Solving the “The Last Abbot” Riddle

Brian Staveley, who is one of my favorite authors, set up a scavenger hunt this past year. He hid 20 copies of his first book, The Emperor’s Blades, around the world for people to find—each special copy had a letter inside that would allow you to unlock a portion of a short story that was hidden on his website. You can read more here.

Unfortunately, none of the copies were near enough for me to make a trip and retrieve them, so I didn’t end up with one myself. 19 of the 20 copies were found over the course of about six months or so, up until December when Brian revealed that the final copy, numbered 1/20, was hidden in an epic special location, the source of which was encoded in a riddle. I managed, with the help of a few of the other hunters, to crack the code and discover the location. It was too far away for me to retrieve myself, and so I didn’t try, but I had an incredible amount of fun (and lack of sleep) solving the riddle. What follows is a brief account of what I actually did when solving the riddle, the challenges it posed, and what ended up being the final solution. You can see most of it play out in the comments of the article linked above, but I simply had too much fun to not tell the story on my own blog. (And Brian, I’m totally getting that shirt for WorldCon.)

The riddle:

A whole world, older than memory, younger than old women, old men,

Vast as the ocean, small enough to hold in a hand,

A gift of the daughter of the watchers of women and men,

A gift of Parnassus, spread in dozens of tongues,

It whispers to us:

Your name is not your name.

You can’t escape.

The shadow is the self.


99 3 6 21    9 10 26 22.

21 10 24 68   4 26 5 18 9 3   1 75 22   63 24 1 1 3 26   23 7 43 6 22   26 18 26 1 3 22 26   43 7 67 3 5   26 26 99   10 37   23 16 9 7 23 3   5 75 22 63 63 4 5   67 7 5 1 21 22.


I quickly came to the assumption that the numbers were a substitution cipher of some sort, with each number representing a letter. My main reason for making this assumption was because of the specific formatting—there appeared to be 2 sentences, each of which end with a period and are broken into distinct words with letters. There are also only 23 distinct numbers, fewer than the 26 letters of the alphabet. I operated under this assumption pretty much the entire time. My efforts on the first day of solving the puzzle focused almost exclusively on the numerical cipher, because I could not make heads nor tails of the riddle itself.

My first attempts focused on using the riddle itself as the key to the cipher, attempting to use the first letter as 1, second letter as 2, and so on. This did not work, even though I tried many, many variations, including working backwards, using syllable numbers, and treating the lines like an array.

Then I spent some time staring at the numbers, and came to the conclusion that the first line/sentence was quite probably a congratulatory message—well done, or nice work. I grabbed the back of an envelope and tried these out. The solution of “well done” produced some interesting results, which you can see below. I discarded it because I couldn’t make any more progress, and because it didn’t make sense to my rational mind for multiple numbers to translate to the same letter.


I then switched over to using a program I had written a year ago in one of my computer science courses, which takes the string and attempts to run a frequency analysis on it, then create a key for decryption. It then presents the solution, and allows you to change the key 1 letter at a time, always giving you the newly decrypted message so that you can fix any mistakes you make. By the time I gave up on this method, it was almost 4 AM, and I had intended to go to bed at midnight, so I was a bit depressed and frustrated.

I was able to mostly put the riddle out of my mind for a few days, mostly due to my perceived lack of progress on it, and the fact that I was out of town, helping my Grandma with technical issues that I had really not been anticipating. (It was hell. NEVER LOSE YOUR ADMIN PASSWORD.) But then Brian was a meanie. He taunted me with this tweet:

Aaaaand there was no way I wasn’t going to solve the riddle, plus I never really got the thing out of my head; it just sat there staring at me while I didn’t have time to look at it.

I cursed. I complained. But I got back to it as soon as I got home. I posted my work so far in the comments of the riddle, with more detail than given above, in hopes that it could help spur someone else on to solving the riddle—I wanted to at least be a part of the solution. Brian said I had made some really good progress. I also looked at other people’s various answers; they had focused largely on the words themselves. They had interesting conjectures; 1 took the riddle to simply mean a novel, any novel, another tried to interpret them to mean a particular song from Lord of the Rings. Brian had chimed in telling them they were both making progress, but missing something, and so I memorized the riddle and thought about it all evening/night the first day when I had returned home. I’m sure I got some sleep in there somewhere, but it was restless, to say the least.

When I woke up in the morning, I’d had a slight bit of a revelation. The riddle meant some kind of book, yes, but a specific one. And the author was female, so it couldn’t be Lord of the Rings. (You can find my detailed analysis of the riddle in the comments on the original article.) I offhandedly mentioned A Wizard of Earthsea in my analysis because of the word “ocean” used to describe the world inside the novel, and some of the other hunters ran with it, digging up other quite interesting connections, nicely connecting LeGuin’s parents as archaeologists to the “watchers of women and men”, but the kicker was when someone noticed that the book was originally published by Parnassus Press. Previously, we had all assumed that the Parnassus line meant that it was a book simply because the muses lived on Parnassus.

With this revelation, I dug out my dad’s copy of A Wizard of Earthsea and thumbed through it, trying various things before I hit upon the solution. There were other similarities I noticed too, chiefly that the plot matches the last three lines of the riddle quite well. It took a few tries, but I found the solution fairly quickly at that point. The key to the riddle was the first words of the text itself, with the first letter being 1, the second letter being 2, and so on. With the message cracked, I quickly checked the location and determined that I would not be able to make it myself (It’s somewhere in NH…). Thus, I posted the solution, which is below:

Well done.

Look inside the rotten maple nineteen paces NNW of madame Sherri’s castle.

Brian was right that this was an epic location—it’s an abandoned castle in the middle of the woods.

Patrick, whose adventures you can also read in the comments of the blog, hopped in his car literally 3 minutes after I had posted the solution to the riddle, and drove 5 hours to retrieve the book, which is now in his possession. Congratulations, Patrick!

I was amazed at how close I had come to solving the riddle in my earlier attempts. If you look at the picture I posted above, I had almost cracked the code on my own, without the key. My biggest problem was that I was tired, doubling letters didn’t make sense with the rules of codes I had been taught, and I had the “maple nineteen” portion squished up and missing a letter or two. I’m pretty sure if I’d taken a closer look at the envelope above during the day, I would have been able to solve the riddle without the key, but I managed it anyway, a fact that makes me incredibly happy. I was also incredibly lucky with my guess of “A Wizard of Earthsea”, something I had thrown out almost as an afterthought when analyzing the riddle. Thanks to everyone who helped, especially those who pointed out how well the riddle fit with the solution being a novel, and those who found the clues that confirmed that we should look in A Wizard of Earthsea.

Overall, it was a fun, challenging, and rewarding experience. It reminded me why I love going to school and learning—I enjoy the feeling I get when I tackle a seemingly insurmountable problem, conquer it, and learn an incredible amount along the way, and the more and more I get into upper division classes, the more I experience this feeling. I would really like to thank Brian again for a great experience and a fun riddle, and I’m looking forward to meeting him at some point in the future! I also hope he continues to do these riddles, and that, perhaps, if he does this again, there will be a copy that I can find.

Brian is an amazingly fun person and a really good author. His first book, The Emperor’s Blades, came out last January, and was my favorite debut novel of the entire year! If you’ve not read it yet, you’re really missing out, and you should go fix that, especially since his second novel, The Providence of Fire, comes out tomorrow! And if you enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades, you should get The Providence of Fire, because it’s just as good as the first one.

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