First: Slaves, School
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Everyone had their own story about the stairs. Wesley had run up as fast as possible, until their collar had shouted: “so loud it nearly blew out my ears,” Wesley complained. “And then there weren’t any more stairs.”

Talia had gotten in an argument with a puzzle door that had ended with a chute downwards to the reception area. “My collar’s still annoyed with me. Won’t talk to me.”

“Not even for collar’s-choice?” Jefshan leaned forward over the table, looking intrigued. “Mine won’t shut up. “

“Collar’s-choice?” Talia blinked owlishly.

“You know. That bit near the end where the collar picked out which way to go. Collar’s- choice.”

“Oh, that! Yeah, my collar said ‘left’ and that was it.”

“Are we even supposed to be talking about this?” Kayey frowned imperiously over the four of them. “I mean, we did it alone…”

“We did it with our collars,” Des corrected. “I mean,” he added, suddenly feeling uncertain, “Mine talked to me and did magic. Didn’t yours?”

“My collar advised me,” Jefshan agreed, speaking very slowly. “But I didn’t know we could do magic.”

“But-” Des furrowed his brow. “They tested us on that at the very beginning.”

“I used magic,” Kayey allowed. “Once, when the stairway got really uneven. And then my collar, it told me to do something right near the end. But then there was the door.”

::That’s because the collars aren’t supposed to direct,:: Desmond’s collar interjected. ::If a collar starts telling the wearer what to do, it can lead to, well… problems.::

“Problems?” Des murmured. Not quietly enough; everyone sitting next to him looked at him. He squirmed and touched his collar.

“You’ve got a talkative one, too?” Jefshan tch’d sympathetically. “Mine- uch. Yes. You’re talkative. Very talkative.” Jefshan shook their head aggressively. “Surprised there wasn’t a test for ‘how do you deal with someone nagging you all the time.’”

“I think that was the stairway?” Des offered. “I mean, there’s a lot of things to deal with there. How you cope with physicality, puzzles, stress, how you and your collar get along…”

“Danger,” Wesley pointed out. “There was that stairway that turned into a slide. I nearly cracked my head open.”

“That sounds awful.” Des resisted the urge to reach up and touch his own head. “There were other threats, too, like the stairway over the alley…”

“I think…” Jefshan was frowning thoughtfully. “…maybe we each had a different stairway?”

“But it’s all the same entrance, isn’t it? And we all ended up in the same place.” Talie gestured around the room. “Then again, we all ended up in the same place no matter how long we climbed. Or which way we turned. Or which way we turned that next time.”

“So,” Des was feeling a little braver as people stopped glaring at him, “maybe it was an illusion? No…” He shook his head. “That doesn’t sound right.”

::Not an illusion,:: his collar agreed. ::I can see through illusions. The stairs were real… just magical.::

“Magical,” Jefshan said at the same time. “That’s what my collar says. That they shift depending on the climber.”

“That makes sense. When the stairway decided I was done, there weren’t any more stairs. Decided we were done,” Desmond clarified. “Something about getting along with each other and agreeing.”

“And… maybe being a team?” Kayey frowned. “So they’re not supposed to tell us what to do, and they’re not supposed to encourage us to be unsafe, or to break the rules…”

“But we climbed all those stairs,” Wesley interrupted plaintively, “and we all ended up in the same place. So what did it matter?”

They all stilled. “That,” Jefshan murmured, “is a very good question.”


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