Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Curious Letter Affectionate Letter Coded Letter
Little Vince marched through the snow towards their postbox. His mother had scolded him on his way out the door for braving the driving snow and wind. The postman wouldn’t come for three days yet, that was true, but the letter practically burned his hands. He didn’t need a coat, or a scarf, or even mittens because it was so warm. It was the best letter he’d ever written for his friend and he couldn’t bare to hold onto it. If he did, he might decide something needed changed.
Vince didn’t even need to open it up to check it. He’d read through it so many times that he had it memorized.
You know what to do. The dodo is abroad. The ship has sunk. The key to its chest is on the tail of the kite and lost to the winds. Should the dodo step in the ink, make sure to roast the bird and eat every last trace.
In other business… how are you? How is life on the other side of the world? I’ve only just heard that all your rivers flow in the wrong direction. Is that true? Perhaps when our struggle is over we can go rafting down one of them. I wonder exactly how confounded I would become in waters such as those.
Mother tells me not to go out in the snow when the weather is as it is here today. Sometimes it turns to hail and hounds us back inside. I find it an adventure, not unlike what you and I do. I remember you saying you’ve never had snow on your continent. Perhaps it’s because your water runs the wrong way. All of it comes over here and freezes.
Anyway, back to business. There’s only so much page left. Once you have the treasure, do remember to give it a good shine. It should be bright enough for me to see it glinting from the nearest shore. If I see it, I’ll know we have succeeded in doing what we set out to do more than two years ago. The Alley Shadows will no longer be able to stop us.
Good luck, and godspeed,
Vince slipped the letter inside the wooden box and stared at it for a few moments. He didn’t want the letters with his pen pal to stop. His family was wealthy, and he never wanted for toys. Even now his little sister was likely making a mess of his trains, his tin soldiers, and their tin overseers. He didn’t care. She could have whatever puppies or kittens were lounging under the tree the next morning. He had Fighter. They had their cause.
The letter wouldn’t go anywhere with him watching it, so he reluctantly turned and started making his way back tot he house. He made it only five steps. Fizzzheww! The sound was like fireworks made of snowflakes taking off. It was like icicles turned to cannons, firing their drippings at the dawn. Vince whirled around and caught a glimpse of a fading green-yellow light from within the postbox. His mouth hung open. For a brief moment he thought it had to be the Alley Shadows. They’d never assaulted their letters directly, but they’d never been so close before. Vince rushed back and bravely lifted the wooden lid. Thin trails of smoke obscured his vision, but he waved them away with his fingers, now puffy and pink from the cold.
Colorful Envelope Bloody Letter Opener A Pool of Wax
Once the smoke cleared Vince saw something that filled him with dread. His letter was gone, perhaps turned to smoke, or perhaps simply destroyed. In its place, untouched by any shreds or smithereens of his work, was a letter opener with a tortoiseshell handle. Its edge was polished, but its appearance was marred by a streak of fresh blood across the blade and handle.
He reached in and poked it. It wasn’t hot. It wasn’t particularly cold either. Wherever it had been moments ago, it wasn’t snowing. He picked it up and examined it further, but there was nothing else to it. His fingers stung now; he needed to get back inside. If his mother saw him holding a knife-like object coated in blood, he’d never hear the end of it, so he carefully tucked it into his pocket after wiping as much of the blood as he could off in the snow. He used his hand to push some snow over it just in case. Then he returned to their opulent home and its crackling fireplaces.
As he suspected his sister was near the tree, putting her straw-maned horses into the cars of his train. His father was seated near her with one of his favorite magazines. It was full of pictures of leaping bass and swordfish, even though he’d never seen his father take up a rod or reel. He smoked his pipe and somehow, simultaneously, gnawed on a pastry.
His mother was rearranging the pastry tray to make up for the hole his father had created. They were all excellently distracted. Vince held in his sniffles and raced upstairs, quiet as a snowshoe hare. Once he was in his own room, with the eyes of his other soldiers and his stuffed bears and wolves keeping guard, he pulled out the letter opener and placed it on the small writing desk he’d gotten around the same time last year.
He poked it again. What else was he supposed to do really? He’d briefly considered a magic kit as a hobby a few years ago, but then his father told him about pen pals and mentioned that a colleague in one of his company’s furthest offices had a daughter in need of one. He had become Rebel, and she had become Fighter. They’d learned to code their letters to keep the Alley Shadows at bay while they searched for their ultimate treasure. Now… coding wouldn’t do him any good, and he didn’t have any magic to combat whatever enchantment had taken his letter and given him the opener in return.
Vince had no magic, so he turned to the last resort of the young boy: his brain. Letter openers were meant to open things, right? Perhaps the enchantment extended to the object itself. Vince pulled out an envelope from his collection and dragged the opener across its lip. He looked inside. Nothing. The magic needed a nudge.
Vince lit a candle, took out the seal with his family crest, dipped it in the wax, and sealed the empty envelope. He waited. He did his best to not look at the tiny splotch of red on the envelope from the blade. Clearly it was impossible, but he still wondered if it was Fighter’s blood. He slid the blade under the wax once it had cooled. It cracked and gave way. Inside, he found a folded piece of paper.
He gasped aloud. He showed it to his stuffed animals; their black eyes were wide in shock. A letter, somehow sent to him. He unfolded it and read, eyes pouring over the words like heay rain.
From Fighter From Alley Shadow From Enchanted Official
We have your letters. We have your friend. All we need now is your code key. We trust you saw the blood? The delicious red drippy-drippy? Yes, you saw it you ugly little scum monkey. We have everything. We have won. Now give us the key. Give us, or she dies. We have more letter openers. More, more, more. She will have less, less, less blood. Unless you give!
Here’s how you give. Write code key down. Put key in envelope. Seal with wax. Oh, and seal with drippy-drippy too. We want to taste your failure. Tap with opener three times. Key disappears. We win. Fighter keeps her drippy-drippy. Most of it.
Fiddlin Mittertix, Grand Biggest of the Alley Shadows
A tear dropped from Vince’s eye and blurred the scratchy letters of Mittertix’s scrawl. Their writing was so strange, every letter a different size and a different slant. There was no denying the message though. They had found Fighter. It was her blood. Could he even trust them to let her live? The only thing that had kept them safe so far was that the Alley Shadows didn’t know where they lived. Those nasty beasts had to stay near post offices most of the time, and they each lived off the beaten path.
Apparently Fiddlin had beaten a new path though. Perhaps a post office had opened near Fighter and she hadn’t noticed the incursion. Vince opened one of his desk drawers. He pulled out two paper circles held together by a brass pin. Each circle had words all over its edges that matched up with words from the other. It was how they coded their letters. Obviously, the dodo wasn’t a dodo. The ship wasn’t a ship.
Their treasure was indeed a treasure though, and the Alley Shadows couldn’t get their hands on it; surely they would do great evil with something as old and fancy as that. Nobody else knew about the shadows, as far as Rebel and Fighter knew, but it was because the Alley Shadows hid themselves well.
They wrote to each other, messages hitchhiking in the ink and margins of human letters. The longer the letter was in transit, the clearer their messages became. Vince and his comrade were on opposite sides of the globe, so they read the work of the dripping inky devils clear as day.
Vince folded their code key into a semicircle and placed it inside the envelope. He had no choice. Perhaps they were lying, but they had gotten the blood from somewhere. They certainly didn’t have any of their own. He’d gleaned from their communications that they were full of dead leaves and centipedes.
A plan. He needed a plan. What would Fighter do? She was the smart one. He tried to think, but they were not patient creatures. An idea occurred to him, but it would have to wait until after the ransom had been paid. He poked himself with the opener and mixed a drop of blood with the wax. He sealed the envelope and tapped three times. A wisp of that spring-colored smoke wafted up from the seams.
Find a Traitor Send More Blood Write a New Code
Vince had to work swiftly. The Alley Shadows had miscalculated. They left him the opener. It probably still had its enchantment. They never thought far enough ahead to remove that sort of thing. Their magical litter was the cause of all sorts of problems, including most of the letters that seemed to get lost in the aether before finding their way to the recipients.
He brought out his scissors and some fresh paper. He cut two new circles and put a pin between them. After that he brought out his fanciest pen and wrote a new code, a false one. He matched up dodo, ship, and ink to all new words. This would get the Alley Shadows nowhere. The only problem was, they had the real one and they had it first.
Vince dug out his records. He’d written a field guide about all the Alley Shadows whose scrawl they’d encountered. Fiddlin was their leader, at the moment, but he knew a few others. Some were shy, embarrassed by the fact that humans had read their messages. Some were angry, and their handwriting had turned into giant scratches obscuring their own. The children and the shadows had been antagonizing each other for months now, each hoping the other wouldn’t figure out the treasure’s location.
He tore open the envelope once more. The code was gone. He told his stuffed animals to calm down. It would get there in time. The shadows would undoubtedly brag to each other for an hour or so, and then maybe argue over who deserved to brag for another hour. He folded up the new code and put it in the envelope.
Rather than seal it right away, he turned it over and addressed it. His eyes hopped back and forth between his shadow field guide and the envelope. He addressed it to Snivels Gloomboots. His notes informed him that Snivels had an official title as well: Fifth Class Chump. Their records were far from complete, especially given how it was difficult to tell Alley Shadow formality from petty insults, but he guessed fifth class chump wasn’t very high on the totem pole. He included with his code a note.
I know they make fun of you, but now’s your chance. All you have to do is help us. They have a fake code. This one is the real one. You can lead the shadows to the treasure. You can be Grand Biggest. Why am I helping you? I need something in return. I need you to sneak Fighter pen, paper, and envelope. That’s all. I hope you’ll take me up on the offer. Only a chump wouldn’t.
Vince sealed the letter and added another drop of drippy-drippy for good measure, a little something to give Snivels the energy to rebel. He tapped the envelope with the opener three times and nearly hollered when the smoke appeared. He’d forgotten all about his family, lost in their silly toys with nothing at stake. He waited, sucking on his small wound to keep it from staining his writing desk.
Paper Detonation Fighter Appears Transcendent Envelope
At best he expected to find a note from Snivels, but when he reopened the envelope he was knocked backward by the force of its contents. He rolled away across his floor, into a pile of stuffed animals, and grabbed a near-life-size stallion to steady himself.
Something golden swelled outward like a proud sail boasting of its wind. It tore its way out of the envelope and left the shreds to drift to the floor. It unfurled in front of him, hovering by enchantment. When its corners flapped loudly into place, he saw it was an envelope: golden and without creases. He dared not touch it at first, because he felt that any piece of it could deliver a paper cut straight to his soul.
Eventually he stood, for the envelope wasn’t going anywhere. On closer examination, as its corners flapped like the wings of glorious Christmas geese, he saw its surface had been marred once, and recently. He saw the darkening spreading ink of the Alley Shadows. It was a hastily written message from Snivels.
I’m no chump. They’re chumps. You’re chumps. You are seven chumps in one. Seven and a half. And you smell. But thank you. I accept your offer. Stupid. I need distraction to go get treasure, and you want your friend. This big envelope is magic, but we can’t use it. It’s only for stupid humans and their scrunchy idiot faces. Scrunch your idiot face inside it and you can send yourself here. You can fight Fiddlin for her freedom. Sound good? Yes. I make good deals. I’m so good at deals. Bye.
Snivels Gloomboots, Almost Grand Biggest
By the sounds of it, he didn’t have much time to hesitate. His friend needed him. They’d only been friends with words, collaborators in coded treasure hunting eluding the eyes of literary imps, but those letters had made up all the great fun of his life. Seeing a new one in the mail was better than a sled down the steepest hill. It was better than cinnamon oatmeal with his mother’s raisin cookies.
She was just words on the page, but words had to come from somewhere. They came from her honesty, her cleverness, her bravery, and her kindness. They were words worth fighting for, and now he had the chance to put more than words in one of their letters. Brave as Vince was, he didn’t want to go alone. He took up the letter opener and Mutton, his stuffed bighorn sheep, and crawled into the incredible envelope.
It cradled him like it was a suitable vessel for the Christ child. Its paper was softer than anything he’d ever felt, somewhere between snow, cream, and leaves that would never fall from the tree.
He pulled the flap down and sucked in air nervously when it sealed itself. It wasn’t dark; nothing about the relic from another age of correspondence was dark. Perhaps it had always been meant to keep out the Alley Shadows. Nothing happened. He let the air go.
“Oh, of course,” he half-whispered and half-giggled. He tapped the side of his swaddling envelope with the opener, three times: tich tich tich
Shadow Nest Biggest Post Box Mail Mulch
He didn’t feel the enchantment like he expected to, but it definitely worked. The envelope opened itself a moment later and dumped him out unceremoniously before drifting back down. He landed in a giant pile of shredded paper. Vince had to swim in it in order to resurface.
When he did, several sharp little things were inserted into his gasping mouth. He froze, treading paper as well as he could. The taste was horrendous, like sawdust and moldy peanut butter. Five of the Alley Shadows were all around him, safe from the mulch on giant envelope rafts the size of the one he’d ridden in on. Each of them had a finger, long and with a sharp black nail, jammed in his mouth, hooking his lip so he couldn’t move. His eyes were free to dart about though, and he saw Fighter held down by a dozen more of the small creatures sitting on her back.
It was the first time he’d really seen either of them. The shadows had twisten horns with pen nib tips. Curiously, they all wore spectacles with lenses of thin paper. Their posture was rather chimpanzee-like, but their skin was more like the hide of a diseased warthog. He gagged. That skin was in his mouth. A tear rolled down his cheeks.
“Look who it is!” Fiddlin Mittertix declared. He was indeed the largest, his finger the foulest tasting. He had a round gut with a protruding navel full of paper shreds. The ends stuck out like a little bouquet. “The mighty Rebel! Now we have you both! We were just about to go get the treasure!” They all laughed. Vince looked to Fighter. She wasn’t crying. Her eyes were wide and white. She knew something was going on. She nodded ever so slightly.
“You’re not getting the treasure,” Vince mumbled around their fingers. The laughter stopped.
“What’s the drippy-drippy bag saying?” one of them asked.
“He’s saying stupid,” Fiddlin accused, but the creature did not look certain. “What’s this lie Rebel? Tell us now or we’ll eat your tongue.” He snapped his fingers, and all the shadows retracted theirs from the boy’s mouth.
“I gave the real code to Snivels,” he said. They gasped.
“Stupid Idiot Vomit Lies!” Fiddlin screeched.
“Oh,” Vince said, spitting out the taste of their nail gunk. “Is Snivels here?” Their heads and floppy ears whipped around, and they very quickly saw that Snivels was not.
“After him!” Fiddlin roared. One by one the Alley Shadows squeezed into their envelope rafts and tapped the sides. Each one sank into the mulch and sped away, their corners visible like shark fins. Vince couldn’t believe it worked. They always left everything behind. Perhaps it was because they only dealt in words, blood, and other nasty fluids.
“You did it!” Fighter said. He smirked. She had an adorable voice. “What did you do exactly?”
“Snivels has a fake code. They won’t find it!” She hopped off her raft and swam to him through the shredded mail of half of history. She hugged him, squishing Mutton between them. They were so used to keeping things precise in the limited space of their letters; that kept her explanation concise.
The Alley Shadows had found her, captured her, and taken her there. It was the place where they snuck all their messages into the mail of men. They weren’t allowed, by what gods they would never say, to have their own writing. They were doomed to shout at each other or send their opinions away like prisoners or refugees, hidden in real correspondence.
She held up the real code. They’d dropped it like everything else once they thought Snivels was headed straight for the treasure. As for the treasure itself, the children weren’t too worried anymore. They knew it was a letter from a place much like this, and now they knew the shadows couldn’t use them properly.
They’d learned about it in the first place from the yammering of the shadows before they knew the children had listened in. The treasure was another golden letter, from one of those gods they never mentioned. It was instructions on how to live, how to really live.
The children knew they wouldn’t be able to read it, the same way they had no use for the golden envelope Snivels simply sent away. It wasn’t for them. They could have nothing but their scraps and their insults.
There was one envelope left, and Vince still had his opener. Where should they go? He had a feeling they could stop wherever the post did. As long as there was mail, they could go home, but for now, several of the paper scraps made very interesting claims. They found the coordinates to yet another land, boarded the last envelope, and tapped three times.
Tich tich tich