The Long Stairs had, in fact, gotten harder, and I didn’t think it was just a function of us losing power as we went along. If I had to guess, part of it was because we were seeing more of the second iteration of the campaign, which had been more deadly. Because it was more deadly, there were a few TPKs, or TFMs in the parlance of the Long Stairs, and that meant starting over with a new party that was descending down through the Hellmouth and hitting those first few rooms. They had only gotten past the felheim Landing twice. There had always been some questions about how campaign stuff had been integrated into Aerb, and this just raised further questions. I tried not to think about it, because I had enough on my plate.
We nearly died to a swarm of roaches that tried to fly down our throats. I clamped my mouth shut and chewed up the two that had gotten in, then used Bethel to slice through them with telekinetic force until they were no longer biting me or trying to get in my mouth. It was my first time tasting roach, but Arthur was an old hand at it. When it was done, Henry ate half a pound of rations just trying to get the taste out of his mouth.
We nearly died to a debilitating meme that would have swamped me if I hadn’t had a bit of practice with my own shitty form of linear protocol, doing what I was supposed to do even if I didn’t understand why. We were lucky that it was local and stopped affecting us once we were out of the room.
We did die in a time looping room. We died a lot, actually. They were short loops, kind of like the unicorn loops, but confined to a single room with so many traps that there was barely room for our bodies. It took us more than two hundred loops to make it out the other side unscathed, and once it was over, we were thrust right into a pitched battle against a horde of killer rabbits.
There were boring rooms too, which gave an opportunity to talk.
“There’s a specific way to do it,” said Henry. “You put peanut butter on both pieces of bread, then jelly in the center, and use the peanut butter to kind of seal up a pocket of jelly. It keeps the sandwich from getting soggy.”
“Yeah, I get it,” I said. “But how often are you in a situation where you’re trying to save a PB&J until later?”
“Brown bagging, dude,” replied Henry, shaking his head.
“Henry, what’s thirty-eight times forty-two?” asked Arthur.
Henry’s head exploded into strips of flesh with teeth on the ends of them, which wildly flailed around for a few seconds before Arthur sliced him to ribbons.
“How many rooms was he with us?” I asked as Henry fell to the floor in pieces.
“Seven, I think,” said Arthur. “But I remember him being with us for longer.”
That was the kind of thing that happened in the Long Stairs, and you just had to roll with it, because there would be something new around the corner in another five minutes.
Mixed in with the tests of agility, endurance, fortitude, and combat prowess were the weird and strange rooms, which sometimes had tests, challenges, or mysteries of their own, and sometimes were just set dressing. There were rooms filled with a dozen different complicated terrariums, rooms with strange animals in cages, rooms with books, rooms that looked like caves or forests, rooms with floating white spheres, on and on.
The fun part of the Long Stairs was that you never knew whether one of the rooms that had some interesting focal point would turn into the kind of room where you had to fight some terrible monster.
“You know, I never really liked mimics,” I said, after the books in a library we’d been walking through had come to life. Their covers stuck together, making rustling centipedes. They were, thankfully, quite slow and not all that deadly, though I imagined if you didn’t dodge them when they reared up, a pile of books falling on you from twenty feet up might be enough to cause a concussion.
“You put us in a whole mimic mansion once,” replied Arthur. He had gotten up on some nearby shelves so he could have the advantage of the high ground, while I fought among the stacks. Now that the combat was over, I took my turn to climb up, the better to cross the room.
“Well, yeah,” I replied. “But that was just because I hadn’t really done mimics before. I take the things I hate and do my own, good version of them.”
“These aren’t even mimics,” said Arthur, looking at the corpses.
“Sure they are,” I replied.
“It’s just camouflage,” he said. “Is a chameleon a mimic? Is a stick bug a mimic?”
“I mean,” I said. “We’d have to define terms, and you know I hate definition debates.” I looked down at some dead monsters as I leapt from one row of books to the other. “What would you call these things, if you had to give them a name?”
“Bookworms, obviously,” he replied.
“Fuck, that’s terrible,” I said, then I started laughing.
“Is that not what you intended when you made those things?” he asked, looking mildly surprised.
“I’ve got no idea,” I said. “I don’t remember coming up with them. But it does seem like the kind of dumb joke that I’d have included. Or the kind of joke that I didn’t intentionally include, but would be willing to run with once someone pointed it out. I don’t know. That’s a terrible pun though. Hey, did I tell you about the lich’s butler named Terry Phylac?”
And we went on, talking sometimes, resting whenever we had a chance, tending to our wounds, fighting monsters as they came.
“Do you remember Allison?” he asked, as we drank some water from another fountain and watched the toad play in the water. We were running low on supplies, and none of our extradimensional spaces were working. The rooms with food had become a necessity.
“Sure,” I said. I thought for a moment. “When you died, she was one of the people who was really upset about it. I kind of hated it. I mean, she didn’t know you that well, and it was — selfish of me, obviously, to think that I had a monopoly on grief. But yes, I remember her.”
“I’m wondering whether I’ll get a chance to do high school over,” he said. “Or at least finish out the last year.”
“Kind of creepy to be thinking about seventeen-year-old girls as a fifty-five-year-old man,” I said. “No offense.”
“No, I understand where you’re coming from,” he replied. “I’m just thinking about roads not taken, things that I wasn’t capable of doing back then. It just felt impossible to talk to girls, even though I was friends with so many of them.”
“You were?” I asked.
“I was in a lot more activities than you were,” he said. “Mei in mock trial, Allison in yearbook, Chelsea in math club … there’s something pathetic about having a crush on anyone who shows you even the slightest bit of attention, but that’s who I was. I can’t imagine now that I would have any interest at all in someone half my age, or a third my age, but at the time, or if I could do it over? I’d have been more bold. Boldness is rewarded.”
“And youth is wasted on the young,” I added, nodding. “But why Allison?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Just an idle thought. I told you that it was, essentially, my job to think about high school for the last thirty years, but really, that’s not quite true. Allison, Chelsea, Mei … they were just a few of the people who never showed up. It was you, Reimer, Craig, Tom, and Tiff, for the most part.”
“And Maddie,” I said.
“Sure, her too,” he replied. “So when I think about going back to high school, finishing that final year before going to college, I tend to think about all the things that I haven’t already spent ages on. I never got to know Allison, nor some mirror reflection of her, nor even an allusion to her existence.”
“Hrm,” I said. “Then you’re probably also saying that you won’t play D&D with us anymore.”
He laughed. “Of course not. Why the fuck would I?” There was something so relaxed about him now, like he’d slipped back into acting like a teenager again now that his body had reverted.
“Yeah, I can see that,” I said, but I couldn’t help but feel a little bit glum about it.
“Do you still want to play D&D?” asked Arthur.
“I actually made my own game when I was in Aerb, Arches, which I played with my companions,” I said. “And yeah, if we don’t have a bunch of saving the world ahead of us, I want to play with them again.”
He shook his head, but though I’d expected a rebuttal, none came.
A few rooms later, when we were walking through a field of broken glass, he brought up a subject I hadn’t expected.
“What was special about me?” he asked.
“Uh,” I replied. “In what context?”
“You haven’t changed a bit,” he replied. “What I mean is … I don’t think that I would have reacted as strongly, if you had died. We were friends, obviously. I’d have been crushed. But I don’t think I would have gone into a months-long depression about it. So I guess I’m wondering why I was that important to you.”
“Honestly, and I hope this doesn’t come out wrong, I don’t know how much it was about you,” I said. “That’s me speaking with more than a year’s worth of distance and a lot of time to process, and process how I was processing, and introspect and stuff. I think it hit me hard because I felt guilty about being with Tiff and keeping secrets, but it’s also not like I’d never been depressed before. When you died, it sucked, but it was also like it gave me a reason that I hadn’t had before.”
“A reason to be shitty?” he asked.
“That, but also a reason to shut down, to disengage, to let the depression soak into my bones,” I said. “The depression is probably just neurochemicals, but how you deal with the highs and lows, whether you get stuck in these endless cycles of rumination … I don’t know, I think that’s kind of in your power, to some extent. Of course, if you get depressed, you lose the power when you need it the most, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. For me, your death felt like vindication, almost.”
“Vindication of what?” he asked, kicking aside an especially large chunk of glass that looked like it had once been the top to a bottle almost exactly like the one that the locus had once lived in.
“Vindication of atheism and cynicism,” I said. “I’d always thought the world was a bit shit. When you died, it was like ‘Oh, hey, I was right all along, everything and everybody does indeed suck’. It was like getting permission to be bitter and cruel.”
“So the lesson is that I wasn’t that special,” he said. “You’d have done the same if it was Reimer.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I honestly don’t know. After you died, I built you up a lot in my head, and maybe I would have done the same for Reimer.” I shrugged and kicked some glass away, thankful that I had boots that mundane glass couldn’t cut through. “I mean, not to diminish our friendship or anything. You were the person I most enjoyed spending time with. Probably more than half the movies I’ve ever watched in my life were with you. You introduced me to ideas that helped shape me in ways that I’m proud of.”
“You never had much sentimentality on Earth,” said Arthur.
“Maybe I was just worse at verbalizing it,” I said. “Sorry if I’m getting too sappy, but … I really did cherish you as a friend. I just also think that a lot of my reaction to your death was more about me, not about you.”
I was finally to the point where I could say that out loud and not have it feel like a stinging betrayal of our friendship.
Another six rooms later, we found ourselves wading through some unpleasant-smelling muck. There was a lot of it, and our movement was slow by necessity. Arthur had taken the lead and was poking ahead with a stick, making sure that there wasn’t some hidden dropoff that the muck was covering, or alternately, some kind of monster. It was unpleasant, but better than having to go through yet another fight, especially given that we had virtually nothing in the way of magical healing. I was on edge, because it seemed like the perfect setup for an ambush. I had more of the load than he did, including the big candle, which I kept being periodically surprised I was still carrying. I was hoping that it was important, not just a joke. I was, frankly, hoping that it would end the game, rather than being a key piece to defeating the Void Beast, or clear out the hells, or some other struggle that might potentially be my responsibility back on Aerb.
“You’ve managed to present a better argument for staying than anyone else,” he said.
“Thanks, I guess,” I said.
“I’m not turning back though,” he continued.
“I know,” I said. “I’m trying my best to accept that. If we could just — if we could have a week of hanging out or something, it would be an easier pill to swallow.”
“If I went back, I’d have to face the narrative,” said Arthur. “I’d be captive to it for the rest of my life.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe there’s a narrative waiting for you up on Earth. Or maybe I could,” I hesitated. “Fix things.”
“How?” he asked.
I gave the candle I was cradling a skeptical look. I didn’t have an answer.
“I think once you’re gone, the Dungeon Master is done with both of us,” I said. “Granted, that’s a bit of very optimistic thinking on my part.”
“And if I don’t leave?” he asked. “If we decide, at the precipice, to turn around, what will the Dungeon Master you’ve spoken to decide to do with us? Set us free?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“This isn’t even goodbye,” said Arthur. “There are two of you, aren’t there? One here, with me, and the other on Earth, unscarred and unchanged by Aerb?”
“Unclear,” I said. “It might be that the other Juniper is on the Other Side, or somewhere else, if he exists at all.”
“I was like a brother to you,” said Arthur. “I understand that. But my own brother, he was much older, and I rarely saw him, except at Christmas and sometimes in the summer, and … Juniper, the relationships we formed in high school were never going to last forever. If I had lived, if I hadn’t died in a car crash, what would the outcome have been? Most likely, we’d have tried to keep in touch, seen each other over the summers while we were at college, if you ended up going to college, and then drifted apart. Maybe we would see each other’s Facebook posts or something.”
“That’s so … grim,” I said. It gave me a deflated feeling. The toad turned slightly to the side and licked my neck, presumably to cheer me up.
“Well, yes,” he said. “From a certain perspective. But it’s also realistic. Do you understand how old I am, how many close friendships I’ve let fade away by this point? There are people I would see again for the first time in a decade and it would be just like old times, but I never mourned that they weren’t a constant presence in my life. There are people I would have dinner with whenever I was in Li’o, people I would send a letter of inquiry to once every six months or so, people who had a presence in my mind but who were not a presence in my life.”
“You’re saying that I shouldn’t have grieved for you,” I said.
“I’m wondering if you learned a lesson at all,” he said. “I’m curious whether your perspective on things has changed in some way, given all that time you spent on Aerb.”
I thought about that for a moment. “Perhaps the lesson is instead that if you wish for someone to come back hard enough, if you lash out at others, then eventually you’ll be swept away to a fantasy world where they’re still alive,” I said. “Though that lesson doesn’t seem like it generalizes well.”
I was doing the thing that Fenn always used to do, deflecting with humor, and I briefly hated myself for it.
“But in point of fact,” he said with a sigh. It was a familiar sigh, the kind he’d used to let out when he was about to make a point that he thought was obvious, or sometimes just to signal that it was obvious as a way of making it seem stronger than it was. In changing his body back to roughly that of a teenager, he sounded so much more like his old self. “We have grown apart, Juniper. Or at the very least, I’ve grown apart from you, even if the reverse hasn’t happened. And I am leaving, never to return. You can come with me, obviously, but you seem adamant that you’re staying.”
“There’s too much work to be done on Aerb,” I said. It felt weak as I said it.
“That’s not the real reason though, is it?” he asked.
“There are lots of reasons,” I replied. “On Aerb, I’m strong, powerful, and important. Aerb matches my aesthetic tastes more than Earth does. I’ve got more friends on Aerb, given all the bridges I burned on Earth.” I shrugged. “And on Earth, who would I have been? Like, let’s say that this is all set up for both of us to return, and I get reduced to who I was then, and all my memories get a factory reset or something. Who would I have ended up becoming? Probably just some loser.”
“Or you’d have found some nice, comfortable life,” said Arthur. “But you always did hate that part of stories where people returned back to the real world.”
“Because it sucks,” I said. “It’s only there because stupid authors think that allowing the fantasy world to actually be better than the real world sends the wrong kind of message to the audience, who are usually children. It’s impolite to say ‘actually, yes, it would be better to be in this fantasy world that doesn’t exist’. And they try to make it bittersweet, instead of just bitter, but — I know, you think it’s immature.”
“Not particularly, no,” he replied. “I think there’s immaturity in thinking that life can only be one way. It’s a very common immaturity, but also a very adult one. On Earth, yes, perhaps I’d have found it immature, because it was a retreat into fantasy, but here, much less so. In fact, we’re opposite sides of the same decision, in a way.”
“We are?” I asked.
“There was a time I tried to make peace with the omnipresence of the narrative in my life,” he said. “When I tried to make peace with everything forever being a set piece or a bit of backstory or a conflict and its resolution. Eventually though, the unreality of it got to me, and I decided that no, I would do my best to escape the narrative rather than live with it. You want to stay on Aerb because you see that it’s a better life. For the same reason, I want to return to Earth.”
We made it to the end of the muck and Arthur went to open the next door, readying himself for a fight and looking at me to make sure that I was ready to go. I gave him a brief nod, and he swung the door open.
We looked at a room carpeted in corpses. It was one of the larger ones, the size of a ballroom, and all of the dead appeared to be fireteam members, wearing the same black combat clothing that was common to them if they didn’t have magical gear on.
“Holy hell,” said Arthur. “How in the world does the government keep something like this quiet?” He hadn’t stepped into the room yet. Corpses, like statues, were prime candidates for coming to life and trying to kill us.
“It’s all the same guy,” I said, once I’d had a chance to look at the corpses. “So just one KIA or MIA that would need to be covered up. I’m not sure whether this all being a single person with hundreds of corpses is better or worse though.”
I moved in, and began searching the nearest corpse for valuables. Like most of the bodies we’d found, it was fresh, still somewhat warm to the touch. Looking around, the cause of death seemed to be different between the bodies. They were very clearly all the same man though, dark-skinned with a moustache.
“Do you remember this one?” asked Arthur.
“No,” I said. “Unless … this might be another time loop room.”
“Elaborate,” said Arthur. He finally stepped into the ballroom. The more I looked around it, the more I thought that was what it was, with chandeliers and high ceilings, and beneath the bodies, in those rare places where they weren’t stacked two or three high, parquet flooring. There were ‘windows’, but rather than having glass, they were painted with outdoor scenes.
“There was a room I made for the players,” I said. “It was a local time loop, like the one we already did, the trap room, but each time through the loop, your body stays behind, until eventually there are hundreds of corpses of you, each from a time you failed.”
“Edgelord,” muttered Arthur.
“Yes, well,” I replied. “It’s probably the most interesting thing I came up with from that time. If this is what it is, then it’s already disarmed.”
The soldier had been well-outfitted, which meant we were close to the Hellmouth, though there was no sign of anyone else from his fireteam, which meant that either he’d gotten separated, or I was wrong about what had created all the identical bodies. I took his ammo and some of his provisions, his mapping book, and then looked through the rest. I pulled out a small bag of pills, which had a sticker affixed to them labeling them as amnestics.
“Memory loss,” I said, looking at them. I wondered what production facility had made them. It wasn’t the kind of thing that had much commercial use. “You think this is your fate?”
“Possibly,” he said. “In a way, I hope so.”
I looked over at him. “You really do?” I asked. “You really just want to hit the reset button on your entire time on Aerb, to undo it so much that you don’t even remember it?”
“I do,” he said. “Even the good memories of Aerb are tainted by how staged everything was. The triumphs were prewritten. The love, the companionship, if any of it ever felt earned, it doesn’t now. And time has passed, more time than a human can stomach, meaning that it all washed away anyhow. Aerb was a cage, and this is my escape. I don’t think I can express how intolerable it all is, and how much I need a way out.”
I wanted to object that he couldn’t know that, that Earth might have just as much narrative, but I’d tried saying that before, and he hadn’t been receptive. He’d cast himself five hundred years into the future; he was right about there being almost nothing or no one for him. He had descendants, but they were so far from removed from him that they might as well have been someone else’s children. At best, what Aerb promised for him was a nostalgia tour, and he could only see that as manipulation. At worst, he’d be right back in the thick of it, fighting demons and Void Beasts and a million other things that were probably waiting in the wings. To him, everything on Aerb was fake, created for him and him alone, and if it was ‘real’, then it was real only in the way that an actor could make you believe their emotions were real.
“I’ve enjoyed visiting with you,” he said, unprompted. “You were the only one that wasn’t a part of my adventures, though your creations were. And it’s been nice to be with someone who shares the deep past.”
He moved over to me and wrapped me in a very unexpected hug. I hugged him back, trying not to feel awkward about it. The room full of corpses of the same guy trapped in endless loops was probably not the best place for it, but I was grateful for it.
“Thanks,” I said. “But you’re still leaving. You’re still going back to Earth.”
“And you’re not coming with me,” he said. “For all that you professed to be torn apart at the thought of my death, for all that you worked to bring me back, for all that, you’re willing to say goodbye and never see me again.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess. I suppose when you put it like that, I seem like a pretty crappy friend.”
“No,” he said. “That you think it takes a bad friend to say goodbye is, perhaps, why you’re here.”
We made our way through the corpses, toward one of a dozen doors around the perimeter of the ballroom. The bodies were distributed unevenly, clumped up in places, and we avoided the piles that were big enough that we would have needed to climb. I wondered about the soldier, and what he’d gone through. Most likely there had been a moment of sinking despair when he realized that eventually there would be so many bodies that he would instantly be buried under them when he respawned. Eventually though, he must have made his way out of the cycle.
We opened the door, and faced the largest room we’d seen yet, larger than any other in the Long Stairs. It was completely dark, save for the floodlights that were half a mile away, shining down from a hole that was forty stories up in one small area. Illuminated beneath the floodlights was a demonic version of Stonehenge, looking more like obsidian teeth than anything else.
“Hellmouth,” I said, looking at it. “We’re here.”
“So we are,” said Arthur. He looked at the ‘mouth’, then at the floodlights. The floodlights weren’t a part of the Long Stairs, they had been placed there by the War Department, and there were, I knew, cameras pointing down to look at the huge black stones. Past those floodlights, going up, was an area that humanity, or more specifically, the United States, controlled. This place, Hellmouth, was the last room of the Long Stairs, and it was safe, except for the threat of armed forces rappelling down.
“I thought we had more time,” I said.
“This is it,” said Arthur. He took in a big breath of musty air. “Earth lies beyond.” He looked at me. “You won’t come with me?”
“You won’t stay?” I asked.
He shook his head. “If you’re going back to Aerb, then I hope to hell we never see each other again, no offense. Or if I see you, you’re just a normal teenager on Earth.”
I could feel the sadness welling up inside me. I had been preparing myself for this, and I still wasn’t ready. I was hoping that something, improbably, would change. I watched him as he looked at the Hellmouth, and hoped that he would reconsider.
“Goodbye,” he said. To my surprise, he gave me another hug, and I hugged him back, holding him close for a moment.
“Goodbye,” I said.
He took a steadying breath, then strode forward, dropping his guns and gear as he went. He was the hero of Aerb, the man that had practically been worshiped, his name spoken of in reverent tones, and he had reduced himself to a mostly normal teenager. The crystals in our heads were dormant in Hellmouth, I could feel that. He had his skill with a sword, and wisdom beyond his years, but even that might be stripped away from him. It was, in a sense, death that he was choosing, or at least an afterlife. It was a final escape from a burden that couldn’t be shouldered forever.
I watched the whole time, standing by the door. From my shoulder, the toad croaked, and I took him down to hold in my hands. I started to cry, but only a little, a few salty tears rolling down my cheeks, the kind of crying that could be wiped away and leave no evidence.
All that, for just this.
Eventually Arthur reached the stones, and not too long afterward, an empty metal cage on a cable began descending from up where the floodlights were. It took a long time for it to reach him, but he didn’t move, and I didn’t either. When he stepped up, the cage began moving again, bringing him up. I wished that I could have known what they were saying in the control room, what they were planning for him, but he was half a mile away, barely visible. Eventually, he was past the floodlights, and I couldn’t see him anymore.
I hoped that he and Amaryllis were right, that this was a way for the narrative to end.
I stayed for about half an hour after that. I don’t know what I was waiting for, or what I expected, but there was nothing, no sound from the opening up to Earth, no descending cage, not so much as a whisper.
I felt relieved, but also a little hollow. This was the point where our stories diverged from each other, and if everything went well for him, we would never see each other again, and his story would be of the kind that people had on Earth, rambling and barely coherent. Perhaps there was another Juniper up there, living his normal life, bored and depressed, but it wasn’t me, and if Arthur was friends with him — well, I hoped that whatever the War Department did with him, it wasn’t horrible. I hoped that he got his wish.
I paused once I was through the door and into a new, fresh room, looking back at the stones of Hellmouth, and pulled out the vorpal sword. Arthur wanted to be free, and I wanted him to be free too. I didn’t know whether it would work, or whether it was wise, but I steadied myself and cut the door, trying to cleave it at a metaphysical joint, the place where Earth was connected to the Long Stairs.
I felt something give under the weight of the strike, and Hellmouth disappeared, leaving a black void beyond the cut door frame.
I had worried that doing that was a mistake, or that I would lose my memories of Earth, but no, I had a feeling that what I had tried had worked. The connection between our realms was severed, and there was no going back for either of us. It was, after all, how I would have done things.
“Come on, little buddy,” I said to the still air and the toad I was holding in my hands. “Let’s go home.”
The return journey was about as uneventful as a return journey through the Long Stairs could be. There were tests of strength, skill, wisdom, and knowledge, but I passed them all, and never had any real fear that I wouldn’t. In a way, it felt like the Long Stairs were as subdued as I felt, like an energy they’d possessed had gone out of them.
“Is it done?” Amaryllis asked when I reached the felheim Landing. Whatever had happened in my absence, she seemed to have the situation well under control. Two felheim flanked her, looking like they would pierce me through if I so much as sneezed in her direction.
“Yeah,” I said. I hefted the candle. “Either of you two know what this is?”
The felheim shook their heads.
“Well,” I said. “I didn’t see anything that seemed like a clue about some kind of hidden power, so,” I shrugged. “Let’s hope that this is it, otherwise this was all for,” I was about to say ‘nothing’, but I didn’t actually believe that. “For Arthur, and for me, to the benefit of no one else.”
Amaryllis nodded, and together, we continued on.
We collected Fenn and Raven from the maze Landing. When Raven saw that Arthur wasn’t with us, she broke down into tears, and it took some consoling before we could continue on. She wanted to stay, hoping that he would return for her, then when we said no, she demanded we push forward up the Long Stairs, regardless of the consequences to her health. Fenn rolled her eyes at all that, and given that it had been a few days, I imagined that this was the fourth or fifth time they’d had that argument.
When we got to the crystal people, Grak was waiting for us. He was wearing the same clothes as the crystal people, but from what I could tell, was mostly bored with the wait, and had gone through all the books he’d brought along to read.
When we were making our way through the wet market Landing, Bethel slipped from my finger and resumed her normal humanoid form.
“You were quiet,” I said.
“It was like what I imagine getting drunk and falling asleep must be like,” she said. “I missed most of it. I only hope that I helped.”
“You did,” I said softly.
RDP mandated that I buy something from the market, so I bought a hat for the toad. I wondered quietly what his purpose was, but then decided that he was a locus, and maybe his mere existence was enough to justify him. Not everything needed to have some grand purpose. That was where Uther had gone wrong. Sometimes things just were.
And then, not much more than twenty rooms later, we were out the last door and standing on a platform of bone in the middle of an enormous crater. It was different, but only slightly. It seemed to have rained while we were gone.
I wasted no time in lighting the candle, hoping that it was something good, something that would help with our circumstances, something that would be worth it. There was still the possibility that this would end in one last, unfunny joke, of the kind that the Dungeon Master and I both liked. I watched as the three wicks burned down.
“Why would this work?” asked Raven.
“It could have been anything,” I said, watching the candle burn. “Literally anything.”
“It’s never an entad,” said Raven, though she sounded doubtful.
“It’s not an entad,” said Grak. This was the third or fourth time he’d repeated that. “It looks like a normal candle.”
“So why would this work?” asked Raven.
“Don’t jinx it,” said Fenn.
“It’ll work because it’s over,” I said as I watched the flame. “I did the thing that I think I was put on Aerb to do.” I swallowed, thinking about Uther going off to an uncertain fate. “I said goodbye.”
It happened when the candle was half burned down. The candle was white, and the whiteness began to spread, moving across the bone platform to change its color, then moving through my companions, and the background, and everything else. The sounds of the world around me faded away until I could hear nothing but the pounding of my own heart. Eventually, I was alone in a familiar void of white.
Standing in front of me, as though he’d always been there, was the Dungeon Master. He was wearing a small paper party hat, and as my eyes met his, he blew on a party horn.