The Dungeon Master looked different. He was still wearing a hoodie. This one said “Dice Girls” on it, and had a d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20, all with legs, arms, and little faces. They were dressed up, each with their own costume. I thought from context they were supposed to be the Spice Girls, but off the top of my head I had no idea what the Spice Girls looked like, and the reference would have been old when I was a baby. The Dungeon Master himself had a goofy grin on his face, and was in better shape than the last time I’d seen him. He’d gotten a haircut, and his beard had been trimmed. When I didn’t respond to his party horn, he blew it again, waggled his eyebrows, then tossed it, and the paper hat, to the side. I might have expected them to vanish, but they just sat there on the white of the void.
“So,” he said.
“So,” I replied.
“Nachlass is a German word,” he said, “It’s used in academia to describe the collection of manuscripts, notes, correspondence, and so on left behind when a scholar dies.”
“Uh,” I said. “Okay?”
“And … ?” he asked.
“And what?” I asked. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
“It’s the pun you didn’t get,” he said. “Back in chapter 147.” He looked slightly disappointed. “Oh!” he said, brightening somewhat. He produced, from thin air, the book I’d seen him with earlier, titled Worth the Candle by Juniper Smith. “It’s a present, of sorts.”
I took it from him, not really liking where this was going. “If you’re going to grant me godhood,” I said slowly, “Could you stop time on Aerb or something so that I can maximize how much suffering I’m able to stop?”
“Already done,” he said.
I nodded, then opened the book. It was enormously thick, so thick that it should probably have been split into at least four or five volumes. It took me some time to flip through the chapters and find chapter 147, but eventually I did, and I began to scan it. It seemed to be from my time at Sound and Silence, written from my own perspective, though of course I had no memory of writing it. I started skimming when I didn’t immediately see anything, until eventually I got to the section where I was sitting in Ermaretor’s class. She had procured the use of the Urquhart Stone, which, when you gave it the notes, correspondence, memoranda, and other writing of a person, produced from its black water a sea monster.
“Nachlass … becomes Loch Ness?” I asked. “Loch Ness nachlass?”
The Dungeon Master beamed at me.
I set the book down. “Look, that’s, uh, great, but — is this the end? You said that this was a rule of three thing, that we were only going to meet three times, and I can’t help but notice that this is the fourth time we’re meeting.”
“Ah, all part of a wonderful misdirect,” he said, grinning at me. “See, when you died and went to the hells, you thought that I was gone, but —”
“I really didn’t entertain the idea for too long,” I said. “It was kind of obvious you were still around.” I frowned at him, then picked the book back up and started flipping through it. “Does this book say that I was fooled? Because that’s not accurate.”
“It was a very successful ruse,” he insisted, still seeming quite pleased with himself.
“Last time you weren’t so chipper,” I said, frowning at him. “You seemed kind of like you hated me, or like you were having an off day, or … something.” The Dungeon Master was something that I’d been puzzling over on the return trip down the Long Stairs. I had wondered whether I would ever see him again.
“Yes, but now I’m done,” he replied, still smiling. “Well, except for this part. But overall, I’m done, and I think it’s all worked quite nicely, if not without its warts and bumps. There are so many warts and bumps you’d think that maybe it might need a doctor’s attention, honestly, but it doesn’t matter, done is done. Done is an accomplishment.”
“Okay,” I said, putting the book back down on the floor of the white void, not having found what I wanted, which was … I don’t know. “If Aerb is frozen, then we can start with some answers. We can do the easy stuff first, like having you tell me about the true nature of reality.”
“Sure, let’s start with the explanation that’s simple and clean,” said the Dungeon Master. “I live in a far future world with nearly infinite computing power thanks to technology that’s beyond your ability to understand.”
“So help me understand,” I said. “Boost my intelligence. Or put it into simple, stupid, wrong terms that they would use on the local equivalent of the evening news.”
“Are you going to let me finish?” he asked.
“Fine,” I replied.
“We’ve got computing power and artificial intelligence,” said the Dungeon Master. “Loads of both. All of this has been a simulation run on stellar — powered by the output of a star — hardware millions of light-years from Earth. Your entire life, including your life on what you thought was Earth, was a simulation, one with some corners cut. There was a real Juniper Smith and a real Arthur Blum, and all the others, and I instantiated both of you from all your leftover online data, your postings, your images, all that, including a number of things you wrote or said later in life. The accepted word for which, in my time, is nachlass. In your case I had DNA from an ancestry test you took in your thirties, and in his case I invented DNA given what I knew of him and some forensic genealogy. Much of it was guessing though, and sometimes filling in the gaps with what was compelling rather than what was true.”
I listened patiently, but I wasn’t buying it, partly because of the holes in it, and partly because of the tone he was using, which was a little bit like he was sharing a joke with me.
“Now that it’s all done, I’m giving you the keys to the kingdom and irrevocably forking over my control of a fair chunk of computing power, so much that it will be impossible for you to use it all,” he said. “There will not, unfortunately, be any way for you to break the simulation, nor even explore its boundaries, but you and everything you will have dominion over will be simulated, without limits. The heat death of the universe has been circumvented, by the way, so you don’t even need to worry about that. You and your people will have both eternity and infinity, unless something goes very wrong on the layer above you, but if that happens, you’ll all probably die instantly and peacefully.”
“So,” I said, thinking this over. “I get to run a utopia while there’s a dystopia on the layer above.”
“A dystopia?” he asked, arching an eyebrow.
“Any society that allows mass torture by private citizens is a dystopia, almost by definition,” I said. “And this version of things doesn’t make all that much sense. Arthur got a different deal than I did, but he never got anything like an error message. And you’re saying that you built a game layer in addition to all the other running-a-person stuff, and — look, I just don’t think that you’re telling me the truth.”
“It wouldn’t have to be a dystopia,” said the Dungeon Master. “Maybe what I’m doing is very illegal, but also incredibly difficult to enforce.”
“Sure,” I said. “But I don’t buy it.”
“Well, it’s the easy answer, and perfectly acceptable, I’d think. Does it matter?” he asked. “I’ll stipulate now that there’s no escape from where you are, not for you, or anyone you know. The context of your existence cannot be breached. You’ll never see another trace of errors or limitations. You’ll never have communication from anyone ‘outside’ the context you exist within. That goes for whatever the truth of your situation is, whether it’s a simulation or not. Does it matter whether there’s a dystopia above you?”
“No,” I said. “Conditional on you telling the truth and you being unshakeable about what you’re proposing to do to me, then I think no, a world outside that I can’t do anything about doesn’t substantially change things. If I’m a simulation, which I don’t actually think is the Truth, then it’s something I’ve come to terms with. I’ll make an effort to escape or find the seams anyway, but I know you know that. If there is a dystopia above, it’s the kind of thing I would try not to think about because I was incapable of changing it, and maybe, over time, I would succeed in not having it nag at me. I guess maybe it might affect time discounting or something, since if I thought the world might end in a decade I would act differently than if I thought it would go on forever.”
The Dungeon Master waved away that thought as needlessly pedantic.
“But I don’t know why you’re selling me a lie,” I said. “If I accept that it doesn’t matter, why not tell me the truth?”
“The truth is that I made the simulation stuff up,” said the Dungeon Master. “There is no simulation.”
“And the error messages?” I asked. “I mean, I think Arthur was right, those are fake whether or not it was a simulation. They were too blatant and the error output shouldn’t have been like that, especially given the sophistication of everything else. I’d like an explanation as to why they were there at all.” I had my own guesses about that.
“Think about the differences in how you and Arthur perceived your existence on Aerb,” said the Dungeon Master. “Arthur was always questioning the nature of his reality. If I told you, upfront, that it was all fake, I was hopeful it would help you to come to the conclusion that you came to, that fake or not fake, it doesn’t matter. Better to have an existential crisis early on than dragging it out. You were already having thoughts that it was a simulation right from the start, and how couldn’t you, with the game overlay? In retrospect, I kind of smacked you with it, maybe a bit too hard. Both times, with the big red error messages, it was a good place for them though, because I also needed to communicate something to you.”
“Which was?” I asked. I tried to think like him, which mostly meant thinking like myself. “Let me guess, the first time, it was that you cared about keeping me as a Juniper, that there was some integrity to this thing, the second time, it was because you wanted me to know you saved me?”
“Okay, but then what is the reality of my situation?” I asked. “Obviously I’m your plaything, like Arthur was, but a different kind of plaything.”
“Are you asking what the point of the situation was?” he asked, tapping his foot.
“No,” I said. “I’ll ask that later. I’m asking what’s capital-R Real.”
“I’m a god, of a sort, in this context,” he said. “I make worlds. I made this world for my own purposes, and I put Arthur and then you into it because I had a particular set of whims and needs. When I leave, I vow to leave for good, and this world can keep rolling on forever. That’s a much more true version of reality. And really, that’s so similar to the simulation version that it seems to me like it shouldn’t matter to you.”
“But it’s not the truth,” I said, fidgeting.
“I can’t tell you the truth,” he said. “You wouldn’t understand it, and I know that because I’ve tried telling you before, in a discarded timeline. So in this, the canonical timeline, I’m just not going to tell you.”
Discarded timelines made me real uneasy. “Can you tell me why I don’t understand?” I asked.
“It’s incompatible with your qualia,” he replied.
“Because my qualia aren’t real?” I asked.
“They’re real within this context,” he said. “But I exist outside of this context.” He looked down at himself. “This is just a context-crossing shell.”
“Sure, fine,” I said. This was illuminating nothing. “I just want you to try. I want you to explain it as plainly and simply as you can. If I don’t understand it, fine, but I want the Truth.”
The Dungeon Master hesitated, as though he didn’t want to say it. “Fine, we’ll try this again. You’re a character in a novel,” he said.
I thought about that for a moment, turning it over in my head. “And you mean that literally?” I asked. “You don’t mean it in the sense of, ‘you’re like a character in a novel’, in the sense that, yes, you created me, and my environs, and you in some sense dictate, or predict, or set up my actions, and you’re like an author? You mean actually, for real?”
“Yes,” he replied, nodding.
“Nah,” I said. “That’s nonsense. I know you said that I would say that, so congratulations on being right, but it just — I do have qualia. I’m not a p-zombie. I can see you, touch you, feel you. I have memories of so many things. I can feel my tongue in my mouth. I’d more easily believe that you’re from the far future, simulating me and everything else, or that I’m a brain you put in a jar and hooked up to wires.”
“I can’t prove it to you,” he said. “That’s what I mean about context. You’re not real, and I can’t take you out of there to show you that you aren’t real. It’s words on a page. What’s real are the emotions and thoughts that those words can evoke in people, and specifically, that they evoked in me. Those are real, which were the whole point of this, for me. That’s why your story was fundamentally about reality, a story about stories, about what we choose to take from fiction. Do you see the duality of you and Arthur? He rejected the narratives. He rejected the cycles. You, instead, answered ‘mu’. You said that it didn’t matter, that even if it wasn’t real, it was real to you, and that was enough. You and me, we arrived at the same point. I know it isn’t real. I know that. But to revel in the glory of our own creation anyhow, to make it matter, that’s the whole point.” He seemed to really mean it. The jokingness was stripped away and there was something in his eyes, an intensity.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just … far more likely that there really is some way to have infinite computing power, or enough that at the simulation fidelity you’re running it at can trick someone into thinking it’s infinite, and Earth and Aerb are running on some monstrously powerful hardware, if you’re running or ran Earth at all. All the stuff you’re saying about it being a story makes more sense if that’s the case. That you think I’m not real — if you’re going to leave me alone to be god, then I don’t care, I’m not going to sit here and try to convince you that I really do experience emotion and sensation and all that jazz.”
“I know,” he said. “I wanted to avoid it, but there you go, that’s the truth, and you’ve rejected it.”
I let out a sigh, feeling frustrated. “Well then, now I’d like to know the whys.”
“Ah,” he replied. He tapped his foot. “I suppose it all started as a misguided form of therapy.”
“Therapy,” I said. It was an answer that I’d been half-expecting. “Therapy? I was tortured, how was that therapy? I was literally murdered. I was raped, how —”
“Oh, don’t be so self-centered,” he said. “Not therapy for you, therapy for me. You’re not the most important person in this world, I am.”
I paused for a moment. “Well?” I asked. “Did it work?”
“More or less,” he replied, shrugging. “I’d say it worked more than it didn’t work.”
I closed my eyes, thinking, trying to piece things together. “Okay,” I said. “So do I need to do a reconstruction of events on my own, or can you just give it to me?”
“Hmm,” he said. “I suppose I’ll throw you a bone. Do you mind if we get a bit more comfortable though?” Without waiting to hear a response, he summoned a couch from nowhere for me, and a comfy chair for himself. For a moment, I wanted to stay standing, just on principle, but I sat, and it was one of the most comfortable pieces of furniture I’d ever sat on, perfectly contoured to my body.
The Dungeon Master leaned back. “It started with Arthur, naturally. Or perhaps I should say it started with a boy who wasn’t Arthur, who died in that liminal time just before our adulthood. He was a close friend of mine. It haunted me for a long time. I thought to myself one night that I needed to exorcise my demons somehow, or at least find comfort, and I’d always had an interest in creating worlds, so I thought to myself, why not? And thus, a primitive version of Aerb was formed, and Arthur was thrust into it.”
“But, no,” I said. “Arthur wasn’t — I’m not you, and Arthur wasn’t actually your friend. Right?”
“True enough,” replied the Dungeon Master. “There’s a feeling we sometimes get, and here I don’t mean the general we, but we specifically, me and you, Juniper Smith and whatever you want to call me — there’s a feeling of coming back to something in search of the way it made us feel, and realizing that it doesn’t produce that emotion for us anymore. We do this constantly. The most distinct time you felt that feeling of not-feeling was reading through the Pippi Longstocking books. You’d read them when you were young, and you had one of your first crushes, on Pippi. Then when reading them again at fifteen, you realized that you’d been completely wrong. Pippi Longstocking was, in fact, an annoying child. You realized that the feeling you’d been chasing by cracking those books again could never be reproduced by them.” He shook his head. “The self-reflection made the not-feeling stronger, because it wasn’t just a momentary disappointment, it was a disappointment that stretched into the future, a realization that you’d never get the feeling back, not in that way, that the well you’d gotten such sweet water from was now and forever dry.” He paused. “It’s a feeling that comes from indulging in nostalgia and having the memory crumple and the emotions fail to appear. The neurons don’t fire and the brain chemicals don’t get released. It’s like trying to light a firecracker a second time, hoping that it will cause the same explosion.”
“And so you do what I did?” I asked. “You write your own Pippi Longstocking books?” This was normally something so embarrassing that I would never speak a word of it to anyone, but I knew that the Dungeon Master knew. The kinds of books that a fifteen-year-old Juniper wrote about Pippi Longstocking while trying to produce the feeling of an early childhood crush were, obviously, an affront to good taste and would probably bring legal action from the estate of Astrid Lindgren, even if I had aged Pippi up.
The Dungeon Master nodded. “Your entire group was made to evoke certain feelings in me,” he said. “If I had used the real people, my real friends, striving for accuracy, I don’t believe I would have gotten as much from it. And I made you to be a stand-in for me, not necessarily accurate to how I was, but able to bring forward certain emotions in me. You are me, heightened in some ways, sanded down in others, changed and warped to serve the purpose. True, though, to my perceptions.” He looked at me, as though examining his work, and I felt uncomfortable in my seat.
“Anyway,” he said. “To get back to the timeline, I created Aerb, and Arthur, and the people he’d known, and the town he’d lived in, hoping that some new life for Arthur would help to soothe me.”
“You didn’t think of him as real,” I said.
“I didn’t,” replied the Dungeon Master. “I don’t. I don’t think of you as real either. I don’t think of this shell as real, or this conversation as real. But just because a thing isn’t ‘real’ doesn’t mean that it can’t have its impacts. You’re a dungeon master, you know that better than most.” Again there was something like pleading in his eyes, as though wishing it might make me understand. “It doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective therapy.”
“Maybe you should, I dunno, talk to a real therapist, if they have them where you are?” I asked. “I’m not being flippant, I really think maybe that would help.”
“Sure, sure,” he replied. “At any rate, things with Arthur went swimmingly. It was everything that I’d wanted when I started, barring those hiccups at the beginning, which we’ve already gone over. Arthur defeating the Dark King with his motley crew was just,” he made the ‘chef’s kiss’ gesture. “And then, as discussed, I wanted more, and more, and more. Early on it was fairly simple, but the premise began to wear thin, and one day, out of the blue, the metafictional elements started cropping up.”
“No,” I said. “The metafictional elements were always there, right from the start. You were inserting him into a campaign world that I had come up with.”
“Perhaps we should sidestep a definitional debate,” said the Dungeon Master. “I know you hate those. When I say ‘metafictional’, I don’t mean characters from your campaigns, or worldbuilding, or anything like that. All that could have been some form of prophecy. Uther recognizing things doesn’t make for metafiction, not in any real sense. I mean the narrative itself.”
“Ah,” I said. “So when you say it came out of the blue, you don’t mean him realizing that it was all bits and pieces of campaigns he’d played, you mean he realized that he was a part of a story, or something like it,” I said. And it was clear that we were in stories, and had been, just not what kind of substrate those stories lived in. I was still banking on hypercomplex far-future simulation, but it seemed like I wasn’t going to get an answer.
The Dungeon Master nodded. “It wasn’t right away, or all at once, but the thoughts were there, and they grew with time. Part of it was that I’d been a bit lazy about how I’d structured things, and the solutions that I allowed to happen at particular plot points. There was all kinds of unintentional evidence. But once the seed of the metaplot was there, it kept growing, and I indulged it in various ways. The schlossvolk — I always hated the name and said so as Vervain, but he was insistent, and there was an Arthurness to the name — were a wrinkle in the whole thing, entities that provided a diegetic explanation for some laziness on my part. Ironically, the schlossvolk themselves had been retroactively added into the world. I did that a lot, back in the day. The world of Aerb wasn’t built all at once, it was built over the course of a decade of Arthur’s life. At a certain point, I mostly stopped making new things and allowed it to all play out.”
There were elements of this story that didn’t sound quite right, or that I thought were more reflections of how he thought about things than whatever the seemingly irrelevant truth of reality was. I tried to put myself in his mindset, thinking about things like a dungeon master thought about his games, and that helped, somewhat. He thought that Arthur wasn’t real, but he didn’t have it in him to curb Arthur, to make Arthur do or say things that were unArthurlike. He felt it important that I was me, that Amaryllis was Amaryllis, and that we weren’t some puppets whose minds were changed on a whim. He had opinions on the integrity of the thing.
“It wasn’t pleasant for him,” I said.
“I know,” nodded the Dungeon Master. “And more importantly, it wasn’t particularly pleasant for me, either.”
“Then why?” I asked, clenching a fist. “Why put both of you through that? I could understand if you thought he wasn’t real, but if you are, or whatever is behind this shell in some other context or … whatever — why do that to yourself?”
He scoffed. “You’re no stranger to doing things that make you and others unhappy. But to be honest,” replied the Dungeon Master. “In the end, I was just letting things run without direct involvement on my part. They were still real in his context, they happened, but they were less real for me. I had set up the Long Stairs as a way out for him, and once he went in the first time, I knew he would eventually be back. When Vervain died, that was the last I really paid much attention to it. I knew the path Arthur would take. I wanted him to take it.”
“You abandoned the world,” I said. “Except … not, because exclusions were still happening, and there’s five hundred years of history, and I know that it has my mark on it, which means your mark.”
“Oh, once he was gone, I was setting up for you, and even a bit before that,” said the Dungeon Master. “Obviously. Where Arthur’s placement on Aerb was a way for me to find some comfort in his death, or to reject his death entirely, your placement on Aerb was a way for me to more directly deal with some of my problems, and to relive a period of my life that had already passed. I didn’t need to do the growing that you needed to do, but the reflection on those times and their emotional truths — it was helpful, I think, though I’m sure you don’t care in the slightest.”
“I do care,” I said. “I don’t wish pain on others.”
“You do, sometimes,” said the Dungeon Master, shrugging. “But I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless.”
“So,” I said. “I had a shitty childhood because you had a shitty childhood, and I dated Tiff because you dated Tiff, and my life is just an echo of yours. Do I have that right?”
He nodded. “Of course, all your friends were inventions of my own, so there was no Tiff until I created her. The Tiff you knew was created to be an emotionally true version of a girl I dated in high school. That girl, as she actually was, if I could have recreated her at all, wouldn’t have fit my purposes quite right. I wouldn’t have gotten the same feelings out of it.”
He’d completely abandoned the pretense that I had been a real person from the real Earth. “And Maddie?” I asked.
“Is that hard for you to figure out?” asked the Dungeon Master. “Do you need me to connect the dots? Different details, but emotionally true. Legal, in my case, but still something that I carry deep regrets about.”
“So you are from Earth,” I said. “And from, or invested in, local time. I mean, even if you’re from the subjective future —” But I knew that wasn’t quite right either.
“Or I’m a god of unimaginable power, and speaking to you in a way that you would understand, for purposes that are too obtuse for you to fathom,” he said with a sigh. “Perhaps my true form is something like a giant crab, and I just have a fascination with these two-legged beings I invented called humans. Perhaps this is all translation from something higher or different.”
I paused. “Is it?”
The Dungeon Master rolled his eyes. “If you want to know how and what, then I’m not going to answer that again. It’s incoherent in this context, even if it makes sense from the context I’m from. If you want to know why, then I’m doing my best to answer that right now. From my perspective, the why is what’s important, and it’s also the part that I wanted to talk to you about. This is the end, Juniper. You’re going to be in charge of designing a paradise. It’s a good ending for you. I want you to know why all this happened.”
“Fine,” I said. “And if this whole thing was some kind of therapy that you were attempting to create for yourself, whether I was mined from the past or directly created, then that applies to Aerb too? All those adventures, did they have some literal or metaphorical relevance to you?”
“It wasn’t even that many adventures,” he said. “But yes, they did. You already knew that though, didn’t you? You and Amaryllis worked out that many of the elements you came across had some specific or personal meaning to you. By association, they had specific or personal meaning to me.”
“Except there was also stuff that didn’t have any specific meaning to me,” I said. “All that shit with Fallatehr, did that have meaning to you?”
“Yes,” he replied. “A betrayal I suffered, and how I dealt with it. It was the feeling of being understandably unable to trust, and having that make things worse.”
“Oh,” I said. “Huh.” That wasn’t quite my interpretation of how things had gone down. “But then — both my time on Earth and my time on Aerb were just for you to get your kicks?”
“That’s reductive,” he said, frowning at me. “It’s not a lossless compression of what I was doing. But sure, if you want to say that.”
“Okay,” I said. “But then what happened to you in college, or the context-whatever equivalent of college you went through? Surely not a giant monster you had to use several types of magic to murder with the help of your sentient house that ended up raping you, right?”
“Metaphorically,” he replied, and then seemed about to leave it at that before reconsidering. “I’m sorry about how things went with Bethel.”
“‘How things went’?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted him to say it out loud, but it felt like a coward’s move not to be plain about it.
“I doubt that you’ll believe me, but I never intended it to happen. That said, I didn’t revise it, and I didn’t stop it, so …” he shrugged. “It probably won’t help for you to know that it was extremely difficult and emotional for me.” He was right. “I’m sure you’ll be a better god than me, because our aims are different. You’re inside the context where this is real, and I’m not.”
“Sure,” I said. “Whatever, I don’t want to get into how much of a shit you are, it’ll just make me mad.” When I wasn’t thinking about it, I could almost like him, or at least empathize. We shared sensibilities.
“Then what else is left?” he asked. “So far as I’m concerned, we’re mostly done. I’ll show you around, but if you realize that I made my mistakes with Arthur, and that this was all about me as a person, then I don’t think there’s much left.”
“So the ‘why me’ question was always just ‘you did this to yourself’?” I asked.
“More or less,” he replied. “Of course, you are your own person.” He paused, as if thinking about whether what he’d just said was true. “Now then, can we start the tour?”
“What happened to Arthur?” I asked.
“That’s a dangerous question to ask me, after all that work of saying goodbye,” replied the Dungeon Master, clucking his tongue. “Here’s what I decided on: Arthur got to go back home and live his life. This wasn’t the first time the War Department had to deal with someone like him, so they gave him some amnestics, wiped away most of his memories, and when he died in Kansas, they were there, waiting, and switched the dead Arthur for the living one. All in accordance with RDP. He would then wake up, and go through some reorientation, maybe have a few good memories from Aerb, and otherwise, live as normal. Nothing that couldn’t be chalked up to the extended coma or vivid dreams. His skills are gone, as is his Knack. The War Department quietly ceases to exist not long afterward. And that’s it. That’s as far as I go.”
I was silent for a moment. “That’s time travel,” I said.
“I’m a fucking god, Juniper, I do whatever the fuck I want,” replied the Dungeon Master. “I am completely capable of time travel. I’m capable of reshaping reality to my whims.” He was more flippant about it than angry. “If I want to be a big old softie about it, and make it so the gentle return happens, rather than the more realistic thing of him being detained for quite a bit and released into WITSEC, never able to truly come back to the life I’d denied him for so long — you understand that his stories were much more high fantasy, and didn’t need to follow the rules of realism so strictly as yours. In an Arthur story, he was right, the ending for him was a return to the world he’d known, stripping everything of Aerb away from him except some of the growth and the lessons, ending up almost exactly where he’d started.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. But … if I want to know what happens next, then you want to know what happens next, right? I mean, I made peace, kind of, but I still want to know. So that means you still want to know.”
“Of course I want to know what happens next,” he replied. “I had this great idea, which was that the War Department might keep tabs on people like him, and one day he might discover his trackers, or his Knack might start coming back, and perhaps his memories could start to return, without him being so beleaguered by it all. I had a thought that an undercover operative might befriend him under false pretenses, and then she might fall in love with him in spite of that, and …” he slowed down, probably because of the horrified look on my face. “You understand why I’m leaving it where it is, right?”
“You’re cut off from Earth,” he said. “It’s on a different server cluster, if that analogy tracks. You’re free to recreate it, but I know that you won’t. That means you could recreate Arthur. Again, I know that you won’t.”
“No,” I said softly. “I won’t.”
“Now did you want to take the tour?” he asked, brightening.
I looked around the white void. The only notable features were me, him, the party hat and party horn, the couch and chair, and the enormous book. “Sure,” I said.
The Dungeon Master waved a hand, and a wall of the void opened up. It was a cozy tavern, and there were a few people around. I recognized only one of them, the Layman, who was throwing peanuts up into the air and catching them in his mouth. Aside from the Layman, there was a lot of costuming going on, and none of it really seemed to mesh very well. My eyes went to a table that appeared to have a cactus person sitting at it, along with a large and varied party of other people. One of them, apparently a human, glanced my way, and I froze in place.
“Who the fuck is that?” I asked, pointing at the guy. He looked a bit too much like me, which is to say he looked exactly like me.
The guy stood up from his seat and came over to me. He was wearing sintered armor and giving me a skeptical look, and once he was done sizing me up, he gave the Dungeon Master a sigh.
“Juniper Smith,” he said, holding out his hand to me.
I shook his hand. “You mean that your name is also Juniper Smith?”
He nodded. “I’m the person you displaced.”
I looked over at the Dungeon Master. “Wait, this is the Aerb version of Juniper? Is this going to be a turtles-all-the-way-down kind of thing, where there’s another Juniper that he displaced?”
“No, nothing like that,” replied the Dungeon Master. “You see, about half the time when you dream-skewer, the displaced person doesn’t get overwritten, they get pushed out somewhere, and that place is the Other Side, where they’re temporarily without a body until they learn a bit of formation magic, which allows them to construct their body again, Jon Osterman style.”
“I don’t know who that is,” said Aerb Juniper.
“A lot of the references were lost on this poor, inferior Juniper,” said the Dungeon Master. The poor, inferior Juniper remained stoic, as though he was used to this kind of abuse. “Anyway, he was bumming around the Other Side, which should really be called the B-side, but the two of you never ended up running into each other, so oh well. Part of tabletop games is not pushing the players too hard and allowing a fertile plot thread to hang itself, and tabletop games were the feel I was going for, as you correctly intuited. He did manage to defeat the Union Empire though.”
“We’re cool?” B-side Juniper asked me.
“Sure, we’re cool,” I said with a shrug. I looked at the Dungeon Master. “I don’t really get why he’s here.”
“He finished early,” said the Dungeon Master. “I had some trouble lining things up, and didn’t want to abuse the timeline anymore, so I let him chill here.” He looked at B-side Juniper. “You can sit back down.”
B-side Juniper shrugged, then went back to his table, seating himself next to the cactus.
“So what happens to him?” I asked. “I mean, if I was playing for godhood, then are we going to be co-gods?”
“Not unless you want to,” said the Dungeon Master. “No, the Union Empire was a credible threat to the Empire of Common Cause. He was trying to stop them from unleashing a superweapon, and also secure a path home for himself, all of which he did. Of course, it was all made moot a week later, which I found absolutely hilarious.” He pointed over at the table and lowered his voice. “Those are his companions. Guess which ones he’s had sex with.”
Aside from the cactus person, there was an anthropomorphic otter, a non-anthropomorphic octopus, a woman whose hair seemed to be made up of precious gems, a fairly normal halfling, and a woman who flickered and changed appearance whenever I tried to look directly at her.
I frowned. “I don’t really think it’s appropriate to speculate on —”
“All of them,” replied the Dungeon Master. He seemed a bit too giddy about it for my tastes.
“So?” I asked. “I mean, I don’t think we should judge people for —”
“Neither do I, obviously,” he said. “But it’s nice to show someone something that they have trouble admitting about themselves.”
“Look, the whole harem thing,” I began.
“There were things you needed to learn about how you view and deal with women,” he said. “I don’t think we got it all out of your system, but I did put in some effort. And obviously much of it was for my benefit as well, to help me learn, grow, and process.”
“Sure,” I said. “Fine. Or you were just watching and getting off on it, with a thin veneer of deconstruction and learning a lesson.” I wondered whether he’d watched me have sex, and how often, if he’d been staring over my shoulder when I jerked off.
“The world may never know,” replied the Dungeon Master. “Anyway, there’s the Layman, who you met, there’s the Scribe, who hand-writes all the notes, there’s the Architect,” pointing to a tall guy in a rumpled suit, “There’s the Warden,” a woman whose whole aesthetic seemed to be chains, a little on the nose for my tastes. “Oh, and there’s the Actor.” He waved at a very plain looking man, also in a suit, but much more handsome, in a Hollywood kind of way.
“Juniper!” called the Actor, coming forward. “A pleasure to meet you. Here’s my card, if you need anything.” He produced a crisp eggshell white card from his pocket, and I took it from him, somewhat dumbfounded. On one side, it said ‘Thespian’. The other side was blank.
“And your role is … ?” I asked.
“Oh, anything that’s needed,” he said. “Whenever you need a character, they can be played by me.”
I looked at the Dungeon Master. “Meaning?” I asked.
“He’s useful,” shrugged the Dungeon Master. “In case you wanted to have people who weren’t people, who were just happily acting like they were, say, in pain, or in love, without actually being those things.”
“And did you do that?” I asked.
“No,” replied the Dungeon Master. “Only as Vervain, when I wasn’t speaking and acting as Vervain myself. Everyone else was real.”
“Even the hells?” I asked. “Because … shit, that’s a lot of people that will need therapy. That’s horrible. Is there any way you could,” I paused.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Retroactively make it so that,” I paused again. “I don’t want you to erase real people, but is it possible that you could, um, in your context, outside of time, maybe make it so the hells didn’t exist?”
“No,” replied the Dungeon Master. “They’re an important part of the story.”
“Then the Thespian, the Actor,” I said. “Could you make it so that he was playing the part?”
“Of whom?” asked the Dungeon Master, raising an eyebrow.
“Everyone in the hells except the members of my party, when we were there,” I said. “The infernals, and the tortured. Again, I don’t want to erase anyone’s experience from existence, but if there’s a way for it to have not happened without doing that, if you’re a god who can bend reality from a perspective outside time, then … that’s my request.”
“Sure,” he said with a shrug. “Done. No one in the hells was ever real, except for the people involved in rescuing you from it.”
“Sorry, this is making my head hurt,” I said. I really hoped what I’d asked him to do was the right thing.
“I’m not being intentionally confusing,” said the Dungeon Master. “I understand it’s a lot though. But there’s something I want to show you that I think you will like.” He opened a door in the side of the tavern, and walked us out into a green space that seemed to go on for quite a while, with shrubs and grasses and trees. Sitting in the middle of it was a small, picturesque cottage.
“What is this?” I asked.
“It’s something I think you’ll like, I said that already,” replied the Dungeon Master.
“You know that what I want most of all is to go back to Aerb and start on fixing things with my phenomenal cosmic powers, right?” I asked as I followed behind him. “I don’t need to see behind the scenes.”
“Just a few more things, I promise,” he said. He opened the door without knocking, and I reluctantly followed him in. It was a fairly open place, small and cozy but also with a fair amount of room to move around. I couldn’t see any sign of a kitchen or bathroom, it was just a bed, a sofa, and a desk with a small computer on it. There was a man sitting at the computer, and I could tell right away he was a Juniper, but sitting on the couch was someone I hadn’t expected to be there in the slightest: Fenn.
She was dressed in a green tank top and some black athletic shorts, eating cheesy puffs. She stood up when I came in, setting the bag to the side, and licked her fingers quickly before coming forward.
“You’re here!” she said.
“Fenn?” I asked.
“Sup?” she asked. She came forward and wrapped me in a hug. “I’m not fully caught up, but I know you’ve been through some shit. Congrats on the win.”
I looked at the Dungeon Master. “What is this, please?”
“Fenn died,” he replied. “She was always meant to die, it was part of how I’d envisioned things happening. She was expendable, really.” Fenn pouted. “I’d originally meant for it to happen when she got cut in half in the forest and hastily put back together, but you came up with the transfusion thing, and I thought, well, let’s just let it roll, that’s fair play.”
“She was fated to die,” I said slowly. “There was no way of avoiding it?”
“Maybe,” he replied. “Nothing is set in stone. You removed her from the poison last, and you could have chosen differently. I do try to play fair, the majority of the time, same as you. Fel Seed being one obvious exception.”
“Who?” I asked.
Fenn was grinning. “But as it turns out, my superpower isn’t arrows, it’s that when I die, I get sent to heaven! I am, no shit, the only person on Aerb to ever get into heaven.”
“You came back to life though,” I said, looking her up and down.
“She wasn’t supposed to do that,” said the Dungeon Master. “But after you died, Amaryllis had this plan to bring you back, and logically, there was no way she wouldn’t bring Fenn back too. I thought about fudging it, or stopping it, but,” he shrugged. “I’ve been trying to abide by good DMing principles, where possible. That’s part of why I’m showing you what I’m showing you, it’s not just to display the scraps of plans that never came to fruition, which I know you hate.” He turned to regard Fenn. “Fenn coming back to life left us with a problem though, because this Fenn had been sitting around in heaven for almost three years. I thought for a moment about sending her back down anyway, but the timing was off for it, so with her consent, I made a copy.”
“She’s going to be pissed off when she learns about that,” said Fenn, clucking her tongue. “In my defense, I was told that you might have an easier time if you had a Fenn with you. A better chance of success.”
“So there was a chance I would fail?” I asked, looking at the Dungeon Master.
“That’s what he said,” replied Fenn. “I don’t believe a damned word of it.”
“And you’ve just been … living here?” I asked Fenn. “Just hanging out?”
“Oh, sure,” she said. She held up her fingers. “Check ‘em out.”
I looked at her hand and saw nothing. “What am I seeing?”
“I was eating cheese puffs,” she said. “And I got to lick my fingers clean, but then there was nothing left on them, no stickiness or anything. It’s heaven!”
“That’s the Narrator,” said the Dungeon Master, gesturing at the Juniper behind the computer. He gave a lazy wave without looking back at me. He seemed focused on typing. “In case you were wondering. It’s actually fairly interesting how I conceptualized him as being — alright, you don’t care, I understand.”
“So there are two Fenns?” I asked.
“We’re gonna bang,” said Fenn. “Me and the clone, not you and me, sorry, I can see where you’d find that confusing.” She must have seen my expression. “Me and the Narrator Juniper are already hooking up, in case that wasn’t clear from us living in the same cottage and sharing a bed.”
I stared at her.
“I’m seeing that it wasn’t clear,” said Fenn. “It happened not too long after I moved in. He’s great.”
“But,” I said. “We broke up.”
“Right,” said Fenn. “And I was therefore free to date other people.” She gestured at Narrator Juniper, who seemed like he was an exact copy of me.
“He’s not an exact copy of you,” said the Dungeon Master, possibly reading my mind. “He’s you, with some extra perspective on what’s going on, a little bit of future sight, better recall of the past, and a few other tweaks. Oh, he’s also a better writer, obviously, since that’s his main job.”
“Huh,” I said. I looked back at Fenn. “And … that was enough?”
“Narrator Juniper understood our problems,” said Fenn. “I mean, he feels what you feel, but he’s got extra perspective, and during some downtime, he went through and pointed out all the parts of the story that showed just how right I was. And you know me, if someone shows me even the slightest bit of positive attention, I fall head over heels.”
“Huh,” I said again.
“But the game’s all done now, so I guess I’ll be seeing you around,” said Fenn. “Don’t be a stranger.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I … guess I won’t be.”
“So,” said the Dungeon Master as the cottage was ripped away and we were back in the white void together. “I guess all that’s left is for me to hand you the keys.” He had literal keys in his hand.
I took them from him, not wanting to wait. They felt solid and real in my hand, one final piece of loot, one final entad. “Not that I want to do anything with them, but you’re not going to make me fight the Void Beast? Or go fight the hells?”
“Nope,” he replied. “You were never going to beat the Void Beast. I mean, it’s a metaphor for various coordination problems, most notably global warming, as you know, so what does it mean if you punch it in the face hard enough to kill it? I mean, on the object level, maybe that would be cool, but it wouldn’t work with the metaphor. I never built in a solution for that one. It was always there to end the world at some point. Sacrificing pieces of Aerb to slow it was the best you could do, short of an autocratic government that was somehow capable enough to stop everyone from all over the world from using void tools, which seems both horrifying and farfetched to me.”
“But,” I said. “That means you have global warming outside of here? In that other context you live in? There are other people for you to have coordination problems with?”
“Sure,” he replied.
I frowned, not sure what to make of that. “And the hells were also some kind of metaphor?” I asked.
“For the constant endless suffering of the world,” he said. “The senseless cruelty and pain of everyday existence for most people. But you didn’t want them to exist, and I knew that from the start, so they were never as real as you are. All that suffering has never actually happened except for its emotional truth and the time we spent ruminating on it. It’s somewhat a load off my mind.”
“You’re welcome, I guess,” I said, looking down at the keys.
“You can’t use them until I’m gone,” he said. “They’re safe, they do what you mean. No tricks, no traps, just the chance to build a paradise.”
“Not that I haven’t enjoyed the chat,” I said. “Or this weird place you’ve set up with aspects of yourself and a surplus Fenn. But I kind of want to get started on my tenure as god.”
“Of course,” he replied. He gave me a salute. “Good luck, Juniper.”
“Thanks,” I said. “And … sorry about your friend. I hope you’re feeling better.”
“You too,” he said, then vanished in a clatter of dice.
Then, all at once, I had the power, and got started on making a better world.