Expeditions in the Western Wilderness

The first of the two novels I’m currently working on—and the one I think I’ll write first, as it is in its nature the narratively simpler of the two (though I wouldn’t call it narratively simple)—is about an expedition into the Wilderness of the West in Avar Narn (I’m going to ask you in advance to forgive the seeming randomness of some of my capitalization—I blame this on too much time studying texts written before orthography, punctuation and capitalization were standardized). I thought I’d share some information about the background of the novel to see if anyone would like to offer feedback.

These notes are tentative and potentially subject to change.

The Background

Long ago, the Aenyr people came to the known world from the West (legend says from an island). The Aenyr were powerful thaumaturges and magi; this power made their dominance over the peoples of the Avar all but assured. They founded great cities of wondrous artifice and thaumaturgical genius, but their ascendency was built on the backs of enslaved humans. The Aenyr Empire expanded as far as the Altaenin island in the Central Sea before internal conflict and abuse of their sorcerous powers caused civil war, rebellion and eventually collapse. The Aenyr retreated from the Avar for over a thousand years. Though they have returned in small numbers more recently, they are no longer the masters of thaumaturgy they once were, no longer interested in dominating the Avar (at least most of them are not), and they have forgotten most if not all of the secret knowledges they had once discovered.

When the Aenyr abandoned the Avar (a story for another time), they left their magnificent cities to rot and crumble. Farther east, many of the current great cities (each of the Seven Sisters, like Ilessa, for instance) are built upon the ruins and remains of those ancient dwellings. In the West, though, these cities—some of the greatest built by the Aenyr—were abandoned fully by civilized folk.

But there is much coin to be made in the realm of thaumaturgical advancements and Artificial devices (those powered by arcane energies). While some research to innovate on their own, the Artificer Houses, the universities, and those looking to make a name for themselves (or just put coin in their pouches) look to these forgotten places to rediscover secrets of the past—to monetize them.

Elderyn

From the town of Elderyn, venture companies form to search the Wilderness of the West for ancient ruins to be looted for their knowledge (and gold).

The town started small but has grown to great proportions to harbor the trade that spawned it. Once merely a last stop before the Wild, now Elderyn caters to the every need of venturers and expeditions. Tradesmen and craftsman make the weapons and tools for surviving the Wild; brothels and taverns provide respite from the weariness of travel and adventure for those who return successful.

At the edge of the Western Wild, Elderyn is beyond the reach of the lordlings who rule elsewhere. A Governor rules Elderyn, one elected by a combination of the town’s landowners, “registered” members of venture companies and expedition patrons. The Governor’s primary role is providing some rule of law for the business of expeditions bound for Aenyr ruins—a buffer against the might of the Artificer Houses, cheats and swindlers. Of course, the Governor himself is amenable to the occasional bribe, and skullduggery remains the status quo except for the vilest of offenses. Petty crimes—minor thievery, murder and the like—are handled by popular justice.

Venture Companies

The men and women of venture companies are no shining heroes—they are a desperate lot who find themselves unfit—by history or by inclination—for life in civilization. They are cutthroats, murderers and oddballs willing or forced by circumstance to risk their lives for gold and glory. Mercenaries, thugs, thieves and assassins, many came to Elderyn to avoid their deserved justice.

And these are just the type of people that sponsors of expeditions west want in their employ—rough men and women who have few qualms about doing what it takes to return from the Wild with something to show for themselves.

The typical arrangement between an expedition patron and a venture company is a contractual one—the Governor’s foremost role is to enforce these contracts once written. The customary arrangement is that the patron is entitled to all discoveries of written goods and Artifice, for which the company will be compensated at a rate determined by a neutral appraiser. Valuable objects that are not significant vehicles of lost knowledge are loot kept by the company—after they are studied and logged by the group’s scholars.

Venture companies are no small affair. A company needs wilderness scouts and trackers; barber-surgeons to tend to the inevitable injury and disease; scholars and scribes to understand and document any finds; cartographers to preserve the way for the company’s future expeditions; thaumaturges to protect the company and assist in finding valuable ruins; handlers for the expedition’s pack animals, etc.

To somewhat reduce the number of people required for an expedition (and thus increase each company member’s share), there is an “everyone works, everyone fights” mentality. No one in the company is dedicated to only one task, no one is exempt from the heavy labor required in the field, and no one may refuse to fight when necessary.

Some expected occupations among the company are lacking. No company brings a member on to be a cook, though a venturer who can prepare tasty meals rarely lacks for employment. Unlike mercenary companies, which venture companies superficially resemble, no camp followers are brought on expedition. Company members are expected to satisfy such needs “catch as catch can,” though such issues are not infrequently the causes of jealousies and fights between company members.

The average size of the venture company is sixty souls.

A venture company is perhaps one of the most egalitarian organizations in the Avar. Members are judged on merit, not on gender or appearance—remember that they’re all outcasts together. Women are as valuable as men if they pull their own weight. As important, venture companies are democratic—they elect their captain and vote on major decisions. Only when the company is in crisis or under direct threat is the rule of the captain absolute and infallible.

Despite the possibility of new elections at any time the company is not threatened, most captains maintain their positions solidly, resting on the reputation of past successes and trust built in the crucible of conflict.

The Great Game

Thaumaturgical know-how and the secrets of Artifice are perhaps the most valuable commodities in the Avar at present, so it should be no surprise that those involved in expeditions to discover lost secrets in Aenyr ruins are willing to resort to unsavory ends to increase their profit margins.

In the Wild, the only rule of law is the steel you bring with you; armed and violent conflicts between rival venture companies are not uncommon when one has made a discovery. Some companies—under patronage or not—attempt to make their fortune by following other companies and poaching their finds by force. If discovered, such companies face harsh retribution from the Governor and the security forces of Elderyn (undoubtedly supplemented by angry fellow venturers). Few, though, leave witnesses to their crimes.

Espionage also is a constant threat. A company’s maps and experience are its prized possessions in securing patronage for ventures West, and rare is the company wealthy (or foresighted) enough to be able to fund its own expedition. Both the theft of company secrets and espionage are punished in almost unthinkable ways. Yet, the lure of gold still outweighs such deterrents for some.

As might be suspected, the Artificer Houses are the most to be feared when it comes to poaching and espionage. Though they can fund the best equipped and supplied venture companies, they are always looking for ways to maximize profits while minimizing costs, and any opportunity to limit knowledge of Artifice to their own makers has a value of its own. Their airships allow them to send men into the Wild to steal another company’s find with alacrity, though the ancient wards of Aenyr cities make them impossible to spot from the air and the limitations of such craft make them unfit to deliver whole expeditions into the great wilderness, they are useful for suddenly overtaking an unwary venture company that’s made a find—the House men delivered by airship may then appropriate the slain company’s equipment to bring back their treasures to Elderyn.

What does it all mean? 

The idea for a novel based in this commerce is manifold. Some of these ideas arose out of the worldbuilding for Avar Narn itself—the commerce in Artifice is fundamental to many of the setting’s inherent conflicts.

But I’ve also always wanted to write a more modern take on the classic fantasy quest. Here, hard and desperate men and women are cogs in a machine of commerce—not valiant heroes saving the world. Though there is much wonder in the Wild, the life of an adventurer is more commonly one of suffering, labor and boredom punctuated by moments of terror. At its heart, I just love fantasy fiction that is gritty and “realistic.”

Don’t mistake my stated goals here for pure cynicism. Classic fantasy quests are morally instructive tales—look to the Grail Quest, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings. But I believe that both moral instruction and fantasy that are more mature are able to provide morality and ethics in a more complicated world—one of pragmatism and expedience, ambiguity in righteousness, competing needs. A world in some ways more like our own. I think that the novel (still without a working title) based on these ideas has a chance of doing just that. We shall see.

The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
mother”
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
“resurrectionist”
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
“matron”
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
inanimate”
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
“orphan”
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
living”
Ärtälyr = “mothers
(general/abstract)”
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.

Avar Narn: An Introduction to Magic

In this post, I want to talk about the place of magic in fiction in general and in my own fantasy setting, Avar Narn, in particular.

First, the general. What does magic represent in fiction? Many things are possible: a convenient plot device or deus ex machina; the power of words (ref. Earthsea and Dresden Files for examples); a dualistic or non-material worldview; the power of the mind and/or will; and, quite simply, the fantastic.

When I studied medieval and renaissance literature at the University of Texas for my master’s degree, one of my areas of interest was in cultural ideas and constructs about magic and the occult. While the age of serious witch-hunting was later than the period on which I focused, there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for the study of both folk beliefs and scholarly beliefs in the efficacy of magic. One of my favorite books on the subject is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas convincingly argues that people increasingly turned to folk magic as the Reformation deprived them of Catholic apotropaic rituals and  miraculous healings that had formed a key part of their worldview served fundamental psychological needs.

In my own studies, what occurred to me in the study of real-world attitudes toward magic in the medieval and early modern periods was that magic represented a threat to traditional forms of power. Qabbalistic and Hermetic systems of magic represented the belief that “knowledge is power” stripped down to its barest form, challenging ideas of power through land ownership, military might and birthright. This aspect of beliefs in supernatural powers fascinated me and has undoubtedly informed in part my own approach to magic in Avar Narn.

I do not intend to spend much time talking about how to build a magic “system” for fictional settings–there are plenty of well-written articles, blog posts and other resources on this subject. Instead, I want to examine why a setting might have magic at all.

As you know, good magic systems have a cost associated with them–think of the blood magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the sanity-sapping occult knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. Thus, integral to a magic system is dramatic conflict of a type recognizable to any reader–what price are we willing to pay to get what we want? There are few conflicts more visceral or primal than that. In fact, we might consider that conflict to be a core part of any conflict whatsoever.

If willingness to pay the cost of magic is an archetypal dramatic conflict, the ability to pay the cost is also a prime ground for the kinds of conflict that drives stories–think of the destruction of the One Ring or the quest for the Grail. When certain conditions or materials are required for the successful use of magic, this itself can be a primary plot around which to build a story. This, I think is more commonly used in role-playing games than novels, but has a place in both.

In addition to providing ready conflicts to write about, magic tells us something (often much) about the nature of the setting. Magic with a high cost usually results in dark fantasy (think the Warhammer Fantasy universe, for instance), while magic with a low cost might become what we’d call “epic” or “high fantasy” but (in my opinion) more often looks more like a superhero story. In at least most cases, a magic system alone is insufficient to readily categorize the genre of a story (to the extent that such categories are really helpful anyway), but it is nevertheless a great contributor to the atmosphere of a setting. Where magic is rare a reader will take note when it occurs; when plentiful it will have far-reaching effects on economics, politics and the like. If your magic system doesn’t influence the way your world works in some way, it will feel “stuck-on” or compartmentalized and that does not contribute to the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is more interesting to me about what magic tells us about a setting is that the definition of magic is, essentially, a cosmological task. The why, what, how, when and where of magic tells you something about how the very fabric–the “reality”–of a setting works. Magic as a latent force to be manipulated and studied scientifically is quite different from a mysterious magic that cannot be fully understood and is used only tenuously.

With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about “magic” in Avar Narn.

First, I try to avoid using the word “magic” within the setting. For semiotic ease, I don’t mind talking about that aspect of the system as “magic,” but the characters in the world don’t think of it with that word–it’s got too much fantasy baggage. Instead, the force of magic in Avar Narn is usually referred to metaphorically as “the Power” and its use as “the Gift” or “the Art.” Likewise, Avar Narn stories do not talk about “spells,” they speak instead of “workings.”

Is this a cheap trick? Is an elf by any other name still really an elf? More important, do readers balk when your story has stereotypical elves but you call them something else? I don’t know the answer for sure, but I definitely see this risk here. So, does playing games with the nomenclature of magic hurt or help in the long-run? I’ve made my choice and I’ll live with the consequences.

With all of that in mind, here’s some description of magic in Avar Narn:

Meaning: All of the details of the arcane in Avar Narn flow from the meaning I’ve set for this aspect of the setting. Magic, in this world, is about the power of the will writ large–the ways in which we use our freedom of will for good or for evil (or, as is more often the case in Avar Narn, some gray area quite in-between). Not just the details about how the arcane works, but the very history of its use show how mortals typically twist the good gifts they’ve been give to selfish and self-destructive purposes.

Source: The Power, the source of arcane workings of any sort in Avar Narn, is the stuff of Creation itself, raw possibility that The One (or whichever divine power a person happens to believe in) has made available to some.

Availability: Not everyone has access to the Power, and even among those who do the ability to shape the Power into an actual working is limited for most. Why this is the case is a mystery to scholars–to a certain extent, differences in the effectiveness of practitioners can be explained by the thoroughness of their studies and discipline. Nevertheless, the question of why some have the Gift at all and others do not remains open. Some say that those who wield the Gift have returned to this world in a higher state of being after gaining some modicum of enlightenment in past lives, but the tendency of so many practitioners to fall to corruption through their use of the Power undercuts this idea. Regardless, I’m not willing to explicitly explain this–nor do I need to, as having multiple theories and no concrete answer feels more realistic.

Difficulty: Magic in Avar Narn is difficult to perform properly, even under the most favorable of conditions. Scholars of the arcane believe that this is because the natural state of Creation resists mortal attempts to reshape it through the Power of raw possibility–the more radically a desired effect differs from expectations of natural law and causation, the more difficult it is to achieve.

This means that magic is more often subtle than flashy, more often a component of a larger undertaking rather than a replacement for mundane action. Yes, truly fantastic effects are possible, but often they are simply achievable through other means. Magi with the right training and preparation may make for devastating battlefield artillery, but cannon are cheaper and easier to replace. It is the flexibility of arcane workings that makes magi a force to be reckoned with more than the Art’s raw force.

The Cost: Like any good magic system, the use of the Power is fraught with costs–some minor, some significant. At perhaps the most minor level, the use of the Power is fatiguing on mind and body–sometimes to the point of lasting physical injury. As important, controlling the Power to form a working is difficult at best, and uncontrolled raw possibility bleeding into the world is anything but safe. Not only do practitioners have to worry about losing control of their intended working, but even successful workings may have unintended side effects. Even without immediate side effects, small amounts of the Power bleed into the world from even the most tightly-controlled workings. This is called Flux. If Flux accumulates before it naturally dissipates, it can cause random and unlikely events to occur. From this comes the stories of a magus’s presence spoiling milk or turning candles blue; this reality has done much to generate fear and persecution of practitioners over time.

Additionally, there is what I’m currently calling “the Practitioner’s Dialectic.” The Dialectic is the observation that the emotional and mental state of a practitioner when performing a working will affect the nature of the working, and the types of workings wrought will subtly influence the mind and emotions of the practitioner. One who uses the Power for malicious ends may find himself corrupted into a “natural” state of maliciousness, even if the first steps down such a path were intended to ultimately be for good. In other words, practitioners who use the Power under the idea that the end justifies the means often find that the means become the end. Remember, the use of the Art is symbolic of the use of free will writ large, and the use of free will is recursive–every choice we make sets us on a new path and changes or affirms (if ever so slightly) who we are.

These costs are known in the Avar as the “Fourfold Curse” of the Art–the risk of physical injury, the difficulty of controlling workings and their side effects, Flux and the Practitioner’s Dialectic. In Avar Narn, magic is capable of truly wondrous and miraculous things (although its use is not so wanton or commonplace as, say, a Dungeons & Dragons setting), but the narrative conflict of magic is whether it is worth the cost.

The Practices: There are five Practices of magic in Avar Narn–at least according to the widely used Ealthen system of categorization. These are:

Sorceries: Sorceries are brute force workings, the quick summoning of the Power combined with a raw exertion of the will. They do not create long-lasting effects, are relatively weak compared to other Practices and are messy in application. On the other hand, they are the fastest possible applications of the Power and some individuals (known as “Sorcerers” and “Sorceresses”) are able to wield sorceries without formal training. Other Practitioners view Sorcerers as especially dangerous given their unpredictability and the heightened influence of the Practitioner’s Dialectic on sorceries.

Thaumaturgies: Thaumaturgies are what most people think of when they think of “spells.” A thaumaturgy is the careful formation of the Power into an intended effect. This requires time, focus and skill–thaumaturgies typically employ incantations, hand gestures and at least a whole minute to complete. Rather than simply directing the Power with the will as in a sorcery, a thaumaturgy involves creating mental structures and sequences of thoughts to deliberately and cautiously create a desired effect. These effects are typically relatively short-lived; while noticeably more powerful than sorceries, the wonders created by thaumaturgies often pale in comparison to the power of ritual workings.

Ritual: The most powerful and lasting “immediate” effects are achieved through rituals. Rituals make use of arcane diagrams and occult sympathies to create the structure for a working (rather than requiring the practitioner to form everything in her mind). It takes time to set up a ritual–a magic circle is necessary and the items and ingredients for such an undertaking are usually not readily available. Further, the Flux of a ritual working adheres to the place of the working rather than the worker–this has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the most important aspect of ritual workings is that their effects may be created so as to be longer-lasting, persisting for days, weeks or months. Powering such persistence can be quite costly, however, and any effect meant to be permanent–such a Fleshcrafting–requires permanent sacrifice of some sort or another.

Alchemy: Alchemy is the use of occult sympathies, proto-science and the Art to store effects in consumable items. This allows the practitioner to pay the cost of a working in advance and to delay the use of the working until situationally appropriate. Alchemical effects are typically on par in power with sorceries or thaumaturgies but not rituals.

Artifice: Artifice is the set of closely-guarded secrets that involve using the Power as a source of energy for driving mechanical creations. The practice requires magical skill, engineering talent, competency in alchemy and many other esoteric knowledges to perform. Artifice plays an important historical, social and economic role in the Avar, as you’ll see in upcoming stories.

This really only scratches the surface of the details of arcane power in Avar Narn–I’ve found working on magic within the setting deeply fascinating and rewarding so it has developed what I hope is dramatic nuance and complexity that properly limits the effectiveness of magic while making it capable of wondrous things in ways that will be narratively exciting. More to come, on the subject, I’m sure.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part V: Development of a Community

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Having spent some time looking at high-level issues for the course of this sci-fi setting, I’m now going to shift gears in this post and “zoom in” to create one of the lower-tiered communities I’ve vaguely described before.

This community will be one that, because of its value systems, largely stands alone from the tiered system entirely, as those communities with extreme ideologies, experimental societies or strong adherence to values of self-sufficiency tend to do.

This community starts with a social movement that arose just as body augmentation began to become a regular part of society. While all augmentations—including cybernetics and bio-engineered prostheses—caused a deepening in the already-wide gulf between the haves and the have-nots, the pinnacle of this technologically-based fracturing occurred with high-level genetic manipulation.

Those who could afford to have themselves or their children genegineered, as the neologism went, created individuals who were smarter, more attractive, more physically capable, and less susceptible to disease and injury than “baseline” humans, perpetuating the regime of dominance they already enjoyed through social influence and wealth.

The community we’re concerned with developed as a backlash and form of social resistance to the so-called genobles. This began in traditional punk fashion: the incorporation of alternative political ideologies—anarchist, socialist and otherwise—with other value systems and a look that set them apart from “mainstream” society. The loose community of like-minded individuals challenged the “perfected human” ideal through their own forms of body modification and augmentation. Members of the community sought to outdo one another with extensive and grotesque physical forms that questioned the meaning of humanity and brought attention to their cause. They styled themselves Revoltists, both because of their revolt against mainstream values and because of their practice of adopting revolting physical forms.

As society evolved toward the tier system, so did the Revoltist movement. Anarchist ideology became dominant among members, and a system of meaning crept into the physical forms adopted by adherents. Eventually, the scientists involved with the Revoltist movement created genetic templates for different physiognomies, further standardizing the various “looks” of Revoltists. The technologies of body augmentation had become less expensive and more affordable as the decades passed, further enabling the consolidation of the movement.

During this time, the Revoltists co-opted parts of the Otherkin community (some of whom had used body augmentation to create bodies that matched the creatures they believed they really were; this nevertheless caused a schism in the Otherkin community) and decided that the use of faery mythology provided a symbolism readily-adaptable to their ideologies. Revoltists began to create themselves as elves, goblins, trolls, and all other manner of creature connected with the various faery mythologies of the world, with each different physiology representing certain sub-ideologies, arguments or schools of thought within the collective.

Following the faery paradigm, the Revoltists divided themselves into a Seelie Court and Unseelie Court, with the Seelie Court representing collectivist anarchists and the Unseelie Court representing individualist anarchists. Further subcategories—trouping faeries and solitary faeries, seasonal “courts” and other constructs borrowed from faery mythology—provided further categories for belief systems within the larger whole of Revoltist anarchy.

Eventually, the group began to refer to themselves as the Fae, dropping the Revoltist moniker altogether. As humanity established colonies on other worlds, the Fae participated by establishing their own communities, though the majority of the organization elected to make their home in a massive flotilla of ships, often referred to as the “Faery Fleet.”

The problem with genetic modification is that—without intervention—you pass to your children the traits you’ve chosen for yourself. The latest generation of the Fae have many members who are Fae in appearance only—they do not subscribe to the values and ideologies on which their community was founded, leading many of them to leave the Faery Fleet or other Faery colonies to find a place where they can feel that they belong. Some undergo the genetic modification to return to more human physiologies, but a great many take their look with them, a reminder of where they came from even if it is not a place they can remain. This new diaspora has resulted in a sort of “manufactured racism,” as members of the Fae who attempt to reincorporate into “mainstream” societies still represent the other, physically, socially and ideologically.

Worldbuilding Exercise, Part IV: Warfare

For the previous post in this series, click here.

To fully understand the politics of a setting, one must also understand warfare. For now, I’m not going to address space-based combat—though I’ll have to eventually. Here are some notes upon the general nature of modern warfare in this setting:

Large-scale battles are a rarity, but they do exist. Because of the privatization of military resources, warfare in the common sense of the term only occurs when there are broad-scale clashes between high-tier associations and/or powerful corporations that have not been resolved by diplomatic measures or arbitration. Most often, large-scale warfare occurs when one or more parties attempts to resist abiding by their contractual agreements and refuses to accept arbitration of differences.

Instead, asymmetric warfare is the order of the day. Mass communication networks and the prevalence of virtual reality interfaces mean that anyone with determination, time and access can learn combat skills individually—anyone can become a trained soldier or killer. Meanwhile, body augmentation allows for individuals to become capable of exceptional physical and mental feats without the dedication necessary for grueling athletic training.

Autonomous manufacturing resources allow the untraceable (or at least not-easily-traceable) production of weapons, armor and militarized devices. The tiered-system of communities makes the regulation of such items difficult at best. Even anti-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction seems almost a lost cause, with humans’ best solace the fact that the diaspora amongst the stars makes extinction of the entire human race through warfare or weaponry extremely unlikely.

This means that small, motivated groups have all the tools they need to become effective fighters on a small scale. This is true of regular citizens with above-board defensive interests, criminal organizations, terrorist groups, and communities built around militaristic principles.

Thus, skirmishes and small-scale actions between highly-trained and well equipped teams are far more common than wholesale warfare.

This style of combat lends itself to operations that would have fallen to “special operations soldiers” in the 20th and 21st centuries. The limited resources (all considered) of smaller teams of operators influence mission types, which are more often focused on strategic, infrastructure, economic or political targets over “take & hold” missions that require large groups of infantry and other personnel to maintain. Quick, surgical strikes and terrorist-style attacks are unfortunately common, as these allow even the smallest of communities to influence sociopolitics without having to secure the support of their higher-tier patrons.

Informatics and informational warfare are of course key. Ubiquitous connectivity incentivizes hacking attacks as much as more traditionally-combative ones—though it is increasingly the case that information warfare has become in inseparable part of tactical operations rather than an independent means of warfare.

As with all asymmetric warfare, identification of combatants and non-combatants is a constant issue. Despite the use of special tactics and technologies, innocent bystanders are common victims of the disputes—ideological, political, economic—between small and self-contained tactical teams composed of individuals armed-to-the-teeth.

Despite heightened awareness of the psychological maladies that stem from participation in combat and new treatment techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions remain a constant personal and social issue. Psychologists attribute this in part to empathic atrophy caused by the overuse of technological communication over interpersonal, face-to-face encounters, but also by the fact that many who learn their combative skills do so through games and simulations that allow for training in the physical methodologies of combat without preparing participants for the psychic stress of walking the edge between life and death and the taking of human lives.

Even though most military encounters are fought by small groups of people—often between four and thirty to a side—combined arms tactics and strategies remain at the forefront of the most effective warfare techniques. The use of semi-autonomous robots, such as drones, computerized artillery, and adaptive vehicles gives tactical teams opportunities to use combined-arms resources even on small scales with requiring the dedication to a large number of people to control those aspects of the fight. A single operator assigned toward informatics and hacking needs and a second set to supervise and coordinate the operation of drones and other automata is often enough to allow the rest of the team to focus on taking the fight directly to the enemy.

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Worldbuilding Exercise, Part III: Politics in Broad Strokes

For the previous post in this series, click here.

Having addressed some of the preliminary issues, and having decided that this setting will deal with political and ideological struggles, it’s time to let the rubber start to hit the road. I prefer to start with the big ideas first and then see how multiple big ideas influence one another to determine the details.

Today, then, we’re going to look at politics in the setting.

I’ve done a fair bit of research on the speculations of political scholars and futurists about what kind of government systems the future will hold. Here’re some brief conclusions from that research that will influence the choices that follow:

(1) Francis Fukuyama’s “End of the World” hypothesis is dead. In fact, I’m of the mind that it was DOA.

(2) A number of writers see an end to nationalism in the globalization of society because technology allows us to form bonds that transcend national boundaries through newfound communicative outlets. These writers see ideologies and interests as the boundaries on which future sociopolitical groups will define themselves.

At the same time, we’ve witnessed in the start of the 21st century a decided throwback to nationalist sentiment, largely as a response to mass emigrations of refugees from middle-eastern countries in conflict, but also as a response to a feeling that the East is reaching greater parity in influence with the West, ending centuries-old Euro-/Anglo-centrism. We can point to Trump’s election and the rise of extremist nationalist organizations (some of which ought to be classified as terrorist groups) as well as the growing anti-immigration, cultural-supremacy and nationalist sentiments expressed in Germany and France.

I am curious as to whether these phenomena represent the death throes of historic nationalism or refute the “end of nationalism” theories espoused above.

(3) If nationalism does—at least for the most part—die in our future, what do governmental systems look like?

Some of the writers above see a sort of neo-feudalism in our future, where patron-vassal relationships on various scales replace strict national boundaries.

Other scholars note growing dissatisfaction (justified or not) with the ability of governments to effectively provide the essential services demanded by their citizens. These thinkers see an increase in private organizations providing services formerly the purview of government agencies. There’s plenty of evidence to support this—Space-X and Blackwater come immediately to mind.

While this latter idea appeals to my inner cyberpunk, I have significant doubts about the extent to which corporations and other businesses would insert themselves into direct governance. Why? Because the goal of corporations is to make money; the bureaucracy of governance and the tasks associated with providing for the common good are good ways to sap the bottom line. If recent American politics is any indication, corporations seem to be better served wielding great influence over governance without the attached responsibility.

With those things in mind, here’s what I’ve decided on for this sci-fi setting:

Free Association and Tiered-Relationships: I’m going with the idea that enhanced communication, the interchange of cultural ideas and opportunities to colonize other worlds and/or find secluded places for experimental societies will indeed cause newer communities to form based on ideological constructs over nationalism. Of course, some of these ideological constructs will be based on religion; ethnicity and traditional language and culture and even, sometimes, nationality. But, on the whole, we would expect to see a greater number of smaller ideologically-organized communities rather than a smaller number of larger “nations.”

Economics would dictate that these smaller communities would find an advantage to organizing for the provision of traditional governmental services—infrastructure, defense, etc. Those communities closest to one another (provided that they can get along) will have a common interest in local matters and may have resources enough to direct provide some services to citizens either collectively or individually.

For larger scale needs—long range shipping and post, military defense and security, medical care and the like—the average small scale community cannot provide alone. By collectivizing—at least in terms of bargaining and paying for traditionally-governmental services—small communities may retain their individuality and autonomy while enjoying infrastructure and services benefits formerly only provided by larger-scale government organizations.

Not all services would be bargained for at the same level. A collection of a handful of communities—micro-city-states, if you will—might band into an association for the provision of waste removal services and local utility provision. For larger scale needs, though, they need a larger collective, so their association joins with other similarly-sized associations to form a bigger bargaining bloc—a higher tier of collectivization. This larger association may then negotiate for the provision of more expensive services—long-range communication or healthcare, for instance.

Three or four tiers of associations would be sufficient to provide for the majority of services and governmental functions needed by the average community, meaning that a community (in addition to being an autonomous “local government”) would belong to several tiers of organizations, each higher tier acting as a sort of patron to its lower-member tiers in what we might call a collective feudalism.

Privatized Service Providers

Some corporations have developed specifically to provide various governmental functions by contract with the tiered associations described above. One corporation might specialize in security and law-enforcement services, another in medical services and hospital maintenance, another in data-management and bureaucratic processes (licensing, maintenance of health and safety codes, etc.) and a fourth might maintain s standing army for the defense of its contracted communities.

Of course, the savviest corporate directors and executives will diversify their business interests, with a “mega-” or “hyper-” corporation having a plethora of subsidiaries involved in various fields. By forming subsidiaries to provide governmental services, these larger corporations enjoy a number of benefits. They gain influence over civilian governments while being paid by those same communities for the privilege of the services. This allows the corporations an influential role in many aspects of daily life without requiring a loss to the bottom line for purchasing such influence. Additionally, when a subsidiary provides government services to a community or association, that naturally creates a market for the goods and services of the corporation’s other subsidiary operations.

The New Transparency

The system of collective bargaining with privatized service providers does not provide corporations with a tyranny over civil life. Because they operate by contract, they have a responsibility to their customers to show that they are providing for the consumer’s best interests and performing their functions efficiently and effectively.

In theory, this is simply a formalization of the social contract philosophy espoused by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. Some scholars argue that, at least in the abstract, this system provides definite democratic advantages—the governed may sever the relationship with a governmental agency that seems inept or corrupt without the necessity of bloody revolution—renegotiated contracts and legal maneuvers now serve a function that formerly required musket or machinegun.

In practice, however, the system—like perhaps any human system of government—has its share of flaws and disadvantages as well. At their heart, corporations are driven by the profit motive rather than a desire to selflessly better the lives of others. While many corporate directors hope to accomplish both ends simultaneously, there is a natural conflict of interest here that requires strict scrutiny from the governed to keep in check. The less scrupulous see only the need to provide the appearance of a fair and equitable provision of government services, and the governing ideals of some communities and associations reject traditional democratic ideas anyway, allowing for as broad a range of abuses and exploitations as any found in the 21st century.

Subscription Citizenship

While the diversity of ideologies behind the myriad communities in existence across known space makes generalization a typically foolhardy task, it is nevertheless true that the majority of autonomous communities have resorted to subscription memberships for citizenship rather than traditional taxation. Beyond the general idea of “pay to belong,” are an ever-expanding list of variables in how citizenship subscriptions are handled, including: non-monetary contribution requirements, exclusivity of citizenship, the effect of criminal conviction, whether tiers of citizens are available, the method of calculating the cost of a citizenship subscription and the scope of governmental services provided for citizens.

Citizenship in a particular community naturally entails membership in the tiered associations to which the community belongs—allowing both associations and individual communities to deal with non-citizens based upon the legal and economic relationships between the various associations at each tier, much as certain countries once favored some foreign nations over others.

Additionally, a community’s attitude toward and treatment of those without any citizenship varies greatly, with some communities or associations requiring the provision of at least basic support and rights to those without citizenship and others treating them as non-persons.

Those who lack citizenship in any collective or combine—and there are plenty—are known by various names: scavs, scavvers, wastrels, wastelanders, outcasts and more. As one might surmise, most of these epithets originate from the fact that these individuals often live in the wasteland between communities, where they must forage and scavenge for their basic needs. Non-associated communities—those who belong to none of the tiered collectives of mainstream communities, must be self-sufficient or rely upon the benevolence of other communities for their continued survival. Without a powerful defense force, these communities may be forced away from valuable resources or “annexed” by those communities whose ideologies make a place for slaves or other subclasses of citizens.

The largest corporations have citizenships of their own, though not everyone involved in their company (or companies) has (or is even eligible for) corporate citizenship.

If both communities and tiered associations allow, one may change one’s citizenship as easily as redirecting the destination of one’s subscription payments (and the amount, as necessary). The extent to which this is possible varies greatly even within the same associations.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

All of these contractual and negotiated relationships require some mechanism for their enforcement. To that end, several independent judiciary bodies have developed. Professional jurists and scholars of jurisprudence in the employ of these organizations have developed uniform codes of law and a privatized system of courts—based on the old concept of civil arbitration—to provide a framework for the relationships and contracts between communities, their associations, and service providers.

Each contract designates the specific organization whose law and arbiters will be used to resolve disputes and to control contract interpretation for that relationship. There are several such organizations, some specialized in particular types of law—interplanetary shipping, employment, healthcare, etc. The most powerful judiciary organizations are Curia Ultima, the Interplanetary Arbitration Syndicate (IAS) and Secured Transactions and Relationships (STR).

These organizations deal only in what we might call “civil” law—providing for money damages and the redistribution of property to compensate for contractual breaches or tort offenses—criminal punishment is not addressed by the arbitration organizations and is usually a matter of international diplomacy.

On the other hand, the arbitration organizations do have their own military forces and the ability to hire mercenary outfits to enforce their judgments. While small-scale skirmishes sometimes result when a losing party resists enforcement of a judgment, large-scale confrontations are rare as they are likely to bring the contracted militaries of the mega-corporations and community associations to bear for the sake of preserving this entire system, which operates based on consent.

The arbitration organizations are funded in several ways. First, those organizations wishing to use them must premiums—not unlike insurance payments—based on that organizations estimated use of the system. Second, the arbitration organizations are themselves the recipients of fines levied for bad behavior (as opposed to damages awarded to the other party as compensation for wrongdoing).

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A Worldbuilding Example – Part II: Sci-Fi Technology

For the previous post in this series, click here.

We’ve got a lot of high-level decisions to make before we get into the gritty details. Since this’ll be a sci-fi setting, deciding on the availability and prevalence of various technologies—particularly those staples of the genre—seems a good next step. What follows are the decisions I’ve made for the setting.

Consciousness Transfer/Mind Uploading: This is a popular topic lately, both in speculative science and fiction. Ray Kurzweil and his like assure us that we will soon be able to digitally transfer our minds into mechanical bodies and live forever. The ability to do this is an important facet of Altered Carbon and the Eclipse Phase RPG. I, however, don’t believe that this will ever be possible. Most important, we’ll never actually know if it works—I cannot with surety know that another person is actually conscious. Yes, this is somewhat solipsistic, but we simply don’t have an objective test to prove consciousness, just a set of tools that leads us to assume consciousness. This leads to some problems when a “transfer” of consciousness could result in a resemblance of transferred consciousness but with the actual result of killing the actual possessor of the consciousness.

The Kurzweil argument, while having a strangely spiritual component, is a materialist one. As I’ve discussed on the theological side of the blog, I don’t find materialist science to be very convincing when it comes to existential questions.

Add to this that we don’t really understand the origin or nature of consciousness (see the “hard problem” of qualia, for instance) and I have substantial doubts about the possibility of mind uploading.

Possible or not (and, in all candor, we don’t know whether it is or not and maybe advances in science will find some way to answer the question definitively), there is no denying that mind-transference makes for interesting stories. If digital immortality is included in your world, you have the potential to create some truly mythopoeic stories.

Nevertheless, I have decided that, in this setting, this technology has either been proved to be unsuccessful or that there is insufficient confidence in the effectiveness of the available technologies for anything to have been widely adopted. This preserves the dramatic power of death and the threat thereof and helps push us toward some grit in the setting.

DNI (Direct Neural Interface): Current science is making great strides in the interface between the brain and technology for multiple purposes—prosthetics, mental control of computers, even devices that—with training—can roughly predict what a person is looking at based on brainwaves.

Whatever the possibility of transferring consciousness from a meat-brain, there’s no question about the possibility of the brain interacting with computerized devices. Thus, this technology will be prevalent and in many forms—electronic “telepathy,” direct mental control of devices and machines, full-immersion virtual reality (almost indistinguishable from “real” reality), memory recording and transference (think Strange Days).

Ubiquitous Computing: We’re already starting to see more and more devices connected to the internet to gain even the slightest of advantages over offline versions. With inventions such as “smart dust” and more effective signals transmission, very few places would be out of the reach of the equivalent of the internet. Combined with “standard” augmentations, most people have the opportunity to be “online” to the extent that they wish to be and to mentally interface with most constructed objects (systems security aside, of course) in their immediate environment.

FTL Travel and Communication: I don’t know what it is, exactly, but I find the possibility of being unable to travel to the vast majority of the universe kind of depressing. While there are a few theoretical methods for beating Einstein’s speed limit (like the Alcubierre Drive), it seems that faster-than-light travel is not in our near future.

I don’t care. Faster-than-light travel is fun and I don’t want to get into the existential horror of relativistic time. I’m going to use the classic “hyperspace/slipspace” conceit—a spacecraft with the proper type of engine can shift into a physical dimension with a different geometry or rules of physics than our own that, with caveats and complications, allows for travel at much greater than speed of light.

Under the rationale for FTL travel, I could potentially see some ability to send data through the same medium for instantaneous communication. However, I want to complicate things somewhat—a delay in the receipt of an important message may have Shakespearean proportions of drama, and I’d like to capture some of that. So here’s what I’m going to say: FTL communication requires an open connection between two places in “normal” space through “hyperspace.” Data can’t simply be converted into data in hyperspace and transmitted, it must be “beamed through” a wormlike tunnel through hyperspace.

This means that ships will need to have the capability to send messages by opening up temporary connections to known communications hubs to send messages. This makes the manufacture and control of those communications hubs strategically valuable, provides for some time-delay for communications, requires spaceships to hold a position to receive reply messages and requires ships communicating through FTL to route through communications hubs. This nuance I think will give us some ready story hooks.

Human Augmentation: The types and qualities of human augmentation will be extensive. The cyberpunk genre has focused on “chrome” and mechanically-based augmentations or bio-engineered alternatives. Certainly there will be some of each, but current research seems to indicate that much human augmentation will be a hybrid of the biological and digital, with researchers working on making biological computer analogues (on a small-scale, of course) and the embedding of artificial substances in biological ones (like enhanced eye lenses or retinal structures).

I’m not sure that any sentient alien species in this setting will necessarily have much real communication and contact with humanity, so augmentation will provide for a broad array of differentiated “subspecies” of the Homo genus.

Human augmentation will also be responsible for a widened socio-economic gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Manufacturing techniques (see below) may be in the process of democratizing augmentation, but the sharp divide in wealth exacerbated by the earliest waves of limited-availability augmentations still has continuing effects.

In addition to having practical benefits, I expect human augmentation to have become an important means of self-expression—tattoos and piercings on the next level, so to speak.

Terraforming: Human colonization will have been heavily supported by the science of terraforming. Planets must have certain inherent characteristics (like being in the habitable zone of a star) to be eligible for such transformation, but the process itself (probably provided by AI) has been mostly successful.

When first set to thinking about this setting, I thought to avoid space opera “one-terrain” worlds—the jungle moon of Endor, the one-massive-desert of Tatooine that people still somehow decided was a good place to make a home, etc. However, when I decided that terraforming would be a distinct technology, I started to think about places with artificially-created and not-entirely-but-close homogenous biomes. This makes sense especially for small “luxury” worlds

Manufacturing: Nanofactories, or “nanofacs” are essentially highly-advanced 3-d printers. With the proper raw materials, a nanofac can construct anything that will fit within it and for which it has the schematics. Contemporary design (as is largely already the case) is computer-based rather than through the construction of physical prototypes.

This creates some subissues for economics and society that I’ll have to work through: How are schematics controlled? What is the current state of intellectual property law and how extensive is schematic piracy? Is the economy based almost solely on the provision of raw materials and services?

AI and Robotics: There is much fear about artificial intelligence in our modern society (and perhaps rightly so). Reference I, Robot or Terminator. However, I’m going to go a different direction from many sci-fiction settings:

The major qualm about “artificial intelligence” is that we can’t really know if the highest-level hardware/software programs are actually sentient or only very good Turing machines. Nevertheless, humans actually managed to achieve what AI they have in a responsible and precautionary manner. Only limited AI with strict programming protocols and protections from “emergent” features are allowed any autonomy or connectivity. Agent/Assistant programs and robots alike are significantly limited in their capacities—usually only able to perform a limited number of tasks with superhuman effectiveness and otherwise possessing capabilities below that of the average human.

“True AI” as humans think of it are built in self-contained units without any wireless or general connectivity to the world at large. Data is input either by hand or through portable storage devices rather than through the kinds of free data-exchanges used by most technological devices.

AI is used only for research—for the creation and analysis of large-scale simulations to improve scientific and technological understanding. Much of the work of AI research is “catching up” to an understanding of the data output by an AI to make something useful from the machine’s own conclusions.

Rather than approach things from the robot’s side, as Aasimov and others have done, I want to look more at how humans react to living in proximity to artificially created entities that probably aren’t really sentient but about which one cannot truly tell. Some recent sci-fi work has already started to explore this topic (Robot and Frank; Her).

Spaceships: Spacecraft capable of FTL travel will be too large and heavy to exit the gravity of most planets upon landing, so smaller “landers” and “lifters” are used to transport people and goods from a planet to a true starship.

I have identified a need to do some research into what current scientist think that ship-to-ship warfare between starships would look like. While I like the idea of age-of-sail-in-space type combats, I have a distinct feeling that actual starship battles would be far more like a big game of Battleship—trying to find the enemy at extreme range before he finds you.

Artificial Gravity: I have to admit being pretty torn about this one. There are really two things we’re talking about when we talk about artificial gravity. The first is essentially “anti-gravity,” the ability to provide lift significant-enough to allow hovering without the heat and energy of some sort of thruster. There are enough alternatives with actual scientific plausibility (ground effect vehicles and the like) to provide this without resorting to the scientifically implausible, and I appreciate that.

The rub comes about with “true” artificial gravity—the ability to simulate gravity in a spaceship and thus avoid the inconvenience and strangeness of weightlessness in space. While there are ways (rotating structures, for instance) to simulate gravity, current science predicts that—because gravity is a part of the shape of the cosmos and not particle-based force—artificial gravitic fields are essentially impossible.

I remain undecided whether to use artificial gravity anyway or resort to more real-world solutions.

Power Sources: I’m going to use antimatter as a source for large-scale power, fusion for smaller applications and very advanced batteries for most portable power solutions.

For the next post in this series, click here.

A Worldbuilding Example – Part I: Introduction and Influences

As I’m procrastinating from some of my other projects, I thought it might be fun to go through the worldbuilding process instead of only writing about doing so. This will be the first post in a series to do just that.

Initial disclaimer and caveats

There are many different ways to go about the process of worldbuilding, approaches and philosophies of creative work, foci and areas of interest in fleshing out a world, etc. I make no claim to be doing things the “right” or “best” way. I’m going to do this in the way that I’ve discovered works for me. I hope it helps you, even if how it helps is in causing you to do things a different way. Failing that, I hope it entertains.

A Starting Place: Purpose

We have a few high-level choices to make before we really get into it. The first is what we’re building a setting for. As I’ve mentioned many times, Avar Narn is the world I’ve been building for a long time and the main setting for much of my writing. Here, I’m going to try to do something different. To a great extent, I foresee that there will be some similar themes and ideas in both settings simply based upon the things that interest me. However, I’m going to try to keep this from being a rehash of the exact same ideas.

Those sidebar comments…aside…I’ve decided that I want to build this setting for a combination of creating a space to write in, a setting to use for roleplaying games should I so choose, and also simply for the enjoyment of the process. You might note that this hits on the main three reasons for worldbuildng I’ve discussed in other posts. The attempt to equally address these concerns I hope will make this series more helpful for others seeking to glean ideas from it.

Knowing my purpose, I’m going to now pick a loose genre. The emphasis is on “loose” here because I really like mixing genre conceits, as is already somewhat and will become more evident in my Avar Narn writings. As Avar Narn is loosely fantasy, this setting will be loosely sci-fi.

A Guide: Genre

A sci-fi setting for writing, gaming and art for its own sake. So far so good. There’re a lot of subgenres in sci-fi that are important to audiences, so I’m going to make some additional choices here to help allay what could become future obstacles.

I like my stories to be closer to the personal, the “realistic” (whatever that is) and the gritty. I’m not a scientist and, while I like theoretical physics and the like, I do not want to have to do any more math than is absolutely necessary. Consequential decisions: I will lean toward “hard” sci-fi but not slavishly so. I’ll try to avoid anything that blatantly violates the laws of the universe as we understand them, but I won’t avoid occasional handwavium if it serves the setting as a whole.

I’ve also decided that I’m going to use the shortcut here—so that the majority of my creative focus remains on Avar Narn—of using a future version of our world (and worlds beyond) rather than creating a sci-fi universe whole-cloth.

A Mission Statement: Theme

The setting needs a good core theme or set of themes to tie it together, much like an organization’s mission statement or the thesis of a scholarly work. We could just create bits of the world and see what themes float to the surface, but I find it far more efficient to decide what you want your world to do and then fill in the details to align with that.

Fortunately, I have a few themes to address with the setting:

  1. If humans have the technology to recreate themselves, what does that look like? How far will humans go and what are the reasons they’ll have for doing so.
  2. How does ideology (philosophic, religious, political, moral) drive history and individuals? What about vice versa? What makes us choose (or leave) an ideology? Do we choose our ideologies for emotional reasons, or practical ones, or something more complex? How strongly are we committed to ideology—what ideologies will we kill and die for, and why?
  3. Control—over culture, technology, relationships, even self. Do we really have it at all? If so, how do we take (or relinquish) control? What is the morality of control?
  4. The macro versus the micro—should humans prioritize large-scale constructs (governments, societies, institutions) or individuals? What do different prioritizations look like?

Four is plenty of high level themes, I think. This will give us a lot to play with but still have enough coherence for the setting to avoid the “kitchen sink” approach.

Assembling Building Blocks: Influences

And now I plan a heist. I’ve already spent a lot of time casing my targets, so it’s just a matter of infiltrating, stealing what I want, and getting back out. Here are some of the sources I’ll steal ideas from:

Novels

Altered Carbon (Richard K. Morgan) – billed as “hardboiled cyberpunk”, this fast-paced sci-fi noir story hits a lot of my sweet spots and (as far as I know) inspired the Eclipse Phase game mentioned below. As we’ll parse out later, I have some serious conflict about the idea of digital-brain transfers, but there’s much in this novel that inspires.

Snow Crash and The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson) – Both of these novels have influenced me—both as writer and a theological thinker, believe it or not—so I can’t imagine but that I’ll draw some inspiration from them, though I think my own preferences and approach vary significantly from Stephenson.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – I’m a big fan of almost all of Phillip K. Dick’s work (strange as some of it is), but this one seems to fit some of the themes and ideas I’m interested in for this setting well.

Old Man’s War (John Scalzi), Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Starship Troopers (Robert Heinlein) – I love military sci-fi and, based on the themes above, there’s a significant role for military conflict to play in this setting.

World War Z (Max Brooks) – no, I don’t intend to have zombies. What I want to draw from this book is how it starts from a fictitious situation (here, zombies) and builds rational and believable sociopolitical events and histories on top. Please, for the love of God, ignore the movie.

Embedded (Dan Abnett) – I like Abnett’s writing for the Warhammer 40K universe, and this military sci-fi novel does a lot really well and has a feel and setting with a lot I’d like to use.

Non-Fiction Books

Future of the Mind, Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible (Michio Kaku) — Kaku has for some time been a popularizer of scientific ideas, particularly through his TV appearances. These books contain speculations from the well-researched to the wild and almost certainly unfounded—perfect for sci-fi.

Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems & the Economic World (Kevin Kelly) – a Wired magazine editor’s part celebration, part warning about future technologies.

Movies and TV

Alien Series – I love the industrial look of spaceships in these films, where (if I’m to think about it perhaps overmuch) the ship reminds us of the horrors of a soulless industrial society that places profits above people just as we’re faced with an alien threat.

Blade Runner and Minority Report – As I said, I’m a big fan of PKD and while the films often miss some of his more poignant inquiries, they perhaps make up for that in inspirational visuals.

Inception – as we come closer and closer to virtual reality—and virtual reality difficult to distinguish from real reality being soon to follow—this film has plenty of ideas in it that makes sense in almost any sci-fi setting (especially when combined with the sort of nasty tortures and interrogations that virtual spaces are used for in Altered Carbon).

Firefly and Serenity – while I want to steer clear of the “Western in Space” idea (despite it working so well for these stories), there’re are many ways in which FTL travel would create some Old-West-like frontiers, and stories one might not think of—like Revenant (in SPAAAACCCEEE!) could also abound. In fact, why are there so few “classic” wilderness survival stories in sci-fi? Plenty of spacefaring hard-sci-fi survival stories, but not so many in the wilderness (unless I just don’t know them).

Battlestar Galactica – I have to say that, despite greatly enjoying this series, there’s a lot from it I wouldn’t use in my own sci-fi stories. Nevertheless, I’m sure there’s something to glean from the dross, I’m sure.

Tabletop Games

Infinity – if you haven’t seen the 28mm skirmish game (and upcoming RPG) Infinity, take a look. I typically have a hard time getting into anime, but despite the anime influence on this setting, it’s fascinating and I love the art style.

Shadowrun – this game was really my introduction to the cyberpunk genre and there’re some cool ideas here. As I mentioned above, though, I don’t intend this setting to be strictly cyberpunk, despite some of the influences mentioned.

Video Games

I take a lot of my writing inspiration from visual experiences, so the art style and consequential “feel” of film and games often helps my creative juices flow. When I think of doing a sci-fi setting, I think of Mass Effect (how could one not), Dead Space and Titanfall.

Futurist Reports

To a great extent, I think calling oneself a futurist or futurologist is a way to indulge in sci-fi imagination while still retaining some scientific credibility. Regardless, there are a number of futurologists whose reports provide ready fodder for thinking about human society and technology in the near future. I’ll be drawing on futurist reports, articles, speculative timelines, etc. for inspiration.

Art

As I said above, I’m very visual in my imagination, so I spend a lot of time creating collections of inspirational art and photos, most often pulling them from DeviantArt.com. For this setting, the two artists there that immediately come to mind are Shimmering-Sword and StTheo. Careful going down the DeviantArt rabbithole—you can lose hours wandering through the works of all of the talented artists there (or sorting through the crap that gets posted alongside them).

Other

TED Talks will also play some role I’m sure, as I tend to enjoy listening to them and they do relate to technology, after all. To some extent, I may find other podcasts or programs with something to contribute.

NEXT TIME: Some high-level choices about the particulars of the setting.

For the next post in this series, click here.

Learning for Science! (Or Worldbuilding)

In one of my previous posts (“Worldbuilding – An Education”) I talked about the value of the worldbuilding hobby for expanding one’s educational goals and accomplishments. This time, I’m going to approach the same topic from the other side–how learning helps your worldbuilding. In particular, I want to share some resources that have been helpful to me in my own practice of the pursuit.

As you know, most of my worldbuilding is done for the purpose of creating settings for my speculative fiction (or, less frequently, for roleplaying games). I’d like to pause for a moment for a brief confession: learning for the purpose of gaining knowledge and tools for worldbuilding is something of a safety net for my productivity. Writing is almost always difficult (sometimes the words come easy, but making them say something worth saying in a way that holds attention is far from automatic) and often frustrating. As much as I enjoy it (and feel called to it), writing is often work.

There are many things that I like to do that are not work. Exercising (though it’s only slightly less difficult than writing–particularly running), reading, building things, watching TV, listening to music, pretending I can draw, and–especially–video games (even though Jane McGonigal would not entirely agree that video games are not work of a sort, and I agree). When writing becomes difficult, the seductive call of things that do not feel like work becomes ever more powerful, and discipline in writing is, for me at least, a difficult thing to maintain as it is. So, when I give in to temptation to mindlessly play video games, find some project around the house to help me procrastinate or otherwise avoid what I feel like I should really be doing, I play an audiobook. That way, I’m at least learning something that will be useful to me when I sit back down to write. A lot of what I have to offer in this post are things I’ve come across during that liminal state of wishing I was writing but lacking the motivation to actually be writing.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

I’ve mentioned Dan Carlin several times in various posts on the blog, but it can’t hurt to bring him up one more time. His Hardcore History series covers many topics throughout human history from the 20th century to the very early historical period. A worldbuilder must be a student of history. Fiction is, in some ways, simply created dramatic history. This is often on the personal level, but the fantasy genre also often thrusts its characters into world-shaking events of epic importance. To do that well, or to create a setting that supports any kind of fantasy story, you need to be able to have a general sense for the flow of history–that is how one event influences and shapes those that follow–and for communicating the feeling of history; that is, giving the reader a sense of what it is to be alive and in the culture and history of the setting.

Dan Carlin is an excellent historian in general I think (though he doesn’t describe himself as such). Where he really shines is in communicating the feeling of history. When you listen to one of Carlin’s series, he takes the time to ask the questions and give the descriptions that invite you to imaginatively and emotionally participate in the events discussed. So, I’d recommend him both for the substance of his histories and for his method of historiography. Carlin gives us an example of how to think about histories–real or fictitious–in ways that bring them to life.

Great Courses

I love the Great Courses series (www.thegreatcourses.com; also available through Audible.com and Amazon). This is partially just because I’d be a perpetual student if I could be. Nevertheless, the breadth and scope of courses offered by The Great Courses company allows you to target specific points in history or culture (or science or politics and many other subjects for that matter) and delve deeply into that subject–for tens of hours.

If you’re not familiar, the Great Courses are essentially recorded undergraduate classes comprised of 30-45 minute lectures prepared and given by some of the foremost professors in the higher education systems of the Western world.

Here are a few courses I’ve personally found useful (your mileage may vary, as they say):

“Buddhism” by Prof. Malcolm David Eckel

“Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World” by Prof. Glenn S. Holland

“Espionage and Covert Operations: A Global History” by Prof. Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius

“The Italian Renaissance” by Prof. Kenneth R. Bartlett

“The Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” by Prof. Andrew C. Fix

“The Late Middle Ages” by Prof. Philip Daileader

“The Fall of the Pagans and the Origins of Medieval Christianity” by Prof. Kenneth W. Harl

“The Medieval World” by Prof. Dorsey Armstrong

“Medieval Heroines in History and Legend” by Prof. Bonnie Wheeler

“The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World” by Prof. Robert Garland

As a note: I have a master’s degree in medieval and renaissance literature and my B.A. in History also focused on that time span, and yet I always gain something new and fascinating in these courses. Knowledge is funny that way, I guess.

Curiosity Stream

Curiosity Stream is a subscription, on-demand service like Netflix except that it is only for documentaries. Feeling lazy and want to veg while watching TV? Here’s your excuse to do so and still like your making some progress on your worldbuilding.

The best part of Curiosity Stream is the source of many of its documentaries–BBC and Sky from the UK and various subtitled or dubbed documentaries from the rest of Europe. This gives you access to docs you won’t find on Netflix or Amazon Prime (the selections on which I often find disappointing) and gives you a look at topics from other than an American worldview (this, also, is essential for good worldbuilding–your cultures must stand on their own, not as representations, modifications or critiques of your own culture).

Worldbuilding Books

To be honest, there are few worldbuilding books that seem worth the investment of time once I’ve gone through them. Some are just too generic and obvious to be helpful; others want you to dive so deeply into things like plate tectonics and the albedo of your planet that (unless you’re writing something where such details are important to setting or story–I’m looking at you, hard sci-fi) you’ll end up wasting hours making calculations that (if you’re like me) probably end up wrong and that you’ll forget and never use anyway. Still, you do need to be able to avoid (or, I suppose, willing to ignore) glaring mistakes in the creation of a world that will distract its visits from the willing suspension of disbelief.

One example–rivers tend to converge; they do not tend to (but on rare occasions do) split into multiple major waterways (with the occasional exception of the river delta, though that’s different, I’d say). Maps or geographic descriptions that do not follow real-world data (and that do not have some sort of in-setting explanation for the variance) will annoy those with the specialized knowledge to point out the error and may even unsettle others who have a sense that something doesn’t add up even if they can’t put their finger on it.

Most of us do not have the time to become intimately familiar and comfortable with such diverse fields as geography, geology, planetary physics, ecology and biology, etc. Having a worldbuilding book that helps manage some of these issues can be a great time-saver (and an interesting read).

I only have two recommendations in this category that I’m really comfortable making:

The Planet Construction Kit, by Mark Rosenfelder. This is a great book for negotiating some of the larger scientific issues if you need to create a whole planet or want your setting to be that detailed.

Holly Lisle’s Create a Culture Clinic. This book outlines many aspects of culture that a worldbuilder might want to define, along with some writing exercises to bring that information into narrative form. I won’t say that this book alone is going to inspire you to create a culture, but it is very good at asking the questions you ought to ask while building a culture.

Both Rosenfelder and Lisle have a number of other books on worldbuilding (and language construction, if you’re into that sort of thing) available, but the two above are the only ones I would say should definitely sit on a worldbuilder’s bookshelf (or in the memory of her Kindle or iPad or whatever).

PBS’s SpaceTime Series

This is a recent discovery for me. It’s a show viewable on YouTube (without any subscription) that tackles advanced physics questions in ways understandable to a lay audience. If you’re into hard-science settings (or at least high-plausibility in your sci-fi), there’s a wealth of information here on how to accurate depict artificial gravity (using centrifugal force at the proper radius and rotation speed to achieve 1G while minimizing the Coriolis effect), the feasibility of various sublight and FTL drives, etc.

Have you, dear readers, found some valuable fonts of knowledge and learning that have helped you in your own worldbuilding? Please share through a comment!

 

 

Rites of Passage

[The short story below has perhaps not been edited as thoroughly as it should be, but I’m anxious to get a real sample of my fiction on the site, so here it is. As is suggested by it’s location, this is a short story set in Avar Narn.]

(Read this short story in PDF by clicking: JM Flint – Avar Narn – Rites of Passage)

Emryn looked conspiratorially across the large and ancient table that dominated the center of the apprentices’ study, the candlelight shadowing her face in a way that struck Amaric as both erotic and sinister, like one of the Aenyr. “But don’t you think we could?”

“We could, maybe, but that doesn’t make it a good idea,” Amaric said, his quill scratching an idle doodle on the parchment where he had been taking notes from a mildew-scented copy of Délathë’s Thaumaturgical Theorems and Postulates.

“It’s simply a matter of doing it right. If we’re careful and we do the research, where’s the danger?” She closed the heavy tome before her as she spoke, a cloud of dust rising from between the pages.

“Remember what the archmagus says? ‘Fates worse than death.’ I like my soul in my body, thank you.”

“Amaric,” she began, looking to ensure that the door was closed before she reached across the table and grasped his hand, “you’re being over-dramatic. We could do this. We’ve been studying under Magus Albrith for two years and we’ve never seen a summoning! How are we going to learn conjury if he doesn’t teach us? I don’t think they let apprentices who don’t know their conjury into university.”

He wasn’t listening. When Emryn leaned over, Amaric found himself staring down the front of her dress now that her breasts had become suddenly more apparent. The smell of almonds wafted over him and his fingers warmed in the remembrance of her skin. At the edge of his vision, he noticed her looking down, her nose an arrow to the cleavage that had captured his imagination. As she looked back up, he followed the movement of her face until their eyes met. He blushed, first for gawking, then for blushing. A coy smile passed across Emryn’s lips as she returned herself to her chair, kindly removing the distraction.

After collecting himself, Amaric struggled to return to the conversation. Unable to recall what Emryn had just said, he started afresh. “This is going to be like our first attempts at evocation all over again,” he muttered.

“Psh. First, it was only a small fire. Second, that one was your idea. This is completely different.”

They both laughed at that. She twirled her auburn hair in her finger, a gesture that always managed to stir Amaric’s heart, though he never quite understood why.

“Well, we might learn something from a spirit that’s more useful than the nonsense in this book,” Amaric said, wiping the quill and his fingers with a vaguely damp and ink-stained cloth before returning the writing instrument to its rest. “But we’ve got to choose carefully. Something safe. Maybe one of the Ninvenai or the Qalenëdhai…”

“Or the Unëdhai,” Emryn said, her eyes twinkling with innuendo.

Despite himself, Amaric laughed softly. “Okay, we’ll see, but we’re not doing anything until we have more information about what all is involved.

“Deal.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“We’ll need to know about the theory and practice of conjury—I’ve got that covered,” she said, standing and walking into her adjoining room without a further word. Rather than questioning her, Amaric simply watched the crewel-work dolphins—her family’s symbol—on her dress swim back and forth with her hips as she walked. She returned with a small stack of books, some of them in terrible condition. “I’ve been collecting these for the past few weeks while in the library. Doesn’t seem that Magus Albrith thinks much of them, but they’re what I could find.”

“Busy girl,” Amaric said, his mouth a thin slit of tension between amusement at her resourcefulness and unease about how real the thought of performing a summoning had suddenly become. “So, do you have a formula for a specific spirit in any of that? We’ll need a true name to make sure that whatever we summon is really under our control.”

“Unfortunately, no. These are guidebooks to the Practice, but they either never had any lists of spirits or what they had has been lost to time and decay.”
“So, step two, find the true name and instructions for a particular spirit.”
“Right. After we make sure that we understand these,” she said, passing one of the books to Amaric.

“Studying, sure,” he said, making eyes at her.

“Yes, studying—for now, at least.” The corner of her mouth turned up with the hint of suggestion.

They had grown close over the past two years, whether by real attraction to one another or simply because there were no other adolescents to be found in Albrith’s manse neither knew. Learning the arcane necessarily meant their seclusion from broader society, and the manse occupied an isolated valley in the foothills of the Engmaic Amisnoth north of Asterfaen.

Emryn had always been kind to Amaric despite his low birth; she treated him as an equal. She had been plain when she arrived, and Amaric had first grown fond of her wit and unabashed playfulness. About a year ago, Emryn emerged from her rooms one morning recognizable but made beautiful; reshaped by some arcane working.

Amaric had heard rumors that all arcanists became beautiful like the Aenyr, but mostly the Temple priest had told the village children this as a warning against the corruption of thaumaturges. Later experience told Amaric both that this was not entirely true and that a working of that kind of permanency required sacrifice—symbolic or literal. What Emryn had sacrificed for her beauty he knew not and dared not ask.

Both apprentices steadily approached adulthood during their studies, and thus it was perhaps inevitable that their friendship might accrue some amount of the romantic and erotic in the midst of adolescence. Albrith either did not care or pretended not to notice the attraction between them—he revealed little in his demeanor.

The two apprentices spent weeks in furtive preparation, studying the tomes Emryn had collected in the late evenings between the work their master had assigned them and the trysts that often occupy young lovers. Finally, they felt ready to move forward and agreed one night that Amaric would make his way to the library to find the name of a suitable spirit while Emryn collected the sympathetic components necessary to the working.

*          *          *

The library lay within a broad and squat tower at the corner of Albrith’s manse, a base floor ringed with shelves full of books menacingly surrounding a few ornate desks, the shadows of light from the smokeless everlamps playing the dance macabre across the reading space while their smoky essence mingled with the smells of mold and material entropy. Three balconies of tomes, scrolls, stone tablets and other questionable pieces claiming to be writings looked down upon that central area, pronouncing the judgment of wisdom lost and the thoughts of long dead men upon those who stood below.

Throld, Magus Albrith’s librarian and scribe, perched upon a high stool before a scrivener’s desk near the first story’s wall, where he busied himself with the copying of a tome fully intent on crumbling to dust without notice, his seat creaking in protestation as his weight shifted back and forth in scratching out each line of text.

When the magus had first shown his new apprentices the library, Emryn had matter-of-factly informed her master that the printing press could make far more copies of his books in far less time, and without all the cramped hands. Albrith had turned her suddenly to face him, his cold eyes looking deep into hers; she had feared he would work a sorcery upon her in angry response. Instead, with a subtle smile and a voice stern but not unkind, Albrith had merely stated, “There are some books that ought to be difficult to share.”
As he entered, Amaric made no sound but nodded respectfully to his master’s servant, receiving a warm smile in return as Throld emerged for a brief respite before diving back into his work.

From a pouch at his belt Amaric drew a piece of folded parchment, stretching it open for review. Upon the skin he and Emryn had listed the names of known conjurers whose notes, journals or publications might contain a specific formula for the conjuration of a spirit. He searched, aimlessly at first, for texts written by someone on his list. Many of the works had no information on their spines or covers, forcing him to search book by book, pulling each delicately from its place, careful not to disturb is neighbors, blowing free the accumulated dust and slowly opening each in hope of success. Only the smell of old vellum and leather, sneezes and the brief excitement of opening old tomes that threatened to crumble in his hands rewarded him.

Amaric had often wondered why Albrith had not organized his library like those in Asterfaen; this search brought him understanding: the chaos provided a defense against something the master wished to remain occulted. No locks, no chains, only the more effective defense of drudgery protected the most important works. Unless some enchantment lay upon the library. Amaric dared not test this possibility—the magus had told them of protective ensorcelments that alerted their creator when prodded with the slightest amount of thaumaturgical Power.

After several hours of searching the shelves and cabinets, the deep, rich scent of hawthorn and wine indicated the presence of someone behind Amaric just before a hand fell upon his shoulder, firm but not aggressive. He turned to see Throld smiling at him. “On one of Albrith’s goose chases, eh? You’re not the first set of apprentices he’s condemned to such.”

“Yep,” Amaric replied, staring bashfully at his toes, his hand slightly outstretched and holding his list. “We’re to find anything by any of these people.”

Throld looked over the list, adjusting the hinged spectacles that clung to his broad nose. “Hmm. Yes, this one.” He pointed to a name on the list, one “Cadessia eld Caithra”. “I seem to remember copying something out of this one a few months ago, but—” he dropped off.

Amaric cocked his head to the side by way of response, the way a curious puppy might.

“Not a book for apprentices, I’m afraid.”

“What does that mean, Throld?”

“Young master Amaric—”

“Please don’t call me ‘master’, Throld.”

“Yes, sorry, Amaric. What I mean to say is that this particular tome is full of what the Magus would call ‘dangerous knowledge.’”

“Can you elaborate?”

“Suffice to say that Lady eld Caithra met an unfortunate end.”

“How unfortunate?”

“Fates worse than death.” It was a favorite of Albrith’s phrases when warning his students about the dangers of well-practiced thaumaturgy, much less careless sorcery or magic. Albrith never offered specific examples of fates worse than death, but the nature of their discussions of metaphysics gave Amaric much to imagine, none of it remotely pleasant.

“So you won’t help me find it?”

“No, my friend. I cannot. I would suffer a fate worse than death at the Magus’ hands if I did,” Throld said, no exaggeration in his voice, only the statement of fact.

“I understand, Throld. Thanks for the warning.”

Throld made a face that was as much a frown as a smile before returning to his copyist’s table—the kind of expression that desperately wanted to be one thing but could not help but be something entirely different.

Amaric smirked slyly at Throld’s back; he had just what he needed. Within the hour, he held in his hands a copy of Cadessia eld Caithra’s A Practical Guide to Deep Conjury, including detailed descriptions of many spirits. Not merely a casual and oblique reference to her conjury, a textbook.

Flipping through the pages made his head throb and spin. Complex diagrams and charts surrounded by tightly scribbled text danced before his vision as the pages spun from front to back. As they turned, they revealed unpleasant pictures of many things, things to which Albrith had alluded in his lessons or things about which Amaric had heard songs, legends and rumors back in his village.

He closed the book decisively, the thump of the pages slamming together echoing loudly through the library; Amaric cringed. He looked over the railing of the balcony toward the scrivener’s station and found Throld dutifully scribbling away. He held the book in one hand and began to make small gestures with the other, whispering words as he drew Power and formed the working. In a short moment, the book disappeared—in its place, a bundle of loose papers. So disguised, he walked nonchalantly past the scribe and through the door.

*          *          *

Amaric set the book down on the grand table. Within seconds, Emryn’s fingers were on both his shoulders, her cheek pressed against his, the wisps of her loose hairs tickling the back of his neck, her body swelling against his back with each breath, almond perfume in his nostrils.

“What’d you find?”

“Cadessia eld Caithra’s Practical Guide to Deep Conjury.”

“Oooh, how’d you find that?”

“Throld told me he’d made a copy not long back, so I just looked for books without so much dust on them. Came across it eventually. But, Emryn, this isn’t a good idea.”

“Explain.”

“There are true names and seals in here to be sure, but for nothing good. There’s nothing remotely safe in this book. Only beings from the Abyss.”

“Hmmm,” she said, to herself more than him. “Could we find something else, maybe?”

“I’m not sure there is anything else.”

“You don’t think the magus has more books with the names and seals of spirits? Surely he does.”

“I don’t doubt that, but I don’t think they’re in the library.”

“You think he has a secret library?”

“Seems fitting, I suppose. But, even if he does, there’s no way we’re getting into it. It’s gotta have wards and abjurations beyond anything we’ve seen so far.”

“True,” she frowned, conceding the point. “Mind if I spend some time looking in the library? Just in case there is something else?” She pecked his cheek as punctuation, an indication she meant no offense.

“I don’t mind. What did you end up with?”

“Salt, chalk, sage, athad dust, summerbride, beggar’s buttons.”

“All useful things for conjury. So, what’s the plan now?”

“I’ll check the library for alternatives; you study Lady eld Caithra’s book here to determine whether there is anything in there that we could reasonably summon. I know you’re concerned, so I’ll leave that judgment to you.”

*          *          *

Archmagus Albrith sat tentatively against one of the stone planters in the garden as he spoke softly and gracefully, his voice lilting as he expounded upon the arcane, the only indication of his passion and excitement for the subject emanating from his wizened and tired frame. A long wild beard masked the many creases and folds of the lower half of his face, drawing Amaric and Emryn to look him in the eyes as he spoke. Those eyes. They flashed with acuity, twinkled with delight in instruction, but also maintained a somberness that belied the serious demeanor with which Albrith always lectured.

“And so, today, my apprentices, we discuss the Law of the Soul and its pertinence to the magus. I trust you have finished chapter fourteen of Decambion’s Essence and Ephemera: A Book of the Law. Amaric, tell me, what is the Law of the Soul?”

“Yes, archmagus,” he said, the formality meant more to purchase time to formulate his answer than to show respect. “Um, the Law of the Soul postulates that no working can ultimately change the soul of any creature; that is, it’s True Self.”

“And from whence does the Law derive?”

“It’s a consequence of the Law of Essence, archmagus, which states that, though the existential aspects of a thing might be altered through an arcane working, the essence of that thing may not be.”

“Why, then, has your fellow apprentice Emryn proved able to change her appearance permanently, as I find you so often noticing?”

“I, uh—the appearance of her body is an existential aspect and not an essential aspect of her being.”

“Is it? Are her body and soul the same? The practice of conjury would prove otherwise, would it not?” An unfair question—Albrith had rarely mentioned conjury before, much less taught them anything of it.

“It would, archmagus.”

“Would it? Why?”

Emryn stepped in to assist. “Because the existence of disembodied spirits indicates that a material body and a spiritual self are not the same.”

Albrith’s eyes flashed as he turned his gaze to her. Not with anger, but with a kind of joy at the game they played. “Are you the same thing as a spirit or a demon, that what is true of them might be true also of you?”

“Not necessarily,” Amaric interjected. The two apprentices had become accustomed to working together to navigate Albrith’s mysteries, one buying time for the other. “But a working like Emryn performed required a sacrifice of sorts to maintain it. This requirement seems to indicate a need for maintenance of the effect, so the essence of her body is resisting the existential change to its appearance. If her body has an essence separate from her soul, then the two must logically be separate entities.”

The archmagus smiled. “Why does this matter?”

Neither spoke. They fumbled for the answer he sought amongst so many possible responses. While waiting, the archmage drew a pipe from a pouch at his belt, tamped a pinch of pipegrass within it, and snapped his fingers near the bowl of the pipe to produce the first wisp of smoke. A faint glow emanated from the pipe as he drew his first breath from it, allowing the silence to expand and fill the entire void around them.

Dressed in modest robes, Albrith could have easily been mistaken for a village cunning man rather than a full archmagus of the Thaumaturgical Conclave. Even the lower-ranked magi of the Conclave tended to dress in a fashion that made clear the importance of their position and profession. Neither Amaric nor Emryn understood the point of Albrith’s sartorial humility, though they often speculated.

“First,” Ablrith said finally, “it means that all the Art in the Avar will not change a person’s soul from what it is, not for long at least. You may fool a person with illusions of perception, you may force their body to act against their will, you may even influence their emotions for a time, but you will not change who they are. Only a soul can change its own essence in any permanent manner, and this without the Art. The theological implications of this may be discussed with the learned men of the Temple some time; it is not my concern.
“Second—since we’re discussing conjury—the disembodied spirit, for purposes of this discussion, at least, is the same as a soul when it comes to the Laws of Soul and Essence. You may capture a spirit, you may bind it to your service, but you will not change what it is. You can no more change an elemental of water into an elemental of fire than you can yourself become either. A demon is always a demon, and it will seek to ruin you even as it serves you. Note well that I say ‘ruin’ and not ‘destroy’ as the common folk would suggest. The Law of the Soul prevents a demon from truly destroying you just as it prevents you from destroying it. But there are many things a demon may do with a soul in its thrall that do not infringe upon the Law of Essence. This. This is why I tell you that there are fates worse than death.

“When you understand this, only then are you ready to become a magus.”

*          *          *

Another week passed before they broached the subject again; Emryn spending her evenings methodically sweeping the library and Amaric comparing Deep Conjury to the works Emryn had first collected for them. When together during that time, they focused either on the work Albrith had assigned them or on their more amorous passions.

Emryn began the long-awaited conference. “Well, Amaric, what’d you find?”

“You first, Em.”

“I found…nothing. A lot of nothing. I think you’re right; whatever else Albrith has that might be of use to us isn’t in the library. Which makes it important what you’ve decided.”

“Have you ever read the Conclave laws?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“They have some pretty specific things to say about the summoning of Abyssal spirits. As in ‘Don’t. Or else.’”

“No, I haven’t read them.”

“The penalties severe, to say the least. They’re severe to prevent exactly the kind of thing we’re thinking about doing.”

“Lot of good they’re doing, huh?” she smiled mischievously. “Besides, we’re not subject to Conclave law. As apprentices, we’re not full thaumaturges subject to the Conclave, but neither are we unlicensed practitioners—we’re under the tutelage of a magus. Albrith is the complete authority over us, and the Conclave stands behind him. Whatever he says goes for us. He’s spent two years training us already, you think he’d just give that up because we did some experimenting? Especially given some of the things we’ve heard about his youth?”

Amaric looked to his feet, but they had no guidance for him. She was right, of course, but after hearing what Throld had said he lacked Emryn’s confidence in Albrith’s leniency. He pressed a new argument: “The stuff in this book, it makes my head spin just to look at it. We know a bit of theory and some parlor tricks; this is way beyond us.”

“You remember when I…changed?”

Amaric’s face indicated the foolishness of asking the question at all. “Of course I do. Albrith made you clean and organize the alchemy laboratory for months after that, made you read the dullest books and write about them for pages, made you spend all of your free time tending the plants in the garden.”

“But he didn’t make me change back,” she said, triumphant. “He was proud, I think, to have so apt a pupil. Our lessons became more complex after that.”
“Yes, Em, but—”

“You’re welcome. Maybe we ought to think of this the same way. Maybe Archmagus Albrith is waiting for us to prove that we’re ready for more.”

She had a point. Albrith had proved a demanding master, one who expected his apprentices to prove themselves without his holding their hands. They saw him only a few hours each morning, when he lectured them or asked them questions until he found the point at which they could no longer make reasonable answer. Assignments for reading or for practice followed. This routine was punctuated by the days on which Albrith guided them through the performance of workings, demanding strict adherence to his teachings and perfection of form—on these days they worked from sun-up until exhaustion. There had been few of days of practical exercises in the last month, far fewer than they had become accustomed, and it did seem that Albrith was waiting for something. For what, exactly, Amaric had no idea.

“So?” Emryn asked, expectantly.

His nerves welled up within him. He had something to prove now, to Albrith, to Emryn. There was no turning back.

“Balsephon,” he said, shocked himself that the name had come from his lips.
“Who, now?” Emryn blurted.

“Balsephon. Eld Caithra puts him low in the Abyssal hierarchy, so we have as good a chance of binding him as we’re going to get.”

“A demon? Whatever happened to a lesser spirit, an Avaradh or something like that? Something that’s not dangerous.”

“There’s nothing in here about them, it’s all about Abyssal beings. It is the Deep Conjury after all.”

“And it’s why eld Caithra suffered a fate worse than death!”

“Emryn, you’re the one who wanted to do this in the first place!”

“But not a demon!”

“Did you find anything else we could try?”

“No. Apparently that’s the only grimoire in the whole library with information on specific spirits.”

“You said yourself you thought this was a test. That adds up, then.”

“You think Albrith wants us to conjure something from this book?”

Amaric paused. “I don’t know. It sounds crazy when you say it.”

“Well, what do you think?” Emryn said, resting her head on her hands as she leaned against the heavy table.

“What do you think?” Amaric repeated.

“I asked you first. Besides, this was supposed to be your decision, remember?”

“Let’s do it, then.”

“Really?”

“You don’t want to?”

“I didn’t say that. I just didn’t expect you to.”

*          *          *

Preparation began with the drawing of the ritual space, a set of circles within and around which were arranged arcane symbols of power and protection. Amaric had the steadier hand, so Emryn held the grimoire and guided his movements while he carefully applied chalk and vermillion to the stone floor in imitation of the patterns described by eld Caithra. On several occasions, Emryn caused him to stop, to erase what he had drawn and to start again, demanding an exact replication of the designs drawn by their guide.

When at last they completed the circle, they followed by preparing a ritual triangle in which to summon their spirit, proceeding in the same manner, inscribing the triangle with Balsephon’s sigil. Before they moved on, Amaric remembered a warding he had come across in their research; he had drawn the runes on scraps from the library and hung them on each wall and the study’s door, a final protection in case their working failed utterly—a protection not for the two of them, but for the rest of the world. They wanted to be responsible, at least. Amaric summoned and bound Power into the runes, leaving them dormant until they became necessary, which he hoped would not be the case at all.

The two added athad dust to the lamps, revealing the contours of the Veil without the use of the Sight, burnt sage in a brazier to dampen the spirit’s power, chewed summerbride to clear their minds. They sat for a time in silence with their eyes closed, holding hands, centering themselves. Or, trying at least, Amaric found himself distracted by the smell of her, the soft sound of her breathing, every ridge and valley of her hands. He thought of other nights when they had diverted themselves from study, of the fun they’d had together, when they’d talking about their lives before coming to Albrith’s manor or tangled themselves in the lustful passions of the young.

“Ready?” Emryn asked.

“Huh, um, yeah,” Amaric returned, shaking his head clear of its musings, feeling his center a little off-center.

She leaned forward and kissed him, a long kiss, meant to calm rather than to incite passion. Then she led him by the hand and they stepped into the circle delicately, taking great pains not to disturb any of the drawings. Together, they drew Power into the circle, slowly so as not to fumble their working with an excess of Flux from its very inception. When they could feel the comforting buzz of the protective circle, they set to the real task.

They moved about within the circle, incanting together the words of conjuration, feeling the air become heavy with Power, the room around them seeming to shift and bend, reluctantly flexing to make room for some foreign intrusion, the lamps flickering irregularly, as if the very air of the study had changed. They continued until memory threatened to fade, leaving one to misspeak a protective word or to forget a binding command. Time fled from all perception, or at least became irrelevant. Amaric began to wonder whether they had botched the whole thing.

Suddenly a noise echoed at the limits of consciousness, a sound like a curtain tearing. Within the triangle slowly rose an irregular mist, condensing into a fog before becoming a pillar of thick smoke, illuminated from within by sudden red flashes, as a storm cloud by lightning, revealing an obscured face in the midst of the plumes, malevolent and haughty; a demon.

Amaric thought he could make out shifting forms throughout the smog, miniature bodies twisting and writhing in agony as they flew tornado-like about the face within the smoke. The souls of those who had bargained with the thing or merely an illusion?

The demon did not speak. It waited, watching with unblinking eyes and a mouth that seemed to curl impossibly on both sides into a knowing and self-satisfied sneer. Amaric looked nervously to Emryn, hoping he had obfuscated his anxiety from the summoned spirit. Before either of them could say anything, a voice intruded upon Amaric’s mind, seeming to well up from within rather than spoken aloud. The voice whispered loudly, a sibilant and raspy sound that pulled at the nerves like a dull headache: Astavaten ghastoleem pertar. Saaberis tusumel.

“What?” Amaric asked in a voice too loud for the heavy silence within the room.

“I didn’t say anything,” Emryn responded.

“You don’t hear that?”

“What do you hear? Is it talking to you?”

“I think so.”

“What is it saying?”

“I don’t know, I can’t understand it.”

“Is it speaking Vessewar?”

“Probably.”

Pity, the whispering replied in Amaric’s head. I thought I might have been summoned by someone with real power to exchange for my services. Seems I’ve been called by too-clever children, hmm? Fortunately for you, I speak Ealthebad well enough.

Emryn’s face twitched, her eyes becoming large as she swung them back to the demon-smoke, pricking up her ears, her left hand tugging aimlessly at the braid in her dark hair. “It can’t hurt us while it’s in its space and we’re in ours,” she said in a whisper directed at no one.

The face in the smoke seemed to grin further, into absurdity, upon hearing her words.

“Normally,” it said, this time the voice coming from the manifestation before the apprentices and then echoing from within their minds, “I don’t like to be disturbed without getting something for my trouble. You’ve used the stick when you should have used the honey, hmm?”

After a pause to let the last syllable float in the air awhile, the demon continued. “I suppose I could make you decide between yourselves who I should take and who I should spare. That would be mildly entertaining, at least.” At this, the purgatorial spirits circulating the edges of the swirling cloud seemed to open their mouths at once, a cacophony of distant screams erupting from the multitude of orifices.

“You have no power over us,” Amaric said.

“No, young one? Would you care to wager on that?”

“You’re a liar.”

“Yes, I am. But not always. Do you think your drawings in the mud will protect you from the likes of me? You are my playthings; it cannot be the other way around, hmm?”

Emryn stepped forward within the circle, her face set in determination. “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

The demon’s expression changed at the sound of the name. The cloud of red lightning condensed into the shape of a man, pale with dark hair, naked and handsome. The man’s face wore a mask of fear; he knelt within the triangle and clasped his hands together. “Please, no, mistress. Let me go back to my dwelling-place and I shall leave you in perfect peace. But do not bind me to service, do not make me your slave!”

A grin curled at the edge of Emryn’s mouth, her confidence complete. Amaric let out a sigh of relief and Emryn repeated the words of binding.

“Mistress, no! I can show you such wondrous secrets, give you such power, if you will but let me go!”

She spoke the binding a third time and there sounded a crack like thunder. The demon-man began to float in the air, arms and legs pulled back as if bound by invisible chains. He tried to cry out, but his voice was stopped by unseen force.

“Balsephon, I permit you to speak,” Emryn said.

“What shall I do for you, mistress?” the demon’s voice rasped. “Shall I show you the pleasures of the Beyond that are unknown in this world? Teach you thaumaturgies that have not been practiced in the Avar in centuries? Spy on your enemies?”

“No, Balsephon, you shall dance for me.”

Once she spoke the words, the spirit returned his feet to the floor, moving them with infernal speed in a jig of sorts, his face contorted with displeasure that made it clear he could do naught but obey. Emryn laughed. “You may stop,” she giggled. The spirit floated again, moored to the ground as a tethered airship.

“What shall we do next?” she asked Amaric.

“Let him go. We’ve done what set to do. Let’s not push our luck.”

“It’s perfectly fine, don’t you see.” She turned back to the demon. “If I let you go, do you promise that you will seek no revenge upon us, no matter the opportunity?”

“Yes,” the spirit let out in a long, soft groan.

“Do you swear it?”

“Yes.”

With that, Emryn stepped through the protective circle, its power collapsing in on itself and leaving only the thrum of the demon’s presence as a disturbance in the still air.

As she moved toward the demon, it returned again to her feet. She hesitated for a moment, and the pale man grinned at her. “But I have bound you by name!” she said, terror rising in her voice.

Amaric opened his mouth to yell a warning, but it was too late. The demon moved to Emryn with devastating speed, wrapping her in his arms and pressing his mouth to hers in a lascivious and obscene kiss. As their lips met, the demon’s form began to blur, and then to shift, to become smoky again; her mouth drew the foul smoke into her until she was left standing alone. But it was not her.
“Yes,” said the demon’s voice from within Emryn’s body, her eyes now ablaze and no longer her own. “Let’s do play the game I mentioned.”

“But you swore,” Amaric pleaded.

“I told you I am a liar,” the demon sighed, Emryn’s face twisting with delight.
“What game?”

“The one where the two of you decide who lives and who dies, hmm?” At this, arcs of red lightning began to crackle at Emryn’s fingertips and she rose from the ground, her legs hanging limply beneath her.

Though he would regret it for the rest of his life, Amaric did what all sense within him told him to do; he ran. Quick as he could, he turned for the door to the study, opened it just wide enough to squeeze his thin body through, and pulled it shut behind him, uttering the words to activate the dormant warding. The sound of sizzling lightning and thunder crashed against the ward just as it formed; a thumping at the door followed.

“Amaric? Amaric help me!” came Emryn’s voice from within. The young apprentice put his hand back to the door but resolved himself not to open it and break the ward he had created.

*          *          *

He ran, sprinted, through the cold hallways of the manor to Albrith’s apartments. He shouldered into the door without knocking, finding it unlocked and barely latched; the wooden door slammed into the wall with a crash.
Albrith sat in a chair facing the door, smoking his pipe. His expression lacked all surprise; his eyes brimmed with expectation.

“It has not gone well, I take it,” Albrith inquired as if asking about the weather. The old archmagus stroked his short grey beard as he spoke.
“Y-you knew?” Amaric mumbled.

“Of course I knew, boy. What kind of negligent master do you think me to be?” There was no anger in his voice; he spoke calmly and flatly. Amaric would have preferred yelling. The soft voice threw him off his guard and made him fumble for understanding. “Your ward is holding; that is good. A fortunate thing you are clever. But now, how do we go about resolving this tragedy?”

“A lesson?” Amaric began, his face scrunched up in bewilderment. He flashed with anger. A LESSON!”

“Calm yourself, boy, you have much work to do and not much time to do it in. That ward will not hold forever.”

Amaric felt a wave pass over him and his rage subsided. The magus had used a subtle sorcery to calm him. He wanted to be angry about it but could not muster the emotion.

“Tell me what happened. Every detail. Leave nothing out,” Albrith commanded.
The apprentice did as bidden.

“So what went wrong, Amaric?”

“I don’t know.”

“You do. Think.”

“We made a mistake in drawing the circle,” the apprentice chanced.

“But the demon did not make his move until Emryn stepped out of the circle.”

“Then the binding failed?”

“Good. Why? Speak the words Emryn used, exactly as she used them.”

Amaric tried to match the intonation and rhythm of Emryn’s words as he uttered them: “Balsephon, I bind you by the Name of the One, by Their servants the Eradhai, and by the Power of Creation. I call you by name and bind you to my service, that you may do no harm but only that which I command.”

“The words are good. What went wrong?”

“Something about the name.”

“Yes, Amaric. Good. What about the name?”

“She said it wrong. It’s not enough to simply say the spirit’s name, it must be pronounced true.”

“That is true. But the name was said well.”

Amaric thought for a moment, his nerves calmed but the evening’s events still racing distractingly through his mind. He searched for some clue. Finally, he spoke.

“It’s not Balsephon.”

Albrith smiled and puffed from his pipe. “Very good. There is some hope for you yet. How can we know this for sure?”

“I don’t know.”

“The spirit is trapped within the warding of your study, yes?”

“Yes.”

“And a manifested spirit cannot be two places at once, yes?”

“Yes.”

“So?”

Amaric said the words slowly, buying time as he tried to think on them before saying them. “We try to summon Balsephon somewhere else. If the demon in the ward is Balsephon, he will not appear when summoned. If it is not Balsephon, then he will appear when properly conjured.”

“Precisely, boy. And now it is time you witness a proper conjuration. Come.” Albrith rose from his chair.

“But what about Emryn?”

“We will discuss Emryn when we know who we’re dealing with. Be patient.”

*          *          *

Albrith’s ritual room connected to his apartments, a large space with high-vaulted ceilings and a large two-story window at the far end of the room, pointed East. There were no chalk drawings here; Albrith’s protective circle had been inlaid into the stone, made of gold, copper, silver and other metals Amaric could not readily identify. A private library of grimoires occupied the room’s southwest corner, while the northern wall held shelves of reagents, magical tools, and shallow stone slabs inlaid similarly to those on the floor. Amaric looked again to the protective circle and saw that the tiles were interchangeable—a sort of arcane moveable type. Albrith had already laid out the tiles to match the designs that Amaric had drawn by hand.

Near the ritual circle stood a small lectern on which on open book displayed the pages of eld Caithra’s notes on Balsephon in young ink, the pages and binding still fresh and new. Everything lay ready.

“Step into the circle, boy.” Albrith ordered. “You will do nothing; you will say nothing. You will watch. And learn.”

He did exactly that. Albrith never even looked at the grimoire; he had committed the entirety of the ritual to memory. His movements were precise and subtle, his words exquisitely formed, intoxicating in their rhythm and timbre. Again Amaric lost track of time, but this time Albrith’s mastery of technique and not his own exertion caused the effect.

A form appeared in the summoning triangle, as if raised to the stage from a lift below. Amaric shuddered to look upon the thing before him, a blasphemous contortion of bodies both human and animal in an amorphous conglomerate. Briefly, Amaric pitied the creature, but his fury at Emryn’s condition quickly pushed aside any sympathy. As if sensing the emotions, Albrith held his hand behind him as if to silence Amaric before he even began.

Albrith said the words of binding in quick succession—still beautiful in their performance but marked by a cold efficiency that flows from dispassionate determination. There was no melodrama this time, the demon simply cocked its head in response to the words.

With a wave of his hand, Albrith released the power of the summoning triangle, but Amaric could still feel the protective circle like a warm blanket on a cold night. The spirit did not move; it stood blinking at Albrith in motionless expectation.

“Speak your name true, demon,” Albrith admonished.

“I am called Balsephon, magus. But you already know that, for you have bound me by that name.”

“Indeed. Now begone from me.” The old magus waived his hand dismissively as a king or a rich man might do. The demon shrank into nothingness and the circle of protection dissipated as well. “As we suspected…”

“Now what, master?”

“Since we do not know the spirit’s name, we cannot bind it. We must instead banish it.”

“How do we do that?”

“A demon who has the power possesses a mortal to gain protection from banishment—while the spirit occupies Emryn’s body, we cannot remove him from the Avar.”

“And how do we get him out of Emryn’s body?”

“We destroy it.”

“What? No!”

Albrith grabbed his apprentice by the shoulder and stared into his eyes. “There is no other way, boy. Emryn is already gone; a demon such as this will not share flesh with another spirit. Look at me, Amaric! What is done is done. You have made a mistake and it has cost Emryn dearly. You must do what you can to make it right. Who else might suffer if the demon is allowed to roam free?”
“You do it, master. I cannot.”

“You can and you will. This shall be done by the two of us together or not at all.” With that, Albrith walked to the northern wall and pulled a long, thin blade from one of the shelves. He pushed it into his apprentice’s hand, delicately seizing the blade with three fingers and pulling Amaric’s arm forward into a thrust. “Through the heart, boy. You will make it quick.”

*          *          *

Amaric rushed into the study behind Albrith, who entered with staff readied, a shimmering sorcerous shield raised before them. Emryn floated several feet above the ground, slinging ruby lightning and laughing as master and apprentice barged in.

The apprentice cringed behind the shield with each burst of energy that cracked against it; he had never witnessed such raw sorcery before. He quickly decided that he would not mind if he never did again.

Albrith went to the offensive, sending a long gout of blue fire at the Emryn’s body. The lights flickered and died, leaving the flames to illuminate the darkened room. The demon seemed to push the flames away from itself as if by raw will, but the magus slammed his staff to the floor and the apprentice’s body fell to the ground with a thud. “Go,” Albrith whispered to his apprentice.
Feeling again the dulling of his emotions by Albrith’s sorceries, Amaric pressed forward, the fear welling within his stomach but confined to a bodily discomfort rather than a mind-crushing force. As he neared Emryn her body lifted into the air again, not high, her toes dragging the ground.

A dull halo surrounded her now, pink or red. Amaric pulled back the blade, but when he met her eyes he found not the raging flames he had seen before but the deep blue pools in which he had so often lost himself. “Please…no…Amaric,” came Emryn’s voice, her eyes beginning to water, a tear running down her beautiful cheek.

He hesitated. “Destroy it!” came Albrith’s command from behind him. He loosened and tightened his fingers on the blade, wondering why the demon had not attacked him.

Emryn continued to stare at him through the flickering light of Albrith’s sorceries. She was in there, somewhere. Albrith was wrong; Amaric knew it. He turned to look at Albrith. “I—”

“Now!”

When he turned back to his companion of these two past years, he saw her true. Not as the young woman who had crafted herself with the Power, but the lovely plainness she had arrived with. Tears streamed down her cheeks now, and he found that they ran down his face as well.

“Please!” she sobbed.

But Amaric opened his eyes with the Sight, and he could see only the demon within Emryn’s body. He screamed in pain and rage and fear, thrusting the blade into her chest. It slid in with a sickening ease, as if he were only sheathing it. Red blossomed across her dress as he pushed the blade to the hilt. Still yelling, he pushed the body off of the sword with his left hand, watching Emryn’s eyes go wide and flash with red flames before her body crumpled, the demon rising out of it.

“Get out of the way!” shouted Albrith behind him.

Amaric leapt to the side as the spirit slashed at him with long talons. He hit the stone floor hard, knocking the breath out of him. Rolling over, he looked back to the demon and his master, now locked in deadly combat.

Albrith kept the pale man at bay with his staff, all the while speaking the harsh words of Vessewar. The demon tried to keep pace, incanting black words of his own, but Albrith was too precise, too focused, too practiced. The pale man changed back into the flashing, malevolent face within the dark cloud, surrounded by the miniature spirit-bodies caught within the storm. Just before it disappeared altogether, Amaric thought he saw Emryn among those pour souls, screaming and writhing alongside them. He screamed again, feeling the pain of the sight throughout his whole being.

And then it was over. Albrith, sweating and fatigued, came to his apprentice and offered his hand, helping him up from the stones. “What have you learned?”
Amaric wiped the tears from his face, but they did not stop. He stared blankly at his master, incredulous. “But, Emryn—”

“We will speak of Emryn no more. You will not have time to mourn her. Tomorrow our work begins in earnest. What have you learned?”

“I’ve learned that I don’t want to be a thaumaturge anymore,” the apprentice gasped between sobs.

“Then you are ready to be one. Now you respect the Power and what it means to meddle in things you do not understand, I can safely teach you what wielding the Power truly means. I am sorry the cost has proved so dear.”

“Bastard!” Amaric spat.

“I am, but the Power is a harsher master than I; I will not have you wielding it unprepared. I will have Throld bring you something to help you sleep. Give him Lady eld Caithra’s book when he comes. We begin at sunrise, which is not far off.” With that, Albrith left unceremoniously.

As long as he lived, this night would weigh heavy upon him, the guilt of it a thorn over which the skin had already healed and that could not be pulled free. But Emryn, he feared, would suffer far worse. For both of them, a fate worse than death.