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Jan 30, 2023 12:45 PM
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"The only thing necessary [...] is for good men to do nothing."
      -- Edmund Burke Abridged

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Time:  About a week later.

Place:  The Imperial Palace in Egorian, capital of Cheliax.

This aerial view shows the side of the Palace that contains the Majestrix's quarters, including some rooms with windows and even the occasional exposed balcony.

All such are guarded by a permanent wall of force.

The surrounding aerial volume is patrolled by a species of keen-eyed flying devil with natural arcane sight and invisibility detection, lest anyone be so daring as to seek a glimpse of Abrogail Thrune in her nightgown, or maybe observe her in meeting and read her lips.

Forbiddance, wall of force, patrolling devils: these are the standard precautions taken in accordance with such security mindset as Cheliax has developed, pertaining to known and customary threats at their technology level, magical level, and accustomed levels of opposed intelligence.

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Also in the air above Egorian is a Tiny Translucent Sphere.  Even a keen-eyed and arcane-sightful devil has negligible probability of spotting it; the floating glass bead is small, clear, weakly magical, and not that close to the Imperial Palace.

(ai art)

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Let's take this moment in time to talk (as one often does) about IOUN stones.

IOUN stones look like simple floating colored shapes, unless you use Detect Magic on them, in which case they look insanely complex and maybe even paradoxical.

The spellforms they maintain behave like continuous spell-like abilities of living magical creatures, like something alive is maintaining a spellform that couldn't be held together by any static shape or cycle of magical forces, only by an organism that perceives and reacts.

IOUN stones circle above their wielder's head through any amount of gymnastics, and dodge blows as if they were alive; if you own more than one, they'll form themselves into pretty aerial patterns.

Outwardly they look like simple gems.

Inwardly they're filled with tiny three-dimensional magic-channels of surpassing complexity.

It's an obvious-to-Golarion-artificers hypothesis that IOUN stones are alive; and were (given known Azlanti habits) created by some horrifying sacrifice of intelligent lives and maybe even souls.  That the tiny intricate channels are there, not to maintain the outer spellform, but to imprison the essence of some living thing that does maintain it.

And yet no known divination shows any hint of necromancy about IOUN stones: no life, no soul.

It's a slightly-less-obvious hypothesis that some mysterious quality of animation or sapience was transferred into IOUN stones, extracted from an animal or a soul the way that the potency of spellsilver can be burned into things that are not spellsilver.

An awful number of awful experiments have failed to make any progress on this hypothesis either.

Not being stupid, plenty of wizards have thought of the possibility that both obvious hypotheses are just plain wrong.

Maybe there's some kind of living-magic effect that you could create with those intricate magical channels? and that is what navigates the IOUN stone's flight and maintains its spellform?

Nobody's ever made progress on figuring out this hypothesized Living Magic either, as might be the key to many different rumored aspects of Azlanti artifice.  Given the vast intricacy of IOUN stones, it doesn't look like an overwhelmingly promising thing to figure out by poking around.  Every artificer whose thinking gets that far dreams of finding the earlier prototype of an IOUN stone: something which (on this general class of hypothesis) maintains some much simpler form of Living Magic that you actually could understand, and maybe then you could decode the more complicated spellforms.

Carissa and her ex are not the only beings with INT 29 ever to examine ancient Azlanti IOUN stones.

They are, however, the first ones to do so already having some idea of what a 'low-tech computer' might look like.  And the first ones to do so having built their own Magical Simulator of Magical Physics, which gives them (a) actual experience in magical analog signal processing, and (b) the ability to simulate unseen magical interactions in some detail.

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To be clear, the Tiny Translucent Sphere is very barely an IOUN stone.  It does not fly around its wielder through all combat circumstances, but only floats in a single place relative to the (rotating) planet.  The only spell effect it maintains is a special weaker case of Prestidigitation.  It could not restore itself after a Dispel.

You couldn't say it was reverse-engineered from an Azlanti IOUN stone, so much as re-engineered from scratch after looking at the partially decodable surface features of an IOUN stone for very loose inspiration.  Maybe the best metaphor would be somebody designing an Analytical Engine from scratch, after staring at a computer built from vacuum tubes and managing to decode key abstract concepts but not the actual software.

- and yet, in the final analysis it's fair to say that Carissa Sevar went and made a literal fucking IOUN stone, the first one to be made since Azlant fell.

Many artificers over many centuries have regarded this as the dangling ultimate capstone achievement of mortal magecraft, short of the differently-unreachable realms of artifacts.  But once you've actually built your first IOUN stone, you can see that it's really just a baby's first step into an unimaginably vaster realm:  The space of Azlanti artifice is just the space of 'all other magic items', once you move past the realm of statically constructed magic items and into those that cast a sense-compute-motor loop to model and maintain a dynamic spellform.

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The spellform of the Tiny Translucent Sphere could be analogized to a stripped-down Prestidigitation, receiving small-dimensional input commands from a simulated wizard.

First, the Tiny Translucent Sphere maintains approximately the same station, relative to the Palace in Egorian or rather the rotating form of Golarion; it resists lesser wind currents over its quite small surface area, maintained by Prestidigitation's pound of force.

Second, when activated by a light pressure of magic cast through a scry, the Tiny Translucent Sphere changes the refractive index of light in a lens-shaped volume nearby.  Further light pressures of magic through the scry will rotate and shift that refractive lens.

Finally, the Tiny Translucent Sphere - this part took no additional effort at all - has a magical signature that is unique across Golarion and a number of neighboring planes.

Which is to say:  The Tiny Translucent Sphere acts as a combination scry anchor and telescope for purposes of scanning across the side of the Imperial Palace containing Abrogail Thrune's quarters, with windows and balconies shielded by a permanent wall of force.  You could use the IOUN Stone of Peeping to verify her presence, read lips if you focused closely enough and were sufficiently good at reading lips, maybe even get a glimpse of her walking around in a nightgown.  Whether you wanted to do that, of course, would depend on your utility function, and your purposes, and your plans.

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Aspexia Rugatonn now walks those same halls, decorated in what another place would call 'doompunk', appointed in gold and crimson more than red and black, with traces of Imperial purple never permitted to overshadow Hell's colors.  The ignorant commoners of Cheliax are sometimes reassured "It's not that Cheliax serves Hell; rather it's Hell that serves Cheliax" but this is a lie and everyone of sense knows better.  Hell is far greater than Cheliax, and for a great Power to serve a lesser one is contrary to the Chelish state religion.

Aspexia Rugatonn is heading for a meeting with Abrogail Thrune, pondering, as she walks, the best way to share certain major recent news: a surprise from the distant Chaotic Evil land of Wanshou.  It could be seen as hopeful news, is the problem.  One of the few aspects of trope-reasoning that Aspexia is confident she's understood, is the notion that a hope once spoken aloud in front of a viewpoint character cannot come to pass, or at least not come to pass exactly as it's spoken.  Some of Keltham's spellsilver plans worked as he intended, but that was only possible because of the Conspiracy; things were not really going well for him by his current lights.

(Aspexia Rugatonn has, of course, considered the possibility that she herself is a viewpoint character; considered it, and discarded it.  Her thoughts simply are not as dramatic as the thoughts of the trope-girls like Abrogail; and the story has not so far seemed interested in tormenting her the way it torments Abrogail.)

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In a chamber on that side of the Palace sits Queen Abrogail II, contemplating a recent report of her own; though at present she is just looking up from that report to gaze upon the Grand High Priestress of Asmodeus, whose attendance upon herself Abrogail has demanded.

(ai art)

Abrogail is not even striking a pose, here, this is just her resting queen face.

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"You said you had news of Keltham?"

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"So I infer."

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"I continue to imagine that such news was supposed to come to me, before you; not the other way around."

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"That would require you to understand what you're seeing.  You have not the Cunning to understand or even notice Keltham's handiwork, or Sevar's for that matter.  Your underlings even less."

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The quality of their interactions has been strained, of late; but if you don't know how to take that in stride, in Cheliax, you are not long for politics in the country.

"Tell me of it, then."

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"That discussion may consume some time.  We should dispense with shorter matters before then, if you've any small reports to make or little questions to ask of me."

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"As you will, then."

"I'm concerned with how you remain un-assassinated."

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"People have been saying that about me for a while."

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"Be serious.  I'm worried that Keltham hasn't killed you yet.  He has not much time left to do that before your child quickens with soul.  It's possible Keltham hasn't figured things out at all.  But with you staying so much in the Palace, he may not have had an easy chance to -"

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"If I leave the Palace under unusual conditions, if I make myself an easy and predictable target for temporary assassination, Keltham may deduce exactly what I'm doing and why!  Asmodia was your own pet; did you learn nothing from her?"

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Her voice is a bit dry.  "I am not sure I so trust all this complicated reasoning, that I wouldn't give Keltham a shot at killing you some easy way.  Instead of prompting him to, perhaps, crater all Egorian for it.  We should not neglect the ordinary form of the game while we chase this - absurdly elaborated one."

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"I suppose I could stage some affair that leaves me exposed at a predictable place and time.  Whereupon Keltham, if he is truly Wished and headbanded up to INT 29, will deduce exactly what I'm doing and why, and maybe even that you were the one stupid enough to order me to do it.  Would that make you happy?"

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"Perhaps.  I will think on it." 

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"How goes your training of the would-be Keepers of Asmodeus, as holds you back from so much other valuable work in time of approaching war, on only the word of a Chaotic god?  Are there any hopes vague enough to be told me?"

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She frowns.  "Vague enough?"

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"If it's mysterious to me and not too hopeful, if the audience wouldn't know what you're talking about, that shouldn't prevent things from going mostly as you plan."

(Abrogail Thrune is not aware of how her own desperation to know - to be back in the loop on things - to be told anything, or for that matter given some hope of regaining her story-relevance and pride - is skewing this judgment.)

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"Matters with the Keepers of Asmodeus go about as well as could be expected."  It would lack dignity if Aspexia Rugatonn cackled evilly; she hasn't done that since she stopped adventuring and went into administration.  Also, of course, she'd never show that much emotion in front of Abrogail; and also also it'd probably be too much hope to give her.

Matters with the Keepers of Asmodeus are going at least as well as could possibly have been expected.  Only the shadow of Cayden Cailean's involvement, that He somehow expects to benefit from this alongside Asmodeus, would hold Aspexia back from breaking into full-scale maniacal laughter if she were in private.

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"You can probably go slightly less vague than that.  Are Asmodeus's Keepers all sixth-circles?  Has one reached eighth-circle?  Are they a significant-enough military force to matter?"

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