First: Slaves, School
Previous: Testing

The stairs kept going. Desmond had already climbed more stairs than existed in any other building he’d ever been in, and he was pretty sure the Central Office wasn’t all that much taller. Then again, he was pretty sure magic wasn’t real, either, and he’d been using it – and having conversations with a collar – all day.

Maybe all the collar meant was that you’d gone mad, and he was ensconced in some nice sanatorium, happily climbing up the same five stairs, like a toddler. If so, there was no consequence to falling, but, if so, there was no consequence to anything. He supposed he might as well live as if this were real, right up until some nice nurse came to lock him in a cell.

He skidded to the top of a flight of stairs which had been slick and greasy and found the stairs splitting in front of him. One stairway went left, the other right.

Neither direction ought to be possible, the way the tower was built – or, at least, the way the tower had appeared to be built from the outside. The window he was looking at — frosted glass, but a wider window again — showed no shadow of the stairway, either.

“Well?” Eventually he might get used to talking out loud to his collar, but he definitely wasn’t there yet.

::Well. This isn’t a communication-with-your-collar test, so I do not have this part of the map in my memory. Perhaps it is testing your special sense?::

“Or maybe it’s just trying to figure out how willing I am to take an imaginary staircase that can’t exist. Okay.” Desmond looked at the window, at the sun coming in with no shadow. He looked at the other staircase, which was wider, flatter, and safer-looking.

There were a lot of things they could be testing here, but, so far, they — the amorphous [they] — looked like they rewarded risk-taking. “Okay, let’s do that force thing again but, uh, I want it to ride around my chest so it can pull me up.”

::You know what to do::

As he drew a corset with his hands, it occurred to Desmond that he was doing magic. Really, truly, doing magic. The sanitarium theory was beginning to seem more and more sound. He twisted the lines of force around his waist, over and over again.

::What do you think is going to happen?::

“I think there’s a chance that the stairway is fake, and I really don’t want to fall to my doom. I have some idea of how far I’ve climbed —” Sort of. He wasn’t really sure he’d climbed it all, since it was impossible “ — and it’s further than I ever, ever want to fall.”

::You think the stairway is fake and you’re going to climb it anyway?::

“I think the nice, easy stairway is the trap here.”

::Interesting. You may have a point. Let’s hope the other one isn’t a cleverly-concealed pit.::

“We’re already higher up than the towers of the Central Office are. We’re already moving in dimensions that don’t exist from the outside. For all I know, the pit – if there is one – could drop me in a lake.”

::I would not mind a lake.::

“Me, neither, except that it would mean we’d failed. I don’t like failing. Ready?”

::As ready as I’ll ever be.::

“Then let’s go.” He moved more carefully up this flight of stairs, checking each stair carefully before he shifted his weight. They were uneven, tilted, cracked, and pitted, but he was nearly to the landing without any problems.

And then he stepped up onto a stair and it vanished under his foot. He stumbled, fell forward and downwards at the same time, and the corset of force caught him just as he was about to crack his skull on the landing.

He crawled up to the landing, carefully. “So. Maybe we’re just about done?”

::You were clever. You knew there would be a threat and you didn’t get hurt.::

“But we said. We said — well, I said — if I fell, that’s where I would stop.”

::But we could always go further. We could always do better.:: In as much as a voice in his head could be said to have a tone of voice, the collar seemed to sound a bit urgent.

“Have you done this before? This climb?”

::Not.. No. Not exactly.:: The collar hesitated, or, at least, there was silence in Desmond’s mind for a bit. ::Memories are not the same for, for a collar, as they are for you. But I do not think I have done this before.::

“So you want me to go higher…” He crawled the last few steps to the landing.

::Because I want you to succeed. Because I want us to succeed.::

Desmond pulled himself up to his feet. “Fourth floor, you said. If we got to the fourth floor, If I got to the fourth floor, then I got in. That was, oh, I don’t know, ten floors ago.”

::Twenty. You have been climbing quite some time.::

“So, twenty-four floors. I don’t want to plummet to my death, okay? I don’t want…” He trailed off, because the landing held only a doorway. He was arguing with a piece of jewelry. “I want to be good. But I’m just a kid from Lesser Hunstsworth and Red Aisle. I think there’s such a thing as climbing above your station.”

He looked at the door. It was big, it was white, and it looked like someone’s front door on their house. Someone rich’s front door on their house. “Looks like the stairs agree.”

::Oh. Well, then:: The collar gave the impression of being put out.

Desmond turned to look down the stairs. Most of them were gone, and several others were fading away. There was no return. And there was only the door in front of him.

He took a breath and opened the door.


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