Worth the Candle, Ch 237: Long Story Short



BY Lt. Ralkers ON 01-17-1991

Section I

  1. Purpose and Scope — This manual is designed for the use of the fireteam leader in training members of the fireteam in missions which pass through HELLMOUTH and into the LONG STAIRS. It is to be used as a guide to achieve orderly, disciplined, and efficient execution of action, and precision, accuracy, and speed in the service of target identification, threat suppression, and retreat with minimal losses.
  2. Training Principles — Training in fireteam drills will stress the importance of the prompt execution of results-driven protocol (RDP) at all times, the necessity of following stochastic modeling (SM) of LONG STAIRS layout, proper consideration of and defenses against memetic and antimemetic (MAM) threats, and new-threat mindset (NTM).

Section II
Fireteam Composition

  1. Composition — The fireteam should consist of five (5) members: a fireteam commander, a battle wizard, a medic and specialist in biological manipulations (hereafter referred to as a medic), a designated artillery unit, and an untrained rookie (hereafter referred to as a rook). The rook’s inclusion is part of RDP.
  2. Formations — The fireteam commander and designated artillery unit form a front rank, three paces in front of the back rank, which consists of the battle wizard to the left of the rook and medic to the right of the rook. Where possible, ranks will be at a close interval (2 feet). In scenarios where this formation cannot be maintained, such as a narrow corridor, the fireteam commander should go first.
  3. Supplemental Forces — In the event missing personnel are encountered in the LONG STAIRS, extra personnel will temporarily join the fireteam. Extra personnel will form an additional rank between the normal ranks of the fireteam. Movement through the LONG STAIRS with more than five people is not advised.
  4. Equipment — Each fireteam will be outfitted with weapons and equipment prior to any mission. Weapons and equipment with LSP designations will be assigned to team members only after proper training and analysis. LSP functionality may change in the course of an exploration action, and in that case, multiple pieces of LSP which fulfill the same role should be taken in order to ensure coverage of needs.

Section III
Results Driven Protocol

  1. Definitions — Results-driven protocols are created by the War Department through consultation with rigorous data analysis of fireteam actions over hundreds of exploration actions (delves). For a list of specific results-driven protocols, see the current RDP document. Individual RDP are given RDP designators.
  2. Protocol — Results-driven protocols are expected to be followed without deviation or question. Fireteam members who fail to follow RDP are subject to immediate extermination at the discretion of the fireteam commander. If the fireteam commander fails to follow RDP, he may be put on immediate leave by the medic. RDP are often given without explanation, and it is often the case that no explanation is known to the War Department.
  3. Classification — Some RDP are classified and known only to the fireteam commander or specific members of the fireteam.
  4. Collection — After-action reports are a vital part of developing new RDP. All fireteam members are obligated to provide full, complete, and honest accounts of the event of any exploration action (delve).

Section IV
Mapping and Stochastic Modeling

  1. Definitions — The LONG STAIRS consists of a series of rooms and doors. Every room has at least one door, and every door leads to another room. The connections between rooms and doors are not consistent. Connections between rooms cannot be locked or held open (see LSP #0019). The LONG STAIRS cannot be mapped, but the randomness of the LONG STAIRS can be predicted.
  2. Stochastic Modeling — Analysis of doors and rooms can allow for prediction of subsequent doors and rooms in a traversal. Stochastic Modeling (SM) is the primary method of LONG STAIRS navigation. Once the fireteam is past HELLMOUTH, determining location is impossible, but it is still possible to determine which direction is most likely to produce movement across probability distributions.
  3. Maps — Both the fireteam commander and the medic are tasked with consultation of maps provided by the War Department. Maps should be verified at regular intervals for contamination from memetic or antimemetic (MAM) threats using standard protocols. Observations of rooms should be made whenever they are cleared.
  4. Rooms — Rooms range in size from one hundred (100) square feet to six hundred thousand (600,000) square feet. Rooms have between one (1) and forty-eight (48) doors. Rooms are typically one (1) floor, but those with up to ten (10) stories have been observed. All numbers are current upper bounds. Rooms may contain sentients, entities, and/or entity items.
  5. Landings — Landings are special areas of the LONG STAIRS consisting of multiple rooms and open areas that do not show the same variability as the rest of the LONG STAIRS. All known landings are inhabited. All landings require special protocols. The current number of known Landings is four (4), but this is a lower bound.
  6. Distance — The concept of distance is incoherent in the Long Stairs. Instead, the metrics of probability are used. Areas where doors are less probable to lead to HELLMOUTH are considerably more dangerous and more likely to be populated with phenomena, entities, and sentients of a higher threat level.

Section V
Phenomena, Entities, and Sentients

  1. Phenomena — Phenomena contrary to established understanding of the world exist within the Long Stairs. These phenomena can be divided into Pervasive Phenomena (PP), those which exist through the Long Stairs, and Individual Phenomena (IP), those which are present only in specific rooms or items. Phenomena are given LSP designators. Some phenomena cannot or should not be recorded.
  2. Entities — Entities are the primary hostile found within the Long Stairs and the primary cause of mission failure and/or casualties. Entities vary greatly in size, number, and abilities. Entities are given LSE designators. Unknown entities should be approached with extreme caution. Some entities cannot or should not be recorded.
  3. Sentients — Sentients are any entity within the Long Stairs which thinks like a human, including humans. Known varieties of sentients are given a Sentient Class (SC). Individual sentients are given LSS designators. Sentients are often found moving between rooms of the Long Stairs. On interrogation, they will show a coherent but false understanding of the world.

“Too long, didn’t read,” said Craig, though he was still skimming it as he said it.

“How long did this take?” asked Arthur, looking over the document. He looked up at me. “Are we supposed to follow this?”

“Not really, no,” I said. “I was thinking I’d mention stuff when it came up. And I’m not going to actually make a list of a thousand entities or phenomena or rules, because I’m not insane.”

“I’m confused about RDP,” said Craig, staring down at the paper.

“Remote Desktop Protocol?” asked Reimer.

“It’s basically a long list of things that you have to do in certain cases,” I said, ignoring him. “Even if it makes no sense, and maybe even if it doesn’t make sense to the people who made the protocol. Example?”

“Sure, example?” asked Craig.

“Okay,” I said. “The War Department’s been sending in fireteams since pretty much the beginning of this whole thing, after a few other things didn’t work. They’ve been taking in after-action reports, making lists of rooms, doors, entities, sentients, whatever. Mortality rates are fucking terrible, but it’s the most exciting thing that the military has ever seen, and some seriously powerful magic can be pulled from the Long Stairs, so they’re fine making the whole thing a mass grave if they have to. Anyway, one day, some guy is sitting around looking at these reports, and he notices something he’s noticed before, which is a fireteam seeing a white mouse — and killing it.”

“Why’d they kill it?” asked Arthur. He was always good about asking the questions I obviously wanted asked.

“Because they were spooked,” I said. “Or they were worried it was going to turn into a monster and eat them or something. Hard to say. So, he looks at this other report he’d seen, which says, basically, the same thing, that the team saw a white mouse and immediately killed it. So then he goes looking through all the reports, and by this point there are hundreds of them, and he finds seven more matching descriptions, all of them talking about a white mouse, found in different rooms, but immediately killed by the fireteam. He goes around asking questions, seeing if anyone knows anything, seeing if the grunts can tell him much, and eventually, after scratching his head, he comes to a curious conclusion: no one has seen a white mouse in the Long Stairs without killing it within five minutes.”

“So … mental effect?” asked Reimer, looking up from the paper. “Compulsion or something?

“A good first thought,” I said, giving him my most ‘elementary, dear Watson’ voice. “But no, they ran a test. They gave orders to half the fireteams, saying, basically, if you see a white mouse, you let it live, and capture it if you can. To the other half, they gave the order to kill it with prejudice within five minutes. The test was called off after two weeks though, because TFMs — that’s Total Fireteam Mortality — had nearly doubled for the group that was told to not kill the mouse. They had no idea what was happening or why, but they didn’t want to keep throwing away lives and resources, so they put in the first Long Stairs Protocol, LSP #0001, White Mouse Protocol. If you see a mouse, you kill it immediately, before any other task, including fighting hostiles.”

“And no one knows why?” asked Reimer. “So there are a bunch of random rules that someone came up with by looking at the logs and thinking to themselves, hey, looks like that worked?”

I nodded.

“And … in practice?” asked Reimer. “In the game?”

“In practice,” I said. “I’ll tell you the rules when they come up. Sometimes you’ll come into a room, and I’ll say ‘oh, RDP says that you have to do this’. You won’t know why, either because you weren’t briefed, or because the people who wrote the rule don’t know either. Some of the RDP have had follow-up studies to try to figure out why the effect is there, but those studies cost lives, and if it’s not a big deal, the War Department thinks it’s better to just canonize a new rule.”

“You know that the War Department was a real thing, right?” asked Craig. “Disbanded in like … 1946?”

“1947,” I replied. “There was a secret provision in the restructuring act, and for reasons of both fudging the budget, staying covert, and having a place within the then-new National Military Establishment, which would later be renamed —”

“Is this relevant?” asked Reimer.

“Not even a little,” I said, smiling at him. I turned back to Craig. “It was renamed to the Department of Defense, or DoD.”

“We know what the DoD is,” said Craig.

“Right,” I said. “And the War Department is subordinate to that for the purposes of this game, though like I said, not gonna matter, just kind of … there, if you want to poke around a bit. For all I know, we’re going to start with this as delving into an endless shifting dungeon and end with you guys trying to assassinate the president of the United States.”

“Which is still Obama?” asked Arthur. “Because I mean, we’re technically in alt history, right?”

“Technically,” I shrugged. “But the kind of alt history that’s completely unnoticed by people on the ground? Like, a world that’s got us in it somewhere.”

“I love this,” said Arthur. “It’s got that new campaign smell to it, a Juniper that’s all full of energy and enthusiasm.”

“I’ll probably hate it in a month,” I said. “It’s not meant to be a long-term one. But right now, yeah, I’m eager.”

“I’ve got a ton of questions,” said Reimer. “Especially about party composition, and if we’re all meant to be soldiers brought in by this ‘War Department’.”

“It’s not meant to be that strict,” I said. “I mean, if you want to do a bunch of research on military stuff, sure, great, but there’s a lot of leeway because of both the Long Stairs and RDP. You have to be from Earth, but you can be twisted and warped by whatever forces are in the Long Stairs, and if you want a background that’s not just ‘soldier’, you can have some other thing that got you brought into the program, like a doctor or a math PhD, and we can run with it.”

“This is going to be amazing,” said Arthur. “I love it.”

And it was amazing, at least for a time. I’d written out a bunch of stuff for it in a spurt of creativity, rooms for them to go through, entities and phenomena for them to encounter, arbitrary rules they have to follow as part of RDP, weird experiences … and then after a handful of sessions, I started leaning harder into the arbitrariness and pointlessness of war, the way soldiers were treated as cannon fodder for the whims of political and business interests, the way nothing ever got better, or changed at all, not when it came to the endless state of war. The War Department didn’t understand the denizens of the Long Stairs, and was making things harder for basically everyone involved. The problem with this, from the perspective of the players, was that it wasn’t actually very fun, and if they weren’t having fun, then I usually wasn’t either, and eventually everyone felt like it was a grind, so we stopped.

The second time we played, there was no attempt to make it ‘about’ anything, it was just room after room of monsters, traps, and unfair things, nothing super creative, nothing that was making an effort to be cool, and if anyone had fun with it, it must have been more about their own mindset than what I was bringing to the table.

“We’ll be at the ‘bottom’ of the stairs,” I had said at an early planning meeting, three years prior. “Except that the Long Stairs weren’t really designed to have a ‘bottom’ or a ‘top’, it was more … who am I explaining this for?” It was all in the copious notes I’d given to Amaryllis, and she had translated it all into a more ordered document, with my input.

“Pallida,” said Amaryllis, nodding in her direction.

“Because she refuses to read background material?” I asked.

“I don’t refuse, but come the fuck on, put it in language a twelve-year-old could understand,” said Pallida. “The fuck is with you people and your ‘probability distribution gradients’, fuck off with that.”

“The terminology is wrong,” said Grak.

“Is it?” I asked. “I mean, it’s a gradient, in the sense of an increase or decrease of some property from point to point, right?”

“Mmm,” replied Grak.

I looked at Pallida. “Fine. The point is … you’re in the Long Stairs, you’re looking at a door, and you take a look at the various features of the door, and the room that you’re in. You take everything into account, the width of the door, the height, the types of hinges, whether it swings in or out, the material it’s made of, whether it has a cross brace, everything. You look at the room and how many chairs it has, whether stuff is oriented with the walls, whether there’s some moss, all kinds of things like that. That doesn’t let you know what’s behind the door, but it does let you know what might be behind the door. You’ve got a list of options with probabilities listed next to them. Since the Long Stairs haven’t been run an infinite number of times, you don’t know what the actual probabilities are, especially for the more rare variety of doors, and maybe it won’t be anything that’s on your list.” I took a breath. “Navigation then, if you want to get to a specific area of the Long Stairs, like one of the Landings, or back to Hellmouth where you come in, or a specific room, is a matter of picking doors which maximize your odds of opening up a room which might have a door that might lead you to where you want to go.” I stared at Pallida. “Does that help?”

“The rooms repeat,” she said.

“Yes,” I nodded. “But … also not. In terms of lore, there were supposed to be more than ten thousand cataloged, and you’d encounter the most common rooms quite a bit, but in any individual delve you’re likely to encounter at least two or three new ones, which help refine the probabilities, assuming you survive. When I ran it, I actually wrote a little script that would go through different rooms, doors, and scenarios.”

“Neat,” said Pallida, rolling her eyes in a way that made me suspect that she didn’t find it neat.

“It wasn’t actually programming,” said Amaryllis. “It was just randomly pulling things from an array in javascript.”

“Well,” I said. “Yeah. More complicated than that, in my opinion.” I felt slightly deflated, but also like it was probably necessary that I be deflated. Anything that I could whip up in an afternoon was probably not actually impressive.

“We don’t have what they had,” said Amaryllis. “We have no map of probabilities, not like a fireteam should canonically have. So how are we going to find Uther? How are we even going to navigate?”

“We have the uniform of an American soldier,” I said. “TFMs are canonically common in the Long Stairs, but a lot of them are assumed rather than actual, and you sometimes get people lost, trying to find their way back without a map, which wouldn’t help us, or who have gone crazy, which might. And if the relief on the door is anything to go by, we might be able to just get to the first — last — Landing and work out a deal with the denizens there, or find some clues.” The fourth landing, if I remembered it right, probably wouldn’t have anything we could use, but the third might. “That’s two methods. Actually finding Uther, if he’s still got on the amulet of non-detection, which it seems like he does, would be an issue, but I think we can at least solve general navigation.”

“You’re actually optimistic,” said Amaryllis.

“He likes talking about his games,” said Raven.

“Not games,” said Grak. “Ideas.”

“I’m going to take this as complimentary,” I said.

“It was,” said Raven, giving me a smile that faded quickly. “But I’m not optimistic.”

“On the plus side,” I said. “It was a pretty low level campaign, no more than level ten, in D&D terms. And we should be going in with almost all the firepower Aerb has to offer.”

“There’s nothing beyond these walls,” said Bethel, reaching out to touch one with her illusory arm. She had largely been ignoring me, and I had largely been ignoring her. I think the reality that we were close to Uther was setting in for both of us.

“It’s all magically inert,” said Grak. He waved his hand briefly. “Velocity wards should still work.” I flashed on my magic vision with what scraps of vibration magic I still had left after the fight, just to confirm and get a sense of what he was seeing. While it was on, I glanced at the toad on my shoulder. He looked at me, and then slowly licked his own eyeball. For all I could tell, he wasn’t in the slightest bit magical.

“Sense deadening?” asked Amaryllis, looking at me. Next to Bethel, I had the best senses, and I also knew as much as anyone about the Long Stairs.

“No,” I said, taking my eyes off the toad. “The rooms don’t really, uh, exist without us. Our presence is what makes the Long Stairs. Anyone you meet, aside from those who have delved, is created the moment you open a door, and vanishes as soon as you leave their presence. Nothing will ever come through a door and surprise you, unless it’s a fireteam. Oh, or if you open a door on a monster and try to close the door, that doesn’t work. Landings are the other exception. I don’t know. It’s a giga-dungeon, and I think we should be at the tail end of it, at least, uh, logically. Not that the Long Stairs are big on logic.”

“Communications with the outside world aren’t working,” said Bethel, glancing back at the door we came in.

“Radio should still work,” I said. “But every channel is going to be full of various kinds of screaming.” I had always been a fan of that detail. I looked at the door ahead of us. “Be ready for fighting. Lots and lots of fighting, actually. And finding Uther in all this might be a matter of luck.”

The Dorises had used their probability magic in order to find Uther, but given the difficulty we were having, and how faint the signal they’d gotten, I wondered whether what they’d been getting was the probability that he would somehow get back to the room we were now standing in. With a unique dimension like this, it was hard to say. The only reason to think that it might eventually lead to Earth was the uniform we’d found.

“I think the only thing left is to go forward,” I said.

“So we have no idea what’s behind this door,” said Amaryllis, regarding it with understandable mistrust.

“No,” I said. “Or, we know that it will be some kind of room, probably one with a few doors, and then … maybe an entity, meaning a monster, or a sentient, or some phenomenon, or … uh, memetics, antimemetics, maybe a squad of American soldiers who have been warped and twisted by the Long Stairs into orcs and elves and stuff, and are decked out with magically modified rifles.”

Amaryllis nodded. All this was known to everyone, but the Long Stairs Plan (LSP) was something of an addendum to the FSP. The LSP was the only part of it that had survived intact, with the rest wiped out by a powerful antimeme that I had probably deployed, possibly by the mechanism of the vorpal blade, which was now hanging from my belt in a sheath.

“We don’t have a map of any kind,” said Amaryllis. “Our list of entities, sentients, and phenomena are woefully incomplete. We have very limited RDP, and Reimer never played any of it, so this is all coming by way of Juniper’s memories. And even then, it might not match.”

“FS and the door were supposed to be the hard part, weren’t they?” asked Fenn. “I mean, the thinking, in the thingy, was that we would breeze through?”

“I did not, and would never put it like that,” said Amaryllis. She looked around. “Is everyone ready for phase two?”

“Not in the slightest,” said Fenn, smiling at her.

“Ready,” said Grak. “The inability to see beyond the walls is unsettling.”

“Kind of normal though, right?” I asked. “I mean, in terms of how walls work.”

He nodded.

“We need to make sure we don’t go past him,” said Raven. She was staring at the door.

“Well, no sense waiting,” I said, striding forward to the door. I was going ahead, if no one else was. I placed my hand on the door, and Bethel came up beside me, looking human. Though we’d been avoiding each other, I had been getting used to her presence, at least a little bit. She had been in most of the meetings, though we hadn’t been social, and obviously we’d gone through some combat and movement together, during whatever had led up to the events that ended with me in hell. Still. There was a part of me that didn’t trust her, that thought her being reformed was all an act, or even if it wasn’t an act, that people couldn’t actually change. It wasn’t the kind of tension that I really wanted to be carrying into this, but I had done my part in trying to make sure we could have the necessary working relationship.

We were going to have to have a talk before we found Uther.

I put all that aside and opened the door, my primary sword at the ready, and the vorpal blade as back-up.

Bethel blasted the thing in the room down to a cinder before I could even get a good look.

“What was that?” I asked, blinking away the afterimage of lancing fire.

“This,” said Bethel, holding out a hand to display an illusion. She’d done something to the image quality, making it see-through and with some artifacts, which I thought was probably to make clear that she was showing something that she’d seen.

It was a monster of some kind, one with a thick skull plate and enormous tusks. His red hide was dotted with little white bumps, making him seem like he was covered with oversized pimples.

“Okay,” I said, stepping into the room.

The largest rooms of the Long Stairs were as big as the biggest aircraft hangars, so by that standard, this one was mid-sized, maybe a hundred feet by fifty feet, oriented so that the other end of it was the long way away from us. It had a high ceiling and thick sandstone columns to give the ceiling support, and as I walked in, I saw doors placed at regular intervals on the side walls. There was no light but that which was provided by Bethel. The floor was made up of millions of tiny stones with a waxy appearance, mostly red, and they formed an imperfect layer above something wet.

“Which way?” asked Amaryllis.

“That door,” said Fenn, pointing at one of the side doors, though I was pretty sure Amaryllis had been talking to me. “The power of luck compels us.”

“You’re sure?” asked Amaryllis.

“I’ve got a feeling,” Fenn shrugged.

“Then we’ll go through,” I said. “I’m going to check how the other doors look though, just to see if something jogs my memory.”

It took some time to do that, but a lot of the doors had been randomly generated when I’d been running things, and those had left my memory fairly easily. None of the doors I remembered were in this room.

While I was looking around, Grak was making a ‘scan’. If Uther was wearing the amulet of nondetection, then he couldn’t be detected by almost any means, and the amulet itself was under the same power. You could find it, and its wearer, using second order effects, or you could do what Grak was doing, which was creating a focused anti-entad ward that covered the whole room, then rapidly cycling through all entads, with a second ward conditional on the first which would ping him if it started working. All of our gear, plus Bethel and all that she contained, had to be excluded, but in theory, we would be able to find the entad by nullifying it. I had compared it to hitting the “scan” button on a car radio, and Grak hadn’t said that was incorrect. Because wards against a single specific entad were very cheap, and because Grak was boosted by entads and also a phenomenal warder, this process could be repeated for up to a hundred rooms a day, if we didn’t also need other warding.

When Grak gave the all-clear, we went to the door Fenn had picked out. “Alright,” I said. “One down, probably like … a thousand left to go.”

There were, to be clear, a fuckton of rooms. Most of them we didn’t spend more than a few minutes in, just long enough for Grak to run a scan and for us to figure out the gimmick, if there was one. It was, in a sense, classic dungeon crawling, without any constraints on it being logical or possible or fitting in with any coherent theme or aesthetic.

We went through a mail room, one with no obvious place for the mail to go to or to have come from, but lots of letters and packages. The packages were all non-magical curios, while the letters were addressed to us, all from dead people, speaking their piece. We didn’t read them.

We went through a wine cellar, which had hundreds of bottles of wine lined up. A quick look at the labels showed that they were written in an alien tongue, but an analysis by Bethel suggested that it probably was wine. We each drank a bit of wine, which was a part of RDP. I gave the tiniest sip to the toad, because I wasn’t sure whether he was included as a part of the party.

We passed through a very plain ten foot by ten foot room which had two doors on each wall and no other features.

We went into an enormous treasure room, with gold coins piled up all over the place, big jeweled goblets, amulets, and a treasure chest in the center. Absolutely everything in there, down to the last gold coin, was a mimic, and Bethel killed them all.

We went into another very plain ten foot by ten foot room with eight doors.

We went down a six hundred foot corridor, filled with traps that we easily avoided or tanked.

We went through a room that had six lizards in separate stained glass tanks, which we left alone. It also had a white mouse, which we killed immediately.

We went through a room that had a horrible monstrosity with a dozen clawed arms sticking out from bushy hair. Bethel killed it before it could break free from its shackles and attack us.

We went through a room that had a banquet prepared on a long table. According to Bethel, most of it was poisoned, but she picked out a handful of things that seemed like they weren’t, and we ate a bit, because it was part of RDP. Again, I fed the toad a tiny scrap.

We came to a room with thousands of knives hanging from the high ceiling by threads. They fell, and we were protected by Grak’s velocity wards, though we had lots of other protection as well. Grak picked out two of the knives and said they were magic, registering as entads. One was a simple returning knife, at least so far as we could tell, and the other would teleport into a person’s chest if you kept the tip pointed at them for ten seconds. I had been the one to get the knife in the ribs, and Fenn barely apologized at all.

We went through those ten rooms without breaking a sweat. Where there were monsters, Bethel killed them, and following that, Grak would break out his amulet finder. The differences between the rooms were wild, and the whole thing had a feel of being cobbled together without much thought, the kind of thing you’d expect to be spit out of a script written by a teenager and pulled from an array of descriptors and objects. None of them really left an impression. When it was time to pick a door, we went with whatever Fenn said, though she didn’t seem terribly happy to be relegated to the level of door picker.

“Just pretend you’re on Monty Hall,” I said.

“Jesus dick-fucking Christ Juniper,” said Fenn, shaking her head. “First, I get that you love your Earth references, but second, Monty Hall was a guy who hosted a show called Let’s Make a Deal, and third, have you ever even watched an episode?”

“I don’t understand how you’ve seen so much obscure television,” I grumbled. “Besides, I only know it from the Monty Hall problem.”

“It was on network television for nearly thirty years,” said Amaryllis. “Hardly obscure.”

“Yeah, see?” asked Fenn. “Network television. ABC, from 1942 to 1973. Read a book, Joon.”

“None of that was correct,” said Amaryllis.

“Juniper reads books,” said Raven. “That he hasn’t been focusing on the arcana of Earth television seems like it should be to his credit.”

Fenn raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing, for which I was grateful.

The eleventh room had sentients.

There were a dozen of them, but not all the same. Half were blue-skinned with legs that seemed to fold back and forth with six knees, all dressed in neatly tailored clothing, and blind, or at least without eyes. The other half were tall, pale white, wearing nothing but loincloths, and chained up. As soon as we’d opened the door, they all turned to us, and there was calamitous conversation from them, lots of shouting over each other.

The room itself was a corridor, maybe ten feet across, with only a single door at the other end. The dozen people were between us and it, and we had no way to talk to them, because Amaryllis hadn’t been able to buy or steal one of the Terridoc linkages or similar.

“They’re prisoners,” I said. “The only question is whether they’re justly imprisoned or not, which we’re not in a position to judge.”

“This is our first dilemma room,” said Amaryllis. I nodded.

“Does deep scan show anything?” I asked Bethel.

“Signs of abuse on the tall ones,” she said. “Abrasions and unnatural breaks in the bones that have now healed. But also … it seems like they ate some of the blue people, going by their stomach contents.”

“Is there any reason not to let them go on their merry way?” asked Fenn.

“Would you let slave traders pass?” I asked.

“I mean, they’re not real,” said Fenn. “They were just … randomly generated here. They don’t have a map, do they?”

“No,” said Bethel.

“The point isn’t whether they’re real or not,” I said. “The point of the dilemma rooms, and most of the sentient rooms, is what you do. It’s about you, not them.”

“But,” said Raven. “What we do is influenced by what we think of them. If we think they’re just going to fade out of existence when they close the door behind them, why should that reflect on us?”

“Treat it like it matters,” said Amaryllis. “They were put in front of us for a reason.”

“We don’t have mutually intelligible languages,” I said. “We can’t gather information. I think we have to let them go.”

“They sound like cannibals,” said Grak.

“Technically it’s not cannibalism if it’s another species,” said Fenn.

Through all this, the other group was just standing there, talking amongst themselves and sometimes shouting something unintelligible to us.

“So we let them pass,” I said. They looked like they wanted to pass, and there was only one way for them to be going. “Unless someone can give me a compelling reason not to. And yes, we are inserting ourselves into their business, and yes, we are treating them like people.” Both of those were parts of the overall plan for the Long Stairs, but it was definitely true that less effort had been put into that side of things, probably because we’d all assumed that FS was the more difficult of the two.

We let the people pass, stepping aside for them and ignoring the pleas of the people in chains. I had no idea whether that was the right thing to do or not. Maybe the blue guys were slave traders, or maybe the white guys were criminals, but people being in chains really wasn’t enough. Once they were past us, they went out the door we’d come in through, and from there, it was pretty likely we would never see them again.

“This really doesn’t seem intended for us,” said Raven.

“No?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Fenn. “It feels like we’re wandering through a campaign that really wasn’t meant for us. It’s uncanny.” She shivered a bit. “Bethel’s just killing everything anyway. It’s not a challenge, it’s just … weird.”

“Weirdness is part of the Long Stairs vibe,” I said.

The fourteenth room we opened was identical to the first room we’d gone in, with the same sandstone columns and the same pimple-skinned creature in the center, which Bethel killed, the same as she had before.

“Alright, looks like I suck at directions,” said Fenn.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “It’s the same room, but it’s also … not. It’s like we were never here, and the doors are different. So like … let’s say we were trying to maximize probability to get to the nearest Landing. Maybe this is the best room to have a chance of getting there, but it didn’t spawn the right door the first time. The best route might have been the one that brought us right back here. In theory, anyway.”

“I’m gonna feel real bad about leading us if it turns out we’re just going in circles,” said Fenn.

“Or it could be a misfire,” I said. “Meaning, maybe the most lucky thing is for us to go in circles and never find Uther at all, for certain values of lucky.”

“I do want to find the guy,” said Fenn. “I mean, not on a personal level, since it seems like there’s going to be a lot of drama, but sure, I want to find him.”

“What a roaring endorsement of your commitment to the mission,” said Amaryllis.

“We might need a different strategy,” said Raven.

“We can follow Fenn’s intuition,” said Amaryllis. “At least for another ten rooms. The only resource we’re spending is time.”

“We’re spending risk,” I said. “Each room is another roll of the dice.”

“Well, not like we actually know how to get out of here, is it?” asked Fenn. “So we don’t really have a choice.”

“We could go faster,” said Bethel.

“I need time to clear,” said Grak.

“We could go faster until we reach something of interest, then double back,” said Bethel.

“That’s not how it works,” I said. “I mean, there’s no doubling back, there’s just, uh, where you currently are.”

“I think it’s worth a try,” said Amaryllis. “We wouldn’t be clearing the rooms, but … in theory, if Uther was trapped here, if we’re not in an extreme time warp right now, then it should be obvious once we come across whatever trapped him, even if we don’t see the man himself.”

“It would mean deviating from the plan,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“The plan was loose,” said Amaryllis. “Contingent on what we found here.” She raised an eyebrow of her own, and I could feel us having an unspoken conversation.

“Alright,” I said. “We zip through until we find something that can point us in another direction. From what was on the front door, there are four Landings, which is as many as I designed. It’s pretty unlikely we’d be able to skip one, even if it’s possible in theory. We shouldn’t need full dilation.” I looked over at Fenn, then back at Bethel. “You’ll be able to take directions from Fenn?”

Bethel gave me a nod.

“Good,” I said. “Then let’s do it.”

The rooms went faster after that. Fenn called out doors to Bethel, and Bethel blasted through them. I got to see some monsters, only briefly. We passed through another clear ‘dilemma room’, this one with a few malnourished people begging for scraps, and we gave them food, water, and first aid kits. When there was a room with some bit of RDP I remembered, I had us get out and do it. The biggest one was food and drink: if there was something presented to you, everyone had to partake. You didn’t have to every time, but cumulative times missing it would lead to some bad end that I’d never specified to the players. I’d had some idea that a wild person, or group of people, would chase you down through the Long Stairs, trying to pour ale down your throat or stuff your mouth with food until you drowned or choked, but it had never actually come up.

It took us thirteen rooms to get right back to where we started.

“Okay,” I said, as we contemplated that. “Fenn, what’s the most dangerous door?”

“You know that it might be really fucking dangerous, right?” she asked. “I mean, we could pick a medium danger door.”

“Point taken,” I said. “I’m worried that if we do that, we won’t find Uther.”

“Fuck,” said Fenn. She scanned the room. “Alright, fine, that one there, the door with the demon head on it.”

“Uh, no,” I said, looking at the door. It was stylized, the kind of demon you’d expect to see on a Japanese samurai suit in one of those over-exaggerated depictions of feudal Japan. “Pick a different one, that one is against RDP.”

“At least we know inverted luck sense works,” said Amaryllis.

“Wait, what happens if we go through?” asked Fenn. “We just … die?”

“Not necessarily, no,” I said. “But the way RDP works is … did I tell you about that thing with the planes?”

“Looking at bullet patterns?” asked Fenn. “Yeah.”

“I never heard that one,” said Raven.

“Right,” I said. “So, briefly, in World War II, they sent out a bunch of planes, and a bunch of them came back with bullet holes. They were looking at the places the bullet holes were, trying to figure out where to put armor, which they couldn’t put much of on, because they had to worry about weight. They figured out that instead of having to put armor where the bullet holes were, they needed to put armor where the bullet holes weren’t, because those were the places where, if a bullet hit it, the plane just didn’t come back at all.” I gestured at the door. “So that door has been seen before, maybe a hundred times, but no one has ever been recorded as going through it, even though statistically, you’d think that they had. That door is a spot with no bullet holes on the planes that came back.”

“Except that this is all in your head,” said Grak.

“It’s what I know of the Long Stairs,” I said. “But yes, all in my head. We’ll need to encounter some actual soldiers in order to get an understanding of this interpretation of the Long Stairs. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” said Grak. “I was clarifying.”

I nodded. “I liked the Long Stairs,” I said. “There were some neat ideas in there.”

“So are we doing the demon door or not?” asked Fenn. “Because it seems like the kind of thing that might have been able to trap the great and terrible Uther Penndraig.”

“We’ll give it more time,” I said. “I’d like another circuit to see whether or not we’re actually going in circles. If we are, we lose an hour, but I think it’s worth it.”

“Sure,” nodded Amaryllis.

Fenn gave me a look, but said nothing. Maybe she was thinking that this was how it was now, that I was comfortable dictating our course of action, even after three years of being gone.

We sailed through the Long Stairs once more. Raven was keeping notes, but I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to make our own map, especially since in the canonical Long Stairs, every bit of information was won with blood.

With Fenn guiding us, it took sixteen rooms to get back to the beginning, again with a different configuration of doors. This time it had a different creature inhabiting it, a serpent large enough to wrap himself around one of the big sandstone pillars. Bethel killed it. We went with a random route after that, avoiding any doors I thought looked like death, and those that Fenn thought were horrible ideas.

It took us twenty rooms to finally find something of note: it was someone dressed in the same outfit as the one I’d pulled from a closet in Glassy Fields, a uniform that was recognizably that of an American soldier. He was, unfortunately, dead, his lower half rent to shreds, though if he’d been alive, I had no idea what I would have said to him. Hey, I’m an American too, can we make a copy of your map? He wasn’t quite human, with the quibble being necessary mostly because of the green hue of his skin and the way his teeth had started growing into tusks. He wasn’t quite like an orc though, because every tooth was a tusk, and they were all competing for space, crowded in together in a way that must have made eating difficult and speaking nearly impossible. The blood was fresh, which it always was in the Long Stairs, because every dead soldier was frozen in the moment they expired, the room waiting, timeless, for someone else to come along and display the body.

“Do we trust this map?” asked Bethel as she moved a hand in front of her, showing a visualization of it. As maps went, it was bizarre, since it was all based on probabilities of getting certain rooms, which might lead to other rooms. There were a few rules layered on top of base probability, ways that a seasoned adventurer could at least navigate between Landings, if nothing else, and of course some pieces of RDP that would presumably avoid a terrible fate.

“Some of this is stirring something in my memory,” I said, looking through the book. “‘RDP #0931: Chair Rule’, I know that one. You’ll end up in a Landing faster if you bail out on rooms that have more chairs than the one you’re in. Uh, ‘RDP #0041: Compulsory Purchase’, always buy something if a vendor offers. ‘RDP #0119: Rug Rule’, all rugs should be rolled up, starting from the short end, before you leave the room, unless there’s furniture on them.” I looked up. “I’m pretty sure I remember writing all these.”

“We’ll need to read through it in full,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her forehead.

“So we do trust it?” asked Fenn.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “But it’s not likely to be a serious detriment if we follow every rule.”

She was technically right, so I held my objections. The memes and antimemes in the Long Stairs meant that information could degrade over time, sometimes in serious ways, but based on what we knew, it was unlikely that we would run into problems from following a corrupted rule, if there was one. The dead body was suspect, but it happened in the Long Stairs, from time to time. It was the nature of the TFMs that they had to be assumed, since the base had no way to track anyone once they were past Hellmouth. It was nearly impossible to recover a corpse.

We each got our own copy of the information in the book, and spent some time reading through it. The clock was ticking back on Aerb, but in theory … well, I was still hopeful that godhood was on the table, but the Dunegon Master hadn’t explicitly said so, and the game stuff seemed to be gone for good, even if the benefits remained.

“Should we have our own rookie?” asked Fenn. “I mean, should we have brought in someone who knew nothing?”

“Does the toad count?” I asked, glancing at the toad. He was still riding on my shoulder, and hadn’t made a single contribution to the discourse. I expected he took after his mother in that regard.

“I don’t know,” said Fenn, eyeing the toad. “Are we sure it’s … I mean, it is a locus, right?”

“Labels,” I said, clucking my tongue. “Just accept his presence.”

I didn’t actually know if he was my son, because Aerb didn’t have paternity tests that could work on a locus, but he seemed content to ride on my shoulder.

“Anyway, about the rookie, we don’t really know,” I said. “We’re coming up the Long Stairs, not down, and what counts as a rookie for us is anyone’s guess. Or, I mean, my guess is probably better than a generic guess, but — no way of knowing, and it would have been hard to get someone almost totally ignorant, then deliver exposition to them when asked, especially because we’re not veterans.”

“He didn’t come here with a fireteam,” said Raven. “He would have known the rules. So why?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he thought that he could blast through everything. Maybe he knew that there would have to be goodbyes. Maybe he was doing his best to dodge the narrative, or he had some kind of plan — it’s all guesswork until we actually find him.”

“Which we will,” said Raven, nodding. Her face fell a bit as she looked at the next door. We’d been seeing a lot of doors. “It might take some time though.”

It did, in fact, take a lot of time, and without following Fenn’s hunches, we had a lot worse luck on the rooms. Bethel was incredibly powerful, stuffed full of hundreds or maybe thousands of entads, and she’d been jailbroken as much as possible by Grak, but there were still limits on her offensive power, and we’d started to run into them.

“How was an Earth fireteam supposed to take care of these things?” asked Fenn, after Bethel had been forced to use another of her foot-thick beams of focused energy on a mini-Godzilla. They were one of the few that used charges.

“They weren’t,” I said. “Some of the rooms are just meant to kill the whole team, or make them have to shut the door and try to put distance between themselves and the threat. This kind of thing, you’d probably be able to close the door, hoping that it couldn’t get through, but then it would detach both arms, which would independently go after you as you ran through room after room trying to escape them. But I also want to say that these weren’t normal military fireteams, they’re adventuring parties, with mages, magic items, all kinds of things to help them.”

“And how would Uther have fared, do you think?” asked Raven. “With the amulet of nondetection, he could have walked past a majority of this.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “We’re kind of taking it as a given that he was doing his best to head towards Earth. What stopped him — if anything did stop him, is hard to say. Could be that he’s up on Earth right now, having a grand old time.”

“Unlikely,” said Amaryllis.

“Possible,” said Grak.

They exchanged a look, but said no more, and I had to imagine that this was a conversation that had passed between the two of them a lot during the three years I missed.

We continued on through the endless rooms, following the map as best we could. There was plenty to see, and Fenn had a point, a lot of it would have killed even a well-equipped fireteam outright. Bethel was too powerful though, inviolable, immune to most memes and antimemes, capable of incredible offensive power. I wondered how we would have done the Long Stairs without her, and it seemed like the answer was ‘with great difficulty and pain’.

“Bethel, can we sidebar?” I asked, after she’d killed another monster, this one composed mostly of vaguely vaginal flaps that were letting out clouds of acid.

She looked at me for a moment. “Of course.”

We went to one side of the room while Grak set up his scan, leaving the others to talk amongst themselves. Fenn almost immediately went to Raven, which I wasn’t sure was such a good idea.

“Will the toad be joining us?” asked Bethel.

“Oh,” I said, looking down at where he still sat on my shoulder. “Yeah, I guess.” I looked back at her. “Look,” I said. “About Uther, and what’s going to happen when we find him?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You’re worried that I’ll kill him,” she said. “Or attack him and have it be proven just how much raw power he has.”

“No,” I said. “Valencia wouldn’t have cleared you to go if she’d thought there was a risk of that. And from all accounts, you’ve been living the life you wanted, as a good person.”

“I won’t pretend I don’t know where your skepticism comes from,” said Bethel. “I understand it.”

“But when we find him,” I said. “If we eventually do?”

She looked at me. “Did Valencia tell you that I still have an instinct toward violence?” she asked.

“She, uh, did,” I said. “Hopefully she didn’t say that in confidence.”

“I don’t think the problem is Uther,” she said, looking past me toward the others for a moment. “I think the problem is me. Of course he’s responsible for the way I am, responsible for leaving me empty, for adding in so many entads I didn’t want, for bonding with me and then removing himself entirely, but … his part in my life is over. I’ll confront him, if I get the chance. I’ll tell him what a shit he was. I’ll try to make him understand how horrible it was for me, and how he could have and should have done better. Perhaps it will help me a bit, but I rather doubt it. Valencia helped me to see that placing the responsibility on myself was better for me. Blaming Uther was a way of not taking responsibility for my own thoughts and actions.”

“That’s very mature,” I said.

“No,” she replied. “Understanding the philosophy doesn’t require much maturity. Repeating it back is something a parrot could do. Living it, there’s the rub. These past three years, I haven’t been challenged, so aside from the assurances of my soul-challenged colleague, it’s hard to say whether I’m any better. I’ll accept the compliment once I’ve been put to the test. But I will do my best. I don’t intend any harm to Uther. If I hadn’t promised Amaryllis, if I thought I wasn’t needed, I wouldn’t have even come.”

“Okay,” I said. I sighed. “Thank you.”

“I appreciate the second chance you’ve given me,” said Bethel, bowing her head. “I know that you didn’t have much choice, but being able to have a civil conversation …” she looked up at me. “I wish that I could undo what was done.”

“Yeah,” I said. I shifted from one foot to the other. A part of me wanted to apologize, but I didn’t owe that to her. “I do think he deserves a confrontation from you,” I said, changing gears. “Maybe even retribution, but at least to be called out, and hopefully, I guess, he would change. I just wanted to make sure that things were in order,” I said.

Bethel nodded, then when I had no more to say, she walked back over to the group.

I looked over at the toad, which was possibly my son. “We have some history,” I said to him. “Sorry, a lot of that probably went over your head.”

He stared at me, then tensed up for a moment and let out a little squeak of a fart.

“Gross,” I said, smiling at him.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 237: Long Story Short

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