“They’re a recognized phenomenon,” said Amaryllis. “To maintain the deception for so long, under so much scrutiny, you’d need –”
“Powerful magic,” replied Masters.
“I was going to say that you’d need the complicity of far too many people,” replied Amaryllis. “People — scholars — would come to this place and they’d want to speak with the dream-skewered, they’d want to take notes, they’d want to know things about Earth. You can’t possibly have — how could you possibly have kept up the pretense for five hundred years?”
“It’s not important,” said Masters. He was still looking at me.
“What’s important is what happens now,” I said. I was watching Masters. If there were no dream-skewered, that meant that someone had created the myth, and done it with purpose. I thought it was probably easier than Amaryllis was making it out to be; the dream-skewered were a curiosity, nothing more, a footnote rather than one of the greater mysteries of the universe. “Uther Penndraig gave you those names. Why?”
“Together, we might find the truth,” said Masters. He stood up from his chair. “Come with me.”
I stayed where I was and looked to Valencia.
“I … I don’t know,” she said. “He’s soaked in weariness. Maybe intentionally. It might be masking something else.”
“These are your knights?” asked Masters.
“Knights?” I asked.
“As Uther had,” replied Masters.
“No, not really,” which was a bald-faced lie. I turned to Fenn. “Verdict?”
“Nothing is twigging,” she said with a shrug. “That doesn’t mean that it’s safe.”
I stood from my seat. “Okay then. Uther … what, he left me something?”
Masters nodded once. “I haven’t seen it myself.” He stepped away from the table, leaving his papers and his entad behind, and went to the conference room’s door without another word. He moved like he wasn’t sure of himself. Five hundred years of perpetuating this deception? All, presumably, for this?
We walked down the hall. I followed close behind him, with Valencia and Grak flanking me as best they could. Masters seemed like he was in a daze, and I felt like I was in a daze too. When Amaryllis had told me that there was a condition that caused people to believe they were from Earth, I had thought that it was just something to explain away the fact that I was on Aerb. Later on … well, I’d taken a tiny bit of comfort in the fact that there were other people who remembered Earth on Aerb. To find out that they were all just figments was, strangely, a bit crushing. I hadn’t been sure what I was going to do with the other dream-skewered, but now all those possibilities had been washed away.
We went up to the fourth floor, the place with heavy wards. Valencia was watching Masters carefully, while Grak watched for unknown magic. I wasn’t sure what trick he had up his sleeve, if any, but we were going to be as prepared as we could possibly be for it. I didn’t like this new development.
We came to a large, circular room with a mirror standing in the center of it. The mirror was ornate, gilded around the outside edge, with swoops and swirls that suggested something floral.
“Entad,” said Grak. “It has marks of display and illusion.”
“Uther spoke into it,” said Masters as he stared into the mirror. “Only the intended recipient can hear what he had to say.”
“Tell me more,” I said, not moving toward the mirror. “Tell me … tell me why you would devote your life to this.”
“I hadn’t intended to,” said Masters. “There were dream-skewered, once upon a time. Five of them, all presenting within a handful of years, all collected together in a madhouse, in the city that would later become Boastre Vino. Uther took an interest. He was, in that time, a man known for doing impossible things, for solving unsolvable problems, erudite beyond anyone of that period, wise far beyond his years.” He was staring at the mirror as he spoke. “Uther tasked me with watching for more of the dream-skewered. He created a generous endowment for their care. I was to conduct interviews with them, find what they knew, compile a book or two. He wanted me to cast a wide net, and I did.” Masters sighed, still staring at the mirror. “Five unremarkable people, that was all we ever had. Of course, once the stories of the dream-skewered began to spread, there were others who came to see me and my small staff. We became something of an attractor for those with paranoid delusions and psychosis, in part because we were willing to take in such people with few questions asked. They all failed the tests that Uther had developed — not the screening that I gave you, but a simpler set of questions.”
“Why did you keep it going?” I asked.
“Uther returned,” said Masters. “He seemed unconcerned by the fact that there was no recurrence of the phenomenon. He brought entads with him, the Orb of Knowledge, the Mirror of Messages, the armor that I now wear, and a new command.” Masters looked to me. “He told me that I was to keep up the pretense of there being dream-skewered for the rest of my natural life. Two or three every year should be sufficient, he said, some of them pulled from the ranks of the insane, others invented from whole cloth. The endowment would last in perpetuity. He gave me instructions that I should follow. Lies I would need to tell.” He shook his head slightly. “I balked. The rest of my natural life, when I might live another few millennia? I agreed to twenty years, because he was Uther Penndraig, and he seemed to think it was incredibly important. After he disappeared, I decided to stay on longer.”
I stepped forward, until I was standing in front of the mirror.
Uther appeared in the reflection, standing five feet away from the surface of the mirror. He was looking out at the middle distance, likely looking at a reflection of himself. I placed myself so his eyes were on me. My own reflection was absent from the mirror. He wasn’t saying anything, but I could see the movement of his chest as he breathed.
I say Uther, because it was a far cry from Arthur as I’d known him. He was tall, well-muscled, with his facial features more defined than they’d been on Earth. He was older too. I would have guessed thirties, if not older. He had the same nose though, the same color eyes, and curly hair that was grown out, here less of an affectation, more of a kingly mane. He hadn’t had a beard at sixteen though. He’d always joked that he couldn’t grow one. He was dressed more simply than I would have expected of a king, nothing but a doublet, breeches, and heavy boots.
“I often wonder …” he began, then stopped himself. “I wonder what it would have been like to fall into a world that I didn’t know. Something novel, rather than recycled. I wonder whether I would have believed in it more, if I hadn’t seen your fingerprints all over everything. I wonder.” He paused. “I wonder whether I could have forgotten Earth, with time, if there weren’t so many reminders of the place I’d come from. Little jokes, little references, anagrams here and there, hints and clues that the world wasn’t what it seemed. People wearing the faces of my old friends. Fleshed out versions of characters we’d had for a handful of sessions.”
He stopped again. He wasn’t quite looking at me. I waved my hand slightly, but there was no reaction. I hadn’t thought there would be.
“So, if you’re listening to this, then you’re here. There’s a decent chance that I’m still alive. If I am, I imagine that I’ll find you soon enough. If I’m dead, which I might be, then it’s likely that you’re on your own narrative path, may God have mercy on your soul.” He let out a sigh. “You’ll have noticed, by now. I’m not sure about the others, but you? You’ll have figured things out. The coincidences, the improbabilities, the way that things seem to fit just right, character arcs that are completed in the final seconds of the last battle. I don’t know how much of my biography you’ll have read, or how much you’ll have learned about me, but if you don’t see the patterns in your own life, I’m sure you’ll see them in mine. Looking back, it all seems so trite. So many NPCs with their sob stories, so many love interests, paraded around in front of me before their inevitable deaths. I’ll admit to being affected, at first.”
He shook his head slightly. “And if you’re here, watching this, then you’re in it too. If it had to be anyone, Joon, I’m glad that it was you. You’ll know this world better than I ever did, I think. There are things on Aerb that were only hinted at briefly in your campaigns, and I imagine there must be secrets that only you can unlock, words of power written down on your yellow legal pad that never made it to our ears. Maybe together, we can find a way back home. If I’m dead, then maybe you can find a way back on your own. Think back to the campaigns, try to visualize the magic items and the magics.” His eyes had grown a bit wider, his look intense. “If you come up short, think about what you would have done, how you would have made it in order to fit with the aesthetic of this place. Think about something that would have the stink of Joon on it, that’s where the answer will come from.”
Uther backed away slightly. He brought his hand up to his mouth and rubbed at his beard. “I don’t know what this place is,” he said. “It’s not reality. I hope that you never get this message, because if you do, then it means that you’re here. I’m leaving it for you anyway.” He gave a hollow laugh. “There’s so much I want to say to you. When I first heard of the dream-skewered, I thought that they would be all my old friends from — from Kansas. I haven’t said that word in a long time.” His face had fallen. His eyes were unfocused. “But no, they were nobodies, a teenage girl from medieval France, an idiot teenager who had been in the middle of the Civil War, disparate times and places, nothing obviously relevant to me. It took me some time to see the narrative purpose of them. They were a temptation from the path of heroism, an invitation to indulge in the past, or maybe a call to remember who I was and what I was doing. I’ve done a fair job at resisting those temptations, or at least cloaking them in the guise of art or work. You’ve seen some of that, I’m sure.”
Uther stretched slightly, drawing himself to his full height. He was tall, taller than I was, and I’d gained a few inches as the game had added onto my physique. Uther was an intimidating man. I’d known that, but I’d underestimated the extent.
“This is the closest that I’ve ever come to telling anyone on Aerb where I’m really from,” he said. “Sitting behind uncrackable wards, with a mirror I spent three weeks testing … I sometimes wonder why I bother with maintaining the silence. My peculiar form of insanity would cost me political power if it were known to the public, certainly, but my knights? My wife and children? Perhaps I feel like saying it out loud would take the story in some unexpected direction I’m not prepared to handle. I’ve been playing the part of Uther Penndraig for over two decades now, and I’ve gotten good at it. To go back to being Arthur again, to talk about the past with someone … well, I suppose this is what this message has become. I should be giving you warnings, I suppose, or secret histories, but either the narrative here is that this is a flight of fancy and a final send-off for the past I knew, or this is the narrative thread that draws you into the web. None of it really matters anyway.”
He looked like he was going to say more, but instead a slight frown crossed his face, and his reflection disappeared, leaving me to look at myself in the mirror. I turned toward the others, who were all watching me.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was meant for me.” I looked at Masters. “I’m not sure how much I should say. I … don’t really know you.” I was sure there was a more diplomatic way of putting it, but I was in a bit of shell-shock. I hadn’t started the day thinking that I would see Arthur again, even if it was just in a recording. He was so … different. After talking with Bethel, I had known he would be, but it was different, in the flesh.
“Scenario?” asked Amaryllis.
“Zero,” I replied. I looked at Masters again. “He said that if he was alive, he would see me shortly,” I said. “Do you have any idea what that means?”
“I was given an entad to contact him with, a candle he said would light his way back to me,” said Masters. “I used it four hundred and fifty years ago, during the time of the Internecine Wars. There was no response, nor has there been one in all that time. The candle has continued to burn, to no effect.” He hesitated. “Please, if you could just … if you could tell me anything, who you are, who he was, the connection between the two of you, anything, I’ve spent five hundred years in loyal service, with your name on a list written by Uther himself. Please.”
I glanced at Valencia, who gave me a barely perceptible nod. I was relieved that she hadn’t hesitated.
“You said that this place had powerful magic,” I replied. “Tell me what it was, and I’ll tell you some of what I know, enough to sate your curiosity.”
“Curiosity?” asked Masters. His eyes were wide. “The fate of the universe is at stake.”
“Explain,” I said. My mouth was set into a thin line. I wanted time to process, instead of being confronted by another crisis. If dream-skewered didn’t exist, then we didn’t need to worry as much about the Cannibal. I was really skeptical that this was going to end with us going home.
“The threats escalated during Uther’s time on Aerb,” said Masters. “In the years before he disappeared, they were enormous, bigger than was ever let on to the general public. They were tied to him, in some way, attracted to him with something like luck. It was joked that the world would have ended a hundred times over without him around. When he went missing, that joke stopped being funny. There were horrors lurking, entities waiting, and we had to fight them tooth and nail, losing people with every one we put down.” He was rubbing his hands together. “The world settled down, eventually, at great cost, and the exclusions have helped with more than one of our collective problems in the time since, but …” He stopped and stared at me. “Things have been heating back up.”
“Which powers?” asked Amaryllis. “How recently?”
Masters turned to look at her. She was still fully armored, which meant she gave even less away than usual. “The Void Beast has started moving again, the Outer Reaches are no longer dormant, the Infinite Library is down to five years, Celestar is thrumming with renewed power, a raiding party from the Other Side crashed against the Gates of Leron three weeks ago, and there’s reportedly something new that has the minions of the hells living in abject fear.” Masters looked back at me. “How strong are you? You said you’ve been on Aerb for months?”
“Back up,” I said. “I didn’t understand half of what you just said.”
“Then tell me everything,” said Masters. He had shaken some of his weariness, but I didn’t like what had replaced it. It wasn’t quite mania, but it was close. “If you knew Uther, if you can get to him, or if you can act in his stead, with the same utter power that he wielded, then there are allies ready and waiting for you to call on. There are things you’ll need to know.”
I stared at him. “Uther Penndraig was, himself, dream-skewered,” I said. “Earth isn’t a delusion, nor a dream, it’s a real place. It’s a place that I’m from. Uther was … a friend. If I had to take a guess about where Uther went … I guess I would say that he went home, back to Earth. He said as much in the message he left for me, not that he was going back, but that he was looking for a way.” He’d mentioned narrative too much; that was the framing he’d put on almost everything. I left that out.
“Tell us about the magic around this place,” said Amaryllis. “Tell us how you kept up the deception.”
“The Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny was moved, at Uther’s behest, specifically to be located within an exclusion zone. It’s a well-guarded secret.” Masters shook his head. “I won’t say more.”
I stared at him. “Which one?” I asked.
“Not one known to you,” said Masters. “Silent exclusions, Uther called them. A part of my work here, with the others, is keeping that secret contained. I’m one of three.”
“You’re all waiting here for him to return?” I asked.
“No,” said Masters. “Waiting for him … or for you, if you’re like him. You must have read his writings, if you’ve already gathered your knights. Have you not realized the common thread of chosen heroes answering the Call?”
Something felt off. Maybe it was the understanding that this man was, by his own admission, a master mage at the top of his game, or maybe it was that the message from Uther had contained too much, too fast. Uther had many allies; I’d known that. To be speaking with one now made me start thinking about what enemies he might have left behind.
“Grak, Val, Fenn, status?” I asked.
“No changes,” said Grak.
“He’s sincere,” said Val.
“Something’s not right,” said Fenn. “Not just the obvious. A little tingle came on in the last minute or so, and it’s getting stronger. You feel it too?”
I nodded. My own sense of it was far weaker than hers. Luck had been one of the things that I’d trained in the chamber; I hadn’t gotten luckier, only better at distinguishing the sensation. It was faint and inconsistent, but I had a single point in LUK, and that was enough to give me the occasional flash of nebulous something-or-other, a pull in one direction instead of the other, or a hint of what was to come, usually when there was no good option left.
“I don’t understand,” said Masters. He was looking between us.
“There are wards against teleportation,” said Grak.
“Solace?” asked Amaryllis.
“A way out?” she asked. Amaryllis nodded. Solace closed her eyes. They glowed golden beneath her green eyelids, just for a moment. “There’s a tree two hundred yards away. Now?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis.
“Ah,” said Masters. His tone was flat, only with a slight note of curiosity. “Elf luck?”
Solace was using her fingernails to pry apart her staff, in a way that should have been impossible with wood. Masters frowned at her, and she became encased in a block of amber. Fenn fired an arrow before I could react. It would have been a direct hit, but Masters batted it aside with a casual wave.
“Well, fuck,” said Fenn.
“We need to talk, Juniper,” he said.
“I’m getting a feeling it’s a bad time to be standing around,” I said. Valencia was working at the amber with her sword, hacking away at bits and pieces of it. I was growing increasingly certain that he wasn’t just blowing smoke about us being in an exclusion zone, the only question was which one. I had a very slight advantage here, in that I had a list of eighty-two excluded skills. They didn’t fully map to the exclusions, but there was a list I could start going down. Funnel magic? Conjoinery? Uniqulomancy? Carrollism (please no)?
“Truce,” said Masters.
“Free my friend,” I said.
Solace was instantly free and gasping for breath. Masters was looking between the six of us, frowning slightly. “She said tree. Wood magic?”
“You were waiting for me,” I said, ignoring the question. “Why?”
“Answers,” replied Masters. “I want to know who you are, where you come from, and what your connection to Uther is. I have no intent to hurt you.”
“Explain,” I said.
“I’m not your enemy,” said Masters. “I’m only taking precautions. I didn’t keep this clinic running for five hundred years just to let you slip away a few minutes after having gotten a message from the mirror.”
“So it’s a hostage scenario?” I asked.
“No,” said Masters with a frown. “You have to understand that there are complexities to Uther’s legacy. Everything I said about the old threats moving again is true.” He took a breath. “The world warped itself around Uther,” said Masters. “When he disappeared, gone with no trace, it took hundreds of skilled individuals to stem the bleeding. Many of them, good friends of both Uther and myself, died in the process. And after that … there was calm. Enemies had sprung from the woodwork for three decades, ancient conspiracies were uncovered by the handfuls, and toward the end, world-ending threats were showing up every other year, with Uther the only one capable of dealing with them. The great question the survivors were left with, once we had sealed the holes in the dam, was how it was possible for us to have done it, and why there weren’t more dangers coming to greet us, when there had been so many before.”
“And?” I asked.
“We fell into different camps,” said Masters. “One camp believed that Uther was a messianic figure, one who had been delivered to us in our time of need by a higher power, one who left once his work was done. The other camp believed that Uther was the one who attracted or caused all the problems in the first place, whether wittingly or not, and with him gone, there was no longer any pull drawing such things into existence. There were naturally different cleaving lines within our community, axes of disagreement, some of it quite fierce.”
“So which were you?” I asked. “Given that you’re keeping us here, my guess is that you’re in the latter camp.”
“I seek understanding,” said Masters. “Theories are all well and good, but I never thought that the answers to the many mysteries of Uther were unknowable. That’s all I want from you.”
“Duress was a bad option then,” I replied.
“You were going to leave,” said Masters. “There’s no danger here. This place is a fortress hidden in plain sight, and has been since Uther was still alive. The wards were laid by his very hand. All I want is to have the answer to who he was. Without that information, how can we know?”
I stared at him. “You think that I’m the Chosen One,” I said.
“Uther referenced the idea constantly. It was a staple of his works. Many of his contemporaries thought that it was sheer narcissism on his part.” Masters was staring at me. “Have you accepted that’s what you are yet, you with your motley crew of powerful knights, walking where Uther once trod before?”
I gave a fractional nod. “There are certain things that I believe only I can do,” I said. That had been the whole point of coming here.
“Do you learn things faster than others?” asked Masters. “Uther had what he called the Knack. If you gave him a day, he could attain proficiency in any language, any trade, any obscure piece of magic. He never revealed the source of it, save to say that it wasn’t magic. I pestered him, if truth be told, more than he enjoyed, but he had my little girl with him –”
“Wait,” I said. “Raven?” She was the same species as him. Even in her biography, it hadn’t given her any other name but Raven.
Masters nodded. “You’ve heard the stories, I’m sure,” he said. “She accumulated mysteries of her own. She carried some of his burdens for him. She would never tell me. She searched for him for a solid century, then loudly declared that if he was gone, we were all going to have to make do without him. But if you’re here … I don’t know what she will make of you, when you meet her. I don’t know if she’ll see you as a wound on the world or a shining savior.”
I wasn’t quite ready to call Masters insane, but I was mighty worried, especially given that he had us trapped by unknown means. His display of power before had been frightening. I looked back at the others, wondering what they made of all this, and was startled to see that they all had the same expression on their faces, which was the same as the expression on my face, one of apprehension and confusion. That was out of character.
I walked over to Fenn and prodded her shoulder with a finger as she watched me. She looked down at the spot where I’d pushed and raised an eyebrow. “Satisfied?” she asked.
“Keyring,” I said. “Now. I’ll start. Rhodonite.”
“Come on, Juniper, it’s me,” said Fenn with a small laugh, as though she couldn’t believe that I would test her with one of our prearranged code words.
I let out a small groan. She was a fake, or mind-controlled, but at least they didn’t have her memories. Besides failing the code word, Fenn almost never called me Juniper, not unless she was pissed off with me.
“Okay,” I said, turning back to Masters. “You replaced them while we talked? You have some way of masking sound and movement? And, let me guess, the exclusion was illusion magic?” That was a guess. Mentalism and Psionics also fit the bill, given their names, and there were a dozen others whose functions I could only guess at.
I glanced back at my companions and watched them pop like bubbles, one by one.
“How would you know that?” asked Masters. “How would you narrow it down so fast?”
“You’re not doing any favors on the diplomacy front,” I said.
“Earth was real?” asked Masters. “That’s why you came here?”
“Real would be indistinguishable from delusion,” I said. Unless you can make predictions, which I can, but that only complicates matters. And let’s leave aside the overgod of Aerb speaking to me directly.
“Tell me about where you come from,” said Masters.
I turned away from him and went back to the door — but there was no door anymore. I felt around for a bit, trying to find where I knew there should have been a knob, but I’d been able to push Fenn, and she’d been an illusion. Tactile illusions? No, more than that, tactile illusions that warder’s sight couldn’t see through? I could see where that would get degenerate in a hurry. I turned back to Masters.
“You said there were five people from Earth,” I said. “You must have met them. They must have told you something.”
“Plenty,” said Masters. “We made a map, a cosmology, and a timeline. And yet the screening that Uther produced went far beyond what we knew from those five, and his instructions were very specific with regard to what should be publically available. He wanted our work to remain vague, speaking in generalities. Why? Who are the other names?”
I tried to think about how I was going to get out of this. Being trapped in a room with a master illusion mage — and I didn’t even know if he was actually in the room with me, come to think of it — was pretty bad, especially since the only thing I knew about illusion magic was what it said on the tin. No, that wasn’t quite right. What had Uther said? He’d said that I should think about things that had the stink of Juniper on them.
“They were childhood friends of ours,” I said, stalling for time. “I come from a small town in one of the United States called Kansas.” I prattled on about Bumblefuck while I thought, giving out only those details I hoped were completely irrelevant.
If I were the Dungeon Master, how would I have done illusion magic? Stripped to a fundamental level, what did I think was interesting or compelling about illusion? What seams would I have wanted to dig my fingers into? Illusion was fundamentally about the relation of the senses to reality, which meant that illusion wasn’t just about the projection of light and sound, it was about how the mind interfaced with raw, physical reality. And yet, Valencia hadn’t said anything about not being able to see Masters, which meant that either he really was in the room with me, or that illusion magic was somehow able to fool even a non-anima, which shouldn’t have been possible if he’d needed to affect the mind. Had Valencia entered the room with me?
(I talked to Masters about my friends from back home, whatever came to mind, both the meaningful and the inconsequential. We used to ride our bikes through a local park after school, until I broke my arm doing a trick off a little ramp that some older kids had made. In the summers, I’d worked on my uncle’s farm, running ahead of the tractor to pick up rocks from out of the field. It was hard, sweaty, work that earned me twenty dollars a day, a fortune when I was younger. Tiff had been on the swim team. Reimer’s parents had divorced when he was ten. Tom’s father had died in a farm accident. Despite my best efforts, I thought it was all pretty transparent as not important to the fate of Aerb, but Masters let me continue on. I made sure to stay away from the topic of tabletop games, Arthur’s role as player, and my own role as DM.)
How would I do a deconstruction and reconstruction of illusion, if that was what I would do? Sight was easy enough, you could just do photons emitted, absorbed, and reflected without an actual object there … but that was more or less how you could do illusions with carefully crafted and shaped wards, which seemed redundant. And you couldn’t do illusory sound like that, because fake sounds that got to the ears were still sound, that wasn’t any more illusion than a boombox produced illusory sounds. Boomboxes as the basis for a magic system had a sort of Juniper-like ring to it, but still didn’t seem to fit.
I kept coming back to the idea of the sensorium as an abstract concept, or the sensory homunculus as a more literal creature that lived inside me rather than just being a representation of the prominence of sense organs. That still didn’t explain how it would affect Valencia … but maybe it didn’t need to, if she hadn’t been affected. The problem was that I didn’t know when the illusions had started. Was Masters still in the room with me? Was anyone else? Was the room itself real?
Whatever illusion magic was, I fucking hated it. Why had I been so stupid as to be thankful that illusion magic was excluded? Why had I been so stupid as to say that out loud? ‘Dur, illusion magic is excluded, so great we don’t have to worry about that, hur dur,’ it was like horrible foreshadowing out of a terrible movie.
There was one aspect of the sensorium that, in theory, no illusion mage could have access to, and that was the ever-present HUD that I mostly ignored. So far as I’d been able to test thus far, nothing could see or interact with the information presented to me by the game layer, whether it was on the now-obsolete character sheet, in the messages that got presented to me, or the (largely unhelpful) meters that sat in the corner of my visual field. That, at least, allowed for some testing.
“And that was Bumblefuck, Kansas,” I finally finished. “It’s where Uther was from, it’s where I was from, and it wasn’t at all special in any way, not in the context of a thousand other towns exactly like it. There’s no reason for me to be special.”
“But you don’t deny that you are,” said Masters.
“No,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean that I have any answers.” Sword, dagger, rope, fairies, bones. I really didn’t want to fight him, both because he didn’t seem actively evil (aside from holding me prisoner) and because he had unknown abilities, presumably powerful ones. “What do you want from me?”
Masters was looking me over, measuring his response. “I want to know why the world is the way it is.”
“Ah,” I said. I let out a sigh. “All I have is a guess, or maybe a theory.”
“This world was set up for Uther,” I said. “Beyond the five gods, there’s an entity so powerful that it could have wiped the floor with the combined might of every threat Aerb has ever faced, and done it in such a way that no one would ever have known. Uther was the chosen one, but not just chosen, because that would imply that he was selected to be the one. And it wasn’t that. Uther came first. All of Aerb, going back into its deep, primordial history, was created to serve his needs, and the needs of his life. Only it wasn’t really for Uther’s benefit, it was because the entity … I don’t know. The entity was focused on Uther. It didn’t hate him, and it wasn’t intentionally torturing him, I don’t think, but … it also didn’t care if he was happy, or at least didn’t care that he was always happy, or even mostly happy.” I thought all that was essentially true, even if it was leaving some details out.
“Could Uther have lost?” asked Masters.
“Lost … in what sense?” I asked.
“Do you know how many times he narrowly escaped death?” asked Masters.
“Dozens?” I asked.
“Hundreds,” replied Masters. “Sometimes it could be explained away, other times it couldn’t. He had tricks up his sleeve, and an arsenal of magic beyond all reckoning, but the odds were still stacked against him so many times that most lost count, and those were the ones he thought worth mentioning, the ones that he could mention. He never lost. Not once. There were setbacks, to be sure, and victories that were bittersweet, but nothing like a loss, not for long. When the man disappeared, it’s safe to say that he did so with a perfect record.”
“No,” I said. “He wasn’t able to stop Vervain’s death.”
“Uther killed Vervain himself,” said Masters.
I didn’t know how to take that. For having been the death of Uther’s oldest friend and dearest mentor, the details on Vervain’s demise were incredibly sparse. Most accounts simply began in media res, with Uther trying to bring Vervain back and failing over and over before taking up his sword once more to defend the realm. I’d looked into it as much as I could, and asked Amaryllis, but the most that I ever been able to piece together was that Vervain had died on some important, far-off mission, which meant that no one actually knew.
“Why would he kill his mentor?” I asked.
“No one knows,” said Masters. “Very, very few people know that it was done by Uther’s own hand. He offered no explanation. He only said that he was in the right. The idea of a betrayal by a mentor figure was a recurrent theme in his works and his writings, even before Vervain’s death.”
“Dahlia then,” I said. “His only daughter.”
“Missing at the age of eleven?” asked Masters. He gave a hollow little laugh. “Another of Uther’s little deceptions. She became his squire, Helio, and later donned the Red Mask. It’s always amused me which stories stayed in the collective consciousness. At the time it was widely known that she was his daughter.”
I frowned at that. It was a niggling loose thread in Uther’s life that was now tidily wrapped up, one more plot that we could close the books on, which meant that when Uther left for his Final Quest, he really had squared away as many things as he could.
“So you don’t know whether or not he could lose,” I said.
“Opinions differed,” said Masters. He gave a wry grin. “That might well be the title of a retrospective on that period, ‘Opinions Differed’. Some thought that his disappearance was another move in the grand game that was his life, others thought that his luck or, perhaps, destiny, had finally run out. It seemed too calculated for that. Uther went off alone, without his Knights, having put his affairs in order. Do you know where he went? What he meant to do?”
“No,” I replied. Trying to get home, probably. I didn’t have much more to add to that theory.
“And you don’t know whether or not he could lose?” asked Masters. “He always seemed to try his hardest, even with the weight of a thousand victories behind him. Was that because his effort was always needed, or because he himself wasn’t sure how much the universe would bend in his favor?”
“I honestly don’t know,” I replied. “Bring my friends back, whatever you did with them. Let me go. I’d be happy to talk with you on neutral ground, somewhere that I don’t have to be questioning the nature of reality.” I already do enough of that.
Masters stared at me. I saw judgment in his eyes. “And you?” he asked. “Would it be possible for you to lose?”
There was a part of me that wanted to put some honest thought into the question, but I was getting a very bad feeling about where this was heading. I hadn’t forgotten the preamble to this conversation. Some of the people in Uther’s inner circle believed that he had been the true source of all the problems on Aerb, the attractor for all the horrible shit he’d ended up defeating. Masters claimed to want answers and nothing more. He was certainly playing the part of a man who had been searching for meaning for a long time, only to finally catch sight of a thread that he might be able to pull. And yet, if he got his answers, what kind of action would he take? Would killing the next Uther Penndraig in the cradle be the rational thing to do, if you believed that it would prevent the world from spiraling out of control? I worried that Masters might think the answer was yes.
I drew my sword.
“Please,” said Masters. “I’ve done no violence against you. I wouldn’t. I’ve seen the firsthand the fate that befell Uther’s enemies. I know better to say that you cannot win here, but –”
I lunged forward, spinning to put more of the weight of my body behind the blade, blood and bone lending their power to a single debilitating strike. The sword passed straight through Masters. He popped like a soap bubble, vanishing completely. He reappeared five feet from where he’d been standing, completely unharmed.
“Were you ever here at all?” I asked.
“I’m going to have to tell the others,” said Masters. “Some of them will want you gone, or at least contained. Others will want to help you. There are very few of us left, as you might understand, given how much time has passed.”
“You’re going to tell people who will want me dead?” I asked.
“Uther kept secrets,” said Masters. “I’ve been privy to more than a few. Secrecy was his watchword though, even from his knights. Despite our differences, there was widespread agreement among the survivors that we keep open the lines of communication, lest we descend into war with each other.”
Would he need to be in the same room with me in order to use illusion magic? That seemed like it would be a logical limitation to illusion magic. It also seemed like the sort of thing that you could break wide open, if you had five hundred years to work on the problem. No, more than that, if you had five hundred years and worked at a place that was devoted to the collection, study, and analysis of magic items. The exclusion zones tended to have degenerate, world-ending magic in them, and I had to assume that this one was no exception.
But there had to be limits, didn’t there? If you could use illusion magic to make an illusion of a bullet moving a tenth the speed of light two inches from someone’s head … well, there would be no need for any other magic at all, would there? That might give it good reason to be hit by the exclusionary principle, but no other excluded magic was that degenerate or extreme, not even the one around Fel Seed.
I turned and went to the wall, to where the door had been. With my sword in one hand, I raised my fist and punched forward as hard as I possibly could, putting everything into it. My fist impacted the wall and set a shock of lightning-hot pain through me as skin and bone broke from the force of the blow. I sheathed my sword and clutched at my hand, gasping at the pain, and as it continued to blossom, I looked to the lower left of my vision. My health bar hadn’t changed at all, despite the significant injury I’d apparently given myself. I wondered whether I had punched anything at all, in the real world.
I reached into my bandolier and pulled out one of the lifeless marzipan fairies, using my good hand. I was shaking slightly from the pain, but I had a plan; I pulled the fairy’s head off, then took a long sniff from the neck, watching my hand carefully. As I’d expected it might, my hand began to heal.
All that pointed to sensorium capturing. Whatever had happened to my hand in the real world, I hadn’t broken it when I’d thrown my punch. And just like Masters hadn’t been able to make an illusion of Fenn that knew how to answer the key challenge, he also wouldn’t have any way of knowing what the fairies actually did. All he could do was make a guess. I let the fairy drop to the ground as my hand slowly finished healing itself.
Masters could make me feel pain and force-feedback, and he could clearly make alterations to sight and sound. Proprioception too, I supposed, given that if my hand had moved, then it hadn’t been stopped by any wall. Had it struck the door? Broken it? Were my real body and the illusory body presented to me desynced now? That, or I was simply comatose while the illusion played itself out.
“There’s no escape,” said Masters.
“Escape from this room, or from the illusion?” I asked.
“I can wait until you’re willing to listen to reason,” said Masters. “I have more questions, if you’d like some time to think about it. You know more than you’re letting on. Tell me about your Knights.”
Scratch being comatose, actually, not since it was impossible, but because if that was the case, then there was fuck all I could actually do about it. The worst case scenario that I could actually do something about was a total desync of my body and my perception of my body, which would probably mean that from the outside, I looked like a videogame character who was going through animations that made no sense in the context they were happening.
“Why a square table?” I asked.
“You’re trying something,” said Masters with a frown.
“Maybe,” I said. “Indulge me while I try to break out of here though.”
“I think not,” said Masters.
“It’s important,” I said. “There was some meaning behind the square table, back on Earth, I want to know what it was on Aerb.” I tried my best to go into my soul without giving anything away, but I ended up closing my eyes when that didn’t work. The change I wanted to make was a simple one, lowering Bows by twenty and then increasing Essentialism by the same amount.
New Virtue: Soul Sight!
The message faded from my vision right as I opened my eyes. Masters was still speaking, but watching me closely. I had about twenty minutes of the extra sense. This was another test; I wanted to see whether or not he could fake input for senses that he shouldn’t have known about. There was no color marking him as having a soul, nor any color on his armor, marking it as linked to him. That wasn’t conclusive. What was conclusive was when I looked behind me and saw four colored shapes standing roughly where my companions had been — red for Fenn, who was backed up against a wall, white for Amaryllis, her form banging against an invisible wall, seafoam green for Solace with a tint of a deeper green from her connection to the locus, and purple for Grak. None of them had moved much, save for Fenn. She would have had to have moved, or else I would have run into her.
And if their positions as reported by Soul Sight were accurate, then I was still in the room, and still on my feet, instead of being totally incapacitated like I’d feared. I wondered whether that was overconfidence from Masters, a limitation of illusion magic, or something else. Magic tended to have limits, even the most broken ones. If I was thinking like a Juniper, then maybe illusion magic would get more difficult the more of the sensorium you needed to fake. Based on the positions of my companions, and especially Amaryllis bashing against invisible walls, my guess was that they were all trapped in some sort of illusory cage of some kind, one that they didn’t think they could escape from. I hadn’t been able to see or hear them, but Masters needed me not to. For them, he could simply have put up a wall of sharp spikes or something worse to discourage them from moving and complicating things — which would explain why Amaryllis was the only one attempting to get out, bashing herself against whatever was intended to be too painful to touch.
I’d been only barely listening to the nonsense that Masters was spouting; I knew all of it well enough, since it was the bullshit that Arthur had made up at the gaming table long ago. It was polished and refined, and delivered by someone who actually believed it, but backwards bullshit justification all the same. A square table had no head, it was a place where people could be meeting while sitting in opposition, on and on.
“It’s a reference to Earth,” I said. “There was a historical figure that Uther was emulating.”
No sign of Valencia. I wondered what had happened to her. She wouldn’t have shown up on Soul Sight, naturally, but I was left wondering whether Masters could affect her at all, or if he couldn’t, what he had done about that. No sign of the real Masters either, which wasn’t surprising. If he had ever been in the room in the first place, he would have had plenty of incentive to leave.
“Is that all you’ll say on the subject?” asked Masters. “Are you really so rebellious? I’m trying to help you. More than that, to ensure the existence of this world.”
“Just trying to match Uther’s perfect record,” I replied. I went over to where Soul Sight showed Amaryllis standing, and reached out to grab her by the wrist. As I did, the floor rose up and twisted around, presenting a red-hot tip of rock to me, stopping me from touching her. I reached out regardless, letting it burn me, then pulled back once I felt the pain. It was muted though, not quite at the heights of pain I’d expect from touching lava, and not quite so hot either. Another limit on illusion magic?
I stopped trying to think like a Juniper, and start thinking like a Reimer, or maybe like a Juniper reacting to a Reimer. If you gave a Reimer control of someone’s sensorium, the first way he’d weaponize it was to make an illusion of black caps over their eyes, blinding them. So the first thing that a Juniper would do is to patch that, ideally with some clever restriction that would allow for more creative (but less overpowered) munchkinry. I didn’t have a clear idea of what those restrictions would be, or how you would go about quantifying them. Plausibility of the illusion? Percent of senses that could to be faked at once? I tried to think about what I had seen, and what that said about illusion magic. If you were going to make a red-hot bit of stone to stop me from touching someone, why do it like that? Why not just create it mid-air, hovering in place?
I reached forward again, and the glowing tip of rock was there again. I pushed forward, trying to channel WIS so that I could better withstand the pain. It still made my eyes water as I clenched my teeth to get through it, but it wasn’t as painful as it should have been. The lava was stopping my hand … except that it wasn’t, not really, because the feedback I felt wasn’t real, and both the proprioception and visual indicators were lies. I could see my hand with Soul Sight (dark yellow, the color of urine) as I kept reaching forward to Amaryllis.
The pain stopped all at once as the illusions faded, revealing Amaryllis standing in front of me right where Soul Sight had said she would be. She was still in full armor, with the helm concealing her from my view. She assumed a battle stance from almost the second the illusion was down and drew her sword from her hip, holding it in front of her in a defensive position.
“It’s me,” I said. “Keyring, I’ll start, rhodonite.”
“Apricot,” replied Amaryllis.
“Mourning,” I responded.
She didn’t relax, which was probably a good idea. The inclination of her head changed slightly. She was looking past me, to where Masters was still (apparently) standing.
“I don’t know how much of it you caught, but we’re in the illusion magic exclusion zone,” I said.
“How do you defeat it?” asked Amaryllis.
“Classified,” I said. “You can stop watching him, he’s not really there.”
Amaryllis looked around the room. “The others?”
I hesitated, then pointed. “There, there, and there,” I said. “Probably trapped in boxes like your own. Valencia … I don’t know.” I was worried about her. Would an illusion mage capable of capturing sensorium be able to determine what she was? Probably.
“You have another sense,” said Masters. “Which one?”
“That would be telling,” I replied. I was more or less done with his shit. Being snippy about it probably wasn’t going to help matters, but it was a useful vent for my feelings of frustration.
“You couldn’t see them,” said Masters. “Now you can. How?”
I ignored him. He didn’t deserve the answers that I had to give. “We need to be careful of a man-in-the-middle attack,” I said to Amaryllis. “I think he’s probably powerful enough that he could do that.”
Amaryllis gave me a curt nod. She hadn’t put down her sword. “Keyring is presumed compromised,” she said.
“Yes,” I replied. We couldn’t trust that what we heard from each other was what was actually said. “Ignore that for now, unless I ask you to do something stupid. He’s got weaknesses. He can’t fool your senses if he doesn’t have the information he needs to make the illusion.”
Amaryllis nodded at that. She had two entads that activated with a thought. I didn’t know whether she had used them while we’d been here, but they could provide a useful test of what was real and what wasn’t, especially the immobility plate. If an illusion pushed her immobility plate while it was locked, then she would still perceive herself as having moved, because Masters wouldn’t know that she wasn’t supposed to be able to be pushed.
I turned to Masters. “I can get the others out. It’s nearly trivial. Either you can cause me pain and inconvenience, or you can let me go. I don’t want another enemy. I already have enough of them. If there are people who think I’m important, or who want to talk to me, then we can try to set up some kind of secure line of communication, one that doesn’t put me face to face with powerful magic aimed my way.”
“I can’t let you slip through my fingers,” said Masters. “I’m sorry for any pain or distress, but I can’t let you leave, not when you’ve given me so little.”
“I don’t have anything to give,” I replied as I strode over to Grak. “I came here looking for answers, and I got … scraps. Hints.”
“Then trade me,” said Masters. “If you don’t know about the Other Side, then I can tell you. The Infinite Library? It’s a secret that I would betray, for you, if you would give me the knowledge I seek.”
“I gave you my theory,” I said.
“How can you still see your companions?” asked Masters. “The one in red is a compliant non-anima, how did you achieve such a thing?” I felt my heart hammer at that. Fuck. “Are you Uther’s dark reflection, the one that his writing prophesied?”
“Dark reflection?” I asked.
“Uther was the hero, more, the distillation of heroism, and in his writing on what it was to be a hero, there was often another, a foil, a reflection, similar in powers but unalike in mindset.” Masters was staring at me. “Is that what you are, five hundred years late, the harbinger of his return? What did he say to you?”
“He said that if he was still alive, he would come find me,” I said. “But you already lit the candle, and people have apparently been searching for him for five hundred years, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. If he’s alive, then I don’t know what line of communication he could possibly have that would allow him to know that I’ve arrived. I’ve been on Aerb for months now, and I’ve seen no sign of him.”
I reached forward and grabbed Grak’s arm. There was no illusion to stop me this time, and he appeared right where Soul Sight had said he would be as soon as I made contact. I assumed that was simply Masters giving in, rather than maintaining an illusion that I could clearly get past.
“Illusion magic,” said Grak with a huff as soon as he could see me.
“Yes, probably,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Well enough,” said Grak.
“Can you ward against it?” I asked.
“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” said Grak.
I moved over to Solace next. Masters wasn’t offering much resistance, either because he didn’t want to hurt me, or because what resistance he could offer cost him something. I had to wonder whether there was some resource being drained as he went along, some mana equivalent, or a more esoteric commodity that he was trading away, like the way that blood magic consumed my blood. I wasn’t very hopeful that it was a big limiter for him, given that he’d apparently given five different people five different illusions.
When I got to them, Masters allowed Solace and Fenn to pop into my field of view again.
“I have your non-anima,” said Masters.
I turned to him. “Another threat?” I asked.
“No,” said Masters. “Not a threat. She’s another question that needs to be answered. Uther gathered his Knights over the years, slowly but inevitably. What force bound them to him, even when they should have left his side? Why were they special, exemplars in their field?”
“We should answer him,” said Amaryllis. “He has information that we want.” She was staring at the illusion of Masters.
Fenn drew her bow again and fired it at Masters. He snatched the arrow from the air, then tossed it to one side.
“He’s not really there,” I said. “Just an illusion. And I don’t want to provide answers under duress. We need to grab Valencia and go.”
“He has information that we want,” Amaryllis repeated, turning toward me. “If there are threats beyond the ones we already know about, ones that we might be the only ones capable of stopping, then we need to know.” She turned back toward Masters. “What’s the Infinite Library? What does it mean that there are five years left?”
“It’s a library that contains every book that has been or will be written,” said Masters. “The last I’d heard, the latest book they could find was published five years from present.”
Well, fuck. That was taken straight from the Boundless Library, though the name had been changed (probably because having a Boundless Library and a Boundless Pit was too derivative and/or confusing). The countdown had always been part of it, but in my version it had always been hundreds of years out, sort of a seven generations thing that the librarians themselves had as part of their mantra but didn’t actually care that much about. With five years left? I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t be lip service.
“Sorry,” said Fenn. “The world is going to end in five years?”
“Five hundred years ago, the world was going to end in one hundred years,” said Masters. “Changes were made, ventures embarked on, many of them by Uther himself, and the Library held steady.”
“Looped foreknowledge?” asked Amaryllis. I imagined her eyes glimmering with greed beneath her helmet.
“With limits,” said Masters. “I could make the introductions for you. My daughter is the head librarian.”
“Raven,” said Amaryllis.
One of Uther’s only living Knights. That was another mystery solved, though it raised a huge number of other questions. I thought back to what Masters had said earlier about the threats that had been rearing their heads again, and how many more questions there were ahead of us.
“Something’s off,” said Fenn. “Really, really off.”
“Exit,” said Amaryllis to Solace.
Solace slammed her staff down onto the ground and it flattened itself out into a smear of wood, which shimmered for a moment and then opened into a portal. I was wary of more illusions, but nothing about Solace’s soul seemed off. I was watching for a desync that I assumed would happen if Masters tried to overlay an illusion on top of someone I was watching.
“Zero to ten?” asked Amaryllis.
“Eleven,” said Fenn. “Not sure that portal is going to do it.” She looked at the portal for a fraction of a second, then darted over and placed her gloved hand on the mirror.
“It’s not me,” said Masters with a frown.
“What about Valencia?” I asked. The portal shimmered slightly, like ripples on the surface of a puddle, but it seemed like it went somewhere with drawers and books.
“I have her,” said Masters. “If you leave –”
The illusion that Masters had been projecting of himself disappeared. I turned back and looked at the wall, where the door had reappeared as well. It was broken in the middle, where my punch had landed, the impact of it hard enough to shatter the wood. My knuckles had apparently made it through without much damage to me, for which I thanked my virtues.
When I turned back to look at the others, Fenn was slipping through the portal, without so much as a discussion. I couldn’t feel whatever she felt, maybe because my luck was so much weaker than her own, or maybe because I had so many other things on my mind.
“We’re going,” said Amaryllis. “Val can take care of herself.”
“If that were true, she’d be with us,” I said as I watched Grak drop down. “She’d have killed everyone who stood against us. Whatever happened to her, whatever point she was taken, she’s not okay.”
The building shook slightly beneath our feet. Solace was watching us, frowning for what seemed like the first time. She stepped forward and slipped through the portal, twirling through to the other side. It immediately began to close; with druidic magic it was hard to be sure, but I was fairly sure she was forcing us to make a choice.
Amaryllis strode to the portal and stopped just beside it. “This was a honeypot, Joon, Masters might not have been the only one watching it. We’ve made our vote now, four to one.” She stepped forward and dropped down without waiting for a response. She was forcing my hand.
It was like a hundred thoughts were all crammed in my head and trying to get out the door at once. I kept thinking about what kind of threat might have just landed at the front door, whether it was one I knew about or not, whether I would be able to handle it, handle it alone since my teammates had bailed on me, then whether Valencia would be able to handle them. Uther’s old friends, from hundreds of years ago, or Uther’s old enemies, waiting and watching just like Masters had been? Both might have their reasons to go after me.
I kept thinking to myself that it was absolutely idiotic to stay in the face of whatever was happening, and I also kept thinking to myself that it would be an act of supreme cowardice and betrayal to leave Valencia behind. I thought that for the whole time the portal was closing, until it was so small that I couldn’t possibly have fit through it.
Achievement Unlocked: Solo Mode