This story is by David Hylands and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Come now or not at all” The formal call to the Final Key rasped out of the ceremonial guard’s mouth. He wore a boiled leather jerkin and his broken hands held a short spear, the head carved to resemble a stylus. As the Scriptorium had no need of real guards, these guards were failed scribes, forbidden to speak of the coming ritual, who functioned more as messengers and chaperons than any sort of fighting force. Eris stood up, shaking a little with a mixture of excitement and fear. This was the moment all her life had been pointing towards. Ever since her parents had left her on the Scriptorium’s front steps, and gone away with pouches full of coin, she had been unable to think of anything else she wanted more than to enter the Final Key and attain the role of Scribe; to wear the bronze armbands denoting her mastery of the very power of Creation. Nothing would stop her from getting those bands.
Eris felt like she was in a dream as she stood and followed the guard down the hall that had been the entirety of her life for the past ten years; bedrooms, classrooms, kitchens, and dining areas, all in this one long hallway. She wished the guard would slow down, so she could savor the familiarity of the hall that had been the world to her and the fifteen other students she had grown up with; moving from awkward teenage years through the self-reflection and self-discovery of their early and mid-twenties. Even so, she hoped she never saw it again.
Eris followed the guard through the set of doors she had entered when she had first come to this place, and into the cold slap of rain. The rain was not unpleasant to Eris; the rain brought back memories of her childhood. She raised her head to the slate sky and opened her mouth to catch rain on her tongue. The guard did not join in her reverie, just continued to plod along like an animated corpse. She immediately thought of Von; he would have joined her. He never worried about seeming immature or foolish, and this shared love of simple pleasures had drawn them together instantly. Eris wished Von was walking beside her now instead of the dull guard.
The path wound around the central courtyard leading to the Tower, the location of the Hall of the Final Key. Eris had already completed the first two Keys quite easily in the past month, the first being a timed test of hundreds of runic combinations, the second being a test of her logic and reasoning in which she had debated the greatest Scribes in the Scriptorium. The ease with which she had passed these tests bolstered her confidence and helped her maintain her calm. The Scribes were the greatest protectors of peace and freedom, traveling through the surrounding twelve kingdoms, making the lives of the common people better, fostering peaceful, positive interaction between states that were at each other’s throats. Those bronze armbands worn by all Scribes allowed freedom of movement; no one would dare stop someone who could change the constituent parts of the human body to dust or flame with a few strokes of a pen.
The steps curled upwards, around the tower and led past the halls where she had been tested before and then continued up to the very top of the Tower, the hall of the Final Key. Statues and tapestries along the way showed the greatest Scribes who had ever lived, bold carvings and bright colors displaying the magnificence of their order; soon to be Eris’s order. Becoming a Scribe was a lifelong commitment that had little room for anything else. Few married, and never outside the tower. Eris had been worried about that part of the life of a Scribe, but over the past decade, she and Von had quickly formed a deep friendship that had turned to romance. She felt complete when she was around him, like every part of her that she hated was loved by Von and complemented by an attribute she respected in him. Eris felt confident that if they could pass the Final Key, they could spend a lifetime traveling the country, helping those in need and growing closer every day.
A large set of steel doors stood before Eris. Various runes of power were etched into the bronze bands encircling the doors. The guard banged loudly with his spear, then called, screamed really, “The one who was summoned has come! Open and receive Him….er.. Her!” He gave her a small nod and a grimace then stepped down two steps and took up a parade rest position behind her. There was a long pause. The horrible possibility that this was all a joke shot through Eris’s head; then the doors opened noiselessly, revealing a room full of ancient men and women in all manner of clothing, the only similarity among them the bronze armbands shining in the torchlight that lit the large hall. “Enter child” the Arch-Scribe intoned. Eris stepped into the room, ready to take hold of her future.
Two hours later, Eris felt wrung out and ready to be done. Several lengthy orations had been followed by a testing session where any member of the gathered Scribes could ask her any question, any argument, any runic combination that she had studied, or should have studied, during her training. Any pause or slowness in response would lead to murmurs and mutterings from the gathered masters. However, it seemed to be drawing to a close. Her last answer, rattling off some arcana regarding the proper order of runes to change water to bread, written down hundreds or thousands of years ago, had even produced a light round of applause and smiles on some older faces. The Arch-Scribe stepped forward again and launched into another round of ceremonial narration. Eris’s mind wandered a bit until she was brought back to the present by the Arch-Scribe saying “… And so we come to the final test of all Scribes. The Final Key.” Eris felt confused. What had she been going through up to this point, if not the Final Key? With no other words, the Scribes in front of Eris parted and Von stepped into the ring of Scribes.
“This is the final test. You must show absolute dedication and devotion. An unwillingness to sacrifice even those we love, reveals a weakness that could be exploited, a flaw that someone could use to sway our actions.” As the Arch-Scribe was speaking, bronze armbands and steel styluses were handed to Eris and Von. ”One of you must destroy the other or both of you shall be cut off. You would be allowed to serve but you would never scribe again.” Eris knew what that last part meant. The guard outside, the women in the kitchens, the servants throughout the scriptorium all shared the same broken hands. They had all made it to this point and chosen to walk away. They must see all Scribes as murderers Eris thought. It terrified Eris to think of serving those who had reached this point and had been willing to kill a loved one in cold blood, while being unable to do anything in her defense. She couldn’t imagine being like that for the rest of her life.
“We can stay together. We can make it work.” Von’s voice seemed to come to her from across a gulf. “I won’t do this Eris. I couldn’t live with myself. If this is what it takes to earn the title, it’s not worth it.” Eris could barely see the tears streaming down Von’s face because of her own. The pain on Von’s face was unbearable, “You’re not actually considering this, are you?” His voice sounded torn, shredded.
The futures flashed before her, she and Von, broken but together, serving killers; her, alone, saving people and making the world a better place, but a murderer. “I know you think us cruel, but we all made this choice,” the Arch-Scribe was saying “you must put aside selfishness and choose to be a force for civilization against encroaching chaos.” Eris wanted to stand out, to be remembered, to matter. Life with Von would be beautiful, satisfying even, but quickly forgotten when they were gone. Quietly, trying to avoid seeing Von, trying to ignore the deafening silence that had replaced his pleas, Eris picked up the stylus and started the runes that would forever proclaim her to be a scribe. Fire consumed Von. He writhed and contorted, like he was a flame made flesh. Von’s screams cut off as Eris completed the runes, but she could still hear him as she collapsed. “Rise and join us ” the Arch-Scribe said softly. The words were difficult to hear over Von’s screams still ringing in her ears. Eris knew she would hear his screams forever.