Worth the Candle, Ch 213: The Endless Toil

I watched as the work crew dismantled Tommul. Dragon deaths were incredibly uncommon, the kind of uncommon event where a government workgroup might put together a committee to make a thick binder with plans and contingencies, which would then get left on a shelf for twenty years without being used, until the time a new workgroup was created to update it.

It had been a hundred years since a dragon had died, and it hadn’t been since Uther’s time that more than one had died in quick succession.

There were, however, companies that specialized in cutting apart giant carcasses as quickly and efficiently as possible: whalers. Aerb had an enormous amount of water, and truly vast oceans, which were swimming with all kinds of creatures, some of them very deadly. Though they called themselves whalers, the industry actually dealt with all kinds of sea creatures, some of them quite large, with their biology varying considerably: whales were just the most common. (There was, of course, an alternate etymology, a folk understanding of these men and women as wailers, possessed of the kind of lunacy necessary to pull up massive creatures from the deeps. Having met a few of them, I was willing to give that meaning some credit.)

It had been a rather interesting time for whalers, who had, for the most part, put their dealings with sea creatures to the side. A bit less than two months prior, an absolutely enormous monster had appeared in Li’o, and many of the whalers had been teleported over at great expense to help cut it apart and harvest whatever could be harvested from it as fast as possible, before the flesh began to putrefy and as much of the corpse as possible was delivered by star magic to somewhere that wasn’t urbanized. Given how immense and powerful Mome Rath had been, there was a lot of money to be had in harvesting it, which would have been true even if there had been no magic involved, only enormous quantities of skin, fat, flesh, bone, and a hundred other things. Mome Rath was more than that though. It was possessed of its own unique magic, and people were trying their best to figure out how to exploit whatever was left now that the creature was dead.

The whalers had been making bank, given that this was mostly within their wheelhouse, and that there was a pressing need to get everything done before the less-stable parts of the body rotted. From what I understood of the situation, lots of the people who were homeless and jobless in the wake of Mome Rath showing up in Li’o were being put to work on whaling crews, rapidly trained in the finer points of taking apart a creature that was so big you might sometimes think you were on the plane of flesh.

We’d pulled two crews of whalers off from Li’o, where the work was winding down, or at least sideways (toward more industrialization), and promised them a portion of the proceeds. The two dragons had died in completely different places, but we had claim to both of them, and it would be a windfall, of sorts, even before we went after the dragon hoards. Dragons were one of the most intensely magical creatures on Aerb, and while there were some supposedly exciting applications of Mome Rath and the Momenagerie, the uses for dragon bone, dragon scale, dragon blood, dragon teeth, and so on, were well-known and decidedly less speculative. Once this venture was finished, we’d be flooding the market, and even with that being the case, it would be a substantial amount of money.

“I’m bored,” I said to Amaryllis, who was standing beside me. I wasn’t standing, but rather, floating, because that was something that I could do.

“Sorry dear,” she replied, not seeming like she was sorry in the slightest. Her eyes were on the work crews swarming Tommul. I wasn’t sure whether she knew anything about taking apart dragons, but she was sure watching the people working as though she was a supervisor rather than an observer.

“Maybe I’ll go help,” I said.

“Your job, as I understand it, is to look intimidating and kill anyone who gets out of line,” replied Amaryllis.

“I’m not going to kill anyone,” I replied.

“I know that,” said Amaryllis. “But if they see that you’re floating there in all your glory, they’ll be intimidated enough not to push things so far that you would be asked to kill them. Lending a helping hand is good public relations, and there’s some utility, but we need to keep you from being asked to assault or kill anyone.”

I frowned at that. It was true, after all. But the call of the gold was asking me to basically just sit in place and make sure that no one stole any of the dragon parts, which was incredibly lame, a 0/10 quest if I had ever heard one, unless we were going to be interrupted by a theft or a fight, which I didn’t think terribly likely, and was trying my best not to hope for, no matter how bored I was. I had my senses open and defenses up, just in case.

“Thoughts on the exclusion of soul magic?” I asked. She wasn’t the prime Amaryllis, which was important only in the sense that it meant she wouldn’t be any help in a potential combat scenario, and didn’t have access to entads.

“It’s bad for you personally, but probably a net good for society,” replied Amaryllis. “An exclusion of either or both of Scaphism or Skilled Trade would have been bad, but more understandable, and less net good for the hex.” She shrugged. “It takes those off the table for Fel Seed, but I’m not sure that it was lost because it was necessary to lose.” She gave me a bit of a disapproving look.

“Sure,” I said. “So you think that after killing Tommul, I should have dropped all the skills down to their baseline, then never used soul magic to boost skills again?”

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “My read on the Dungeon Master is that he might have hit you with an exclusion anyway, since you had declared that you wouldn’t be using those aspects, but it might have been a partial exclusion instead of a full one.” She shrugged again at all the unknowables. “But like I said, it’s probably a net good for the world. There are, or were, almost certainly rogue soul magic practitioners out there, and now they don’t have the ability to keep resetting their thralls. It would be nice to think that they’ll get their comeuppance, but it’s more likely that they’ll kill the thralls before that happens.”

“Kind of hard to see it as a net benefit,” I replied.

“We’ll watch in the coming month for any sudden political upsets,” Amaryllis said. “My guess is that we’ll see one or two, possibly governmental, possibly corporate. The anolia are the primary defense against a rogue soul mage raping their way to the top, but there are limits on what they can do, or, I suppose could do. Anolia magic is presumably intact, I’m checking into it with another self. The services of the anolia are much less needed now, either way. Which is too bad for them, but again, is probably a net gain for the world.”

“Hrm,” I said. “No soul healing.”

“It was a relatively minor part of the package,” said Amaryllis. “Likewise soul linkage. In terms of the whole of society, it’s something of a relief.” She paused for a moment. “You know, people often talk about what the worst possible exclusion would be, but somehow they don’t focus on which one might be the best.”

“Are you mad at me?” I asked.

“No,” she replied. “There have been things I’ve considered missteps, but to extend a metaphor, they were missteps that I don’t think put us significantly off the path. Mostly I’m just feeling useless.”

“And how many things are you doing right now?” I asked.

“Oh, lots,” said Amaryllis. “But I had virtually no hand in killing the dragons. I think there’s a real opportunity to do good in the NLEZ, but it’s the kind of frustrating, abstract good that doesn’t satisfy that primal part of me that wants to physically punch evil into submission.”

“I don’t think Perisev was evil,” I said. “Tommul, maybe, but Perisev … if you view the world through the lens of stories, and you think that you’re living in some kind of postmodernist story, then I guess it makes sense to try to get the unconventional ending.”

“What’s postmodernism?” she asked.

I froze in place. “Uh,” I said. “Are you asking me because you don’t know, or because you want to see whether I know?”

“It’s not a word that came up a lot in my reading,” said Amaryllis. “For the most part, it seemed to be whoever came after the modernists, or was reactionary against them, but there wasn’t a cohesive and easy-to-digest definition. Why would you use the word if you didn’t know what it meant?”

“It’s not that I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s — this is not going to be even remotely relatable to you, but do you know that feeling of playing a game on one monitor while a video is going at one and a half times speed in the other monitor, and you’re kind of catching the drift, but it’s also just a bunch of words washing over you, and you’re in the game, so you don’t want to slow it down, and it’s not something that seems super important?”

“This would be … on your personal computer?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I replied. “That’s the kind of understanding I have of postmodernism.” I paused for a moment. It would have been a good time for gold magic to tell me to do something. “I have no idea what postmodernism would mean in terms of tabletop games. If it were about books or games, then it would be metafiction, intertext, navel gazing, unreliable narrators, experimenting with timeline and chronology, stuff like that.”

“And you believe that Perisev believed that this was the kind of story we’re in?” asked Amaryllis.

“I guess,” I replied. “I mean, she couldn’t have known about it, but the Dungeon Master did show me a book that supposedly laid out our adventure.”

“And she thought that she could kill you because … it would be a postmodernist ending?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sure,” I replied. “I mean, probably, maybe. But she wasn’t talking about Earth postmodernism, and she never actually used the word, she was talking about the state of art on Aerb, which is … the same? Not the same? I really have no idea, because I’ve been sticking to non-fiction like my life depends on it.”

“Broadly speaking, I’m not sure that she’s correct,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s true that a lot of the new works of the last few decades have been self-referential and very aware of the idea of fiction in one way or another, but people still read Uther’s stories, they still go to his plays, and there’s a persistent trend in attempting to adapt and revitalize them. It is, in my view, absolutely fucking absurd to make claims about what media is like for a group of five billion people across two hundred species.” She paused, pursing her lips. “But I suppose the distribution of media is unequal, and I would imagine that a small core of a hundred works get the vast majority of exposure. Still. Dwarves are the second most populous species, and most of them don’t speak Anglish. You can’t talk about what the media is like on Aerb, not in a coherent way.”

“The dwarves are still influenced though,” I said. “I’ve only read about a dozen books in Groglir, and only a few of them were fiction, but it’s still possible to see Uther seeping in. There are occasionally Anglish words, or human gender stuff, or … I don’t know, little bits and pieces that have crept in. And I imagine there are translations and adaptations.”

“Well, sure,” said Amaryllis. She was tapping her foot. Tommul’s head finally came free from his neck, after considerable work, and they set to work pulling his teeth. “Let’s say that Perisev is right that you’re an agent of postmodernism, or some Aerbian understanding of postmodernism. How does that change anything?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Guesses?” She nodded. I thought for a moment before replying. “Okay, narrative might fail at any moment, if it’s to make a point, or to make the point that there is no point. You’ve been looking at narrative like it’s what Uther had, narrative cycles, or a modified version of that where it’s narrative, but influenced by our understanding of narrative, a recursive narrative that’s still fundamentally narrative. But to take one example, time might not work like that, it might be — I don’t know what this would be like internally, from our perspective, but you can tell a story with time all out of whack, put the beginning at the end and the end at the beginning, thread different events however you want, constantly switch perspectives … you can do that in modernism too, but I think in postmodernism it’s partly to play with the form, partly to question the audience’s interpretation of events, all kinds of things. You’d expect a lot of metatext and intertext, I guess, which I think we already have covered, because we’ve played games within games, and as Perisev pointed out, we’ve crafted stories that were corruptions and refinements of the stories that we actually lived. I guess we’ve done a bit of intertext, or a lot of it, given how many movies we’ve watched together, and how many books I’ve read, and some of the conversations, and, naturally, the library. The defined breaks from traditional narrative would be things like stream-of-thought, random events that don’t fit in with narrative, playing with the expected narrative cycles or characterization … oh, and an unreliable narrator.”

“Hrm,” said Amaryllis. “Are you?”

“You’re asking me if I’m an unreliable narrator?” I asked. “I mean, I haven’t lied to you, except those times I did. There’s probably some alternate version of this story where I didn’t out myself the moment we met, and was able to keep the secret of being dream-skewered, or … maybe pretended that I was just dream-skewered, without all the weird Aerb-Earth interplay. But I’m also not a narrator.” To my knowledge, anyway.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “I know you don’t like to talk about narrative, but — Juniper, this might be really important.”

“It’s not actionable,” I said. “I mean, it’s even less actionable than regular narrative theory, because for all we know we might be side characters, or the story might be all out of order, or — it’s pointless. Like, more pointless than it was before, which was already pretty pointless. I don’t mean to shut down a conversation that I helped start, but sometimes you have to accept that you can’t actually understand the universe.”

“Alright, I relent,” sighed Amaryllis. “I’ll talk about it with Raven. I might already be talking about it with Raven.”

“How is she?” I asked, eager for a change in conversation.

“She felt sidelined by the dragon fights, in ways that felt unpleasantly familiar to her,” said Amaryllis. “She got her bell rung. She’s strong, she’ll survive.”

“Good,” I said. “I’ll … I don’t know. Show some empathy, I guess.”

“Which you’re finding hard, at the moment?” Amaryllis asked.

Through this, we were just standing (floating, in my case) there, watching teeth being pulled out of Tommul’s mouth, and a special machine was being hooked up to his opened veins to manually pump blood through his body and out an artery into waiting barrels. It was pretty grisly, but I was a bit numb to gore at this point in my career, perhaps helped by high WIS, which was supposed to help with not freaking the fuck out about things.

“I used to have this problem when I was a little kid,” I said. “I had this knowledge that the world was horrible, and that despite appearances, I was one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t been born into slavery, I would probably never directly experience war unless I enlisted, we had creature comforts, media, the internet, I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from. I had two monitors, for fuck’s sake, even if one was a hand-me-down. I kind of got obsessed imagining all those other kids who had just gotten fucked by life. It wasn’t pity, it was this gut-wrenching sadness, like I was feeling the weight of every issue in the world, or as much as I could at the age of ten.”

“I know the feeling,” said Amaryllis, nodding. I looked over at her, and saw how set her face was.

“When I was feeling all that, I just gave so much less of a shit about everything else,” I said. “I’d get upset because I could hear mom and dad screaming at each other through the walls, but then I would go to bed crying because I was thinking about these poor unfortunates who were largely half a world away, who I could do nothing for.” I chewed on my lip for a bit. “Maybe it was just a coping mechanism, a way to equate my own pain to this other pain that felt larger and more important, to co-opt it. I don’t know. It was this feeling of hopelessness and helplessness.”

“And that’s what you’re feeling now?” asked Amaryllis.

“You can’t unfuck a whole civilization,” I said. Eight million people, born and raised underground. “You can help them, and we will, even if we have to move mountains, but they can’t be unfucked.”

“You see the scars and despair, because the wrongs can never be fully righted,” said Amaryllis.

“A fuckin’ trillion people in the hells,” I said. “Even if we can save them, even if I’m ever allowed to be god … the actual experience still happened, even if the memories are erased, or whatever we’re going to do about it.”

“You do what you can, then you move on, to do whatever else you can, and try not to look back, try not to glance at the horrors that can never be undone,” said Amaryllis. “Live in the present. I don’t know. We have such a different outlook on life and society. When I look at the people living below Necrolaborem, yes, it makes me angry, so filled with rage that it takes conscious effort to calm myself down and think straight. But I also see people that we can help, suffering that we can remove from the world, concrete ways that we can improve conditions. It might be meaningless, given that we’re planning on jumping to the end, but that’s not a bet that I’m willing to take. And in the worst case, we’ll have wasted a bit of effort while trying to help people.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I guess so.” I squared my shoulders, and tried to look imposing for the work crew. I would have gone to help them without complaint, if the call of the gold had told me to, but it seemed more concerned with Amaryllis, and the possibility that she would try to deprive me of gold.

We talked about other, less heavy topics after that, which was a bit of a relief. Amaryllis had a breadth and depth of knowledge of Earth culture that sometimes seemed to rival my own (though some of that was just from reading synopses and printed-off Wikipedia pages), but she still liked to pick my brain on various aspects of my culture, and there were blind spots that I always had fun poking at. It might have been that she was trying to cheer me up, but if she was, it was working, so I couldn’t begrudge it. We focused on the kind of things that I considered to be postmodern, which for all I knew might have been a complete misreading of what postmodernism actually was. We stayed away from any discussion of our situation, instead focusing on what made Scream cool, the ending of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and the ways that Cabin in the Woods had been one of the major inspirations of my Long Stairs campaign.

“It was a complaint that the group often had,” I said. “I would watch something, or see something, or learn something, and it would stir my brain up, then get put into a campaign within a week or two. It wasn’t always a movie or a book, sometimes it was just something that had sparked a moment of inspiration, but they never really understood with those, because I never said where I got my ideas from, if I even knew. I had to try to put up these mental flags on everything, to make sure I knew who was watching what, so that I could do my creative appropriation without getting called out, or making it too obvious.”

“Did that work?” asked Amaryllis.

“Yes and no,” I replied. “I mean, we mostly drank from the same well, you know? We would all go see the latest blockbusters together, we played a lot of the same videogames, a ton of the books we read got shared around, because you want to talk with your friends about them instead of just having them sit in your head.” I shrugged. “But there was always stuff that I’d stumbled across that I knew they’d never seen, and vice versa. It was kind of nice, to have this group, but also our separate lives that we only ever really knew about by contact.”

“You have a group of friends now,” said Amaryllis. “You barely know one thirtieth of what I get up to. But I suppose it’s not the same, our kharass?”

“For as much as my group might have had differences of outlooks, we were all pretty solidly of the same culture,” I said. “The amount of variation between teenagers in Kansas is … compared to Aerb, it’s fucking nothing, and the Council of Arches has a level of diversity that still sometimes boggles my mind. Which is great, because there are always things to learn and appreciate, but a lot of our time has been in building up a common platform of understanding each other, and sometimes it’s difficult. Plus I’ve been putting in time with the tuung, and they have this entirely different culture that you made from the ground up, and it’s — a whole different thing.”

“You’re homesick,” said Amaryllis.

“Maybe,” I replied. “It’s been too long since we’ve had real, proper downtime. I want,” I paused, “I want a home. Not The Underline, not a palace in Anglecynn, just … somewhere that I can return to that’s mine. So homesick, but not necessarily for Earth, I guess. I feel like I’ve been couchsurfing for half a year.” I had never actually been couchsurfing, save for a week in junior year when my parents had been intolerable and I had slept over at different friends’ houses as much as I could, chaining sleepovers so I didn’t need to sleep in my own bed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Amaryllis.

“I don’t need you to,” I replied. “But it would be good to have an anchor, and if you can think of a way of doing that,” I shrugged again. “The closest we’ve ever had has been the bottle, I think, or maybe … the time chamber.”

“Are there any movies that give you that feeling of home?” asked Amaryllis. “Or books?”

I thought about it for a bit. It was a transparent ploy to change the subject, but I didn’t mind. “Books, definitely,” I replied. “Harry Potter, at least the early books. I really should talk with Valencia about them, the next time I see her. I’m sure she would like that.”

I didn’t stay for the entirety of the dragon disassembly, which was going to take anywhere from days to weeks, with the final sale of everything we weren’t going to keep taking even longer. It felt nice to have some alone time with Amaryllis though, before I had to go back to deal with the bigger stuff.


Even just taking a census of all the people in the underground portion of Necrolaborem would have been the work of hundreds of people going non-stop for a month. Organizing and implementing that census would have taken weeks, maybe more, because it would have to include training for all the census-takers, printing off any necessary materials, recruiting the people necessary to do it — a census was a complicated thing, but it was just a count of people, sometimes with vital stats about them. It still would have been a complete pain in the ass, even if we’d been doing a census with a compliant population who knew what was going on and consented to it all.

Instead, we were dealing with an enormous population that was hardly liable to greet us as liberators, who had been raised and educated in a completely fucked up society created by someone I was comfortable labeling a narcissistic sociopath. We were going to have a somewhat difficult time making sure that all of them could stay alive, nevermind getting them the kind of deprogramming and therapy they would almost assuredly need, nevermind actually turning them into productive members of society. I wouldn’t normally have worried too much about the ‘productive’ bit, but there were millions of them, and I just wasn’t sure that we, or the Empire, could handle supporting them if they weren’t working to support themselves. In an ideal world, I would have just said, ‘okay, the nightmare is over, this is the real world, you’ll have food, healthcare, education, people to talk to, and whatever else you need’, but that didn’t seem possible to me.

Most of the conversation was taking place in the NLEZ, in the palace that we had commandeered, and because I had been away serving my temporary master, I had to be brought up to speed on things. For the most part, we were still in fact-finding mode, trying to pin down the scope of the problem and the constraints we were working under. The crew, minus myself, had done a few forays into the complex in order to verify what little Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle had in the way of numbers, and found that it mostly checked out (though we had a hard time believing that he really kept his records so sparse).

“Seems to me our best shot of getting out of this is to find whatever resistance movement has been brewing just beyond the Captain’s reach,” I said, once I had gotten briefed.

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. “When has propping up the mujahideen ever backfired?”

She said it sarcastically, and I raised an eyebrow. “Not familiar,” I said.

She stared at me like I’d grown a second head. “Are you fucking serious?” she asked.

I looked at Grak and then Raven. Grak seemed just as clueless as I did, but Raven’s lips were set in a sour frown. It seemed unfair that I didn’t know, given how high my KNO was: I should have known pretty much anything that was common knowledge on Aerb, in my opinion, and most things that were uncommon knowledge.

“Sorry?” I asked, more of a question than an apology.

“The mujahideen were a resistance group,” said Amaryllis. “It was a proxy war, and they were given some training and assistance by a major player. The enemy of my enemy is my friend of convenience, yes? So after something like two decades and hundreds of millions spent, the mujahideen managed to more or less win, and it was at that point that it stopped being convenient. Unfortunately, the problem with using the enemy of your enemy is that after you’ve destroyed a mutual target, you’re no longer friends of convenience, and you’re not necessarily aligned. Go ahead, ask me what the mujahideen did that was so bad.”

“Uh,” I said. I really had no idea why this was getting her riled up. Amaryllis was perfectly capable of masking her emotions, and if she was being forthright in her anger, I must really have stepped in it. “What did they do that was so bad?”

Amaryllis looked me dead in the eyes. “On September 11th, 2001, they flew some planes into the World Trade Center.”

I stared at her for a moment. “Alright,” I said. “I’ll cop to not knowing very much about the Middle East.” I didn’t know enough to challenge her narrative, that was for sure.

“Didn’t your father go to war in the Middle East?” asked Grak.

“He did,” I replied. “Gulf War I. But — look, lets not get bogged down in a few gaps in my knowledge about Earth.”

“Wait,” said Raven, “Don’t you literally have an entire expression about that event? ‘Never forget’?”

I looked between Raven and Amaryllis. “I mean, if you’re saying that Osama bin Laden was given money by the CIA — is that what you’re saying?”

“That’s more of a history lesson than we have time for,” said Amaryllis. “The point wasn’t actually about those attacks, or the wars that, by some idiot logic, followed them, it was about how allies of convenience can become incredibly inconvenient. It was a lot more pithy before it needed exposition.”

“I don’t want to argue that the United States ever engaged in great foreign policy, that’s probably a losing battle,” I said. “The question is what the foreign policy of Miunun should look like, with this specific case as a microcosm. Starting with the people who hated Blue-in-the-Bottle and dreamed of freedom seems like a better starting point than, I don’t know, sycophants who never saw anything wrong with their way of life. And at some point, if there is a pre-existing resistance movement, we’ll probably have to grapple with them anyway.”

“So, no democracy then?” asked Grak.

“Lord no,” snorted Amaryllis. “Self-governance is important from both a pragmatic and ethical standpoint, but the form that self-governance should take is absolutely not democratic elections, or worse, direct democracy. Take the temperature of the room, sure, but we’re not going to foist a new system of governance on these people from the word go, and certainly not one that only works, when it does, with an educated and culturally cohesive population, which this is not.”

“Er,” I said. I sometimes forgot that Amaryllis was royalty, not that it necessarily impacted her views too much. She didn’t come from a place that put any particular value on democratic rule though, aside from the risk that the populace would break out the guillotines. “Okay, well, we need to do a full survey of what conditions are like, through all the different partitioned cities. We go in, talk to some people about what their lives are like, what they think, and try to go from there. We can read through all the spreadsheets and memorandums that we want, but that’s never going to be a substitute for actually talking to people, especially when Blue-in-the-Bottle might have faked … pretty much anything.” None of us trusted his accounting of things.

“And the Captain himself?” asked Raven.

“We use him, then … my instinct is to kill him,” I said. “No use in keeping someone dangerous alive. Some of it is going to depend on what his former subjects want. We don’t want to make a martyr, but we also don’t want to leave open a chance for him to return.”

Amaryllis nodded. “We’ll have the Empire’s help, for what it’s worth. OIDR has been called in, even though it’s technically outside their purview, and they’re already under stress. And we’ll have the tuung, en masse. Damage to our buildings in Poran was minimal, and I’ve made arrangements for the second generation.”

“Wait,” I said. “What? I’m on the second generation planning committee. What do you mean you’ve made arrangements?”

“I still need to talk to the committee about it, as do you, and obviously it won’t go forward without buy-in from the tuung themselves, who will be the ones doing the teaching,” said Amaryllis. “The arrangements I was speaking of were done with Bethel and Valencia.”

I frowned. “When?”

“I have a clone with them,” Amaryllis said with a sigh. “I live in a small apartment down the road from Bethel, not close enough that I’m within her sphere of influence. Valencia thought that it would be best if we could reintroduce and re-integrate slowly, and this way, we can have a better line of communication.”

“Oh,” I said. It made me feel a little queasy. I didn’t like the idea of Amaryllis being in trouble, not so far away, not when she was deprived of her magic. I didn’t begrudge her not mentioning it to me: I wouldn’t have disagreed with the decision, and all knowing would do would be to make me worry for nothing. “Well, be careful.”

“I think Val should come here,” said Amaryllis. “She’s the best person to vet people that we know, and if we have any hope of constructing a functional government for these people, we’re going to need a solid foundation, which comes from having good people more than good laws. That said, we’ll also need good laws so that the good people aren’t swept out by the legal and political structures we lay down.”

“Where does that leave Bethel, if Val is here?” I asked.

“With a small amount of independence,” replied Amaryllis. “I trust Val to know whether or not leaving her with that independence is wise, and she’s given the all clear, at least on this trial basis.” She was watching me carefully.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Can Valencia be trusted?” asked Raven. “Not to put too fine a point on it, but it was my understanding there have been problems in the past.” Raven and Fenn had never even met, which was weird to think about.

“Valencia hand-selected the entire teaching staff for the first generation,” said Amaryllis. “She vetted the tuung for positions of power and authority. She has a better track record than almost anyone at exactly the kind of problem we’re currently trying to unravel.”

“One part of the problem,” said Grak. “There is also the issue of food. It is all supplied by zombies at the moment.”

“Right,” said Amaryllis. “Barren bread is a possibility in the short term, though even then, it’s a tremendous cost and logistical problem, which would apply even if we set up our own operations in Barren Jewel with a direct line to Necrolaborem or wherever we end up settling these people. Narratively, that would be a good way to revisit an old location.” She was deep in thought, not really looking at anyone. “The other option is harvesting directly from the plane of flesh, which would take an enormous amount of labor and capital, but might provide better returns.”

“The Second Empire tried it,” said Raven, already shaking her head. “There was an imperial-funded project that attempted extraction from all the closer elemental planes. Flesh was promising, but in practice, the continued efforts of star mages to keep the portal open, the bottlenecks of the flesh mines, and the poor quality of what was taken out, all led to it being closed. It was also tried during the First Empire, somewhat more successfully, by a group of dragons that needed enormous quantities of meat, but it wasn’t sustainable.”

“We have Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “Narratively, it wouldn’t make sense to embark on the plan unless he was a key component anyway.”

“Stop bringing up narrative,” I said. I was still a little pissed off about the mujahideen thing, because I really desperately needed to read a book on the subject of the American involvement in the Middle East, or if not a book, then at least a print out of a Wikipedia article. I wasn’t angry, I just had that salty feeling that I got after losing at a game, the kind of low-key anger that needs to be managed.

“Narrative isn’t driving us, but it needs consideration,” said Amaryllis. “Let me ask you this: if you were a Dungeon Master and you included something like this in a game, what would the point of it be? How would you resolve it? What solutions would you accept from players attempting to resolve it?” She waited a tick after each of those questions, but I didn’t jump at any answers.

“Uh,” I said. “Alright, if this were me, and I put my players in a situation like this, it would probably be because I was in a bad mood, or in a funk, or something like that. And if I was aware of that, I would go along with whatever solution the players thought up so long as it wasn’t shit, because I wouldn’t want to mire them in depressing reality for too long. If I didn’t realize what I was doing, or if I was just being an exceptional asshole, I would rub their nose in it.” I sighed. “Does that help?”

“So a portal to the elemental plane of flesh as a long-term way of feeding people, yay or nay?” asked Amaryllis.

“I mean, it’s cool,” I said. “The fact that no one has done it, or worse, that someone has done it and found it unprofitable, does raise an eyebrow though.”

Grak gave a polite cough. “One might question the idea of doing what the Second Empire did,” he said. “Especially if you are saying you will implement those schemes better.”

“Eh,” I said. “I don’t know if that argument is germane. It’s definitely in line with what I know about the Second Empire’s, but yeah, the Second Empire sucked in a lot of ways, and most of that was down to ideology, which we don’t share with them.”

“Which you and Amaryllis mostly don’t share with them,” said Raven.

“We’re explicitly talking about self-governance here,” I said. “Wasn’t one of the central tenets of the Second Empire, ‘we know better’? We’re not saying that.”

“Not a tenet, no,” said Raven. “But a natural consequence of their tenets, yes.”

“We do know better, though,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms. “We have not just the entirety of Aerb’s history, but the entire history of Earth as well, and the assistance of Valencia.”

“We’re talking too broadly,” I said. “And we really need to be considering the people down there.” I was still feeling the weight of it, and all this abstract discussion wasn’t helping me. “Step one — wait, no, step zero is ensuring basic needs are met, which includes food, water, sanitation, and making sure that Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle doesn’t mobilize against them, all that in the short term, before we could even think about a portal. Then step one is ensuring that there’s a proper organization to this huge mass of people, because we can’t do anything without an org structure, even if it’s just a temporary one. From there, we can think about transitioning the population to somewhere that’s not a utilitarian underground bunker, or creating a proper government, or helping them to help themselves, or the food crisis that’s going to hit if we don’t have a solution. But since we’re likely to uncover things that might change the conversation, better to have that conversation later and focus on the groundwork now.”

Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 27!

Loyalty increased: Raven lvl 5!

I took that as a good sign, but it did very little to lift my spirits. There was too much work to do.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 213: The Endless Toil

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