Worth the Candle, Ch 132: Uskine Nervedah

It took me a long time to get as many editions of Amaryllis’ books as I did, not just the focused meditation to get their information, and the work I needed to correlate that information to the schema and map it to a physical location within the Library, but actually trekking through miles of corridors in order to retrieve the book.

That gave me a fair amount of time to think.

On the grand scale, the future as laid out by the Library was clear enough. The Empire of Common Cause had continued the same trajectory it had been on for decades, taking more and more power that had once belonged to its member polities and shoveling as much as it possibly could under the umbrella of ‘mutual cooperation’ and working hard to fit new governmental powers within the language of existing laws. A series of technological revolutions, spearheaded by Amaryllis, brought Aerb kicking and screaming into the computing age, which changed all manner of institutions and helped to solidify the Empire as a coherent whole. There were cultural and political divides that cropped up, with neo-traditionalist ethnostates, popular after the fall of the Second Empire, coming back in vogue for a time. Eventually the flavor of the day became reactionary fusion and crypto-traditionalism, which led to merged and bespoke aesthetics, all of which was fascinating to me but largely useless in terms of saving the world.

Behind the scenes, and sometimes in front of them, Amaryllis had been at work.

The Gates of Leron were reinforced; whatever method Uther had used, Amaryllis had used Thargox and more warders than you could shake a stick at, a trick that she had independently discovered before I’d had a chance to bring that information back from the Library.

With Valencia’s power, Amaryllis had made an ambitious and covert compact with the hells, essentially putting them all in line so long as Valencia was alive. It was a tenuous thing, but it was the first bit of leverage that the mortals had been able to grasp through most of Aerb’s history, leading to some amount of mortal-led reforms of the hells.

Fifteen years in, Celestar had fired a beam of enormous power at Aerb, enough that it might have boiled the oceans if it had lasted long enough. It represented the single largest loss of life since the Wandering Blight. A week later, the beam was stopped when ten thousand pounds of antimatter were dropped directly adjacent to the beam’s source. The ejecta from that explosion landed all over Aerb, causing even more damage and death, but the threat was dealt with. Amaryllis apologized for that solution, which used a combination of high-powered, high-tech magnetic containment and an overlooked part of rune magic, because she was fairly certain that it would have been excluded as soon as anyone tried it. She also didn’t give the full specification for it; it was a state secret at the highest level, and she didn’t want it in the Library where someone could find it.

Whatever the Outer Reaches were, Amaryllis made no mention of them. If they were dealt with, whatever they were, someone else had done been the one to do it.

And of all the potential threats, that left the Void Beast. Because regulatory schemes weren’t enough, the solution had been simple; divert the Beast’s extradimensional course somewhere else. The vast stockpiles of void crystals that had been a byproduct of the imperial ban had been taken to the elemental planes and detonated in such a way as to call the Void Beast there, instead of to Aerb. It was a stopgap solution, but it was one that bought Aerb another hundred years.

It was the Void Beast that got them in the end. People blamed the diversionary plan, naturally, insisting that harsh regulations would have worked, but it was all somewhat moot by the time the end came.

Beyond all that though, there were a large number of personal details in the books, some of them explicit, others hinted at by references to past editions I wasn’t able to find, and a few implicit. I cared about the future of Aerb, I really did, but the personal stuff was easier to relate to, and while the threats against Aerb were direly important, the insights into the people around me showed new sides of them. I was going to have to talk to all of them when I got back, especially Grak, whose problems seemed like they were coming to a head sooner than later. He faded from the books pretty early on, and from what I could tell, was living — had lived — out his life without much in the way of interaction with Amaryllis and the others.

I would have to talk to Valencia too. She married Jorge early on and adopted out of fear that any natural children would be non-anima, and from there became a doting mother, later grandmother, who baked cookies and knit sweaters. She published a number of children’s books too, though I wasn’t about to go through the effort of finding them in the Library. In her spare time, she kept the hells in check. If she was a manipulator of people, then it was only in order to raise exceptional children and maintain a happy home, and if that was what she’d decided to do with her life in the doomed timeline … well, I owed her an apology.

And then there was Amaryllis. Amaryllis, who didn’t just snag a lifetime appointment as Secretary General of the Empire of Common Cause, who didn’t just return to and restructure Anglecynn with herself as Queen, but who consolidated power on top of that and made herself into the closest thing that the world had seen to Uther Penndraig. She was humble about it, at least in the books she wrote, explaining that she was more than she’d been born as thanks to the gifts from me, and that a fair amount of her success was in leveraging the resources of Uniquities, the absurd amount of magical items and resources afforded her by her line, the hidden talents of Valencia, Bethel, and a soul magic that the lizardfolk soul-seers couldn’t detect. To hear her tell it, it had taken an inordinate amount of work to get there, but it wasn’t really surprising that she should be the most important person on Aerb, especially not given that she was abusing the time chamber.

I cried, briefly, while I was sitting in the stacks reading her words. The thought of Amaryllis, alone, in the doomed timeline, trying her best with what she had, knowing that none of it mattered but doing it anyway … and the casual way she declared her love for me on top of it. It was heartbreaking. And of course that was an Amaryllis that was never going to exist, one that I could never talk to or thank. I longed for her, even though I only knew her through her words.

After I’d read the last book I was going to have time for, I went back to talk to Raven, and we had a fight.

“No,” said Raven. “These have explicit instructions for how to irrevocably change the world. She can’t read them. It’s bad enough that you read them. The damage that this could cause to the Library might be enough to make it wholly unusable without your help, and we’re not going to have your help.”

“You’re worried about what, hallways so narrow that no one can fit through them?” I asked. I tapped the stack of books. “I hate to say it, but this is more important than the Library.”

“It’s a series of stopgap measures and incomplete solutions, some of which likely aren’t going to be viable in the real,” said Raven. “Some kind of massive bomb, bigger than a nuclear weapon? That’s going to be excluded, with certainty. They didn’t actually solve the Void Beast problem, they just delayed it, in a way that’s been known to us for as long as we’ve known about the Void Beast.”

“Then you should have shared that with her,” I said. “She would have tried something else.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” sighed Raven. “The type of iterative problem-solving that she’s clearly attempting here has had disastrous results in the past.”

“She gave her life for this,” I said.

“Juniper, we don’t even know if those people are real,” replied Raven. “It’s not a true future. You said yourself that if you were doing it, you wouldn’t simulate everything, you would just abstract it, or create some entity that would write all the books. We’re not beholden to the wishes of hypothetical people, not when they’re wrong about the balance of priorities.”

I frowned at her. “Your mandate is to save the world, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It is,” replied Raven. “That’s the entire point. And if we have to save the world by suppressing technological revolutions, or keeping people in the dark about what’s going to happen, that’s what we’re going to do. We’ve stood by as we watched dictators come to power, we’ve stayed silent after unearthing heinous crimes against the mortal species, we’ve seen plagues rip through communities and done nothing, because they aren’t important enough. We have our priorities in place. We’re not going to bend for her.”

I stared at her. “You don’t control me,” I finally said. “I’m not a part of your chain of command.”

“Think rationally,” said Raven. She was looking me over, and had backed up a step. I kept forgetting how big our size difference was, not to mention the differences in our martial/magical ability. “First, you can’t leave the Library with those books, you’ll need someone to copy them, and we have all the entads that do that, which means that yes, you do need our help. Second, what is there of value in these books? You’re thinking emotionally instead of acting rationally. You want her time to have been worth something, I understand that, but keeping the Library as a useful tool is too important to allow sentimentality to outweigh a strict cost-benefit analysis.”

“So I’m just supposed to say nothing?” I asked.

“Not nothing,” said Raven. “As little as possible. From what I know of her, it’s what she would want.” She tapped one of the books. “Here, in this preface, she explicitly says that she would take a hammer to your face if it would save Aerb. Do you really think that she wouldn’t do the same to herself? Is that the sort of person she is?”

“No,” I said. “No, she would sacrifice herself, did sacrifice herself, all to make the world a better place.” I rubbed my face for a moment and tried to think calmly and rationally. The real problem for me was that it felt like Amaryllis had died, somewhere out there in the other timeline. Raven was right that I needed to separate myself from that emotional impulse, but that didn’t mean that she was right about the dissemination of information. “What would Uther have done?” I asked.

Raven froze. “He would have told her,” she said. “He had a softness for what he called the small stories.”

“And somehow it always worked out,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Raven. “Usually with blood, sweat, and tears by the gallon to make it work out.” She had the same distant look she sometimes got when thinking about him. “You’ve said yourself that you’re under no such guarantees. Do you still believe that?”

“I do,” I replied. I shifted in my seat. “Okay. I’ll do a limited release. I still need to copy the books though, just in case there’s something relevant. I haven’t actually read them all yet, because just getting them has been taking up all my time. So far as I’m concerned though, these books have almost everything that we could possibly want from this timeline.”

Raven hesitated. “I agree.” She reached forward and touched each of the books I had gathered in turn, absorbing them into the entad she wore on her wrist. “Talk to Oja about having physical copies made.”

I wanted to say more, but I stayed silent. The truth was, most of what Amaryllis had accomplished had been by virtue of intelligence, caution, and dedication. She’d done her exhaustive, questionably ethical tests on every technology she released, every seed she’d taken from Earth, and every work of fiction she’d translated over. And if she had done all of that without the help of future knowledge, then it was arguable that she didn’t actually need information from the future, not if it was going to be a malus on the Library. The books might be able to save her years, maybe even decades, but if they would contribute to making the Library unusable … well. I tried to imagine what Amaryllis would say to all this, and I thought she might agree.

“We have two days until the shift change,” said Raven. “We might have to stay after, if you still want that book on the lost magic of spirit. Fortunately, because it’s a book that was written before the present instead of after, most of the research work we’ve been doing won’t be for nothing.”

“I should help,” I said. “I might be able to target an appropriate text through meditation. I’d planned to get another book from the series, but each is worth less than the last, and we have the gist of the future.”

“Certainly,” said Raven. “If you’d like to meditate, the current title we have is ‘Uskine Nervedah’, though we’re not certain whether it’s an actual book of knowledge or just an overview. You’ll need help translating, most likely.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I know.”

After a day of meditation, I was off to the stacks once more, trying to hunt down Uskine Nervedah. I would have considered it a bit of a long shot, if the game hadn’t come close to outright stating that the Library had the book that would teach me Spirit.

The librarians had a number of translation magics available, which we were almost certainly going to need. I had the publication date of the book now, 142 BE, and the language, Kindeh, which I had never heard of. Aerb was bigger than Earth, with more (and more varied) civilizations, and the occasionally phonemically incompatible species. In the modern age though, most of the languages that had been around in Uther’s time had gone extinct, either brutally extinguished by the Second Empire’s cultural pogroms, or by the more gentle erosion that happened as the peoples of Aerb began to congregate into the great cities of the world and slowly meld with each other. Kindeh was one of the latter, as far as any of the librarians knew, a language that got supplanted, kicked around as a “connection to the home country” cultural artifact for a few generations, and then quietly stopped being spoken.

Translation magic on Aerb was uncommon, and a bit of a crapshoot in terms of what the various forms of it could actually do. Translation tattoos were expensive, and you needed one for each language you wanted to speak: the librarians had a large stock of them, and a tattoo mage proficient enough to move them around, but they didn’t have one for Kindeh (because, again, dead language). High-level pustule mages could grow a growth near their collarbone that assisted in translation, but it required roughly a week of exposure to someone speaking the target language, so that was out on a number of counts. That left entads.

The Library unfortunately didn’t have anything like the Terridoc linkages, which granted (close to) full polygot status and were held in trust by the Empire. What they did have were a multitude of entads that could do at least some of the work, like a pair of glasses that would translate words into numbers that correlated to concepts, and which could then be consulted against a list of previously number-translated words from other languages. There were only a small handful of full polygot entads, most of them with restrictions, but it was much more common (meaning still rare) for entads that would translate specific languages. They were still working on the plan for how they would translate Kindeh for me, but it was likely going to take three entads working in a chain.

All that turned out to be totally moot though, because I learned Kindeh without really meaning to.

Skill Increased: Language lvl 3!

I had been looking through the book, primarily seeking tables, charts, or illustrations that might give me an idea of what the book’s contents were (training or commentary being the two big guesses), pausing only briefly to squint at the words in the torchlight when they seemed close to Groglir or Anglish. For me to learn Groglir took months of lessons with Grak and a working vocabulary of something like a thousand words, if that was what had actually triggered it. For Kindeh, now that I had unlocked the Language skill, all it had taken was looking at a book and trying to figure out how to read it.

(I didn’t particularly want Kindeh as a language. So far as I could tell, Language would still be capped by primary and secondary abilities, which, because of my low CHA, meant capping out at 10. That, and the depression that had been hounding me following Fenn’s death, had been the reason that I hadn’t been throwing myself into learning as many additional languages as I could. Aside from this one book, Kindeh was useless, but it was apparently going to take up the number three slot. I was grateful that I hadn’t accidentally learned lenssi.)

I waited to actually read it until I was back in the vestibule, in part because torchlight didn’t make for a good reading experience.

“We’ll have the entad chain ready in an hour or two, the Toque of Lipsum is being used for a different project that we’re in the middle of,” said Raven when I came back into her/our home. She’d never ended up having one cast for me, either because she liked my company or because we weren’t staying long. She was sitting at the table, reading through the books that Amaryllis had written.

“Oh, it’s fine,” I said. “I speak Kindeh now. And this should be the book that I need, if my skim of it is accurate.”

“You just … speak a dead language?” asked Raven.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m not too happy about it though, because it takes a slot. I’ll pick some others up soon. Let me know if you have any suggestions for what’s best.”

“Just like that?” asked Raven, staring at me.

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s how it goes sometimes.”

“I’ll compile a list,” said Raven with a sigh. “I don’t think Uther was ever so fast or so constrained.”

“He wouldn’t have told you if he was,” I replied.

Raven hesitated. “I suppose I have to assume that’s true.”

I sat down to read the book as she left to go deal with administrative duties. The title, Uskine Nervedah, translated to something like ‘the inner veins of the immortal essence’, and it became clear halfway into the first chapter that the author was both ignorant of the concept of the soul as it existed on Aerb, and was also conflating the ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ concepts. It was like someone who had never heard of muscles explaining what purpose veins served within the body.

I found myself entering into a flow state as I read, one of my virtues taking effect and allowing the outside world to fall away around me. I had always been good at that, but the text was dense, with too many words given special meanings that my ability with Kindeh didn’t give me access to.

I got through the text before even realizing it, and came up on the index in the back having expected more chapters. I still hadn’t had some brilliant insight into Spirit though; all I had was a confusing jumble of analogies, none of which made all that much coherent sense when put together, and some of which overlapped with the concept of ‘soul’ so much that I thought they were probably spirit-based explanations for what were actually soul-based phenomena.

The largest case study in Uskine Nervedah was that of the passion mages, who were something like a mix of barbarians and wizards, dependent on evoking emotion in order to access their magic. It was a discipline taught at Ink and Ardor, but one that had fallen out of favor in preference for more consistent magics. Passion mages had access to a wide spectrum of effects, but those effects were determined almost solely by the mood and emotion of the passion mage.

The author of Uskine Nervedah was a spirit mage, and had met with the passion mages specifically for the purposes of seeing whether he could make their magic more than it was. He started with interviews with the passion mages, getting them to describe their art to him and the way that it felt, then after two weeks, finally began an attempt.

Like essentialism, spirit magic required physical contact with the subject. Like essentialism, there was some component of viewpoint manipulation inherent to the art, what I would describe as a GUI and the author of Uskine Nervedah described as the “view of the fourth eye”. But as far as what was actually seen, that was something else entirely.

Where Fallatehr described the soul as a book with every important detail of a person written in it, the man who’d written Uskine Nervedah (‘Enkad’, which was an obvious pseudonym if you knew Kindeh) described the spirit, as, variously, a collection of pulsing veins, flowing rivers swollen with water, and pathways through a city, never seeming to settle on a singular metaphor, either because he didn’t understand enough of what he was doing, or because he got fed up with the inaccuracies.

He was difficult to deal with when the enfadilo he’d sniffed began to fill him with its customary rage, though he insisted that it was custom for practitioners of his art, and would give me a better view of how he was when in the field. He cracked his knuckles every few seconds and sniffed almost as often. I could feel his sweat with my hand pressed against his bare chest, which I was using as the point of contact between us.

It was difficult to focus on anything but the rapid beating of his heart and the creak of his teeth as he clenched his jaw, but the raw emotion that he felt was like a throbbing vein sticking out of his spirit, which made the entire process easier for me. Once I had centered myself on that, his spirit splayed out in front of me, taking up my full vision. I could see the venous mass of it in front of me, with the paths of anger touching so many others that it was like a hundred-limbed spider staking claim over his spirit. I began my work slowly, tentatively, enlarging that engorged pathway that I could see most clearly and looking for other parts and pieces that were similar to it, which might provoke the same effect.

I was too ambitious in my alterations though, because it wasn’t long before I was laying on the ground with a horrid gash upon my head, crying in pain as a number of the men around me restrained the irate passion mage. I had stoked his fury too much, opened it too wide, and left him in a rage that was beyond his capacity to control, a lesson that I would take some months to properly integrate into my understanding of the art.

That was more or less how it went, through most of the book. The spirit’s “channels” or “pathways” sometimes linked to each other, threading through and altering each other on the fly, especially with regards to emotions, bits and pieces of it moved … and none of it was really all that clear in terms of how I could unlock it or how it functioned on a base level. I had a better view of the spirit than the one put forward in Uskine Nervedah, because I knew there was such a thing as a soul, and if they were complementary, and if I knew everything that the soul contained, then I could work backward a bit.

The soul was mostly numbers. Those numbers weren’t static; they changed and shifted with time, and if you altered one part of the soul, it would eventually drag itself back into ‘alignment’ or ‘coherence’, though the guy who knew the most about what those precise terms had meant, regrettably, died before he could give me more in-depth theory. There was no mechanism to explain why the numbers shifted around, though I had always thought that the mechanism must have been my mind.

Now, I had a different candidate.

I stepped into my soul for a moment, thinking that it might offer a better vantage point, or at least a link, in the same way that blood, bone, and skin magic were links to the soul. As my first order of business, I pushed ‘Level Up’ back down, which was something I did every single morning and most nights. This time, though, I sat there and watched as it reliably ticked back up. That was something that I hadn’t really done much before, because it was one of those problems that I just wanted to go away.

I thought about the feeling of leveling up as I watched it tick up, and saw it increase its upward climb. If you didn’t accept that there was such a thing as a spirit, maybe you would talk about coherence and internal balance, the way that all parts of your soul played into making the soul one internally consistent thing. You could implicate memories, saying that your values were the sum of them. None of that actually explained what was happening in the soul to make all that work.

Because I’d just gotten done reading through a half dozen clumsy metaphors, I decided to make one of my own. ‘Spirit’, not very helpfully named, was at least partly ‘Soul Number Changer’. That wasn’t the entire function, but something had to be changing those numbers around. If the soul was a database, then the spirit was the collection of queries that accessed that database, or maybe some stored functions. That, at least, seemed close to the analogies I had heard before, with soul as the book and spirit as the pen that wrote the book. Maybe a better metaphor, for my own purposes, was to view these ‘pathways’ as individual threads, some of which were running and some of which were paused. If Spirit was capable of protecting people from whatever memetic threat was in the Outer Reaches, then it was probably in altering the characteristics of that thread, or the general response to whatever class of threat it was.

If that was the case, then there was a thread responsible for slowly incrementing ‘Level Up’, which would be connected to it, in the same way that a passion mage’s anger would show up well when it was being stoked. I focused in on the internal feeling of ‘Level Up’ rising, trying to turn it over in my head a few times, and eventually, I found it, the seam between essentialism and spirit, a brief glimmer of perspective that I latched onto.

Skill unlocked: Spirit!

Achievement Unlocked: Kindred

Quest Completed: As the Spirit Moves You – Uther did his best to remove it from the world, but there are some places where secrets are archived. You are now the sole practitioner of the art. Use it wisely.

Level Up!

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Worth the Candle, Ch 132: Uskine Nervedah

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