Worth the Candle, Ch 175: High Concept

The other lingering bit of business was a bit more dangerous, at least in theory. You see, the Outer Reaches were memetic or antimemetic in nature, maybe both, and so I couldn’t be told what they were or why they were a threat. That really seemed to be ironclad, at least so far as my conversations with Heshnel, Masters, and Raven had gone. All I got was an absolute stonewall, one so firm that I wondered whether it was part and parcel of the effect, or simply a really, truly concerted effort on their parts. Uther had protected them from their own personal possession of information, somehow, and Raven thought that was through the manipulation of spirit, but I didn’t actually know what he had done, or whether it was dangerous, nor was I really confident that I could replicate his work by simply looking at Raven’s spirit and doing whatever had been done there.

A further complication, of course, was that Raven’s soul and spirit were both torn and scarred, marked and marred by thirty years of conflicts, plus all that time in the Infinite Library. My own paired informational constructs (as I thought of them) had fairly significant damage, on top of the character sheet modifications, because I had been smacked down with a meme, and it lived on within me, inert but present. Raven couldn’t give me a full list of what things I might find if I went in, and warned me not to trust any accounting that anyone ever gave of such things, given that sometimes memetic or antimemetic impediments couldn’t be known.

Heshnel, even before his beheading, was also not a great target for figuring out what Uther had done to make the Outer Reaches safe to contemplate. He had been a member of the Guild of the Essential Soul, and of an appreciable rank within the Second Empire, and that came with a host of ‘tame’ memes that he’d been inoculated against, memes whose inoculations we didn’t have available to us, and which we wouldn’t have wanted to risk in either case. Some of those ‘inoculations’ were the equivalent of giving someone cowpox to stop them getting smallpox. Did it work? Sure. Did you get pustules on your hands? Yes, yes you did. But where pustules on my hands would have been easy enough to deal with, the equivalent of pustules on my soul were a bit more worrisome.

And yes, I had an immunity to the spiritual effects of memes thanks to Spirit 100, but it was pretty specific that it was only the spiritual effects, leaving the door open to soul effects, or worse, effects that weren’t noticeable or accessible from either half. Having a memetic mark on my soul was a boon in a lot of ways, since it was a booby-trap, but the protection that it afforded me was also afforded to others.

Pallida had never gotten protection from Uther, and Gemma obviously hadn’t either (she was born hundreds of years too late), which meant that if it wasn’t going to be Heshnel or Raven, it had to be Masters. And that, naturally, presented some problems.

“I killed the last soul mage who touched me,” said Masters, folding his arms.

“I’m technically going to be using a secret art that’s related to but distinct from soul magic,” I replied. “I understand your concern though.”

I looked over at Raven. It was just the three of us, together in a meeting room of a building that our steel mage had built so recently that it didn’t yet have a fresh coat of paint, new windows, or electricity. Contractors would be through in the next few days to get everything into place as quickly as possible, though Amaryllis had been grumbling about the costs, and had been asking me some pointed questions about whether I thought the tuung could handle getting into the trades. It had to happen eventually, since you couldn’t run a country where none of your citizens were trained in the basics of keeping the lights on and the water running, but I was of the opinion that diverting resources for it now was probably not wise, especially since we didn’t have the capacity for sanitizing or vetting the outsider training.

“Father,” said Raven. “You agreed. Juniper is very busy, and this is important.”

“That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t express my reservations,” replied Masters. “I don’t trust him much, not after Li’o was destroyed, not after two dragons landed on this island. Uther at least had a heroic streak.”

Raven pursed her lips. “Juniper has his own sense of heroism,” she replied.

“One that wouldn’t, for example, ever allow him to alter someone using soul magic?” asked Masters, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

“I would,” I cut in. “If it was to save the world, or even a sufficiently large number of lives. Don’t tell the Empire that, naturally, but I don’t draw the same lines in the sand that Uther apparently drew.”

“And you think that makes me more inclined toward trusting you?” asked Masters.

“No,” I replied. “But I’m going to be honest with you. The Aerbian taboos weren’t drilled down into me from birth, nor were they learned through long, arduous conflicts that everyone promised would never happen again. I’m not going to lie to you about any of that just to make you do the thing that I want you to do. While I want your cooperation, and while it would be a lot safer to try to untangle the information from you rather than Raven, you have every right to bow out. I’ll just end up doing it the hard way.”

Masters frowned at me, then glanced at his daughter. I could imagine what he was thinking, and in retrospect, what I had said sounded a little like a threat, rather than an assurance, though I hadn’t consciously meant it as that. If Masters refused, I was going to go into his daughter’s soul and spirit instead, and if you had his beliefs about ‘essential manipulation’ … well.

“Fine,” said Masters, holding out his hand to me.

“Probably better if we sit,” I replied. “I don’t know what I’m going to find in there, or how long this will take.” I turned to Raven. “Amaryllis is on standby in case things go really, deeply wrong.”

“I know,” said Raven.

“Don’t call for her or let her intervene, because it will be more dangerous for her than for me,” I said.

“I won’t,” replied Raven.

I sat down in a chair and waited until Masters did the same, then reached out to him. He was hesitant, though he’d offered his hand willingly before. He eventually allowed the extended touch.

Once I was in, which was harder with the skin no longer magically connected to the soul, it took me quite some time to find what I was looking for.

It was a hack job, pure and simple, a mass of threads within the spirit that looped back and forth, bypassing the soul entirely. Normally, there was some interplay between the two, but this was a construct of pure spirit. Where a normal spiritual thread would dip down into the values or memories that were part and parcel of the soul, the spiritual threads that I saw in this cluster connected threads to other threads. The way that things were normally set up, something like, say, a memory of a fight would have an entry in the values table, a memory in the memory web, and maybe some components in the skills section, or the base social models, or something like that, with threads connecting and pulling from those disparate sources, or pushing down updates to those values. None of that was present; it was just a rat’s nest of threads that went nowhere.

The big question was why you would do such a thing. Did the Outer Reaches interact with the soul in some way? Did you need to keep the meme isolated? Or would it simply slip off the soul? Looking closely, and flipping back and forth between the two layers, I could see that the spirit cluster didn’t connect with the memories, skills, or values in any way. I thought that it was pretty likely that it was antimemetic in nature, because otherwise the spirit would have naturally made some connections to the soul, but I wasn’t confident in that, and I didn’t really know why that would be the case, nor what was actually being hidden.

If the soul was the database, and the spirit was the program that was constantly running and accessing that database, two analogies that weren’t quite correct in various ways, then the thread cluster I was looking at was a piece of the program that had been constructed in a completely different way, bypassing all the normal conventions and procedures and recreating a fair bit of functionality in the process.

I’d had plans in place, as the world’s foremost (and save Amaryllis, only) expert on spirit. Investigating and pulling apart the threads to see how they worked was an option, but it was risky, because I didn’t know whether something might leak out from the cluster, whether I would correctly interpret what was going on, whether I even could correctly interpret what was going on (limited by either memetic effects, antimemetic effects, or my own lack of understanding), or whether Uther might have left boobytraps. I was especially wary of the latter possibility, because it seemed like the kind of thing I would do if I were trying to keep something horrible contained in the heads of my friends and allies. Of course, I didn’t know what the Outer Reaches were, and it didn’t seem like I could know, at least without danger, so I didn’t know whether it was the kind of thing that warranted a boobytrap.

I faffed around for a bit, then decided on the more aggressive (but likely safer) option, and copied over the entirety of the spirit cluster into my own spirit.

When I poked and prodded at my memories of the Outer Reaches, I found new ones there.

Uther stood at the head of the Square Table, arms crossed. Only half of his Knights were there: Everett, idly tattooing himself using a magical quill, Montran, looking bored out of his skull, Alcida, attentive and alert, and finally, Raven, whose eyes I was seeing this through. She had pencil and paper in hand, which she was using to write in a book whose design screamed of magic, but her attention was focused entirely on Uther.

The memory wasn’t that much like a memory. It was absent shades of emotion and thought, strict facts presented as such, though there was also some aspect of interpretation, places where information was missing and my mind was trying to fill it in. I knew what Montran looked like, from recreations that Bethel had shown me, but his scar kept slipping on and off his face, changing whenever I thought about it. It was, in some sense, like being inside Raven’s mental model of this isolated event, with my own models thrown in where things were incomplete. It was, needless to say, more detailed and accurate than any of my own memories.

“We have our next thread to pull,” said Uther. “Something different this time.”

“Not dragons again?” asked Everett, not looking up from his tattoo. It was hard to see which one he was doing, and it only occurred to me after I thought about it that it might be a tattoo done for the pleasure of art rather than for utility.

“Sea slugs were the worst,” said Alcida. “Please, nothing underwater.”

“Different,” repeated Uther. His voice had changed slightly, and I could see Montran sit up to pay better attention, though Everett spared only a glance, then continued on with this tattoo.

“Well then, go on,” said Alcida. “Different how?”

Uther spoke, and the words were somehow swallowed, missing in some way that was hard to comprehend. He was speaking, that was clear, but his mouth was like a smear of paint, similar in feeling to the warping way that the memory was behaving. This seemed like it was Raven’s memory, and there were others in the package of memories that I was trying not to get distracted by, but it seemed very much like she hadn’t caught whatever it was Uther had said, or like it had been scrubbed from her mind.

“Okay,” said Alcida, after Uther had spoken. “But I’m not really sure that answers the question. Different how?”

“Repeat back what I said,” replied Uther.

“That’s,” said Alcida, frowning. “I wouldn’t be able to do it verbatim.” She turned to look at me (at Raven). “You were keeping notes, weren’t you?”

“No,” said Raven, looking down at the paper in front of her. “I always keep notes.”

“I don’t need it verbatim,” said Uther. “I need the gist of it, the broad strokes of what I was saying.”

“I must have,” began Alcida, then she faltered. “Zoned out.” She stared at Uther. “Is that what happened?”

Again Uther spoke, and again it was blurred out. I was tempted to skip ahead, to see what the punchline was. It was only a memory, not a movie, a memory laid out chronologically, but one that I wasn’t bound to follow exactly in the steps that they happened. I carried on, trying not to get swept out of the flow of things by my own impatience. In some sense, I already knew everything, I was just looking back on pseudo-memories that I possessed, integrating my own understanding of them.

“Alright, that makes sense,” said Alcida.

“No,” said Raven. “There’s some kind of … effect.”

“Effect?” asked Alcida.

“Your mind wants to slip off it,” said Raven. “Even now I can feel myself rebelling against the thought, wanting to push it away, to let the topic lie and move onto something else. I think as soon as I started to stop explicitly thinking about it, it would all leave my mind forever.”

“The more you speculate, the greater the pressure will be,” said Uther. “The effect grows stronger with more knowledge, the ignorance more complete, at least from my testing. I’m ready to stabilize you. It’s taken some testing to find the method.”

“This isn’t the first time you’ve told us,” said Raven.

“Told us what?” asked Alcida. She looked to Uther. “Why did you call this meeting?”

“I’ll tell you once I’m finished with Raven,” said Uther, moving around the table. “I don’t know how much time this will take.” He took one of the empty seats next to Raven and slipped his hand into hers, then closed his eyes.

The next memory was longer, and I skipped forward, leaving much of it known but unexamined. It was the same room, with Raven and the other Knights having the same process that had been done to Raven.

“There,” Uther finally said, when he had finished with Everett. “I think that’s right.”

“Are you going to tell us what this is all about yet?” asked Alcida. “I hate when you have to go into our souls. It’s unsettling.”

Uther took his seat at the head of the table. “I didn’t want to have to explain everything multiple times,” said Uther. “But I’ve had to explain that more times than I can count, so I don’t know that I’ve saved myself much trouble.”

“I would appreciate a quick explanation,” said Raven. “This has me on edge.”

Uther tapped his fingers on the table. “Imagine a farmer, one of those men who works the fields with his family, as his father did before him. Every weekend, he makes a trip into town for supplies, or to sell his goods, or to pray to whatever small gods the people in his region pray to. One day, as he’s following the road that he’s been down nearly every week of his adult life, the same road his father walked down, and his grandfather, this farmer notices a castle. To the best of his recollection, that castle wasn’t there the week before, but it couldn’t have possibly been built the prior seven days. He forgets his trip into town and approaches the castle, but there’s nothing fey or ethereal about it, there’s no haunting or magic, and when he speaks with the guards, they’re quite insistent that the castle has been there the entire time. Indeed, when the farmer eventually does get to town, there are copious records of this castle having always been there, tucked away.”

“He was shunted to an alternate universe?” asked Raven, when there didn’t seem to be anything more to the story.

“A good hypothesis,” said Uther. “How would he test it?”

“He couldn’t,” replied Alcida. “Not if the alternate universe was entirely consistent with the one that he’d left.”

“Or even if it wasn’t consistent, he would only have his own memories to check against,” said Uther, nodding. “If he had been transplanted into an alternate universe that was exactly identical to the first, save for the addition of a castle that everyone thought was there for quite some time, there would have to be changes by necessity, because a castle would leave signs of itself in the world, wider roads, generations of staff living there, a quarry that the stones were pulled from, farms that fed the castle, all those things, but the farmer would only be able to know of those differences if he had some observations of the universe that he’d left.”

“Theatrics aside, what’s the point?” asked Everett. He had returned to his tattoo, which was apparently a picturesque scene with a lighthouse.

“Someone has been building castles,” said Uther. “Then they’ve been pretending those castles were there all along.”

“Castles in this sense being?” asked Raven.

“Places where the world surprises us in ways that it seems it shouldn’t,” replied Uther. “Misremembrances.”

“To what end?” asked Everett, barely looking up from the tattoo he was still working on. I had no idea whether this was usual for him or not.

“They’ve been creating enemies for us,” said Uther. “From what I can tell, enemies spun from whole cloth, inserted into the world at inopportune times and places.”

“You’re talking about a conspiracy,” said Raven.

“I’m speaking of an enemy,” replied Uther. “A cunning one, and a powerful one, and no, not entirely opposed to us, else we would be dead, but an enemy all the same.”

“I suppose you have some specifics?” asked Alcida. “And naturally, some kind of plan?”

“We find them, then go to them, and engage in diplomacy of one sort or another, by sword or by speech,” replied Uther. “I’ve spent the last week going through the evidence at my disposal, and I believe I’ve pinpointed a number of prior incursions, but it would help to have more hands on deck, especially from the more detail-oriented of you.” He gave Raven a meaningful look.

“I … I don’t even know what I would be looking for,” replied Raven.

“Isolated communities, buildings, or people, things that were left unrevealed through coincidence or happenstance,” replied Uther. “We want to find the castles that we didn’t know about, even though we should have.”

“The metaphorical castles,” said Everett, clarifying.

“You think it’s not a coincidence,” said Raven. “You think that some of the times we’ve been blindsided, it’s been enemy action.”

“Yes,” replied Uther. “The Ice Wizards would be one example. They were confined to the north by the peculiarities of their magic, until they finally discovered a configuration of ice that would let them expand. But there was no hint that they had ever existed, at least from my perspective in Anglecynn. Our maps in those days were woefully inadequate, but still, there should have been something, I had been looking, searching, to see the scope of the world.”

“Gods, I haven’t thought of the Ice Wizards in at least a decade,” said Montran.

“Why are we even talking about the Ice Wizards?” asked Alcida.

“Because if there were a society that could create the Ice Wizards from nothing, then they could create something else, wittingly or otherwise,” said Uther.

“I need to make some notes,” said Raven. “And I need to look at what you have.”

“I have nothing but what’s up here,” said Uther, tapping his head. “Notes are subject to the same effect. They fade away to nothing, beyond a certain level of specificity. I’ve tried a few strategies thus far, splitting the notes apart, writing in different ways, but nothing has worked so far. I would welcome suggestions on that front.”

“And what did you do to our souls?” asked Alcida.

“Spirits, actually,” replied Uther. “It’s a construct that appears to be immune to whatever effect they’re employing to keep people from thinking of them. The construction is novel, and took quite a bit of time, but I believe it should keep us shielded. There’s a built-in virality to it that should pick up future memories as well.”

“You were working on this alone for some time,” said Raven. “You should know that we can help shoulder your burdens.”

“I’m aware,” replied Uther. “You did help me. You just don’t remember.”

“Huh,” I said, pulling out of Masters spirit and back into the real world. “Still processing. Your father has some of your memories.”

“For this specific topic, yes,” replied Raven. “I think it was easier to do this way. From what Uther said later, the original bare construct was built from scratch and given out to the initial four of us at the same time, but the later constructs were always taken from someone instead of being recreated. I couldn’t claim to fully understand it.”

“I think I do,” I replied. “And yes, it seems like a complete pain to do from scratch.”

“And you understand the scope of the problem?” asked Raven.

“Not really,” I replied. “Wait, there’s … a place. A physical place, and a society of physical people.”

“Conceptual people,” replied Raven. “And a conceptual place.”

“Wait,” I said, holding up a hand. “No, that’s not … I’m missing some memories.”

“You have as much as I have,” said Masters, pulling his arm away from me. “I was never told everything.”

“It was p-space,” I said. “You ran into some creatures from p-space? And then physically went there? That’s nuts. I’m going to have to sit through those memories and digest them, but it seems like I only have half of what I need here.”

“So you’ll have to hear it through me,” said Raven. She turned to Masters. “Dad, you can go.”

“I want to hear it,” said Masters.

“Better you don’t,” replied Raven. “It won’t serve you.”

“I have been standing vigil for Uther for five hundred years of my life,” said Masters, standing from his chair. “I never knew half of what you got up to with him, but I have put in my time. There are precious few people in this world that you can truly trust, Raven Masters. I am one of them.”

“No,” said Raven. “Absolutely not. This is dangerous, even more dangerous than just holding that construct in your mind.”

“I won’t be forced out again,” said Masters. “Not this go around.”

“Father,” Raven began.

“I was trusted,” said Masters. “Not in the inner circle, no, but I had duties, I had responsibilities, things that Uther gave to me and me alone.”

“You were useful,” said Raven, rising somewhat in her seat. “You were long-lived, slow to change, and he needed someone stable, which you were. Leave, now.”

“And if I refuse?” asked Masters.

“Then Juniper and I will talk in private later,” said Raven. “I don’t want it to come to that.”

“You want me to know my place,” said Masters. He walked to the door. “I suppose now I do.”

He slammed the door as he left.

“Sorry you had to see that,” said Raven. “I really didn’t want to bring him into this, for good reason.”

“Sure,” I replied. “Always awkward to see people having a spat in front of you, I guess. Are you okay?”

“Fine,” said Raven. Her lips were thin.

“Because if you wanted to talk about it,” I began.

“You just learned about the Outer Reaches, and you’d like to divert from that to talk about my relationship with my father?” asked Raven, giving me a skeptical look.

“I don’t have any particular desire to talk about it,” I replied. “But I want to make sure that your needs are dealt with, and if we drop it right now to talk about other things, then I worry that we’re just not going to find the time to circle back to it. It’s easier not to let things slip through the cracks if you deal with them when they come up.”

Loyalty Increased: Raven lvl 3!

“I appreciate that,” said Raven. “But I’ll make a point of talking about it later. Right now, I want to focus on the Outer Reaches, and what we did there.”

“And you did, actually, legitimately, make a trip to p-space, which is supposed to be so flatly impossible that I would get laughed out of an athenaeum lecture hall just for bringing it up?” I asked.

“We did hundreds of impossible things,” replied Raven. “Though technically, we didn’t go to p-space, our conceptual selves went there instead. P-space interactions are common, but usually trivial, nothing more than a query about whether or not some object belongs to a certain class, or whether an object is actually an object. To get into p-space, we had to go to the extremes, those entads that allowed for definitional changes, or the creation of new definitions. It was complicated enough that only Uther really understood it. To hear him tell it, it was helpful that we were as famous as we were, because that meant that there was some foundational concept of us to work with in p-space, though that wasn’t typically how p-space worked. And after a week of preparation, away we went.”

“I’m missing some things,” I replied. “The download didn’t include everything. How did you determine that there were people living in p-space, and how did you figure out that they were the ones behind the … castles, he called them?”

“Schloss, we eventually settled on,” said Raven.

“That’s just German for castle,” I replied.

“Is it?” asked Raven. “And German is …?”

“Er,” I replied. “It’s not really important. An Earth language.”

“Oh,” replied Raven, frowning. “I had no idea. Anyway, the schloss were identified and recorded, and observations were made about them. The biggest takeaway was that there were conceptual signatures you could look for on them, as well as giveaways if you had a good enough information system built up. They didn’t represent a wholesale rewriting of history with no limits, they were a bit more circumspect with that, with efforts to fit into the world as seamlessly as possible. Uther was big on threat assessment, and the profiles of some of the schloss were, well, frightening to say the least. They were easier to see though, the kinds of things that drew attention to themselves. Eventually, Uther found a crack, and he went in.”

“Huh,” I replied. “That’s non-specific.”

“I know,” said Raven. “You’ll have to find your own path, I’m afraid. Once we’re there though, I’ll be able to help you. Uther was learning conceptual combat and conversation from scratch, but you won’t have that handicap.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Back up a second. You’re saying that Uther and all his Knights became concepts in p-space, tracked down people who were making countries or towns or whatever out of thin air with integrations into history, then beat them by hitting them hard enough? Do I have the gist of it?”

“Yes,” replied Raven. “When you put it like that, it sounds ridiculous, but I suppose any simplification would. P-space has its own rules, endless concepts that get worn by entities there. It’s not a matter of hitting someone hard enough, it’s a matter of conceptual adornment and manipulation to change the conceptual adornment of other entities.” She breathed a sigh. “To give an example, the concept of Uther was made up of other concepts, some of which he had to take from others during the course of our adventure there. King, Poet, Warrior, those helped give him leverage. He picked up conceptual objects, Sword, Axe, Armor, Shield. And then he went after the schlossvolk who had been responsible for the creation and engaged them in conceptual combat. It was about forced adornment of conceptual descriptors, Wounded, Injured, Coward.”

“I … see,” I replied, though I wasn’t sure that I did. “And are these concepts unique?”

“Unique, yes,” said Raven. “But there are so many that it didn’t come into play all that often, and they could be freely combined by entities, including us, nesting the concepts. In truth, they weren’t ready for someone like Uther, someone who was a student of conflict. I’m worried that if we go there, they’ll have learned a thing or two in the intervening years.”

“Well, sounds like a blast,” I replied. “No quest notification though. There are confirmed new schloss? Is that what’s meant by the Outer Reaches no longer being dormant?”

Raven nodded. “When Uther beat them, he set conditions, and built up conceptual frameworks that poked into our reality to warn us if they were trying something again, hopefully without all the work it took to notice and chase down the schloss the first time around. We got the warning twenty years ago, but there hasn’t been anything that we can do about it. So far as I can tell, the changes have been minor, but if they’re actively interfering in our world again, that could end up being a very, very bad thing. They’re not people, as much as they could sometimes act like people when borrowing concepts that applied to people.”

I rolled my head around, cracking joints as I thought about that. “And obviously you’ve already considered that retroactively inserting things into the world is a Dungeon Master trick if I’ve ever heard of one, and the schlossvolk are in some way similar to collaborative storytellers?”

“I’d considered the first,” said Raven. “The Dungeon Master claims not to do that, at least obliquely from the transcripts of your conversations, but you’ve claimed to do it in your own games. One of our conversations must have skirted too close to the topic of the schloss, because you forgot having it with me, and we weren’t even speaking about the Outer Reaches. The twenty year timeframe would also approximately fall in line with notable dates with regards to members of your party.”

“Our party,” I replied. “And we did actually talk about the Outer Reaches before?”

“It came up several times,” said Raven. “But, obviously, the effect can be strong, and gets stronger the more you push at it, at least by Uther’s accounting.”

“I’ll patch the others in then, I guess,” I replied. “I’m glad this isn’t something we have to deal with just yet, knock on wood.”

“Just as a warning, they’ll have a memory of this,” said Raven. “If you can find a way to keep the part with my father from spreading, I would appreciate it.”

“It wasn’t that bad,” I replied. “He was being protective, to a level that you really, really don’t need.”

“Still,” replied Raven. “I’d prefer that our colleagues don’t see me treated like a child. I’d have preferred you not see it.”

“Understood,” I replied. “I’ll do my best.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 175: High Concept

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