Worth the Candle, ch 240: The Long Haul

You might be asking what I expected when we met Uther. Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I thought that it would all just end, and the Dungeon Master would pop out from behind a curtain and say, ‘Hey dude, congrats on saving your friend, it’s all over, you can do what you want with Aerb’. Maybe I thought the credits would roll. Maybe I thought there would be some reaction from Uther, a tearful reunion, something. I hadn’t expected what I got, which was a man who saw us as nothing, or as a tactic to bring him back, if we were real at all.

“Hey,” I said to Raven, keeping my voice low. We were walking through another large room, which was usually a bit of a chance for a break. This one had lots of books, but we were being careful not to look at them. “Are you okay?”

“No,” she replied. “I imagined this going differently.” She was about as morose as I’d seen her.

“He’s going to Earth,” I said. “The only way to stop him is going to be to physically stop him, and I’m not sure we would be able to do that.”

“Then we’ll go with him,” said Raven.

I watched her for a moment. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but everyone but me, Amaryllis, and Uther is at risk of death from a lack of magic. You in particular.”

“Wait,” said Fenn. “Why would an elf be at risk?” We were close enough for her to hear, but I’d been hoping that she would do the courtesy of ignoring the conversation.

“Because I don’t know how you’re built,” I said. “Your muscles aren’t like human muscles. You’re stronger than you should be. There’s no particular elf magic that someone could ward against, but it might be that you’d suffer a sickness if you were on Earth due to some physics incompatibility.”

“What,” she said. “Seriously? I’ve been prepping to go to Earth for ages and you’re springing this on me now?” When she said ‘prepping’, she really meant watching anime, I was pretty sure. Not that she hadn’t had it in her head that she would go there someday, or that she hadn’t learnt a lot about Earth with that in mind, but … this was the kind of mindset I’d always had toward Fenn, which had been a problem in our relationship.

“Juniper stole the concept from Vernor Vinge,” said Uther.

“No,” I said. “I mean, I was inspired by him, but I didn’t steal anything.”

“Yes, you did,” Uther replied. “The Long Stairs are a variant on Vinge’s Zones of Thought. The closer to Earth we get, the less permissive the physics are.”

I wanted to quibble on the word ‘closer’, but kept my mouth shut, because there was a coherent concept that was almost like ‘closer’. “Having a landscape of variable magic isn’t something that Vinge came up with, there’s loads of prior art. If anything, his application of that variability to science fiction was what was novel.”

“But we’re saying that I might get sick and die?” asked Fenn. “Because I’m not really keen on dying again.”

“You and Grak, yeah,” I said. “There was a world I built, which we never ended up playing, and I never ended up getting more than half-baked, where the far reaches could only be inhabited by humans. All the magic was toward Oros Olympos in the center of the world, and the further you got away from it, the less magic was sustained, until eventually you got far enough away that life itself was impossible. If the diminishing of magic in the Long Stairs is like that, then you’d end up suffering from something like radiation poisoning or malnutrition or … I don’t know, lots of things.” I glanced at the toad on my shoulder. “Even things that aren’t ‘magic’ might be affected.”

“You quoted ten percent,” said Uther. “Most artifacts can be taken just beyond Hellmouth, to the staging area, but only ten percent can be used on Earth proper. The least powerful ten percent, most likely. That’s what you said, in high school.” He had some kind of magical augmentation to his memory, because it was the kind of thing I didn’t remember saying.

“Which, again, means that it’s not Earth,” I said. “You and I grew up on an Earth where there were no magical items being brought up by a secret government organization in the Pacific Northwest.”

“This again?” asked Uther. “It’s a way back to Earth, the only way back to Earth that I’ve ever seen even a hint of.”

“I don’t want to keep saying it,” I said. “But I need to understand why you think it’s a good idea to even try, why Earth was worth abandoning Aerb for.”

“The second time,” said Uther as we walked through the stacks of books. “The second time I tried to leave Aerb for Earth, I was going to take my wife and children with me. I had an entad to keep the children safe, at least for as long as it kept working, but my wife insisted on being by my side. The lower half of her body had been replaced by an entad of my own creation, with legs like a spider, replacing not just her hips and limbs, but nearly her entire digestive system as well, everything below her rib cage. Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to breathe.”

“And what?” I asked as we approached the door. “You were just hoping that it would keep working?”

“I was,” he replied. “I was desperate to escape the cycles of adventure. I’d thought that the establishment of the First Empire would have been enough, once the fires had been put out, but it all kept going and showed no signs of stopping. The world was larger than just the kingdom I’d started in, larger than the surrounding continents, enormous in the context of Earth, but even after that, there were the various planes and realms, new spaces to explore and deal with, a whole other side to Aerb with a hostile and resilient empire of its own, always more and more and more. So yes, I was hoping that my wife would be able to make the trip with me, or that we would find some kind of solution to her illness. Instead, we made it to the third Landing before her entad gave out, and from there I was in a rush to return to Aerb, giving up the dream of Earth so that my children wouldn’t be deprived of their mother.”

“But you did leave them in the end,” said Amaryllis. “You left them, and all of Aerb.”

“Once they were all grown,” replied Uther. “My sons had grandchildren, who I was often too busy to see, and they had their own concerns, separate from mine. My daughter was an adventurer in her own right, and it was fairly clear that she was going down a different path than I’d gone down.” He cast a glance at Amaryllis, but swallowed whatever comparison he was going to make. “My wife gave her blessing for me to leave, and my obligation to her was the only one I felt truly bound by.”

He came to the door and stopped. “And that brings us to now. My time on Aerb has run its course. I’m being offered a new Aerb, one that’s five hundred years advanced, with all new adventures and problems, a successor empire to wrangle into submission, an Anglecynn court filled with descendants, new technologies, and shades of Earth. I refuse that offer. This is my last adventure.” He punctuated that declaration by opening the door.

Beyond lay the next Landing.

“You went hard on these Landings, huh?” asked Reimer.

“What does ‘going hard’ mean in this case?” asked Craig.

“Meaning, his worldbuilding muscle was fully erect,” replied Reimer with a laugh.

“You know that the penis isn’t a muscle, right?” asked Arthur. “It’s important to me that you know that.”

“What I meant was that Joon is really playing up the Landings,” said Reimer. “I mean, when the Long Stairs was pitched to us, it was a series of disconnected rooms, right? And strangely, no stairs at all?”

“They’re metaphorical stairs,” I said.

“Sure, but like … the Landings are these little cities, disconnected from the rooms,” said Reimer. “I was thinking they would be more cohesive, fit in a bit better? Like, if there was some kind of anchor you could produce with enough effort that would be able to lock a bunch of rooms together, and the Landings would be like, I don’t know, cities or something that were built around the anchors.”

That was actually a brilliant idea, and I saved it away for later. “Sorry to disappoint, I guess.”

“Nah, it’s fine,” said Reimer. “They’re like … really big, important rooms with more to explore and do. I wasn’t complaining, just, not what I’d expected. I like that you went hard on them. It’s like stopping in on a different world entirely, like we’re astronauts.” He looked at Arthur. “What’s Latin for ‘stairs’?”

“I’ve got no fucking idea,” replied Arthur. “Why do you think I speak Latin?”

“You’re interested in law stuff, right?” asked Craig.

“Sure, but that’s like twenty or so words,” said Arthur. I could see him mentally working through what the actual number was.

“Looks like it would be ‘scalar’,” said Reimer, looking up from his phone. “So we’d be scalarnauts.”

“The -naut suffix comes from Greek, not Latin,” said Arthur.

“Fine,” replied Reimer, looking down at his phone again. “Wait, it’s just ‘skales’ then. So scalarnaut is right.”

Arthur shrugged. “I don’t speak Greek either, for the record. Not sure that conjugation is right though. Might be more like ‘scalanaut’ or ‘scalnaut’ or something, if you had to make up a word.”

“The term is canonically ‘delver’,” I said. “I mean, there are two kinds of ways that people talk about things, the official documentation stuff where everything is given a number and designation, and the way the fireteams talk about things, which is usually a bit catchier.”

“And delver is which one?” asked Arthur.

“The latter,” I said. “The official designation for someone who routinely makes trips into the Long Stairs is LST, Long Stairs Traveler. Important mostly because the Long Stairs warps people, sometimes so much that they need cosmetic surgery to rejoin society, other times so much that there’s just no way that’s ever going to be possible.”

“And this Landing,” said Reimer. “The crystal skull place. That’s going to warp us too? Because it says in your RDP that everyone needs to acquire a crystal and put it into their own head before they leave.”

“Sure,” I said. “And you do.”

“But we would know what that means, right?” asked Reimer. “I mean, if it’s RDP, other teams have come down here and done that, so they know the procedures?”

“The acquisition process has been different every time,” I said. “And there have only been three teams that made it back from this Landing. As far as installation and what that means though, you’ll have a hole drilled in your head by one of these people, then have the crystal inserted, after which the hole will be sealed by affixing a gold coin in place and having your medic do healing on it.”

“And this is safe?” asked Arthur. “We’re not going to suffer from, oh, all the stuff you’d think you’d suffer from if primitive people were trepanning you with a crystal?”

“With healing magic, nothing major,” I said. “No psychological types or anything like that.”

“I’m all about crystals in the head,” said Reimer. “Also, how much of this was taken from the Matrix?”

“Five percent,” I replied with a smile. “But with more brutalist, imperfect transhumanism.”

The wet market Landing had been large, a big multi-level building that was maybe the size of a typical American shopping mall, but the crystal Landing was the size of a small city, with buildings like stalactites and stalagmites, giving the whole thing a feeling like you were walking through the maw of a creature with too many teeth. The style was adobe with more curves, and there were a paucity of right angles, which probably contrasted with the facets of the crystals. There was no greenery, nothing living aside from the people, no food, and barely any water.

The people of the crystal Landing had skin the same dun color of their adobe houses, and a skeletal look from their lack of muscles. Their heads were where they were most different from humans though. The tops of their skulls were open, and the multi-hued crystals, each of them shards, were sticking out of the top, packed in. They would reach up and rearrange them sometimes, or take one out to clean or inspect it. Their clothes were simple, woven out of a drab brown that was roughly the same color as their hair. They had hardly any nose at all, but wide mouths, which they breathed out of. Their eyes bulged from their heads, probably to give more room for the crystals.

“Everyone is clear?” asked Amaryllis. “We do our best to negotiate for a good crystal, have them implant it, then get out of here.”

“We have the offensive capacity to fight them,” said Uther, looking over the crystal people. “More than any fireteam.”

“Personally,” said Fenn. “I would rather not have brain surgery, especially if it’s from these guys.” She looked at me. “What kind of horrible thing happens if we try to leave without crystals in our heads?”

“They send out a tracking team that can follow you,” I said. I liked RDP as a concept, but the problem with it was that there needed to be concrete consequences if the players fucked up, and ‘oh, it just TPKs you’ wasn’t very fun. “If you kill one tracking team, they’ll send another, and another, and the only way you’ll be able to avoid them is if you get to Hellmouth.”

“We want that tracking ability, if possible,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s granted to them by the crystals?” asked Uther, looking at me, not her.

“It is,” I nodded. “It’s not complete knowledge of the Long Stairs, but it’s basically, ah, kind of a navigation package? It takes two crystals though, one to know where someone is, the other to path to a thing. They work in concert with each other.”

“All we would need to do is pick someone we know is on Earth,” said Uther. “Then we would have a straight path, without needing to follow any of these asinine rules.”

“In theory,” I said. “But we’d need to find one or more of these tracking teams, then get the crystals installed, then hope that Earth is close enough that we can name a person.” This was all in the Long Stairs Plan, at least in skeletal form.

“There are people named in the mapping book,” said Amaryllis.

“Fair point,” I said. “I guess that’s what we’re going for then.”

“I’ve already been altered by these people once,” said Uther, looking out over the city. “That’s how I became an omniglot.”

Raven turned to him. “You never said.” It wasn’t quite an accusation.

“I said only that it was something that needed to be kept secret,” replied Uther, not looking at her. “And I believed that to be true. The Long Stairs, and the connection to Earth, were something I took great pains to not reveal to anyone. So far as I know, I was the first person to go through the door, and I built a disguised vault around it after I came back out.” Whatever the big climactic battle had been, I was pretty sure there’d been nothing of the sort, though that wasn’t very surprising. “Still, if you are here, it’s likely that others will follow. All the more reason to hurry along.”

“Others?” asked Raven.

“My sons both followed me down, wanting my blessing for their rule, wanting advice,” he said. “I sent them away. It was those long conversations that made me think I might escape into the future to continue my journey, though the rule of three had been invoked and found wanting.” He clapped his hands together. “So, shall we go shopping for crystals?”

“Lead the way, I guess,” I said.

When Uther had said he was an omniglot, he had apparently meant it without qualifiers. The speech of the crystal people was like nothing I had ever heard before. When I tried, my mouth couldn’t even make the right noises. Uther was doing it through vibration magic, but he was far, far more skilled than I was, and I’d run down my supply of breath by pulsing on magic vision every now and then. Maybe if I’d had time to play around with it I’d have been able to figure out efficiently generating the chords that made up their language, but that still would have left me unable to speak it.

We followed after him, mostly, and sat around while he conversed with the crystal people. This kind of thing was Uther’s bread and butter, and once upon a time, in the campaigns I’d run, it had been Arthur’s bread and butter too. He loved to talk to people, to make deals, to figure out what they wanted or how they operated. Of course, I was the one coming up with all the people, the same actor with a thousand different faces and personalities, and for the most part, I was amenable to diplomatic solutions, even if it was better if there was some combat sprinkled in there somewhere.

I wondered whether following behind him, unable to understand, was how his Knights felt, and decided that it probably was. Then I wondered whether that was how the other players had felt at the table, and … well, mostly they had been fucking off, or getting in their jokes, so I thought probably not. I made a mental note to speak with Reimer and Tiff about it, if I ever saw them again.

“There’s a problem,” said Uther, after an extended conversation with one of the crystal people. “The tracking crystals are held by only a select few and regulated by their government, such as it is. If we kill one and steal their crystals, we’ll need to do it quietly so as not to alert the guard, because otherwise we won’t be able to make it through installation.”

“And we’re all doing this?” asked Fenn. “We’re all getting black market crystals through the brain? Because that seems insane, even for us.”

“I’ve already done it,” replied Uther, tapping his head. “And I’m as sane as they come.” He gave Fenn a grin, and maybe it was my imagination, but there was a faint flirtatiousness that I didn’t like. “Our other option is to deal with the kill teams as they come, or kill our way through enough of these people that they won’t send a kill team. Either would do, I think, but getting the tracking crystals for ourselves seems like it gives us the shortest path back to Earth.”

“We can’t kill these people,” said Raven. “They’ve done nothing wrong.”

“They would track us and attempt to kill us if we left without adding modifications to our brains,” said Uther. “I would hardly call that ‘nothing wrong’. You’d have us instead enter into protracted peaceable negotiations with these people? They consider me little more than a mongrel, and the rest of you are protected from slavery only by virtue of our obvious physical might. There are humans here, from Earth, living in thrall to the crystalids.”

Raven gave him a sour look, but had no rebuttal. I assumed that Uther had been telling the truth, because it was the kind of thing that I would have included in this place, if it had gotten enough playtime to be fleshed out. Three teams had returned from the Landing, which meant that some unknown number had gotten there and then been killed, captured, or worse. It wouldn’t have been a particular surprise that there was a fireteam somewhere in the city, stripped of their gear and working as menial slaves.

“If there are human prisoners, we should go free them,” said Amaryllis.

Uther gave a beleaguered sigh. “A quest,” he said.

“We have the one book,” said Amaryllis. “They might have another, which would let us compare and find areas of information rot. They might have expertise in the ways and means of the Long Stairs, codes that they might be able to give us.”

“I’m not saying the premise is thin,” said Uther. “But it’s clear you’re stalling for time, hoping that I’ll change my mind about Aerb.”

“Then you misunderstand me,” said Amaryllis. “You misunderstand me quite a bit, if you think that it’s ‘clear’. Aerb is dead and gone. There is only the Long Stairs, and Earth.”

Uther stared at her for a moment. “Do you think it was a dark curse that made you so much like her?” he asked. “A cloning program? Some magic to pull her from the weave of space and time?” He shook his head. “Another quest. Always another quest.” He seemed to be considering it, as though he wanted to get to the bottom of a mystery. “No, the two we need are there,” he pointed to one of the larger stalactite houses. “I’ll go there, kill them, take their crystals, and we’ll have them installed.”

“They’ll have telepathy,” I said.

“They will?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “I mean, I would have included it. Maybe not high-powered instant information transfer, but if they’re going to be sending kill teams after the party, then yeah, they should have some way of knowing whether it was working or not. So maybe not strict telepathy, I guess, but they’d need the equivalent of radio, which doesn’t work in the Long Stairs, and if they have the crystals anyway … then sure, I would expect them to have telepathy crystals of some kind.”

“So we’ll need to kill them quickly,” nodded Uther. He pulled the amulet of non-detection from nowhere in particular and paused for a moment. “I’ll be back quickly.”

And then the amulet was on him, and there was no sign that he had been there at all.

“He used to feel bad about killing guards and soldiers,” said Raven. “He was slow to get to this point. As time went on, he had less patience for those who had put their life on the line for a cause or a coin. The problem of what to do with guards … you’ve run across it yourself, Juniper. Uther wrote about it in Degenerate Cycles, how the same problem gets revisited from different angles multiple times to show different facets and aspects, until eventually there’s nothing left to learn from it, nothing to show, everything drawn from it.”

“And this is what he settled on?” I asked.

“It’s the most expedient,” replied Amaryllis. “Killing goes quickly. He probably wouldn’t put it in those terms, but he already doesn’t think that any of it is real. The need to be morally upstanding goes away when you think that you’re the center of a world which keeps setting up challenges for you.”

“But we agree that’s what the world is, don’t we?” asked Raven. She turned to me. “The Dungeon Master said as much to you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, kind of, in a sense. The uh, … the reality or irreality of everything is the kind of thing that I don’t think we want to spend too much time dwelling on, and which I think Uther has spent a lot of time dwelling on. The Dungeon Master’s own actions make more sense if the reality he’s created isn’t real, I guess. It would mean he’s only a little monster, not a big monster, if we’re thinking intent matters.”

“And you think there’s a chance that’s true?” asked Raven. “That this, all of this, is fake?”

“Well,” I said. “Fake is a strong word. ‘Virtual’ seems like it would be more likely, even if there would be a lot of problems there, and it would need tech so astronomical that it would basically be magic. But a virtual world wouldn’t be ‘fake’, really. I mean, at least as I’ve always seen it, the mind runs on the hardware of the brain. Change the hardware — and that’s probably harder than it probably sounds — but you’d still get something like the mind. The only reasons you couldn’t replicate a world in silicon are technical, economic, and moral.”

“You’re ceding too much ground to him,” said Raven.

“Well, I’m not trying to convince him that the world is real,” I said. “I’m not even trying to convince him that his actions have consequences. I just want to … to talk to him, I guess. To get him to sit down and to explain things to him, and have him explain back.”

“And that’s what you think we’re here for?” asked Raven, folding her arms. “The world is dying.”

“I’m here for that too,” I said. “But bringing Uther back to continue his adventures, so he can play Atlas with the world on his shoulders for another few decades … I can see how he’d think that was what we showed up for, but I can’t imagine that the point of all this was for us to do that to him. Or, I can imagine that it was the point, but I don’t feel like it’s something I’m therefore obligated to do.”

Bethel appeared beside us, frowning slightly. “Then you’ll take him to Earth?” she asked.

“Are you okay?” asked Fenn.

“I’ll be fine so long as no one inquires after me,” said Bethel, shooting Fenn a frosty look. There was some of the old Bethel there, the Bethel who couldn’t stand the thought of being seen as weak. It was no surprise that it had resurfaced, given what had happened. I still thought that Uther deserved a punch in the face for it, or some more severe comeuppance.

“I’ll follow him to Earth,” I said. “Or I’ll convince him to come back to Aerb. But if I do that, it won’t be because I’m trying to convince him that the degenerate cycles are good, it’s because I’ll have found some way to stop them altogether.”

“And does such a way exist?” asked Uther, who appeared next to us as he took off the amulet. As he did, Bethel vanished.

“Not yet, no,” I said. “I’ll think of something.”

“We need to discuss how much further we’re going in the Long Stairs,” said Grak.

“To Earth,” replied Uther, looking at Grak as though he’d forgotten Grak existed.

“You are,” replied Grak. “I do not want to risk going past where warding works. Do you know where that is?”

“Somewhere between here and the next Landing,” replied Uther.

“Hrm,” replied Grak. He looked at me. “There are two options. Either I will go with you until warding fails, then return here, or I will stay here while you go ahead.”

“Ah,” I said. “Second option seems a lot safer for you, so I guess I’m going with that. But … are you sure? I mean, to come all this way and then turn back?”

“Warding is my skill,” said Grak. “It is my contribution to the team and my ultimate defense against harm. Without it, the risk that I would die rises dramatically. I’ve sparred with Amaryllis. I’m not the warrior she is, and she pales in comparison to the rest of you.”

Amaryllis nodded.

“Okay,” I said. “If you’re sure. I mean, the whole trip is voluntary, always was.”

I had seen the looks that passed between Amaryllis and Grak, and wished that I had been a snoop and listened in on their conversations. My hunch was that he wasn’t just leaving because he thought he was going to be useless, he was leaving because Amaryllis had convinced him that was where the narrative was going. Grak wasn’t useless without his warding, I was pretty sure he knew that, but he was right that he would be taking a larger hit to power than anyone else.

“I hope you don’t take this as abandonment,” said Grak. “I will wait a month for you. Then I will head back on my own and assume you are dead.”

“I attacked and killed four men in there,” said Uther, gesturing at one of the buildings that hung from the ceiling. “That might create a problem for you.” He looked down at the amulet in his hands, then passed the amulet of nondetection to Grak.

“This is too generous a gift,” said Grak, not taking it.

“It’s served its function,” said Uther. “I always make sure not to use any particular trick too many times. Besides, I don’t expect it to have much life in it once we go further into the Long Stairs.”

Grak slowly took the amulet from him, looking it over with what I assumed was warder’s sight. “Thank you,” he said with a low bow.

“Anyone else want to hole up with Grak?” I asked, looking at the others. <Anyone?> I didn’t let my eyes go to the ring on my finger, but I was definitely thinking about Bethel. She was shutting down by degrees, that much was clear, I could see that, and if she wanted to escape from Uther, given she couldn’t properly confront him any more than we already had, I wasn’t about to blame her. I looked at Raven. “You’re not going to be able to make it all the way,” I said. “And the next Landing … I guess you could drop off there too, if you need to.”

“I’m going all the way,” said Raven. “To Earth, if that’s what it takes to bring Uther home.”

“It might kill you,” I said. “I mean, you could go from living to dead in an instant.” I tried not to think too much about what that would look like.

“Then I’ll die,” Raven replied. Her eyes burned into my own. Uther, for his part, was looking away, giving the whole conversation some distance, as though it didn’t concern him.

“Fenn?” I asked.

“Do you really think so little of me that you think I wouldn’t speak up if I didn’t want to come?” she asked. “I’m going to Earth too, unless the going gets tough.”

“Then let’s go,” said Uther. He held up a handful of crystals. “We still need to get these installed.”

I was, strangely, not very frightened of the whole process. I should have been, and briefly considered that there might be some effect preventing my natural reaction, but I guess I was kind of treating it like a visit to the doctor’s office, or the dentist. It wasn’t going to be pleasant, but I was putting my faith in the process, the same way I did when the doctor told me to go take some pills. Just like then, it wasn’t like I could do my own independent verification, so why worry?

A lot of that faith went out the window when I saw the thing that was going to do the surgery. It wasn’t a doctor at all, but a bulky arm sprouting up from the center of a round room. Back on Earth, there were surgical robots, and it seemed like maybe it was inspired by one of those. It got narrower along the ten or so joints, until it terminated in ‘fingers’ that themselves had forks, like a hand with each finger having its own hand. There was a chair right in front of it, and a table of implements that the grotesque hand could reach for. I looked down, at the point where the thing came up from the floor, and it was clear that there was something down there, some larger organism of indeterminate size that was sticking this complicated hand-thing through a hole. I couldn’t see any eyes, so how it was going to sense me while it was doing the operation was in question.

“Uh,” I said. I’d been led into the room by one of the crystal people, with my two crystals in hand.

“Place the crystals on the table and sit down,” said a voice from a hole in the wall. It was in perfect English, most likely thanks to the same omniglot crystal that Uther already had in him. So far as I could tell, most of the crystal people seemed to see us as poor unfortunates.

I placed the two crystals down and sat in the chair, though my nerves were definitely getting to me. We had never actually gotten to this part of things when I’d run the campaign, and they’d only been to the Landing once, which was enough to play out all the things I found interesting. The room with the crazy surgery claw seemed familiar, but it was from the first iteration of the campaign, ages ago, and it had never been used. I couldn’t remember if I had come up with mechanics for it, but if I had … you wouldn’t want to outright kill a player, you wanted to give them a complication of some kind. At its most basic, that would be reduced health, but there were lots of complications you could throw at someone. Or maybe, if the crystals had been hard-won, it would be fine to present them as a kind of boon.

I accepted my fate though. There was a chance that we should have just risked the kill-teams, especially with Uther having killed a fair number of the crystal people already, but they would become more of a problem the further up the Long Stairs we got, and handling them when we were, presumably, just baseline humans might have been a real problem. Besides, this way we’d have a way to make a beeline toward the top, or as much as you could do that in the Long Stairs.

The hand went for the table and hesitated, its fingers moving in mid-air as it seemed to decide what it was going to do. That wasn’t particularly encouraging. Even less encouraging was when the hand went down to the table and began feeling for the tools, touching various handles, which I noticed had little notches on them to differentiate them.

The conclusion that the hand was blind was reinforced when it used one of its fingers to feel around in the air until it touched my head, then carefully, gingerly, held my head in place. Another part of the hand picked up a variety of tools from the table, blades and chisels, touching the tips of them briefly to check for sharpness.

“Anesthetic?” I asked.

There was no response from whoever was monitoring the procedure. Uther hadn’t mentioned any pain, but it was possible it had slipped his mind. I held as still as I possibly could, trying to avoid anything that would cause this device or creature to fuck things up.

There was no pain. The sensation was, instead, like someone applying an ice cube to my forehead, cold but not overly so, and then there was some shifting of the skin there, tugging one way and then the other. I was fully conscious for all of it, and saw a piece of my skull, flesh still attached to it, removed and set in place on the work table. The part of the hand that wasn’t holding my head picked up one of the crystals, again blindly feeling for it like it had done with the instruments, then inserted it into my head at full speed, like a windmill slam. I felt nothing, but suddenly had the awareness of where Fenn was, though it didn’t extend much beyond a general directionality and distance. There was some other ability attached to it, allowing me to switch who my target was, but before I could experiment, the second crystal was slammed in next to the first. It didn’t seem like there would have been enough room in my head for one of them, let alone two, but there were some kind of space shenanigans going on. The second crystal gave me the path to Fenn, detailed down to specific instructions on how to open the door, and it took me a moment to figure out how to shut the blaring information out.

The arm replaced the piece of my skull, then worked at the spot on my forehead with its tools. I waited, idly testing my new abilities, and eventually, the voice from the wall told me to be on my way.

“That was surprisingly pleasant,” I said, touching the spot on my forehead. There was no sign that anything had happened there. The skin had been repaired and the bone had been healed. It wasn’t the kind of messy transhumanism that I usually favored, it was just … done, without any apparent complication.

Amaryllis was the next to go in, and I turned my new ability to her as the door closed behind her, which gave me a sudden sharp headache. “Ow,” I said.

“Problem?” asked Fenn.

“Crystal’s not equipped to handle someone in several places at once,” I said. “They were trying to guide me to her and all of her clones back on Aerb.”

“Meaning you saw a path?” asked Fenn.

“No,” I replied. “Just a painful confusion. Fuck.” I’d switched back to tracking Fenn almost immediately. “It’s a two crystal system,” I said. “Pretty sure the problem is with the first crystal, trying to say where she is, because she’s in thirty fucking places at once.”

“Clones?” asked Uther. “Powerful magic. While we wait, would you mind telling me how it’s done?” He took out his wand from extradimensional space and began putting up wards, which I thought was more out of habit than for any real practical reason. I waited until he was done.

“Part of the game system,” I said. “She can concentrate for a bit to make one, then concentrate to merge in their experiences.”

“But in terms of what’s happening at the lower level?” asked Uther.

“We don’t know,” I said. “Probably nothing. It’s like an entad that you can’t take away from her.”

Uther narrowed his eyes. “So you’re saying she’s a witch.”

“Uh,” I said. “Is that a joke?”

He cocked his head to the side and looked at me. “Don’t you remember that one? We used to do it all the time in the Magus Europa campaign.”

“Ah,” I said. “Guess I forgot.”

Fenn was the next to go in, after giving Amaryllis a very careful inspection to make sure that she was lucid and not profusely bleeding.

Once Amaryllis was out, she did almost the exact same thing that I had done, which was to grip her head in pain before recovering.

“Yeah,” I said. “I can’t track you, I think it’s because of the copies. Sorry, I should have warned you.”

“Then why doesn’t it work when I try it on you?” asked Amaryllis.

I frowned, then tried using the power on myself, and got the same instant splitting headache. “Ow,” I said. “Once Fenn gets out we’ll find out whether you can use the power on yourself, just to clear up whether that’s the issue. Seems like something QA could miss.”

“That still wouldn’t explain why I can’t use it on you,” said Amaryllis.

“Naively, we should expect a second Juniper,” said Uther. He pointed up, which was, by agreement, the direction we were pretending Earth was.

“Huh,” I said. Then, “No. Or, I guess … I can disambiguate the two Reimers, the Earth one and the Aerb one. Same with Tiff. They’re not copies, so maybe it’s different, but if there’s a Juniper up on Earth, then … he shouldn’t be the same as me.”

“Another mystery,” sighed Uther. “Another intriguing complication designed to pull us from the path toward Earth.” He gave me a faint smile. “Can you see how desperate it is?”

“If it were true,” I said.

“You don’t deny that the world is fake,” said Uther. “You’ve spoken to its architect, as I have. What more is there to question?”

I kept my thoughts to myself. There was loads more to question, different aspects that could be tugged at, but he didn’t want to hear any of it. I didn’t think that our team was specifically designed to pull him back, but I could see how it might look like that to him. And he had been through hundreds of quests and experienced this kind of thing before, or if not the specific aspect of fleeing to Earth, then probably some others that seemed similar. Trying to debate it with him, at this stage, seemed like it would be foolish.

We went through, one by one, all but Grak, who had said his goodbyes and found lodging in a different part of the Landing. Further testing confirmed that Amaryllis and I were the only ones that the tracking didn’t work on, and while the fact that she had clones who were functionally ‘her’ seemed like the obvious reason it didn’t work on her, it was still a mystery why it didn’t work on me. Another Juniper, somewhere, was the best theory we had, but who, where, and why were all open questions. It was entirely possible there was a Juniper up on Earth, one close enough to me that he counted as being the same, which was a weird thought.

When we were done, and everyone was modded, we left the Landing. There was a chance that they would send kill teams after us anyway, but most of them were dead, and Uther had done his part to make the killings untraceable. The amulet of non-detection, now in Grak’s care, erased forensic evidence, not that the crystal people had that in spades. Still, it was a disquieting insight into how Uther dealt with things, and didn’t bode well for what might come next.

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Worth the Candle, ch 240: The Long Haul

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