The third Landing was a maze, one of such great size that traveling through it, even on the correct path, was going to take a while. The walls were a hundred feet tall and twenty feet apart, featureless dark grey, capped with regular lighting that gave a hostile, institutional vibe. It was all laid out in a circle, but it was big enough that the curvature wasn’t the most obvious thing about it. The maze was, by design, incredibly boring, except that people lived there, and had pretty much taken the whole place over.
We had the crystals in our skull, which I hoped wasn’t an Indiana Jones reference, so the maze portion of things wasn’t all that relevant to us, it was simply a matter of following the steps as laid out for us.
“How confident are we in this alien pathfinding?” asked Amaryllis.
“Not very,” I said.
“But how long could the maze really take to walk if you were just brute forcing it?” asked Fenn. “Weeks? Months?”
“There are people here who believe that the maze is the entirety of their universe,” said Uther. “Toward the center, there are tribes for whom any expedition that might have any remote hope of reaching the outside walls would be the equivalent of sending a galleon across the Atlantic in the 1400s. Perhaps not impossible, but so costly and dangerous that no one would ever do it.”
“That seems a bit extreme,” frowned Fenn.
“To walk the entirety of the maze would take decades,” I said. “The place was supposed to be so massive that it could serve as a brick wall unless you had help.”
“Any particular reason that people haven’t just marked up the place?” asked Fenn, who had definitely not read up on the Long Stairs as much as she was supposed to.
“If you follow markings, you’re liable to run into traps or trouble,” I said. “Or just end up at Wall Drug.”
“When we get to Earth, I’m going to Wall Drug,” said Fenn. “First stop.”
“You understand Wall Drug sucks, right?” I asked. “I’ve been there like three or four times. It’s a successful advertising campaign, that’s all it is. It’s a place you go only so you can say that you went there, and because there’s fuck all to do when driving across South Dakota.”
“Still,” said Fenn. “You want me to be a normie and go visit the Statue of Liberty?” She paused for a second. “Wait, I just realized I’m not American.”
“Just now?” asked Amaryllis.
“There are going to be military guys at the Earth end of this trip, right?” asked Fenn. “Surely they have some kind of immigration and naturalization policy for people who come up from the depths of the spooky dungeon.”
“They probably have vivisection policies,” I said. “Or maybe it’s in an era where they don’t do that anymore, I guess. MRI, definitely, sedated to get a clear image, since that’s a method for detecting some of the anomalous mental disorders.” I looked at Uther. “You really think that they would just let you go? Or are you planning to fight your way through without any magic? I mean … you’re dead, up on Earth.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m hoping that they let me through. I’m hoping for a return. An end to it all.”
The words echoed in my head. “Not sure that’s going to work,” I said weakly.
“You understand it doesn’t matter?” asked Uther. “Whatever happens when I get back up there, it’s part of the contract of narrative that I be put back into my old life, even if that makes no sense. Perhaps it will be a matter of RDP that they give the people found in the Long Stairs a good, normal Earth life. I don’t care how it’s done, but it will be done. The narrative’s not complete without it. And if the Dungeon Master continues his reach to Earth and uses me as his plaything, then I will have done everything in my power under the structures presented to me to stop it.”
We took a left without even discussing it. Oddly, it had been all lefts from the moment we’d come through, which did seem a little suspect. The first time we got directed down a dead end and were instructed to double back, we would know that something was up, but I really hoped that “just always turn left” wasn’t the kind of algorithmic complexity we were dealing with. If it was, we were going to have some problems getting through the maze. I wondered how the crystal people did it, but it was way too late to ask them.
“Problem up ahead,” said Uther. He put his hand to the wall. “There’s a fight.” He sighed. It was, I supposed, the kind of thing that he’d been through a hundred times before. We’d even been through it twice in the Long Stairs already, looking in on big fights between two sides where we didn’t have any actual stake in the matter. There, we’d left them alone, but there was a chance that wouldn’t be possible in the maze, not if they were part of some organized society. Or maybe we would just resist taking a side and cut our way through, killing all witnesses. Uther hadn’t done that yet, but the incident with the crystal people had raised my war crime senses.
The scene we came on would have been utterly confusing, if I hadn’t been the one to design it. There was a thick layer of soil on the ground, and fir trees growing up toward the lights that were high overhead. There were dozens of people among the trees, fighting with each other using mostly crude wooden tools — tools, not weapons, things that were used for some other work but picked up for combat because needs must. One side was men and women with red skin, all of them lanky and missing their lower jaws, with bulbous noses. The other side were a more eclectic mix of the Long Stairs species, including two of the crystal people and one of the elf replacements.
It was a resource war. Trees took a very long time to grow, and timber was the only real building material available in the maze. Anyone who built a tree farm was extremely forward thinking, though it was entirely possible that something like this could occur naturally if the corridor was left alone for long enough. The fact that all the trees I could see were still standing was a good sign that this particular war was recent, since one side or the other presumably wanted to cut them down.
“Who are we siding with?” asked Uther. “They both seem equally poorly armed.”
“We might be able to bypass this,” I said, frowning at the fight. They were killing each other, and the opportunity for intervention was closing. Looking at it logically, we should help the people who weren’t ethnically homogenous, because they were the ones most likely to accept humans into their midst. I looked to Uther. “How well do you think you could disarm them and make the fighting stop?”
Uther frowned at the battle, then sprang forward, fast as the wind. When he descended on someone, it was like they’d been struck by lightning, and they were invariably left dazed on the ground, largely uninjured. Sometimes he used his sword to cut apart their implements, but other times he would slap them across their face with the flat of his blade, somehow avoiding cutting them in the process. I rushed over to join him, not that I could match his feats, and as I was on my way over, dozens of arrows went over my head and into the melee, pinning people to trees and knocking weapons from hands, mostly just so Fenn could demonstrate her prowess.
By the time I got there, the fighting had died down and the yelling had picked up. Amaryllis almost immediately began administering marzipan fairies to the wounded, pantomiming that they should eat them. Once the first of them began healing, the rest noticed and began following suit, often with a rush of words I couldn’t understand from the others.
Uther held forth. I couldn’t understand a word he said. We hadn’t gotten any of the new polyglot crystals, which was an immeasurable disappointment, because I wanted that far more than the tracking ones. He was switching between languages, holding a conversation with both sides at once, and from what I could gather, both mediating a ceasefire and serving as translator. Of course, a ceasefire was a lot easier to organize when you’d just single-handedly demonstrated that you could personally kill all forty-some people in the general vicinity before any of them could escape.
“Alright,” he finally said. “It’s handled. This corridor has valuable trees, and they’ve been fighting over them. Today was the day that the reds were going to harvest all of them, which is why the blues came in to stop them, not because they wanted the wood, but because they’re a natural wonder of the maze and, in a roundabout way, they understand that trees provide air.” He sighed. “It’s so boring, do you understand that Juniper? Did you read Degenerate Cycles at all?”
“I did,” I said. “Eventually you run out of things to say, and if you keep pushing the cycles beyond that, it will be flat and emotionless repeats, even if the context is different. Each new cycle must either shed light on some new thing or give different illumination to something in the past, and eventually even the new things start to look like the old things. It seemed kind of like an argument against immortality. You used to hate those.”
“Well,” he replied. “I still do. But life as a whole is not about conflicts and their resolutions. Life doesn’t need to be about what’s new. When I talked about living forever, I wasn’t thinking about having to solve new and interesting conflicts. I was thinking of pleasant but ultimately unimportant days. But that, of course, would be the obliteration of narrative. The stakes would be nonexistent, and that would be fine. I just never believed that anhedonia would be a real problem, which is what people always went back toward. And on Aerb, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was the stakes, the risk, the conflict, the danger.” He gestured in the direction of the fight he’d stopped, with the people gathered in their own two groups among the trees. “This wasn’t interesting or a challenge, so it has no role in the narrative. It wasn’t pleasant to solve their disputes, but it’s the kind of thing I could handle. Unfortunately, for there to be a real conflict, there need to be stakes, and those stakes are inclined to increase over time. And even then I might have endured, save for the falseness of it all, the way that everything was planned and choreographed.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sure. But you don’t think it’s all at an end here? I mean, you could return to Aerb, and the narrative would be over.”
“You said things were bad there,” said Uther. “I’ve heard claims that there are problems that require my intervention. It’s a call to adventure, levied against someone who has responded to thousands of them.”
“So what was your solution?” asked Raven, looking at the trees. “One group wanted the trees for lumber, the other for oxygen, how did you split the difference?”
“By the terms I negotiated, they’ll hold off on gathering the lumber until there are enough saplings to replace them,” said Uther. “Who knows whether that agreement will hold, but raw might was enough to get them to agree to it. I didn’t suggest that I would personally murder everyone here if they didn’t come to an agreement, but they could imagine it, I’m sure.”
“And now?” I asked. “Do we have some lead if the crystals are foiled by having complex pathfinding?”
“None at all,” replied Uther. “The Conguine are likely to be more friendly to us. They have a city not too far from here that we could visit, if we find ourselves taking too long of a path. Neither side so much as acknowledged that there was an exit. When I mentioned it, it seemed to be a bit of a faux pas. It’s very possible that the crystals will guide us through there anyhow. The Conguine control much of this area, particularly the surrounding choke points.”
“And which are the Conguine?” I asked. “The motley crew or the red skins? Okay, now that I say it, red skins is probably not appropriate.”
“It’s what their name translates to,” shrugged Uther. “And their skin is quite literally red. But no, the Conguine are the other ones. From what I can tell, they’re hippies.”
“Conguine as opposed to sanguine?” I asked. “Meaning, uh, with blood?”
“It’s my own translation,” replied Uther. “And it would be ‘con’ as in ‘together’. One Blood might have been better, though less literal.”
“And they’re concerned primarily with keeping the maze as a living ecosystem?” I asked.
“From what they say, yes,” replied Uther. “I don’t care one way or another. The Long Stairs are even less real than Aerb is. There’s some permanence with regards to the Landings, but not all that much. Whether this place lives or dies is immaterial.”
“Let’s keep going then,” I replied. I didn’t like that kind of talk, not just because of what he was saying about Aerb, but because I cared whether the ecosystem inside the maze continued. How could you not be fascinated by whole civilizations living inside a maze, with no building wider than twenty feet, with farms built in strips, and all kinds of other things?
<How are you doing?> I asked Bethel as we walked.
<I’ve been thinking,> she replied.
I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, whether it was an invitation for me to ask for more information or not. I stayed quiet, allowing her time to think. I really should have handed her off to someone else, because there was no reason she should have been my responsibility, but some perverse part of me really did think of her as needing protection from Uther. None of us could possibly beat him in a fight, but I came the closest, and I thought maybe he would listen to me more than the others.
<I want to come with you,> she said. <The others are going to be left behind as we ascend. I will lose function. I can tell already that my mind is shutting down, piece by piece. While I’m still able to make plans, I want to let you know that I want to go all the way. When I’m only an entad, use me to help you stay alive and to see Uther to his destination.>
<Okay,> I replied.
I waited for more, but there was nothing.
I took the toad down from his perch on my shoulder and looked at him, first making sure that all his flowers and leaves and moss and things were still there, and then into his eyes. “How about you?” I asked. “Are you coming to the top, if that’s where we’re going? Can you?”
The toad blinked at me, then hopped back up onto my shoulder, seeming annoyed that he’d been moved. I was pretty sure that he was capable of turning into a human if he wanted to, just like the other locus, but he felt no particular need to. I was less sure that he was capable of speech, or even understanding speech, but there was no way to get a real answer.
When that was finished, Amaryllis came to stand beside me. “I have a confession,” she said as we walked. There was a lot of walking in this Landing. The corridors were pretty bare, because these were places that no one had taken over for their own. The tree farm, it seemed, had been placed where it was in order to be out of the way. “I don’t really understand the appeal of this place.”
“I wouldn’t want to live here,” I said. “But I’d guess you’re talking about some other kind of appeal?”
“You created it because you found it compelling,” said Amaryllis. “What’s compelling about it? What is there for people to like about it?”
“I can field this one,” said Fenn.
“Can you?” I asked.
“Oh, sure,” replied Fenn. “You see, back in 2016, there was a factory game called Factorio, and in Factorio, there were a variety of world settings, and one of these settings was for world height, and you could set it very low if you wanted. If you set it low enough, that was called a ribbon world, and it was Juniper’s favorite thing ever, at least for a few days. It was the constraint of it, the absurdity of it that he loved, a basic concept taken to its very extreme, or at least to the extreme that still allowed things to get interesting. He saw these ribbon worlds and a whole region of his little teenage brain lit up, like someone had set off the flashbulb in there, and he started drawing up plans while he should have been paying attention to school, plans for how thin a strip of land people could live in, if they had barely any technology at all. He started thinking about these walls,” she gestured to the walls on either side. “And he thought to himself, ‘how close could those walls be, if you could never be in a place that had any wider’, and apparently the number he pulled from a hat was twenty feet, enough that you could make an easy barricade, enough so that you’d have a hard time not noticing someone if they passed by you, enough so that, I don’t know, you could conceivably not die if you had soil and seeds and water and light.” She turned to me. “That was my best Juniper impression, by the way.”
“It was very manic,” I said.
“The timeline wouldn’t have worked,” said Arthur. “Juniper’s brief obsession with ribbon worlds came later. This was here from much earlier on.”
“Fenn is right though,” I said. “The second time we did Long Stairs, the enormous maze was influenced by ribbon world stuff.” When I’d made the connection, I had a brief hour of happiness, the kind I would desperately try and inevitably fail to recapture from the midst of a haze of depression and hatred. “The original was much more focused on ant farms and terrariums, but for people, and as a maze rather than a straight line. But it always was about putting as many possible constraints in as I could while keeping it interesting, pushing things until the point where they would almost break, then pushing them just beyond that so I could see the break happen.”
Uther stopped in his tracks. “That was it,” he said. “That was the part that I was missing.”
“Uh, okay?” I asked.
He turned to me. “I had always thought that it was you, somehow,” said Uther. “They were your worlds, after all, mashed together, refined, and remixed. I thought that it was you, pulling the strings, for whatever reason. But if that was the case, the thing I couldn’t understand was why you would have kept on going, especially after the confrontation with Vervain. Why make a narrative that never ends? Why allow it to go on to the point of absurdity, straining the very boundaries of convention? It was your particular imp of the perverse, that’s why. I don’t know how I never saw it, because when I think of it, it’s the answer to so many questions I had when I looked at the world. Why? The answer, most of the time, must have been because you wanted to push things into uncomfortable places, just to see what would happen.”
I looked at him. He looked like he was about five seconds away from cutting my head off. There was a full, boiling, barely contained rage in him, all directed against me. “It’s not me,” I said, feeling helpless. “I mean, it’s not — I would never do that, not for real. All the game stuff, it was just a game, it wasn’t real, and I’m just as horrified as you at all of it.”
“No,” said Uther. His voice was quiet. “No, you don’t feel the same depth of horror. There’s a part of you that delights in all this, seeing your creations come to life, a world that matches your aesthetic completely.”
“Fine,” I said, feeling defeated. “That’s true. Maybe for me that takes the edge off the horror of being here, of seeing fucked up things come to life. Maybe it takes my mind off a trillion people being tortured forever, or the horribly unjust societies, or the forms of torture, devastation, and cruelty that aren’t even possible on Earth. Fuck, I’m going to take comfort and joy where I can, even if it’s this.”
“It’s narcissism,” said Uther.
I gave a helpless shrug. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Maybe I would feel the same way about Aerb after being there for a few decades, but yeah, the whole world was more or less made with my sensibilities, and I like it. Aerb appeals to me.”
“And the idea of a man endlessly trapped in a narrative, unable to escape?” he asked. “Does that appeal to you too?”
I wanted to say no, but I didn’t want to lie. “It does,” I said. “It’s compelling. I’d never do it to someone, but it’s a story I’d read, a movie I’d watch, something like that. Sure.”
For a second I thought he was going to go for his sword. I’d have understood if he did. His life hadn’t been a living hell, and I didn’t think he’d have said it was, but he was tired of it all, stressed out and broken, and he wanted to go home, or at least to have it all end. To know that some small part of me took some interest in taking absurd things to their logical conclusions … it might have pissed me off too. He didn’t go for his sword though. Instead, he just turned and walked.
We followed him, as we’d been doing.
“He’s not going back,” said Raven. “He’s not returning to Aerb.”
“We don’t need him to,” said Amaryllis. “We only need the narrative to guide us to whatever will allow Juniper to ascend to godhood. We need to get to the end of things.”
“You still believe in all that shit?” asked Fenn. “Even after seeing the man himself?”
“I think I might be the next one out,” said Fenn. “I feel like I need to stay though. Uther looked like he was ready to kill someone, and I’m the only one of us strong enough to beat him.”
“You wouldn’t be able to beat him,” said Raven.
I stayed quiet. My eyes were on the back of Uther’s head, and I was thinking about what he’d said, and what the Dungeon Master had said. ‘Kindred spirits’. I’d have never done any of this to Arthur, but if I were playing with paper dolls, or writing some bit of worldbuilding, or something like that, I definitely might have come up with it. Not for real, no, but if my conception of what I was doing was that it didn’t actually matter … maybe. And if that was true for me, then maybe it was true for the Dungeon Master. I didn’t know if that meant anything. It certainly didn’t shake my confidence in the nature of reality, not that I was particularly attached to any given theory about How The World Really Is.
“Let’s just go,” I said. “See this thing through.” I looked at Raven. “You’re not going to be able to make it to the top.”
“I have to try,” said Raven. “Even if there’s no convincing him to stay, I have to try to follow.”
“I can take Bethel with me if I stay here,” said Fenn. “Also the toad, if you want.”
“Bethel wants to go to the top,” I said. “There’s some risk in that, but the thing that allows her to be this size is the Anyblade, and I’m pretty sure that one can make it all the way to Earth if need be.” Bethel had always claimed to be able to go no smaller than a large staff with a house as part of it, but I had always been skeptical about that. That she was the size of a ring, one with a tiny house on it, seemed like proof she’d lied, early on in her relationship with us. That wasn’t a huge shock.
“How could you know that the Anyblade can make it up?” asked Fenn.
“Because the Anyblade was from the Long Stairs campaign,” I said.
“Ah,” said Fenn. She looked ahead. “Landings are the safest place to be, right? This is probably a good one to camp out at, if I’m out?” It was the second time she’d asked.
“The next one is more hostile, or at least less friendly,” I said.
“It’s a bummer, because I really wanted to see Earth, but I also don’t want to die,” said Fenn. She held up two hands, like she was weighing options. “Well, after you’re god, you can recreate Earth for me, or give me a magical ticket or something, right?” she asked.
“I guess,” I replied. “With the backpack, you’ve already gotten a good sampling of what Earth has to offer. And I wouldn’t recreate people from Earth, so you’d have a bunch of actors.”
“Earth enthusiasts acting out a little mundane play for me?” asked Fenn.
“Eh,” I said. “Non-sentient processes.” I looked ahead to Uther. He was walking some distance ahead of us. “I get the sense he’s not going to be a part of any new world, not even if it’s clear that there won’t be any narrative.” It was sinking in that there might not be anything to do with Arthur, that he’d been too deeply scarred by the world of Aerb and its endless narratives to ever return. There was a chance that our entire trip through the Long Stairs was nothing more than an opportunity for me to say goodbye. It was painful to contemplate. I wanted my friend back, and to the extent he was still there somewhere, we might be only a few days away from him disappearing entirely, beyond my ability to talk to him yet again. He was being an asshole, but I understood it, and beneath it, there was an old friend.
Our crystals led us to a checkpoint, and Uther spoke to the guards there, presumably telling them something about the fight at the tree farm. These people were pretty clearly Conguine, and they let us pass into their territory. The checkpoint was made primarily of wood, and was halfway down a long, straight hallway. Aside from the door and walls, there was a simple framework that went some fifteen feet into the air, where archers were sitting. Fenn gave them a skeptical look, but didn’t boast. I was sure she was thinking of how easy it would have been to snip their bowstrings with a few well-placed arrows, or something equally ridiculous. It wasn’t necessary, because they let us through.
Conguine territory was different from the other parts of the maze we’d seen. It had more plant life, for one thing, though there was a distinct lack of dirt, and most of the plants seemed to be hydroponic, grown in what looked like wooden bowls. Some of it was decorative, but we didn’t need to get too far until we were pretty firmly in agricultural territory, where the vegetation was fairly densely packed. Doing agriculture in twenty foot strips wasn’t quite as crazy as it first sounded, since medieval farmers had used sixty-six foot strips called selions, and crops were planted in rows, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be a yeoman in this kind of environment. There were all kinds of interesting challenges that anyone living in the maze would have to overcome, but very little of the solutions could be seen from a quick glance at the crops. Most of what they were growing seemed to be some kind of lettuce, but there were herbs mixed in too, a few tomato plants, and in one case, bamboo, which I hadn’t even known would grow properly in hydroponics.
We slept, as we had a few times now. Uther seemed to see our sleeping as an imposition, and every time I woke up, the first thing I did was to see whether he was still with us. If he’d wanted to, his best bet would have been to put the amulet of non-detection back on, but he hadn’t done that when he had it. My guess was that while he didn’t particularly want to travel with us, he could see the shape of the narrative, and thought that if he left us behind, he would see us again somehow anyway. Perhaps he would get stuck in a trap, a real one this time.
The first time, back in the rooms, I was pretty sure Raven had taken the opportunity for an extended conversation with him, but I hadn’t been privy to what they said, only to Raven’s eyes, which were red from crying.
This time when I woke up, Fenn was sitting next to Uther, both of them against a wall, speaking to him in hushed tones. Raven was with Amaryllis some ways away, deep in private conversation. We weren’t sleeping very long, and I felt like it had been less than six hours. When I got to my feet, Fenn stood up and came over to me.
“Hey,” she said.
“How’s Uther?” I asked.
“Do you mind if I fuck him?” she asked.
I stared at her. She had a faint smile on her face, like it was a joke, but she often had that look, and often used jokes to cover up her true feelings. “Fenn, you’re your own person. We broke up. It’s none of my business.”
“You’re not even a little jealous?” she asked.
“I’m weirded out,” I said. “But I’ve really been trying to reorient how I think about sex, and — if there were any jealousy, I would be over it in a heartbeat.” I hoped that was true. It felt true.
Fenn turned away, frowning. “I kind of wanted you to be jealous.”
“That would be pretty toxic of me,” I replied, frowning.
“Yeah, well,” she said. She turned back. “I was never going to.”
“No?” I asked.
“I mean, I get why Raven swoons over him,” said Fenn. “But nah, he would be one of those bad decisions that I try not to make anymore.”
“So you asked if I would mind because you were hoping for drama?” I asked. “Because we’ve got a lot on our plate, and I’m kind of trusting you to pull your weight.” I tried to say that as nicely as I could.
“Alright,” said Fenn. “Can I be upfront?”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m getting real frickin’ nervous about this whole thing,” she said. “I want to see Earth, I do, but I also don’t want to die horribly, especially not if it’s just because I’m in the way of the narrative.”
“Okay,” I said slowly.
“Val’s gone, Grak’s gone, Bethel’s fading away,” said Fenn. She looked down at the toad, which was chasing a bug near my feet. “The locus is … I don’t even know.” She looked back up at me. “That’s half the cast, so to speak. And seeing Uther, hearing him, I’m convinced that I’m not in this for the long haul, whether I like that or not.”
“I’m not sure what this has to do with you fucking him, to be honest,” I said.
“I was never going to do that,” said Fenn. “I mean, part of me wants to see whether he’s worth the fuss, but another part of me — this is pathetic, I have to warn you.”
“Consider me duly warned,” I said, nodding.
“I wanted you to put yourself between us and shout, ‘No, that’s my Fenn, and I still care about her’,” said Fenn. She gave me a nervous look.
I hesitated. “Ah.”
“Shit, that’s a heart-breaking response to that,” said Fenn. “I mean, I know you’re married and everything, but I wanted something, some, I don’t know, emotion to still be there.”
“I mean,” I said. “There is. But it’s so grossly, indecently immature for me to treat you like you’re my property.” It was immature of her to want it too, but I kept that thought to myself.
“It’s just what I wanted,” said Fenn, giving a helpless shrug.
“Well, look,” I said, squaring my shoulders. “I care about you deeply. I’m incredibly happy to have you back. But if you sleep with Uther, I’ll kill him, then you, then myself.” I kept my expression as serious as I could.
“Way too far,” said Fenn. She gave me a smile. “But I appreciate the effort.”
“What were the two of you talking about?” I asked.
“Flesh.txt,” said Fenn with a grin. “Sorry.”
When we got on our way, I thought about what Uther had said the day before.
He was right, of course, I did love Aerb, even if you included the Long Stairs. That was part of why I never wanted to return to Earth. I wanted to ask how you could fail to love a place like this maze, with its cramped quarters, strip farming, and built up ‘city’ blocks where everything was vertical by necessity. The inspirations were obvious to me, since there really were buildings that were as thin as twenty feet, though usually spite houses rather than fully practical homes. Here, that was every building. In some of the places that we passed through or by, we were reduced to a little more than three feet of corridor, with the rest of the space of the hallway given over to buildings of one kind or another, some of them with proper doors. The materials limitations meant that the walls were pretty thin, sometimes nothing more than paper, and my guess was that the better living arrangements were up high, accessed by periodic steep staircases or ladders. Better to live where people didn’t need to walk right by your doorway to get to where they needed to go. The best places to live were, naturally, deadends in the maze, but the best place to put a city was at a central junction, so there were some tradeoffs.
I wouldn’t have wanted to live in the maze, not at all, and I wouldn’t have put people in that kind of place, but I loved that I could walk through and see it. My mind immediately dealt with it in the abstract, like it was a math problem to be solved, the equations of society and civilization put into this warped, cramped area, where you only ever got a long sightline when you found a corridor that went for some distance without stopping. The lights never shut off, which was fine for the plants, but not so great for people, and in the places there were structures, there were light shafts that could either deliver light inside or be closed off if someone wanted darkness. There were also some problems with food, which ultimately seemed like they stemmed from a lack of dirt, which in turn came from the fact that when the maze had first begun, it had been barren and sterile. Then people had come, and people had died, and their bodies had decomposed and shriveled up, releasing their bodily materials and moisture into the maze, which eventually accumulated enough that people could start living in the long term.
As we moved through Conguine territory, we got to see some of the processes they used. They had a tool that was something like a squeegee, twenty feet long and pushed by a team of two, who went down an empty corridor. They were gathering up trace stuff that had fallen on the floor, which would then be put into a compost pile and turned into soil. I was fascinated by the whole thing, and wished that I were the omniglot, not that I would have had a chance to stop and ask them questions.
At the same time, I was introspecting on my love for these things, and how it fit in with my role within Aerb, and my relationship with both Arthur and Uther, those two people separated by decades of adventure. I’d never really known why I loved worldbuilding, and had never really thought about it too much. The naive answer was that I liked to distance myself from the world and put things into their ordered, proper place, but I didn’t think that was right, because I really liked messy, complicated worldbuilding that was explicitly not about putting things into order. I liked shades of grey and awkward corner cases. The other naive answer was that it was the same reason other people liked speculative fiction: it was a way of illuminating certain things about the real world that you didn’t normally get to see. I wasn’t really sure though. All I knew was that Aerb hadn’t dampened my enthusiasm at all. If anything, it had heightened it.
In the context of Uther, I could see how that would rankle him, but I wondered if it hadn’t annoyed Arthur too, back when we’d played together. The stuff he’d said about me living in my own little world … it seemed like the kind of thing that might have been at the back of his mind when we were friends. But it wasn’t like the worldbuilding stuff that I loved so much was special and unique in some way. As a hobby, it didn’t seem much different from, say, a love of sudoku puzzles, or a book series no one else is interested in, or some kind of sport. Worldbuilding seemed, to me, inoffensive and a little bit boring as a hobby, at least from an outside perspective. Most of what I did was just reading up on whatever had caught my fancy at the moment.
We’d gone almost a mile before Uther spoke again.
“I think we’re heading toward the capital,” he said. “That’s a problem. Movement will be restricted.”
If you mapped out most mazes, you could divide the area into ‘lobes’, places that could be reached only through specific choke points, which largely branched off from the main path that led from the exit to the entrance. Classical mazes had lots of natural choke points in them, and there were huge benefits to controlling them. If you could control who had access to a whole area of the maze, you could very easily mount a defense, or alternately, tax whoever wanted to go through. I tried to imagine how it would be on Earth, if getting from France to Germany was only possible by moving through a twenty-foot wide doorway. One side would naturally end up controlling it, or at least with majority control, and they would place a heavy tax on everything coming through. The maze had that, replicated hundreds or maybe thousands of times.
We came to this choke point pretty quickly, guided through the twists and turns by our crystals. I was a little surprised that no one questioned or stopped us, but within the walls of this civilization, my guess was that they weren’t too worried about intruders, even armed ones. Once we’d gotten past the perimeter defenses, we were more or less free to roam, at least until we got to the next internal choke point.
The lines formed by the walls weren’t all entirely straight within the Landing, but they were all regular and geometric, with the odd curved wall being a mathematically perfect curve, at least to my untrained eye. Most of the junctions were T-junctions, but there were a few angled turns as well. The internal choke point, which seemed to be near the center of the city, was a rare five-way junction. All we could see of it was a large building and a fortified entrance. Curiously, it was the first structure we’d seen that was made of stone. It seemed to be the same material that the maze walls were made of, except that there shouldn’t have been a way to damage the walls. It was anyone’s guess where the material had come from though, if not the walls. It wasn’t like you could have a quarry in the maze.
“Two options,” said Uther. “The first is that we go through at speed, killing anyone who stands in our way.”
“They’re innocent, Uther,” said Raven. “They’re a foreign government, but they’ve done nothing wrong unless you count controlling their own borders.”
“Can any of you fly?” asked Uther, looking between us, ignoring Raven.
“Can you?” I asked.
By way of answer, he briefly hovered off the ground. “What’s the least complicated and awkward way for me to take you past all this?” he asked.
“Sable,” said Amaryllis, holding up her glove. “It still works, thankfully. We have oxygen tanks and masks that will allow us to spend some amount of time in the void.”
“Fucking seriously?” asked Fenn. “All this time, all this power, and we’re going back in the fucking glove again? I hate going in the glove. I’ve sworn off going in the glove.”
Amaryllis had already begun popping out tanks of air and breathing equipment for us, and when she handed one to Fenn, she took it with a grumble.
“Thank you,” I said. “For taking us.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “We’re an imposition on your ability to move quickly. We keep bothering you. You think that I’m the guy who imprisoned you here, or maybe an avatar of him, or something.”
He nodded. “I’ve considered it. But I can see that the narrative is in full effect, and having you all with me is a part of what will allow my escape, to make this a narrative of my removal from Aerb. If I shook you off, you would find me again, as improbable as it might be. You’ll be with me until you’ve served your narrative purpose, whatever that might be, and then you will drop off. The dwarf was there to tempt me with new systems to explore and fields to master, but I proved that I wouldn’t be swayed, and now he’s gone, never to be seen again.”
It kind of made sense, in a twisted sort of way, but I didn’t think it was really true. I glanced at Amaryllis, who seemed about as convinced of narrative control over everything as he did, but she was thin-lipped, and beyond that, putting on her tank and mask.
“You remember how the glove works?” she asked, holding out Sable to him.
He nodded, taking it from her. “It was a trifle, when I had it. It’s no doubt grown enormously in power. Another temptation, fruit borne of the tree of time.”
“Grown?” I asked.
“The extradimensional space is finite,” said Amaryllis. “But it grows if the glove isn’t used. The gain is exponential over time. If left alone for hundreds of years, which it was, the total available space would be enough to hold a city, if done in small pieces.” She’d gotten the information from Grak, I was pretty sure, and I’d never been told about it, because it was a curiosity, nothing more.
“Gain over time is a rare effect,” said Uther, nodding. “Exponential gain over time even more so. I was unfortunately never able to find anything to speed it along. As it turns out, it was simply waiting to be tucked away somewhere for a few hundred years, setting up exactly this scenario.”
The scary thing was, there was a good chance he was right, and if he wasn’t, then it had been placed there for me instead. It was just barely possible that this was a happy coincidence from the Dungeon Master’s perspective, but more likely it was just a matter of planning things out with absolute foresight.
We went into the glove, for what I was hoping was the last time. It had been a hot minute, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked it, especially the feeling of helplessness and ignorance of what was going on in the outside world. There were other physical sensations that I didn’t enjoy, but it was mostly the psychological stuff that got to me. That it was Uther on the other end, with our lives in his hand, made the whole thing more nerve-wracking. I didn’t think he was insane, per se, but he was operating under a model of the world that could give wild results to inputs.
Either way, we popped back out of the glove after another five minutes. We were in another part of the maze, far beyond the castle, but apparently still in Conguine territory, because there were people in the corridor both ahead of and behind us. Some of them were giving us looks, perhaps because of the raw magic on display, whether that was Uther flying through the air or us suddenly materializing.
“They didn’t appreciate that,” said Uther. “But I think I made it clear that there was nothing to be gained from following me, and that they were clearly outclassed when it came to combat.” Once he’d looked to see that we were all fine, he resumed walking.
“How much more of this to go?” asked Fenn. “I’m not taking a liking to this maze.”
“Could be as much as a week,” I said.
“Two or three more civilizations,” guessed Amaryllis.
“Less than that,” said Uther. “Someone has been digging tunnels through the walls.”
We found the source of the bricks not long afterward. There was, in fact, a tunnel going through one of the walls, one that had been carved out by someone who had clearly had some difficulty, or perhaps just enjoyed making tunnels that were cramped. Uther and I were tall enough that we had to stoop, but even for the others, it had to have been a bit claustrophobic.
“It undermines the entire idea of the maze,” I said. “If you can just make a path from point A to point B, why even have a maze?”
“A disruption to your precious setting?” asked Uther.
“No,” I said, “I just don’t understand why it was allowed. There are all kinds of things prohibited in one way or another on Aerb, most notably through exclusion, but also a few other ways. Why include something that would subvert the central conceit?”
“You’d have allowed it,” said Uther. “So long as it was a player who did it.”
That gave me pause. “I mean,” I said, trying to think that through.
“You always did,” said Uther. “You loved breaking the rules almost as much as Reimer did, just in a different way. You liked to set up your wooden blocks and then watch as they got knocked into disarray. ‘Blowing up the world’, you called it. I very specifically remember that conversation.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I do too.” I frowned. “That still doesn’t explain this,” I continued, gesturing to the holes running through the walls. “I mean, it’s fine if the players blow up the world, but if the players come to a world that’s already been blown up, that feels like a missed opportunity in a way that I’m not sure I’ve seen much of on Aerb. Or, I guess you blew up the world, or some local portions of it, and I’ve been spending the last half a year wandering through the proverbial wreckage.”
“And it appeals to you, to do that,” said Uther. He nodded at another of the holes in the wall, which was our destination. “The entire world appeals to your interest.”
“I guess,” I said. “You have to know that I wouldn’t have done this to you.”
“Perhaps,” he said. He ducked down to go through the tunnel. No one had stopped us from using the tunnels yet, and we hadn’t met anyone going the other way. Because of the variable space between corridors, some of the walls were hundreds of feet thick and others were only a handbreadth. I wondered how they’d decided where to put the tunnels, but my guess was that they’d mapped things out and made strategic decisions.
“These cuts,” said Amaryllis, touching the wall as we passed through. “They used void tools.”
My frown deepened. “How do you know?”
“Cut depth is low,” said Amaryllis, pulling her fingers back from the wall. “It’s also one of the only things that would get you through something inviolable.”
The closer I looked at the marks on the wall, the more I thought she was right, though it was never much of a surprise when Amaryllis was right.
“How?” I asked. “And why?”
“That was my doing,” said Uther, not looking back at us. “The second time I came through, I brought an immense amount of void crystals, along with the equipment to make them work.”
“They need an electrical charge,” I said.
“Leyden jars,” replied Uther. “I had been hoping that if I ever returned, they would have punched a few holes for me. It seems that was a case of good planning.”
“When did you learn about void crystals?” asked Raven. “Their discovery post-dates you leaving Aerb. I suppose it’s no surprise that you would be keeping secrets though.”
“It was not long after the Wandering Blight,” said Uther, ignoring the bitterness in her voice. “There was a rogue group who had harnessed my early experiments with electricity to excite the crystals, though of course it would also have been possible for a vitric, or other means. You were asleep for it, if I recall, and we didn’t want the power spreading any, given the difficulty in defending against it, and its utility as a surprise weapon.”
“It’s causing problems on Aerb,” replied Raven. “Introducing it here, where it’s been used for five hundred years, likely exacerbated that problem immensely.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “You’re not doing the math properly. Anything going on here is dwarfed in comparison to true industrial uses. In the heyday of void tool usage, whole tonnes of material were being removed every day. A civilization here using hand-powered void tools would be a drop in the bucket.”
“But we should stop them, right?” asked Fenn. “I mean, void stuff is mostly shut down on Aerb.”
“None of it matters,” said Amaryllis. “This will all be over before any of that would be relevant.”
With this section of the maze having a significant number of shortcuts, we were making much faster progress, with no need to double back. No one was trying to stop us, either because we were in places where they assumed we were supposed to be, or because we were clearly heavily armed. It was still another day’s worth of travel to get to the exit, but that was a far better time than we’d expected to make.
There was, naturally, a part of me that felt like we’d given the maze short shrift. There was so much we hadn’t seen, and I was sure that we had missed out on a civilization or two that had their own take on organizing society within the confines of the maze. There was so much more to look at, like what was causing a slight breeze through the maze, something I hadn’t designed in, or how they dealt with water, which should have been pretty hard given there were no rivers or lakes. Obviously figuring that stuff wasn’t high on the list of priorities, and arguably, wasn’t on the list of priorities at all, but leaving it all behind left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
I wondered what that said about me, and whether Uther was right.