We were back in the rooms, taking them one at a time, and following through the RDP as much as we were able to. During the time we’d been in the Landing, both books had gone through unrecoverable rot, and consisted of the same word, over and over. The copies had likewise rotted, and I counted myself lucky that the same wasn’t true for our heads. Almost every book we had in Sable was unusable, which meant that it had got its hooks in pretty deep, and Amaryllis spent nearly twenty minutes rapidly dumping an immense quantity of books into a room that had a horse-sized duck in a cage in the middle of it. (We stood well clear of the duck, and hoped that it would enjoy literally thousands of books which mostly contained the same word repeated over and over.) Raven’s book entad was toast as well, and she took quite a while to clear it, hoping that would fix the issue and allow new books to be added.
“Time and resources wasted,” said Amaryllis once it was all done. She sighed.
“Better to have it and not need it,” I said.
“Yes?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. “And?”
I looked at her. “Uh,” I said. Uther chuckled. “The full expression is ‘better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.’ It was a favorite of my dad’s. Sorry.”
“You should have claimed it,” said Uther. “That’s what I always did, as I’m sure you’ve figured out. I can only be thankful that before I came to Aerb, I studied the greats and learned more than my fair share of quotes. There were times I wondered whether I was meant to come to Aerb, or a place like it. I credit our games for a lot of things I had learned.”
The earlier animosity seemed to have left him, but that was putting me on edge, because we hadn’t actually resolved anything, and from where I was sitting, probably couldn’t ever resolve it. Growing up, there had been a lot of fights like that between my mom and dad, arguments that couldn’t ever be ‘finished’, so the only resolution they’d get is the catharsis of yelling at each other, which obviously sucked and wasn’t a long-term solution.
Raven got sick not too long after. I’d worried that she was just going to die, or possibly explode, but instead she passed through another door of the Long Stairs and doubled over in pain, clutching her chest and stomach.
“Well, that’s it for you,” said Fenn with a sigh. “Come on, I’ll guide you back to the maze Landing and we’ll wait it out.” The way she said it, it was like she’d been waiting for some excuse to fuck off and not be with us anymore. After everything she’d said, I was surprised that she’d kept going after we were done with the labyrinth Landing.
“No,” said Raven. “Give me a second, I’ll be fine.” She was panting hard. The Ell had massive internal extradimensional space as one way of allowing for their ridiculous conceit, and I had no idea what was physically happening to her, only that it couldn’t have been good.
Uther knelt down next to her. “It’s your time to go,” he said. “I’ve appreciated seeing you one last time, but if you go further, you will die. There were always parts of my adventures you couldn’t go on, places you couldn’t travel, things you couldn’t be allowed to see. We must all accept our lot in life.” I don’t know if he’d intended it to be cruel, but that was how it came out to me.
“Please,” she said. “Just give me a minute, I’ll be okay, I’ll come with you.”
“Come on,” said Fenn, lifting her up like she weighed next to nothing. “I’ll take you back to the Landing, we’ll chill out with the maze people, and we can grab a pint while we wait for this whole thing to blow over.”
“I’ll be fine,” said Raven through gritted teeth.
“It’ll be good for us to have some time together,” Fenn insisted. “Hey, you haven’t heard any of my best jokes or most delightful anecdotes yet, so that’s something. And I should also point out that I’m giving up going to Earth for you, which I don’t think you should turn your nose up at.”
“Please,” said Raven, looking at Uther. “I went through so much trying to find you, and then trying to continue your work. It can’t all be for nothing. You can’t just abandon Aerb. You can’t just abandon me, please Uther, I know somewhere in there is —” she winced. “I know you care about me.”
“I do,” said Uther. “But all the same, I’m continuing on.” His voice was steady and calm. “You’ll have to make peace with that. It’s something that I can’t help you with. I hope you understand.”
He set off, and I fought my instinct to follow him, instead turning to Raven, even as Uther went through the next door.
“Fenn will take care of you,” I said to Raven. I looked up at Fenn. “Thank you.”
“No problem, hoss,” replied Fenn. “I’m just hoping that any of this is worth it, plus I’m a little scared that I might be reduced down to normal any day now.” She shrugged. “Earth probably sucked anyway. I’ll take care of the little Ell, you go.” She looked at the ring on my finger. “You need me to take Bethel too, or?”
“She wanted to go all the way to the top,” I said.
Fenn looked at the toad that was sitting on my shoulder.
“He’s staying with me too,” I said. I had no idea whether that was the right call.
“Fine, fine,” Fenn replied. “Welp, smell you later.” She turned to leave, carrying Raven, before pausing. “Wait, I never got a chance to use it, but ‘more like schlong stairs’ was waiting for the right opportunity.”
“I’m glad we got you back,” I said to her. “Even if it was only for a bit.”
“Sure, sure,” Fenn replied. “I love you too, but I’m leaving, don’t make me white fang you.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but she left, carrying Raven, and when the door shut, for just a moment, I was all alone. I had the crystals though, and they honed in on Uther just fine, so it was only a matter of following the steps the crystal told me to take.
When I caught back up to Uther and Amaryllis, they were in the middle of an argument, one carried on as they walked.
“Because it doesn’t map,” said Amaryllis. She sounded frustrated, but only in the way that she sometimes let a note of frustration creep into her voice as a conversational tactic. “If you’re attempting to apply a framework to reality and find that some parts fit but others don’t, it’s a sign that something is fundamentally wrong with the framework. Fenn doesn’t fit. I don’t fit.”
“Hey,” I said. They both ignored me.
“You’re accusing me of trying to fit round pegs into square holes?” asked Uther.
“I am,” replied Amaryllis. “I fundamentally agree with you about the narrative, but I think there are too many things missing from your model. You’re inventing epicycles to explain how and why your model works. In my view, the narrative hypothesis works in several naive cases, but you never tempered it with the understanding of the narrator and what he wants. Now, you’re stuck in the trap of hammering everything into a theory that only almost works, which has unfortunately reinforced itself through your actions.”
“In which way?” he asked, seeming more bored than curious.
“Oh come on now,” she said. “I’ve read through what transcripts we have, I know you’re better at argumentation than this. Invest something in the conversation.”
“I don’t see the point of it, dear daughter,” said Uther. He glanced at her. “Or whomever you’re supposed to be.”
“You can think of me as Dahlia, if you’d like,” said Amaryllis. “It doesn’t bother me in the slightest, so long as you actually engage with the conversation I’m trying to have.”
“Very well,” replied Uther. “Your argument is that we have more free will than it would first seem, and aberrations within the narrative are both possible and expected given some willful deviance on the part of the protagonist. Is it that you think I don’t have an enormous amount of experience, or that you have some new evidence to bring to the table? Are there avenues for non-compliance that you think I haven’t tried?”
“Let’s back up slightly, if you’ve decided to take this conversation seriously,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper argues in favor of narrative, but the type of narrative he argues in favor of is collaborative, that of a Dungeon Master and his players. This means that the Dungeon Master is, yes, in charge of the narrative, has full knowledge of almost everything that the players do, is able to retroactively insert people, places, and ideas into reality, and to adapt to the choices of the players. There are fundamental differences from traditional narratives though.”
“Hang on,” I said. “I actually preach something very different, which is that it doesn’t actually matter what’s going on at a higher level, since we have very little ability to change or challenge it.”
“Either way,” said Amaryllis. “If you walk the straight and narrow, doing what you think needs to be done, playing everything as a narrative, the result is going to be that you don’t see the seams in the narrative, or the places where there are dropped threads, pieces that are quietly written away. You spent too much of your time following the narrative path in front of you without blowing things to hell.”
“And you think your presence here is because of something like that?” asked Uther. “You think that there were some significant deviations from what the Dungeon Master, if we’re using that moniker, had planned?”
“I think that it was planned that we would be here, absolutely,” said Amaryllis. “I think that the specifics were largely left to us. It was all within the Dungeon Master’s control, ultimately, but I see a preference for not interfering, and your hypothesis that we’re all here with specific hooks to dig into you to get you to come back seems far too specific given our actual goals and personalities. I don’t give a bubbling shit if you go to Earth. Personally, I don’t want you to come back, nor am I equipped to tug at your heartstrings as I might be if I were Dahlia, even if I have done a fair amount of research into her. Fenn’s role within our group was largely as comic relief and as a love interest —”
“She was more than that,” I said.
“I’m talking about narrative purpose,” said Amaryllis. She seemed slightly exasperated by my interjection, and I didn’t think that was a conversational tactic. “Her role was also to die and provide grief for Juniper to work through. She allowed him to grapple with loss in a similar way to how he grappled with the loss of you. Fenn being here fundamentally wasn’t about you, it was about Juniper, which is why she doesn’t fit. And still, you’re trying to hammer her into your narrative.”
“But you’re admitting that you think the others do fit,” said Uther. “Raven, Grakhuil? Even Bethel?” He didn’t mention the toad, which I was a little put out by. It seemed like bad manners.
“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “It’s incredibly difficult to say, because we don’t know where the camera, so to speak, is pointing.”
“Camera?” asked Uther. “Such a strange term to hear. The hardest thing about Juniper suddenly appearing is hearing all of these ideas and terminology from Earth.”
“It’s a term from Aerb as well,” said Amaryllis. “We have movies and television, though more the latter than the former. I run the television network and star in a few of them.”
“Ah, well,” said Uther. He seemed like he wanted to ask more, and I wondered whether Amaryllis had been trying to bait him. “And in the end, you think that it will just be me and Juniper?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “But all the same, I’ll hang on for as long as I can, and either I’ll die or be blown into the winds.”
“I don’t think I can stop myself from thinking of you as Dahlia,” said Uther. “Even if I have no intention of following that thread, it’s good to see her face. You share much of her same fierceness.”
“You left your kids,” I said.
“They were all adults,” Uther replied. “No, the only note of regret is that my grandchildren are all long dead.” He looked at me. “How many good years did my wife have left?”
“Four,” said Amaryllis, which I was thankful for, because I hadn’t paid as much attention to the exact dates.
“More than we expected,” said Uther with a nod. For a moment, I saw real regret from him. “But of course, I knew when I went forward in time that I would be leaving them behind, just as I would be if I made it down the Long Stairs.” He paused in the middle of the room we were in. “We need to eat some of this?”
I looked at the food on the table. Everything there was completely desiccated, and the room was incredibly dry. Laying on the ground was another member of some lost fireteam, and he was dried out too, a complete husk of a person.
“It’s RDP,” I said. “So yes, we need to eat a little bit. It’s never actually poisonous, or wasn’t in the games I ran. Except one time, I guess, when it killed the party. Also, Bethel identified some poison in an earlier buffet room.” I glanced at Uther. “The ‘kill everyone’ stuff was after your time.”
“What happened here?” asked Amaryllis, looking down at the body on the floor. She stooped to get a better look at it. “The room should have been frozen in time when he died, so that we would come across a fresh corpse, right?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Uther, picking up a leathery piece of pear and eating it.
“It might,” said Amaryllis, standing up. “You’re running out of magic. We’ll need to be more careful going forward.”
“He might still be alive,” I said, looking at the corpse. “Or he was able to live long enough for this place to dry out.” I looked around. “It’s not really clear to me where the moisture would have gone through.”
“Lived long enough?” asked Amaryllis.
“Monkey’s paw immortality,” I said. “It’s one of the things on offer in the Long Stairs, if you’re willing to search for it. Immortality without health, basically. The high end stuff is pretty high end.”
“Ah,” said Amaryllis, looking at the corpse. “So you think that maybe he made it to this room, then lay face down and just continually died until the magic gave out?”
“He might still be alive, actually,” I said. “Or alive in some technical sense, capable of thinking but not movement, speech, or sensation. Just trapped in his own head for five hundred years.”
Uther stepped forward and stomped on the skull with enough force to send bits of bone flying. “Well, hopefully that will kill him,” he said. There was a solemnity to his voice that was incongruent with the sounds of crunched bone that still seemed to echo in the room. He looked over at me. “Always thinking up some new torture, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “But that’s not a particularly new one. I’m more wondering why everything is so dry here. There should have been a lot of water in both the food and the guy.”
“Magic of some kind,” said Uther. “We should be going, if we’ve done our due diligence.”
I picked up what looked like a dried plum and ate it without comment. The requirement to partake of food, even just a little bit, probably did get people killed every once in a while. Amaryllis took something unidentifiable that seemed crunchy, which was probably a better idea. The plum was too leathery. I fed the toad a tiny bit of apricot.
The Long Stairs were full of mysteries, even for me. When I’d been designing the place, I’d wanted it to have a feeling like there was always another thing to look out for, another RDP or LSP or another of the acronyms that we mostly stopped using after the first few sessions. Since I hadn’t actually prepared a full list, the real Long Stairs had a lot of things that I had no clue about, and even the books we’d found, not that I’d had the time to read all of them, didn’t give full, clear descriptions of things.
We went through a room with reversed gravity and had to crawl our way along the ceiling. We went through a room filled with nitrogen gas rather than normal air, and nearly died before we noticed. We fought a pile of clothes that tried to smother us, then right after that, a bear the size of a van that was immune to blades. We came across a dance troupe, whose performance we had to sit through as part of RDP, then passed by a man selling wares which were piled high on his back. We went through a jungle that only lasted twenty feet, and a desert that turned out to be made entirely of sand golems.
We talked in fits and starts, when we weren’t discussing the matters at hand.
“What do you miss most about Earth?” I asked Uther.
“The internet,” he replied. “Or perhaps the subset of the internet that allowed us to instantly access information. It took me a good decade to unlearn my understanding of knowledge as something that’s constantly at my fingertips. Even if much of what was on the internet was wrong or biased, the wealth of information meant that it was easy to interrogate sources.”
“You could have built the internet on Aerb,” said Amaryllis. “I have plans to, actually, if this doesn’t pan out. Making computers will be a good first step.”
“And perhaps in another few decades, you’ll have something like Earth has,” said Uther. “That’s not a roaring endorsement of Aerb.”
“You could skip your way through those years with the bobbler, if you really wanted to,” said Amaryllis. “Like I said, I have no strong feelings about your return to Aerb one way or another. I want Juniper to get from this what he needs to. I want the Dungeon Master to complete his narrative, and I can see clearly that this is where it comes to a finish. Whether that sees you on Earth or Aerb at the end of it, or even alive or dead, doesn’t matter to me.”
“From what you’ve said, I’m your world-renowned ancestor,” he said. “I had, perhaps, hoped that if people thought of me five hundred years down the line, it would be with a bit more respect.”
“People do,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t. With all the enormous advantages in your favor, most people would have done worse, but that doesn’t absolve you of your failures. I’m sure you would see my giving a history lesson as an enticement of the Dungeon Master’s, and I don’t think it would accomplish anything anyway, but some very bad things were the result of your reign in ways that I think, as a scholar of Earth, you could have anticipated.”
“A scholar of Earth?” asked Uther. “I was a teenager when I was put here. I was smarter than average, with more interest in history, society, law, and governance than almost anyone my age, or at least in my high school, but I was still a teenager. I hadn’t even finished high school, let alone undergrad. It’s that life I was robbed of to play these extended games on Aerb.”
I didn’t pipe up to say that actually, he had died. From his perspective, that wasn’t true, and all it might have done was to clarify where I was coming from, at least emotionally. Arthur dying was, I thought, probably close to the truth, even if it might not have been literally true. Aerb was a resurrection, but he was right, it was a resurrection that he had never asked for, and one that came with strings attached. If he wanted to escape it, I didn’t blame him.
There was a fair amount of silence as we made our way through the rooms, and I had a chance to get my thoughts in order. Eventually, when we were taking a rest and eating fairies to recover from some fresh wounds inflicted by opposite-wolves (like wolves, but the opposite), I went over to Uther.
“When you died, I mourned you,” I said. “You were such a constant presence in my life, my best friend, and it was like someone had yanked you out of reality and pulled a bunch of wires out of my head in the process. I felt numb to the world, like this was the betrayal that I had always seen coming, and nothing much worse could happen. I was a shit to everyone, above and beyond all the ways I was a shit to everyone even before it had happened. I was lashing out. It wasn’t very healthy. I pushed people away, which made everything worse. I dated Maddie for like, a week, and then I hit rock bottom and tried to kill myself. Not too long afterward, I was on Aerb.”
Uther stared at me for a moment. “I’m sorry you went through that,” he finally said.
“Maybe I kept to myself too much when we were friends,” I said. “Look, if your grand ambition is to return to Earth, to return to the summer after your junior year, then maybe there’s a chance you get what you want. If I’m there, I’m hoping that knowing more about me helps you in some way, if you’re allowed to remember any of this.”
He was silent for a moment, then nodded. “Going back to high school with no memories of Aerb is one of the worst possibilities,” he said. “But it’s one that I am prepared to accept. If the government organization up top is the same as what you designed, they’ll have powerful amnestics. And of course, aging backward is something that I’m prepared for as well.”
“Prepared for how?” I asked, watching him.
“This,” he said, holding out a hand to allow a vial to appear from nowhere and land in his outstretched fingers. “I should have taken it out before, but I’ve been worried about how much power I’ll lose in the process.” He looked up at me. “I may need your protection during the ascent.”
“You’ll have it,” I said. I wondered if that was why he’d allowed me to come this far with him, but there were probably multiple reasons.
“Then I suppose, if the vial still works, there’s no use in waiting.” He popped the cork from the top, and it fizzed up like a can of soda. Before I could say anything more, he downed it, all in one go.
“What, uh, what was that?” I asked.
“Age reversing serum,” he said. “It won’t be exact, but it will be close enough. I couldn’t bring myself to do a full course of testing, so it’s only approximate, but it should bring me back to how I looked at sixteen, if it works at all. And if it doesn’t, so be it.”
“You’ll still die young,” I said, watching him. “I mean, relatively young. If this all works and you go back to Earth, and they somehow put you back into high school, with all the problems that would have to be solved to make that happen — if that all happens, it seems like your fate is going to be to die of early-onset dementia.”
Uther was looking at his hands, and not particularly paying attention to me. “There are three varieties of death by old age, speaking broadly,” he said. “Physical health, mental health, and the health of the soul. They’re related to one another, but I solved all three. If those solutions hold, I’ll be fine, and if not,” he shrugged. “It’s not what I’m most worried about, obviously.”
“Seems like a dick move not to share that with anyone,” I said.
“There were many problems,” said Uther. He was still looking at his hand, which hadn’t changed. “The biggest was that I was the only one with the expertise, and it would take me perhaps two months with unfettered access to someone’s soul. I could have started up a new athenaeum, and perhaps with a team of thirty, it could be done for — well, currency is bound to have changed in five hundred years, but it would suffice to say that it would be a treatment only for the extremely wealthy.”
“But you could have,” I said.
“I was never terribly comfortable as king,” said Uther. “And kings that would live forever would — ah, there it goes.”
The changes were more extensive than I’d been expecting. He was shrinking, both in terms of his height and muscle. His face was getting softer too, especially in the cheeks and eyes. His face hadn’t been very deeply lined, but what wrinkles were there had faded away. I was wondering how and why this was working, especially given that you didn’t just get as tall as Uther because you naturally grew that way, not if you started from where Arthur was at sixteen.
“This is going to make sword-fighting more difficult,” he said. He called forward his sword and got into a fighting stance, making a few tentative swings. He’d used several different swords as we swept through the rooms. This one left a trail of lightning twisting fractal thorns into the air. He looked at me. “Care to spar? Just to see how much skill I’ve retained.”
It was bizarre. He didn’t look like he had in high school, because he wasn’t as pudgy as he’d been then, but it was close. It was like Arthur playing dress up.
“That bad?” he asked.
“Different,” I said.
“Bad,” said Amaryllis, who had been sitting out the conversation. “You look like … limp.”
“Harsh words, but probably fair,” said Arthur. “Still, I wouldn’t mind a test of my abilities.”
I hesitated for a moment, then drew my regular sword, leaving the vorpal blade in its sheath. “Okay,” I said. “What are the rules?”
“I try to hit you, you try to parry,” he replied. “Or you try to hit me, and I try to parry. If the blade goes in, we have healing to spare.”
“Alright,” I said.
For a moment he just stood there, and I wondered whether he’d lost his edge completely, but then he moved, and the tip of his blade was like a viper moving straight to my throat. The only reason he didn’t get me was that he stopped short. He’d bypassed my sword completely, and my reflexes, which were like molasses compared to his, led me to try parrying it away long after I would have been dead. The clink of my sword against his sounded pathetic.
“Is that really the best you can do?” asked Arthur. He was the same person he’d been a few minutes ago, only changed physically, but my brain refused to believe that it wasn’t my high school friend, that he hadn’t somehow undone forty years of change. Body modification wasn’t new to me, but the image of Arthur as a teenager was too powerfully etched in my mind.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “I got good with a sword, but I was only ever the best swordsman in the world for a single afternoon, and I can’t do that again, because Essentialism is excluded now.”
Arthur sighed. “Well, I’m diminished, but not as much as I might have feared.” He sheathed his sword. “But I may need more help than I’ve needed up to this point.”
“Good, then let’s get going,” said Amaryllis.
We soldiered on through the rooms, none of them particularly noteworthy. We fought monsters, faced down dilemmas, and followed RDP as best we could. We got a few repeat rooms from time to time, or at least rooms that looked like repeats, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything, and I didn’t think the crystals were steering us wrong. The repeated rooms were part of the creepiness of the Long Stairs, especially if you got them when you were going in what you thought was the right ‘direction’.
We were going through a room filled with statues when Arthur decided to speak up again. I didn’t particularly think it was the time for it. The statues seemed like they were guaranteed to come to life, and there were thousands of them, each its own unique work of art, all lined up on plinths. Normally if you had a bunch of statues like this, they’d be copies, churned out by either a factory or journeymen or molds or something, but I couldn’t see any repeats among them. Each looked like it had been done by a master at the height of his abilities. The room was huge, one of the aircraft-hangar ones.
Statues coming to life was one of those tropes that could bend back around on itself. It was cliche, incredibly so, but because it was so cliche, it added an extra sense of foreboding and creepiness to proceedings. You weren’t worried that they would come to life, you were worried about when, and that sense of inevitability turned something cliche into something still worth doing.
“I understand that it took time and effort to get to me,” said Arthur as we walked. “Yet the actual pressures you face aren’t so great. Aerb is not within its final minutes. So why now?”
“We were in cycles of stories,” I said. “They were inflicting harm on people and getting bigger in scope as time went on. Every single time, it felt like we were coming through by the skin of our teeth. The time pressure was low, but we thought we needed to get a move on. And now that rune magic is excluded, there are no spikes, which means that everyone is funneling into the hells.”
“I see,” replied Arthur. “You’re thinking that I will help draw this to a close somehow. You think that if you accomplish your mission, there won’t be one more thing to worry about.” He shook his head.
“That’s the hope,” I said. “That’s … kind of what the Dungeon Master said.”
“Did you revel in it?” he asked. “Playing the hero?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess. Nothing I did was really … I mean, there was a huge kaiju, I guess, but other than that, nothing really heroic.”
“In all that time?” he asked. “I might have understood it better if you had been hiding from the world, like I was, but you came to me with a full complement of companions, and it sounded like you were very busy. But you weren’t busy being a hero?”
“He saved my life on several occasions,” said Amaryllis.
“Mmm,” said Arthur. “One thing I’ll say for my daughter, she was never a damsel in distress.” The voice and tone didn’t match him all that well, given that he looked like he was a teenager on his way to some esoteric Renaissance Festival. “Oh, I don’t put that on you, of course, it’s all the narrative. I rescued plenty of strong women in my time.”
“Gross,” I said.
“Which part?” he asked. “Did you think it better to rescue weak women?”
But I didn’t get a chance to reply, because the stupid statues we’d been walking through had chosen that moment to come to life, and we had a pitched battle with them. They were weirdly slow, moving half the speed of a person, or maybe even less, but they made up for that by being quite heavy and difficult to break. I didn’t spend too much time fighting them, instead opting to slip between them, push off against a leg that was trying to kick me, and get up over their heads. My plan had been to jump across their heads and hope that they weren’t fast enough to grab me, but the plan had a problem, which was that Arthur was in front of me, and he was killing so many of them my choice was between getting back down and taking the long way around.
I looked back toward where Amaryllis had been, and couldn’t see her. I went to where she’d been standing, jumping on heads to do it, and drawing the vorpal blade as I made my way over. I dropped down among the statues, slashing at them, and realizing only after the first few swings that the vorpal blade was cutting through them like they were made out of paper.
I spotted the black glove beneath a broken arm, and picked it up with my free hand while the other was fending off any statue that got too close to me. Once I had the glove, I cut my way through more of the statues, moving back toward Arthur.
“This will take some stamina!” he shouted to me, the only way he could be heard over the sound of marble falling to the ground.
He was right, but this was the first time his stamina was in question. We had gone fairly far into the field of statues, but there was still a long way to go, and they were all around us, closing fast. They didn’t take all that much to kill, but there were thousands of them, and there wasn’t really a way to be leisurely about it, even with their slow movements, because we were entirely surrounded.
Arthur was still a master with a sword, even having been diminished to a teenaged version of himself, but after not too long, it was clear that he wasn’t up for fighting off a thousand of these things. By the time Amaryllis popped back out, gasping for breath, Arthur had slowed down, and our forward progress was almost entirely down to me slicing through marble with the vorpal blade. I was becoming more and more grateful for the weapon. At a certain point, I took the lead and Arthur covered the rear and sides. His swings were getting wilder with every passing minute, and I could tell he was gassed.
It took twenty minutes to get to the door, and by the time we did, I was half-dragging Arthur while Amaryllis did her best to cover our retreat. The vorpal blade continued to slice as cleanly and sharply as when we started, though I hadn’t really expected it to dull. Without it, I was fairly certain that we would have died.
I pushed through the door as quickly as I could and pulled Arthur through, then slammed it shut as soon as Amaryllis had slipped in. Monsters could follow through doors, and if the statues did that, I wasn’t sure what we would do about it. You could eventually outrun things, and they were pretty slow, but that meant barrelling through a lot of rooms without the caution and diligence that the Long Stairs normally required. I waited by the closed door to see whether they would come through, but there was nothing, not even any banging against the door. Out of sight, out of mind, I supposed.
The new room had a fountain in the center, lit from above. Inside the fountain was a small world of moss, leaves, and flowers, with a few fish swimming around in the clear water. The toad hopped off my shoulder and onto the ground, then hopped his way over and splashed into the fountain. He was unscathed by the battle with the statues, and had held on through the whole thing like he was glued in place.
Arthur lowered his helm, causing the black beads of his armor to melt down into the cuirass of the armor. He was breathing heavily, red in the face, and dripping with sweat, which matted down his hair.
“Fuck,” he said. “It’s been a long, long time since anyone has needed to save me.” He lifted up his hand, which was trembling. “This body is worse than I’d thought it would be.”
“Having second thoughts?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. He looked down at my hand. “You didn’t use the ring.”
I looked down at my hand. I hadn’t used Bethel, because I didn’t really think of Bethel as something to be used. She should have acted on her own, but it was worrying that she hadn’t.
<Bethel?> I asked.
<Yes, Juniper?> she replied. There was something flat about her voice.
<Are you okay?> I asked.
<Yes,> she replied.
<I could have used some help back there,> I said.
<I understand,> she replied.
<Are you still capable of acting of your own volition?> I asked.
<I don’t understand the question,> she replied.
“Shit,” I said. “She’s lost a lot. Capable of speech, but cognition is iffy. I’ll figure out what her abilities are, but I’m not sure she’s so much of a person anymore.” I didn’t know how I was going to figure out her abilities, given that most of them had probably failed.
Arthur rested his head against the wall and sat there allowing his breathing to go back to normal. “What were we talking about?” he asked.
“Rescuing women,” I said.
“No,” replied Amaryllis. “Playing the hero.”
“And you were saying you weren’t a hero,” said Arthur, nodding weakly.
“I didn’t get to play the hero all that much,” I said. “The narrative stuff that was put in front of us, there wasn’t very much saving people from imminent and unambiguous threats. Some of it was people wanting to kill us, but a lot of it was harder to say one way or another. I could see where the enemy was coming from. I mean, there was an element of empathy, most of the time, if not at the moment, then afterward.” I paused. “There was this guy I killed in a trial by combat, and it felt good, but then afterward, his niece came to me with tears in her eyes, and … from what Raven said, that wasn’t normally the kind of fallout and forced introspection you needed to deal with.”
“She was right,” said Arthur, nodding briefly before resting his head back on the wall again. “Oh, there would be weeping spouses, certainly, sometimes sons and daughters, but they were always antagonists themselves, completely irredeemable and able to be killed without much moral consideration.”
“Yeah,” I said. I wondered how much that was true, and how much Arthur was telling himself stories. “We … didn’t really have that so much. Oh man, there was this guy who made zombies, and —”
“Don’t say the z-word,” said Arthur. I looked at him for a moment, but he just gave me a weak smile. “The trope?”
“Yeah, except they really don’t like you saying the z-word on Aerb,” I said. “Wait, did you never call them zombies? Or never run into any undead?” Blue-in-the-Bottle postdated Uther, but there were loads of things you could call necromancy on Aerb.
“Oh, we came across perhaps two dozen varieties,” said Arthur. “Some of them on the disjoint planes. I called them ‘walkers’, or ‘shamblers’, or ‘the infected’, until eventually I was running out of distinct names.” He let out a breath, then placed his palms on the floor. “Alright, I think I have my breath back. Gather up your toad and let’s go.”
He didn’t look like he’d gotten his breath back. “Before that, do you mind if I talk to Amaryllis in private for a bit?”
“No, not at all,” he replied. He pulled a drink from extradimensional space and began chugging it, then got out two marzipan fairies he’d stored in his pocket.
I took Amaryllis to the side and spoke to her in a low voice. “How much longer do you think we can carry on?”
“We almost died there,” said Amaryllis. “I went into the glove because one of them was squeezing hard enough I thought he would break my ankle. But this is the end game. There’s a good chance that I’ll die if I don’t bow out. And we can’t rule out that this ends with all of us dying.”
“But you don’t think it will?” I asked. “Because narrative?”
“Because I think you’re strong enough, Juniper,” she replied. “From a narrative perspective, I think your death would work. If you died, it would be a tragedy, a man unable to let go after the loss of his best friend. But I think you’ll make it through.”
“Ah,” I said. I wasn’t sure I liked that reading. I still kind of thought the narrative was useless. “We still have one Landing left, and it’s going to get harder. I’m hoping we come across some army dudes that haven’t been looted, because I don’t know how much longer any of the good stuff is going to last. We’re already hobbled. I want to push on, but I don’t have any faith in narrative, and after that room … it’s looking dicey.”
“Everything is being stripped away,” said Amaryllis. “That’s the nature of going up the Long Stairs, for us.”
I nodded. I didn’t think that talk had actually helped me much, but I was glad we’d had it.
“Ready?” asked Arthur.
“Sure,” I said. The next door we needed to go through had a giant red X on it, which seemed a bit ominous, but wasn’t a part of RDP. The rooms weren’t uniformly getting harder, but we were losing our advantages, and all it took was a difficult room for us to be splattered against the ground like so much bird shit.
“Were you leaving the toad here?” asked Arthur.
I looked back at the fountain. “Oh,” I said. “Right.” I went back to the fountain and picked up the toad. He seemed like he wanted to stay, and struggled in my hands for a bit, but once I went back over to the door, he stayed still in my hands, and reluctantly took his position on the shoulder.
We headed off down the Long Stairs, heading to the next Landing.