Worth the Candle, Ch 146: Terrors of the Black Age

True to his word, Reimer had mailed us (actual physical mail with stamps and everything!) more notes on the system, including more of the virtues he knew, and notes on the campaigns that he’d played in, the ones created by the Aerb version of myself. I read through them, naturally, and even with the Reimer filter on things, I felt like I got a sense of that alternate Juniper. It filled me with a profound sense of loss.

One of the campaigns took place on a giant bird, where each feather was as large as a mountain, and generations passed while the bird was in flight. Mites were serious threats to the miniscule playable races, though it wasn’t clear whether or not the characters were small or the bird was simply enormous, and the whole thing was tied together with magic to make it work on even the high concept level. The great cities of the world were built into the hollow quills of the bird’s feathers, with an ecosystem that was partially based on the real ecosystem of a bird’s skin, and partly derived from a consequence of the binding magic that made the setting work. I could see the knock-on effects just from Reimer’s sparse descriptions of how it all worked, little details that betrayed magnitudes of worldbuilding.

Another campaign was set in an endless desert, with water and food supplied entirely by extremely expensive wells that had been created by a long-gone elder race. The wells were slowly deteriorating, on the scale of centuries, and no one had any idea what they were going to do when the wells (each of which supported a city) finally failed. The party were cast into the roles of elite desert wayfarers, one part scholars delving into the ancient ruins to uncover the mysteries of the elder race, the other part emissaries who traveled from lush city to lush city, spreading knowledge and solving problems. I couldn’t help but draw some global warming parallels to that campaign, though if the other Juniper was native to Aerb, the feeling that he would have been drawing on would have been either the Void Beast, or the exclusions, or something like that. Reimer described most of the desert cities as being more concerned with the here-and-now than a hundred years hence, even among the long-lived races.

Aerb left its prints everywhere on these campaigns, naturally. If I’d grown up on Aerb, my influences would be far different, not just because I didn’t have any actual tabletop RPGs to work from, but because Aerb was absolutely stacked with wildly different magics, intelligent species, cultures, and all the stuff that had been cribbed from my worldbuilding. If you were a teenager in Anglecynn, faced with all that, you probably wouldn’t do it like I did it, especially without Wikipedia to turn to. So the other Juniper had gone simple, paring things down to where they were manageable for a single person to make campaigns in. Per fake Reimer (a tenuously trustworthy source) they had usually picked characters first, then had the world constructed afterward, with exactly as many intelligent species as needed, and as much magic as required for the characters, with everything else made up to suit that.

They’d played their own version of a campaign inspired by Arthurian legend, though theirs was inspired by Uther, and was thus twice removed. The details were sparse on that one, which I thought was understandable, given that it was still a bit sensitive for me, and probably would be for this Reimer. I had thought that maybe I would see some reflection there, with their campaign resulting in the Arthurian legend of Earth, but instead they were just a mutation of Utherian legend, Othyr Bendrak and his Knights of the Star Table.

I wanted to meet other Juniper. I wanted to talk to him about what his life had been like. Reading Reimer’s notes … well, Reimer didn’t focus on the things that I wanted him to focus on, but I could still get some sense of the other Juniper peeking through. Kindred spirits. I wondered if the Dungeon Master looked at me in the same way that I looked at the other Juniper. Probably not, given the torture.

I talked about this with the others, the night of my first day as a student.

“I’d just like to meet him and see what he was like,” I said. “I know that sounds incredibly narcissistic, but … I almost feel nostalgic for him.”

“Rilirin,” replied Grak with a nod. He was sitting on the couch in the common room, with Solace leaning up against his legs. She was knitting, which was entirely unnecessary in at least three different ways, but I supposed that everyone needed a hobby.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I don’t think it’s narcissism,” said Amaryllis. “You find him compelling, or at least his ideas. You’d have to be a pretty boring person not to find mirrors of your own ideas compelling. I would have liked to meet Cypress, or failing that, to have read her books.” Amaryllis sat at the table with Raven, where they were both going over notes together. They had colored index cards with places, names, and subplots written on them, as they worked to try to figure out the narrative.

“Sorry,” said Raven. “But it’s important that the Library continue to function.”

“I’m aware,” replied Amaryllis, looking slightly annoyed. “I’m only stating my preference.”

“For my part, I would like to speak with Maddie,” said Raven, looking briefly at me before returning to the notes. “We should get string, I think,” said Raven. “It might help us visualize the potential connections.” This aside was directed at Amaryllis. “There should be no problem with me going to speak with her, should there?” she asked, turning back to me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The way things have been going, there could be booby-traps everywhere, the kind that we could never see coming. Like, if it were me, and I wanted to create drama … you have binary explosives on Aerb, right?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Or rather, we could easily make them, but it’s not an entrenched concept like it is on Earth.”

“Well, I was thinking that if I were a total bastard, what I might do would be to create a binary meme, consisting of two memes that are safe when separated, but deadly when mixed together,” but even as I was saying it, I was frowning to myself. “Seems inelegant though, at least as a way of artificially creating drama, and raises some questions about where each of the half memes came from, and how they got their properties.” I noticed that Amaryllis was rapidly writing something down. When she was finished, she looked up at me with a scowl.

“Could you not?” she asked.

“Not what?” I asked, momentarily bewildered. “Oh come on, do you really think that me saying things will retroactively change the world so that we have to face those things? That all of history is actually changing because I say something like, ‘hey, they’ve probably got binary memetic weapons’?”

“It’s possible,” said Amaryllis. “Possible enough that it might be better to keep those thoughts to yourself, or maybe not think them in the first place.”

“You want me to not think about how things could go wrong?” I asked. “But isn’t that what we’re all supposed to be doing? And, again, I don’t think that retroactively changing history should really be on the table, because if it is, there’s nothing we can really do but go through the motions.”

“It wouldn’t need to be a retroactive change to history,” said Raven. “There was once a cabal of mages capable of predicting the future with incredible accuracy, the pathists.”

“Oh,” I said, stopping for a moment. “Yeah, I remember them.”

“You remember creating them?” asked Raven. Something had changed in her demeanor. “Was Uther aware?”

“Uh, yeah,” I said. “It was the Patchwork Republic campaign, the one loosely based on Soviet balkanization.”

“You realize that description isn’t helpful for anyone, right?” asked Pallida from her end of the table. She’d seemingly checked out of the conversation an hour ago, in preference for reading Earth books (she was making her way through the collected works of Roald Dahl at the moment).

“Is this a thing that I need to worry about?” I asked. “There are pathists on Aerb?”

“Not anymore,” said Raven. “Uther killed them to the last.”

I rolled my eyes at that. “Mary, if you’re going to tell me off for thinking up new weapons that might possibly be used against us, can you please also tell Raven off for loudly and firmly declaring that all the pathists to have ever lived on Aerb were slain to the last? That’s narrative bait if I’ve ever heard it.”

“Raven,” said Amaryllis, looking exasperated. “Please never declare that Uther and his Knights successfully dealt with a problem that will surely never rear its head again. Also, explain what a pathist is, in case we have to fight one.”

“Juniper?” asked Raven, raising an eyebrow.

“They could chart a path through the future,” I said. “But there was a hierarchy: they couldn’t make a path through the future where it would be altered by pathists above them.” I got some blank looks at that. “So, pathist C gets in a fight with a random schlub, then charts his destination as being, basically, winning the fight. He follows the path, not really knowing what he’s doing and why, and at the end of it, he’s somehow won. Paths were simple declaratives, a single phrase without caveats or qualifiers.”

“In what language?” asked Amaryllis.

“I have never in my life fallen for the old ‘make up new words’ or ‘speak in a different language’ trick,” I said, waving away the implied attempt at munchkinry. “Anyway, if pathist C fights pathist B, then pathist C can’t chart a path whatsoever, because pathist B is superior to him, and when their paths would end up in this iterative alteration pattern, instead path B just wins out. And way at the top is pathist A, and nothing stops him, ever, unless he makes a mistake in what kind of path he decides to be on.”

“That was how Uther defeated them,” said Raven.

“Well, it’s also how they defeated them in Patchwork Republic,” I said. “Though they also had the option to just use overwhelming firepower, because some paths just weren’t possible.” I looked at Amaryllis. “I doubt that this is going to come up though.”

“I didn’t bring it up because I thought it would,” said Raven. “I just … he knew, before it all happened? He knew that they existed, how they worked, and how to defeat them?”

“Maybe,” I shrugged. “I mean, yes, Arthur was there for those sessions, but that was when he was maybe fifteen, so it would have been a long time, probably, with a lot of shit having gone on in the meantime.”

“He never said a word,” said Raven. She slumped in her chair and looked at the notes in front of her. Here, already, she had some measure of authority and input, and Amaryllis had eagerly welcomed both the help and the knowledge. With Uther, Raven had never even been allowed at the table, not really. No one had. He was a king who commanded his knights, a solitary leader. Raven had been someone he brought along for the ride.

“The reason you brought it up was that history didn’t need to be rewritten?” asked Amaryllis, gently prompting her.

“Oh,” said Raven. “Well, yes, the higher pathists often did things in response to events that hadn’t happened yet, to plans that hadn’t been made, to things that people would say only weeks later.” She shook her head. “If you have good enough precognition, which the pathists effectively had, you don’t need to rewrite history. You can alter the past when it’s still the present.”

“And these pathists are all dead?” asked Amaryllis. “Their magic is excluded?”

“Not excluded,” said Raven. “Not to my knowledge. But the magic was tightly constrained, available only through access to a device that has long since been destroyed by the pathists themselves.”

“An entad?” I asked. “Or the kind of device that could be rebuilt?”

“There was an elder race, some twenty thousand years ago,” said Raven. “They were frighteningly clever, until they ceased to exist. There were things they left behind, rare items that no one was ever able to duplicate.”

Forerunner trope. It had never been one of my favorites. I refrained from saying that though, for fear that it would trivialize what she was talking about. I had a problem with that, I knew, and I was trying to get better about it.

(But really, the whole ‘ancient forerunner species that disappeared after making a bunch of neat stuff’ was, in my opinion, some lazy worldbuilding. It was great from an adventure perspective, because it gave the opportunity to put down a lot of places where a party of adventurers could go spelunking with a lot of convenient treasures to snag, but it raised a whole lot of questions, most of which were never going to be answered. There were obvious reasons that worldbuilders leaned on it, and I wasn’t at all surprised to see it in Aerb, but I hoped that the Dungeon Master had done something clever with it. The alternate Joon’s desert world had wells and other technologies constructed by ancients, but it was implied, at least in the notes I had, that the mortal species of that world could have attained the majestic works of the ancients, if only they could have gotten their shit together for a year or so. Nothing the ancients had done there was so supernaturally beyond anyone alive that it was essentially a miracle.

Not that I had never used the stock ancients, because sometimes I was a lazy worldbuilder who wanted some cheap mystery and wonder in his game, or artifacts without the consequence of someone living being able to produce those artifacts. I would at least call it out as lazy though.)

“Juniper?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“You zoned out,” she replied.

“Just thinking about worldbuilding,” I said. “Probably not germane to the conversation.”

“Out with it,” she said.

“I was just thinking about the ancients,” I said. “How I don’t really like them, how they usually don’t make sense, and if they do make sense, they need to fit in with whatever the themes you’re working on are. Like, Patchwork Republic was about balkanization in the wake of imperial collapse, and there were a lot of the ancient-artifacts-no-one-can-build floating around, but they were recent artifacts, things that had been built within living memory, or if not built, then at least maintained within living memory. The game was implicitly about how sometimes things collapse, so the ancient lost secrets things was more poignant.” I looked over at Raven. “Do you know what killed the ancients?”

“Which ones?” she asked.

“Of course there are multiple,” I said with a sigh.

“Five,” replied Raven. “That I know of.”

“The ones that pathists are descended from, then,” I replied. Five was actually lower than I had expected, given how nuts Aerb got about packing stuff into it.

“For those ones, it was a proto-exclusion,” said Raven. “Not quite an exclusion as we know them today, but with many of the same features. In that particular case, it caused the sudden malfunction of a mental augmentation their kind used, killing them all instantly, and so far as we’ve been able to determine, none of what they made can be recreated or repaired once broken.”

“Wait,” said Pallida, “Are you talking about the Gomerons? Is that what happened to them?”

“How do you not know this?” asked Raven. “You lived through it.”

“Like I had any idea?” asked Pallida. “I was in Gomera at the time, and all I saw was everyone around me drop dead, all at once, for no discernable reason. It was a little horrifying, now that I think about it.” She kept her face expressionless, but I thought that had to be a joke.

“They weren’t prepared for the magic to fail,” said Grak with a grunt.

“No, they weren’t,” said Raven. “It was an unknown threat at the time.”

(The Empire of Common Cause was barely prepared for a major exclusion, in spite of a lot of legislation that had been passed on the subject. I had asked Amaryllis about disaster preparedness as it pertained to the exclusionary principle, and she had spent a half hour in what I can only describe as full-on rant mode, covering a wide range of topics: regulatory capture, coordination failures, motivated optimism, toothless legislation, and pandering politicians. It was a somewhat harrowing experience for me, and she didn’t peter out until I tried to get through the thicket of acronyms that she’d used and tease apart some of the underlying assumptions. The long and short of it was that there were a few different magics which, if fully excluded, would end up with a lot of people dying avoidable deaths, and a lot of other people dying unavoidable deaths. As it turned out, getting people to plan for disasters that had never happened, and might not happen in the next lifetime, was actually pretty difficult.)

“And the other ancients?” asked Amaryllis. “I suppose you must have had access to their books.”

“Pithescenes were turned into obdurite by a still-unknown entity or phenomenon,” said Raven. “Anlasians were hit with a memetic disease that wiped them out within a fortnight, Reshnik vanished without a trace for unknown reasons, and the Frumions, as near as we can tell, simply suffered from supply chain failures and became a feral version of themselves.” Raven shrugged. “The names are probably unfamiliar to you.”

“Uh,” I said. “I know three of them. Reshnik made White Spires, and probably drowned, if they were like in my campaign, Anlasians made the hand whose fingertips are the Zorish Isles, and the Frumions were responsible for the Underhalls. Incidentally, are you sure it was supply chain failures and not the Jubjub bird?”

“Wait,” said Raven. “The Jubjub bird is real?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “But it was something that I thought up, and canonically, that was what took down the Frumions. Maybe on Aerb it was just a kink in some complex supply chains.”

“I think I was on the other side of the hex when the Frumions went away,” said Pallida. “What’s a Jubjub bird?”

I thought about that for a moment. “Uh, big bird creature, four wings, six feet with talons, sinuous neck like a snake, but I think if you saw one you would probably focus in on the fact that it was fifty stories tall.” I shrugged. “It’s virtually indestructible, pecks people to death, calls people to it from the corners of their attention, invades dreams and appears in the twilight of consciousness … I’m not sure that I can remember much else. It was never something the party faced, it was just a background detail.”

“I’m pretty sure I would have remembered hearing about a five hundred foot bird,” said Pallida with a raised eyebrow. “Not doubting your, uh, expertise, but it really does seem like something that would stand out.”

“It wasn’t in your notes,” said Amaryllis, frowning at me. “Manxome Foe?”

“Yes,” I replied. “And sorry, like I said, it was a background detail, one of those horrible things that was roaming around and making life impossible in the long-term, not something that players were supposed to actually fight or really interact with.”

“So why was it there?” asked Pallida.

“Flavor and scene setting,” answered Amaryllis. “It would be the sort of thing that Juniper would include in order to sell the players on what the world is like, introduced by way of character backstory or plain exposition in order to make them feel a certain way.” She turned to Raven. “How did you know about it?” she asked.

“I read about it in a book,” said Raven. She frowned in concentration, then popped the book out of her entad and leafed through it for a moment. “Terrors of the Black Age, written four years after Uther disappeared, nearly at the same time Fel Seed happened. The author names and describes Fel Seed, along with some others. It stuck out to us as being prophetic, given that there are things described in this book that wouldn’t appear until later, but the exact nature of this foreknowledge has eluded us.”

“Author?” asked Amaryllis.

“Anonymous,” replied Raven. “Here, ‘The Jubjub bird is a great and powerful creature of sixteen wings, six feet, and an elongated neck that sways and undulates as it seeks its prey. The bird is so massive that it dwarfs the largest buildings, standing high above the minarets. When the Jubjub bird wakes, the world will tremble.’”

“Wakes?” asked Amaryllis. “That’s fairly ominous.”

“Again,” said Pallida. “I’m pretty sure that a five hundred foot tall bird would stick out like a sore thumb.”

“I’m not saying that it ever existed,” I said. “I don’t think Raven is either. It’s just something that was in my games, which means there’s a chance that it’s here, especially given that it appeared in a book.”

“In a book that offers a glimpse of the future,” said Raven. The book disappeared from her hand. “If you’re confirming it, then it almost definitely exists.”

Amaryllis held out her hand in concentration for a moment, after which a sheet of paper appeared in it (likely some private communication with Bethel). She handed it over to Raven. “Here, this is the poem ‘Jabberwocky’, by Lewis Carroll.”

“A poem?” asked Pallida.

Raven read it wordlessly, her eyes rapidly scanning it. It wasn’t a terribly long poem. As soon as she was done, she read it again, going a bit slower. Her face had grown still and pale. She reached for a pen, then turned to Amaryllis. “Can I mark this?”

“Go ahead,” replied Amaryllis. “I have copies.”

Raven started writing, marking particular lines and circling things, though I couldn’t see what from where I was sitting. “All from one poem?” she asked, not looking up. “Juniper, what happened?”

“I wasn’t in a great place,” I said.

She finally stopped writing and stared at me. “By my count there are a dozen of the worst things on Aerb here. The mimsies, those were from this? The borogroves?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Fel Seed was, ah, from there too. He’s the manxome foe. Incidentally, it’s ‘borogoves’, not ‘borogroves’.”

“I saw that,” said Raven, looking down at the poem. “But they’re a group of trees.”

“It’s a pun,” I said. “Not a hugely clever one, I guess. It’s ‘groves’, here?”

Raven nodded. “There’s an island where the trees grow,” she replied. She looked back down at the poem, then up at me. “What’s Mome Rath?”

“No idea,” I said. “It was on the list that Uther had your father read to me. It sounded familiar, but I don’t know if I was just thinking of the poem, or if it’s extrapolation from the other stuff, or whether I thought up something and then forgot it. So far as I know, it never made it into a game, so maybe it just never stuck. But it might be a novel creation of the Dungeon Master.” I shrugged. “I’m kind of curious how Arthur knew about it.”

“I am too,” said Raven. “I have people and concepts to map to everything on that list.” She frowned. “That backpack Bethel fused with, have you tried pulling game notes from it?”

“Yeah, I tried,” I said. “I got a note back that said ‘this test is not open book’. I can pull other stuff, like my birth certificate, my parents’ tax information, and other personal items, but not any notes, character sheets, or game materials, aside from the books. Nothing personally touched by the campaigns, if I had to generalize a rule.” I was able to get my favorite hat, so that was something.

“So we’re left with what you remember?” asked Raven, sinking slightly in her chair.

“Yes,” I replied. “You have to understand that Aerb draws on everything, nearly a decade of work, a lot of it throwaway stuff, some hasty or poorly thought out, especially the earlier things,” like the Ell, “and I remember more than I think I probably should, which I’ll attribute to KNO, but I don’t remember every little detail, not without something to jog my memory or use as a springboard. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” said Raven. “It’s just another mystery. I think, at this point, more is being resolved than created.”

“Not for me,” Amaryllis grumbled.

“We can take some time together,” said Raven. “Would the time chamber be available, do you think?”

“I had some things that I’d like to discuss in private with Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “I was planning to spend tonight in the bottle. The chamber is difficult, because it interferes with regular scheduling unless you want to spend the entire day in there. Can we block out a time?”

“Certainly,” Raven replied, but I thought I saw a moment of hesitation when Amaryllis said she was planning to spend the night with me.

(Would I have caught that before bumping my social stats up? It was hard to say. Insight had always been the highest of them, and in theory that was the governing stat for realizing that Maddie — actually Raven, but Maddie in my head, a mistake I kept making — found the idea of Amaryllis spending private time with me to be slightly troubling for reasons that probably didn’t have anything to do with the idea that we shared secrets. Amaryllis had tried to brush past it with the question about scheduling, and I wasn’t sure whether or not the old me would have noticed that she was intentionally pivoting. It was hard to tell, and there was always a chance that my so-called insights were all in my head.)

“I was actually going to go to bed soon,” I said. “Today has been a really long day. I had wanted to talk to Heshnel about the trolls some, but I guess I don’t want to get into that right now.” I wasn’t quite rubbing my eyes and yawning, but I was close, and it took some time to get down into the bottle, say hello to the locus, and get myself situated. I wasn’t terribly happy that I was going to spend the week having two commutes, one from campus to Bethel, the other from Bethel to inside the bottle, but there wasn’t much to be done about it.

“Amaryllis can take you down in the immobility plate,” said Solace. She was still in the middle of knitting. “Grakhuil and I will be staying here for a while, and I wanted to pick Pallida’s mind for a moment.”

“My mind?” asked Pallida. “What for?”

“You’re as old as creation,” said Solace with a grin. “I was hoping that you had some stories about the loci as they once existed.”

“Do I ever,” said Pallida with a ready smile. “Bunch of perverts, no offense.”

“Oh, I do take offense though,” said Solace, setting her knitting aside. “‘Perversion’ is an application of outsider mores.”

“Come,” said Amaryllis under her breath as she stood from the table. I followed after her, waving good night to everyone. Heshnel and Valencia were at their own table away from everyone else, and had been talking about the Harry Potter books, which was … something, I guess, a conversation that I didn’t really want to have, because I had enough Harry Potter in my life, but which I kind of wanted to listen in on. The last bit of conversation I caught was Pallida seeming to get ready to defend her claim of perversion. The last sight I caught was Raven watching us go.

“I need to grab the immobility plate,” said Amaryllis.

“Bethel could probably handle that,” I replied.

“I’ve been sitting too long,” said Amaryllis. “It won’t take long to get to my room, and it will do good to stretch my legs.” She stretched her arms behind her, seemingly for effect. “Besides, I wanted to talk.”

“Okay,” I said, waving for her to lead the way. “Lead the way.”

(Bethel was listening. Bethel was always listening. I tried not to mind, but in the back of my head I was wishing that we had some real, honest privacy. Maybe part of me was wishing that we could be alone together.)

It took Amaryllis some time to speak her mind, either because she was gathering her thoughts, or because she needed to switch gears from the intensive narrative stuff that she’d been working on with Raven to some new topic.

“Two things,” she said. “First, I want you to expose me to the meme you have, then excise it like you did on yourself. There are a lot of subplots here, and I’m worried that you might level up, even though it hasn’t been very long. If your spirit modifications fail, you’ll need someone to patch you up, and when I compare the risks against each other, I think it’s better to risk the meme reduction procedure now than to risk meme exposure in the heat of the moment for something that could literally end the world.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’m not happy about it, but you’re probably right about the balance of risks.”

“The second thing … I wanted to talk about Lisi.” She took a breath. “We actually went to the Quills and Blood together.”

“I figured,” I said. “Or rather, the timeline had me wondering. Did you know each other?”

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “In the parlance of the Lost King’s Court, we would be cousins, but our actual relationship is that I’m her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-aunt twice removed.”

“That’s great,” I said.

Amaryllis smiled at me. “Yes, hence why everyone is a cousin, uncle, or aunt. You are expected to know proper relationships though.” Her smile faded a bit. “Outside Anglecynn, it’s fairly common for Penndraigs to have regular social meet-ups, little weekly dinners together, just to keep on familiar terms, even if you’re in opposition to one another.”

“Sounds like a good way to get poisoned,” I replied. I was only half joking.

“I don’t think you understand how many entads I had,” said Amaryllis. “Poison wasn’t really a concern.” She took a breath. “Anyway, I saw Lisi at those dinners. We were close enough in age, reasonably ambitious, reasonably talented, and we’d both come to the attention of our aunt Rosemallow.”

“The same Rosemallow who gave you instructions on gritting your teeth through your wedding night?” I asked. I tried not to feel visceral disgust at that, and failed.

“The very same,” replied Amaryllis. “We were on opposite sides of the power scale though, Lisi one of the gavelkinds, myself … well, you know.”

“Rich as fuck,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis with a nod.

It had taken me a pretty long time to understand the scope and breadth of power and money in the Lost King’s Court, partly because it was all about as foreign as it could have been to me without being inhuman, and partly because I hadn’t really taken the time to look into it (or to listen to what Amaryllis was actually saying). To start with, entads were money, both because some of them could consistently produce things of value, and because the ones that allowed for investiture could be rented out at hefty price. Back when Amaryllis had been a proper princess, she’d had people on staff whose entire job was to find buyers for entad-produced goods and services, and to secure contracts for the wealth of entads that could be invested in other people. Even if all of her investments were wiped out (which they were) and her properties seized (also mostly true), Amaryllis would never have to work a day in her life, because the entads would make her money hand over fist.

Gavelkind was a succession law where possessions were divided among children. The entad inheritance implementation of that was that when a person died, all their gavelkind entads would go into a conceptual ‘pool’, which was then divided up among the children. From the perspective of one of those children, it was a total crapshoot whether it rounded up or down and which ones you would end up getting. The enormous Penndraig family had a whole wing of ‘gavelkinds’, who barely inherited anything in the way of entads. These weren’t poor people by any measure, but they definitely hadn’t been favored by the rules that were at play.

“One of the things that I’ve always had to deal with, up until meeting you, was the motivations of the people approaching me with offers for friendship,” said Amaryllis. “Lisi … she was unimportant, and she knew that she was unimportant, so she went seeking out someone who could help her with that problem.”

“Ah,” I said. “Motivated friendship.”

Amaryllis nodded. “Not the first time,” she said. “And it probably won’t be the last.” She came to a stop, and I realized that we’d come to her room. “I’ll change into the armor, give me a second.” She went inside and closed the door behind her.

Bethel took that as her cue to appear next to me.

“I could give you a peek,” she said with a lascivious grin.

“No thanks,” I said. “How are you?”

“Good enough,” she replied with a shrug.

“What have you been up to?” I asked. “Watching the mortals?”

Bethel nodded once. “As always. Are you sure that you don’t want a peek?”

“Yes,” I replied. “The thought of spying on her … I find it kind of sickening.”

“Such a moral little human,” said Bethel with a cluck of her tongue.

“No,” I replied. “I mean, yes, I try to be, but the way it makes me uncomfortable isn’t really related to morality, it’s cultural programming. I didn’t decide to be sickened because I’m super moral, I just am sickened. It’s like the opposite of a fetish. Though I do also think that it’s immoral.” I paused. “How are you?”

“Fine,” replied Bethel. “You already asked. You want to talk about me, rather than her?”

“Either is okay,” I said. “But she’s going to be spending the night in the tree with me, so we’ll have more time to talk. You … I was gone most of today, and I’ll be gone most of the rest of the week too, so I wanted to make sure that your needs were being met, to the extent that I could actually meet them.”

“It’s not your forte,” said Bethel. She arched an eyebrow as she watched me.

“No,” I said. “But especially for you, I know you have your issues with Amaryllis, and she’s usually the one that helps to smooth things out with the others, so it’s down to me. And I think I understand you better than she does, though I can’t claim to understand you that well. I think I also probably like you better as a friend than she does.”

“Hrm,” said Bethel. She sighed and looked away from me. “I was watching the two of them, Amaryllis and Raven. Peas in a pod, it seems.”

“Maybe,” I replied. “I can see the similarities.” I hesitated. “It might just be my memories of Earth clouding things. I’ve been trying really hard not to see Raven as Maddie, and I think that I’m mostly there, but sometimes it’s like a little echo of Maddie, a place where you can see that they have the same DNA.”

“DNA?” asked Bethel.

“Uh,” I said. “Deoxyribonucleic acid, part of our cells, it’s what allows for heritability in humans. Or it does on Earth. For all I know, the mechanism is completely different on Aerb. Blood types don’t work the same, that’s for sure. Anyway, yes, there are places where Raven evokes Maddie, just, a grown up version of her, one with such a lifetime of experience that I could never hope to match it. Our roles are kind of reversed. But if you’re talking about her like she’s the same as Amaryllis, then I could probably go on for quite a bit about what makes them seem so different to me.”

“Amaryllis is almost done,” said Bethel.

“Sorry,” I said. “I got off topic. I really do want to talk to you about your own stuff.”

“Perhaps another time,” said Bethel. “I believe I’ve gotten something from this conversation, more than I was seeking, in fact. I may go speak with Raven.”

“Don’t cut her fingers off,” I warned.

“I would never be so dull as to repeat myself like that,” said Bethel. “But it appears that she and Pallida are having a spat at the moment, and I’d like to devote my attention to that.” She disappeared with a pop.

Shortly afterward, Amaryllis emerged from her room, clad in the immobility plate. “Ready?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “You were talking about Lisi, and how it was a case of motivated friendship?”

“You remembered,” said Amaryllis. She cocked her head to the side. “Do you care? I won’t be offended if you say you don’t.”

And just like that, I was struck by the fact that maybe Amaryllis wasn’t giving me a debrief for the purposes of fulfilling my quests, maybe she just wanted to talk about something that was on her mind.

“You don’t talk about your past that much,” I said.

“It’s a confusing morass of names,” said Amaryllis. “And you know everything that’s actually important. If I talked about people like Lisi, it would just be a barrage of them, servants, staff, cousins, instructors, so many that even I have trouble keeping track of them so long after the fact.”

“Well, go on,” I said, gesturing for her to lead the way. “Tell me about Lisi.”

“Motivated friendship,” said Amaryllis as she started walking. “It wasn’t the first time, but it was definitely the least subtle. I don’t know what she thought I would get from her company, but she was abrasive in a way that I never found entirely appealing. We Penndraigs are destined for politics and governance from birth, but not all of us are suited to it, and Lisi … there’s a reason that she’s studying to be a combat mage instead of doing something a bit more prestigious. In another ten years, she’ll be a multimagus, but she’ll still be sitting outside of the traditional spheres of power within Anglecynn.”

“She’s the Second Under-Princess of Defense,” I said. “Does that really not count for anything?”

“She’s at the athenaeum, a world away from the seat of power,” said Amaryllis. “That should tell you everything that you need to know about how much influence and utility she actually wields. It’s typical to give younger members marginal roles to give them experience with governance, but she’s not even doing that.”

“Except that you got to be Special Liaison on Existential Emergencies,” I said. “Which seems, from what you said, like it actually did have some power attached to it.”

“I don’t want to be immodest, but I’m special,” said Amaryllis. “And even then, if I were a different person, I could have coasted through the position, putting in very little work, or offloading that work onto my staff. As it happened, I was putting an enormous amount of effort into the position, meeting with leaders and functionaries from other nations, working hard to get clearance on relevant issues, talking to imperial delegates — this is boring you.”

“No,” I said. I didn’t think that I looked bored, and I certainly didn’t feel it.

“There was a joke you used to make with Fenn,” said Amaryllis. Her voice caught slightly on the name. “‘Blah, blah, blah, politics’.”

“That was Reimer’s joke,” I said. “Not really a joke, just a way of dismissing things he didn’t care about. Fenn liked it.” I shrugged. “I have, in the past, maybe been a little bit dismissive of things that seem very remotely connected and not otherwise that interesting. Politics … I like politics, in the sense of knowing the groups and how they’re in opposition to each other, but if you’re talking about the process of deal-making and whipping votes, then it’s not really my cup of tea.”

“That’s fair,” said Amaryllis. “It can be frustrating, sometimes.”

“I want to clarify that this time I wasn’t feeling particularly bored,” I said. “If I had that far-off look, then it was because I was trying to think about you doing all that stuff at fifteen or sixteen years old. When I was fifteen …”

“What?” asked Amaryllis.

“Nothing,” I said. “Something off-color. Not in good taste. Not appropriate around a princess.”

Amaryllis rolled her eyes, but she smiled all the same. “You spent your time working on flesh.txt?” she asked.

I blushed. You write one erotic worldbuilding file, and this is what happens. “Might have,” I said. “Gods, it’s so weird that all my secrets are out in the open. Not just out in the open, but there are entire living, breathing civilizations built out of my literal masturbatory fantasies.”

“Yes, well, I suppose that’s one advantage of not being interested in that sort of thing,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t have those secrets to spread.” She pursed her lips. “Sorry.”

“I feel like if I had another few points in my social abilities, I would have some idea what you were sorry for,” I said.

“Sorry for bringing it up,” she said. “I know you’re sensitive about it.”

“Meh,” I said. “Pretty much all my dirty laundry is out in public now anyway, I live in a house that gives me a level of privacy below what was even possible on Earth, and of course, there’s the Dungeon Master, so … whatever.”

“You haven’t told us about the Fel Seed Incident,” said Amaryllis. “The mechanics, yes, the personal stuff, no.”

“No, I haven’t,” I said.

“I wasn’t saying that you should do it now, just pointing out that you’re still leaving us in the dark,” she replied. “It might feel good to talk about it.”

“It might,” I said. “Or it might feel better to talk about happy things, or irrelevant things, instead of the nightmare monster that we’re going to be meeting at the end of the road.”

“Agreed,” said Amaryllis with a sigh.

We arrived at the room where Bethel kept the bottle. Whatever space warping was making it happen, there was a full night sky above us, though Li’o had all the light pollution that one would expect of a city with electricity, and the only celestial body I could see was Celestar, whose lined face was shining down on us. The bottle room, as I thought of it, was probably my favorite room in Bethel, mostly because it always had a wide open feeling to it, lots of greenery, and the statuesque hand that held the bottle seemed entirely mythical to me.

I held my breath and went into the glove, to save Amaryllis the awkwardness and embarrassment of having me ride her down. It had been a while since I had taken a trip in the glove, and it didn’t provoke even a little bit of nostalgia, though my mind did wander to Fenn, and how she had disliked those trips.

When Amaryllis pushed me back out of the glove, the doe was waiting for us.

“Hi,” I said. “Doing well?”

The doe gave me a nod.

“You’ve been doing better with it?” asked Amaryllis.

“I’m coming close to a week of spending my nights here,” I said. “I’m … starting to get used to it, I guess. Maybe I’m starting to understand it.”

“You should be careful about that,” said Amaryllis. She was already starting to take off pieces of the immobility plate and store them in the glove, but the bigger parts would need more dedicated maneuvering.

“I don’t think understanding is anathema to the locus,” I said. “Or at least, not understanding in the way that I’m talking about it. It’s just a different kind of understanding.”

“Feeling, not thinking?” asked Amaryllis. There was some curiosity in her voice.

“Maybe,” I said. “But … no, not really. I don’t think that breaking it down into an emotion and thought dichotomy actually works. It’s easier to describe what I’m feeling in terms of emotion, but it’s not actually emotion itself, not, uh, qualia. It’s not a distinction between what’s qualitative and quantitative.” I was pretty sure that I wasn’t articulating my position very well.

“Perhaps it’s better that we don’t have this conversation,” said Amaryllis. “If what you’ve been doing is working for you, then I don’t need to know exactly how.”

I walked over to the doe and patted its flank. I had lately been trying to curb away from calling it ‘her’, not because the gender was inaccurate, but because it seemed far too much like fitting the doe into a box. If my intent had been to increase empathy for the doe, I thought that the change in gender had mostly worked, but it was a bit of a crutch. The doe was its own thing.

“Eventually we have to boil it down to something, ” said Reimer.

“You’re wrong,” said Tiff. “Sorry, but you are.”

“Guys, why are we even talking about this if Arthur isn’t here?” asked Craig. “Seems like something that you’d want to save for him.”

“Are you kidding?” asked Reimer. “Neither of us would be able to get a word in edgewise.”

“All I said was that so far as magic goes, the sword will glow in the hand of a woman,” I said. “A statement which you’re making me deeply regret.”

“Because there are edge cases,” said Reimer. “Like, big, obvious edge cases that we should all be familiar with.”

Tom gave a somewhat guilty look.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” replied Tiff. “You’re ignoring the actual meat of the argument.”

“You’re saying, basically, that it doesn’t boil down to the edge cases?” asked Reimer.

“I’m saying … you’re taking things like Klinefelter’s or androgen insensitivity and just making them into new categories,” said Tiff. “Or you’re making these different frameworks for them and pretending, I don’t know, that there’s a master framework, or that we’re stuck using frameworks at all.

“Again,” said Craig, “Really seems like an Arthur kind of thing. Because we’re going to have to go through all this again when he comes back and hears about it.”

“Solemn pact not to tell him?” I asked, only partially joking.

“Question,” said Tom. “What is Klinefelter and what is the annerogen one?”

“Women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y, someone with Klinefelter syndrome is XXY,” I said. “Androgen insensitivity is, I think, the one where you have XY chromosomes but something goes wrong with how your body handles hormones and you wind up outwardly presenting as a woman.”

“‘Goes wrong’ is a value judgement,” said Tiff with a frown. She was in a bit of a mood, which happened occasionally when she was having to defend her position. Usually it was better when Arthur was gone, but in this particular case, Reimer was pressing her buttons, or she had just had enough of us (not that I, specifically, was to blame).

“I’m wrong in the sense that it anthropomorphizes evolutionary processes and assumes that chemical, hormonal, and biological processes have intent,” I said, after a moment in which no one leapt to my defense.

“No,” said Tiff. “‘Wrong’ implies ‘right’, and that’s all just a construct. A useful one, sure, but you and Reimer are both talking about these things like they’re, I don’t know. More options that you would add to a drop-down, I guess.”

“My actual point,” said Reimer. “Was that the sword must have some way to know whether or not someone is a woman, right?” He looked at me. “Right?”

“Well,” I said. “Right.”

“Wrong,” said Tiff, frowning at me. “I mean, right, in the sense that yes, there’s some rubric that the sword might be able to apply to the question, but wrong, because the sword doesn’t ‘know’ and there’s no privileged frame there.”

I sighed. “We’re really not having an argument.”

“Could have fooled me,” said Craig.

“Wait, let me jot this down,” said Tom. “‘Not an argument’, there, got it.” He grinned at me. “Always good to keep track.”

“All I’m saying is that when the sword is presented with someone who’s intersex or transgender, it just makes a determination whether or not they’re a woman,” I said. “Eventually the rubber has to hit the road at some point, and the magic has to either work or not work. Right?”

Tiff crossed her arms and frowned. I wasn’t as good at the debating thing as Arthur was, but I thought that I had laid out the best argument that I could. I couldn’t even really remember how the argument began, except that I had offered up a sword that had special bonuses if you were a woman. I was pretty sure that Tiff had made an innocuous reply to some innocuous comment from Reimer, and it had snowballed from there, but it was the kind of thing that was hard to pinpoint after the fact.

“I understand wanting to put everything into little boxes,” said Tiff. “Or even wanting to firmly declare some things outside boxes and some things inside boxes. Most of the time, including this time, it’s fine. Can I just somehow get you to understand that it’s not real? It’s convention, it’s a sloppy fit because it’s always going to be a sloppy fit, it’s just … it’s frustrating that I can’t get you to understand what I’m saying. Arthur would probably disagree, just for the sake of it, but he would at least understand.”

“Just to be clear, Joon,” said Craig, “You already made your ruling about who qualifies for the sword?”

I let out a sigh. “Yeah,” I said. “Though in the future, I probably won’t make a magic item like that.”

Tiff apologized afterward, more for disrupting the game and getting upset than for anything she actually said. It was one of those apologies with a lot of caveats, I think because she didn’t want to back down from her position, or claim full culpability for the fact that the argument got heated, but she did think an apology was warranted.

After I’d finished with the doe, something that I was trying to get less regimented about, I went inside the tree house, where Amaryllis was waiting for me. She’d shed her immobility plate and put on pajamas, which for her meant flannel pajama pants and a tank top, both probably from Earth.

“Have fun?” asked Amaryllis.

“Kind of,” I replied.

“Any … progress?” she asked.

“I’d rather not say,” I replied. “It’s … well, the loyalty system has always worked to undermine pretty much every interaction I have with my companions. It’s this metric sitting there, debatably not doing anything except providing bonuses, and focusing on it, trying to make it go up — we were just talking about motivated friendship, weren’t we?”

“It’s different,” said Amaryllis. “Loyalty bonuses are symbiotic. Positive sum, mutually beneficial. The way it would have been with Lisi, I’d have to treat her like an investment, and she would always be getting more from the relationship than I would.”

“But you would be getting something,” I replied. “You would elevate her, and in exchange, you would get her loyalty, her service, and some say in how she lived her life, unless I’m horribly misreading how things were done among nobles.”

“Yes, and I would be paying out in various ways until she was actually worth something,” said Amaryllis.

“Harsh,” I said.

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “But that’s what was required of me, in the Lost King’s Court. If I had seen Lisi as a young girl like myself with ambitions, someone to shelter and protect, to elevate out of a sense of duty, I would have been eaten alive by my relatives.”

“Non-literally,” I said.

Amaryllis laughed. “Well, the elves were purged from the bloodlines long ago.”

“Uh,” I said, stopping for a moment. “Really?”

Amaryllis smiled and nodded. “It’s not funny, really, because it’s a reflection of a xenophobia that’s still present in Anglecynn, but still. It’s funny to think that the best that can be said about my relatives is that they don’t literally eat each other alive … anymore.” She laughed again.

“Well, at least you can laugh about it?” I asked.

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “Do you know what Lisi showing up means?”

“That we’re going to be neck-deep in Anglecynn death squads within the fortnight?” I asked.

“I wish,” said Amaryllis. “Bethel would … well, it’s probably in bad taste to wish that on relatives, or worse, people hired by relatives, but yes, it means that we’re likely due for the Anglecynn subplot to return to the fore.”

“Which means, if current theories are correct, that we should shortly be getting another dozen reasons to go there,” I said with a sigh. I caught a brief and small sour look on Amaryllis’ face before her expression went still and controlled. “Amaryllis, if the opportunity presents itself to make you Queen of all Anglecynn, I will put full and honest effort into it, it just really seems more like your thing than mine. Fenn and I,” my voice caught, even though I’d tried to steel myself, “We always talked about what it would be like for us to go to society balls with you, how much we would like stomping all over everything, and all the nobles would have to hold their noses, because we had superior firepower. That was the fantasy of what going to Anglecynn would be like, and I always knew that the real thing would be its own special kind of hell, designed just for me.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis. “It’s just frustrating to me, especially when you seem so willing to shirk your own plotlines. You have no particular desire to go to Anglecynn with me, save for the desire one friend has to help another, and yet you also have no desire to go to Anglecynn to complete quests that might get us closer to your self-professed goal of killing Fel Seed and reuniting with Arthur.”

“Reuniting isn’t how I would put it,” I said. “And finding him, or at least finding out what happened to him, is also a step toward godhood, at which point I can do whatever I want, including installing you as grand monarch of Aerb, if that’s what you want.” I shook my head. “We’re retreading arguments. I hate that. Happened all the time with the group.”

“Sorry,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at the beds. “We should do the meme inoculation now. That would be more productive.”

“I assume you talked to Raven about it?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Why would I? She doesn’t actually know much about spirit, and her expertise in memetics doesn’t seem like it would apply, because I’m more concerned with using soul surgery on a self-inflicted infection.”

“Maybe we should talk to her before we do something irreversible,” I said.

“Perhaps,” said Amaryllis. She went to sit down on the bed, the bunk that had once been hers back when we’d all lived here together. “Narratively –”

“Okay, okay, I’ll just do it,” I said. I sat down on the bed next to her. “How do you want to do this?”

“I’ll look at your soul first,” said Amaryllis. “Either it will infect me or it won’t. If it doesn’t, then there’s less need to worry, but if it does, you’ll have to make the same alterations to me that you did to yourself.”

“Alright,” I said, taking a breath. “I’ll watch over you, if you’re out.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 24!

(How did that change anything? How was that enough to push her over the edge? Didn’t she already know that I would protect her? Was it just that I had said it out loud?)

Amaryllis placed her hand on my shoulder, with her thumb touching the base of my throat. She closed her eyes, and began frowning in concentration. She should have been at Essentialism 15, which for me had made the process far from automatic, but still doable in short order with some effort. I wasn’t sure how long it would take her to make her survey, nor whether I would know if she were infected, so I was left to wait, and with nothing to do but look at her.

We weren’t usually so close to each other. We were almost never touching. If she was paying attention to my heart rate as she tried to find the pathway to my soul, it was possible that she would feel my pulse speeding up, just from our proximity. Back near the beginning, when we weren’t so close, I’d had some fantasies about Amaryllis, fantasies that I’d done my best to squash, and fantasies that were returning, unbidden. She was too pretty, like every line of her had been made by an artist’s hand, and if I let my guard drop for even a moment, it was easy to be mesmerized.

I found myself wondering what I was waiting for. Why hadn’t I tried to make a better case for myself? Why wasn’t I trying harder to be the person that she wanted me to be, especially if it was the person that I wanted to be too? Uther was my point of comparison, and while I didn’t want to be him, the things that he’d accomplished before leaving were so far beyond what I had managed to do that they seemed more like myth than reality. Amaryllis … left to her own devices in a parallel timeline, she had conquered as much of the world as she possibly could have, with only a slight bit of cheating. I wanted to be with her, whether as a friend or not, and I knew that if we were going to keep things copacetic between us, I would have to be more like her, more driven, more ambitious. I knew that I should be anyway, even if she wasn’t around.

I should have gone home and faced whatever terrible thing the Dungeon Master had planned for me there.

Amaryllis’ hand fell from my shoulder and the light pressure on my neck was released. She opened her eyes, but they were half-lidded and unfocused.

“So I guess that didn’t work, huh?” I asked. There was no response. I felt a cold sweat break out as I looked at her. I could fix her, I was pretty sure, I could fix myself, we’d tested my ability to use Spirit on other people, the meme no longer looked like anything in particular to me, and it was all going to be fine … but I still felt a sense of dread.

(We should have tested this on D-class personnel first, that was what we should have done. From a utilitarian perspective, it made perfect sense. I wondered why Amaryllis hadn’t brought it up. Because she knew that I wouldn’t go for it, or because she thought it was abhorrent? There was something she’d written as Cypress, about indulging in petty morality, which really stuck with me.)

I took a moment to grab a pen from the dining table and draw a mustache on her. It made me feel better, though I immediately had second thoughts about whether or not she’d find it funny. Fenn would have found it hilarious, I was pretty sure.

Getting to her spirit from her soul was simple enough, and the meme thread was easy enough to find too. I shrunk it down and squeezed it tight, until it was nothing more than a thin line, then traced it back down into the soul, where it was lodged in her memories. There, it was easy to see, given that almost everything linked to it. I cut the links, as I had in my own soul, which (so far as I understood) would dissociate the image from all my memories, then took a moment to make a very cursory glance at the rest of her soul before leaving.

A better person than I was probably wouldn’t have been tempted to peek at her values or social models. It would have been easy to see whether those had changed recently, whether how much she valued me was higher or lower, and whether she was once again romantically attracted to me or not. But as tempting as it was, it was her decision whether or not to do it, and her decision what she was going to tell me. (Again, I’ll acknowledge that a better person would have had no temptation there.)

When I came out, she was staring at me. “Fixed then, I suppose,” she said. I had forgotten that I’d drawn a mustache on her, and was laughing a little. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I said, still giggling. She just looked so serious, and then had that ridiculous mustache on. It was a little crooked, which just made the whole thing funnier. Fenn would have loved it, and for a moment, that thought wasn’t accompanied by regret and loss.

“Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “Explain.” Her voice was very stern, which only made the crooked mustache I’d drawn on funnier.

“Just laughing at my own joke,” I said. “Really immature.” Trying not to laugh made everything funnier. It was dumb, super dumb, but still funny. “There’s a mirror in Sable,” I said, which I wasn’t sure was true, but between Fenn’s kleptomania, Amaryllis’ paranoid preparation, and the fact that we’d used it with the Earth backpack as general storage while in the time chamber, I was pretty sure that the glove contained almost everything a person could ever want.

Amaryllis held the glove out and a hand mirror popped into existence. She stared at her reflection for a moment, then looked back up at me with a raised eyebrow. “Really?” she asked. For a brief moment, she seemed disappointed in me, but then her eyes went down to the mirror again, and she cracked a smile. “You’re ridiculous,” she said. She gave me a skeptical look, then her eyes returned to the mirror again. “You didn’t even draw it right!”

“I didn’t want to spend a bunch of time on it,” I explained.

Amaryllis set the mirror down. “You know that this means retribution, don’t you? A Penndraig is not to be trifled with.”

“Wouldn’t be the first mistake I’ve made,” I said, smiling at her.

“She would have loved this, you know,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said, and then I started laughing again, because she still had a mustache on her face.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 146: Terrors of the Black Age

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