Those who accepted the challenge and strode through the gate did, as promised, escape the misery and decay of the old world.

But that’s not to say that the speaking stones’ offer was a perfect one, or without their own inscrutible motives.

A traveler would awaken in a dark place, gloomy and often damp, but lit with bioluminescence that barely illuminated a ceiling perhaps a hundred yards above. Armed only with what they had carried through the gate, they would find themselves in a twisting maze of ancient stone and wood–one too natural to be manmade but too complex to be natural. A winding stair, visible in the distance but only in the same way that a mountain is, led up through the soaring night and through the cool stone roof of the world.

And above? Another level, much the same yet subtly different, with its own stair. And beyond it the same, and the same, and the same.

But the curious thing was that the stair never seemed to be in the same place. And the curiouser thing was that the levels above never seemed to be the same, either. Maps were useless. Only the level of awakening never seemed to change, and even that was vast enough that some considered it infinite.

Many travelers chose to stay on that first level, in that first maze, to carve out a life in the chinks of stone and wood. Crops would grow, after a fashion, and edible mushrooms could be had. But it was a mean existence, and the lure of valuables above–an answer above–constantly drove people upwards.

The most well-equipped expedition had made it to the twenty-first maze above. Only a single man, more a skeleton than anything, had returned. As far as is known, no one who took the speaking stones at their word and crossed over the threshhold gate ever saw the sun again.

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238 – Gordian I and his son Gordian II are proclaimed Roman Emperors. They might just be the most laughable emperors in history as they were killed 20 days later without even getting so far as Rome.

1599 – Anthony Van Dyke is born. He becomes famous as the painter who made Charles I look sort of okay and the inventor of the Supervillain Beard.

1765 – Parliament passes the Stamp Act, requiring the Thirteen Colonies to pay taxes for more or less the first time ever. This leads to the American Revolution for some reason.

1797 – Future German Emperor Wilhelm I is born. His legendary muttonchops-and-handlebar whiskers seal March 22’s reputation for melodramatic facial hair.

1894 – The first Stanley Cup. Then, as now, nobody cares outside of Ontario, and the Upper Midwest.

1916 – Yuan Shikai, the last Emperor of China, abdicates. As he was a pitiful excuse for an emperor–a general who had seized imperial power and held it for only 83 days, we can see that March 22 is a good day for bad emperors.

1930 – Stephen Sondheim, composer of musicals your roommate loved in college, is born.

1931 – William Shatner boldly goes into the world.

1948 – Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of musicals your girlfriend loved in college, is born. Stephen Sondheim has made a mortal enemy, but this will not become clear until The Singening in 2021.

1960 – The laser is patented. Pew pew.

1990 – Gunnery engineer Gerald Bull is assassinated. At the time, he was building Project Babylon, a supergun that would have allowed Saddam Hussein to shoot things into space. The two are definitely not related.

2001 – William Hanna, famous American animator and cofounder of Hanna-Barbera, goes off-model.

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Commandant Schukov addressed the cadets as was his wont, like a general at a review with arms clasped at ninety-degree angles.

“What’s he got to say this time?” Viktor whispered to Pyotr. “Perhaps he’ll unclench and finally let that rifle he’s had up his ass go.”

“More likely a list of floggings,” Pyotr said. “I hear Feodor got it good for daring to talk back to old Lebedev in artillery class.”

“Cadets!” barked Schukov. “As I have said before this time, despite being from some of the finest families in this oblast, you are maggots unfit for service in the Emperor’s glorious army. The strong, proud soldiers of his great-grandfather the late Emperor, they who turned back Napoleon, are rolling in their graves at such a speed it’s a wonder they haven’t been harnessed to generate electricity.”

Pyotr snickered at this. Schukov would as soon beat the freckles off you as look at you, but he did have a colorful way with words.

“Nonetheless, it was my great misfortune to recieve this morning a direct order, which I hereby obey. And that order is direct from Stavka, and thus may as well have been written in the Emperor’s own hand. To free up men who are desperately needed at the front near Riga, effective immediately the Academy’s cadets are to take up anti-bandit patrol duties.”

An excited murmur rippled through the crowd. “Holy shit in an outhouse,” breathed Viktor. “They’re putting us into action!”

“Silence!” bellowed Schukov. “Total silence!” He waited until the hubbub had died to an acceptable level in his one good ear before proceeding. “You will be armed and equipped at government expense, to do something about the deserters that have been causing chaos in the oblast.”

The old commandant thumped a step to the right on his wooden leg and puffed out his chest. “I do not expect that you will be able to perform effectively in this task, but as we have taught you, obedience is key. You will be deployed, and the good men that you free up will serve the Emperor on the front.”

“Real weapons! Real patrols! We’re not even old enough to enlist, and look at us!” Viktor bubbled. “Like real soldiers!”

“TOTAL SILENCE!” screamed Schukov, loud enough to rattle the rafters. He brushed the resulting dust off his white epaulettes. Then, in an affect more akin to his normal bellow: “I requested reinforcements to ensure that you laggards aren’t all killed, as dealing with your angry parents would be more burden that int’s worth. And, as has long been evident to me, I have been put on this earth only to endure the trials of maggots and weasels. As such, allow me to introduce to you your reinforcements…”

“Maybe a Guards unit,” Pyotr whispered. “Or veterans from the front!”

“…the Women’s Battalion of Death, Reserve Youth Auxiliary Division,” Schukov continued, spitting out the title like a bitter peachpit. “Your next instructions, AS ORDERED, will be from its local coordinator.”

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“Tell me what you recall.”

“We used to hunt for them in the garden. We’d find them, take them in–gently, always gently–and put them in a jar. Usually we gave them leaves. Once I gave some potato chips to see if they’d eat it. They died instead. Most did. We were just kids, after all. But some of them…some of them made it. We’d see them spin, and we were always so excited when the time came to release them.”

“What, exactly?”

“Caterpillars and butterflies.”

“Fascinating. Of all the things you could recall, from all your years of life, that’s it?”

“I think that all this is…something like that, don’t you? Something like them?”

“Maybe it is. But there’s no way to know until it’s too late to go back.”

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Wick bore the candle aloft. “You know what this is, don’t you?”

At the flick of a slimy finger, the frogs retreated. “Of course we do,” burbled their king. “That accursed spark is what allowed you to roast us for eating, powered the machines that drained our swamps.” He drew out his following words with thick malice: “It has brought nothing but death to my people, even here at our last outpost.”

“What if I told you,” said Wick, trying to be sly, “that this is the last flame in the world, and that the secret of its creation has been lost?”

The frog king lolled out its tongue in a moment of thought. “I would say that my people should attack you now, at all hazards, to ensure that it is drowned in the cleansing waters of the last refuge.”

“Consider this an opportunity,” Wick said. “The last fire is traveling to the summit that it might be rekindled in the souls of all my people. If you would allow me to pass, my people would be in your debt.”

“You do not have a good record of being beholden to those to whom you owe much,” sneered the frog king. “Ask the aurochs that, if you can find one.”

“The fire might be the only thing that can hold back the decay and rebuild our world,” Wick replied. “Surely you, in your wisdom, feel the end closing about all life even here in the last refuge.”

“You would have me put my trust in that which caused the decay in the first place? Perhaps it is simply time for us to fade quietly away with one last noble act.”

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The atmospheric equipment took a little while to boot up, so while it was composing itself Gelly went up to the top of a nearby ridge with Deuce.

“Look at it, Deuce,” she said, spreading her arms at the wooded valley below. “A whole planet waiting for someone to explore.”

Deuce wagged his tail and barked through his breather mask, which kept the argon-heavy air from slowly suffocating them both.

“As soon as everything is calibrated, we’ll go back to the portal and report this place,” Gelly continued. “Who’d have thought it, a planet with so much argon in the air that nothing can breathe except plants?”

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“He has googly eyes,” said Mavis. “Why does he have googly eyes?”

“Googly eyes are cheap,” said Gerry. “Marbles are expensive.”

“Still, with the pose that they have him in, holding his golf club on the range, it looks like he’s psyching out over the shot.”

They moved to the next display. “This is a really unnatural pose,” said Gerry. “Do you think they didn’t have enough skin to work with?”

“She’s awfully fat,” replied Mavis. “I think they were just lousy taxidermists.”

“But a ballet move, en pointe? That’s a stretch.”

“What about this one ever here?” Mavis pointed. “This one’s not so bad.”

“Humans don’t have three arms,” sneered Gerry. “I think this entire display is just crap taxidermy. The Betelgeusians are hardly even trying.”

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