“You’re the Dungeon Master,” I said, looking him over.
“I prefer ‘DM’,” he replied. He was smirking at me. “Less of a mouthful.”
“You’re … not me,” I said. I was staring. There were similarities between us, not just in the jeans and hoodie he was wearing — a pretty classic outfit for me, back when I’d been on Earth — but his hair color, eye color, and skin color too. But looking at his lips, nose, and eyes, I couldn’t see myself in him, not even allowing for the fact that he was older than me.
“Says something about you,” he said. “That you assumed that the person behind all your perceived misfortune would be yourself.”
“It’s my world,” I said. “My creations. My sensibilities, my interests, my design decisions, my fingerprints are all over every aspect of Aerb.”
The Dungeon Master shrugged. “True enough.”
I stopped, trying to think of what to say, what question I could ask. “Why is there pain?” I asked.
“Because I wanted there to be pain,” he replied.
“You’re a monster,” I said, crossing my arms. “And I’m on a schedule, this isn’t a good time.”
He snapped his fingers. “There, now we have all the time in the world. Satisfied?”
“You absolute fuck,” I said. I could feel my temper rising, and did nothing to rein it in. “A trillion fucking people in the hells, a decaying world, Fenn having her arms scarred at seventeen as a way of spitting on her for being a half-breed, Amaryllis raised by a nest of vipers because you killed her father and mother when she was just a little girl, Arthur, put through shit a hundred times over, never even able to rest, how fucking could you?” He watched me, and I could feel my heart racing, my blood boiling. “Every fucking death is on your hands, every starving child, every act of violence, every rape, every murder, all the atrocities of a world that seems to have had more than its fair share of them, all that is on you. If I were god, I’d have stopped them all.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” asked the Dungeon Master. “Become god.”
I sprinted forward and attacked him, grabbing him by his hoodie and punching him square in the face. He cried out in pain and began stumbling back, but that was why I had a hold of his shirt, and as he tried to twist under my grip, I punched him again, then threw him to the ground and leapt on top of him, punching him again, in the chest this time, trying to pin him with my weight while I kept up the assault. There was blood spraying out to coat the white void, more splattered with every punch, until eventually his movements slowed down. I grabbed his hair and slammed the back of his head into the ground, over and over, past the point that he was no longer moving, until eventually I was gasping for air because of the exertion. I was crying too, which wasn’t surprising.
“Fuck off,” I said to the empty air.
He wasn’t dead. The body below me had no pulse, and it wasn’t breathing, but fuck if I actually believed I’d killed him, or hurt him, or caused him any pain. I probably wouldn’t have gone after him, if I had believed that it would do anything. Hell, I’d been surprised when that first punch had landed, shocked that he hadn’t dodged out of the way at the speed of sound, or absorbed the punch like he was made of dough, or something else to demonstrate his power. And I had been right that there would be a demonstration of power, but wrong about the form that it would take; he had let me ‘kill’ him.
I got up and kicked his head. “Alright, let’s chat.”
The corpse didn’t move. I was expecting him to appear behind me, or for the dead body to get up and start talking, speech warped by the broken bones and blood that had probably dribbled down his throat, or maybe he would just appear in front of me, whole, like nothing had ever happened. Those were the kinds of things that I would do, and so far he’d seemed content to steal my sensibilities. Of course, there was also a long list of the ways that we were different.
I looked around. It was a white void, with ambient lighting that seemed to come from everywhere at once, and no horizon to speak of. The only features were myself, the body of the Dungeon Master, and the blood that had come from that body, a small pool beneath his head and the drops and droplets further beyond that.
I started walking. My hands hurt, and I seemed to be cut off from bone magic. I couldn’t access my soul, but that was no surprise either. Quick checks of my other magics showed none of them working either, also not surprising. I kept walking, for lack of anything better to do.
I tried to carry my anger with me, repeating a litany of the Dungeon Master’s sins, trying to count every bad thing that had ever happened on Aerb against him because he was the one with the power to stop it, and when that began to grow dull, I switched over to his sins as a Dungeon Master, the various contrivances, the plots that didn’t make sense without information introduced after the fact, the impossible odds I kept escaping from by the skin of my teeth, the items I’d acquired only to find a perfect use for them a few days later.
Eventually, enough time had passed that I should have been thirsty, and then hungry. I should have needed sleep. I kept walking, trying to keep myself moving in a straight line. Occasionally I would look back at the Dungeon Master’s body, sometimes flipping it the bird. Eventually it was out of sight, beyond my ability to perceive it as more than a speck.
Brains are made of neurons awash in chemical soup, and the thing about that chemical soup is that it has a really hard time maintaining high levels of any emotion. It’s not that you run out of anger, it’s that your brain runs out of the chemicals responsible for you feeling the emotion of anger, and all you really feel is numb, because your brain can’t actually make you feel the thing that it’s supposed to be making you feel. So eventually, my brain had wrung out all the anger it possibly could, leaving nothing left but a trickle as it slowly made (and then immediately deployed) its anger chemicals.
“Feel better?” asked the Dungeon Master. He had appeared in front of me without fanfare, again as though all he’d done was lift a mental block that prevented me from seeing him. He was restored, looking exactly the same.
“No,” I said. I looked down at my hands, which were undamaged, with no trace of blood.
“You can kill me again, if you’d like,” he said.
“I will, once I can figure out a way to do it permanently,” I said. “Once I have a system in place to take up the reins without it all crashing down. Once I’m a god.”
“Fair enough,” he said.
“The fuck do you want?” I asked. I felt tired, not in the sense that I needed to sleep, but in the sense that my brain was out of the chemicals it needed to make me feel like giving a shit about anything. In retrospect, trying my best to keep the righteous rage going was probably not a great idea.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” he said.
“You’ve got my brain, you could pull anything you wanted out of it,” I said.
“Would you prefer that?” he asked.
“No,” I said with a sigh. I closed my eyes. “I want …” I opened my eyes and looked at him. “Pie in the sky?”
“Sure,” he said.
“I want no one to suffer injury or pain,” I said. “I want unbounded resources available to whoever wants them. I want emotional, social, and mental health for everyone. I want Arthur back. I want him back, so he can live out a full and healthy life.” I could feel tears rolling down the side of my face. “I want Tiff. Two of her, one for him, one for me — she’d kill me if she heard me say that — and I want to unfuck everything somehow, make it so that I didn’t make so many mistakes, so many things I can’t possibly believe she’d get over them.”
“And Fenn?” he asked.
“Fuck you,” I said. “I want Fenn too, god damn you, you fucking made her just for me, I knew from the start that Amaryllis was too pretty, terrifyingly pretty, I should have seen it with Fenn too, that you were just –” I shook my head. Manipulating me, but doing it with a full person that couldn’t even be blamed for that manipulation, who I loved in spite of the fact that she was designed to be with me. “Fuck you,” I said.
“You won’t believe me if I tell you that I didn’t set it up,” said the Dungeon Master.
“Is that what you’re telling me?” I asked. “That Amaryllis Penndraig wasn’t set up for me?”
“She was,” he replied. “They all were. But they were set up as companions first, and love interests second, and now that they’re out in the real world, so to speak, I’ve been keeping my hands off.”
“Bullshit,” I said.
“I said that you wouldn’t believe me,” he replied. “Your love life isn’t really why I wanted to have a chat.”
“Fine,” I said. “Let’s get this over with. Tell me whatever you thought you needed to tell me, you horrible little monster, then I’ll fuck off to your painfully fake little world and pretend that none of this ever happened.”
“Ouch,” he replied. “You hit me in the worldbuilding, right where it hurts most.” He was smiling, but it was faint, questioning, as though he expected me to respond in kind.
“It’s my world anyway,” I said. “My ideas, my plans, just all put together in different ways than I’d originally intended. That’s not an apology, you’re still a shit DM.”
“Are you going to be sullen this entire time?” he asked.
“Sullen you can maintain,” I said. “With the brain chemicals.”
“Okay then,” said the Dungeon Master. “I didn’t want to do this, but let’s try again.”
He snapped his fingers.
“It’s my world,” I said. “My creations. My sensibilities, my interests, my design decisions, my fingerprints are all over every aspect of Aerb.”
The Dungeon Master shrugged. “Fair enough.”
I stopped, trying to think of what to say, what question I could ask. “What is this place?”
He snapped his fingers, and two chairs appeared in front of us, old, battered red vinyl ones with buttons making a pattern on the backs and arms that ended in hands-width lion heads. A small table sat between the chairs, with a yellow legal pad and a mechanical pencil. “Come on, sit.”
I sat. The chair wasn’t particularly comfortable.
“I’m sorry, where are my manners,” he said. “Do you want something to drink? We have Mountain Rush.”
“You have infinite powers and off-brand pop?” I asked.
He laughed. “Just a little joke.” I didn’t so much as quirk my lips. “Well I thought it was hilarious. You can have anything you’d like.”
“Immortality serum,” I said.
“Fresh out, sorry,” he replied with a grin.
“Felix felicis,” I replied.
He rolled his eyes. “No Harry Potter stuff.”
“Godsbrew,” I said.
He frowned. “Which one was that?”
“Do you actually not know?” I asked. He shook his head, and I didn’t believe him. “From the Counterbalance campaign,” I said. “Turns the drinker into a demigod.”
“In that case, no,” said the Dungeon Master.
“I’m kind of pissed off at you, just as fair warning,” I said. “It’s a very unproductive kind of rage, but … you know all the things you have to address before I’ll be willing to let that anger go. You have too much to answer for.” I found myself clenching my fists.
“You know that the DM-player relationship isn’t adversarial,” he said.
“If you know me, then you know that’s not always the case, even when it’s actual D&D and not someone’s fucking life,” I said. I spat those last words. “D&D is make believe. It’s pretend. This, Aerb, is …” I trailed off. Did I want the answer to that implied question? Would something inside me break if I learned that Fenn was just a facade of a person?
“You want to know how much of it is real?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, trying to steel myself for his answer. “You owe me that.”
“I nudge things, here and there,” he replied. “I fudge things, sometimes, when I don’t think it will be too obvious to you. There wasn’t going to be an archery contest in Cranberry Bay when you were passing through, but I looked ahead a little bit, and saw that I could help Fenn to have a little adventure by paying a water mage to produce some inclement weather a few weeks prior, which made the contest committee move the date up, and from there it was just a matter of having her hear about it, which took another few nudges.”
“That’s … why in the hell would you have to pay someone?” I asked. “Why not just change the weather yourself?”
“Come on,” said the Dungeon Master with a smile. “You would do the mysterious old wizard manipulating things in the background bit if you could.”
“You’re a god,” I said. “Fenn got cut in half and you did fucking nothing for her.”
“People are going to get hurt,” said the Dungeon Master. “Some of them might die. You might die, and one of the things I really wanted you to know was that if that happens, I’m not going to save you. They’re called stakes. Do you remember Arthur DMing?”
“Don’t you even say his name to me,” I said. I wasn’t in a position to make threats, and I knew it, but I was angry.
“He played with kid gloves,” replied the Dungeon Master. “You always knew that everything was going to work out in the end, and it was a far worse game for it. Dumb risks paid off, because you knew that he wasn’t going to just let you die, so it was all dumb risks, and that got old really quickly.”
“I’d take that trade,” I said, clenching my fists. “I don’t care whether it’s thrilling or boring, do you understand how many bones I’ve broken since I’ve been on Aerb? How much blood I’ve lost, not to mention spilled? The spectre of death that I’ve been under … I’m pretty sure that you don’t get it, because if you did –”
“That is the most asinine argument,” he replied. “‘Clearly I’m right, and I’m so right that you must be misunderstanding me, because if you understood my superior argument, you would agree with it’.” He used a voice for that, one meant to mock me. “Come on, I know that you hate it too, so don’t pull that shit on me. I understand your perspective, and I disagree with it. A little bit of pain and suffering –”
“No,” I said. “A trillion people in the hells.”
“They’re called stakes,” said the Dungeon Master. “If those people are really so important to you, then level up and save them. Become god. It’s within your power. I’m not going to stop you.”
I stared at him. “And what then?” I asked. “We escalate? I have to fight other gods of other universes?”
“No, then the campaign ends, and everything is good and perfect forever and ever,” said the Dungeon Master with a shrug. “I’ll strip off the game layer unless you want me to keep it in place, I’ll strip off the personality compensators unless you want those on, and then I’ll be out of your hair. You’ll be a god, like I’m a god, with the only limit on your power being that you can’t track me down and kill me.”
“I’ve got no reason to trust you,” I said. “Even if it all happened like you said, even if I was in a paradise of my own choosing, I would have to worry about whether you were going to show up again.”
“This is true,” nodded the Dungeon Master. “But I have to say it’s more likely than not that you’ll never get to figure out whether you can live with that paranoia, because you’ll fuck up and die somewhere along the way.”
“Die to an obstacle that you’ve placed in front of me,” I said.
“Or one of your own making,” he nodded. “You probably don’t believe me, but I’m not really putting any active effort into screwing you. I set up the characters and the obstacles, I give a few nudges here and there, and then I wait for your choices, and the choices of everyone else. I’m a watchmaker, paying attention to how the watch is running but not sticking my fingers in too often.”
I folded my arms across my chest.
“I don’t want you to fail, I want to take some joy in seeing how you react, in seeing you run off the rails, in succeeding against bad odds, in dealing with your teammates — I want you to win.” He stopped and watched me. “I’m not going to bend over backwards so you can win though,” he said. “I’m barely going to bend at all. It’s one of the things I wanted to let you know.”
“I don’t consent,” I said, leaning back and folding my arms.
The Dungeon Master smiled. “Did you think that I didn’t ask you? Here, I’ll show you.”
I felt the red vinyl of the chair, battered and worn, then looked across at the man sitting next to me, in an identical chair. He was holding a yellow legal pad and a mechanical pencil. He was older, in his thirties maybe, with a full beard. He had a blue hoodie on, which said “Dice to Meet You”.
Five seconds ago, I had been passing notes in fifth period English.
“What the fuck,” I said.
“Hullo Juniper,” he said. “This meeting may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance purposes. Your continued participation in this meeting serves as express consent to be monitored or recorded.”
“What,” I said. I looked around. It was a featureless white void. I looked down at the chairs, then back at him. “Am I … in the Matrix?”
“I can see why you’d think that,” he replied. “But no, not quite. I’m here to make you an offer, which you can refuse. If you do refuse it, you’ll be returned to fifth period English, and this will all present as a vivid but quickly-fading dream that you’ll probably forget about in a week or two. If you want to leave, at any time, just snap your fingers.”
I looked down at my fingers, careful not to make the slightest motion that might be perceived as snapping my fingers. “I’m listening,” I replied.
“You don’t understand,” he said, tapping his pencil against the legal pad. “That’s fine. Here are the terms. First, you’ll get sent to a fantasy world that generally matches your aesthetic for an indefinite duration. You’ll have a character sheet stapled to your soul — you’ll have a soul, they’re common there — which will allow you to accumulate a tremendous amount of power over a very, very short period of time. How does that sound so far?”
“It sounds like there’s a catch,” I replied. This didn’t feel like a dream or a hallucination, I quietly, surreptitiously pinched myself.
“There are a lot of catches,” he said with a nod. “To start with, it would be hard, and sometimes unpleasant. You would have to learn to fight, but you could become a skilled warrior in a matter of minutes. By the time a month had passed, you’d probably be in the top thousand fighters or mages in the world. You might be injured, but this world has a wide variety of healing magic. You might die, in which case that death would be permanent.”
“And there are other catches besides that,” I said.
“Yes,” he replied. “You would be monitored, with no privacy.” He pointed the end of his pencil toward himself. “I’d be the one doing the monitoring, no one else would see my notes or have access to my data, unless you wanted them to. That data would include your personal thoughts and feelings.”
“Okay,” I said. Kind of creepy, but pretty much nothing compared to being in the Matrix. “I really don’t understand … any of this. I don’t understand why you would need me.”
“I don’t need you,” he replied. “I could fix every single problem in Aerb myself, if I wanted to, and Aerb has an enormous surplus of problems at the moment. I don’t want to fix Aerb though; I want you to do it. You wouldn’t be obligated to, once you were there, but I think you’d have the natural inclination to, if I have the measure of you.”
“Do I know you?” I asked.
“We’re kindred spirits, you and I,” he replied.
I looked down at my fingers. Snap and leave. But I already knew that I wasn’t going to do that. What was here on Earth? My parents? Reimer and Tom, my only remaining friends, barely? Tiff, if she could forgive me for the person I’d been? College, a job, middle America … no.
“I’ll do it,” I said. “Can I … what happens to me, when I leave Earth? I’d like to leave a note or something.” If I was really here, was Earth even real? “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“[REDACTED],” he replied.
“Oh,” I replied. “Okay, I guess that works. Unless [REDACTED]?”
“Then [REDACTED],” he replied.
“And that’s the whole deal?” I asked. “I go through to this place, Aerb, I play the part of a hero, I fix everything there forever, if I can, and in return … I don’t have to worry about Earth?”
“There’s one last catch,” he said. “I’d want to remove your memories of this conversation, store them away for later, so that you can go in fresh and blind. I don’t want you saving the world because I told you to. I’ll give the memory back when I think you won’t be influenced by the specific wording of the offer or how I’ve presented things to you.”
“Okay,” I replied. If this is real. “Hello future me, I guess.”
“There were parts of that you left out,” I said, once I’d finished reliving the memory. “Do my parents think that I’m dead?”
“I’m worried about potential spoilers,” replied the Dungeon Master.
“Sensible,” I said. Maybe detached irony was the way to play this; I was virtually certain that I wasn’t going to get anything out of this meeting. “So you wanted to warn me that the danger was real? That was it?”
“Um, let me see,” he said, looking down at the yellow legal pad, which was completely blank. “I wanted to tell you that you still had to worry about dying, explain that your life on Aerb was better than it was on Earth — did I get that across?”
“I never disagreed with it,” I said.
“No you did,” he replied. “Or you have, at various points.” He looked down at the legal pad. “Consent thing — weak, I know, given consent withdrawal and a lack of information, but you’d have agreed even if I told you everything up until this point.”
“It’s a false dichotomy,” I said. “It’s not going back to Earth or staying on Aerb, those aren’t the two options, with the amount of power you demonstrably have, you could –”
“You can be pissed off at me all you want,” he said with a shrug. “Those were the two options that I gave you, you made your choice, you’d continue to make that choice in all but the darkest moments. Maybe even then. Do you remember when you were dying of blood loss in the sewers of Silmar City? You never once thought, ‘please, let me go back to Earth’.”
I didn’t have a response to that. He was right.
He looked down at the legal pad again and tapped his pencil against it. “The last thing I wanted to say was that you don’t need to worry about the narrative. You’ve already deviated from my plans a number of times, you just didn’t notice.”
“When?” I asked.
“Do you remember Craig DMing?” asked the Dungeon Master. He waved his hand. “I know you do, that was rhetorical. When you finished with a dungeon, he was always so eager to share all the loot that you’d missed, all the secrets that you hadn’t made the checks for, and for diplomacy it was even worse, because he’d want to explain all the ways that the conversation could have gone, but didn’t. It took a lot away from the experience.”
“Did you pull that from my head?” I asked.
“Juniper, I know you better than you know yourself,” he replied.
“If that was supposed to be reassuring, you’re doing a pretty shit job,” I said, clenching my fists.
“Well, it wasn’t meant to be reassuring,” he said. “It’s just a fact, one you already know is true, but seem to need reminding of.”
“But what’s the point of it all?” I asked.
He looked down at his legal pad again. “Nope, that’s not on the agenda for today.” He smiled at me. “You’ve been a relatively good sport though, so I’ll entertain some requests. Three wishes, maybe? You haven’t actually ruled out that I’m a genie.”
“I wish for more wishes,” I said.
“Okay, I’ll give you one hundred more wishes, but they can only be used to wish for a standard-issue school cafeteria hot dog,” he said with a smile. “Rookie mistake there, I thought you were better than this. And anyway, I’m not giving you those kinds of wishes. Little things, not plot breakers.”
“So there is a plot,” I said.
“There are planned pathways,” he said. “There are plots that I think I’d find interesting, roads that I hope you’d go down. And maybe you’ll scribble outside the lines, and I’ll make a brief glance at the possible futures, and figure out where I can nudge things, if it’s appropriate. Still thinking on those wishes?”
“I wish … there are only two kinds of genies, those you can trust, and those that you shouldn’t be making wishes to,” I said.
The Dungeon Master waved his hand. “If you don’t want to make requests, don’t make them, but I’m not going to let you save them. Worst that I’ll do is say no. Think ‘small’. Think ‘things that don’t solve the plots’.”
“Okay,” I said. I took a breath. “I wish I didn’t have a harem.”
The Dungeon Master frowned at me. “You don’t have a harem,” he said. “You have a girlfriend, and a few girls that have some confused, complicated, and in some cases unpleasant feelings toward you. And if you want me to fix that, I refuse on two grounds. First, I set your companions in motion but I have a rule against meddling with them in direct ways. Second, if you really wanted to do it, you’re the one with Essentialism over the hard cap, all you’d have to do is go into Amaryllis’ soul and make a few choice edits. You can cut down her libido to nothing, make her exclusively homoromantic and homosexual, do what you want to fix the problem.” He rubbed his chin. “Granted, doing that to the locus would be pretty hard, and Null Pointer Exception doesn’t have a soul, but I’m sure you could figure something out. You know what, I’m going to count that as a request filled, because I told you how to help yourself.”
I stared at him. “Why?” I asked. “Why set that up?”
“That would be telling,” said the Dungeon Master. He flashed me a smile. “And for now, I plan on being just the right amount of opaque. They weren’t set up to wait forever though. Amaryllis will get over you, if you let her. Null Pointer Exception will too — she’s malleable.”
And Grak? The Six-Eyed Doe? I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know. Better to keep assuming that Grak was just a straight dude that didn’t happen to have a penis.
“Arthur,” I said. I licked my lips. Sometimes it was easy to say his name, and sometimes it wasn’t. This was one of the hard times.
“That’s not a question,” replied the Dungeon Master.
“I’m trying to think of the most valuable question that you would actually answer,” I said. “I … assuming that this is all a simulation, I don’t understand how it would be him. With me, maybe I could be frozen for long enough that someone invented the technology to unfreeze people, to scan them into a computer, I’d have had to be a few years older than seventeen, but … maybe it would be possible. Arthur was warm and dead. He was cremated. I don’t understand how he could exist in this world, except as an imperfect reconstruction from my memories.”
“That’s still not a question,” replied the Dungeon Master. His voice was softer, gentler. For all that he was an amoral monster, he seemed to care.
“Tell me whether he’s real,” I said. “No, tell me how he’s real, how that’s even possible, because he died nine months before I came here, and we didn’t have this technology then.”
“He’s real,” said the Dungeon Master. “I know how much he meant to you. I’m not going to say how that’s possible, but you can draw your own conclusions, if you decide that I’m not lying. And he’s out there, somewhere on Aerb or one of the other planes. He spent most of his life on Aerb, he’s not going to be how you remembered him — you know that, that’s not news — but the Arthur that came to Aerb wasn’t just Arthur as you remembered him. He’s the real deal, Arthur as he actually existed.” The Dungeon Master had, finally, taken a solemn tone.
That wasn’t possible, unless some of my assumptions were wrong, but it sounded exactly like what I wanted to hear, so I let it pass. It was as much of an answer as I was going to get anyway.
“Okay,” I said. “Tell me what happens when I die. Tell me what would happen to my party members.”
“Seems like a wasted wish to me,” said the Dungeon Master. “It’s not like you’re planning on killing yourself, right? You sure you don’t want, say, a backpack that can get you mundane stuff from Earth?”
“Is that on the table?” I asked, eyes going wide. Then I frowned. “Wait, how would that even work? Would I just pull a backpack out of my soul somehow?”
“I’ll think of something,” he replied. “It’s nice that you thought about what would happen to your party members, but in this case I think that creature comforts from home are probably the better option. Not that I’ll compel you one way or another, it’s your choice to make.”
“Okay, I’ll take the backpack,” I said. I looked around the white void. “I don’t like you,” I said to the Dungeon Master. “You’re not forgiven. Nothing you’ve done is excusable. You’re responsible for every evil thing that happens on Aerb. I know you know that, and I know you don’t care, but I need to say it.”
“Sure, fine,” said the Dungeon Master. “You know the way out.”
And as he said it, I realized he was right. I snapped my fingers and left.