both my quest, and my allergies), I had come prepared. Pulling my pouch of Stones from my belt, I rummaged through until I found the first I needed- a gleaming, pristine white pebble that carried the faint scent of fresh air and blowing clean linens. Holding it in the palm of my hand, I whispered the Words at it. There was a flurry of air, and a fluttering, and I was surrounded by a veritable cloud of Dust Moths.
One landed delicately on the tip of my nose, and I tried to not stare cross-eyed as I told it “This place could really use your help.”
I could feel a shiver of excitement through the eclipse of Moths as they rose up and darted into the Library. The cloud doubled, and then doubled again in size, until you could barely see the shelves themselves for the waves of Moths flying about. Even for the perfectionist Dust Moths, this was going to be a task, so I slumped myself against a pillar, and dozed.
I awoke to another Moth on my nose, gently signalling that they were done with their task. I spoke the Words of Thanks at them, and they vanished in a small puff of dust, leaving behind a glittery, glistening scene. The Library was pristine- probably cleaner than it had been even when the Great Ones were in residence. If nothing else it was no longer a threat to my sinuses, and I could go onward.
As had been suspected, from what little records the Archive held about the Inner Library, there was no catalogue, no index, and Mother only knows what their organizational system had been. I could spend months wandering around looking for the book I needed, and never find it. Given that I knew only part of the title, it could fall off the shelf and land on my head, and I might not realize it was the right one.
Thus the need for another Stone. This one, one of my favorites to use, looked like a simple river pebble, shot through with lines of reddish quartz, like a map. Whispering the Words across its surface,the lines began to glow softly, stretch upward from the surface of the stone, and resolve themselves into a Seeker Fae- who made a small squeak of glee, and flew a few laps around my head.
“Hello to you too, Sial,” I chuckled as she settled back in my hand.
“Hello, hello, hellooooo!” she sang back. “What are we looking for today?”
I walked over to a nearby desk and pulled my notes out of my pack. (Not that I really needed them, this was important enough that the few facts I had were seared into my brain, but it helped to lend a sense of normalcy to the proceedings.) “I need a book, and it is somewhere in here.” She looked around and gave a musical “Oooooh” of appreciation at the size of the place.
I made a show of looking at my notes. “I need the book by Detheli Ahmdi with ‘Letters’ in the title”. I expected her to go darting off, but she just stood there, looking at me.
She cocked her head to one side and looked very bewildered at me. “ALL books have letters in the title, that’s what makes them titles!”
I cocked my head back, feeling just as bewildered, until I parsed through what I’d said. “OH! No, no. I need the book by Detheli Ahmdi with the word ‘Letters‘ in the title!”
“Ohhhhhh!” She did a little twirl in the air. “Then why didn’t you say so, silly!”
She gave my nose a tiny tweak, and rose into the air. As she did so, she grew brighter, and brighter, until she was a bright ball that fractured into a dozen or so pieces, and each ball zipped off down a different aisle of tomes. Like the Moths, this could take a while, but now I was too nervous to rest.
Months and months of research, wary eyes on the great Burning Star in the sky, councils of War at the Shining Palace, a long and treacherous journey through surreal lands, all to reach this Library and find the answer to a single question. How had Lekelrah, and the Council of Great Ones, ended the Ethkenni War, millennia ago?
The legend held that, when the Burning Star appeared in the sky, the Ethkenni had come to our world, spreading “war and destruction untold” upon the land, overwhelming all the armies of all the Kingdoms, until Lekelrah and the Council had faced them; “And he stood before them, and spoke Great Words, and they withdrew to their Burning Star; yet they left with ominous warning, that they would return, heralded by the Burning Star.”
But nowhere in the Archives or Histories did it record what those Great Words were. Everyone agreed it must be some Summoning or Spell that brought the Ethkenni to their knees, but what? The only clue we had was an account from a historian a few hundred years later that “Lekelrah kept in Correspondence for many more years with his dear friend Detheli, speaking of the War, its Conclusion, and Aftermath, and upon the Greatest of Great Ones’ Death Detheli compiled those Letters into a complete tome, and had them enshrined in the Inner Library of the Keep of the Great Ones”.
Of course (much to the consternation of the Archivists, who prided themselves on maintaining informational continuity- but what do you expect after 10,000 years have past?), the location of the Keep had been lost. No one knew if it was still even standing, given natural upheaval and all. But they banked on the Great Ones having preservation spells, and the strongest of the Seeker Fae being able to get a general location, and then they asked for volunteers to go find the book.
Archivists are not, by their nature, particularly adventuresome types. Needless to say there was a dearth of volunteers to leave their cosy, stable Archives and venture out into unknown territory, through weather and monsters and who knows what else. Even if it was to find the greatest Library ever known.
So it fell to me, who was a lowly Apprentice Archivist, because I am the adventuresome type, and the elderly Apprentice Keepers were well and truly tired of hauling me out of trouble, and finding punishments for me. I have to admit, I was thrilled to the bone by the prospect; the sword training given by the Royal Guard had been delightful, as had the survival training from the Royal Woodsmen. And certainly the presentation to the Royal Majesties of a dozen Kingdoms as “The Hope of our People” was both gratifying and intimidating… but given everything that happened between then and now, I’d found new respect and merit for the idea of just staying home in a cozy Archive.
A melodic shriek of gleeful triumph echoed through the shelving, and a beam of light appeared in front of me, leading me deep into the library, where Sial danced happily before a podium holding a large book. It took me a few moments to read the cover (Thank The Mother that Ancient Languages is one of the first classes Apprentice Archivists have to wade through!), but there it was: Letters of Correspondence from the Great One Lekelrah, 1270-1339, collected by Detheli Amdi on the Occasion of the Great One’s Passing.
Pulling the book carefully off the podium (it was surprisingly well preserved for 10 millennia old, but one can never be too gentle with books), I sat at another nearby desk and began to read…and as I read, my eyes grew wider, and wider…
By the time I returned to the Shining Palace (the trip home being much easier than the trip out, thanks to a Travel Fae), the Ethkenni armies had arrived, and were massed on the northern edge of the Land. They had vast camps, many more soldiers than we had, and it already looked bleak. Our armies were mobilized, and they had been waiting anxiously for the signal to proceed. Had I taken any longer to return, they would have attacked without the knowledge I held.
I used the Travel Fae to race to the front lines, placed myself between the two armies and yelled as loud as I could at the the massed Ethkenni. As one they gave a roar back, and turned away from the battlefield.
Standing in the Hall of the High Council, before the gathered Royals and their Generals, I was privileged to see every single one of them sporting an expression not normally seen on a single person of high breeding, let alone a dozen or so of them. Utter and complete jaw-dropping disbelief.
Queen Maiella of Kendst was the first to recover enough to speak. “That… THAT is what the Great Ones did to stop the most devastating War the Land has ever seen?”
I nodded solemnly; although I deeply, deeply wanted to laugh at their incredulity, knowing that I’d gone through the same range of expressions and emotions while I’d been reading.
King Fredek spoke up. “And the entirety of the War, all the destruction, could have been prevented if they’d done this first?”
I nodded again, just letting them process what I’d told them- that I’d stood before the massed alien army in all its deadly splendor and yelled, essentially, “Time Out!”
Head Archivist Theand, ancient as some trees, began to chuckle under his breath, and then to guffaw, his whole body shaking until he was almost sliding off his chair. Some of the Council glared at him for this breach of decorum. I was just glad it was him and not me.
“Explain it to us again, slowly.” Queen Gedda bade me.
“You see, honored Council, when the Ethkenni appeared on this world, fully armed for battle, our ancestors responded in kind, gathering up their armies, and making a pre-emptive strike on the alien forces. What no one realized at the time was that their species sees combat as a ritualized physical event -a Great Game- that can happen at any time. Because of this, the Ethkenni always dress like they are ready for battle. When we attacked, we basically said “Game on!” to them, and they took our actions as the opening play. When we kept throwing armies at them, they kept ‘playing’; not understanding why we kept going, even though we were losing.”
“All this time, Lekelrah was working on their language, and was finally able to understand that, at the beginning of every battle, they’d been saying not a battle cry, but basically “We don’t want to play any more!”. We’d been breaking their rules of engagement by continuing to attack them. So Lekelrah went out to the largest Ethkenni camp and said, in their language “Please stop killing us!”. So they did. There’s more details of his conversations with the Ethkenni leaders, learning the rules of their Game, and how they helped the Great Ones clean up the mess, but that’s the basics of it.”
Theand had stopped laughing enough to listen, and he leaned forward at me “But why, then, did the Ethkenni warn of their return, if they were truly no threat to us?”
“The Burning Star is their home world, and it travels around the sun, just as our world does. But it takes their world much much longer to make a full orbit; 10,000 years, give or take. And when it gets close to the sun, the surface becomes volatile, so they either shelter deep underground, or they visit some place nearby. We happen to be nearby. The orbit before that, people didn’t exist here. They weren’t warning us that they were a danger, they were telling us that they’d be back around, and to remember them, so the misunderstanding wouldn’t happen again.”
General Amder shuddered. “It almost did. By The Mother, it almost did. But why didn’t this knowledge get passed on?”
Archivist Theand tapped the tome I’d returned with. “It sounds like, bluntly, the Kings of the time were too embarrassed to let it be known that all the death and misery was a massive diplomatic error on their part. So they instructed Lekelrah to restrict the information to the Great Ones, and it never went any further.”
The General grunted in general disapproval of this historical behavior, and then glared at Theand. “How do we keep it from happening again? Who’s going to deal with diplomacy and making treaties and keeping us out of their Game, if none of us speak their language?”
Theand’s eyes twinkled as he pointed a bony finger at me. “I think that is a perfect task for our newly minted Head Archivist of Ethkenni Lore!”
Wonderful. Another adventure.