Moving through the rooms was easier, now that we had the crystals in our heads. Using them, we could confirm that it was Earth, or at least a version of it, since one side benefit of the crystals was that they were capable of telling you whether or not someone existed. We all picked different targets on Earth, but they seemed to point in the same direction, which was a good sign. Amaryllis and I were the only ones that they seemed to fuck up for.
“There’s more than one time effect,” I said. “And the time effects serve different functions. But it’s not timey-wimey stuff, it’s just … a bunch of rules stacked on top of each other. The first and biggest effect is that time passes faster in the Long Stairs, relative to Earth, but apparently not relative to Aerb. There wasn’t really a design consideration for that, it was only to make the Long Stairs a bit more valuable, to make sure that teams were chewed through faster, and so that there was some fig leaf for why everything was infinite and unchanging.”
“Not much of a fig leaf,” snorted Fenn.
“No, it is,” I said. “I mean, let’s say that the army went through to the first Landing, and after a few times, they realize that Landings don’t change as much as the other stuff, it’s kind of a constant, a place where reality is marginally more stable than elsewhere. Well, the army sees that and says, ‘hey, okay, we’re going to colonize’. But because of the time effects, that doesn’t work, does it? If literal decades are passing whenever you turn your back for five seconds, you can’t take over the Landing, or even a part of it. At best, you can try to set things up for the relative future, or maybe try to plant someone in the Landing who’s doomed to live there for those decades, but obviously that doesn’t work because the Landings, by their nature, are incredibly resistant to change of any kind, and worse, if you do manage to change them, you’re basically just generating novel threats for yourself, because no one is going to stay sane.”
Fenn gave me a punch. “You’re such a dork.”
“And the second effect of unsteadily flowing time is this,” said Uther, gesturing at the bodies in front of us. “The dead are captured in their moment of death, for those who come after to find.”
“Right,” I said. “Partly to be creepy as heck, but also because it gives a kind of timelessness to the place. Also, mechanically, it gives a chance of offering some loot. I didn’t really do that much in the second go-around though.”
“Not much loot,” said Fenn, looking over the bodies. There were three of them, all slumped against the wall, and she was right, there was nothing to take off their bodies but their rifles, which didn’t have any obvious magical modifications or enchantments on them.
“I had a timeline for the Long Stairs,” I said. “It took some time for them — the War Department — to figure things out, and a lot of the deaths happened early on, when they just had no fucking clue about the Long Stairs. Early teams didn’t know much and were poorly armed, or at least, poorly armed compared to the ones who had magical enchantments and entads and stuff. Because they’re disproportionately represented in the deaths, you tend to see a lot of them.”
“How many people are meant to have died in this place?” asked Amaryllis.
“Look, if you’re thinking about how they hide the death tolls, just don’t,” I said. “There were like four thousand deaths or so between the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and there’d be no way to hide as many deaths as are implied to have happened to American forces in the Long Stairs. We never really went into the alt-history stuff, and only spent a few fractions of a session anywhere that wasn’t the Long Stairs themselves, even though there were a few opportunities that we might have followed up on. I think I had the idea of the Long Stairs deaths being hidden by the government as suicides, but that’s pretty gross, for obvious reasons.”
“Their families would think they died a dishonorable death?” asked Raven.
“Ah, no,” I said. “I meant gross from our perspective, as people playing the game. It’s saying that mental health stuff isn’t ‘real’, which, uh, is the gross part.” I also didn’t like the framing of suicide as dishonorable, but that was a personal pet peeve.
“You never talked much about the whys and wherefores of your decisions,” said Uther. He was searching the bodies, though no one was hoping for much. We had seen more than a few dead soldiers, some of them stripped of anything valuable, presumably by members of their team, and others who had probably been wounded and then limped their way to another room where they expired.
“It ruins the mystery if you explain it,” I said. “Besides, if I’d talked about it, it would have meant that there was less room for you to have your own interpretations. And god forbid you explain a joke, people hate that.”
“I suppose ‘living in your own little world’ would be both trite and insulting,” said Uther with a sigh. “But it does seem true, to me. You were always doodling in class, or writing entries for some world bible that no one else would ever see, and always keeping parts of them from us, even when we were playing.”
I frowned. “No,” I said. “I mean, there was definitely stuff that I didn’t share, that I couldn’t share without ruining a surprise. But I wasn’t like … I don’t know. I wasn’t keeping stuff from you.”
“You never talked about what was going on with your parents,” said Uther. “You gave hints and left us to guess.”
“That’s a totally different subject,” I said, frowning.
He stood up from the bodies and looked at me. “Is it?”
“I can see where you’d draw the line between the two,” I said. “But it is different. I’ve got an inner life, yes, but … I don’t know, I’ve been working on sharing it, expressing it to other people. I was working on it, even on Earth, before you died, and after.”
“And who did you share it with?” he asked. “Tiff,” he answered for himself as he watched me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“You got close, after my death,” he said. “Nine months, was it? Enough time for you to find solace in each other.”
“No,” I said. “It was before you died. We were dating, in secret.”
“Ah,” he replied. A mix of emotions flickered on his face, too confused for me to track.
“Sorry,” I said. How long had I been carrying around that guilt for? Saying it to him felt like a knot unwinding itself. “At first it was just — it seemed complicated, and then later, it seemed like it was really complicated.”
“Huh,” he said. He was still looking at me. “I was married, for a good many years, and have had hundreds of lovers, but still, somehow, that stings.”
“Maybe because you’re a creep?” asked Fenn.
“Fenn,” said Amaryllis.
Uther looked at Fenn, his eyes moving down her body. “You have a personal dislike of me. Is there something in our history I’m unaware of?”
“Nah,” said Fenn. “You know, with your whole thing about how we’re the perfect group to bring you in, you had nothing for me. Seems like it kind of puts a hole in that theory.”
“You’re the comic relief, obviously,” said Uther, looking her over. “You joked about being a love interest, but there’s nothing special to recommend you in that regard.”
“Don’t be a dick,” I said, scowling at Uther.
“Classic Juniper,” said Uther, smiling at me.
“What, trying to get you to not be a dick?” I asked.
“Okay, if you’re going to twist my arm about why I think you’re shit,” said Fenn, shifting her weight. “Juniper put you on a pedestal after you died, and maybe even before. I think that’s pretty clear to everyone. I’m the kind of person who likes you less because you’re a royal and a colonizer and whatever else, so there’s a bit of that, but it’s mostly the way you’re continuing on without giving us the basic courtesy of explaining a few hundred things to us. And yeah, you’re being a dick, not just to Juniper, who’s been mourning you and trying to get to you for the entire time I’ve known him, but also to Raven, who I don’t particularly know or care about, but who probably deserves better. She was a librarian or something.”
Uther regarded Fenn. I thought he was going to continue on his way, drawing us in his wake, leading the adventure against our wishes. It was what he’d done in the past.
“Colonizer?” he asked.
“You know,” said Fenn, waving a hand. “Setting up colonies, and … stuff.” She looked to me for support.
“The history of colonization is different on Aerb,” I said. “She was calling you a colonizer because she’s read a lot of Earth stuff, and I guess she thought that it would hit hard for you, because it seems like the kind of thing you thought about and tried to avoid. But that said, you did your best to obliterate cultures, and some of what’s downstream from what you did and what you preached turned out kind of ugly, in ways that I think would probably be familiar to you. Second Empire stuff, which you’d need a history lesson to understand.”
“Ah,” he said, looking at Fenn. “It’s a difficult thing, when one is taking the world through several different revolutions and getting everyone on the same page. I made mistakes with the orcs, because at the time I thought what I was doing was necessary, but I never engaged in genocide or anything like it.”
“And the fact that nearly everyone on Aerb speaks Anglish is, what, a crazy random happenstance?” asked Fenn.
“No, it was deliberate,” said Uther. “But also inevitable, in the scheme of things, unless enormous amounts of care and effort were taken. The memes fight each other for dominance, whether the cultures themselves wish for it or not. The endgame of a connected world is a single language. Anglecynn was a somewhat large and quite important power, and I did what I could to ensure that Anglish would be the standard, rather than some pidgin, but you could hardly call it colonialism, not as the term was understood in America, at least the last time I was there. There’s a reason that ‘colonizer’ isn’t a dirty word in Anglish. The colonies that I established were in places where no one had yet set foot.”
“Which was, you have to admit, convenient for you,” I said.
“Certainly,” he replied. “All part of the falseness of Aerb. And all the more reason to get going.”
It was more than I’d thought he would admit. Knowing Arthur as he’d been, I’d expect a hot take like ‘actually, some cultures are bad and should be squished’, and knowing Uther, I’d expected him to have a well-crafted argument to back it up. I didn’t know whether he was letting his guard down, or whether this was an area where he had some actual regret.
“Are their books less rotten than our own?” asked Amaryllis, whose eyes were on the bodies. “They should be, if these bodies can be dated to the last time a person was down here.”
“The bodies are old,” said Fenn, who had leaned down to touch a few drops of blood. “Either one of them took quite a while to die, or after they died, some separate team came in here.”
“Either way, their books are terrible,” said Uther. He opened one of them up to show Amaryllis. “Every other word is ‘Walter’.”
“Keep it away from the other books,” I said immediately. “Also, avoid saying or thinking the word.”
“Why?” asked Uther, raising an eyebrow in my direction. “We never came across that one.”
“It’s from the second iteration of the campaign,” I said. “It’s benign to the mind, but it will eat through books in a hurry, helped along by people talking or thinking about it.” I turned to Amaryllis. “Sorry, I forgot about that one. It’s not dangerous, just annoying.” I looked at the dead people. “It might have killed them, but only by screwing with their map.” Left unspoken was the fact that the meme might have made its way to our own books and be worming its way through them as we spoke. There wasn’t much to be done about it though, and I was hoping that being stored in Raven’s entad, Sable, or other extradimensional places might help.
“Either way, this room was a waste,” said Uther with a sigh.
I wasn’t so sure he was right. He was talking to us more with every room we passed through, and taking the opportunity to ask questions and reminisce. When he’d first come out of the time bubble, he’d been expecting to be ambushed by someone trying to bring him back, and he’d been resisting his natural impulse to stop and ask questions, but that was a stance he could maintain for only so long. We didn’t need to stop for so long to examine three dead bodies, but we’d done it anyway, because his defenses were weakening.
We went through another six rooms before Fenn and Uther got into an argument again.
“All I'm saying is, I could hit you,” said Fenn. “I’m the best archer in the whole damned world, you’ve never faced my like, and I could at least hit you with an arrow. Now maybe your armor would stop it, maybe it wouldn’t, but however good you are with a sword, you’re not fast enough to stop the kind of barrage I can put out.”
“Has Raven never told you stories of the kinds of opponents I’ve stopped dead in their tracks?” he asked.
“You don’t have still magic anymore,” Fenn replied. “I’m talking about your skill as a blade-bound against my skill as an archer, so long as we’re not standing right next to each other, but maybe even then. My arrows are considerably faster than bullets. I’ve got the fire rate of an AK-47.”
“I’ve fended off entire platoons of archers,” replied Uther, giving her a skeptical look. “And these were skilled archers, not an army of fresh recruits.”
“Yeah, and they’re like children with pea shooters compared to me,” said Fenn. There was a hunger in her eyes when she looked at Uther, a challenge and an anger. I wondered why, exactly she was trying to goad him on. I was even more surprised when he went for it.
“Alright,” replied Uther. “I’ll give you ten tries, in the next room that’s more than a hundred paces long.”
“We don’t have bone magic,” said Amaryllis. “That means primary healing is down to fairies.”
To be honest, I’d completely forgotten about the marzipan fairies, but apparently Amaryllis hadn’t.
“I don’t think that a dungeon full of things that are increasingly likely to kill us is a good place to spar,” said Raven.
“Perhaps not,” replied Uther. “But I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge or a boast. What kind of man would I be if I did? If the elf believes that she can hit me with an arrow, let her try.”
“Half-elf,” I said. “You can tell by the teeth.”
“But she’s well-versed in Earth culture, thanks to the gift you were given that allowed access to Earth,” said Uther.
“I am,” replied Fenn. “You know, there really wasn’t enough anime in your oeuvre. I’d for sure thought that you would have adapted something like, I don’t know, the Ghibli stuff, or Death Note, or other normie anime.”
Uther gave her a look. “I had more of an interest in the Western classics,” he replied.
“Who are you calling a weeb?” she asked, frowning at him. For a moment he was silent, but then he laughed.
It didn’t take long to find a suitable room, and to my surprise, Uther took off his armor, a magical process that caused all of the small black beads that made it up to fall to the floor at once, leaving him in nothing but briefs. The beads gathered up in a pile, ordering themselves into a hexagonal pillar, and while they did that, he took off his rings and crown as well.
“I’ll give you the best chance,” he said to Fenn. “Feel free to aim to kill, if it helps you.”
“I’ll be going for center mass,” she replied, nocking an arrow. “Ten shots, was it?”
“Ten shots at a hundred paces,” he replied.
“And what do I get if I hit you?” she asked him as he walked away, sword in hand. Fenn was very clearly staring at his butt.
“The satisfaction of having bested me?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder.
“Worthless,” she replied. “Besides, the world is ending, and if you’re right, your story is too. Think big.”
“A proper sit-down conversation,” he said. “Of your choice.”
“One for each hit,” said Fenn.
“Certainly,” he replied. He was a hundred paces away, pretty far, if perhaps not by archery standards. “And if you fail to land a hit, then you’ll leave us, back to the previous Landing. You should have little trouble getting there on your own.”
“Agreed,” replied Fenn.
“Not sure I like those stakes,” I said. I’d thought that this was just going to be a sparring match, a good sign, because it meant that Uther was slowing down in spite of himself, but nothing serious.
“Yeah,” said Fenn. “If I accidentally kill him, he’s going to have a hard time having a conversation with us.” She pulled her bow back to full draw and aimed it squarely at Uther, who had his sword casually held at his side. The bow looked like it was just about ready to snap from the tension, which was far in excess of what Fenn’s slender body should have been able to produce. “Are you ready?” she called to him.
“As ever,” he replied, not looking terribly worried.
Fenn stayed like that for what felt like a long time, especially given she was at full draw, putting her arm under strain.
“Any time,” muttered Amaryllis.
“Just enjoying the view,” Fenn replied. She looked over at me and winked.
When Fenn loosed her arrow, it whipped through the air faster than I could even see it move, with a booming sound like a gunshot from both the arrow and the bowstring. For all that, Fenn stayed perfectly still, undisturbed by the release of an immense amount of energy. A hundred paces away, Uther was still standing with his sword by his side, and an arrow lay on the ground in two pieces next to him.
“You’re better than I expected,” he called to her. “But clearly not good enough. Nine chances left.”
“Alright,” muttered Fenn. “Time to make a pin cushion.”
She drew again, let out a breath, then released, and this time, the magic of her bow multiplied the arrows as they went along, until they were a cloud of arrows by the time they reached Uther. From my perspective, it was happening pretty much all at once, and I only saw the end of Uther’s sword stroke, which had caused a burst of wind which knocked the arrows aside. He was still unscathed, but he was regarding Fenn more carefully now.
“By your reckoning, that was one shot?” he asked her.
“If you wanted a rule against it, you should have said so,” she replied back. “Your fault for not asking what the bow did.”
“It’s unsporting,” he replied, smiling at her. “But I suppose it makes things interesting. How many more times can you do that?”
“Enough!” she called back, but I knew Fenn well enough to see that she was doubting herself.
I could kind of understand why Uther was doing this. He had given up on Aerb, but not on the power of narrative. If someone challenged him, he wasn’t going to back down from it, that wasn’t something that protagonists did. I wasn’t sure what he thought would happen if he didn’t accept Fenn’s challenge, but perhaps he thought he’d need to prove it one way or another.
I had more trouble understanding Fenn, but that wasn’t much of a surprise. Maybe she wanted to see whether we could take him or not and make violence an option. Maybe she just really wanted to tag him with an arrow.
She watched Uther carefully, planning her next shot. I wondered whether this was going to be another volley shot, or something else. I was on her side, obviously, but I didn’t know if she could actually best him. Even if she was the best archer in the world, I didn’t know whether that meant she could beat the best swordsman. Parrying was fundamental to the blade-bound, one of the very first things that they learned, and I didn’t know whether various trump cards at the upper levels would allow Fenn to land a single hit. Given that he’d stripped down, I was worried that Uther would get an arrow through the heart, and given the healing we had available, it seemed reckless, but it was the kind of recklessness that you always heard about in stories about Uther, and Raven was doing nothing to stop him. This was pretty normal, I figured.
Fenn drew three arrows from her quiver and held two of them between her fingers as she nocked one. I had some sense of what she was trying to do, but didn’t see how it would be much better than the volley shot. She fired in quick succession, moving so quickly that I began to wonder what her punches must be like, if she was capable of using her muscles like that. Uther parried still, but not with a single big swipe. Instead, he just moved the blade very quickly, parrying one, then the other, and dodging the last with a motion that he’d started in the middle of the first parry.
“Fuck,” said Fenn.
“Five left,” called Uther.
“Did you think that would work?” asked Amaryllis, frowning at Uther but speaking to Fenn. Like me, she was probably having trouble fully tracking the movements.
“Volley shot lost me a lot of velocity,” said Fenn. “I was hoping that doing them like that they’d be fast enough that he’d miss one. The first arrow was slow but the others were faster, so they should have gotten to him at the same time. His big swing of the sword was slow too, so he couldn’t use it, and no matter how fast he can parry, he shouldn’t be able to use his sword to block all the arrows if it’s physically impossible for the blade to get in the way of all of them.”
“I see,” said Amaryllis, in a way that made me think she was only following in a very technical sense. A lot of what Fenn was doing should have been impossible.
“I am the best archer in the world,” said Fenn, drawing more arrows. “You could give me a little credit.” She got her arrows ready and let out a breath. “Five more, time to make them count.”
Whatever she was doing, what I saw was rapid shooting, two volley shots speeding at Uther and three arrows, one between the volley shots, and the other two after.
Uther swept his sword through the oncoming arrows, against both volleys, and I could immediately see what Fenn had been trying. If the duplication slowed her arrows down, she was hoping to hide a fast arrow among the slow ones, camouflaging it. It was the kind of thing that made me think maybe she was the best archer in the world, if that’s what she was capable of.
It also seemed like some anime bullshit.
And still, Uther was standing there, surrounded by duplicated arrows, most of them cut in half, without a scratch on him.
“Turn around, so they can see,” Fenn called to him.
Uther frowned, but did as he was told. I was shocked to see an arrow sticking in his left calf, especially because it must have entered from exactly the opposite direction from where she’d been shooting.
“How’d you do it?” he asked as he limped over. “I haven’t been hit by an arrow in a decade.”
“I bounced it off the back wall,” said Fenn.
“Good work,” he said, but I could tell it was making him some effort to be gracious. “Raven, could you remove this arrow? And Amaryllis, the fairy?”
“It was a dumb thing to do,” said Raven, but she helped him all the same, extracting the arrow. She looked up at Fenn. “There wasn’t a need to use real arrows, they could have just as easily been blunted.”
“Fucks with the flight,” said Fenn as she watched the arrow being taken out. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be able to hit him.”
“It was clever, using a ricochet off the back wall,” said Uther. “I’ve never seen that done.”
“Still,” said Fenn. “Armor would have stopped the arrow dead. It was moving slowly. A real target would have been on me like white on rice. If we’d actually been fighting, I’d have been shredded.”
“You’ve won your conversation,” said Uther with a sigh, as though he’d known it would be inevitable. “It’s yours to spend how you wish.”
“To be honest,” said Fenn. “I’m probably out at the next Landing anyway. It’s the maze one, right?”
“Labyrinth,” I said automatically. “But yes, you’d be safe there. Safeish.”
“Tell us about Vervain,” said Amaryllis. “His role in things, how you figured him out, what he said to you.”
“It’s my conversation to spend,” said Fenn, looking Uther over as he examined the healing that the two fairies he’d eaten had given him. He was still without his armor, and her eyes were wandering. “And Vervain is boring.”
“He was a mystery,” said Uther as he put his armor back on. The black beads swarmed around him, coating his skin once more. I knew the armor from our games. Each bead was its own extradimensional space, some of them probably filled with ultradense materials to stop hits, others as basic storage, and a few empty to absorb arrows or other projectiles. “The more I knew about him, the less I seemed to have a firm footing on his origins and motives. He was never involved in the plots, except as a mentor, or, when Raven wasn’t available, as a conduit for exposition.” I looked at Raven, who had a frown etched on her face. “Sometimes he gave quests.” He looked at Fenn. “Do you want to know more?”
Fenn looked at Amaryllis, then back at Uther. “Sure, I guess. If it were up to me, I’d make you tell us about Earth, or share some embarrassing Juniper stories, but I guess we can do the Vervain stuff.”
Uther nodded. “When I first came to Aerb, I was in the woods, wearing clothes I’d never known on Earth, well-made but too rough on my skin. I went down the path I was on, and found myself looking at a farmhouse. Everyone inside was dead, and I vomited, then fled. I didn’t know what was happening or why. Eventually, I stumbled into a theater troupe, and joined them, for a time. I learned about Anglecynn, and the wider world, or at least what was known of it to these common people. Orcs, elves, dwarves, mages, the fantasy kitchen sink … I was overwhelmed by it, at first, but I adjusted. The troupe took me in, fearful that I would be killed or enslaved if I were found wandering alone, and I made friends with them, using what skills I had on Earth. I discovered the Knack, my ability to become better at things in a hurry. I went from practicing sword fighting for a play to being able to best a trained duelist in the space of a week. And then the Dark King came and burned it all down, and I was on my own again, running through the woods, fleeing for my life. That was when I met Vervain.”
I was watching Uther closely, and listening to how he framed things. He’d said nothing about how long he’d been with the Erstwhile Players, but from the way he’d framed it, you might have been forgiven for thinking that it was a few weeks rather than three years.
“He was a wise old wizard,” Uther continued. “He was Gandalf, he was Dumbledore, he was Merlin, mysterious to his core, with inscrutable plans, wise, but also pretending to be wise, answering with vagaries that I could weave my own thoughts into. He asked for my name, and I told him that it was Arthur, but he didn’t seem to find that satisfactory, because he cast a spell to see what was written on my soul. He broke the news to me that I was heir to the throne.” Uther sighed. “In my history with Vervain, I pulled back his mask a dozen times, and always, until that last time, I found another mask beneath the one I’d removed. It was gaslighting, plain and simple, even at the start. That a powerful wizard should find the last living heir to the throne not long after a horrible tragedy was, to put it mildly, suspect.” He looked at me. “If you read that in a book, you’d think that the wizard had something to do with the attack, wouldn’t you?”
“Well,” I said. “It would be one hell of a coincidence, but implicating the wizard doesn’t seem right. Maybe he was like Old Ben Kenobi, waiting around for a long time in the background, revealing himself only when the time was right. Or maybe there was some other way that one could cause the other. He was following the group that went after your troupe, for example. That would still be a little fishy, because you’re the chosen one, but less fishy than him being in the woods on other business.”
“His story developed over time,” said Uther. “Just as you say. At first, it was a chance encounter, one I felt only relief at, but as I picked at his backstory, he had revelations to give. He’d been one of the court magicians for the Penndraigs, and told me he’d learned of the existence of a wayward son, who he’d long been seeking out, only to run into me by chance. Later, the story changed, and he had been doing the same thing the Dark King was doing, seeking out those who might be exceptional in some way, those who had signs of kingly breeding and might be able to pull the sword from the stone. And finally, of course, he told me that it was all lies made up after the fact to hide the truth, which was that he was a man who hadn’t existed until moments before I bumped into him.”
“There’s something I don’t understand about you confronting him. He can freely rearrange history and reality,” I said. “Why would it ever be possible to catch him out?”
“He stopped short at changing my memories,” said Uther. “That was by his own admission. He said that it put constraints on him. Personally, I think he was just lazy, in whatever way it’s possible for an all-powerful god to be lazy. Vervain was an addition to the story which would have fundamentally changed the fabric of everything else he had planned. He was a character who it would have taken too much effort to properly schloss in. There was a certain sloppiness to it all, which was the surest sign that Vervain was what he was.”
“We knew Vervain,” said Raven. “There was never anything suspect about him.” She sounded unsteady, wavering as though it took great effort for her to contradict him.
“He was secretive,” said Uther. “He would disappear at inconvenient times and appear with plot hooks whenever it seemed like the narrative was flagging. He always knew more than he let on, and that wasn’t just a matter of him taking credit for revelations other people had, which he definitely also did.”
“Your conversation with him, the one where he admitted everything,” said Amaryllis. “How did it go?”
“It was after we’d been to the Outer Reaches,” said Uther. “The schlossvolk were an answer to questions I’d had about the setting. They were entities who could, under the right conditions, insert entirely new things into reality as though they’d been there all along.” He watched us, perhaps wanting to see whether this would slip off any of our minds. “There were enemies I’d faced and phenomena I’d discovered which seemed out of place, as though they couldn’t possibly have been hiding in the background the entire time. The schlossvolk were a Watsonian answer to the question, but it didn’t escape my notice that I’d seen neither hide nor hair of Doyle, and whatever Vervain was, he wasn’t a creature created by the schlossvolk. Knowing how many of my adventures had been directly caused by the schlossvolk, and how they fit in with the narrative, I took a closer look at Vervain, doing my best to work behind his back. I hadn’t known the enormity of his powers, naturally, but I did my best to be secretive about it and continue the narrative as normal, with all that entailed. My pursuit of him was only when he was safely away.”
“But what could you possibly find?” asked Amaryllis. “He would only have left tracks if he’d wanted you to find them.”
“I found no tracks,” said Uther. “I searched the past with postcognition, and the future with a return trip to the Library, and I found nothing but boring answers. He thought that would satisfy me, but he didn’t fully grasp the lessons he’d been teaching me over the course of my time on Aerb. I had been pulling threads and finding quests at the other end of them for a very long time. Every time, every time, there was something on the other end of my hunches and inquiries. The lack of dead ends or plans that fizzled out was suspicious. For there to be, in the course of decades, exactly one instance of a lead which didn’t pan out, and for that to be Vervain, was like a lighthouse in the dark, a signal of deafening volume.”
“Sensible,” said Amaryllis. “So you confronted him.”
“I did,” replied Uther. “I didn’t know exactly what he was, but he accepted the label of DMPC readily enough. I had the sense that he was bored with me, and the game he’d been playing with my life, though he never said it outright. He answered many of my questions, but there was no moment, no real reckoning between us, no catharsis, no punchline to the whole affair. I had been living within the narrative, steeped in it, and it was one of only two or three times that the narrative felt like it had been completely dropped. In any proper story he would have been the villain, and there are all sorts of ways for a villain to reveal their plans, or at least display their true threat level. Instead, he quietly revealed himself as the avatar of a god so far above the others as to not even be the same class of being. I got nothing from him but a kind of sadness.”
“That wasn’t my experience with him,” I said.
“Fine,” said Uther. “Go on, explain him to me.” He hadn’t asked about my meetings with the Dungeon Master, when I mentioned them before, and I could imagine why. To Uther, those conversations couldn’t be trusted to reveal anything. They might have all been planted there with the specific intent of enticing him to come back to a life of adventure on Aerb.
“My read on him was that he was something like an addict,” I said. “He wasn’t getting much from it anymore, but letting it all end, giving you a happy ending, wasn’t something he was prepared to do, I think. At a guess, anyway, based on what he said to me.” Kindred spirits. I kept coming back to that phrase. I imagined myself sitting on the computer, going back to our dead wiki, or through old notes, reliving memories with Arthur, and sometimes imagining what he would say or how he would respond. It was a way of refusing to let go, refusing to accept the reality of his death. Maybe, for a healthier person, it might have been a part of the grieving process.
“I killed him because he said that he couldn’t stop,” said Uther. “I knew that it was a meaningless gesture. He held all the cards, he was the one who’d picked out the rules of the game we were playing. After Vervain’s death, things lightened considerably, like an apology expressed without words, but it didn’t stop. The adventures continued, as he said they would. It wasn’t that he couldn’t end them, it was that he knew he wouldn’t. There was only so much solace I could take in the conquests, the powers, the proficiency, the women, the riches — everything that I could ever have asked for, save for an end to the narrative. I thought long and hard on how I could avoid being the subject of stories, where I might redirect my imprisoner’s attention, and at times, it seemed to work, and I could rest until being called on once more to adventure.”
“There was more the Dungeon Master told me,” I said. “There’s more that I think you should know.”
Uther eyed me warily. “Go on then.”
“He told me that it was real,” I said. “That he nudged things here and there, but that it was all real.”
Uther laughed. “Oh?”
“He said that it was within my power to become god,” I said. “He said that he wouldn’t stop me, that when it was all over, he would fuck off forever and give me his powers, let me make everything into a heaven for everyone. He told me … that I’d deviated from his plans. Then he made it so a giant deer locus spit out a magical backpack that could pull things from Earth.”
Uther was watching me. I could tell what he was thinking, that my conversation with the Dungeon Master was all for this moment, all too perfectly calibrated to reassure Uther and Uther alone, to get him to play along for just a little bit more.
“The second time he showed up was when skin magic got excluded,” I said. “We’d been pushing the limits of several different magics, so he just … appeared in the room with us, stopping time so that it was just me and him talking. He had a book with him, purportedly written by me, though I’m not sure about what the point of that was.”
“It’s obvious,” said Uther. “He was pointing out the narrative to you. He wanted you to see it, to know it, to accept it.”
“He told me that he was excluding skin magic,” I said. “He said that he’d never intended it to get out of control. And then he said,” I considered whether to say it. “He said that he wasn’t my adversary.”
“I wrote about exclusions in Degenerate Cycles, if you read it,” said Uther. “One of the primary narrative functions they serve is a return to normalcy. I saw many of them, in my time. They allow magics to be present for an arc or two until they’ve been wrung of narrative weight and possibility. And the last time?”
“I died,” I said. “And I went to the hells. He met me there.”
“And?” asked Uther, when I paused for a bit too long. His gaze was piercing and his voice commanded respect. I wished I knew how he did that.
“A lot of it was about you,” I said. “He … he talked about how he’d been Vervain. He said that he’d made some mistakes with you, things that he wished he’d done differently. He talked about your early years on Aerb, before Vervain, and how he created Vervain to get you back on track. He talked about how you were happy for most of it, which … you said was true, didn’t you?”
Uther slowly nodded. “Juniper, can’t you see how much all of that was meant for my ears? You were smart, on Earth, surely you’re smarter here — is there a single word the Dungeon Master said that wasn’t intended for me? Do you really believe that?”
“I do,” I said.
“Then I don’t think there’s anything to discuss,” said Uther. He turned toward the next door. “I’m going to Earth.”
“You think that this is a way out,” said Raven, stepping forward.
“It plays within the rules of the game,” said Uther. “I couldn’t be allowed to simply leave, it needed to be a matter of narrative, a story of loss and hardship before I could finally win my prize and be free. But it also works outside the narrative, a break from the false reality of Aerb and a rebellion against my captor.”
“You left your wife to die,” said Raven. “You left your sons to nearly break the kingdom with their squabbles.”
Uther cast her a piercing glare, and she shrank back from it. “Zona was the love of my life,” he said. “I told her everything, years before I even considered leaving. I went with her enthusiastic blessing. As for my sons, I set my affairs in order well enough. It was their own weakness that they couldn’t find a workable solution between the two of them and had to come running down the Long Stairs in order to beg for my intervention, and failing that, counsel.”
“Sorry,” said Raven.
“You’ve spent five hundred years having your own ideas about who I am and what I did,” said Uther. “You have an idea of Uther which doesn’t match who I am as a person. I imagine it’s a shock, but it’s the kind of shock you’ll need to deal with quickly.”
He turned toward the door, then glanced at Fenn. “I trust you consider me to have upheld my end of the bargain?”
“Sure dude,” said Fenn. “Honestly, I checked out a bit, but the others seem happy.”
Between me, Amaryllis, and Raven, there wasn’t a hint of a smile to be found.