Naturally, the easy ride couldn’t last long, but at least it was for a reason we’d seen coming.
“Halt,” I said, and Bethel spat us back out, into a room with cerulean blue tiles and a large bathtub in the middle, one with an octopus that hadn’t done anything yet. I was keeping my eye on him though, since he had a shifty look to him.
“Problem?” asked Amaryllis.
“I’ve lost still magic,” I said. “Bethel, run a diagnostic check, please. Grak, same.”
“Three entads are non-functional,” said Bethel, frowning at me.
“I believe still magic and air magic are … missing,” said Grak.
“Okay,” I nodded. “I was kind of wondering whether something like this would happen.”
“You were?” asked Amaryllis, narrowing her eyes at me.
“Not before we came in,” I replied. “But seeing how little true resistance there was … yeah.”
“And what’s the theory?” she asked.
“Well … one of the core premises of the Long Stairs is that it gets worse the further down you go,” I said. “I mean, it doesn’t have a true ‘down’, but as you go from room to room, it’s less likely that you’ll be able to get back to base, so up and down are proxies for whatever you’d call that. You go down, you find better loot, tougher monsters, and have less of a chance of making it back. Things get more magical, and some of those magical things stop working when you bring them up, or they only work ‘past’ a certain Landing, or … we never really did that much with that aspect of the game, because players hate it when they lose items or powers, but it was always meant to be there, just to make sure that there was some kind of incentive to go ‘deep’. Otherwise you’d just sit there next to Hellmouth, opening and closing the front door until you got something good, minimizing danger.”
“That doesn’t help me connect the dots,” said Amaryllis, still frowning at me.
“It gets more magical the further down the Long Stairs you get,” I said. “We’re at the far end, so the further up we go, the less magical it gets. That includes all of the magic that we already have, which is considerable.”
I was worried the frown would stay etched on her face.
“It works on the object level,” I said. “Because it’s a known quantity of the Long Stairs. But I think it’s also meant to be there on a narrative level, because my guess is we’ll be losing powers faster than the dungeon will be getting safe. By the time we reach Hellmouth, if we end up having to go that far, we might be struggling to fight off a band of goblins.”
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis.
“I do think we’ll be alright,” I said.
“Bows aren’t magic,” nodded Fenn.
“No, it’s not that,” said Amaryllis. “It’s that I should have seen it coming. I should have figured it out before you, once we were here, or before. I wasn’t thinking in terms of structure. I’d considered the possibility of loss of powers, naturally, but not in the context of story shape. This helps things click into place.”
“We could lose warding?” asked Grak. It wasn’t often he sounded worried. He often was worried, but usually he delivered it in a flat tone.
“Maybe,” I said. “I would have thought we’d lose the most powerful first, but still magic and air magic … that I don’t know about. Still magic is my greatest defensive power. Air magic kind of sucks.”
“Uther would have lost the use of his entads?” asked Raven.
“Maybe,” I said. “When you think about it, it might be a clue as to where he got trapped in the Long Stairs. At a certain point, something as powerful as the amulet of nondetection would shut off, so in theory, that means that he’s somewhere before the ‘first’ Landing. Maybe.”
“I have this sick feeling that we’re going to have to open one of the danger doors,” said Fenn.
“He should have known,” I replied. “I mean, he played the campaign. There were some changes, but the stuff I know is probably the same stuff he knew. I guess he never played the second iteration of it, but I didn’t add that much, mostly just new generators and some ideas I’d been kicking around since before he died.”
“Okay,” said Fenn. “First, I reserve the right to say I told you so, and second, I’m not actually arguing in favor of a danger door, they seem like they suck, I’m just saying I have a bad feeling that’s what we end up doing.”
We went through more rooms, room after room, door after door, following the instructions in the book as best we could, ‘moving’ in the ‘direction’ of the ‘nearest’ Landing. Some of that was just taking the right doors, but we were also looking for lichen growing on pillars, the number of chairs in each room, the hue of the lanterns or lights, all kinds of things. It went faster than it should have, with Bethel killing everything, but it was still fairly slow.
I lost water magic, and though it hadn’t been extending into the other rooms, its loss was immediately noticeable. We stopped to do another diagnostic, to make sure we hadn’t lost anything else.
“It feels like the Library,” said Raven.
“In what way?” I asked.
“In how arbitrary it is,” she replied. “In the endless sets of rules that have to be carefully uncovered. It’s random at first blush, but the more you experience it the more you’re able to find the patterns in it, until eventually you’re navigating it through your sense of it alone. In the Library, we have magic to help us find the patterns, and it resets whenever we leave, but here … in theory you could uncover every pattern, map every room, have perfect probabilistic knowledge of what’s behind every door before you open it.” She looked over at me. “The focus on memes and antimemes is even the same.”
It was possible we had run across some without knowing it. Bethel was blurring all the text we could see and running things through a filter. Bethel wasn’t immune to all memes, we didn’t think, but she was immune to a lot. Anything that could affect a book could in theory affect her, but Raven’s estimation was that there were a lot of things that affected books but didn’t affect Bethel. In terms of the antimemes, her sensorium was so large that it would have to be really all-encompassing for her to not notice. We were coming into the Long Stairs pretty stacked.
I did wonder how Uther had done, and why he’d chosen to do this alone. He’d had his Knights, who would have been invaluable in a dungeon crawl, and if he’d wanted to, he could have set up shop at the door and sent his own fireteams in. He’d elected not to do that.
We went through another fifty rooms before we got to the Landing. I lost gem magic and fire magic along the way. The deterioration was alarming but coming to be more expected. We hadn’t lost any vital entads, but Bethel was diminished, with less and less offensive and defensive punch. Just prior to the Landing, she’d lost the ability to be inviolable, which was worrying.
The Landing was one I’d thought up, thankfully, and not some new area. It was a semi-aquatic place with lots of octopus people, none of whom spoke English. I’d taken a lot of inspiration from what I knew about Asian wet markets, which admittedly wasn’t much. As soon as we were through the door, the smell of fish would have smacked me in the face if I was being stupid enough to breathe in particulates. Arrayed before us were lots and lots of colorful stalls, each of them with some kind of aquatic thing in front. I saw mussels, bits of coral, fish, oysters, lampreys, and in a few cases, seaweed. There were other, more exotic things too, some of which might have been from Earth, but weren’t recognizable to me, giant long claws of something, fronds that were still moving, and a creature with suckers trying to escape from its tank. More wares were hung from the sides of the stalls, much of it looking mundane but unrecognizable. I saw wooden-handled bits with squiggly metal pieces sticking out, and it was almost something you’d see on Earth. The wet market wasn’t all there was to the Landing either. There were coves that the octopus people who ran the stalls called home, places of recreation, all kinds of things, but the wet market was the only place I’d expected players to go, and it had gotten most of the attention.
The octopus people weren’t anthropomorphic octopuses, they were people made of octopuses, maybe five or ten octopuses each. The original concept had been brain suckers, except that the brain suckers were sucking each other, like some kind of brain sucker orgy that somehow managed to have enough cognition to approximate a person, if you were being generous about what you called a person.
“We really don’t have a universal translator?” I asked. “In D&D, that’s a first level spell.”
“Sorry Joon,” said Amaryllis. “I did send Pallida after the Terridoc linkages, but after a year of trying, she wasn’t able to make it happen.”
“No, sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to be flippant, it’s just … going to make this harder than it should be. Don’t let them slip an octopus on you.”
“Does this technically qualify as Japanese?” asked Fenn as she looked around. “Lots of hentai-looking monsters.”
“Uh, Asian inspired, definitely,” I said. “But thought up by someone who has never been to Asia and didn’t really want to do a bunch of research.”
“So like you did with elves, got it,” said Fenn.
“I’m serious about the octopuses,” I said. “They might try to sell you one, or just stick one on you, and — it was all in the briefing, I’ll shut up.” I cut myself off before Fenn ended up rolling her eyes out of her head.
“Per our notes, everyone needs to split up and make a purchase,” said Amaryllis. “It’s unclear if that includes Bethel or the toad.”
“Well I’m not letting him wander around on his own,” I said.
Amaryllis nodded. “Just barter for whatever you feel like and then we can leave.”
“Be on the lookout for something that can help tell us where Uther is,” I said.
“In a fucking wet market?” asked Fenn.
“Stranger things have happened,” I said, gesturing out at the octopus people and their wares.
We weren’t the only ‘customers’. There were other people milling about and looking at the goods, sometimes engaging in pantomime and barter with the octopus people. There were lots of species in the Long Stairs, including the white and blue guys we’d seen earlier, who were getting along in this context, or at least not actively eating or enslaving one another, and the felheim, who were stationed out of a later Landing. The designs — and that was the frame I was looking at them through — were as far away from humanoid as you could get while still calling them humanoid, and the whole place couldn’t have been done with human actors in rubber suits. There were skinny, triple-jointed arms, ten-foot tall people stooping so they wouldn’t hit their heads, and a creature that used balloon sacks to float above the floor. I watched a woman with hairy forearms waddle by me, and tried not to stare at the pups hanging off her six exposed boobs.
“This place is bizarre,” I said to Amaryllis. We had both set off and ended up walking down the same aisle. “The whole Long Stairs is, it’s so … transitory. It’s a dungeon crawl taken to the limits, bits of unmoored worldbuilding, species that don’t actually exist, they’re just … decoration.” My eyes were moving around the room. “On Aerb you could look at a crystal floating by and dig into it, you know? You could learn about the magic, how it had been used, where the partial exclusion zone was, all kinds of things like that. Here it’s just detritus. Some of it is literally just taken from single lines of a doc I had for ideas that needed development.”
“It’s coming at the same time you’ve lost access to the game,” she replied as her eyes drifted over a sheaf of eyeballs, which had been braided together using the optic nerves. “It’s not a coincidence.”
“Tell me what you’re thinking,” I said. “It’s a breakdown of order?”
“The common thread is things being stripped away,” said Amaryllis. “Not just the game layer, not just the wider world, but pieces of magic too. It’s a flensing.” She looked at me. “Companions are probably next.
“You think there’s a risk of death?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I think at the end, it will be you and Arthur, alone together. It’s possible you’ll have to make a choice.”
“Maybe,” I replied. I didn’t know exactly what kind of choice she was thinking, but my mind immediately went to the hard choices. If it came down to saving Arthur or saving her … I would probably save her. Or maybe the choice could be something different, like choosing to reject godhood, or choosing to go back to Earth, but it was hard to think of what might be in front of me.
“Look,” said Fenn, coming up to us. “It’s a thingy.” She was carrying what looked a bit like a parasol, except where there should have been fabric there was black mesh, and there didn’t seem to be any way to unfold it. “It only cost me ten thousand dollars.”
“Actual American dollars?” I asked.
“Yup,” she replied. “I always keep a fat stack of cash in my pocket, just in case. I was also offered a tiny octopus to place on my head, which I declined.” She sighted down the end of the parasol, holding it like a gun, which for all I knew, it was.
“We’ll make our barters soon and then get out of here,” said Amaryllis. She looked at me. “Per protocol, we should split up.” She slipped her arm into Fenn’s and they took off together, leaving me alone.
I really was hoping for a map to Uther, or failing that, something that would help us. The wet market wasn’t just seafood, but it was a rare stall that didn’t have a tank full of something in front of it. I was looking for maps, or at least something on paper, though without Bethel filtering things, it was remotely possible that anything I read would endanger me. The Landings were supposed to be relatively safe though.
I wondered how much the toad counted as a part of our team for the purposes of the wet market, or the Long Stairs in general. For the most part, he hadn’t moved from my shoulder, and just made a clicking sound every once in a while.
I was looking at a bunch of small, bright yellow fish in one of the tanks when the octopus people spoke to me.
“Hello, what can I get for you?” they asked.
I stared at them, not sure which of the sets of eyes to look at. Everything was quite moist in the wet market. The tuung would have loved it. “You speak English?” I asked.
“Oh,” they replied. “No, I speak only Anglish, sorry.”
“They’re practically the same language,” I said, not really sure why I was getting into it with them. “Wait,” I said. “Sorry, you speak Anglish, how is that possible?”
“I speak many languages,” the pile of octopuses replied. It was hard to get a handle on where it was speaking from, or how, and that was with me using vibration magic to check. “Those are babel fish in front of you. They’re very rare, and available for a good trade.”
“Babel fish,” I said, pointing down at the tank with the bright yellow fish. “Meaning … fish capable of letting you hear any language?” That still wouldn’t have explained how the octopus pile spoke Anglish.
“Ah, no, my apologies, I’m afraid not,” they replied, wiggling some tentacles. “These fish, if put into your ear, will make everything another person says sound like gibberish.”
“Ah,” I replied. “Babble fish. And if two people with babble fish in their ears talk to each other, they’re suddenly mutually intelligible?”
The octopus pile swayed from side to side. “No.”
“Okay,” I said. “And … why do I want that?”
“I don’t know your business,” replied the octopus pile. “Why do you want them?”
I looked down at the fish. “Uh,” I said. “I guess … it would help to keep me from hearing things I didn’t want to hear?”
They burst into applause, which in this case was a bunch of tentacles wetly slapping against equally wet flesh. “Very good! I hadn’t thought of that.”
“But then why,” I began, then thought better of it. “Alright, I’ll buy one. But, you need to explain to me how you speak Anglish.”
“You drive a hard bargain!” they hummed. “What do you have to offer?”
I had an extradimensional space, and I started pulling things from it. Almost everything I had was for either combat or utility of some kind, and the octopus person didn’t seem to want any of it. I’d thought a length of rope might be up their alley, or maybe a small bell and a piece of string, but they kept waving their tentacles and saying ‘no’. I wondered how long this could go on without them getting bored and shooing me away, but apparently this particular clump of octopuses had a lot of patience for the bartering process.
“You should offer him a hot dog,” said Fenn as she approached me.
“A what?” I asked.
“From the wishes?” she asked. “Or did you use them all?”
I stared at her for a bit. “I was kind of saving them,” I said. “Also, I maybe forgot about them a little bit.” It was pretty rare for them to come up.
“I remember you were really intent on hoarding them,” nodded Fenn. “So if you don’t want to try using one now, I’d understand. Maybe in the future there will be something you need ninety-seven hot dogs for, and you’ll only have ninety-six hot dog wishes, yeah?”
“Uh,” I said. “I guess.” I held out my hand. “I’m not even sure if it will work.” I stared at my hand for a moment. “I wish for a hot dog.”
A very plain cafeteria hot dog materialized in my hand. I looked it over for a bit, then offered it to the octopus pile, which lunged forward so quickly I almost drew my sword and sliced it up. They plucked the hot dog from my hand and slipped it between the octopus bodies, then immediately went to work preparing one of the babble fish for me. I have no idea why I’d been expecting the fish to be put into a small plastic bag, but the octopus person deftly slipped it into a small glass bowl instead, and pushed a cork into the top of it.
“And the other half?” I asked. “How did you come to learn Anglish?”
The pile of octopuses wavered slightly. “A man came through here, some time ago,” they said. “We plopped onto his head for a bit and learned Anglish from him.
“You extracted memories from him?” I asked. “Will he — would he still be able to speak Anglish?”
The octopus pile wavered. “It would come back to him,” they said.
“Describe him, please,” I replied.
“He was a tall man in simple armor,” they replied. “He carried a sword. He had curly hair that was hard to dig into, and two times he had a wife with the legs of a spider.”
“Uther Penndraig,” I said, frowning. And his wife? What?
“Yes,” nodded the pile of octopuses. “That was his name. He came through here five times.”
“Wait,” I said. “Five times?” Fenn was standing beside me, giving the pile of octopuses a skeptical look.
“All some time apart,” they replied, bobbing.
“How long ago?” I asked.
“Time,” they replied, wiggling slightly and flapping their tentacles around. “Hundreds of years?”
“Are you,” I started, then squinted slightly. “Immortal?”
“We pass down knowledge,” they replied. “The better to serve our customers.”
“Huh,” I said. “So, hundreds of years ago, this guy came through, five times?”
“Coming and going,” bobbed the octopus. “Years apart. Not always with the woman. But, time,” they wiggled and flapped again.
“Alright,” I said, casting a glance at Fenn.
“This thing was on Uther’s head?” asked Fenn. “An intentional clue for us, or … what?”
“Unknown,” I said. “He might have been going through here blind. I can’t remember if the Landing made it into any of the sessions he played.” I turned to the octopus person. “Actually, can I have a second fish for another hot dog?”
It wobbled in what I assumed was confirmation. As soon as I produced another hot dog, it lunged forward and grabbed it again, then produced a second bowl for me.
“This one is for you,” I said, holding the bowl up for the toad on my shoulder and removing the cork to let him see.
Without missing a beat, the toad shot his tongue out of his mouth and snatched the small fish up. It took him a bit to eat it, and Fenn and I watched him the whole time.
“You’re the last one,” said Amaryllis. She was holding a small gilded pen, which seemed like it must have been expensive, or possibly had been traded away for pocket lint. “We’re all done.” She pointed at the bowl. “What’s that?”
“Babble fish,” I said. “Makes everything into gibberish if you put it in your ear. Also, that creature spoke Anglish, and I think probably sat on Uther’s head for a bit.”
“Uther, at the height of his power, would only do that intentionally,” said Raven, who had come through the wet market to us.
“I don’t think he was at the height of his power,” I said. “Five times through this Landing would mean three times in total, if he came through both coming and going, which wouldn’t necessarily need to happen. Also, they said his wife was with him, or at least someone with spider legs, which really narrows it down.”
“Let me talk to him,” said Raven. She went over to the octopus people, and I gave her some space. She might be able to pin down when and in what condition Uther came through here, but I wasn’t too hopeful.
“It would make sense that his last time through wasn’t the first,” said Amaryllis, nodding. “And three times through, having set his affairs in order the last time … I can see the attraction.”
“Does it substantially change anything?” asked Bethel. If she’d made a purchase, she’d put it into extradimensional storage.
“No,” I said. “It’s just … a piece of the picture, I think.”
“Do we continue on?” asked Bethel. “Is he before or after this Landing?”
“After, I think,” I said. “Or at least, naively, I would think after.”
“We need to take that exit then,” said Amaryllis, pointing down the wet market to another door. She waited patiently for Raven to finish arguing with the octopus person though, and when Raven came back over, there was only stony silence.
We made our way and moved along, through more doors and more rooms, hoping to find Arthur. I definitely had some questions.
We lost more as we went along, and eventually we had to go on foot, because Bethel couldn’t keep up the sensory fuckery she’d been using to let us see everything as we rode along. Even if we’d been willing to ride blind, there was a chance that her extradimensional powers were going to collapse at some point, and we didn’t want to be inside her when that happened.
“If warding leaves,” said Grak. “It may be time for me to turn back.”
“Turn back?” I asked. “What, by yourself?”
“I’d probably go with him,” said Fenn. “Losing warding is going to make it a fuckload more difficult to find Uther, and as much as I want to help, I don’t plan on dying here.”
“Splitting the party is the wrong move,” said Amaryllis.
“It usually is,” I said.
“Do you really want us to be braving these tunnels with no magic?” asked Fenn. “Because I have to say, the things that Bethel’s been killing for us don’t seem like they’ve been getting all that less hard to kill.”
“They have been,” said Bethel. “But I’m slowing down.” By her estimation, she’d lost ten percent of her entads, and most of them had been good ones. She’d been reduced to using razor sharp telekinesis as her primary form of attack, with only five or six good backups if that didn’t work.
We kept following the map, trying to move toward the next Landing, mostly for a lack of better options. I wasn’t convinced that we would find any clues, and I was worried that we’d lose too much magic. At a certain point, Bethel might not be able to continue. I was also worried that we were going to run into one of the American fireteams that surely had to be moving around the Long Stairs.
Eventually, we came to a problem.
“The ‘map’ says to go this way,” said Amaryllis, staring at the door.
“It’s against RDP,” I said, looking at the Celtic knotwork pattern on the door. “Or it should be. But if we don’t go through, we might be looking at another fifty rooms or so. I wouldn’t think we’d lose more magic doing that, but,” I looked at the door. “Every room is a risk. And there’s a chance we’ll end up back at the wet market Landing, if I read the map right.”
“It’s also unclear what happens if we violate this RDP,” said Amaryllis, looking through her copy of the notes we’d taken. “They give a list of instructions, but don’t say what happens when there’s a violation.” It wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned it. I knew she found it frustrating.
I turned to Fenn. “How are we feeling about this door?” I asked.
She looked at it and flinched. “Good,” she said.
“Then why the flinch?” I asked.
“I should have good luck, right?” asked Fenn. “I should be damned near the luckiest elf that ever lived?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Probably.”
“There’s a texture to it,” said Fenn. “You know when you do D&D, you can do weal, woe, or weal and woe?”
“Sure,” I said. “Fifth edition auguries work like that.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn. “This is definitely an ‘and’ kind of situation. Like, we should go in there, but it’s a bad time coming. Or it’s a bad time with a fabulous reward at the end.”
I nodded, then strode toward the door, with the party trailing after me. Fenn’s analysis wasn’t really the kind of thing that you wanted to hear, but it left me a little hopeful, because at least it was something. The Long Stairs were huge, infinite, for some senses of the word, and it was possible that we’d need to spend enormous amounts of time looking around before we found the one room we were looking for, if Arthur was even in a single room and not moving around himself. We only assumed that he was stationary because otherwise what had he been doing for five hundred years?
My hand touched the door, and it burst open with a flash of blue sparks.
The floor of the room was covered in a green liquid, but I could only tell that it was liquid because I’d kicked a rock forward that disturbed the surface. If not for that, I would have thought that it was a lacquered floor. Above that, there was a broad dome. It was rare to have a circular room, but this one seemed to be.
“Slowly,” I said. I didn’t recognize the room, and it wasn’t in our abbreviated catalog, not that there was more than a line of shorthand for each of the rooms.
We floated on a platform created by Bethel, just above the liquid.
“Marble test,” said Amaryllis. She pulled a marble from Sable and held it out over the liquid, then dropped it in, stepping back. The marble fell, and when it was an inch above the surface, the surface extended a pseudopod in order to snatch it.
“Doesn’t seem so bad,” said Fenn. “I mean, right? We just sail right over and we’re on our way.”
“The doors are down there,” said Grak.
I looked around and realized that he was right. I’d been so focused on threat detection that I’d missed it. Above the waterline, there was just a wall made of masonry, with no way to exit. Even the way we’d come from had silently sealed off.
“So,” I said. “We go down?”
“I should do my scan first,” said Grak, looking down.
“Think you can ward against this goop?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve been checking as we go. Warding has been spotty as far as anomalies are concerned. Velocity wards, but nothing else.” He didn’t say it, but I could tell that he was worried about what he’d be left with when velocity was gone.
“Okay,” I said. That was unfortunate, but not unexpected. Warding had mapped out ‘dark areas’ of potential magic, places on the spectrum that didn’t correspond to any known material or magic, and I’d been hoping that there was a block set aside for the Long Stairs.
“Entad at the bottom,” said Grak, after about ten minutes or so. “Either exactly one, or it’s cloaking others.”
“Can you check?” I asked.
Grak frowned. “To check I would need to ward against the one. If it’s cloaking others, it might be the amulet of nondetection, but it might also be something important.”
“And?” I asked, not quite picking up on what he was saying.
“If Uther is down there, he might be depending on whatever the entad is,” said Amaryllis. “Wardproof armor, or something like that.”
“Ah,” I replied. I looked down at the fluid, which I was increasingly thinking of as goop. “Okay, so … we pull him up.”
“Rope test,” said Amaryllis. She produced a length of rope from Sable and slowly lowered it into the goop. Again, when it was an inch from the surface, a pseudopod formed and reached up to touch the rope. When it did, it latched on and began to climb, moving quickly and getting thicker as it went up. Amaryllis released the rope rather than allow the goop to touch her hand, and frowned down at where the rope had disappeared.
“Do we think he’s actually down there?” asked Raven.
“What defense would he have had against this?” I asked.
“Not going in?” she asked. “He could have just avoided it.” She was looking at the goop with her brow furrowed. “But with still magic gone, with this not being something warding works against, I don’t know. I can’t see a sword being effective. Transport entads wouldn’t work. If he got caught, then there’s a chance he could get pulled down, but … this has to be escapable, doesn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “It really doesn’t. Especially not for a single person.”
“He should have been able to get out,” insisted Raven. “This is a stupid trap to have gotten him.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll give you that. Uther trapped in a goop pit isn’t how anyone would think he’d have gone out.”
“We’ll get him out,” said Amaryllis. She looked at Grak. “What do you think are the odds nullifying the one entad you can sense down there will kill him?”
Grak frowned. “Low,” he said. “It’s likely the amulet of nondetection.” He frowned at her.
“Bethel?” I asked. “Anything?”
“A sphere,” she replied.
“Fuck,” I said. “It’s a bobbler.”
“A what?” asked Raven.
“Bobbler,” I said. “It projects a sphere around you, so for you, no time passes, but for everyone else, that sphere of spacetime stays there, not doing much. It lasts for, uh, some indeterminate amount of time. It’s from a book, not original, but I used it in-game. I’d thought maybe that was how Everrett had made it five hundred years, but — if Uther’s been sitting there, bobbled, then maybe for him it’s been no time at all.”
“It would be protecting him?” asked Grak.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe.”
“It would block other signatures,” said Grak, frowning.
I tapped my foot for a moment.
“I might be able to bring it up,” said Bethel. “I still have the hydrophobic coating.”
“Let me test wards first,” said Grak, staring down at the goop with a frown on his face.
To my surprise, he was able to make some headway on the problem using a fairly plain velocity ward. As he explained it, any fluid had some minute movement of the particles within it, and a one-way ward, which was somewhat difficult, would mean that particles would only go in one direction, to the outside of the ward itself. I mentioned Maxwell’s demon, and he said that was entirely correct, so I just shut up and watched as the tube he’d made slowly drained. It took an hour before we were able to see the top of the bobble, and more time than that to fully uncover it. The goop couldn’t stick to the ward, nor to the bobble, and eventually Bethel was able to lift it up to the floating platform we were standing on. It had a perfect mirror surface, reflecting us.
“And this thing will open up on its own?” asked Fenn.
“Should,” I replied. “Unless it’s not what I think it is.” I pressed my hand against it, and felt that it was warm, not by itself, but because it perfectly reflected the heat of my fingers. “But for it to open up might take years, so I don’t think we want to wait for it.” I turned to Grak. “Just the one entad there, right?”
“Hmm,” he replied, glaring at his reflection in the bobble. “If he still has the amulet, we’ll lose track of him once this is popped.”
“He’ll be able to see us,” said Raven. “He’ll understand this is a rescue attempt.”
“Do it,” I said. A part of me wanted to say that we should get into battle positions, but we weren’t planning to fight Uther, and I couldn’t fathom why he’d want to fight us, not without talking to us first. My eyes flitted to Bethel, but she’d had a long time with Valencia, and Valencia had cleared her for the mission.
Grak created the ward first, then flicked it on, and standing in front of us was … nothing, just empty space. I knew that was just the amulet of nondetection, but it was eerie how completely it worked.
“Uther?” I asked, after a moment had passed.
He appeared in front of us, removing the amulet from around his neck. He was as I’d seen him in the mirror he’d left for me at Speculation and Scrutiny, older, but still the same. He had dark, curly hair and a full beard shot through with a touch of grey. He looked like a king, and not just because he had a platinum crown bespeckled with precious gems. He was completely decked out in entads, including lots of rings on his fingers and two swords of different lengths hanging from his belt. The most striking thing was his armor though, which looked like pearls of black caviar coating him, and my guess, based on how impractical it looked, was that it was really good.
He looked at each of us in turn, but his eyes laid on Raven the longest.
“Face Protocol, Lotus Protocol, Puppet Protocol,” he finally said. “And I’ll need introductions.”
“It’s me,” I said. “Juniper.”
He looked at me for a moment, taking in my armor and the sheathed swords at my hip. “So it would seem,” he replied. “What was the name of your pet hamster?”
“Mildew,” I said, though it took me a moment.
“The name of the restaurant we used to go to?” he asked.
“Uh,” I said. “The Great Wall.”
“The other one,” he said.
“Ruttles,” I said. I was watching him, still not really believing it was him. I wracked my brain, trying to think of something I could ask him, something that I hadn’t already told the others, or that they couldn’t have found out from Earth. “It’s been forty years for you,” I said. “Or more, since we don’t know how long you’ve been in this place, and all the other stuff they say in the legends. I don’t want to ask you questions you’ll have forgotten the answers to.”
“Ask anyway,” he replied. “If I don’t know, then I don’t know.” He looked over at Raven and Amaryllis. “I assume you taught him the protocols?”
“They did,” I said. “And — I remembered some of them from our games.”
He regarded me for a moment, then turned to Raven. “You know everything, then,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
“It’s okay,” breathed Raven, losing the edge of tension she’d been showing. “I understand.”
Uther turned back to me. “The questions?” he asked. “It will help confirm for you as well as me.”
“Tom,” I said. My tongue felt thick in my mouth. “Do you remember his character’s name, in the Knights of the Square Table campaign?”
“Elhart Cloakshield,” said Uther, after a momentary pause. He was watching me more carefully now. I hadn’t picked that campaign by accident. It was the one where the character of Uther Penndraig had originated.
“What movie did we go see, opening night, right before,” I paused, because I didn’t know if he knew he was dead on Earth. “Early in May, 2016.”
“May 6th,” he said. “Captain America: Civil War. It was when you came up with Mome Rath.” He was watching me, judging to see whether I would react to that name.
I nodded. “Good enough for me, I guess.”
Arthur — Uther — turned to Raven and Amaryllis. “Confirmation should be easier here,” he said, nodding at them. “Raven, you journeyed to the Outer Reaches with me, so all that’s needed from you is some confirmation that the information isn’t simply leaving your mind as soon as it enters.”
“I’ve been there too,” said Amaryllis.
“How much time has passed, my daughter?” Uther asked her. He looked Raven over, perhaps trying to make some judgement. The visible aging would have been a major clue, since she didn’t look twelve.
“I’m not your daughter,” replied Amaryllis. “Not Dahlia. I only look like her. I’m your granddaughter, ten generations removed. It’s been five hundred years since you left, almost exactly to the day.”
I frowned at that. I hadn’t done the math. We’d always said ‘five hundred years’, but it had really been a bit less than that. ‘Almost exactly to the day’ sounded fishy, or magical, in a way that I didn’t like. I wondered whether Amaryllis had planned it that way.
“Not Dahlia,” said Uther, staring at Amaryllis.
“No,” said Amaryllis, squaring herself up. “But it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Uther gave her a nod. “And the rest of the introductions to your motley crew?”
“Fenn Greenglass,” said Fenn, stepping forward. “Reformed thief and archer extraordinaire.” She did a little curtsy, then pointed a thumb at me. “Juniper’s ex.”
“Grakhuil Leadbraids,” said Grak. “Warder.”
“Is that your ward?” asked Uther, looking down at the hole in the green ooze. “It’s quality work.”
Grak nodded. It was hard to read his expression.
I looked at Bethel, where her form was standing. I was waiting for her to speak, and not particularly looking forward to it. From everything they said about Uther, he could defend himself, but I’d seen the kind of damage that Bethel was capable of delivering. She had been waiting for her turn, and that made me worried. I had no idea what mix of emotions was going on in her head.
“I go by Bethel now,” said Bethel. “Once upon a time, I was a house called Kuum Doona.”
Uther regarded her for a moment, then stepped forward to get a closer look at her. At any moment there might be an explosion of violence, or failing that, accusations against him, ones that I didn’t think he had any way out of, except to say that she wasn’t a person. And then what was there? Learning to get along? If that was possible, these weren’t the right conditions for it.
“The entad,” said Uther, straightening up. He looked down at the platform we were standing on, then at Bethel. “Still bound to me, I see.”
I looked at Bethel. She said nothing for a moment, then opened her mouth to say something.
“Don’t speak,” said Uther.
Bethel shut her mouth.
“In fact, I think I’ll take direct control,” he said. He held out his hand toward her, and her form disappeared entirely. I looked at his finger, and another ring was there.
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“How did you do that?” asked Amaryllis.
“Connection,” replied Uther. “It was Vervain’s greatest gift, and indeed, one of the most powerful on Aerb.”
“No,” I said. “His greatest gift was that he was the Dungeon Master.”
Uther looked at me. “You’ve gotten that far along, have you Juniper?”
I nodded at him. My eyes kept going to the ring on his finger, where Bethel’s physical form was.
“Have you spoken with him?” asked Uther.
“I have,” I said. “Three times now.”
“I only had one conversation,” he replied. “With Vervain.”
“Before you killed him,” I said.
Uther sighed. “Old history.” He looked down at the goop. “We should be on our way. We have a lot of ground to cover.” Without another word, he jumped down off the tunnel that Grak had made in the goop, landing softly on the ground. He began on his own ward down there, and I saw that he was consulting the ward Grak had made from time to time.
“Did he just … steal Bethel?” asked Fenn.
“Seems like it,” said Amaryllis. She looked at me. “This is a problem.”
I could feel from the way the air was moving that she was muting herself. The very platform we were standing on had been created by Bethel, and was being maintained by her, even if Uther had taken control. It was a serious problem though, given that he’d taken the largest chunk of our offensive might.
“But how?” asked Fenn.
“It’s his entad,” said Raven. Her eyes had not left Uther. “He is bound to it, has been bound to it all this time.”
“She’s a thinking being,” I said. “He can’t just — I mean —”
“Done,” said Uther, from down the well of green goop. He had extended his own ward sideways until it touched the wall, and was using various magic of his own to hasten the inevitable movement of the goop to the sides. “I suppose warding has advanced in the years I’ve been gone.” He opened the door and stepped through, then called back to us, “If you’re coming, now is the time to come,” then strode off without another word.
“Fuck,” I said. I leapt down and followed after him, and I could hear the others doing the same.
The room we found ourselves in was one of the largest ones I’d seen, and Uther was striding along the flagstones with purpose, as though he hadn’t just been freed, as though he hadn’t just met us, as though he hadn’t gotten the news that it had been five hundred years. The room itself had skeletons hanging from the vaulted ceilings. I was worried that they were going to come to life or drop down on us, because that seemed like the typical thing to have happened. By the time I caught up with Uther, they had started singing, a low and ghostly chorus.
“Wait,” I said. “Can you hold on a minute? It took me a long time to find you, and more effort than you’re probably aware of, —”
“A quest of some kind?” asked Uther. He shook his head. “There’s always a quest. But no, I’m not having it. I’m done with Aerb, no matter who or what tries to pull me back in. There was a time I’d thought I might find you on Aerb. It’s all your design, after all.”
“Stop!” I shouted. Uther stopped where he was and turned back to me. I’d instinctively let my hand go to my sword, but I moved it away when he looked at me. “Do you even have any idea where you’re going?”
He regarded me for a moment. “Back to Earth.”
“Aerb needs you,” I said. “There are a crazy number of exclusions, the Void Beast is coming, there’s unification in the hells —”
“Juniper,” said Uther. “Joon. Is that really you in there, in that body that’s no longer your own?” He was looking at my height, my obvious muscles, and perhaps thinking about how plain and average I’d been.
The others were catching up to us. “Yeah,” I said. “It’s me. We need to —”
“Joon, none of it is real, don’t you get that?” he asked. There was pleading in his eyes.
“Of course it’s real,” I replied.
He leaned forward. “Every inch of Aerb is something you made up, every species, every landmark, every magic, it was all from your head.” He had a finger positioned right at my forehead. “If you’re really Juniper, then you have to recognize that, don’t you? It’s a game, it’s not real, and I’m done with it now, so yes, I’m going home.”
“Aerb is your home,” said Raven as she caught up. “You haven’t been on Earth since you were sixteen.”
“And is Aerb still that same home?” asked Uther. “Are there others, besides yourself, who yet live?”
Raven stared at him. “No,” she said softly. “I’m the last I know of.”
“You have family,” said Amaryllis. “Anglecynn still stands. The empire you built, the First Empire, has a successor. You are revered as a true hero, the founder of the modern era, the greatest poet and sage of all time, an incomparable legend —”
“And I’m done with it,” said Uther. “I have declared myself finished with Aerb, and no words will shake the firmness of my conviction.” He gestured at us. “Show me new plot threads, new characters, it does not matter, I am done.”
“And what then?” I asked. “You come out on Earth in the middle of a military installation that’s part of a vast coverup, as the greatest swordsman in the world? What’s the fucking plan here?”
“I’ll figure it out when I get there,” he replied. He looked around at us, waiting for a challenge, then set off to the nearest door.
“What are we doing about this?” I asked.
“Following him,” said Raven. She set off after him, down the large room, hurrying to keep up.
“Seems kind of bad that he stole Bethel,” said Fenn. She was eyeing Uther’s back. “Like, real bad. We’ve got a ‘don’t kidnap party members’ rule, don’t we? I thought I remembered a clause like that. Want me to shoot him?”
I almost said that there was no chance that would do anything, but I stayed quiet, because I’d seen how much power she could put into an arrow. In theory, he would be able to perfectly parry it, but I wasn’t entirely confident in that.
“No,” I said. “No, we came here to talk.”
“We came here so you could go with him,” said Amaryllis. Her face was set. “We were never going to bring him back. It was always going to be the two of you together, returning to Earth.”
“I’m not going back to Earth,” I said. “It’s not even Earth, for fuck’s sake.”
“Then we’ll figure something else out,” said Amaryllis. “Come on, we need to go.”
I looked at Grak, but he only nodded.
“That can’t be the plan, can it?” asked Fenn, but even as she asked, she was moving to follow. “We’re going to Earth? I’m pretty sure when I put my signature on the LSP, there was nothing in there about going to a place where we’re going to get vivisected.”
“Because I don’t know what was in the FSP, I can’t be sure, but it does seem like the LSP was underdeveloped by comparison,” said Amaryllis. “There were just too many unknowns.”
“No one blames you,” I said.
“I should sure as fuck hope not,” said Amaryllis. “Because I didn’t see anyone else going to the trouble.”
“Can we take him in a fight?” asked Fenn. I stopped her words dead before they could reach Uther. “Seems like we can’t, right?”
“Arthur, wait!” I called again.
He turned back to me, but didn’t stop moving. “Do you understand your role in all this?” he asked.
“I — no,” I said. “I mean, I don’t think I have a role, unless it’s just to talk to you, to — to reconcile. On Earth you were dead. You’d been dead nine months before I came here.”
“Your role is to stop me,” said Uther, ignoring what I’d said. “You are a temptation to return to Aerb, a temptation to give in to the demands of the narrative. You all are, in your ways. It’s the eleventh hour, and you represent another call I must refuse.”
“No,” I said. He was about to reach the door. “Hey, I had my own adventures, my own companions, maybe you were the chosen one, but I’m the chosen one too. Look at me, do I look like I did when we were in high school?”
He finally did stop, then looked at me. “No,” he said. “You don’t.” He stayed there, looking at me. “How long have you been on Aerb?”
“Months,” I said. “I’ve spent a lot of it in a time chamber.”
His eyes were watching mine. “Has the narrative found you?” he asked.
“It was there right from the start,” I said. This, I knew, he would care about. “I had — an overlay. Messages relayed to me on a HUD, like a videogame.”
He nodded. “Well, it’s immaterial.” He kept walking and touched the door handle.
“We have a map,” I said. I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing to say, because if he followed the map we’d have less time until he got to his destination, but I didn’t want to walk through door after door like this, not when there was a chance we’d run into something horrible. Above us, the skeletons had continued their ghostly singing.
“Let’s have it then,” he said, holding out a hand. “I’ve taken a few, but they were compromised.”
I reluctantly handed over the book. It felt like he was perfectly prepared to leave me behind if I didn’t keep up. All I wanted to do was sit and talk, and all he wanted to do was move. Once he had the book, he started reading intently, flipping through the pages almost so fast it was a blur.
“You need to stop,” I said. “You need to talk.”
“No,” he said, not looking up at me. “What I need is a return to normalcy, and the only place I’m liable to find that is Earth.”
“Aerb needs you,” said Raven, but we both knew that argument wasn’t going to sway him. She hadn’t left his side, and the way she was standing close to him was like a child trying to get the attention of their parents. “Why did you do this, why did you abandon us?”
He looked down at her. “Aerb lasted five hundred years without me,” he said. “And I suppose that there were epic battles in that time, calamities avoided only by the skin of your collective teeth, great sacrifices, exclusions, all of it. And the world still stood. Even if I cared about it — but gods, I don’t care about it.”
“How can you say that?” asked Raven. “How can you say that the place you’ve spent your entire adult life meant nothing to you? The place where you met your wife, where you had children, where you made an empire, where you’re the Poet King?”
“None of it is real,” said Uther. “None of it.”
“Solipsism,” I said. “It’s not a tenable philosophy.”
“I’m not claiming that nothing is real,” replied Uther. “I’m only claiming that Aerb isn’t real, or if it’s real, that it’s so managed and planned that it might as well not exist. I have seen evidence of the unreality of Aerb, and spoken to its self-professed god. I was a part of the very creative wellspring of everything which exists on Aerb. If it is real, it is meaningless. Therefore, I am going home.”
“No,” I said. “No, you’re not going home, don’t you get that if it’s possible to get there from Aerb, it can’t be Earth? Earth didn’t have massive dimensional tunnels!”
“And you have a better solution?” asked Uther, moving closer to me, as though I was meant to answer the challenge of his words with physical might. “You have some way of waking up from the nightmare? A way to exit the simulation?”
“I clearly didn’t get the same experience as you,” I said. “Look, can we sit down for a bit and just talk, I’m not going to try to convince you to come back with me, but before you go on this insane trip back to what’s clearly not the Earth we came from, maybe I can lay some facts on you, and then you can fuck off to wherever it is you think you’re going to go. Okay? One hour, tops.”
He stood there, as if he was going to tell me that he couldn’t even stomach that, but finally, he nodded and sat down on the stone. “Very well. Tell your tales.”