Worth the Candle, Ch 202: Star Pupil

We were given our own room while the Dorises secured us a star mage to teach me. It was bare bones but functional, and Grak had us warded almost as soon as the door was closed.

“So,” Amaryllis said to Raven. “Tell us what we’re walking into.”

Raven shrugged. “Based on what they said, nothing too serious, but they’re obviously missing some crucial piece of the picture. The elemental planes are full of some rather grotesque creatures, and a small handful of them are able to survive on Aerb, if anyone is stupid enough to bring them over. The Dorises are almost certainly lying, unless they’re incredibly coordinated, because it’s very difficult for a star mage to make a portal that allows anything to survive the transition.” She tapped her fingers on her leg, then used her bracer to call up a book, which she opened and leafed through before showing us a picture. It was a segmented worm with horrible little lamprey fangs, along with some spines along the sides. “This is a bloodworm. It’s very fast with very sharp teeth, and can drain the blood of a human in approximately eight seconds. It feeds on soul energy, not on blood itself, but with blood as the medium. Current belief is that on the elemental plane of blood, they seek out occasional infusions of soul energy from various sources, going into a feeding frenzy and then curling up to become dormant.”

“How easy to kill?” asked Amaryllis, frowning at it.

“A regular nation with a halfway competent military would be able to do it,” said Raven. “Grak might be able to make an annihilation ward that kills them outright, and if it really is contained to a single building, that would be enough. In theory, it will be easy. But as I said, it’s possible and likely that the Finches are lying, not just because the bloodworms are so unlikely to have come over on accident, but because if it were just bloodworms, they should have been able to take care of it themselves. There’s some other problem on top of the worms too, which I’m less confident about.”

“You said other failure states,” I said. “What are the consequences of a blood mage having possession of a thousand times their normal blood volume?”

“There’s a feedback loop,” said Raven. “A blood mage with an excess of blood can draw on the power of that blood in order to boost herself, and that boost can make it easier to squeeze more power from the blood. At a certain tipping point, which is more like a hundred times normal blood volume, they can get taken over by something else, unless they’re sufficiently skilled at handling it.” Bloodlust, I was guessing. “Usually it’s not a threat to the world though, just to a city, and never for more than a few days until they run out of victims. With Doris … if she can duplicate the blood when she duplicates herself, it might be different.”

She paused and used her bracer to pluck out another book, which she rapidly leafed through. “The second failure state, which is of a greater scale, involves pushing the limits of internal blood volume. Blood mages have magical hypertension, and a grandmaster can weaponize that, allowing their blood to shoot out at high speeds. With sufficient pressure and a sudden rupture, it can vaporize a small country.” She kept leafing through the book, frowning, until eventually she stopped. “Sorry, I thought there was a picture, but it would suffice to say that this is at the upper echelons of personal power, attainable only by either a grandmaster or someone drawing on positively enormous quantities of blood. I think the figure, which I can’t find at the moment, was that it would take more than a million gallons of blood.”

“You’re saying that there are blood mages powerful enough that if you cut them with an infinitely sharp sword, they would explode with blood so hard that they would be the equivalent to a nuclear weapon?” I asked.

“In theory,” said Raven. “In practice, it’s happened in one or two timelines, under extreme circumstances.”

“Where the fuck are we on this chain of quests?” I asked. “We need to go fix a Doris fuck up in order to have them track Blue-in-the-Bottle, so that we can kill him, so that Perisev will, what, not make an attempt on our lives? This is ridiculous. We could just leave and kill Perisev, which would shortcut the quest.”

“Do you want to?” asked Amaryllis. “Because I would, again, be fine with allowing the Dorises to kill themselves.”

“It doesn’t seem like a good plan from a narrative perspective,” said Raven, frowning at Amaryllis.

“Doris Finch is a pressure point for Amaryllis,” I said to Raven.

“Enough of a pressure point that you’re going to make suboptimal plays?” Raven asked Amaryllis.

“No,” said Amaryllis, crossing her arms. “I’m just stating a preference.”

“We need the Dorises for just a little bit longer,” I said. “After that, fuck ‘em.”

“Fuck ‘em to death,” said Amaryllis.

“I don’t particularly like this dynamic,” frowned Raven.

“It has its charm,” said Grak. He looked oddly happy. He’d told me once that he liked Amaryllis when she was angry.

“Imagine being so shitty of a person that you would ambush and kill thirty of your clones so that you could gain four slaves, who are also your clones,” said Amaryllis. “And even that term, ‘slave’, is doing her favors, because this is one of the most brutal, oppressive versions of slavery that has ever existed on the face of Aerb. I will make every effort to not let my opinion of her cloud my judgment, but if we find a way to wipe her out, I’m strongly in favor of doing it.”

“On the plus side, the person she’s hurting most is herself,” I said. “So the primary victim here kind of deserves it.” I didn’t personally hate Doris Finch, but I could get why Amaryllis would.

“I can ward against her, incidentally,” said Grak. “Redundant, given she is flesh and blood.”

“Still useful,” I said. “How quickly could you ward against a hypersonic blood bomb? If that’s on the table?”

“It would have to be a velocity ward,” said Grak. “The blood would cease to be blood at those speeds. Too much debris would be caught up in it.” He frowned, not because he was thinking about the problem, but because he was unhappy with his solution. “It would have to be small and ideally covering extradimensional space. A ward over Sable would give us the best chance. Even then I would need a few minutes to make it rigorous, and it would take all my concordance.”

“Good enough for me,” I said. I had no idea how impossible what I was asking for was, but ‘able to withstand a nuclear blast’ seemed like it had to be on the very upper end of what was possible with warding.”We’re going to hope that it’s not that, but Raven was the one who foreshadowed it, so blame her if it comes to pass.”

Raven rolled her eyes, but didn’t give any of the obvious counterpoints, and I didn’t know her well enough to know what that meant. Maybe she really did believe she’d be responsible for it, if it happened.

The Doris star mage was let into the room after a knock on the door sometime later, and, for the first time since Fallatehr, I was introduced to a new magic with an audience present, not just my companions, but a second Doris besides the star mage, this one guarding her.

“Fuck the stars,” said Doris. She looked more or less like the others, but her hair was on the longer side, her clothes were a bit unkempt, and she had a brand on her forearm that looked to have been either a really elaborate design, or several brandings over a long period of time. It wasn’t clear to me whether she had done it to herself or — well, if she’d done it to herself in a different way. “Most of the time you won’t be looking at them. Every month or so, maybe every week for precision work, you’ll look up at the stars and figure out which ones are important and where they are, using a bit of math to figure out what they mean to you based on where you are, and then forget about them until your constructions drift off-course and you need to look at the sky again. You’re good with math?”

“Uh,” I said. “I was told that there wouldn’t be calculus. Other than that, yeah.” I had the Mathematics skill, but it was kind of pointless at the lower levels, since it didn’t give me any skills that I didn’t already have from a decent high school education and an aptitude for systems.

“What the fuck is calculus?” she asked. “Look, it doesn’t matter, can you do basic geometry?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sohcahtoa.”

“Right,” she said, apparently understanding what I’d said. “And you know what a function is?”

“Uh,” I said. “Sure.”

“If you don’t know what a function is, tell me now and we’ll start there,” said Doris. “You’ve got four fucking hours and if you don’t get what you wanted out of this, I get shot in the head.”

“I’m just not sure that I’ll be able to define it,” I said. “A function is putting in some value x and getting out some value y.”

“Okay,” she said, relaxing slightly. “Sure. Star magic is just a matter of constructing functions, finding out which variables you’re putting into them, usually in consultation with a star map, then drawing or fabricating the output.”

“Uh, okay, so, to give an example?” I asked.

Doris sighed and pulled some papers out of her pocket, then spread them across the floor. “This is a map of the stars, made three days ago, by me,” she said. As I looked at the paper, I realized that it wasn’t paper at all, it was parchment, some that had been scraped and reused enough times that it was starting to show. The Dorises didn’t have wood, and couldn’t import it, which meant that they made do with what they had. What they had a lot of was Dorises, and I was about ninety percent certain that her parchment had been made from human skin. “Our position, using the planar hexline system with offsets, is -0.57891, 0.17663, 0.40288.”

“You use three axes?” I asked. “Not two?”

“If you want to do the math to transform the two axis system into the three axis system, knock yourself out,” she replied. “It’ll only add an extra twenty or thirty minutes onto every single calculation you do.”

“Just asking,” I said.

“Base prismatic expansion is given by taking a multiplication of XYZ coords with a polygon constellation given by magnitude ordering of stars, starting with brightest red, not violating the concave angles rule, and shifting hue down.” She had been tracing out a pattern on her map with her finger, and when she was finished, she looked at me.

“Okay,” I nodded, looking down at her chart. “So we start with the brightest red star, then — magnitude ordering means that we move to the second brightest star, but hue shifting would mean that we, what, move to orange? Which takes precedence?”

“Depends on what you want, usually magnitude,” she replied. “Typically hue needs to be a half-step down. Playing with hue is not what I would start with, if I were you. There are specific strands of the function, elements that you vary to produce different effects. We’re talking base prismatic expansion, the simplest ‘spell’ you can do.”

“And a half-step is … what?” I asked, looking at her map with its notations. “Based on this, you register hue as a single number, and if this is in normal visible range, that’s, uh, kind of complicated.”

“I’m trying to teach you what I can in a few hours,” said Doris. “Do you want to blow past this and figure it out later, or do you want me to belabor the details?”

“You didn’t study at an athenaeum,” I said. “You learned this yourself.”

“I had books,” said Doris. “Part of a deal with the outside at some point, I never got much more information than that. But knowing that isn’t going to help you learn.”

“Sorry,” I said. “The hue thing — the stars are all kinds of colors to human eyes, but human eyesight is narrow and lopsided, and not all eyes are the same. I’m having trouble with just the base concept here.”

“The way I understand it, normal star mages use fak and lep, two types of glass that do hue shifting based on thickness,” said Doris. “I don’t have that, so I go based on what I see. It doesn’t matter all that much, because you can do the same pattern in different ways and it still works.”

“So a half step, in your system, is just … split the colors up into seven, then half a step?” I asked, looking at her notation. She nodded. “So we go for the brightest that’s within half a step, then the next brightest that’s in the next half a step, ignoring any lines that we’d have to draw through, and ignoring lines that would make concave angles — looping to the start of the colors if we have to?”

“No,” said Doris. “When you get to deep indigo, you draw a line back to the start, and if that’s not a legal shape, then you have to do it a different way.”

I nodded, starting to maybe understand a little bit. “And the multiplication by coords, that’s, uh.”

She pulled out a pen and hesitated above parchment. “Do you have paper?” she asked. “It will be easier.”

Amaryllis stepped forward, from where she’d been leaning against a wall, and dropped a ream of paper along with a number of pens and pencils from Sable. Doris stared at them, then took a pen and paper. She began to quickly sketch out some math, copying from the map and marking down all of the relevant stars to make the shape.

“You have three coords, and N points,” said Doris. “How you apply those coords depends on whether they’re negative or positive, and what numbers you can divide N by. Here, we’ve got six sides, which means alternating, which means —” she did the calculations without speaking for a bit, and came up with a new shape, this one not actually a polygon, because some of the lines were crossing each other. “And that’s it, as basic as basic gets. So long as the stars stay in their current configuration, if you write that shape anywhere near here, it’ll make an extradimensional divot on the surface over the course of about two hours or so. And there, now you know star magic.”

Skill Unlocked: Star Magic!

Achievement Unlocked: Starry-Eyed

Spell discovered: Base Prismatic Expansion!

“Yup,” I said, nodding. “Now I know star magic.”

“There are obviously a hundred things you’re going to have to learn, if you really want to be a star mage,” said Doris. “I can’t tell you them, because I don’t know most of them. Some of the shitty star mages out there just go look things up in books all the time, then plug in the numbers, and that’s enough that they can skate by. Me, I do what I can with what I’ve learned, mostly through experimentation, or under instruction from another star mage. It’s a fuckton of labor, but you can split it up. For us, that means that you get told to do the calculation right or get ended, solutions are usually easier to check than to generate. I’ll give you whatever hard-won knowledge I have. In the EZ, we generally don’t give a shit about restricting learning. It’s not like you couldn’t just buy one of us as a tutor if you were willing to spend enough time in the zone, fuck, that’s basically what you’ve done. Tell me what else you want so that you’ll tell my captors that I did a good job.”

“This is a naive case,” I said, pointing down at the diagram she’d drawn. “I’m going to need to know how to do more, and I’m going to have to understand fundamentals. As in, I could probably look at the stars and figure out how to do this one specific thing that you showed me —”

“You should probably set the bar lower than that,” said Doris.

“What I couldn’t do would be to make a portal to another plane, or even just make a larger or non-standard extradimensional space.” I was watching her. “I wouldn’t be able to step into the ethereal,” which required holding a shape or shapes in your head, so far as I knew, “I wouldn’t be able to make this permanent, there are lots of things. It’s like you showed me how to solve one specific math problem without actually telling me how to do math.”

“Alright,” said Doris. “I’ll run you through the very basics. I have to warn you that it’s maddening.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I’m already a little insane.”

We spent four hours on it. It was productive, in part because we just didn’t wander off track at all. Sometimes when I was studying, I would get distracted or bored and want to switch to something else, and while I was relatively okay at reigning in that impulse, I probably lost a lot of time when I would start daydreaming, only to realize that I had been in the middle of reading a biography on one of these horrible people I was supposed to kill. It had been worse on Earth, where the internet and videogames were siren songs.

Doris … actually wasn’t so bad? She was a little rough around the edges, a bit acerbic, but she seemed intelligent, and she wasn’t a dick about things. One of the things that people said about Doris a lot was that she was actually a lot smarter than you would expect, and I was finding that true, not just in terms of star magic expertise, but just in the way that she seemed to think about things. If it had just been this one interaction, and I’d known nothing else about her, I wouldn’t have pegged her for a slaver or a cannibal.

She knew a fair amount about star magic, though it was also pretty clear that I was being given non-standard terminology, and there were definite limits to what she could tell me. She had learned star magic in the EZ, with nothing but books to go off of, and some of her techniques wouldn’t generalize; the EZ was small enough that the star mage Dorises had just baked in a lot of math that they’d never have to change.

Star magic was leveling up slowly.

“Untethering is the second hardest part,” said Doris. She had just finished explaining about the other planes, the eleven dimensions (which seemed like overkill) and how fucking hard it was to even get a return on a ping at them, let alone forging a connection with them. “It’s in high demand, but we can only barely do it, when the stars are right, and it’s better if you have a team, which we don’t do well with.”

“All you’d have to do is be the kind of person who works well in a team,” said Amaryllis. She had been in and out of bouts of concentration to integrate with her clones, which took ten minutes per. Not all of them were integrated every day, because she’d have basically a full work day of integration, and the clones were in cells anyhow, able to communicate facts, strategies, and ideas back to a central clone. It was still fairly time intensive.

“I know myself,” said Doris. “I know myself better than any person in the history of Aerb has known themselves.” She pulled up short. “I don’t have the fucking time for this. You understand they’ll shoot me if I don’t do my best?”

“And deprive themselves of a star mage?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “I split before I came in here. If I fail, then they kill me and keep her. If I succeed, they keep me and kill her. Either way, they keep their star mage, this is just incentive for me to actually do the work. If they didn’t have a guard, they would torture me for information first.”

“I put up a barrier,” said Grak. “They could not listen.” It was a blunt dwarf way of saying it, but underneath that, he was a little cocky. I was happy about that. It was very possible that he was the best warder on the plane, and better in a lot of ways than any normal warder ever could be. It was about time he stuck out his chest a bit.

“Well, great,” said Doris, glancing at the guard, who hadn’t moved. “Now, we need to get through as much as we can,” said Doris. “You should know that we’ve been experimenting with planar portals, because as you might have noticed, we’re light on resources in the EZ. I was a research assistant in the city before I got reassigned here. I can tell you what I know, but it’s not much, because I’m from a divergent branch, never senior. Portals take so long that it requires untethering, which means an immense amount of work on the backend. Not only that, you have to make some predictions of where the stars will be, sometimes up to three months in advance, which is no mean feat. The planes themselves move, if slowly, so if you want something that lasts, you need to figure that out and compensate for it. And the problem gets worse for further planes.” She looked to Amaryllis. “How much time do we have left?”

“Thirty minutes,” said Amaryllis. “But you’re coming with us.”

Doris stared at her. “Coming with you?” she asked.

“We’re going into the city,” said Amaryllis. “You’re going to accompany us. Something happened at the facility you were working at. If you were there, you have information that could help us.”

Doris stopped for a moment, then looked bewildered. “What happened?” she asked. “Was there a problem?”

“They successfully connected to the elemental plane of blood,” said Raven. “Beyond that, we’re unsure.” She turned to Amaryllis. “Do you think bringing one with us under duress is a good idea?”

“The combat specialized ones are a different branch,” I said.

“I can ward her so she cannot split,” said Grak.

“No, you can’t,” said Doris. “A ward will either kill us or not work at all, full stop. We’re copies, all of us, we’re suffused with that magic.”

“Try splitting now,” said Grak.

Doris hesitated. “There would be one too many of me,” she said. “One of us would have to die, and we would both be working to make sure that it wasn’t us.”

Amaryllis held Sable out in front of her and popped out a gun. The guard didn’t move. “Just fucking do it.”

Doris didn’t hesitate this time, maybe because she was used to threats of violence, but of course, nothing happened.

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “There’s that tested, not that I had any doubt.”

“She’s renowned for her backstabbing,” said Raven. “She’s psychopathic.”

“I’m not,” said Doris.

“It’s going to be a problem,” said Raven, folding her arms.

“It’s kismet,” said Amaryllis, staring Raven down.

“Grak?” I asked. “Where do you stand on this?”

“There’s not much cost,” he replied. He switched to Groglir, nodding at me. “I can kill her with a thought.” He turned back to Raven. “Better to have a guide, better to have an expert.”

“I’m no expert,” said Doris. “We fork. I have fewer years than others, there’s a reason that I was an assistant instead of part of the research group. And I don’t want to go.”

“I don’t think we really give a shit,” I told her. “Sorry.”

“I hope you realize that this makes us slaveholders,” said Raven.

“Not really,” I said. “I mean, temporary slaveholders, but — what, it becomes worse to take an unwilling technical and area expert with you when they’re a slave? It’s unwilling either way, the ‘slave’ part is semantics.” I felt like I had never said the word ‘slave’ so many times in my life. “Kidnappers, maybe. I don’t feel great about it, obviously, but you know that we can’t save the Dorises from each other, not in the long-term. So unless there’s a practical reason that we can’t take her with us, then we’ll take her with us unless the Blues can provide some kind of substitute.”

Star Doris didn’t seem happy about that, not in the slightest, but she didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

“So,” I said as we walked down the ‘road’ to the city of Dorisopolis. If you hadn’t been paying attention, it might surprise you to know that city planning in the EZ was, not to put too fine a point on it, essentially non-existent. “You were saying about how you know yourself better than anyone?”

“That’s right,” said Star Doris. She was taking this with relative aplomb, but I had to imagine that she’d been through worse than being taken by strangers. I did wonder about how many times she’d forked, and how different she was from the others. If you were omniscient, you could probably make a map of the different camps or do some color data visualization, but there would be no way to get the information, and the population of the EZ was incredibly unstable. Tattoo and scar tracking might work, I supposed.

“So tell us,” said Amaryllis. “Tell us why it’s impossible to get along with yourself.”

“We’ve never found a way to make equipment permanent,” said Star Doris. “If we make a copy, that copy has twenty-four hours with all the same things, except you only rarely know if you’re the copy or not.” She was talking like she was trying to keep from clenching her teeth. “The very first time we split, we found out the hard way that one of us had our clothes, money, books, and everything else, and the other was naked. She had everything, we had nothing, and she wouldn’t share.”

“Meaning that in the same position, you wouldn’t have shared,” said Amaryllis.

“We didn’t have the best life growing up,” said Star Doris. “We know what the outside world thinks of us, more or less, we know that some of us get captured and interrogated every now and then, or that we just talk in exchange for whatever scraps they’ll throw our way. You probably read something about me before you came in. I was used to not having much. When that’s your life, your instinct isn’t to share, to lift someone else up at your own expense. But you have to understand that it didn’t start like this, it built up over years. Back at the beginning, we didn’t think of the copies as people. And we didn’t know we were excluded until well into it.”

“The only reason that she betrays you is that you betray her,” said Amaryllis. “You’re the same person right now. Just agree on outcomes.”

“I don’t,” said Star Doris. “I can’t. I’m a survivor. I survived because I was willing to kill. The number of dead Dorises has to number in the billions by this point. I’ve stabbed her in the back so many fucking times that I would never believe she wouldn’t do the same to me. And we use that. We make copies and pit them against each other, because we know they can’t cooperate, and wouldn’t be able to even if we were dumb enough to let them.”

“It’s survival of the fittest,” I said. “If you extend a helping hand, you get shanked, and the shankers rule the world.”

“Against them, maybe I could understand it,” said Amaryllis. “But we’re not talking about them, we’re talking about you. If you decided right now that you would cooperate with your copy, you could. There’s nothing preventing it.”

“A lifetime of knowing and seeing otherwise,” said Raven. “A theory of self that encourages this. Scarcity of resources and the knowledge that their way of life can’t continue unless they’re willing to exploit and enslave.”

“I hardly think this society requires slavery, torture, and way, way too many brutal murders,” I said. I was positive that someone had laid out an ideal Doris society, and vaguely remembered reading about one. Maybe it had been Amaryllis, in one of those occasional moods she got into where she wanted to talk at me rather than to me.

“We would run out of food,” said Doris. “The only thing keeping us all fed is that we can get something from nothing. If you’re rich or lucky, you can eat the things that feed on our bodies instead, but we have very little in the way of crops, and those only go to the Dorises that sit at the top of the heap. We’ve asked for aid from the Empire, but they don’t have the resources, and they don’t trust us to agree to their terms.”

“Are you actually trying to convince us?” I asked. “I mean, I know things in the EZ are bad, but I wouldn’t have thought that you would defend them.”

“She was literally just talking about how she would stab someone in the back if they offered a helping hand,” said Amaryllis. “She has every incentive to get us to reach out to her with that helping hand.”

“Did you learn nothing from Anglecynn?” asked Raven.

Amaryllis went silent for a moment. “You think that this is undue cynicism?” Raven shrugged, not providing more of a challenge. Amaryllis was keeping her eyes on Raven, and seemed to be chewing that over, her anger and distrust of the Dorises momentarily forgotten. “Shit.”

“Shit?” I asked.

“I was talking to you about paths,” she said. “Paths that we might have gone down? Points of no return?”

I finally caught up to what Amaryllis must have been thinking, which was that if there had ever been a social solution in Anglecynn, we had mostly missed it, and if the Doris EZ was similar, then the thing that would guarantee we went down the combat path would be treating the Dorises how you’d assume they should be treated, just based on what you heard about them.

“I think these are different situations,” I said. “And I don’t think that one was meant to inform the other.”

“You’ve lost me,” said Star Doris.

“Good,” I replied. I turned to her. “What do you think it would take to turn this EZ into a functional nation?” I asked.

She seemed to give that some thought. “Absolute enforcement,” said Star Doris. “Strict control from the top, strict hierarchy of function, mechanisms for compliance, rule of law. We have none of those right now.”

“Dorises won’t cooperate unless they’re forced to,” said Amaryllis.

“But we will cooperate,” said Star Doris.

“You would need panopticon surveillance,” said Amaryllis. “You would need someone willing to cut off your fingers the moment you so much as gestured toward stepping out of line.”

That added some instant tension to the conversation. I couldn’t think about someone cutting off fingers without thinking of Bethel, and no one else in the group could either. That, and the phrase ‘panopticon surveillance’, was enough for Amaryllis’ suggestion to be clear. I couldn’t tell whether or not she meant it, or if it was just her way of spitting on the idea. From an implementation standpoint … well, there were hurdles, the biggest being Bethel herself (pun not intended).

“It would be evil,” said Raven.

“It would work,” replied Star Doris. “I wouldn’t sign up for it, but it would work. We’d still have to kill our copies for food and water, and they’d still be a resource, but we would be functional. And if there were a Doris who was unambiguously our leader, we would be able to deal with the outside world.”

“You would backstab the outside world,” said Amaryllis.

“Everyone says that, but it’s exaggerated. Turnover is high in the Republic,” said Star Doris. “Uncertainty is high. Backstabbing is a short-term play, but if you don’t play in the short term, you get crushed by those who do. It’s not our fault. The system is set up against us.” She snorted at Amaryllis. “You think we’re dumb, Everyone does. You’d think talking to me for half an hour would disabuse you of that notion. I have my deficiencies, I won’t argue that, but I’m not dumb.”

Just self-sabotaging, short-sighted, and distrustful. “People say that about you a lot,” I said. “They’re surprised that you’re smart. So you’ve got that going for you, which is nice.”

“If your intelligence can’t solve problems, then it’s not intelligence,” said Amaryllis, but she had cooled off a bit, and there wasn’t venom. “You’re stupid in a very specific way. But to put the EZ under an authoritarian regime … I can’t see that being the answer.”

I nodded. Amaryllis was talking narrative now, and while that narrative was definitely something I could have seen a party doing over the course of a D&D campaign, it wasn’t the kind of solution you would intentionally write to be the good one. It was more a ‘whoops, I guess fascism is good when we do it’ kind of thing. “So we just teach a Doris to work together with herself, or work in the long-term, and once that starts working, the rest join her. It’s a society reorganization quest, but you only have to fix one person.”

“People have tried,” said Star Doris. “Not that I care if you fail, but people have tried. It’s usually not hard to capture a Doris at the border, if you have magic and entad support. Soul magic doesn’t work on us, but they’ve done everything short of that.”

I’d known that we couldn’t soulfuck her: Uniquities had let us in on that one, though they didn’t know that we were planning to go into the zone. But as Doris had pointed out, soulfucking wasn’t the only way to change what was in someone’s soul, it was just the fastest and easiest, so long as you had a competent soul mage. I almost wanted to ask Grak whether, since they were completely suffused with clonal magic, he would be able to make some ward that was capable of changing her, but I figured if that was at all within his abilities, he would probably be working on the problem.

“I don’t understand why you’re here,” said Star Doris. “I don’t understand what you want. I can work with you better if I know your goals.”

“You’re confused about all the idle talk about fixing the EZ?” I asked. She gave me a curt nod. Her lips were twisted into a puckered frown. “Consider us — is ‘Good Samaritan’ a thing?” I asked.

“It’s now considered offensive,” said Raven.

“Uh,” I said, trying to work that out. In the original, the good Samaritan was notable because he was expected to be evil, or at least an enemy. Maybe on Aerb the phrase held the implication that people from Samaria were evil. “Is there a non-offensive replacement?” I asked.

“Helpmate would do fine,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at Star Doris. “We’re helpmates.” She gave a glance at me, and lifted her hand, signing quickly in Gimb. “Samaritan was a type of orc.”

I thought about that for a bit, and still didn’t really get it, maybe because I didn’t remember the parable right, but we were getting close to the city, and I wanted to be focusing more on what was going on around us, just in case there was an ambush waiting.

Our time in the city of Dorisopolis was approaching.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 202: Star Pupil

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