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Leareth ends up in Karsite Marc's head during the war
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(Leareth knows the answer he came to. But he thinks it will make more sense to Karal from Matteir's perspective, when it was fresh. He finishes the tea, and then picks up the next bound volume that Nayoki set out.) 


This one is dated to forty-odd years later. Matteir would have been in his late sixties, though he had access to the Empire's life-extending magic and was physically still in the prime of life. A two-page preamble (written after than the rest, he suspects, it has the terse summary feeling that Leareth is coming to associate with content he added later while reorganizing notes, to contextualize something for his later self) conveys the where and when. 

Matteir had, eventually, put down roots, in the region that would fairly soon - well, in the next century - become the kernel of eastern Rethwellan. It was, like much of the continent, a patchwork of small city-states, and future western Rethwellan was still entirely Pelagirs. It wasn't an especially prosperous or stable area, compared to the Empire, but it was busy and bustling and felt like somewhere where things could happen. Matteir had founded a mage-school – he had already done that a dozen times, but this time he stayed a lot longer than a year or two. 

...Matteir had been married, apparently. Which comes as news to Leareth, he - it's not that he would have said that never happened, but even compared to all the rest that he doesn't directly remember, it feels like - something that must have happened to someone else.

Her name was Hoshdana. He was about fifty when they met, and she was thirty-five or so, a Mindspeaker and a devout follower of Astera. Leareth doesn't remember loving her, and the manuscript doesn't dwell on it, but - he must have. There was no other reason to marry. Hoshdana couldn't safely bear children - she had bad joints and a bad heart, from a childhood fever - but they lived together for eight years. They took in a pair of orphaned siblings, and then adopted the daughter of Hoshana's niece after the girl died in childbearing. For the first time in...Leareth has no idea how many lifetimes...he raised a family. 

(...Actually, for all he knows this happened on multiple occasions in the Eastern Empire. Altarrin obviously never married, or had any relationships that weren't merely pretexts to shelter someone promising from political difficulties - those were glossed over but mentioned in the summary - but political marriages were one of the currencies of power, and it does seem like something Leareth might have done for that reason if he were born to a less advantageous position. It still...feels different.) 

Hoshdana died during one particularly bad winter when their adopted daughter was five, despite the Healers who Matteir Gated in from the nearest big city. Matteir - stayed, because he still had a school to run, and nowhere else to be. Most of his family was grown - or gone - by the time he sat down to write this particular manuscript, but the youngest adopted daughter, who had known him as her father since infancy, was seventeen and still living with him. 


That is not something Leareth had remembered or been even slightly expecting and he maybe needs thirty seconds to finish having some sort of emotion about it. 


Karal gives him the time, trying to stay in the background - not entirely silent, but sending quiet empathy and support and not having too many of his own emotions about this, yes, deeply strange thing.  He wouldn't have expected it either.  It was... good, he thinks, for Leareth to have something this ordinary.  Good that he could have it.  He wonders how much Hoshdana knew about everything, what she thought of it.


(It makes him want even more to make sure Leareth isn't alone - but that is not something either of them should be dwelling on, and he keeps it as quiet as he can without touching the invisible-but-obvious line of hiding his intentions.)


Leareth is fairly sure she didn't know anything about his past. It would have been so fraught, and - he has the sense that Matteir was, if not exactly running away or hiding from that, at least - taking a break. But he suspects - and hopes - that Hoshdana knew him, the sort of person he was and the things he wanted and cared about.


...He takes a deep breath, and keeps reading. 


The beginning of the notes are...odd, in tone, compared to the other writing. It's almost scattered. The writing of someone trying very hard to think through a problem, but - not quite sure what the problem was, or maybe not quite able to look at it head-on. 


Matteir had, at this point, spent fifty years free of the Empire. He had seen the entirety of the continent – and made a few efforts to reach the other continent, but shipbuilding had never recovered after the Cataclysm, and by the time he had any real opportunity for it, he didn't actually feel like risking not just his life but the lives of an entire ship of explorers. Maybe later.

He had, finally, had space to really meet and know people, so many of them clever and resilient and determined and brave and - good. He had felt so alone, as Ma'ar. But he could look at it from a different angle, and - he wasn't.

(It feels incredibly important, in the emotional tenor of these particular notes, that Matteir had been leaning into every opportunity he could to have friends and allies. For once, he deliberately wasn't choosing the kind of ruthless strategy that would limit who was willing to be on his side.) 

Looking back on his life, it felt like it should have been enough. It felt like something fundamentally wrong with the fabric of reality, that apparently it wasn't. That, apparently, the entire population of a continent could spend nearly eight hundred years living and working and trying to improve their lot - and plenty of them were clever and ambitious and creative - and, in the end, all of them were running in place. It wasn't just the Empire, it was everywhere

In the Haighlei Empire, it felt particularly obvious that it was thanks to the gods. They hadn't lost much at all to the Cataclysm, so you couldn't blame it on that, and the way the gods' will wove into their society was particularly formalized and legible. But the traces of it were everywhere. 

...Matteir didn't think the Empire had gotten it exactly right. It wasn't that the gods were against civilization. The Haighlei Empire was plenty civilized. It was just - stuck in one place. The same way everywhere was stuck. He could see the shadow of it even here, in the bustling town - now almost a city - that had grown up around a mage-school founded by a scholar from somewhere far away. 

Every parent wanted a better life for their children. It wasn't that hard, to make the leap to wanting a better world for your children - or for all the children - it would be arrogance to think he was the only person ever to form that insight. But it had to be so much easier to miss, from the vantage point of a single human lifetime, when you were running in place. It felt like progress. It felt like he had built something here, a foundation sturdy enough for his students to build on further. If he hadn't spent twenty-five years roaming the continent, reviewing its past and not just its present, collecting written and oral history of long-dead inventors and teachers and writers and city-founders, and all the other people who had tried to leave something durable behind in the world, he wouldn't have seen it nearly so clearly. 

Matteir had - thought he would have a plan again, by now. And he didn't. He was still stuck, and he was scared. 


The entire first third of the manuscript consists of Matteir dwelling, from different angles and in different words, on "the problem is the gods." The gods didn't want things to change. Were scared of change? Matteir tried on a dozen framings, unable to confirm any of them. Cited various theology texts in passing, quoted from priests he had interviewed about visions - or about legends of visions passed down from distant predecessors - but he admitted that he had disappointingly little direct testimony about what the gods wanted, and none he found incredibly convincing. Only the patterns of centuries, the negative space where something should have been and wasn't, shadows cast on the world...




Why am I so afraid, Matteir wrote. 

I am afraid of the gods, I know that much. Of dying at Their hand, again? I think more than just that. 

I am afraid I cannot keep my oath, if the gods stand in my way. If They are too powerful to oppose head-on, and too strange and far away for diplomacy, then - what? 

I cannot walk away. 

...I am afraid to think about what I might do instead. 


It's incredibly strange, how much of that feels like Karal's own thoughts.  All the connections Matteir looked for and found and clearly let himself rely on - it was the sort of life Karal understands, and he saw what Karal sees, that people are good and that they're trying and that they deserve for this trying to work better than it does.  (The war, pointless and stupid, that people on both sides tried to stop, and couldn't.  What had been happening in Karse long before that, his beloved country descending into a culture of violence and cruelty while so many people he knew and loved tried to be better than that.  Vanyel, their enemy, trying so hard to do the right thing, and left with no options that felt right at all.  All the other, better things all of them could have been doing if they weren't stuck in the endless struggle to protect whatever they could and much less than they wanted to.  He knows it's unfair, to suddenly feel like the gods are to blame for what surely is mostly just the nature of people and the world.  Nobody is only good, and life is hard, these things would be true even with no interference - but someone, somewhere, sometimes, would succeed and not have the next decades see their achievements lost.)

And... yes, it's hard to even think about this straight-on - hard to consider what possible thing could be done about a problem this large and complicated and entwined so deeply with the entirety of how the world works.  A problem it seems impossible to even understand properly.  What do you do about that, when the whole issue is that trying doesn't work?  (It's a rhethorical question.  Karal knows he could never find an answer.  Matteir could, and so he was afraid to even think, when some part of him got too close to the shape of the answer...  But Karal, too, pauses and lets his thoughts struggle in the impossible bind, lets himself feel what it must have been like, to see no answers except the vague glimpse of some awful thing, and to slowly convince yourself to try to look at it clearly, since there's nothing in any other direction but you can't just stop looking...)


Karal, too, is afraid of what comes next.  But it's the fear you feel when you know it's the right time to find out.


But he has to think about it - he can't walk away - 

(The dates noted above each section make it clear that this particular part was eked out over months.) 

The problem is the gods.

He can't - history has showed him that he can't - oppose that force by doing things that ought to work at the human level, not even by doing them exceptionally well and carefully. The thing that happens, when he tries just pushing harder along that angle, is that his efforts are turned sideways and bent into something like the Eastern Empire. A place that has some of the trappings of success, the shining cities and academies and canal-Gates, but fundamentally serves the gods as well, by being a place where anyone and everyone who could build anything interesting is instead pinned down and driven along a track just as fundamentally predictable as subsistence farming. He could try again, with the lessons he's learned, but the Eastern Empire wasn't a cheap experiment, and he's really quite sure that a smarter and better-planned state would just fail in some different horrifying way. 

If he wants the world to stop being stuck, he has to approach it on the level where the problem actually is. 

It's terrifying to think about - Matteir is clearly making himself write this out fully and explicitly - because he very badly doesn't want the answer, here, to be that he needs to actively bring himself to the gods' attention, and probably make himself look even more threatening. He's so tired of being murdered, and even more tired than that of having his allies and friends end up as collateral damage. He doesn't feel ready to give up - this - a life where for once that hasn't happened, because he kept himself small and harmless. 

(...Except that the people around him still die, just - of growing up in a poor village with no trained Healer and no way to get to one, when a little girl was desperately ill with fever - and Hoshdana was the lucky one, she might have been ill and crippled all her life but she had that life...) 


He needs to - convince the gods to change Their mind, that would be enough, except that he can't think how. The gulf there is so wide, he doesn't know how to communicate in a language the gods would understand - he's not sure humans, even immortal humans, are the kind of entity that can do that even in principle - and why in the world would the gods even want to listen, he has no meaningful leverage with Them, there's nothing he can do if They just...decide not to listen, or care... 


...Well. Maybe the world doesn't need Matteir, it needs a better god. 



How-- ?!?


He doesn't understand what that could possibly mean, and his wild guesses are not going to make anything better, so he will just-- try to look at that idea head-on, however incomprehensible it is, and wait for the rest.


(They're now about two-thirds of the way through Matteir's notes.) 

Once he's managed to think that thought and commit it to paper, Matteir almost immediately adds that this is very likely impossible. 


But thinking about it seems to come easier, or at least faster; the sections are much longer, written more fluidly, the dates closer together. He's taken the problem and turned it into a - still fundamentally hypothetical problem of magical design, like creating a new species (which he's done), and he is very, very good at thinking those through. 

He sketches an outline of the research problem in a matter of days. How would you make a better god? He sees three main avenues: somehow modify an existing god, take a person and transform them into a god, or create one from scratch the way you would build a canal-Gate. The first seems - fraught - and also he might not actually be ethically comfortable with it, assuming the god in question didn't want or agree to be so modified; he's not ruling it out entirely yet, not when all of this is still hypothetical anyway, but he's setting it aside for now. 

The other two are - differently huge and complicated as research problems, and fundamentally there are a lot of things he doesn't know - that no one knows - about what gods are on a metaphysical level, that he would need to determine. He can outline an agenda, though. Here are the gaps that would need to be filled, and - here are the parts he does know, or can infer based on physical laws of reality. 

(Matteir does a lot of Gates to records caches. He takes to spending long periods of time in his private Work Room, usually so he can project his mind to the various planes in order to test theories. "Where" the gods live and "what" substance the gods are made of are - complicated questions, much more complicated than the way mortal humans or other sentient beings have bodies made of matter in a particular location on the material plane, and souls made of spiritstuff tied to those bodies in a particular way - but they are coherent questions, and he can narrow down some of the answers. 

He is massively neglecting the mage-school. My daughter worries I am not sleeping, he writes. He doesn't show any sign of slowing down.) 


At the end of three months, Matteir has a research agenda. 

He - is now almost entirely sure that it's possible, in theory, to take a mortal soul, and, by putting it through a series of magical transformations, turn it into the same general class of entity as a god. He could probably figure out how to actually do it in fifty years. The result would perceive the world through Foresight, would be able to tug on those threads, would be able to interface with mortals via Foresight visions -

- and might or might not bear the slightest resemblance to the original mortal soul, might or might not even care about - or understand - anything that the original mortal had. That part is a lot harder. Getting a god at the end who meaningfully remembered being human would require a much deeper understanding of the transformations involved, and is a research project of - probably centuries, at least. It might actually be easier to solve the "build from scratch" version, which just involves understanding the final state and not all the intermediate points - though of course really you would want to understand both on a deep level...



The other part - and it's not even incredibly complicated math - is the power requirement. Gods aren't precisely made of mage-energy, but they're (probably, he needs to check about six different assumptions here) made of something that you can create if you start with a pile of mage-energy and do things to it. (He's now pretty sure you could also construct a mortal soul out of mage-energy, to particular specifications, though it wouldn't be very efficient. Still, probably, a test one would want to run to verify some of the theory before trying anything bigger...) 

Gods are very big. The initial construction of a canal-Gate, using the state-of-the-art magical techniques available to the Eastern Empire, can be done with a few dozen lives' worth of blood-magic. Making enough god-soul-stuff to build a god-entity that could operate on the same scale as one of the existing gods, would take - 

- some scratch math - 


- proooooobably somewhere between five million and fifty million lives. 


Hypothetically. It's deeply unclear how you would store or channel or in any way harness that much mage-energy if you had it.

...That, too, is really just a tricky magical research problem, and not even a totally new shape of one.

But Matteir's notes seem to abruptly run out of energy to lay it out. Creating a new god is probably not impossible and that is making it abruptly feel much less hypothetical, and the notes say that explicitly and then sort of just - end. 


Of course it's impossible--


(He's done what??)


--Clearly Karal has absolutely no idea what is and isn't impossible.


("as you would build a canal-Gate"???)




None of all this talking about the laws of physical reality and the substance of different planes makes any sense to Karal, but if someone who is essentially Leareth writes it in that confident researcher's tone then of course it's true, and he can maybe... a little... see what he means?  Magic isn't physical, but it's like a physical thing in some hard-to-describe way, it feels like you're doing something and like there's something there to... do things to...  And he has no idea about other planes, but presumably they're also like that. 

He has never considered the gods as just another category of physical being, as Matteir clearly is, but again if Matteir says it then of course he's right, and it does make things... less confusing? easier?... if the reason the gods are so strange and unhelpful and difficult to communicate with is because they're just a type of being that cannot do everything Karal had been told the gods could do.  That cannot explain anything, or even understand all the unfulfillable expectations they are causing people to have of them for incomprehensible Foresight reasons because they cannot see the world any other way...

But still, to create a new one?  What would... he? she? It? Karal is failing at the level of basic two-letter words, which sure is some sort of sign about everything else he's trying to think about... What would the new god be like?  Apparently that's a separate technical problem, in which case the answer seems likely to turn out to be "whatever Leareth wants", and isn't that a mind-boggling thought...


(He's going to have to think about all of this again tomorrow, and probably next week as well, until he gets to the point where it doesn't feel like it's turning his brain inside-out and he has some confidence that anything he's thinking makes sense--)


Why lives, Karal knows you can get power in other ways, why is this what Matteir, Matteir who knows how important people are, is jumping to--

--he must have a reason, and it's not as if it wouldn't be worth it, it's not as if people wouldn't be willing to die for it--




Karal barely knows how much a million is.  He has to figure it out, with a mind that is suddenly almost refusing to function, drag back the old mathemathics lessons about numbers too large to have any use in his life...

He doesn't know how many people there are, either, in Karse or... in Valdemar, it was Valdemar he said he was invading... or in the world.  Would there be anyone left??  It makes no sense to even consider doing this thing, it cannot possibly be worth it, Tell me you're not--


Leareth - is going to have a hard time answering, or even entirely realizing that Karal is asking a question, because he's - 



- it turns out he has a surprisingly vivid and intense sense-memory of that realization, of staring at it and hating it and, for the first time probably-ever, kind of regretting that he had sat down and tried to think about it in the first place. It feels wrong, to regret asking a question, all answers are worth having, but - the answer was unacceptable and yet it would probably work - he could try every other alternative first, he could try founding a functional country that wasn't the Eastern Empire, could try yelling at the gods, could certainly look for an alternate power source - 


(Probably the main reason the calculation was in 'lives' in the first place is just that it's a standardized unit - in the Eastern Empire, at least, not really anywhere else - in a way that nodes aren't, and it was the largest unit of measure for mage-energy he had on hand. Leareth doesn't think Matteir had been considering it in terms of...actually killing people, rather than "this is a benchmark for how much energy to find some other way"...until he saw the final numbers.

Because you can't power that from nodes. You could drain all the node-power on the continent - well, you couldn't, actually, but hypothetically - and it wouldn't be nearly enough. You could keep taking it at its natural rate of replenishment - you could even less do that in real life, but, hypothetically - and it would take decades to get to the right order of magnitude, while presumably the magical ecosystem and all human infrastructure across the continent fell apart. Leareth doesn't remember being Matteir, but he does remember looking at those calculations - he suspects he's done it again at the start of every lifetime, and that's why he remembers the feeling so vividly - looking at the calculations, and the moment it stopped being just an intellectual puzzle and started being real.) 


- it's been a thousand years. 

Most of that is still a void in Leareth's memory. He more or less has to take it on faith that his past self wasn't an idiot and spent those thousand years sensibly, not just on figuring out the technical problem of making a specific god with mortal-aligned values on purpose, but on looking for any other alternative. All he knows is that he didn't find one, and - he's not entirely resigned to it, he's still looking, he'll keep looking the entire time while he puts the plan in place - 



(He had planned to bring Nayoki in for this part, knowing that he wouldn't remember, and maybe it's a good time to do that, except that that's a decision and Leareth is too busy intensely re-experiencing all the emotions he felt at that point in time to think about it.) 


(- he could get them back. The ten million people. That's - maybe not the only reason Leareth willing to consider it at all, but it's important to why he decided it would be worth it. Souls aren't all of a person, but they're - a lot more of a person than is apparent when the gods send them back as infants. Leareth himself is a proof of concept for that. He thinks that with a friendly god involved, he could get a process a lot less lossy. Valdemar's Companions are a proof of concept that gods can, if it serves Their goals, send back souls with their - personhood and sense of self - more or less intact, and Leareth isn't sure but suspects the reason they don't remember more detail of their human lives and relationships has more to do with what the god or gods involved wants from Companions, or is bothering to keep track of, than with any fundamental physical-law limitations in reincarnating people. 

Leareth's hope is that an aligned god could get everyone back, eventually, at least in some form. The complication there is in people who died long enough ago that their soul has been through a second incarnation-from-infancy. There are also complications with remit-over-souls – a new god won't automatically be able to just take and incarnate souls that currently "belong" to the Star-Eyed or Vkandis or Anathei or any of the others, that part requires god-diplomacy. But there are at least fewer complications for the souls of anyone who dies in the process of creating Leareth's god.) 


The first thing Karal is, when he looks in Leareth's thoughts for the answer and instead finds all these memories and all this complicated grief, is sorry.  Of course Matteir wasn't really thinking of killing people - of course Leareth spent a thousand years looking for any other way.  Part of Karal still wants to shout questions, why can't Leareth do this or that or some other thing instead of this horror, why does it matter that it would take a century to get the power from nodes when everything else has taken so long, can he really find no other source of power somewhere in these many arcane planes that apparently exist, why not use his awful empire to kill people when it seems so well-suited for it, does the other continent have any people on it that would mind their nodes being depleted for however long--

- But he knows, when he manages even a moment's clear thought through his own pain, that they will all have answers.

It's pointless cruelty, to ask these things as if Leareth could have possibly not thought about them, as if he's the sort of person who wouldn't care if there's another way.  It's not an accusation Karal wanted to make, and he is sorry.


(Nayoki can show him the results, later, and he does want to see them, not to check but to understand.  Just not like this, not when they're both lost in pain.)



(The concept of people coming back is not an "of course" - Karal had no idea that was possible even in principle, and struggles to understand what it would mean, how it would change everything...  He really can't think about it usefully right now, that part needs more context than he has or that he can wrap his mind around after all this.  But it's not surprising, and shouldn't be, than when planning this awful thing Leareth has some unimaginable ways to make it less awful.)



He gives a gentle tug at control of the body.  Tries to - not remember, it's too hard to remember things, just to feel where Nayoki is.  He can't feel any of her emotions that might indicate if she'll be back soon, but he can push a tiny bit of his own, to ask.


An instinctive note of apology - Leareth hadn't meant to have a lot of emotions and accidentally cut off Karal's opportunity to feel his own feelings about this - but he also notices a moment later that Karal doesn't mind, and - maybe reacting to how Leareth feels is just intrinsically part of Karal having his own feelings about it. 

He cedes control of the body. It's not like he had been using it for anything other than staring into space. 


Nayoki is still in the library! It seemed like Leareth needed some space for his reading, so she slipped around a corner behind one of the bookshelves and has been sitting quietly, intending to read through this week's collected report on the status of everything in the north - since she's at some point going to summarize that to Leareth - but, in practice, mostly failing to actually do that. She's holding her own shields lightly, so that she'll immediately notice if she picks up anything from Leareth or Karal. (By default he tends to shield tightly enough that she has to reach out actively in order to notice a person there at all.) 


She stands up, the moment she picks up even a whisper of Empathy from them, but reaches out with a gentle Mindtouch before actually stepping around the corner. :Are you all right?: 


He... meant to have some of the tea, to do some ordinary and maybe comforting thing... but he only manages a sip before he puts the cup down with shaking fingers, drops his face into his hands and weeps.  It's easier to have his feelings when he has a body for them to live in, and there's still so much pain and horror at the thing Leareth means to do, but - there's a layer of warmth underneath, half deliberately sent emotion and half something much more fundamental than that.  Yes, he has no desire to feel his own feelings floating alone in the miserable void, instead of anchored to some reality beyond himself that helps the emotions make sense, connected to someone he trusts and cares about.  (Leareth has to have most of his feelings alone in the miserable void.  Karal hates the thought, and can do nothing about it - except for at least being here now, for such a short time out of thousands of years.  It's not much, and he's not even sure it helps.)



No, I'm not - how could he be? - and he isn't either, but...  He doesn't manage words, but there's a feeling of shared pain, of a lack of conflict or accusation or blame.  He's not sure all right is a... meaningful thing to be, while all this is happening... but it's not wrong, to feel like this, and they will manage.


... What did he want from Nayoki, when he reached out?  Leareth wanted something, help in filling in all the information he's missing, but that should wait a while.  Karal himself mostly just... wanted someone to be here.


...Yeah, it really doesn't seem like a good time - for either of them - to start filling Leareth in on a thousand years of facts and details. But they clearly shouldn't be alone. (Leareth, she expects, might prefer to be alone if that were - actually an option - but he's not going to get in the way if Karal wants someone there with him, and - she's glad of that.) 

Nayoki navigates around the bookshelf and crosses the room to their chair. 


(Wow. It's - kind of uncanny, to see them that visibly upset - she can tell immediately that Karal is in control and not Leareth, she doesn't think any of what she's picking up from them is from Leareth, but still. ...She didn't cry like that, when Leareth told her what her life's work would be if she decided to join him. She was, honestly, way too stunned and overawed to have feelings about it like a - real and normal thing. But it feels like it says something important about Karal, that it's his first reaction.) 

She stops beside the chair. :...I want to offer you a hug, but only if that would help.: She thinks it wouldn't help for Leareth; even once he trusted her enough that her presence was reassuring, she thinks he's - not really set up internally to take any particular comfort from physical touch - but Karal at least is probably a normal person about hugs, and maybe if he's in control and the main one experiencing it, Leareth could at least get some of that vicariously. 

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