Before we reached the last Landing, Arthur’s armor promptly fell apart. The thousands of black beads fell off him and hit the floor all at once, clattering to the ground and rolling everywhere. He wasn’t quite naked beneath them, but he was just in briefs again. They had to have been magical, because they’d changed size when he’d reversed his age.
He sighed. “I’d wondered when that was going to happen.” He looked at Amaryllis. “Is Sable still working, and do you have a spare suit of armor?”
“It is, and I do,” said Amaryllis. “Though perhaps if we’re losing storage, we should switch to full packs.”
Arthur grimaced. “My stamina and strength are both lacking at the moment. Thankfully, there’s not that much we’ll need.”
“Food and water,” said Amaryllis, popping them out of Sable and setting them on the ground. “A first aid kit, if the fairies fail. Guns, lots of guns.” I was mildly surprised to see proper handguns coming out of the glove, followed quickly by an AR-15 and a few magazines of ammo.
“The backpack never made weapons,” I said, frowning at them.
“I had three years,” replied Amaryllis. “They’re knock-offs, obviously, made on Aerb, but hopefully interoperable with weapons we find on fireteam remnants, if it comes to that. Though I do have to point out that they’re a significant amount of weight, and wouldn’t have done a damned thing against most of the threats we’ve faced so far.”
“Firearms,” said Arthur, shaking his head. “I’d never wanted them to show up on Aerb.”
“So how does that fit in with them being here?” asked Amaryllis. “You said yourself that I was here to convince you to come back. Why would I have a thing you didn’t like, or other uncomfortable news?”
“I can’t rightly say,” sighed Arthur. He was looking at the guns. “You know, I only ever shot one once.”
“That time we took you to the range?” I asked. “Well, hopefully your Knack is intact, because we might have to use these as our primary weapons.”
He picked up a handgun, hefting it and inadvertently muzzle sweeping me in the process.
“Fucking gun safety man,” I said, taking it from him. “Maybe it’s better if you keep using the sword.”
“Do you really think we’ll need guns?” he asked. He looked so young, and it was hard to get over it.
He was clearly uncomfortable with the guns, despite being the master of however many magics, one of the greatest warriors in known history, et cetera. I tried to remind myself that guns hadn’t really been a thing on Aerb when he’d been around, and his brain was just running on old programming. The one time me and my dad had brought him to the range hadn’t been a great experience, though not because anything had happened. He just didn’t really like guns.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Try not to sweat it.” I looked at Amaryllis and opened my mouth to ask about holsters, but she was already pulling them out.
It took some time to get everything set up, and I was worried about how much weight I was carrying, not so much because of the strain it was putting on me, but because I wasn’t very used to fighting with guns. I’d used rifles and pistols a few times on Aerb, but not terribly recently, and they’d fallen by the wayside in favor of either my sword or my magics (which had now dwindled away). I’d used void weapons with some regularity, but they handled much differently.
“I don’t suppose these are specially enchanted?” I asked Amaryllis. “Or special materials?”
“No,” she replied. “Looking at your notes, there were too many variables. Cold iron, silver, gold, sulfur, wood — it would have been a total crapshoot.”
“Fair enough,” I said. I had a pistol at either hip, a rucksack, a rifle, and two swords, which all seemed like a bit much, but there was a good chance that I would need all of it going forward. Unlike Uther, I was still at full strength. I’d gotten used to just pulling things from extradimensional space on a whim, but eventually those would fail too, and it was only good luck that they hadn’t yet.
But of course, for all that preparation, the next door we opened led straight into the Landing, and I immediately had to disarm while Arthur stepped forward and engaged in diplomacy. This, thankfully, I could understand: the felheim were close enough to Hellmouth that they’d learned English.
The fourth/first Landing dated to a time when I had absolutely hated all of the standard fantasy fare, and went out of my way to not include elves, dwarves, orcs, or the other staples. I was looking for stuff that was fresh and interesting, rather than rehashed a hundred times over, and my reading and research had gone toward the mythologies and folk tales of other cultures, and finally, toward building up some stuff of my own that was an attempt at creating a fantasy canon that looked like it might be from some parallel universe.
The inhabitants weren’t elves, but they weren’t elves in a really insistent way that made it clear to everyone that they were trying to avoid being elves while still filling somewhat of the same role. Yes, they were gracile and tall, with preternatural reflexes, and yes, they had a certain snootiness to them, but they didn’t have the long hair or the naturalist connections, nor the pointy ears. It was the kind of thing that I’d made at twelve and then looked back on at seventeen wondering what I’d been thinking. Their hook was that they were essentially OCD cockroaches from a deathworld who had come to the Long Stairs because it was, by comparison, extremely hospitable. (When I was twelve years old, I had understood ‘OCD’ to mean keeping things super clean and being really fastidious. When I was seventeen, I saw that in my old notes and tried to do something a little bit more like actual OCD, with anxiety and compulsions that helped soothe that anxiety.)
The felheim checked us for weapons three times, patting us down once we’d voluntarily put everything we had on the ground. They had long, bony fingers, attached to long, bony arms, and I hated the feeling of being touched by them. They were pale and chronically malnourished, in spite of having ample food. Their facial features were flattened, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of pug dogs, despite there not being much of a resemblance. It was just something about their look, like they were a breed of humanoid that had been intentionally bred for some absurd aesthetic purpose and collected a whole bunch of crippling flaws as a side effect.
“Welcome,” one of the felheim said, once it had been confirmed that we were unarmed. His vocalization of English was very imperfect, the vowels rounded in unfortunate ways and the consonants a hair off.
Our weapons were put into a container, and would be carried through the Landing for us, assuming that we were still living at the end of it. Packing up the weapons was a process which involved a lot of nervous tics on the part of our hosts, including wiping down the blades, and sometimes redoing things that they had already done before. They looked through our packs and tossed everything, which needed to be repacked. I even got checked for weapons again in the middle of it. I really didn’t want to go without the vorpal blade, and I also didn’t want them handling the guns — I got muzzle swept again — but it was part of RDP, and we were going to get it all back once we were past the exchange of gifts. Between the three of us, I was pretty sure we would be able to fuck them up regardless of whether or not we had our weapons, and it wouldn’t have been all that much work to take their weapons from them. It still rubbed me the wrong way.
“What is your business in the Landing?” asked our guide. I was pretty sure she was a woman, but it was hard to tell with the felheim. It was important only insofar as they were a semi-matriarchal society with a lot of rules about gender.
“We’re only passing through,” said Arthur. “Heading for the Hellmouth.”
“You will stay one night,” replied our guide. “You will barter for food and supplies. There will be a meeting with the fellinari which you will attend. You will follow our rules and customs.”
We said nothing in response, because there hadn’t actually been a question in there.
The thing about felheim was that it was incredibly hard to know what was deliberate, considered ritual, and what was the result of individual anxieties and compulsions. Our guide stopped to touch the doorframe of every door we passed, but we had no way of knowing whether we were supposed to do that too, except that Arthur had played the campaign before, and I was the one who had written it up. We kept our hands to ourselves.
The environment of the Landing looked like thousands of strips of dried squid, sometimes plain and sometimes with shellac applied. I say ‘dried squid’ because back on Earth I’d picked up a pack from a visit to an Asian market and then never eaten it, and that was explicitly the basis for the Landing. If you’ve never seen a packet of dried squid before, it’s stringy and white, like I imagine ligaments would look if you stripped them from the body and left them to dry in the hot sun. Whatever material they were using, which I assumed (perhaps wrongly) wasn’t dried strips of squid, they used it almost everywhere, though there were occasional black support rods. The ceilings were all fairly low, low enough that I was a bit worried about hitting my head, and the lighting came from lightning bugs the size of basketballs, which were strapped in place on the ceilings. There wasn’t any greenery, but there were a few things that looked like they were living, fungus or mottled patches of bacteria, and once or twice, small, hairless animals in cages.
“These are your rooms,” said our guide. She’d led us to two of the only rooms with doors on them. “The woman in that one, the men in the other. We will collect you for the meeting in the morning.”
I wanted to protest that this was dumb and stupid, but that wasn’t how you were supposed to deal with the felheim. Amaryllis went to her own room without complaint, and Arthur and I went to ours. There were no beds, only hammocks, four of them strung up as temporary sleeping places. There was no food or water either, and no place to use a bathroom. If we were approaching meal time, they would feed us, but that probably wasn’t something that we were particularly interested in, not when we had our own food. The felheim were, if not universally anorexic, then at least possessed of a universal anxiety and obsession toward food that led to some pretty bad compulsions. The anxiety wasn’t about body image though, it was a worry that the food would kill them, because in their ancestral environment, that was probably the case.
“How long of a wait do you think we’re in for?” asked Arthur. “I’m debating taking off my armor.”
“I have no idea,” I said. “This is the kind of stuff you usually skip over in tabletop games.”
I took the toad from my shoulder and pulled a small dish from a mess kit in my pack, then poured a little water into it and let him hop in. He seemed to like it, and splashed around a bit while Arthur and I talked.
“I know that,” he replied, raising an eyebrow in my direction. “But you always had things going on behind the scenes. You decided on things that had jack squat to do with anything we were going to be playing.”
“Some of that was just me trying to pin things down ahead of time,” I replied. “It was always better to over-prepare. And if you can’t over-prepare, be really ready to improvise.”
“Oh come off it,” he replied. He apparently had decided that we would be together for a while, since he was taking off his armor. I was keeping mine on, though it was noticeably less comfortable than it had been earlier in the Long Stairs. “You can just admit that you loved the details for their own sake.”
“Okay,” I said. “I did. I liked thinking up details, and I liked the paths of research that it always sent me down. There were times I temporarily knew a whole lot about the 1860 census, or the hiring preferences of the FBI, or the corner cases of color theory.” I paused. “Sorry, I feel like I’m trying to make a defense, but I don’t know what about.”
“I’ve made you feel defensive,” said Arthur. “It’s my fault. Whatever I believe about you and your role in this world, I think we can be past it.”
“We can be ‘past’ you thinking that I imprisoned you in a crapsack world for forty years?” I asked.
“Aerb isn’t a crapsack world,” he replied. “Or I suppose it wasn’t, when I left. Perhaps things have changed.”
I shrugged. “Maybe that’s putting it too harshly. I was just trying to point to the torture thing, I guess. That’s still, I imagine, the most sensible conclusion from your perspective?”
“See, this is why you were always terrible when we played social deduction games,” smiled Arthur. “Even if you were innocent, you would go into these tortured I-think you-think I-think scenarios rather than just trying to make your case. No one wants to trust the guy who is willing to ruminate at length on how he would expect his actions to look from the outside point of view. Someone would accuse you, and you would say, ‘logically, a denial of my guilt has very little information value to you’.”
“But I’m right,” I said. “It’s still something you think.”
“Of course,” he nodded. “But as I said, we can move past it, even if it remains unresolved. The answer to who did this to me and why isn’t one that I need answered. It doesn’t need to be part of the narrative of me leaving the narrative. My only aim is for all this to end.”
“Sure,” I said. I sighed and hefted myself into a hammock. If I fell asleep, I was probably going to regret not taking off the armor, but we had no idea when the felheim would be coming to get us, and I didn’t want to get dressed again right after I’d taken everything off. If the fairies were still working, I didn’t think they would do too much for sore muscles.
“Do you remember staying up late during sleepovers?” asked Arthur.
“Sure,” I replied, opening my eyes back up. “They weren’t too long ago, from my perspective.”
“Your mom always kept your house so cold,” he said. “It made it hard for me to sleep, so I would talk to you way after the lights had gone out, and you would get less and less coherent as time went on. Your responses would get slower too, and sometimes I didn’t know whether there would be a response. I thought about drawing things on your face or something, but I never did. I snooped a few times though.”
“Snooped?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’d get up from the cot and look inside drawers or in — you remember that wooden box you had?”
“Yeah,” I replied. It wasn’t anything important, just a wooden box I’d found at a thrift shop and kept a bunch of junk in.
“That,” he said. “I never found anything interesting, which maybe you could have guessed. And I shouldn’t have done it, obviously. I felt so guilty about it, for years after, even once I was on Aerb.”
“Kind of a shitty thing to do, yeah,” I said. I shifted around uncomfortably in my hammock. “I, uh, I’m not really sure — what the point of telling me is? Not that I don’t appreciate it.”
“I think when I was younger, I might have said that there was obviously a correspondence between that violation of privacy and what the Dungeon Master did,” said Arthur. “Different levels, obviously, but the feeling of being a snoop might have been similar. Now though, I think it’s just something that happened.”
“You don’t think it’s, uh, part of the narrative?” I asked.
“Oh, I have no idea,” he replied. “You being here makes me think I know the narrative forces less well than I thought, if I’m being honest.”
“Second thoughts?” I asked, for a second time.
“Not at all,” he replied. “No second thoughts, no cold feet, just a tight feeling in my stomach that comes from facing ineffable forces I don’t understand. It’s not a particularly unusual feeling, given some of the things I’ve faced. Everyone I know on Aerb is dead now, with a very few exceptions. The die is cast, the gamble is made.”
“Sorry about your wife,” I said. “And children, and … all that.”
“I had the consent and support of my wife,” he said. “We had a good run of it together, but she was in ailing health, and didn’t want me to see her slowly die. I tried my best to save her, and it became clear that her death was a part of the narrative. There is an ache in my heart where she once was, but it was an ache that had been growing even when we were together, and my work kept us apart more than I had liked. There were, of course, some oddities to our relationship, ways in which it was unconventional, which have already been alluded to.”
“The other women,” I said.
“And a few men,” he replied. “It was an arrangement that —” He looked over at me and stopped. “You should see your face.”
“Sorry, I didn’t think you would, uh, just come out like that,” I said.
“It was only once or twice,” he replied. “I still think of myself as straight. Aerb is so chock full of different genders and sexes that it feels pedestrian to care about it. One or two men, I guess I should say, but there were others as well who fell into different categories. When we knew each other, you always cringed at the lurid details, so I think it would suffice to keep it at that.”
“Ah,” I said. I tried to collect my thoughts. “I talked to Pallida Sade. She said that you went apoplectic when you found out that Dahlia was a lesbian.”
Arthur snorted. “And you’d been wondering about that, what distance there was between the person I’d been and the person I became?”
“I guess,” I replied. “Not really that important, but yeah, it’s one of those things that seemed small when I heard it and then stuck with me for way longer than I’d thought it would. I didn’t know whether it was just the way the world had impacted you, or whether it was something you’d always felt, or what.”
“I was angry,” he said. “Homosexuality had a mild taboo in Anglecynn, though not as much as, say, 1950s America, and with considerable options for greener pastures. I didn’t agree, obviously, but I also didn’t fight too hard against it, not when there was always some new crisis to deal with, not when there were bigger issues at hand. I kept waiting for a flash in the pan, I suppose, something that I could use to draw the attention of the kingdom, but it never came along. It was a problem that faded into the background, and I know that doesn’t excuse it, but … well, you wanted to know about Dahlia? I hated her relationship with Pallida, mostly because I knew Pallida. I said everything I could think of to try to split them apart, knowing that with as hard headed as Dahlia was, it was probably futile.”
“Did you ever apologize?” I asked. “Repair things with her?”
“We were never estranged,” he said. “I was closer to her than to my sons. She had the adventurer’s spirit, and her mother’s strength of will. But if you’re asking if I ever apologized for my outburst, then no, I never did. When she was old enough, she moved to Cidium, an ancient city that Amaryllis mentioned still stands, and began her own life there. I visited her, from time to time, when my schedule allowed. I was introduced to a few girlfriends, and some I approved of. It took me some time to understand her as her own person, to accept that she was going to make mistakes.” He paused. “You and Amaryllis,” he shook his head. “It’s awkward for me, but I appreciated that you kept your displays of affection to a minimum. Amaryllis doesn’t take after Dahlia in that regard. Dahlia never shared her thought process with me, but I imagine she chose Cidium specifically because of its social rules, which favored homosexuality.”
“Favored it,” I said. “Meaning … it was the dominant thing?”
“You don’t know?” he asked. “I would have thought that Cidium would have been one of your direct creations. It had your smell about it.”
“I mean, it was,” I said. “Cities of geological age, imbued with a magic that would keep them functional in perpetuity so that a city could build on top of itself for thousands of generations — and being built down the side of an enormous cliff, that too. But if you’re saying that they’re a place with gay pride parades or something, then no, that wasn’t something I ever contemplated, or knew about until now, if it’s still true. I mean, that’s also not how I would have done it, I would have done something like, I don’t know, extramarital same sex partners or something. Or better, extramarital opposite sex partners for the purposes of procreation and raising children but not otherwise.” I looked over at Arthur, who was staring at me. “Is that exactly what it is?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “About three out of five times I can predict what Aerb is like just by thinking about what I would do if it were me making the world. As superpowers go, it’s pretty mediocre.”
“And what happens with the other two fifths?” he asked.
“If I’m making a declaration outright, and I’m wrong, I look like an asshole,” I said. “But if I’m just pontificating, then it’s not so bad, because I just look like the kind of person who idly speculates about things in order to show off how smart I am.”
“I’m starting to realize how odd this all must have been for you,” he said.
“‘Have been’?” I asked. “Past tense?”
“You know what I mean,” he replied. “One of the only elements of Aerb that I was responsible for was Uther Penndraig, and when I assumed the mantle, he was unknown to anyone. I was free to diverge, and the name might as well have been a coincidence. But for you, you invented those things. It’s like the difference between stepping into a book you’ve been reading and an author doing the same to a book they’d been writing.”
“I guess,” I replied.
“Sorry for earlier,” he said. “All of it. It’s been a long time for me. There are a lot of emotions. And I’m sorry that my apparent death caused you so much pain and distress.”
“No problem,” I said. “I get it,” though if I was being honest, I wasn’t sure that I did get the complexity of everything that was going through his head. We sat there in silence for a bit, and I began to drift off despite myself.
“You and Tiff,” he said. “How’d that happen?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, opening my eyes back up. “I guess after we’d known each other long enough, I just kind of … had a crush on her.” I could feel myself blushing. “And while she was driving me home, I blurted it out, and she said she felt the same. There’s not much to the story.”
“I spent decades thinking about high school,” said Arthur. “It was, in some ways, my job. Can you imagine that? You’re forty years old, and one of the primary things you do, that you feel like you’re forced to do, is to spend a lot of time thinking about the details of your life in high school, going over the principal characters, thinking about their relationships to each other, and how that fed into the games that you all played. You sit there trying to remember every anecdote you possibly can.”
“I can’t imagine being forty,” I said. “Let alone all the other stuff.”
“All that time thinking about high school,” said Arthur. “All that time dissecting people, drawing them, mapping the layout of the town, dredging things up, sometimes with magical assistance, making recreations … and I just never knew this fairly major thing that brings context to everything else. You and Tiff.”
“I think life is like that,” I said. “I mean, people having their own unknowable internal lives.”
“But you don’t want to go back to her,” said Arthur. “You don’t want to return to Earth, even to see her.”
“We broke up,” I said. “After you died. I was an asshole to everyone, including her, and maybe we could have become friends again, but I think it would have been better for her sake to just let me fade away like an ugly bruise. Besides, if I really wanted to talk to Tiff, there’s a version of her on Aerb, one that grew up in Anglecynn with an Aerb version of me. I don’t know, it’s complicated.”
There was a pause, and I let a slow blink turn into allowing my eyes to stay shut.
“You dream-skewered into your own body, right?” asked Arthur.
“I did,” I nodded. “But it was the same for you, wasn’t it? Except that dream-skewering wasn’t a recognized thing in your time. For me, I found out that was what I was almost right away, thanks to your scheme to get me to Speculation and Scrutiny, which nearly got me killed, by the way.”
“You got my message?” he asked. “I had always thought that was an extremely long shot. The mirror messages were done somewhat early on.”
“It was, but still, I got it,” I said. “It wasn’t all that helpful. You could have come back and given me more concrete information, you know. Like, ‘Hello Juniper, I left Aerb and went to these coordinates where there’s a door to the Long Stairs, which lead to Earth, the password is ‘Password1’.’ That would have been helpful.”
“If I had known you’d be coming down the Long Stairs after me, I would probably have done anything in my power to stop it,” said Arthur. “I’d have smashed the mirror. But if you’re really not going to do anything to stop me, if you are, in fact, shepherding me back to Earth, then I suppose it’s immaterial.”
“I just wanted to talk, really,” I said. “I just wanted my friend back. I’m glad you’re coming around to that. I had missed you. You’re completely different, of course, but there are things that are just how I remembered them, when you drop the Uther persona.”
“Oh, it’s not a persona,” he replied, chuckling a bit. “I was, I am Uther. I learned to speak in a specific way as a king, but eventually people expected me to be unconventional, so in time, it drifted into a style of my own. But I can do code switching, the same as anyone.”
“Hrm,” I said. “Thank you, I guess. It’s been nice.”
“Of course,” he replied.
“I wonder how Amaryllis is getting on,” I said, looking at the wall.
“Oh,” he said. “I expect we’ll never see her again.”
I looked over at him, suddenly feeling awake. “What do you mean?”
“We’ve split the party, and it’s likely that we’ll have to make a choice between saving her, or at least reuniting with her, or forging on ahead. At that point we’ll have a confrontation, because I’ll refuse to get wrapped up in that plot, and you’ll have to decide between going with me or staying to save her.” He sighed. “My track record of predicting such plots is actually somewhat poor, considering how formulaic the narrative can be. At any rate, I wouldn’t quite wager that we’ve seen the last of her, but we’ve already been split up.”
“If it comes down to it, I’ll go with you,” I said. “It’s what Amaryllis would want. But I’m not sure that it will come to that, and if it does, I could also just use the crystals to track you and catch up with you, hopefully quickly enough that I could get you some healing.”
“And I would need healing because?” he asked.
“Because it’s pretty likely that without our help you’d be grievously injured,” I replied.
“Fair,” he replied.
We waited for a bit, and this time I did fall asleep with my armor on. When I woke back up, it took me some time to come to my senses and realize where I was and how I had gotten there. I looked over to where Arthur had been sleeping and was relieved to see that he was still there. I was a bit stiff and sore from sleeping in my armor, but the hammock had done a better job than I’d thought it would, keeping me from rolling around too much or laying on any particularly hard bits.
There was another knock on the door, which must have been what woke me up. It was impossible to tell how much time had passed, because there was no outside light in the Long Stairs, and the bug whose glow lit the room was still as strong as it had been when I’d dozed off. I looked over at Arthur’s hammock again, and was surprised to see that he was sleeping, or at least doing a really good job of faking it. Whatever curse or boon the Lord of Dreams had placed on him to make him incapable of sleep, we’d apparently gone far enough up the Long Stairs that it had worn off.
I went to answer the door, and looked expectantly at the felheim standing there.
“You will go now to the elders,” it said.
“Arthur!” I called.
He was awake in an instant and moving to grab a sword that wasn’t there, but he relaxed almost as quickly and spared only a moment to look at his hands and feel his face. “I need to get my armor on,” he said. He seemed a little dazed. “That was the first time I’ve slept in a very, very long time. It’s so … disconcerting.”
I was worried that Arthur getting his armor back on would cause some problems for the felheim, but he or she just stood there, waiting patiently. Arthur was quick about it, strapping things down as though he’d done it hundreds of times before, but I was guessing that this, too, was something new for him, or at least something old being brought back. All the armor he’d regularly worn in the past decade or so would have been the stuff you could just whistle and have it attach itself to you, or that would slither in place onto your body, or simply appear without fanfare.
Once he was done, we were guided down the hallways of the Landing, through their tunnels of dried white ligaments. Amaryllis wasn’t with us, I couldn’t help but notice, and I hoped that Arthur was wrong about us having already seen her for the last time.
The room for the elders was one of the largest we’d seen in the Landing, and it had more than a dozen tunnels leading out from it, allowing the felheim avenues of escape in case something horrible came for them. Being able to escape made the felheim feel secure, and by the opposite side of the coin, putting us in a room with a single door for so long was a way of making us psychologically off-balance. It didn’t have that effect, because we weren’t like them, which was a little funny.
“The exchange of gifts will commence,” said one of the three elder felheim. They were all ancient, with blue veins beneath paper-thin skin, and they sat on impractically tall chairs that weren’t quite ornate enough for me to call them thrones. I knew them all well enough, down to their names, since the not-elves Landing had been the most prominent among Landings in the games we played. If we went against them, they would pull out spears, but I thought we wouldn’t do too terribly in the fight, even though we were unarmed. (They predated Hollow Knight, but after I played the Mantis Lord fight from that game, it was how I saw the elder felheim. That had been one of the last videogames I’d played on Earth, back when I’d developed a habit of going on Steam every night and trying to find a game that would convince me not to kill myself.)
Uther stepped forward. “Among the weapons taken from us was an M4 carbine, a gunpowder weapon with two magazines of ammunition. That is my gift to you.”
I stepped forward. “Among the weapons taken from us was an M9 sidearm,” I said. “It’s a gunpowder weapon with two magazines of ammunition. That is my gift to you.”
I wasn’t sure how my toad would present anything to the felheim, or whether they might expect him to, but he just stayed on my shoulder, and no one said anything about him.
This was all pretty standard, believe it or not. The fireteams that came into the Long Stairs traded away guns, so this was established protocol. One of the first missions that any fireteam went on was to reach the first Landing and do a trade with the elves, usually in exchange for enchantments on their own weapons, or if they already had that, then something else that was magical in nature. Arming the elves wasn’t ideal, and there had been some blowback, but the magic that the elves could provide was deemed to be well worth the problems that giving them weapons had caused. That the problems were mostly for the fireteams and the beneficiaries were mostly those on the surface was something that was discussed a lot during the campaign.
“Your gift will be presented to you,” said the central felheim. “Then you will take your weapons and leave.” They had brought the box in, and I was thankful for that, because I wanted the vorpal sword back as soon as possible. It was incredibly powerful, and seemed like it was likely to keep working all the way to the top.
“Why is my wife not here?” I asked.
“You will be silent while here,” replied the felheim. “You will accept your gifts and leave.” They were being more curt with us than I had expected them to be, which gave me an uneasy feeling. They continued on despite my interruption, showing no particular sign that they ever intended to answer me. “The large one will accept this gift.”
One of the attendants came from a corridor they’d been hiding in, carrying a large cylinder that was hidden by a thin cloth. When he reached me, he paused for a moment and then dramatically removed the cloth, revealing a giant candle. It was ivory, maybe six inches in diameter and two feet long, with three braided wicks. I took it from him, and was surprised by the weight of it. So far as I could tell, it was just a giant candle, but with vibration magic gone I had no ability to see magic.
“The candle does nothing here, and can only be used in the world beyond the depths,” said the rightmost one. “You will save it until your return.”
Now that was interesting. How they knew I was planning to return was … well, probably because they’d been listening in on our conversations. I wasn’t about to take it at face value though.
“For the small one, there is something special,” said the leftmost felheim. If they got down from their chairs, I was pretty sure I would have zero ability to tell them apart.
Another attendant came forward as the previous one retreated, this one with a metal cloche. I didn’t know why they insisted on these things being a secret until they were revealed, but I hoped that it would be something good, or at least relatively unexciting.
The attendant lifted up the cloche and revealed a white mouse.
“Fuck,” I said.
LSP #0001 White Mouse Protocol was one of the first bits of worldbuilding I had ever done for the Long Stairs. If you see a white mouse, you kill it within five minutes. What happened if you waited too long was a mystery, one that I had never deigned to give a solution to. It had been violated only once during a session, the second time we ran the campaign, mostly because Reimer was feeling like pushing things, and I’d declared an instant TPK when the time was up, not even allowing them to know what had killed them.
There were, so far as I could tell, two ways we could play this. The first was to attack right away, killing the mouse seconds after it was uncovered. The second was to graciously take the mouse, then have Arthur crush it to death as soon as possible, hopefully not causing a diplomatic incident in the process. We had no idea why they had thought to give us this mouse, or whether the White Mouse Protocol applied, or whether the timer was ticking down, or had somehow been defused, but there was absolutely no way that I was letting that mouse live for longer than a minute.
I glanced at Arthur, wondering how he was going to deal with this, and saw that he was already heading for our weapons.
I moved to the mouse, snatching it off the silver dish it was on, throwing it against the ground, and stomping it to death in what was nearly one smooth motion, as though I’d practiced it (I had not practiced it). For their part, the felheim seemed stunned by the brazen stomping of a living gift, and the attendant who’d been holding the cloche was the first to act, fleeing down the tunnels.
The elder felheim dropped down from their perches in unison, holding gleaming spears, and right about that time, Arthur threw the vorpal blade at me, spinning it so quickly that it felt like a miracle that I was able to catch it. I brought it up just in time to parry one of their spears, but all three of them were on me at once, and the spears gave them better range. I dodged one and took an unfortunate hit to the chest, instantly feeling wet blood soaking through.
The next attack was a heavy thrust toward my groin, and this time I was able to position the blade for a proper parry. I cut straight through the spear, halving its length, then pressed the advantage, dashing toward him. He tried to parry the second sword strike, but the vorpal blade’s edge was sharp enough to cut through the remainder of his spear, his arm, his armor, and the entirety of his torso. I used the moment of slowed time to take note of where the other two were positioned, and as soon as my blade had swept through, I was on them, using raw aggression to get the upper hand. I was bleeding quite a bit from the wound in my chest, and the fact that they could pierce my armor spoke to the power of the magic they had, or the magic my armor had lost, but the sheer sharpness of the vorpal blade was enough to tear through them.
“Fuck,” I said, once they were laying on the ground in pieces. I reached down to touch my chest. It looked worse than it felt, I was pretty sure.
“We should get moving,” said Arthur. He’d collected his weapons, and handed the rest to me. “More will be coming. They’re proficient with poisons.”
I looked down at the wound on my chest. “Fuck.”
“Hey, think,” he said. “We already went over this. The elders sit up on their perch looking over this stuff. We had a whole session about it. They didn’t keep their spears poisoned because poison decays over time, they’d be going through pots of the stuff. There was a whole argument about it, you came down on my side. Now let’s get going.”
“Amaryllis,” I said.
He stared at me for a moment. “I’m going,” he said. “I’ll make my own way. I’m still good with a sword, and you can track me. Try to catch up.”
I nodded, then took off down the tunnels, trying my best to remember the route we’d taken. The Landing had a few claustrophobic qualities to it, and one of them was how hard it was to navigate. I’d have used the crystals to locate Amaryllis, but it was still giving me a headache.
I managed to navigate my way to the place they’d kept us, but the room she’d been staying in was empty. I only spent a minute or so looking for a note, but it wasn’t as though she would have hid it. I had no idea whether she’d fled when she heard the alarm, or whether she’d been called in to have a meeting with the felheim elders before us, or if there was some third option I wasn’t giving enough attention to. Frustrated, I took off down the tunnels, twice fighting someone who was probably just trying to come to the defense of his home. The blood flowing from my chest wound had slowed, but all the running wasn’t doing wonders.
I wished that I had the blood gauge on a HUD to see how bad it was. It was the first time I’d actually wanted some of the gamification back.
I was following Arthur, who I could track, and when the crystals led me through a door, I kicked through, leading me back into the Long Stairs. I hadn’t missed the seemingly endless rooms and their ridiculous rules. This one was another one with a feast set out, and I bit off a piece of still-warm chicken (or what I hoped was chicken, but tasted more like pork) before rushing to the next door the crystals pointed out.
Whether through bad luck on my part or a headstart for him, it took me five rooms to catch up with him.
“Finally,” he said once I was up there. “Why are you still carrying that thing?”
I looked down at where he was pointing and realized that I’d been carrying the enormous candle with me. “Huh,” I said. “I didn’t even realize I’d grabbed it.”
We both gave the candle a skeptical look.
“I’m not sure you did grab it,” said Arthur.
“I might have grabbed it after you left,” I said. A lot of the running around and killing things was a blur.
“Are you really making excuses for this candle?” asked Arthur. “Juniper, at this point, it’s like making excuses for a friend who’s been bitten by a zombie. The candle is fucky and you know it.” Uther would have never said ‘fucky’, and I wondered whether that was Arthur reverting, or code switching because he was with me.
“I think it might be important though,” I said. “I didn’t get around to telling you this, but in one of my conversations with the Dungeon Master, he had a book of my adventures with the title ‘Worth the Candle’. So, maybe it’s, I don’t know. Important.” The more I said, the more feeble it felt.
“Juniper, how long have you had that memory?” asked Arthur.
“Oh come off it,” I said. “You think that’s a fake memory? There are subordinate memories. I can remember talking to Amaryllis about the title.”
“That’s an indicator of memetic strength,” said Arthur. “What is it you think the candle does that it was so important to take?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, it is suspicious, but maybe it’s, I don’t know, the secret to all this. Maybe it’s a candle of invocation.”
“A what?” he asked.
“A D&D thing,” I said, slightly taken aback. “Surely you remember Reimer talking about Pun-pun?”
“Oh,” replied Arthur. He folded his arms across his chest. “And you think it’s your path to godhood.”
“Okay, well, maybe?” I asked. “I don’t know how to convince you that the candle might actually be important, whatever other anomalous properties it might have. And I can’t leave it here, because then I might never find it again.”
“It’s pretty clearly a mimic or something worse,” said Arthur.
“Agree to disagree?” I asked.
Arthur sighed, and for a moment he seemed to be weighing the wisdom of trying to take the candle from me, or whether he might be able to cut it into pieces. “Fine. Now let’s go.”
“We should wait for Amaryllis,” I said.
“How long?” asked Arthur, seeming exasperated that his great-great-and-so-on-granddaughter was holding things up by possibly being in mortal danger.
“Half a day,” I said. “I can’t track her, but she can track us, or rather, you, and she can pop the clones from a distance to resolve the issues with the crystal if she really wants to. I think.”
“Fine by me,” he said. He sat down against one of the walls. “I nearly died.”
“When?” I asked.
“When we were separated,” he replied. “I went through a room with an enormous monster that almost took my head clean off.”
“And what?” I asked. “He had armor so thick you couldn’t cut through it?”
“He was a fast regenerator,” replied Arthur. “I cut off his arms and legs and he grew them back in a handful of heartbeats. I cut off his head and he didn’t bother regrowing a new one. From experience, I knew that meant going for a vital point, but his heart was behind some kind of impenetrable layer of bone. When he brought his fists down he cracked the floor, and I had to stay constantly moving while I tried to chunk through his regeneration or find some way to get at something vital. It had been a long time since I’d had a fight like that.”
“You’ve had close calls before,” I said. I was watching him closely. He didn’t look shaken, just a bit stunned, like he’d had a revelation.
“It wasn’t that it was close, it was that I felt weak and powerless,” he said. “The battles I fought in the latter half of my career were difficult, arduous things, but there was never any despair on my part. I would go through the tools in my toolbox, and sometimes need to invent something new on the fly, but this … I honestly felt like I was going to die.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So how’d you end up beating it?”
“I circled around, jumped up onto its back, and drove my sword down his throat hole,” said Arthur. “It was a huge risk, but I had exhausted every other option, and I was gassed, again. I’m out of ammunition, by the way.”
“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “The vorpal blade is one of the most powerful weapons I’ve ever introduced into a campaign, and I have better stamina than you. Plus Bethel still has limited functionality.” Of everything that remained, the five-pound force was the only one worth speaking of, along with the ability to change shape. I could speak to Bethel, but it was like talking to a Markov chain.
“How was a normal fireteam supposed to defeat something like that?” asked Arthur.
“They weren’t,” I replied. “They were supposed to die horribly and then roll new characters. The guy you encountered, he was part of the second iteration of the Long Stairs. We’ve come across a few of them, and my guess is that as we get closer to the Hellmouth, we’ll find more. Eventually, it’ll just be you and me with swords that only have a mild magic to them.” And hopefully, the vorpal blade. “This is what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“You took your anger out on the others by running a campaign like this,” said Arthur.
“Yeah,” I said. “It was a shitty thing to do, and a shitty thing for us to have to make our way through. I tried explaining, but I guess this is the first time it’s sinking in for you. Look, if you still want to return to Earth —”
“I do,” he replied.
“I think the plan sucks,” I said. “I think there’s a good chance that we’ll both die. But I feel like I have a duty to see it out, so we’re going to try our best to get you to the Hellmouth, and then hope that you’re not vivisected by the War Department. But first, we’re going to hope that Amaryllis makes her way out of the Landing and then doesn’t run into too much trouble on the way to us. That means we wait.”
I was worried about her, but there was nothing I could do except for blindly running back to the Landing and searching around, and for all I knew, she wasn’t there anymore. I knew for a fact that wasn’t what she would have wanted us to do. The mission was the important thing, she would have said. She was ready and willing to sacrifice herself if it meant getting to the end. I wasn’t incredibly confident that she was thinking clearly, but I tried my best to put myself in her shoes.
“Alright,” Arthur replied. “I need a rest anyway.”
We waited twelve hours, resting from the fighting and occasionally talking, mostly to share in memories of school and idle summers in Kansas, or movies we’d enjoyed together. I noticed that Arthur rarely brought up his time on Aerb, which must have been deliberate. I didn’t mind though. Aerb had a tainted taste when he talked about it.
I kept expecting Amaryllis to come through one of the doors, but after the twelve hours were up, she was still nowhere to be seen, and turning the crystals her direction gave me nothing but another headache, which meant she either still had the clones up, or there was some other problem with the alien technology in my head. It was hard to think that she was gone so quickly, not even having a chance to say goodbye or wish us luck. It was like a soap bubble popping.
“Alright,” I said, getting to my feet and securing my equipment. The toad had been hopping around the room and spending some of his time in a bowl of water I’d set out for him, but when I stood, he leaped up six feet to settle onto my shoulder, like he was worried someone else would take his customary spot. “Let’s finish this thing.”
“And you’re taking the candle with you?” he asked.
I glanced down and realized I was carrying it under one arm. “Yeah,” I said. “It might be important.”