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.

“Sial?”

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 wordLetters‘ 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.

This is part of a much larger story that’s slowly jelling in my brain.

——
Set recording, 127.893 Chela-Sei Karden, on my mark… 

Mark. 

We were betrayed from within. 

In the end, it matters little that we never discovered who, or how, or even truly why- other than the usual reasons for war; fear, jealousy and greed. What matters is that in one moment our people were going about the daily tasks of hearth and hive, and in the next there was fire and death and terror. 

They knew it must be betrayal, even as they scrambled to find system failures, even before they heard the first shots and screams.  How else would defense systems be overridden, weaponry fail, even the boundaries to the hive chambers fall throughout the colony, all at once? 

Karden was lucky, if you can call it that. While the other hives were being slaughtered, we had warning, and time to prepare. Our hive was new enough that we’d not been integrated into the full security database- we still ran independent, and our location wasn’t widely known.  So we had a chance to reconfigure shields and change codes, a chance to take in a few terrified refugees and fleeing battalions through the transfer chamber before we went into lockdown.  

They would find us soon enough, we knew…and from the few reports getting through to us, we knew we were now the last of the Alai-sehar and our two Queens and their eggs, the hope of the species…
——
Despite being deep within the mountain, the Transfer Center rocked with the force of the bombardment above. A lone figure bent over a console, fingers in frenetic motion over the controls, watching data fly over the floor-to-ceiling panels in front of him. Over and over the panels displayed start charts, a cursor identifying and then rejecting hundreds of potential planets in seconds. He muttered curses and imprecations each time there was a flash of red, and finally rested his head in his hands.

He may have dozed for a moment, exhaustion finally winning out over vigilance, when the console started chiming insistently. He jerked awake, the wings that had hung limply over his shoulders snapping upright and buzzing irritatedly

“Right, right, sorry, didn’t meant to startle you.”

The wings settled across his back, as he slapped a button on the console to stop the chiming. Then he stared at the screen, his tired brain not really comprehending what he was seeing- There, in the upper left of the current chart, the cursor flashed green.  He blinked, stared, and then gave a gasping inhale as his mind grasped the implications of that small green beacon.  A few taps brought up statistics, details, probabilities… He stared again, and then spun around in his chair and let out a whoop that set his wings to buzzing again.

“We did it! By the silk we did it! Tell Chela-Sei! Get them down here fast!”

When the door opened to let someone in, he realized the sounds of the battle were much closer, much more immediate than he’d assumed from the rumbles in the stone above, and he watched his hive partner, Chela, stagger through the door and slump against the wall. Hearing angry voices in the distance, he scrambled to shut the door and engage the emergency security protocol. Then he knelt by her side and took her hand.

She was battered and bloody, her breath coming in short gasps. As he brushed her hair from her face, he saw that one wing was ripped in two, the usual iridescent stained with blue ichor. She opened her eyes and irritatedly waved his hand away.  “I’m fine, Denet. Just tired. And there’s more of their blood than mine.” She let out a weak laugh that became a cough, blood trickling from her mouth putting the lie to her being ‘fine’.

“You’re not fine, and neither is Sei. Hold on, I’ve got some jelar here somewhere.”  Denet went into a side room to rummage around, when he came back, she was standing at the console, staring at the screen.

“Would you sit down? Torn silk you are stubborn.” He shoved a flask into her hand “Drink this.”

Chela drank, coughed, drank again, smirked at him. “Medical grade jelar. You’ve been raiding Hawla’s infirmary again, haven’t you?”

He sat next to her, angling so that his wings could caress her tattered ones. “I grabbed it from the supplies in the transfer chamber. I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some on hand before we left.”

She pointed at the blinking green icon on the screen. “You found us something. You finally found something.”

“I did! Now we just need to get the team in here, and we can start the transfers- the system’s already identified an appropriate hive chamber, and we can…”

Her hand rested on his shoulder, and his excited ramble trailed off. “There’s no team, Denet.” She struggled to meet his blank stare. “They hit the Great Hall with a plasma charge. They’re all gone. The Counselors, the Queens, the control teams. You’re the only systems tech left.”

Denet’s mouth opened to argue, tried to deny what he was hearing, but no sound came out. He sat in aching silence and then said “Why didn’t you tell me? You could have had Sei send to Buw, at least.”

“You were working. You were focused. The cocoons had already been moved, the supplies already loaded. You were the last chance we had…and you found it.”

“But without a team…how…” His brow furrowed and one wing started to twitch. “How much time do we have?”

Chela caressed one tattered wing, listening.  “Elloet-Alv says that they can hold them of for an hour, maybe a bit more. Not two.”

A brusque nod, and he turned back to the console. “What are you…” she started to ask, but he cut her off “Shh, let me work…no, wait, go grab a couple of beacons from storage, and slot them in one and two…”

Bemused, she did what he asked. Between the effects of the jelar, and watching him in one of his so very normal working moods, she could almost forget that she was broken inside, and that her Alai was dying.

As Denet plugged in calculations and coordinates, fiddled with statistics and settings, he explained the plan to her.

“Like I said, there’s a stable cavern we can form into a hatching chamber and core of a hive- that’s where you’ll be. I have to go and deal with the one hitch in the plan.”

“What’s that?”

“The orbital period of this planet is much faster than ours, so the lifespans of the sentients there are adapted to that. To them, it’ll be generations before the cocoons are ready to open. ”

“So you’ll need to prepare them for the process.”

“Right. I’ve identified a population center I can use as a base. My lifespan will seem functionally immortal to them. Hopefully I can keep them from making me a deity. That’s always so inconvenient when some group tries to worship us.”

Chela came up beside him and put a hand on his arm. “There’s another hitch, Denet…I’m…”

He took a deep breath and looked her in the eyes. “Dying. I know. Buw could tell.” He gathered her up in his arms and held her. “You can do this, I know you can. You know enough to set the beacon, and activate the chamber sequence. The automated systems will do everything else. Record me a message, so when I bring the candidates, I can see you one last time. You and Sei can rest with the cocoons.”

A quiet sob shook her shoulders, but she smiled at him and nodded. “You’ll go through after me, then?”

“Mmmhmmm… I’ll reset the coordinates, and activate a dest…”

An explosion outside the room buckled the door, and sent down a shower of debris from the ceiling.

“No more time! You’ve got to go!” Denet pushed her towards the door of the transfer chamber and she settled in among the boxes of gear, and the carefully wrapped Alai cocoons that were their future. Denet gave her a solemn salute, and activated the transfer. As the air around her thickened and glowed she saw the door start to give way, and a bolt of fire take Denet square in the shoulder. She cried out, tried to reach for him as he slumped forward- but she couldn’t see through the brightness, and then there was nothing.