I thankfully still had multithreading. As I spoke to Uther, half of my mind was focused on the ring on his finger.
I didn’t know what, if anything, to do about Bethel. The entire reason we’d brought her was because of her immense power, and if it had been possible for us to bring that power along and leave Bethel behind, we’d have done that in a heartbeat. In fact, I had tried to figure out some way of doing that and came up short. I could empathize with Bethel, but I didn’t like her or want to be around her. It felt too possible that she would find some reason to hurt me, that her reform would be revealed as a facade, or that she would just ‘slip’, like an addict who has to start over from day one.
With all that said, being reduced to a tool, being silenced like that, wasn’t what she deserved, especially from the same person responsible for so much pain and suffering in her early life. What she deserved was to be healthy and happy, the same as anyone else, even the worst of them. If Uther was going to do that to her, lock the person away, or make her go dormant, or whatever he’d actually done, I had some moral duty to stop him. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, the kind I got from seeing something bad happen and allowing it to be someone else’s problem.
The more I thought about it, the more I was upset by it, shock and confusion giving way to anger and frustration, even as I kept explaining what had happened to me to Uther.
I had to skip a lot of stuff, especially because I wasn’t just giving an overview of what I’d been up to on Aerb, but also what had happened on Earth, and beyond that, the last five hundred years of Aerb’s history. All that, in about an hour, was a big ask, even eliding important details. Above where we sat, there were still the floating skeletons, and they hadn’t stopped singing, though they changed their tune every once in a while.
“So then I get an error message,” I said. “I can give you the exact line, but I never had any other context, and it was a different presentation from all the other messages that I’d gotten. It happened again months later, when I was exposed to a meme that should have been lethal.”
“I have never had such a thing,” said Uther. “Never in all my time on Aerb. There was never one whiff of anything like that.” He sat back slightly. Amaryllis had pulled out chairs partway through, to keep us from having to stand. “It’s not real.”
“The … error message?” I asked. “I mean, I did think about that, but why?” Again, I looked down at the ring on his finger. I was going to have to bring it up, to take Bethel back and make him undo what he’d done, but there was no way I could do it by force.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” he replied. “Though of course I have many guesses.” He looked at me and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. “Proceed. You have twenty-six minutes left.”
“Oh come on,” said Fenn, rolling her eyes.
“Do you have a problem?” he asked.
“Twenty-six minutes,” she said. “Like you’re in charge of jack shit. Like you’re magically timing this down to the second. Come off it man, it’s just,” she made a jerking off motion.
I’d kind of expected him to laugh, but he only stared her down.
“He’s still king of all Anglecynn,” said Raven. “Show some respect.”
Fenn gave her a skeptical look. “If he wanted my respect, maybe he shouldn’t have stolen Bethel. And maybe he shouldn’t have gotten stuck in a bunch of slime.”
“He wasn’t stuck, it was on purpose,” Raven said softly. She looked to Arthur, and he gave her a gentle nod.
“Wait,” I said. “What? Why?”
Uther stayed silent, which left Raven to explain. “He was deliberately severing himself from the world,” she said. “He wasn’t down there because he couldn’t escape, he was down there because he was waiting for everyone to die.”
“You’re not the first to find me,” said Uther. “You’re not the first to try bringing me back.”
“Who else?” asked Raven. “You wore the amulet of non-detection, it should have been impossible for them to follow you. I wasn’t able to get any sense of where you were until years later, when passage to the Long Stairs had been rendered impossible.”
“Is this counting against our time?” asked Fenn. “I mean, are we still pretending that it makes any sense whatsoever to have this conversation be timed?”
I gave her a frown, and that was all the attention anyone paid to her. She didn’t like Uther, for a variety of reasons, and she was letting it show a bit too much. I had my own uncomfortable feelings, for different reasons, but I didn’t think we’d get anywhere by antagonizing him or calling him a dick, even if he was being a dick. That wasn’t including taking Bethel, which went a bit beyond being a dick.
“It was my sons, one after another,” said Uther. “Zona had known where I was going.”
“You tried to take her with you,” I said. “This wasn’t your first time in the Long Stairs.” The pile of octopuses had said as much.
“No,” he replied. His eyes went to me. “I found this place shortly after I first became king. It was just a door, standing in the middle of a field, completely unassuming. There was a small village near it, and it had become the stuff of local legends, alternately a holy site or something haunted. There was no utility in it, of course, so it was simply a curiosity, a door to nowhere, connected to nothing, and utterly indestructible.” He let out a slow breath, and I caught myself becoming enraptured by both the storytelling and the flow of fresh information. “The oddest thing about it, from my perspective now, was that there was no particular quest attached to it. No one was fighting over the door, there was nothing coming from it, there was no urgency or promise attached to it, it was just … there. It was a mystery, to be sure, but there was nothing that compelled exploration of it, aside from the fact of its existence.”
He sighed. “There were three parts to the lock. I was an accomplished enough warder to manipulate a piece of it, and I brought Forty-Two with me to handle the mechanical aspects, which I hadn’t then had cause to learn, but it was the final password that eluded me. I had begun to see bits and pieces of campaigns by that time, most obviously in the form of characters, but occasionally little details I remembered of Juniper’s worldbuilding. I wondered whether that last component of the door might be something from them. But no, while it was something that acted as a gate that would open only for me, the secret was one that I believe anyone who’d come of age with abundant computers might have guessed.” He looked at us. “It was also the first hint that there might be something terrestrial behind those doors.”
“To be clear,” said Amaryllis. “The password was, for you, ‘Password1’?”
He nodded. “The relief on the face of the door was, of course, another clue, but I didn’t make the connection that it was the Long Stairs until I was already in it. I hadn’t been properly prepared, and I ended up running at full tilt for quite some time, leaving a trail of monsters behind me. I was violating protocols left and right, not that I could remember them, or trust my memories. Eventually I found myself in a large room where I could hole up and make a defense, and there ensued a vigorous battle of the kind that I was known for. I survived, lucky, in the way that I often am. I was lost, utterly lost, in one of the most dangerous places I had ever been.”
I was keeping an eye on Fenn from time to time, and she kept giving me knowing looks which read, at least to my eyes, as ‘boy does this guy like to talk’. When she caught me looking, she made a yapping motion with her fingers, subtle enough that I was the only one who saw it.
She had a bit of a point though. He’d been the one trying to drag us along, to get where he was going, and now he was sitting there telling us a story. I’d given him the short version of things, a bucket of bullet points that he might want to know, and he was giving me a narrative. I wondered if that was just how he was now, but really, it wasn’t all that much different from how he’d been when I’d known him in high school.
“I tried to be more methodical after that battle,” said Uther. “I checked rooms carefully, backing away if they seemed like they contained something I’d have trouble handling. You’re not supposed to do that, I’m sure Juniper has told you, but I was hoping that I would escape a penalty. Thankfully, I made it to the first Landing, but unfortunately, I ran afoul of one of the creatures there and lost a considerable portion of my faculties, including the ability to speak. I was eventually able to get the parasite off, but I was addled, and I knew that if I tried to recuperate in the Landing, I would have more than just one of them to contend with. I soldiered on, not quite recovered, and only three rooms later, I came across the Americans.”
“It was a revelation,” said Uther. “I had known that I was in the Long Stairs, but the idea that it would connect to Earth hadn’t even crossed my mind. Why would it? I’d seen nothing of Earth aside from the campaigns, not for a decade. But there they were, with flags on their shoulders, speaking a language that I could place, but which was, unfortunately, unintelligible to me. There were only three of them, and one was in a bad way. Looking back, I think it was a medic, a wizard, and their artillery. From what I now know of their tactics, they should have been attempting a return home, and perhaps they were, but unfortunately, we ran across each other. It took them three minutes to open fire on me. I hadn’t known how my blade would fare against burst fire from a rifle in close quarters, but the ease with which I deflected the bullets was shocking. The wizard though …” he looked at me. “Juniper had always described them as terrifying creatures of incredible power, the last resort of raw power for the team, treated with the same awe and respect that you might treat a weapon of mass destruction.”
“I did tell them about nukes,” I said. “Plus, uh, Aerb has nukes. Or, had. They got excluded while you were here.”
He nodded, not seeming to care that nuclear weapons had come and gone. “The comparison you always made was to aircraft carriers.”
“Which you always thought was nonsense,” I said.
“You said they could make eight delves before being irrevocably compromised and unable to continue,” replied Uther. “The bulk of them were pulled from PhD programs. In no way would they be able to match the logistical and economic importance of an aircraft carrier.” He’d made the same point back on Earth, and it was a bit shocking to have it regurgitated here, almost perfectly. It had been about forty years for him. “But I knew something of their capabilities and limitations, and I knew that if I allowed that wizard to cast anything, I would regret it immensely. As soon as the barest syllable began to leave his lips, I lunged forward and sliced through him, my blade passing through his kevlar vest as easily as if it were a single layer of silk. I killed each of them in turn, in fact, though the medic succumbed to prior injuries without the others to support her.”
He was silent for a moment. “I searched their bodies and found nothing. Perhaps their lack of a mapping was what had caused them to get as lost as I was.” He let out a sigh, then looked up at me. “I had grown accustomed to killing by that point in my career, but I have to say, those deaths affected me. Those people were the first link I’d seen to my home, my true home, and I had been forced to kill them. For years afterward I felt like they would have had some kind of answers for me, but instead, I was left with only questions. I took what I could from them, anything with writing on it, but it was meaningless to me until much later on. Once I’d fought through the damage that the octopus had done to me, I was only able to confirm the date in the outside world.”
“Which was?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” he replied. “The medic’s bag had the most printed material, mostly in the form of expiration dates, but my best guess from what I could find was approximately mid-June of 2016.” He looked at the others. “How completely did you read them in?”
“Completely,” I said. “We got an entad, via the Dungeon Master, which allows certain things to be pulled from Earth. Amaryllis and Fenn might possibly have watched more movies and television from Earth than I did.”
“And do you still have it now? The entad?” asked Uther. His eyes had gone wide.
“No,” I replied. “Because it was a part of the entad that you’re currently wearing as a ring.” I swallowed. “Which we’re going to take back now.” I tried not to sound accusatory. I tried to think about what I would want that request to sound like, if I were him, and settled on calm and understanding, as though it were a mistake, an accidental violation of protocol. I was pretty sure I just sounded as nervous and uncomfortable as I felt.
Uther looked down at the ring on his finger, where it was one of many. He closed his eyes for a moment, then turned his hand palm up. Without a word from him, a small candy appeared in his hand, a peach ring, and he smelled it for a moment, then ate it.
“Hmm,” he said. “I tried to have the chefs at Caledwich Castle make those. They never could get it quite right though, perhaps because they lacked the industrialized sugars and artificial flavors. None of the ethyls, the lactones, the aldehydes.” He looked at me. “You’ve been having different adventures than the ones I had. You’ve been here less than a year, and already there’s a relief from the clawing homesickness.” He held out his hand again and pulled a can of Mountain Dew from thin air, then set it down and pulled a Snickers, and kept going for a bit, testing what it could do. Bethel must have been aware of all this. Above us, the skeletons were still continuing their ghostly singing.
“Stop,” I said. “Bethel is an ally. A companion.” It was hard for me to say that. Bethel was not a friend, and a part of me thought she deserved whatever had happened to her. Only a part though, and feelings of revenge and retribution were ones I held off on the most.
Uther paused, then tried one more time, curling his fingers slightly. “No electronics? That’s a shame.”
“Did you hear me?” I asked. “Give Bethel back, now, and release whatever weird hold you have over her.” Again I tried to put firmness in my voice, but I knew who I was talking to. He had been the closest thing Aerb had ever had to a full blown emperor. When it came to combat, I thought a fight between us would last a single round, and definitely not in my favor.
“Hold?” asked Uther, raising an eyebrow. “I bonded with her, not long after she was created. She’s my entad.” He looked at Amaryllis. “As is that glove, for that matter, and the sword at your hip.”
“Arthur,” I said. “I don’t want to have some fucking conversation about whether or not something that quacks like a duck should have all the rights and privileges of a duck. Release Bethel to me, now. Let me talk to her.” I was feeling heated. In a fight, I was certain I would lose, even if he didn’t use Bethel to cleave me in half. I knew that, but I had to press anyway.
He slipped the ring from his finger and looked at it. “I remember those conversations,” he said. “About whether a sentient sword deserves to live a life of its own, or a golem created by a wizard deserves a right to vote. Did you know some of your slave species made it to Aerb?”
“I know,” I said. My eyes were on the ring. I’d been serious about not wanting to have the conversation, but I felt like we were going to have it anyway.
“I suppose, if you think of it as your companion, it might have spoken of me,” said Uther. The pronoun use there definitely felt deliberate. “I was at a difficult point in my life when I went to Kuum Doona the second time, to claim it. This was long after my first trip into the Long Stairs, which I’d made a difficult and miraculous escape from, against the odds, as those things are usually done.” He gave us all a grin, and I nearly smiled back, just on instinct. “I was looking for a way out, in those days. Not a way out of Aerb, but a way that I might escape the narrative forces that had such a stranglehold on my life. I had thought that the Boundless Pit might be the answer, not because there was any direct evidence pointing toward it, but because it represented, in my eyes, the underworld through which I might need to pass before the cycles of narrative would finally be done with me. Do you know what I found down there?”
“No,” I said. He was talking a lot, and I was worried that if I let him keep talking, he would brush off the whole issue of having forcibly taken Bethel and stripped her of all agency and power. I did want to know what was down there though, and if it explained things at all, I needed to hear it. Still, I didn’t want to get trapped in his orbit, as I felt I had been since he came out of the bobble.
“I found infinity,” said Uther. “I found a world without end. It widened as I went down, so I followed the slope, angling my fall, looking at the walls as I went down mile after mile. They’d called it the Boundless Pit, or some translation thereof, but I hadn’t thought that was literal. I had supposed that it was a hundred miles, or a thousand, or ten thousand, and at the bottom, I would find some kind of answer. No. There were only endless changes in the biomes that stuck to the walls, endless different civilizations, different species, on and on. Sometimes there were patches of light, artificial suns or bioluminescent birds, and in other places people lived in the dark. I had come looking for an end to the adventures. I had been meditating on what would eventually become a book, Degenerate Cycles, and there was something unutterably profound in falling so far and seeing no end in sight. I did stop, every so often, to see what there was to see, to gaze upon whatever new sights were there. It just … kept going.” He took a breath. “I cried as I fell, for I could see that there would always be more worlds to conquer.”
I stared at him. Something about how he’d phrased it tickled a memory. “‘And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.’”
“Benefits of a classical education,” Uther nodded. There was no trace of humor in his voice. He was looking at the ring he was holding in his fingers, the mute form he’d contorted Bethel into. I wondered if he realized how much he looked like a villain. He’d caught us in his monologue. “I gave up. I fought a few enormous monsters down there, more to take out my anger and frustration than because there was any point to it. The anger gave way, eventually. I had never been particularly good at sustaining anger. I returned to Kuum Doona and slept for a week. And when I awoke, there, standing in front of me like a vision from god, was my high school crush, Tiffany Archer.”
I looked at Fenn, thinking that she was going to call him on his shit, but she was just sitting there looking uncomfortable. It occurred to me that I didn’t just think she would call him on his shit, I thought that she should, or that someone should, and if it wasn’t going to be anyone else, it had to be me. “And once you figured out that it was the entad you’d bonded to, you decided to groom and then rape her,” I said.
Uther closed his fist around the ring, where he’d been focusing his attention, and turned his eyes to me. He didn’t seem hurt or perturbed by what I’d said. There was a steely calm to him that made me feel like he was using some kind of social still magic on me. I was pretty sure that was just him though. “Do you remember the abortion debates?” he asked.
“A matter of axioms,” I replied. “That was always what you said. But you’re forgetting that I know you, and I can see exactly where you’re going with this, and you’re also forgetting that about five minutes ago I said I didn’t want any kind of fucking debate about personhood with you. So hand over the fucking ring.” It was hard, trying to force my anger through. There was something about his calmness that was making me feel like I was unjustified.
He stared at me for a moment. “This is emotional for you. I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” He tossed the ring, and I snatched it out of the air.
I held Bethel in the palm of my hand for a moment, but she didn’t move. “What did you do?” I asked, looking up at him.
“Nothing,” he said. He raised an eyebrow. “If the entad is remaining inert, that’s by choice.”
I stared at the ring for a moment, then slipped it onto my finger. If he was telling the truth, and I had no idea whether he was, then Bethel was remaining in the form of a ring for a reason. I tried to think of it from her perspective, but I had no idea what it was like to have to follow someone’s command whether you wanted to or not. I imagined it as horrifying, like being puppeted, but it was possible that it was something else. The more I thought about it, the more I wished that I’d pushed harder, sooner, that I hadn’t sat there so long talking to him, hoping that the situation would resolve itself.
“I won’t give an argument, if you don’t want it,” said Uther. “But Kuum Doona, as it was then, was no person. From what I can tell, more entads have been added, some of them with intelligence of their own, but — Juniper, you know the arguments as well as I do, the levels of intelligence that an entity can contain — you said you didn’t want an argument, but surely I have a right to defend myself against whatever it is you think I’ve done.”
“You were ashamed,” I said. “You instructed her to take on a different form, to tell no one, then abandoned her completely, in spite of her obvious material value to you.” I wanted to say that he’d threatened her, that he’d stuffed entads inside her against her will, but if he didn’t believe she had a will, I didn’t think he’d find it important.
“Of course I was ashamed,” replied Uther. “I am ashamed. Do you think I want to be airing this now? Talking about it in front of Raven?” He gestured to her, and she withered. I glanced at the faces of the others, and to a one, they all looked unhappy, though in different ways. “I was embarrassed, yes, ashamed, yes, and as soon as it was done, I wanted to put that particular bit of my life behind me. It was an unseemly attempt to fill a void in my psyche, to indulge in nostalgia.”
“Nostalgia?” I asked. He was framing it in his own way, I could see that, and it was so hard to fight framing. “It was Tiff, she wasn’t — you had no right to her body.”
Uther stared at me. “I know that, Juniper,” he said. “You don’t want an argument, which means that we can’t litigate this. You want to air your emotional responses. You can finish tossing whatever accusations you’d like at me, but it will have to be while I do my best to return to Earth. Story time has gone on long enough. Do you remember, earlier, when I asked you if you knew your role?”
“It’s just us,” I said. “There is no role.” But if there was, he would be playing the villain. He seemed blind to it. I wondered whether there was any possible frame in which he would have seemed like a hero.
“It’s transparently obvious once you see it,” said Uther. “You’re here to rope me back into a life of adventuring on Aerb. Just look at you.” He pointed at me. “Juniper, my old friend from high school, and the architect of everything on Aerb, himself a capable adventurer and probable equal, begging me to come back.” He pointed at Grak. “A warder here to show me advancements in the state of the art and reveal a new, higher tier of magic.” He moved on to Amaryllis. “A strong and capable descendant who, by some unknown and intriguing magic, looks exactly like my beloved daughter, ready and willing to take on the role of Dahlia but without any of the baggage.” He stood before Raven. “A last companion, a connection to the old life, a font of knowledge, now an adult.” He finally faltered when he got to Fenn.
“Lovable scamp?” she asked. “Comic relief?” She hesitated. “Love interest?” I was hoping that she’d hesitated because she wasn’t sure whether she should make the joke, but it was extremely hard for me to tell.
“You, I’m still figuring out,” said Uther. He looked away from her, as if her existence was unimportant. “At any rate, it’s all so lazy, so hackneyed. And the time skip! Do you know why hack writers do time skips?”
“No?” I asked.
“It’s because time skips offer something interesting and new when the plot can’t organically accommodate it,” he said. “It’s a cheap way of getting a feeling of newness from a setting that’s been milked half to death.”
He stalked off again, apparently having needed to get all that off his chest.
“But it is compelling,” I said, following after him as he went through the door. “Every single thing you listed off, everything you saw, it did affect you, it did grab at you. You’re just being bull-headed about it.”
Maybe he would have said something back, but the room he’d walked into was filled with slate grey rock creatures that were slowly rising from the ground.
In the descriptions of how Uther fought, he was often compared to water, with an economy of motion that made it seem like he was following the path of least resistance between his enemies. They’d said it was like he’d choreographed every fight ahead of time. It was like watching high art, a performance of violence beyond compare. Here though, in the Long Stairs, he was taking a different approach, or maybe just dispensing with pomp and circumstance. If I had to compare him to anything, it would have been to a pinball, moving between targets with a flash, his motions visible mostly by the wake of bodies he’d cleaved through.
There was a reason for the legends.
<Are you okay?> I sent to Bethel.
It took her some time to reply. <No,> she finally answered.
<It’s okay if you want to withdraw,> I sent. <If you need someone to talk to, I can pass you to one of the others. Or you can talk to me.> Her talking to me was an afterthought. I had always felt more empathy for her than the others, at least in my estimation, but maybe that was because I was a dumbass who hadn’t seen all the warning signs. Even after things had gone south, I had spent a lot of time trying to see things from her perspective, maybe to my own detriment. Now, with three years gone by, I probably knew her least of anyone aside from Fenn, but I still wanted to figure her out.
<I thought that the connection was finished,> said Bethel. <I thought I’d surpassed the bond, mastered it. I was a fool to think a man who could sever his connections to hundreds of entads couldn’t rekindle one. Now I’ve lost my chance to kill him.>
<Would you have?> I asked.
<No,> she replied. <Maybe, if I had known he would have such absolute control of me. But me hurting any of you now is an impossibility, beyond the realm of choices.>
<He did something to your mind?> I asked.
<No,> said Bethel. <But the bond has rekindled. Attack is impossible.>
<We could get him to undo the bond,> I said.
<It wouldn’t matter,> said Bethel. <Unless you need me to kill him, but he would see it coming a mile away.>
<I don’t think we’re planning on that,> I sent. <Let me know what you need.>
She was silent in response. I hoped she understood that I meant it, even with things as they’d been between us.
I followed Uther as he passed through the rooms, and I tried to think.
I thought I would probably lose any debate I started with him. He’d been better at talking his way around things when we were in high school, and now he had forty years on me plus a whole hell of a lot of experience. Maybe it was like debating abortion, where a lot of it came down to immovable axioms. Or maybe we’d uncover some murky gray areas that we could never fully explore without knowing what had been going on with Bethel internally. I was willing to give some credence to the idea that she wasn’t fully formed at that point in her life, and unlike a child, who had a fullness of life ahead of it, that wasn’t the same with Bethel. The whole thing gave me the heebie jeebies either way, but Uther clearly thought what he’d done was defensible, even if it was shameful.
If I was looking at it from his perspective, maybe it was simply embarrassing, like someone looking at your internet search history or a list of all the videos you’d watched. Not that you’d done something wrong, necessarily, but also not the kind of thing you’d want to make public for everyone to see. If he really didn’t see Bethel as a person, or at least that iteration of Bethel, who was possibly less sentient than a pig … well, granted, you weren’t supposed to fuck pigs.
It would all have been easier to swallow if he’d said he was sorry, or offered some apology, but he was plowing on ahead through the Long Stairs, going through door after door, not wanting to talk about any of it.
“I think it’s not all about you,” I said, as we entered a room carpeted with mosses and ferns. “I think it’s about me.”
“Oh, I would agree with that,” replied Uther. “It was obvious enough.”
“It was?” I asked.
“Everything has the stink of Juniper on it,” said Uthur. “It’s about me, but it’s also about you, all this fakeness. There was a time I thought that you were the one pulling the strings behind it all, somehow, a dungeon master gone mad.”
“I think it is,” I said. “Not me personally, but someone with a vested interest in both of us. Someone with my perspective.”
“You were always the one most interested in your worlds,” Uther replied.
“I slept with Maddie,” I said.
He stopped where he was, feet sunk into the moss, and turned to me, narrowing his eyes. “What? When? Why?”
“You died in a car crash,” I said. It was the first time telling him that, but it got no reaction. Maybe he had some memory of it. “I didn’t handle it well. Looking back, I’m sure a lot of it was depression, but there was also some self-hatred and destructive tendencies, and — she was always so eager for friendship, and she liked me for whatever reason. We dated for like … a week.”
He was still staring at me, judging me, but finally, his face relaxed. “Ah,” he said. “I see why you mention it.” He turned and kept walking, barely slowing when a section of the moss lurched up from the ground and attacked him. He augmented his blade with magic when a dozen slashes did little, and with a blast, it was blown apart along the cuts he’d made. “You’re drawing parallels. You think, in fact, that these parallels are intended, designed.”
“I don’t really care,” I said. “Designed or not, intended or not, there are parallels. You were desperate, in despair, wanting a comfort that I’m pretty sure you didn’t actually get, because there was no way to get it. Plus some pretty clear unresolved feelings for Tiff.”
“Humiliating,” he muttered as he opened another door. This one led into a long room with writing on every wall, and I closed my eyes, same as him, relying on other senses to guide me. It was possible the writing was harmless, but it seemed like a bad place to take chances.
“The difference,” I said, with my eyes screwed shut, “The difference is that I had the good sense to feel like shit about it. I made my apologies, eventually, to the extent I was able.” I gave myself a C-, which was still a passing grade. “What you’re doing is just — just ignoring this, pretending that it didn’t happen, making excuses for yourself, justifying it.”
“You can make excuses and justifications and still think that you did wrong,” replied Uther as we walked on. I used my senses to look back at the others, making sure that they were following behind us, and that they wouldn’t have trouble going blind. I wished that they weren’t privy to this conversation, especially Raven, but there was no way to avoid that without using vibration magic to block them completely, which I didn’t want to do either.
“You can, yeah,” I said. “Did you just get through forty years on Aerb and never learn how to give a proper apology?”
He sighed. “Apologize to your entad?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But — she doesn’t really care about the weird sex stuff, she cares about being abandoned and having entads forced to become a part of her against her will. Also, and I know you know this, you’re just being a dick about it, she’s not my entad. On Earth, we call the concept of owning another person slavery.”
“Things are difficult and complicated on Aerb,” said Uther. We still couldn’t see each other, and my sense of the room wasn’t good enough to know what expression was on his face. “I don’t know how much you were exposed to, in your time so far, but there were debates that raged over things as simple as whether other species should count as being people. I wasn’t able to resolve it all, and there was always something new and different, a new species, a thorny new problem, some aspect of personhood that didn’t fit well into the models I’d made, your stupid slave species, inherent prejudices — and I know I’m not giving the apology you want, but if you keep casting aspersions, I’m going to deal with them as they come. Don’t brand me a slaver and then expect me to prostrate myself before you, whimpering like a scolded puppy.”
He must have been able to see my face far better than I was able to see his.
“I am sorry,” he finally said. “In a long life as a warrior, adventurer, and king, I’ve accumulated many regrets. That is one of them. I worried about it, because unlike the others, there was no defense, no weighing of costs or risks, just myself as a base and imperfect man. I am sorry, and I apologize.”
He reached the next door, still with his eyes closed, and stopped there for a moment with his hand on the doorknob. “Ready?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said.
He opened the door, and the next room was so blindingly bright that I was glad I had my eyes closed. Even then, I could see the light through my eyelids. Uther drew his sword, but the problem was solved with an arrow that sailed over my head and through the doorway. It shattered a bulb in the next room, and the light went away almost immediately.
“How could you even see that?” I called back to Fenn.
“Seeing your target is for chumps!” she yelled back to me.
I opened my eyes once we were in the formerly lit room. Uther was looking at the shattered lightbulb, which was as wide across as my shoulders.
“What’s the technology level of the Long Stairs?” he asked me.
“Uh,” I said. “Pre-industrial, or maybe not quite. Early modern, I guess.”
“1713?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Or, not quite.”
“And what the fuck is the significance of that date?” asked Fenn as she approached. It was the first thing she’d said in quite a bit, though I’d heard whispered conversations between the other members of the party as we’d gone along.
“It’s the date of Magus Europa,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper’s campaign setting about a magical version of early modern Europe.”
“Well, no,” I said. “I mean, that is the canonical date of the campaign, but it was picked because it marks the end of the War of Spanish Succession with the Treaties of Utrecht, along with the start of one of the Golden Ages of Piracy. But when I was thinking about the Long Stairs, my only firm thought was that it was pre-electricity and pre-electronics.”
“And yet,” replied Uther. “Here we see what was clearly a light bulb before an arrow smashed through it.”
“Sure,” I said. “It’s odd. Not that odd though, Long Stairs wasn’t meant to be one specific time or place. I could see myself throwing in a bank of weird 1960s era computers, just to make things more interesting.” I glanced at the toad on my shoulder. “Sometimes you make some rules, then you think up exceptions to those rules to keep them from feeling stale or overdone. I like rules with addendums. Maybe, I don’t know, the Long Stairs eventually adjust to all of the people coming in and dying. It sees all of the materials and equipment they have on them and starts adapting, or borrowing, or whatever it is, however it works. Makes it less compelling if the overarching processes are known though.” I was being distracted from the issue of Bethel. I was allowing myself to be distracted.
<What do you need from him?> I asked her, using multithreading. <I’m trying to argue on your behalf, but it’s difficult to know what you want.>
<I didn’t come here to face him down,> she replied. <I came here for you and the others, to make sure you don’t die. I came because I made a promise to Amaryllis. I didn’t need him to say that he was sorry or ashamed. If what we know about the Long Stairs is true, I will slowly die as I’m brought up. All I need is for you to bring me back down again.>
I frowned at the ring on my finger. <Where did your anger go?> I asked. It wasn’t just an idle question, I was seriously concerned that she might have had her mind screwed with.
<The anger is there,> she replied. <The instinct to kill is there. I have experience with controlling those emotions, understanding where they come from, and why acting on them would be bad.>
<Okay,> I said. <You can talk to me, if you need anything, if there’s something you want.>
“The death rate wasn’t that bad,” replied Uther, back on the other thread. “Though from what I’ve seen, these Long Stairs are considerably harder to handle. Because we started at the bottom, I wonder?”
“There was a second run of the campaign,” I said. “I ran it after you died.”
“Three times then,” said Uther. “We played a one-shot for Halloween.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. “There was nothing substantial about it though.”
“It had a heavier focus on memetics and antimemetics,” said Amaryllis. “At least, that was what you told me.”
Uther looked at her. “And you’re not Dahlia?”
“No,” she replied. “I only look like her. I’ve been to Cidium to visit the places she used to be, hoping that it would unlock something or jog a buried memory, but there was nothing.” This was news to me. “If there’s some secret to it, I don’t know it. Perhaps it’s just the Dungeon Master having a bit of fun. I’ve always wanted to see you in the flesh. You’re still the King of Anglecynn, if that means anything to you.”
“I thought that might be the case,” replied Uther. “And no, it means nothing. There is no argument, no form of persuasion, which could bring me back.”
“They came here,” said Raven. She’d come forward to stand beside Uther. “Your sons. You put yourself in stasis where you thought no one would be able to find you or get to you, and it was because they’d managed to track you down.”
“There was so much you never told me,” said Raven. “There was so much that went unspoken, so much that you kept to yourself. I was one of your Knights. I was — it was supposed to be a meaningful connection, but how could it have been when you stayed silent about everything that truly mattered?”
“You were twelve,” Uther replied, barely sparing a glance at her.
I waited. We waited. After all the words he’d spilled, it felt like a slap in the face to her that this was all he was willing to spare on the subject of why he hadn’t told her anything.
“You were twelve,” he said again, turning to her. “During my time on Aerb, I told exactly four people the truth of my origins. One of them was a girl I stayed with when I first got here. She died not long after I’d made the grand revelation to her, and wound up in the hells, which were not common knowledge at the time. Perhaps some infernal got the story out of her, but she knew me under my true name, Arthur Blum, rather than any of the pseudonyms I’d used. I was less careful, in those days, and for a long time counted myself lucky that I hadn’t suffered too greatly for it. When I had my first meeting with Vervain, I told him everything, and he took it in stride, then instructed me to keep it to myself while we figured things out. I told Forty-Two as well. He was the third, but only after we’d been together for quite some time. He’s —” he faltered for a moment. “He was a doppelganger, and quite adept at secrets. The fourth was, of course, my wife, from whom I kept no secrets.” He was silent for a moment. If Raven was right, and he’d deliberately flung himself forward in time through use of the bobbler, maybe the enormity of it was finally hitting him. “There were, perhaps, things I didn’t tell you which you might have been old enough, or at least mature enough, to handle. There were others that I entrusted to vanishingly few, simply as a matter of opsec.”
“You lied about the core of who you were,” said Raven. Her hands were balled up into fists. The explanation was clearly not sufficient for her. I hadn’t expected so much anger from her though.
“No,” he said, regarding her. “I lied about where I came from, but where I came from wasn’t core to who I was. My knowledge, my values, those I always did my best not to lie about, even when it might have served me well. I dragged Aerb, kicking and screaming, into something approaching the ideals of America as I’d known it. Democracy, freedom, equality, accountability, all were severely lacking when I arrived, and I did more than any one person should rightfully have been able to.”
“You lied ,” repeated Raven. “All the books you wrote, the songs, the inventions, all of it was from Earth. There’s hardly an original thought in there. It was a cloak.”
“And that’s what bothers you?” asked Uther, cocking his head to the side. “How many adaptations have you written without having access to the source material? It’s no easy feat. It’s not a matter of transcribing the words from one book to another, and even when I had enhanced my ability to remember things properly, even with entad support, nothing could survive the shift from one culture to another. Yes, each of them was from Earth, but they took my energy, they showed my imprint, my sensibilities and understanding of the world.” He looked at the rest of us. “How much more do I need to answer for my supposed crimes?”
“She’s not upset about the books,” I said, sighing. “I mean, she is, but she’s more upset that you, a friend and mentor, were lying to her for the entire time you knew her.”
Uther stared at me. “And do you know Raven as well as you knew Maddie?”
“No,” I said. I could feel my voice grow cold. He hadn’t said it like a dig, or an accusation, but it was really hard not to read into it. I could feel Raven shrinking under the implication. “It’s difficult to have someone you care about, someone you look up to, turn out to be less than you’d imagined them to be. You weren’t an endless font of creativity, so what? But that image of you that Raven, and I’m sure many others, had built up in their heads, just can’t stand up to reality. That’s a painful thing. Surely you can empathize with that?”
He gave me a slow nod. “You’ve changed.”
“Gods, I hope so,” I replied.
What worried me was that he hadn’t. I was meeting him at a strange time in his life, and we were dredging up all kinds of ancient history, but he was displaying the same tendency to argue things into the ground that he’d had on Earth. It was one of the things that had made him shitty at apologies, and he was apparently still not great at them. I supposed he hadn’t really had much cause for giving apologies, given how well everything usually turned out for him and how righteous his causes normally were.
Uther stalked off, and as before, we followed.