From: Captain Gidyn Riley (griley001)
To: Major Juliana Riley (jriley270)
Subject: My delayed arrival
I won’t be able to come home this month. I don’t know if the news has reached you yet, but we are at war. But how could the news have reached you? I don’t even know if this letter will reach you.
Magic has threatened our planet again.
If you feel a note of frustration in my tone, it’s only because we were ill-prepared for the attack. I know there are those in Dralina who take the position that all magic is a threat. Such a position is impossible for us to hold, of course; being elves, with magic in our very flesh. But it takes magic to defeat magic, and it’s precisely for that reason that General Cain and the others should have listened to people like us, the small population of elves which they employ. Instead, they over-relied on technology and we were unprepared.
Still, even though it doesn’t make sense, I can’t help feeling as though everything is my fault. Maybe once you read this letter you can judge.
Let me explain.
For a while the city was peaceful. I stayed in the tenement under the bridge like I’d been assigned, keeping a low profile. Telel has a reputation as a pleasant city to visit; I suppose that is true if you are wealthy and stay above the “water-line”. That’s a local term for the level of the city where the poor district ends and the middle class begins. The city is arranged in a sort of vertical stratification, with the most run-down parts at the bottom and the most pristine, newer parts at the top. I live below the water-line and I assure you the phrase is quite literal, since it is the point where the rain and runoff from the overhead streets begin to accumulate in puddles and cause mold.
Fortunately, I wasn’t stuck in the gutter the entire time. My business took me up to the heights of the skyscrapers often enough, and from there you can see the Blue Palace, and the wheat fields all around the city, which make our lovely capitol like the proverbial sapphire in a setting of gold.
The nature of my job is to expect trouble, but I didn’t expect trouble. I’m not the first one ever to be posted on this project, after all, nor the only one— there are thirty men in the city at all times who stand on call in case of interplanetary war. But interplanetary war always seems improbable, even to the man who stands by the phone, so to speak.
So when the phone rang – that is to say, my radio – I wasn’t expecting it. In fact, I was out on the town with a colleague, not from the project. (Sorry, my love, confidential.) We were having a good time. I was enjoying quinceling eggs and toast, and the project was the furthest thing from my mind. Then I heard a far-off noise. It was deep and very dull. My first thought was that a vehicle had struck the lower levels of the building; an aircar or something larger. Then my radio came to life. And the Commander said the words I’d hoped never to hear.
“Activate protocol Tethrax.”
We were under attack, and in case you haven’t guessed by now, the attacker was Prince Ellatar Davarin. Do you remember the troubles in the Southern Mountains, my love? He was behind those attacks, it would seem, and he was gathering his forces for a return to Dralina. Not that (even if we had known he was back on the planet) we could have guessed where he was going to get an army.
I soon found out what kind of army he had. I jumped to the message immediately. Once I was outside, back down at the water-line, I could tell there was something wrong in the city. The aircars over the roads were at a standstill. People were running around, too, but they didn’t seem to be sure which direction to go. And the noise – there were sirens and horns and shouting. But I couldn’t see where the problem was. Not yet.
My first duty was to the project, but on my way towards it, the noise grew louder. I hurried down and across city blocks (as much as they exist in Telel), approaching the disaster. I can’t deny that I had a certain morbid curiosity along with the fear of what I might find.
Meanwhile, my radio was beeping every second. These were different men from my team, and of course members of command and others in the city, wanting to know what was going on.
The closer I got to the source of the commotion, the fewer people there were on the streets. They’d vanished into the buildings, and barricaded the doors and windows. As if that would have done them any good. Perhaps they didn’t know what kind of enemy they were up against. But a more likely guess is that they forgot, as people tend to do after forty years of peace and safety.
I couldn’t keep up with the radio, but it wasn’t my fault! I was being paged too much to keep track. I suppose if I’d been in touch with the Commander at that moment, things would have been different. I should have thought of it. But I hadn’t gotten to the project yet. I was focusing on my surroundings. And they were grim.
When I reached the Stelmer Bridge (this is the final stretch of the broadroad which flies over the Twyss) everything was in shambles. Aircars lay strewed about like white eggs. I took cover behind a marble planter. When I looked out across the bridge, I saw that it was blocked with rubble from the broken barriers. Another deafening explosion shook the ground and started the aircars rolling again. That was the source of the sounds I heard before.
Standing at the far end of the bridge was the Temple of the Moons. This building has a stone façade with a circular opening called the Eye. On a normal day, you can look through the Eye and see Thina, locked in her geosynchronous orbit, at any time of the day or night. But today I did not see Thina or any other moon. Instead, there was a ring of brilliant red fire.
From that gaping wound in space, fastened to the shape of the Eye, they came. Shades.
They all looked more or less identical, to my eyes. They do not fly, but they can dissolve their bodies into smoke, and so they survived the drop to the street, seemingly weightless. As they poured out of the portal, they blended into one indeterminate, billowing mass – uncountable. There could have been hundreds, maybe thousands. They condensed as they hit the ground.
Now my love, I know that we elves are supposed to be serene and cerebral and all that garbage. But I wasn’t, not at that moment, and I’ll freely admit it. It’s not who I am, and I know it’s not you either. We’re far too earthly. Why do you think I married you, after all?
My first thought was for the palace. I could see its towers behind the temple, further off in the city. And sure enough, that was the direction the shades were going. I wanted to go defend the King. And maybe I should have. It might have been more successful.
But I had to go to the project. Since the shades were too far away to notice me, I crossed the street and slipped into one of the buildings. The radio was still live, even then. If only I had called the Commander.
I took a freight lift to the lower level, a musky orange parking-garage. There were our skimmers, but none of the men had arrived. I wasn’t sure why. I was later to find out they were delayed by the fighting and the shades. At any rate, I took one of the skimmers and rode off toward the project.
That was where I lost the radio signal. I didn’t see anything unusual about it at the time. Why shouldn’t I lose a signal under so many tons of rock? It was an eerie silence, alone in the tunnels under the city.
At last I pulled up at the door and left the skimmer to go through. There was the project. I wish you could see it, Juliana! It’s truly impressive. But I’ll say no more. The fate of Dralina rests on keeping it safe from Ellatar. Ah, who am I kidding? It’s not like this letter will even go through.
I hurried across the project space to open the launch portal. There is a manhole in the ground, and I climbed down into it and stood at the bottom in grease and muck and dim light. Then I remembered what I had forgotten. Of course. Juliana. The launch codes. I took out my radio.
I heard beeping, like before.
“Commander?” I tried.
Then, I swear, I heard his voice. “Riley,” he was saying, and I was so certain, for an instant, it was working that I was filled with joy. “The launch codes,” I said. And I waited. There was only a faint static. Then the radio crackled and went dead.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d been down there before and the reception should have been good.
I still wasn’t feeling very serene. I cursed the loss of reception. I know that level-headedness (so to speak) is the only way to use magic, and I had to pull myself together to make just a simple cast – I thought of you, Juliana, my love, and Kate—
I wasn’t ready to give up just yet. I cast about to sense foreign magics.
At first all I could sense was my own fear and - And there it was. The damn magical field. It was on a low enough register that I’d never have felt it if I hadn’t looked for it. But it was there, all right, over the entire city. They blocked our communications, all, all of them, do you understand?
So this is where I am. Here in the city, Juliana, as we are slowly overrun by shades, and the army is scrambled without speech, and the project is inert. My only hope now is that the Commander will send someone with the launch codes. But even if he did, how would we organize my team, without a way of reaching out to them? And all this without being discovered by Ellatar, who now sits above enthroned in the Blue Palace? It is all I can do not to say that our situation is hopeless.
My only consolation, my dear, is to feel through our bond that you are well, even if we cannot speak. I pray that you continue to be safe, and do not leave your post, which is the safest place in Dralina now – the Academy.
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