"End Quotes Save Lives
*Winning* Contest Entry for LegendHaven 2023
This is a story I wrote for the 2023 LegendHaven Short Story Contest, the only real requirement being that there was a place in story called the LegendHaven. You can find out more about the contest using that fancy embed below.
This story uses an idea I had a long time ago about a library where books are experienced immersively, or dreamed, akin to Myst, and what would happen if the bookworld wasn’t as well-written as it could have been. I updated the setting to use the four LegendFiction houses, with the gracious consent of. I think it turned out much better than it would have otherwise.
Update: The story ended up winning the contest! Thanks to everyone who showed their support and to Dominic for reading it aloud during the con.
I highly recommend you read this on the Substack website, as this post is a multimedia experience. You’ll find many audio embeds below that score the story, and they won’t function as intended in your email client. Only one track can be playing at a time, so if you reach the next one and the first is still playing, just start the one you’re on and they won’t overlap. If you like the music you hear, please consider supporting the artists as well.
The sound of the book slamming on the table shook the cold alcove. Despite appearing nearly brand-new compared to the ancient tomes on the surrounding shelves, each of the four young people standing around the worn leather volume could feel the energy radiating from it. It called to each of them, begging to be opened, to be read.
"I judge this'll be our best bet," said the book slammer, a tall young man with sandy blond hair. His black and teal robes were enough to denote his status as a Visioneer, but he had gone a few steps further and hung his silver calculine around his neck, despite how unfashionable that was these days.
The young lady next to him snorted. "Of course you do, Arvin," she said, rolling her eyes. She cared even less about flaunting her membership in Excalibryn, the flaring red-gold robes complemented by the sheathed dagger that orbited behind her long black hair as she spoke. "Every idea you come up with is not always the best one."
"Come on, you two," a brown-skinned fellow across the table spoke up. His yellow Chalimancer robes were accented with the bandoliers of potions and nostrums he kept with him at all times, multicolored liquid gems that gleamed like the round glasses on his face. "Not everything has to be a fight."
"Exactly♪," came the biggest voice of the group, belonging to the smallest member, a petite red-haired girl clad in her Wandery purple and white, twirling a bright pen. "Seltus is right. We have to work together to solve this challenge or we'll never move ahead in the rankings. Arvin, Kirel, can we just put the snark aside for once?"
Kirel's thin lips pulled back in a snarl, the dagger above her head pointing directly at her foe. "I will when he stops acting like he's the leader of the group. No one elected him, me least of all!"
"Every group needs a leader," Arvin countered, his hands on his hips, "and not only am I older, but the best qualified."
"You're one place ahead of me in the house rankings!" Kirel fumed. "And what does being older have to do with anything? Rutheny is above Seltus," she pointed at the small girl with her finger, though the dagger stayed pointed at Arvin, "and she's all of what, twelve?"
Rutheny stood as tall as she could, still a head shorter than everyone else. "I'm fourteen, thank you very much."
Arvin frowned. "Are you keeping track of all our rankings now?"
"Of course," Kirel snapped. "The ranking of a quarto is the average of its members, so if someone starts slacking behind…" She fixed her glaring eye on him.
"Alright, fine." Arvin raised his hands. "None of us will advance anywhere if we don't get started. This book has five attempt stamps," he opened the cover to show the shining ink beneath the scrawling, four-part sigil of the LegendHaven, "so it's worth that many more points. Professor Dunne did say we needed to find a challenge that would push us to our limits, right?"
Rutheny looked paler than usual. "Did he say we needed to leave our limits behind altogether?"
Seltus put his hand on his chin, the light shining off his glasses. "Any notes on why the first five were unsuccessful?"
"No," Arvin admitted, "but what does that matter? The four of us have overcome much worse before, right?"
Kirel had been quiet, which wasn't a good sign. "If it's worse than the ice giant in that polar book, then I'm game. I'll slice it to pieces just like anything else."
Arvin smiled. "Finally, we agree on something. Now let's get started, I heard they'll have those bready biscuit things in the cafeteria again and I don't want to miss out this time." He flipped through a few more pages of the book.
Rutheny smiled up at Seltus. "The best way to motivate Arvin is to make him hungry."
He nodded. "I think that works on anyone."
"Let's go," Arvin said, adjusting the dials on the calculine hanging around his neck. Each twist echoed despite the quietness of the mechanism. "We should need at least…thirteen minutes? Maybe fourteen."
"Just make it an even twenty-four," Seltus said, "no need to skimp if it's that difficult."
"Fine, fine." Arvin twisted the knobs further, the silver filigree rings rotating around and around in his hand. "Now, positions please."
Kirel's lip twitched as she glared Arvin down. "How about you switch with Rutheny, that way I can hold the hands of people I like?"
Rutheny's innocent eyes went wide. "But Kirel, you know the rules, it goes Visioneer, Excalibryn," she pointed to each representative in turn, "Chalimancer, then Wandery—and…you're just trying to get in another snipe against Arvin, aren't you?"
Kirel gave her best toothy smile as she took Arvin's left hand and Seltus' right, but Rutheny was sure she saw the older girl give her a gentle wink. The dagger that had been floating around her head tucked itself into her belt, while Rutheny put her pen on the table. Arvin's calculine kept rotating without his help, hovering a few inches in the air in front of his chest.
Once their hands were linked, Arvin began. "Insight of the Visioneer…"
"Courage of the Excalibryn," Kirel intoned.
"Blood of the Chalimancer," Seltus recited.
"Joy of the Wandery♪," Rutheny proclaimed.
"We link our hearts with our hands," Arvin continued. "As protectors of the LegendHaven, we command this book to open its heart to us!"
The spell was successful. It always was, otherwise no one would be able to get much work done in a massive library full of ancient, rare, and possibly dangerous books.
Rutheny opened her eyes. The musty stone walls and infinite bookshelves of the Haven were gone, replaced by a grassy field. They'd ended up on solid ground this time, thank goodness. She stepped out of her ring of flowers, walking over to the others. Kirel was already cutting down the remarkably long grass she'd appeared inside, the whirling swords disturbing Seltus' pile of dried leaves and Arvin's ankle-high snowbank.
"Any treasures in the grass this time?" Rutheny asked Kirel.
"No…" Kirel slouched, her arms crossed as her sword sliced through the greenery. "I liked that world, everything I broke had something shiny come out of it."
"Well, now that we confirmed it, everyone♥ can enjoy the world now."
Seltus capped the phial he'd been smelling, smiling at the girls before turning to the other young man. "How does it look, Arvin?"
The imaginary calculine functioned just like the real one, silver wheels and dials spinning under his expert fingers. Every so often he would pinch the air and draw a glowing blue line that floated gently in space. "Just as I thought. The congruence of the parallel antemeridian intersects with the dimorphic Fate Line of this reality." His azure chart segments soon formed a web floating before him.
Everyone was quiet a moment before Kirel did her favorite thing and broke something. In this case, the silence. "I swear, he makes up more words than he knows…" Seltus looked down his glasses at Arvin.
"It says…we should go that way," Arvin said, pointing down a line that led along the nearby flat road, not through the tangled brush of the nearby forest. Kirel dismissed her swords, each vanishing in a shimmering cloud, and the group started off.
"Make me one that tastes like…" Rutheny looked up at the sky, a standard cerulean blue with white puffy clouds. She held a found stick behind her back with both hands, her red hair pulled out of her face. "Bananas and chocolate, wrapped in bacon, with blueberries on top!"
"Hmm, alright…" Seltus held an empty phial in his hand, choosing different liquids from the bandolier across his chest, and a few others from the cavernous pockets of his yellow robes.
The road cut through the bucolic countryside, tall deciduous trees on either side, behind collapsed stone walls and the ruins of cozy farmhouses. One field lay fallow, another was still smoking. Seltus gave the tiny bottle a vigorous shake and handed it to Rutheny. "Try that."
She gave it a deep sniff. "That's exactly what it smells like, Seltus you're amazing♪" She ran off to share it with Arvin at the head of the column.
Kirel came up behind Seltus, scanning the treeline for any sign of movement. "Thank you for taking care of her, her last quarto had…some issues."
Seltus pushed up his glasses. "Yes, I heard…"
Arvin's face showed his reaction to the scented liquid better than his words. "That's, very…interesting…"
Rutheny took another whiff and pocketed it. "So, does it bother you that Kirel hates you?"
He chuckled. "Not really, she hates everybody."
"She seems to hate you especially."
"Then I must be doing something right—"
The rest of his excuse was cut off by a terrible grinding and cracking. From around a curve in the road came a huge four-legged beast, green and purple, covered with scrawling glyphs. Kirel and Seltus were in front in a moment, three swords spinning around the pair and a red bottle flying toward the creature, exploding in a cascade of harsh lights.
Rutheny brandished her stick. "A Type-O? What is that doing here?"
Kirel smirked, sending two swords forward. "Bad writing, worse editing. Every book has at least one."
"Arvin, did you see it coming?" Rutheny asked.
He drew a few more chart segments in the air. "Well…no, actually. It avoided the usual channels."
Seltus lobbed two more grenade bottles, the creature backing away. It hadn't attacked, not even swiping at one of Kirel's swords, making the quarto wary. Rutheny took the initiative, twirling her stick and humming a tune. "No fights today♪, let's keep it away♪"
A swath of purple coated the ground, the beast backed up but Kirel slipped on it, nearly falling before Seltus caught her.
"Sorry!" Rutheny called out.
The Type-O let out a roar, filling each of them with memories. Arvin remembered long afternoons reading, Kirel exploring the woods, Seltus cooking with his grandmother, and Rutheny singing in the choir.
"I've got it!" Arvin announced, looking up from his chart. He drew one final line directly at the heart of the monster, just to be sure. "It's 'pasttime.' Slice off one of the t's!"
"Which one?" Kirel growled. The glyphs on its skin were moving too quickly to get a bead on.
"What you want to be♪, help us all see!" Rutheny sang.
Its form shivered and twisted, hide and fur turning into more definite shapes. Kirel saw the letter 't' inscribed on its leg, and sent a sword to separate that part. The creature corrected away, leaving everyone breathing easier.
Kirel kept her swords out. "How much longer 'til we get somewhere important? I don't want to just fight Types all day."
"Here, I'll make it up to you," Arvin said, drawing three parallel lines on the ground, blue light flowing in the direction they had been headed. "These should intersect with the town." He gestured to Kirel, who stepped on them in a huff, disappearing at once.
"Please help us, ye brave warriors!" the grubby farmer exclaimed. "For months we've been terrorized by a foul dragon, eating our cows and destroying yon fields!"
Seltus stood beside the grieved fellow, pondering the various choices available to him. Kindness, brusque rejection, demanding money first, getting on all fours and barking like a dog? He'd never seen an option like that before. "Yes, we're here to help, where does this dragon live?"
Kirel looked around, keeping an eye out for dragons, brigands, or Type-O's. She muttered under her breath, "at the peak of the tallest mountain, of course…"
"Why, atop the highest, moste dangerous peak of yon mountains!"
Rutheny idly played with a smaller stick. "Don't you feel like you could write these books?"
"I know." Kirel smiled, genuinely enough that Rutheny smiled too. "Just once, I want to see something really unique and interesting. Why does everyone want to go on a journey and be a hero so badly, anyway?"
"Too dangerous! The mountain peak is protected by yon gate. My family keeps the key, but you muste have permission from The Mayor to get it. He lives yonder, at the edge of the town, there."
Kirel checked her pocket watch, the hands moving imperceptibly. "Thirteen minutes."
Seltus nodded to Arvin. He scribbled blue lines on a scrap of paper, then Seltus handed it to the farmer. The peasant hesitated a moment, suddenly shifting an inch to the left.
"Dude! A Dragon Hunter's License, rock on. Here's the key to the totally radical gate!"
Rutheny giggled. "He must be written from some leftover material."
The stench of sulfur and strawberries filled the air. The latter was from Seltus' fireproofing mixture, the former was from the scaly wyvern that dominated the rocky plateau. Each combatant showed the signs of their long battle; the dragon was covered in cuts and bruises, Kirel's swords spun with less of their usual fervor, Seltus' bandoliers were much less colorful, Arvin's nest of chart lines was quite thick, and Rutheny was actually worried.
"This thing should've died by now, right?" the girl called. The protectors had fought to their fullest. Kirel had five swords out at once. Rutheny had called for a horde of wild beasts, but ended up with a pile of cute, useless stuffed animals around her feet. The ground was littered with broken potion bottles, stepped on by the crude golem that Seltus had cobbled together and anointed to life, and which currently held the beast at bay. Even Arvin had gone on the offensive; dozens of blue ray segments protruded from the drake's sturdy hide.
"Sweetness and starlight," Kirel answered Rutheny, making the boys back away from her one step. "I appreciate your confidence in our abilities, but—"
"But she's right," Arvin cut in. "Something's wrong…" He grabbed a line out of the air and stared hard at it. "That's…not good."
Kirel swung her arms to guide the flashing blades. "Don't say not good!"
"Its vitality is…negative…"
"Loud!" Seltus called. Everyone covered their ears as his latest concoction exploded on the dragon in a deafening boom. "Now explain what that means."
"I don't know if I can," he wiped sweat off his forehead with his sleeve. "It must mean there's no postscript for this entity. Which means—"
"Watch out!" Rutheny shoved Arvin away from a stray fireball. "I think I get it, it can't die because the author never wrote what happens when it does, right?"
"Attempt number six," Seltus lamented. "Our time should be nearly up, right?"
Kirel checked her watch twice. "It's been thirty-two minutes in the Haven…the exit clause must not be triggering."
Seltus leaped away from a tail strike. "That's not good either. Arvin, how come there were no warning notes about this?"
"No one's been here but us!" He frantically swiped at his web of lines. "I've been checking the sigils left by other Visioneers, but there are none in this room. Nobody warned us because nobody knew!"
"Great," Kirel snarled, "we can go beat up lazy writers later. What do we do now?"
"Paws have claws♪," Rutheny crooned, "and jaws have fangs♪, help us now, this harried gang!"
The huge lizard suddenly found itself walking on four cawing crows, its mouth full of paper fans.
"Nice letter removal!" Kirel cheered.
"Now I have a second to think," Arvin said. "The only way I know of to complete an entity with no postscript is to write one for it."
Seltus checked over his potions. "Do I have to remind you that we're still inside the book?" Kirel kept herself and her arsenal between the dragon and the group, in case it tried anything else.
"We are…but this isn't." He held up the calculine, still spinning madly like it had been the whole time. "Each calculine has a unique core crystal, they can't exist in two worlds at once. This is just a reflection, so what I do to it here…"
"Happens in our home world too," Seltus said, nodding.
"Exactly. I'll move myself around and write the script, then we'll get out of here."
"Do you have a pen?" Seltus asked. "In the real world, I mean."
"No, do you?"
"Use mine," Rutheny supported. "It's still on the table!"
A bellowing roar disrupted their planning, the hobbled dragon barged forward despite its own limits, using its sheer bulk as a weapon. A wall of swords, a golem's fists, a fizzing burst, and a rhyming song all converged while Arvin retreated into his lines. Somewhere he was comfortable with. The straightness, the symmetry, always reassured him. He closed his eyes, envisioning his physical body, standing straight in the LegendHaven library, he tried to get his left hand out of Kirel's iron grip, no luck, Rutheny's tiny hand released his easily, he tugged the calculine forward, there was the pen, he grabbed it, clicked it, back to the book, pages had flipped themselves to the ending, tough battle, high stats, empty space, new end glyph, full stop, dropped items…he knew just the thing.
Arvin's form had gone limp, Seltus held him steady. Splitting one's consciousness between two worlds would do that. With a shriek, the dragon fell slain, its body discorporating into thousands of jewels and gemstones.
Kirel's eyes glittered. "Shinies!" She scooped a few up before she was scooped up herself, each protector whisked away by logic and order and so many lines. They opened their eyes, releasing their hands. Arvin turned the book back to the front cover, the confirmation stamp gleaming in glory. The representation of their teamwork, their unity, overcoming obstacles and triumphing despite literally impossible odds. Everyone but Kirel took a moment to admire it. She was looking at Arvin with something other than a scowl on her face.
"Whew!" Rutheny sighed, taking her pen from Arvin. "Who wants to get something to eat?"
I could go for a bite myself! Check out the rest of the fun we’ll be having at LegendHaven this year, and be sure to visit ZMT Books for more short stories like this one.