There is a space at the bottom of the world, where Earth and Ice and Shadow meet. It is cold, but not cold enough to kill; dark, but not too dark to see. A small round room, made of chilly black marble, lit by a dim and sourceless glow, with a spiral stair climbing the curve of the wall and a shallow circular recession in the exact center of the floor. The recession is maybe six feet wide by six inches deep, lined with something resembling pale frosted glass, and there is nothing in it.
The room is round. The stone stairs are broad and shallow, taking one full turn around the wall in their ascent from floor to ceiling. The mysterious voice is still repeating its indecipherable message. It sounds male, of indeterminate age, urgent but not emotional.
He could go up, or go down, or stay put.
As soon as he leaves the circle, the mysterious voice cuts off mid-word.
The humming stays with him, building slowly. Other sensations follow. The chill of the room softens - it's not warmer, exactly, but he's more comfortable in it, able to move easily without shivering. The dark is no less dark, but he can see more clearly. Something clicks into place, an intangible presence under his skin. It feels like it belongs there. He can see in the dark better than he ever did in the light. The cold air is as pleasant as a warm spring breeze.
"Congratulations," says the voice, and he understands it perfectly now, he could think in this language if he pleased. "It's yours now. Try not to destroy the world if you can avoid it. And find the creator. You're his only chance."
This time, it does not repeat the message.
With flawless grace.
And up above the room—
He stands on a triangular black marble floor at the bottom of a very large space. The three walls angling up and out from here are - not stone, not any substance he's seen before; one is pale blue and white with hints of green, one shimmers subtly with every conceivable colour adjacent to black, and one is patterned with dim greys and browns like an abstract painting of a distant cliffside. Far above him, rocky masses hang in the air, silhouetted against the faceted sky, serenely ignoring the call of gravity.
There are not. He could try climbing the unearthly walls. Or—
—the intangible presence offers him a suggestion, in the form of a subtle buoyant feeling. It seems to be trying to tell him that if he - shifts a kind of mental balance toward this feeling of lightness, he could go places much faster than he's used to.
The feeling of lightness intensifies, welling up like a fountain - and then where Cor was standing there is... still Cor, but without all those inconvenient physical parts. He can see for miles. He can hear the distant whistle of the wind blowing along the bottom of the main continent.
And he can move. He need only want to go in a direction and he's off, moving through the air as fast as a shadow, and with as little regard for obstacles.
He's standing on one of those floating islands; from this vantage he can clearly see the bottom of the main continent even with his human eyes. It looms above him, a vast slab of rock, here and there a plume of mist pouring from its edge as a waterfall spills over the side.
No one is around to tell him what the fuck. Unless he would like to ask a rock, but they don't look especially talkative.
He can zoom so good! Look at him go.
There is civilization on top of that main continent. Plenty of it. He can see the brighter faces of the world from here, too; the continent sits midway between top and bottom, surrounded by the three middle faces, with the top three faces visible above. One of those top faces, the orange-red one, is noticeably brighter and more active than all the rest. It shines with all the colours of fire. There is a sun. It is sliding down the border between the fiery face and the neighbouring pale green-gold-grey one.
The nearest city is a very pretty one, close to the eastern edge of the continent. They seem to be fond of stained glass here. Nearly every window is an intricate work of art.
It's a nice place to coalesce!
The city bustles, painted with light by the early afternoon sun. Over there is a museum of natural history built out of gorgeous pink granite; over here, a market where people are buying their groceries; thataway, a large public park with trees and shaded paths and a charming gazebo with a round domed roof—
There is something in the park. It's not entirely clear what something is, but his new companion/tool can sense it. Something has no physical presence, but it's very definitely present nonetheless. It feels - bright.
A bit of park-wandering (during which he attracts a couple of odd looks from passersby) reveals that the bright feeling is located in the shade of this cluster of birch trees, where a little artificial stream curves past a wooden bench decorated with chunks of thick green glass. It's very pretty and peaceful here.
If he keeps looking, keeps trying to define the shape of the feeling, it almost starts seeming like a person, curled up in the grassy hollow next to the bench -
The next person he sees is a middle-aged woman pulling a two-wheeled cart laden with unidentified sacks. She stops, brushes greying red hair of her eyes, and gives him a concerned look. "Are you all right, young man?" she asks, in the same language as the mysterious voice at the bottom of the world.
"Well, you are in the world of Kitaloei, on the mainland, in the province of Golden Plains and the city of Dawnbrook, turning off Birch Street onto East Riverstone Road," she says, making the indicated turn. "And it's the first day of the year 3645, month of Fire," she waves up at the lit panel of the sky, "season of Chaos. I hadn't heard there were any other worlds to get lost from."
The fixtures are reasonably easy to figure out. They have running water here. He can become clean.
When he emerges, Onnri is just pouring herself a cup of tea in the kitchen area that adjoins the living room. There is a stack of clean clothes perched in an armchair near the bathroom door - a few shirts and two different pairs of pants, presumably so he can pick what suits him best. Mostly blues and greys, though one of the shirts is trimmed with green ribbon, and generally Onnri-shaped, meaning somewhat shorter and wider than Cor; but it's not too bad, and the pants come with canvas belts with which to prevent them falling right off him in a comical fashion.
And they can walk to the museum, and see the huge glass model of the world.
It's real big. The bottom point (which is missing any depiction of the room Cor showed up in) is on the ground floor, and they have to go up to the second floor to get above the mainland; the top point hangs from the third-floor ceiling. There are no political divisions marked on the model, but the geography is represented in amazing detail.
"That's us," says Onnri, pointing at the eastern edge of the continent, where a plateau rises from the northeastern part of the green-and-yellow plains that span most of that edge. "Dawnbrook, in Golden Plains province. The provincial capital is Wind's Rest, to the south. Due west of us is the imperial capital, First City, a ways south of the Laughing Lake. Should I name everything else while we're here? I know all the provinces and their capitals."
"All right. That forest north of us is Wildwood, and the capital's Honeycomb, in the middle of the northern half. The desert west of that is Silver Sands - isn't it pretty? - which is where we get a lot of the raw material for our glassworks, I was carrying home some Silver Sands glass when we met. Capital's Bramble Hill, middle of the west half. Then the pink mountains south of there are in Rose Mountains province, capital Flowering Falls in the north, and the grey mountains south of those are in Singing Mountains province, capital Westmarch, which funny enough is in the northeast part of the province. The little icy bit south of there is Glass Lake province, capital Slow River, which is way in the south next to a glacier; and the rocky hilly stretch between Glass Lake and Golden Plains is Dusty Hills, capital Highpoint, which is the very tall mountain you can barely see because it's got three floating continents hanging around right above it. Middle of the mainland is Laughing Lake province, capital Brightwater, in that notch on the south edge of the lake to the west. And that's it for the mainland, but there's five more provinces to go."
"Anyway, those three are Rainmere with the bendy lake on it, capital Cliffside; Jeweled Sea with all those gorgeous icebergs, capital Lonely Shore; and Heron River with the long squiggly river, capital Misty Falls right where the river comes off the edge. Then those two continents holding hands up there," she points up toward the third floor, "are the Twin Steppes, capital Tall Rock, can't miss it, it's got a really tall rock. If we went up to the third floor to look at the top of 'em you'd see what I mean. And up there almost straight above us," she points again at a cluster of floating islands, "are the Blazing Isles, capital Long Drop 'cause it's on the highest inhabited land in the world and if you look over the edge you can see straight down to where Earth meets Ice. —Oh, I s'pose you'd need the faces named too, being from a different world and all?"
"So the top three are Fire and Light and Air - I'm sure you saw Fire outside, it's all lit up because it's Fire's month right now - Light is next, it's the shimmery one in the east, and Air is the one in the southwest. Middle three are Wood and Twilight and Water; Wood's in the northwest, Twilight in the east, Water in the southwest. And the bottom three are Ice in the northwest, Shadow in the east, Earth in the southwest. When the sun goes 'round the world it comes up the middle of Shadow, then Twilight, then Light, and reaches the top point at noon, and then for the second half of the day it goes down between Fire and Air and then between Wood and Water and then between Ice and Earth until it reaches the bottom point at midnight. 'S why we're called Dawnbrook, we sit right next to the dawn. Get the best sunrises in the world."
Looks a bit busy around here. No one accosts him immediately, but none of the people in sight look like they can spare a minute to help a lost traveller; everyone is on their way from somewhere to somewhere else, often while writing something down or reading from a note or hauling a large roll of fabric or something in that vein.
There are stairs. The palace is pretty easy to navigate.
In the room on the fourth floor of the east wing with carved wooden roses hanging to either side of the door, there are a number of people coming in and out at all times and one very busy woman in the middle of it all holding a clipboard and having three conversations at once.
"...He took the Emperor's swoop and an imperial seal to Dawnbrook. Those are both distinctive things; you might be able to ask around, if you can get there fast enough to catch him before he moves on. I think he mentioned going to Highpoint next, but I don't know how fast or where he's headed after that."
Tifinn finds him a picture of the Emperor's swoop, hanging in a gallery a few corridors away.
It's a member of the smaller, sleeker class of winged boats - there are always a few of those in the air over the continent, which he will have glimpsed in passing. This one in particular is made of dark reddish-brown wood with silver detailing, the outlines of feathers painted onto its solid wooden wings, with a pale green glimmer depicted in the air around it. The colour of the wood is unusual among swoops, and the style of those clean silver lines is extremely distinctive.
It is getting towards evening by now, the sun sliding down the sky into the gap between the mountain ranges in the west, and when he reaches Dawnbrook the Emperor's swoop is sitting in plain view on the roof of a fancy hotel, parked on a landing pad next to a couple of lesser specimens of swoopkind.
A few hours go by. The sun sets, and the elaborate windows - everywhere in Dawnbrook has elaborate windows - paint the room with coloured light.
The woman he saw sleeping in the park floats in through the wall. She is seven feet tall and not at all translucent at the moment, and there is a band of black iron over her eyes, attached to a chain that fades into nothing as it trails away behind her.
Possibly for the teenage boy who walks in the door shortly afterward carrying an enormous book with a braid of nine chains down the spine. They fade into nothingness as they trail from the end of their braid, most of them all in one direction, one reaching forward toward the floating woman, and one reaching backward—
"My world is, uh, also ending, it's going around. I came here via magic from there to see if I'd land on a place to evacuate or shunt world-ending magical byproduct. Wound up at the pointy bottom bit of this one and was mysteriously conferred additional magic powers including being fast."
"Oh, that's me." He hefts his enormous book. "The Book of Creation. It's for creating things. I'm supposed to spend this year running around examining things closely so I can create the next world as well as possible, but that seems obviously inferior to saving this one so it's strictly my second-choice plan, first choice being 'figure out how to end the cycle of destruction and do that instead'."
"Well. That's an interesting wrinkle. My current plan involves touring the continent finding all the elemental spirits and waking them up early, then wandering around recording stuff in the book and seeing what I can figure out about how to save the world. Want to tag along while we figure out how to solve each other's problems?"
"There are nine months in a year, each associated with an element. In the ordinary course of things, on the last year of the world each spirit wakes at the beginning of their own month, and we assist the creator in making the next world. But the previous creator was skilled enough and dedicated enough to write a world where there is an obvious place for each spirit to sleep, and when the place is obvious enough to be found ahead of time, it's possible to wake a spirit early. As long as it's done in order. Fire, Light, Air, Wood, Twilight, Water, Ice, Shadow, Earth. Is that the kind of context you were looking for?"
"So," he says. "I don't know if there are or were other worlds, but this one - in its first iteration - began a very long time ago, and it was not nearly as pleasant and stable then as it is now. There were nine faces on the world's shell, and nine elemental spirits to go with them, but instead of being arranged in a single stable configuration like they are now, the sizes of the faces shifted over time. Sometimes they came in close enough to nearly crush the continent - at the time there was only one, floating in the middle of the world. We had no control over the shifts in that elemental balance. I speculate that someone must have thought we did. Because, after it became clear that the shifts were getting worse over time, after it became clear that the world was going to end, I woke up on the first day of the last year of the next world with this chain binding my heart."
He taps the disc on his chest, illustratively.
"They didn't tell us anything, but it's possible to reconstruct some of the logic. The world was ending. They couldn't save it. But they could create the means for it to eventually be saved. The cycle goes on, and although it's not strictly true that every world is better than the last, they are improving over time. They last longer, they offer better lives to their inhabitants. One day we will learn how to end the cycle, and we will have a world strong enough to go on forever. I hope it's this one."
"I don't know what they assumed about us, but unless they thought we were deliberately destroying the world for our own amusement, it can't have been worth what they did to us," says Ravkesial. "The chains bind us to the book, each by some part of ourselves that is important to us. They took Telarin's ability to feel emotion, and my sight, and Camalirea's voice, and Ilifalyr's memory, and Avasendai's hands... I don't understand how they could have known us well enough to know how to hurt us this way, and not known that we weren't the problem."
"Three basic themes - fire, death, annihilation. It has its small utility uses like cooking - via fire - or weeding - via death - or dusting - via annihilation - but it can get more abstract and more involved. I got here by applying destruction to the barrier between worlds on the presumption that there might be such a thing. Any use of magic dumps some nonexistence into a disappearance point; every mage is hooked into one. We were - mistaken about how fast we were nonexisting the planet. It's a sphere, the points aim down - if you go down far enough you hit magma and after that we couldn't tell how far, but we assumed the rate was constant, it's not, the points eat their way onward on their own in addition to the amount they eat from individual spellcasting and it's accelerating. One punched through the planet, annihilated half a city, there was a war, it got worse. Some of my friends are trying another more conservative option with more moving parts. I tried this."
"Void balances with Chaos, seems to be the lesson of this story," says Riale. "You've got the Blade of the Void, I've got the Book of Creation, maybe I can - throw some chaos at your disappearance points and shut them up. But unless your world is dying a whole lot faster than mine, I think we need to get this one figured out first. It doesn't sound like this system was designed to have important parts taken out of it, and you're holding onto an important part."
"Sure, we can swing by the capital on our way from Highpoint to Wildwood in a couple days and find a volunteer. I mean - I could wave my imperial seal around Dawnbrook until we find somebody willing to sit still for being voided into another world, but if it's somebody I personally know then I know more about - how they're judging the risks, how they really feel about it, so I'm more comfortable asking crazy things of them."
"I have this book," he hefts the book, "and I can—record things in it—" he opens it and flips through the pages. Every page has a drawing of some object, exquisitely detailed, so realistic it feels like you could just pick them up off the page and hold them in your hand. A lamp, a book, the Emperor's swoop, a tray of tasty-looking food, the imperial palace. "And I can create anything that's in there." Tray of tasty food appears on a spare bit of table. "And I'm supposed to be able to use the stuff I record in the book to sort of - make a blueprint for the next world, so it appears that way when this one's done - and I already asked about putting people in the book, and you have to know them really well and even if you get them down perfectly it's just their - self, not their memories, and you can't just create people with the book, they come out as bodies without minds. So I could write Kanero into the next world, and I very well might if saving this one doesn't work out, he made a really good immortal emperor, but I couldn't bring him back right now even as far as 'same person with no memories'."
"It's possible that your original destruction-themed power set could do something about the chains, but please don't try it," says Ravkesial. "I don't know what it would do to the system, and if it broke the cycle in a way that ended the world permanently..." She shakes her head. "I'd stay like this forever if it meant everyone else got to live."
"After we save the world, if we do, we'll have time to pick the knot apart. Until then... we don't know how this system works but we do know it was meant to lead to an undying world, and I consider it of the utmost importance to get to that point before we start to pry at its moving parts with tools it is unprepared to encounter."
And so does Riale, and he wakes up early in the morning and eats breakfast and leaves his door half-open while he sits with the book and puts things in it, so he'll know right away when Cor emerges.
(The rooms have fancy bathrooms and comfy beds and tasteful furniture and are generally expensive-seeming. This is a very nice hotel.)
Riale emerges onto the roof a minute later and climbs into the swoop to sit at the controls.
"Highpoint, here we come," he says, guiding the vehicle into the air. "There's food on board, or I can make you something with the book, although my selection's not great because I've only had it for a day."
"Maybe, yeah. If your world finds more worlds to evacuate to, I'd consider sending everybody out of this one, in case I can't save it - but that would involve a lot of your magic unless you got really lucky at scouting and found a different way to move between worlds, and it doesn't sound like it's a good idea to use a lot of your magic. And from everything I've heard, there's supposed to be a built-in way to make this world not end. I've got a whole year to find it; if I can't manage that, what am I even doing?"
"With an obvious flaw, though. He died right at the beginning of the Last Year, which suggests to me that he was tied to the lifespan of the world. If I can make the world undying and then figure out how to make everybody immortal that way, that'd definitely be better than nothing, but I'd rather not tie everybody to the world in case something happens to it one day, you know?"
"There's a universal principle according to which everything trends towards everything else in proportion to closeness and size. There's a lot of emptiness and the stuff in the emptiness tends spherical and things on sufficiently large spheres experience down pointing toward the center. Sphere's got oceans and continents and stuff."
"There are a lot of different languages - the, uh, blade of the void, gave me this one, I didn't speak it yesterday morning - and a lot of different countries, usually with more decentralized government structures because it's only difficult, not impossible, to assassinate people remotely by magic. I lived in a distributed city called Gatesnest with neighborhoods all over the globe, connected by a lot of gates."
"Difficult to describe. But I've seen enough to have an idea of what is ordinary and what is surprising. The magic of this world, from what I've seen so far, is admirably well-constructed but otherwise not strikingly unusual. If I woke up to a world in which your magic was in common use I'd be very surprised indeed; it... occupies a different region of possible effects. Someone could design a world here with a magic system that was good at destroying things, but it would not be limited to only that, it would not destroy more than it was asked to, and I don't think it could be used to do more - abstract - things like move between worlds by destroying whatever is in the way."
"If there is such a thing as a barrier between worlds, and you're doing damage to it every time you travel... there is a barrier around Kitaloei and it is crucially important to the world's survival," she says, gesturing at the faceted sky. "We are... like a bottle in the ocean, afloat on the boundary between air and water. If the shell cracks, we drown."
"...okay, I can see that being a problem. I was trying to work on a more abstract level than that but it's possible I did not succeed or that success is impossible. But on the other hand I didn't come through one of those ...visible, flat, located things. Those things are still in places and I didn't move."
"Now here's a cheering thought," muses Telarin. "Inside the shell of the world, we're safe from what lies outside it. But your world has no shell. So if there were a barrier that could be weakened between here and there, and you weakened it too far, would your world be overrun by floods of Void and Chaos?"
"So if I end up writing the next world I should give it a stable, portable, side-effect-free magic system that does interdimensional transit. And if I end up saving this one - I don't know, maybe there's a long way around for magic system creation and I can make one anyway."
"I'm not an expert, but basic summary: by ritual, you can turn an object into a magic object. The more impressive the magic object, the more time and complexity is required. A swoop like this would've been maybe three or four months of work from a dedicated swoop manufacturer, and to be a swoop manufacturer you need a huge number of magical tools that each might take a month or more to make and aren't useful as anything except ritual components for making flying vehicles. Swoops and soars might be the most complicated magic objects in the world, but most of the other really useful stuff also needs magical tools to make, just not a hundred of them and not necessarily ones dedicated to making that specific thing and nothing else. I think light-stones and heat-stones and cold-stones all take the same set of tools to make, for example."
"I explained the situation to him as soon as I woke up. He spent ten minutes efficiently extracting everything I could tell him about the prospects for saving his world, determined that he wasn't confident enough in his ability to succeed for it to be worth trying, and from then until the end of the year he did nothing that was not strictly necessary to the project of making this world the best one he could possibly write. I have been doing this for a very long time and I have never met someone so dedicated."
"And we know they're picked before the world actually ends, because - my first sign that something was wrong when I woke up yesterday morning, before I saw Telarin, was that I hadn't had any horrifying nightmares about the world coming to pieces that entire night. Which has not otherwise been the case for as long as I can remember. Apparently that's a thing with creators. And then the nightmares stop on the first day of the last year."
"Yes, it's always shaped exactly like this, although the size can vary; better-designed worlds are often bigger. It's hard to tell how much of what we see was deliberately included by the people who designed the system, and how much was accidental. I can't think of a good reason for the nightmares but it's possible they were meant to be something else, or not meant to happen at all, or that whoever designed them was the same person who included the chains and that's just the sort of person they were."
"Mostly because there's the constant outside stuff? If you can make a completely new thing amongst the void and chaos in the absence of this crystaly shape being here at all, I don't see why it would have to be another crystaly thing and not a differently shaped thing. If it's not completely new, it's not obvious how it would grow or shrink."
"Before the cycle, we had physical form, and could command our elements as easily as moving or breathing. We still retain a... much reduced version of that power. And... there is a sense in which we are the embodiments of our elements. The most important thing for any creator to record in the book is the spirits, because the more accurately we are represented in it, the more easily the creator can work with our elements in making the next world."
"Yes. When a creator puts things in the book, some of them write down descriptions, or make sketches; and some of them put their hands on the book and cause sketches or descriptions to appear in it, drawn from their thoughts; and if someone doing the second thing knows their chosen object very, very well, the book will show an image that looks like it could leap out of the page, and every detail of the object will be in the book, even the ones the creator did not personally observe. Most of them learn how by the end of their year. Managing it on the first attempt is impressive. On the first and every subsequent attempt, even more so."
"Trying to get it to sort of - snap together. Uh, my magic system trains me to think in terms of the aesthetics of things - for anything more complicated than 'set it on fire' we have to funnel the destruction through a sort of painting of the aesthetic properties of what we want done - and this world is not snapping together for me aesthetically yet."
"Similarly to how representing an object perfectly in the book will let you work with details of it other than what you personally observe, representing a spirit well in the book - no one has ever done it perfectly - will let you work with details of that element other than what you personally observe, and that can be very valuable."
"There was a creator once who had a lot of trouble understanding Camalirea, the spirit of air, and the world he ended up writing had no wind. It didn't last very long. Wind turns out to be important for a lot of things. But usually the effects aren't that obvious or dramatic."
"I have a few complaints about the design of this cycle already but if it turns out I have to choose between ending up with an expandable world and saving this one I'm going to be really annoyed. If the world just can't grow then the world just can't grow and interworld transit will have to do, it'd be less - personally frustrating that way."
"It could be that it would neatly break the cycle and this world would not end at the end of this year and everything would be fine. It could be that it would messily break the cycle and this world would unravel and be consumed by Void and Chaos on the spot. It could be that nothing interesting would happen and you could go and come back as many times as you liked. Although I do think there's reason to expect that if you were outside the world at the end of the year, there might be disastrous effects to you, the cycle, or the world."
"Okay, if you come up I can show you the controls—"
He does that. They're reasonably straightforward. Do this to turn, do this to tilt up or down, do this to go faster, do this to go slower, and this is the control that settles you onto the ground properly after a successful landing but it doesn't work while the swoop is in the air because that would just be asking for accidents.
"Not usually. Especially for you, since you can fly faster on your own and with much less risk of crashing into anything. But if it comes up for whatever reason - the thing is, if you're doing tricks or trying to fit through a small space at speed or whatever, you kind of need to be at the point where instead of thinking 'okay I need to go up so I should pull that lever and then I need to turn so I should...', you think about how you want to move and manipulating the controls happens automatically. And practice is the only way I know of to get there."
"Purely vehicular! Yeah, that's a way to put it. Horse-drawn carriages have been getting steadily less popular for a while now, because magic versions are more expensive but take less upkeep and, uh, don't poop in the streets. But anything that wants to get between continents has to fly, so most long-distance vehicles for travel and cargo are soars, and swoops for when you care more about how fast you get there than how much you can carry on the way."
"It grants languages - or one language, anyway - and flight and spirit-finding powers and... what else, I wonder? Very versatile for a magic sharp object. My book basically only does the one thing. It's a useful thing and has some useful subcomponents but it's still pretty singular."
"'Make you useful to the creator' makes it sound like it'll just abandon you the second this turn of the cycle is resolved one way or another, and I really hope that's not the case because it would seem so unfair to loan you superpowers and then snatch them back as soon as you're done playing a part."
"I have to really look at things, I wouldn't want to go into a restaurant and say 'can I stare intently at all your food and then leave' - I mean I can wave my imperial seal and they'll let me do that, but if I'm going to go that far I might as well actually order a meal which they can get reimbursed for."
"At least all my seemingly insane and frivolous behaviour is going to be spread out across the continent so probably very few people are going to see enough of it to write the capital asking 'did you hand out an imperial seal to a madman, and if so do I still get paid for his dinner'."
"Wandering the city and staying in a hotel and then leaving first thing in the morning is weird but not too weird to seem plausibly legitimate. Staring intently at all the food in a restaurant and then leaving without eating any, less so. I could hint that there was some kind of inspection going on but then they'd be really rattled for no good reason. Better to do something slightly less crazy and avoid worrying anyone."
"Yeah! I haven't done much with it yet but I sort of - built the imperial palace, I put in all the pieces I could from memory on the way from First City to Dawnbrook and then when I had enough," he flips open the book and shows Cor a detailed drawing of the palace. "Couldn't do it all at once, not sure why, either I didn't have enough detail until I filled in the pieces first or I just can't hold the whole thing in my head the right way because it's too big. I have obviously not dropped a copy somewhere to test how good it is but the picture does the shimmery thing that means it's perfect and that's good enough for me."
"Find whoever on the palace staff is least crucial to handling the lack of Emperor, ask them if they'd mind going, if yes skip to next least busy person. There's some people I'd skip regardless. It seems like a plausibly hazardous task so I wouldn't ask somebody who'll be missed more than average, like they have kids or whatever, but would volunteer anyway out of duty, because that's not really fair, not unless everybody else who can be spared has been asked already and said no. Probably it'll end up being Evai Miato or Tifinn Ferrsi - no, Tifinn's girlfriend is expecting - Simm Pavu, maybe. Somebody who's responsible and reliable but not essential to any specific thing and where it won't be needlessly tragic if they get hurt or don't come back. Feel free to adjust my expectation of the risks."
"Telarin is a man and I don't mind being rounded off to a woman and Camalirea is whatever they feel like but doesn't mind being rounded off either direction and Laisanni is a woman and Finnehalva is a man and Neriantelle and Ilifalyr are women and Estirie isn't much of anything and Avasendai is a man," says Ravkesial.
"Telarin, male, Fire;
Ravkesial, female if you have to pick one, Light;
Camalirea, either or both, doesn't mind whichever way you address them, Air;
Laisanni, female, Wood;
Finnehalva, male, Twilight;
Neriantelle, female, Water;
Ilifalyr, female, Ice;
Estirie, neither, Shadow;
Avasendai, male, Earth."
"Well, Cama did shapeshifting and now no longer does that. And I don't mind anything about my shape but I find that some of the attendant concepts fit oddly; there are people for whom gender is a part of their self and I don't seem to be one of them. And Estirie is exactly the shape they prefer to be and - won't fuss about being rounded off, but may be a little more shy than usual. Does that address your question?"
"Notes for future magic system construction: make everybody able to shapeshift," he says. "Maybe not ridiculously cheaply, because it's useful to be generally able to recognize people by their static physical form and it seems plausible that a lot of the structure of society is partly built on that, but if somebody doesn't want their arm or does want a pair of wings or wants to switch sex every day or turn into a rainbow-striped snake on weekends I don't see why I shouldn't accomodate them."
"...for if you did something you didn't want to do? I'm not sure how that'd work - I can imagine it with destroying things, less so with making artifacts, which is what I'm more familiar with. I do think things should be reversible, generally. There will be no 'everybody can shapeshift but you'd better remember your original body really well or else' nonsense on my watch."
"If I get the chance to change how magic works when I save the world I do want to keep the one we've already got, it's maybe not what I would've given us but it's good and we've got a lot of stuff built on it and I don't wanna take it away. But I want to add at least a few more things. Personal convenience stuff like shapeshifting... what else do you think is important to include?"
"I'm fond of gates. Although presumably you'd want to do them without the world-eating part. They allow a lot of qualitative improvements in trade and communication - there are so many more things it's worth it to walk a block for than to send a caravan or a ship on a yearlong trip -"
"A year? Wow. Flight times are measured in days on a swoop, weeks on a soar - I'm not sure I can think of a trip that'd take as long as a month. Bright Isles to the bottom of the world, maybe. You know, I wonder if it's possible to develop an artifact that'd do the gate thing. That would take a year, though, I bet. A year to manufacture, possibly several to invent."
"If - well. A week ago I'd say 'if I suggested it to Kanero', I guess now it's 'if I did it all myself'... if I'd suggested it to Kanero a week ago it'd end up being an imperial project, public gatepairs between every major city, probably set up so each one went the whole width of a street, and then if stitching all the cities together into one big city like that turned out to be a bad idea we'd adjust. Maybe start with just one and then add another one a while later. If they took ages to manufacture that'd be a good way to get them introduced slowly. I'd probably still do it about like that."
"Gatesnest had big ones for ships, medium ones for carriages, little door-sized pedestrian ones... it was a city with dozens of neighborhoods thousands of miles apart, it was always daytime somewhere and summer right next to winter. - on a sphere half of the planet is having day at a time, it turns to face the sun, and there are two hemispheres out of step on seasons. Do you even have seasons."
"Days are always the same length but the temperature and brightness change depending on the month. Fire starts out warm and gets warmer, then Light is less warm but really bright, Air cools off a little more and gets windy, then you're out of Chaos and into Balance and Wood is good for growing things, Twilight is just really mild on all counts, Water is rainy and is when things definitely start getting cold, then you head into Void and Ice is snowy, Shadow is less snowy but dark, and Earth is when it starts warming back up a little before the next year starts and you come back around to Fire."
"If we lived on a sphere it would probably make perfect sense for the angle of the sun to change! ...that would be so weird though. ...I'm having all sorts of crazy ideas about how to build a world that had a shell with a circling sun like this one but tilty seasons like yours, I hope I get to build a bunch of worlds so I can test them."
"You could fit a world in a sphere," says Riale. "And I feel like if that worked at all, the only sensible result would be for it to have exactly one spirit. And it would be so geometrically tidy! The sun would travel in an actual circle! I was so upset the day I did the math and realized that the sun has to go faster or slower on different segments of its journey in order to look like it's always going about the same speed and reach dawn and noon and dusk and midnight at the right times."
"We see it when the cycle turns. And - we know - what kind of spirits we are. Chaos or Balance or Void. I think... you might need elements of the right kinds to be facing in the right directions, if you built a new world with more than one spirit. Void facing Void, Chaos facing Chaos, Balance in the middle. But I don't know what other kinds of worldshells are possible. Maybe you can manage one with no spirits at all."
"Gates are - imagine you have two door-sized planks of wood. You glue them together. You do a magic thing that causes a hole in the middle to be eaten away, and at the right moment, you pry them apart again and take one far away. You don't touch the glue side, whatever you touch it with won't thank you for it - usually we put them on some kind of backing so people don't do it by mistake, or against another gate. The other sides just - keep being one hole. In one out the other. The door part is because we have to do the magic thing on a surface, but if you were designing a world from scratch..."
"I put in every book I remembered and I have lived in the palace all my life and I read a lot - I haven't actually tried but I'm pretty sure I got enough of the palace library's selection for the rest to fill itself in when I put the palace together, I could go in and pull one out for you."
It's an introductory magical theory book, written in a cheerful, engaging style.
The basic principles of the system it describes are as follows:
A short, simple ritual involving no nonmagical components can imbue temporary magical effects into an object. The simplest effects are things like light and heat and cold and repetitive chiming sounds. Somewhat more complicated rituals get you temporary magical tools, which can be used in further rituals to give things permanent magical effects, including yet more tools, which you can use to give things fancier and more useful permanent effects, and so on, and so forth. To the best of anyone's knowledge there is no upper limit on the number of layers, except for practical ones like 'an eighty-year manufacturing time is probably too long to be worth bothering with'.
Rituals always result in persistent-if-not-permanent magical properties rather than one-time effects: there are no rituals that will turn uncarved wood into carved wood, or stale food into fresh, or anything like that.
You cannot make a living thing into a magical artifact; it just doesn't work. There's some speculation about why, and people have done experiments to narrow down exactly where the line falls between living and dead, but it's a pretty firm boundary even though there are a handful of edge cases (mostly involving plants).
Artifacts primarily affect themselves rather than the world around them. You can make a light-stone but you can't make a stone that causes objects in its vicinity to glow. You can make a self-turning water pump but you can't make a wheel that levitates water out of wells. The major exception is healing artifacts, which are a thriving field of research as people try to develop better ones and see if they can extend the concept into other domains. So far there's been some success in using healing-artifact techniques to develop artifacts that cause plants to flourish.
The entire second half of the book is devoted to the principles of ritual development. It's possible for multiple rituals to have the same result, but not for the same ritual to have multiple different results, so the first thing most people do when getting into ritual development is familiarize themselves with all the existing rituals in their area of study. Ritual development is a process of creation, not discovery: unless you happen to duplicate a previous invention, what you do when you develop a ritual is make that sequence of actions magical when they weren't before.
There's a lot of flexibility in the possible correspondences between ritual actions/components and the eventual result, but it's not completely freeform: the other advantage of getting familiar with the existing rituals in your chosen area is that you're almost always better off tweaking or combining those than trying to come up with something completely new. People with more experience in ritual development tend to be more successful at novel inventions, which many of them ascribe to simply having picked up a better feel for how ritual-building works, but there is a theory - unconfirmed but circumstantially supported - that successful ritual development involves a kind of unseen magical strength that increases as you do more of it.
Manipulation of nonliving objects, more or less. Anything that could be a valid ritual target is a valid ritual component and vice versa. Flexibility of timing varies according to a number of related factors including overall ritual complexity, how many different things need to be done in close succession at that stage of the ritual, and how 'messy' the steps are - for example, a step requiring you to rotate a marked disc counterclockwise might call for very precise timing, but a step requiring you to burn a folded paper will be more flexible because the time the paper takes to burn isn't going to be identical every time.
(Part of the skill of ritual invention is in specifying which objects and actions are and are not part of the ritual: thanks to a doubly careless inventor whose name has been lost to history, there exists a ritual for enchanting permanent heat-stones that requires you to be wearing a straw hat for most of the ritual, set the brim on fire while lighting the last round of candles, and then stamp it out and knock over half the candles in the process. It makes really good heat-stones but people don't use it very often, in part because it's hard to perform the frantic hat-stomping step to within tolerances. Also because it's silly. And a fire hazard.)
"People are not quiet at night because it is not night everywhere in the city, it is unacceptable to throw fruit at people even if they are not disciplining their children as you would prefer, we will not track down your runaway spouse for you, neither homelessness nor any of its inevitable consequences are illegal so if you want the guy off your front steps your options are to bribe him or invite him in, people are not respecting your prayer hour because we can't respect all of the many religions people in Gatesnest subscribe to, it is considered threatening to brandish knives at people..."
"Well, I was doing all this in my capacity as a mage, see, so it was a mage who was doing it. They have knives for bleeding animals - it wasn't mostly sheep there it was something else, yaks, maybe, I forget - and he didn't have very good command of the language and met someone who also didn't and was trying to communicate that he was a mage..."
"Ah. Yeah. ...the one about the front steps rings a little oddly to me, I'll admit, homelessness isn't illegal here either but you'd be within your rights to demand that somebody leave your own actual house even if they were just on and not in it, or sleeping in your garden or whatever."
"A lot of places in my world have that too but sleep deprivation exacerbates a lot of mental problems and in Gatesnest you are basically not allowed to wake up anyone who felt the need to sleep in public if they aren't in danger or trapping you in your house outright or something, nor evict one from where they habitually sleep unless you have a counteroffer they accept."
"Homelessness? There's shelters for people who don't have anywhere to stay, and you can get directions to them from any public office, and I've never heard of them running out of space. It's the sort of thing I would hear about, if it started to be a serious problem, there'd be budget requests on Kanero's desk and he'd talk it over with me..." He sighs. "I really fucking hope I manage to come up with resurrection somehow."
"Mm... it's really important to me not to - let myself get out of hand, not to let 'I'm brilliant and I can do anything' turn into 'I don't have to care about getting it right because it'll all work out in the end because how could reality dare to oppose me' - so I have to notice when I'm being egotistical and double-check if it's warranted, and that combines well with - being in the habit of softening my more arrogant utterances, which is a good habit to have because most people find arrogance off-putting."
"...that's not exactly the thing, it's more... if I believed my own legend to a sufficient degree, I could see it starting to just seem self-evident that whatever comes into my head is obviously the right solution because I'm just that good - particularly since I am very clever and insightful and good at thinking on my feet, it would not be that much of an exaggeration of the strengths I demonstrably possess - and I don't want to get caught in that trap, and I've never noticed myself seriously tending in that direction but if that's because I'm in the habit of checking I don't want to find out by taking the brakes off and running the carriage over a cliff."
Riale glances back at him and smiles.
They've been flying in the shadow of Heron River province for a while now, with the ground below transitioning from farms through wild grassland to rocky hills, and the mountain of Highpoint gradually getting clearer up ahead. A tall single peak rising into the space framed by Jeweled Sea and Heron River, only barely touched by the shadow of Rainmere slanting in from the west. Roads spiral up and down the mountainside, lined with all manner of buildings - houses, shops, market stalls, libraries, offices, warehouses, landing pads. Lines of carriages trickle in and out through the foothills, and a continuous swirl of flying vehicles connects the mountain to its cluster of continents, with an occasional arrival or departure on a more horizontal heading.
Now, as afternoon gives way to evening and the Emperor's swoop emerges into that open space, their view expands, no longer blocked by the rocky underside of Heron River province. They can see the peak of the mountain ahead, gleaming in its last hour of sunlight before dusk; off to the left, they can see the Heron River itself, pouring out of the Jeweled Sea in a broad green curtain and down onto its namesake province where it will wiggle along until it forms the Misty Falls all the way on the other side.
And way up on the peak, at the highest and pointiest point, there is another of those spirit-dowsing feelings. This one feels - buoyant. Light and airy and energetic.
"Ooh. All right, let's see—"
He slows his flight as they approach, looking for the highest available landing pad. There's one not too far below the peak; he circles around to it and lands. An employee comes out to ask him for a docking fee and he takes a minute to walk her through the process for applying for imperial reimbursement when someone lands at your airdock and waves an imperial seal at you.
The sleeping-spirit feeling is in the middle of the highest standable part of the mountain, with enough room for Cor to stand nearby without looming awkwardly over it. Just like Ravkesial did before, Camalirea seems to convert Cor's sustained attention into a gradual increase in opacity.
"The creator's name is Riale; the wielder of the Blade of the Void is Corbelan, who is from another world - Cama says it's lovely to meet you both, and that this is the most interesting awakening they've had in a long time - yes, it's the second day. Esere wrote a world with obvious places for all the spirits to sleep, although some are more easily narrowed down than others. We're off to look for Laisanni tomorrow."
Riale hands him a notebook.
"Okay, I would like to wander around Highpoint for an hour or so looking for interesting things to put in the book and then obtain a place to sleep and sleep there. Thoughts on this plan? Should I get rooms first so uninterested parties can stay there?"
The city of Highpoint has a lot of things in it. Many of them are being sold in markets. Magic stuff shows up primarily among the expensive things: exquisitely beautiful jewelry with tiny light-stones set among the diamonds, elaborate clocks with magically accurate timekeeping - but some things are less decorative and more practical, like a camp stove with a heat-stone that cycles through three temperature settings, and a tiny pen that will draw a map of the mainland at any size if you first lay out a paper on a flat surface and draw a recangle to form the bounds of the map... the vendor at that market stall obviously invented them, and is really adorably excited about it.
"Ha, got it," says Riale, emerging from his reverie.
A somewhat embellished copy of that glass model of the world from the natural history museum in Dawnbrook appears in front of the swoop. Instead of hanging from a chain, the frame has a sturdy round base to stand on; instead of being made of glass and suspended by wires, the continents are made of real dirt and rock and sand and water, and hover unsupported in their places. All the faces are open, and it's nearly as big as the original; it rather towers over the swoop. There is real tiny grass on the Golden Plains, and real tiny icebergs in the Jeweled Sea. It's... extravagant.
"Hey, Ravkesial, want to see the world?"
"I had the swoop in there, and the magic in swoops is very much about - position and movement and stuff? So I just dug into it until I could see where all the bits went. Anyway I think now I should go get us a couple of rooms somewhere and then visit all Cor's interesting things and maybe a food market or two and go to sleep. Who wants to participate in which parts of this plan?"
And they go in the book, along with neat bits of architecture and a pretty street lamp and miscellaneous other items. Riale pauses at the map-pen stall to listen to the inventor gush excitedly about its theoretical underpinnings. Apparently it draws from sources as disparate as self-correcting clocks, self-propelling vehicles, echo stones, and certain kinds of obscure ritual implements.
"Echo stones, really?"
"Yes - an echo stone stores sound and repeats it on command; a map-pen does the same thing with the pen strokes that draw the map. I could make a pen that wrote anything, I just thought maps seemed like an obvious place to start."
The inventor beams.
"It really is!" agrees Riale. "And what about the obscure ritual implements—?"
"Oh, one of the late-stage implements for constructing a swoop or a soar is a pendulum that never stops swinging," the inventor explains. "And I adapted partly from the ritual for creating those when I was designing my pens, because in some ways they were closer to what I want than a vehicle."
"I think the next thing I want to do is make the pens able to change what they have stored, like the really advanced echo stones," he says.
"I look forward to it," says Riale. "Bye!"
As they're walking away from the stall, Riale says to Cor, "You know, making that model of the world for Ravkesial didn't improve my understanding of how to do magic all that much, but I think I've got a better idea of how the previous creator built the system. It's very - hmm - 'elegant' isn't exactly the word... it's - extensible? It's like... instead of building a magic system that does a bunch of specific predetermined things, he built a magic system that you can use to invent things that do things, and in some ways that's less convenient and straightforward, but it means it can grow beyond what he personally thought of. I like it."
There are some more magic objects, and then a food market - "anything catch your eye particularly?" he asks, gesturing at the selection. Highpoint is a good place to get food from multiple regions of the empire; there are quite a lot of things, with particularly perishable ones kept in cold-stone-lined boxes.
"I'm not totally sure. I mean, it is a big book, but even so I should be more than a quarter of the way in by now. I think it might be shuffling around which things show on each page, and not showing every single thing unless I actively look for it. And when I actively look for something I can just kind of flip around a bit and there it is."
He can find a specific thing if he knows what thing he is looking for! He can open to the first or last page if he pleases; the first page has a nice lamp on it and the last one is blank! He can open the book halfway in and those pages are blank too! It seems to take at least two page flips to find any specific thing, and sometimes more, and the book seems to have some notion of ordering; it takes longer to find something if the book thinks he is looking in the wrong direction from where he started, although if he persists it will show him the thing anyway.
"It's kind of cool watching you do that," Riale comments.
"I'm pretty sure you're trying to find something out about the conditions under which you can find particular things, but it's kind of hard to know what you're trying to do when all I see is the results - it looks like the book wants to keep things in order, but I don't know if that's what you were looking for or if it's just a result you happened to turn up. Did I catch you trying to find arbitrary things by flipping a single page?"
A strawberry takes form on the page. Owing to the limitations of Cor's drawing apparatus, it is not the greatest strawberry this book has ever seen.
...partway through the drawing of the strawberry, Riale blinks thoughtfully and the next bit of line gets slurped instead of lingering.
The model - sort of shivers, and pulls in on itself and becomes rapidly smaller and less solid and more translucent and wavery and dim, until half a second later there is no model there anymore.
"Oh, cool," says Riale.
Also, Cor now has - something. It's like he learned a very detailed description of the model and then halfway forgot it, so that the information is accessible but only when he thinks about it directly.
"...If I weren't already really good at putting things in the book accurately, it would be really useful to have somebody along who could get things perfect every time even if they had to destroy the things to do it. But I agree that that is probably not the point of you. I'm not sure what is. So far we have one thing we're told you're supposed to do, which is 'not destroy the world', and a bunch of things we've observed you can do, and none of them seems like it's quite sufficient justification for needing a person to be attached to this package... I mean, 'don't destroy the world' can't be that hard, can it?"
And Riale flies the swoop. The shadows of the three floating continents slide across the landscape with the rising of the sun. Soon enough, the swoop is out from under them; and not long after that, the dry rocky hills they're flying over give way to flatter, wetter ground, and First City is clearly visible up ahead.
When Riale lands the swoop at the palace, someone comes out to meet them as they're settling onto the landing pad. It's the same guy who directed Cor to Vira yesterday.
"Morning, Simm!" says Riale. "I thought you didn't have enough mayhem in your lives without me, so I came back for a visit."
"Yeah, I missed you too," says Simm. "I see the bizarre emergency caught up with you. Hello, bizarre emergency. What can the imperial staff do for you today?"
"For which purpose he will need a bucket of blood and a volunteer. Would you like to volunteer?"
"A bucket of—?"
"Blood, any mammal's will do, better to have too much than too little but it needn't be a bathtub's worth, I don't imagine it'll be hard to come by. And somebody willing to hop over to a world that is currently in the process of ending, with the understanding that it's likely but not certain you'll be able to come back."
"...All right," says Simm. "Is there anyone else you want to ask first—?"
"Since you're the one who came out to greet us I assume you currently have the most free time of anyone in the palace. If you won't do it I'll go find Evai Miato."
"No, no, I'll do it," says Simm. "Where do I meet you with the bucket of blood?"
"Criteria for the location from which you do the sending?" Riale asks Cor.
"One of the major criteria for which people I'm willing to ask in the first place is 'will they be actually okay and not just vaguely obliged'. It's - they know that when I take something seriously it's because the thing is serious, that when I say 'this guy needs somebody to volunteer as a messenger to his dying world to tell them evacuation is an option' those are the facts of the situation and if I'm asking them to do it then I must have thought it through and decided they're a good pick for the job, and they value my assessment highly because I know the imperial staff really well on both the organizational and the personal level and I'm smart and insightful and have good priorities."
"...okay. So, I speak this language for irreproducible reasons; you're not going to be able to talk to anybody at home. I will draw you a map - I'm not sure how exactly I can aim you but I can probably get close -" He draws a map. "You want to be here. Ask for Ranary; if they can't get you Ranary -" he lists more names. "- and give them this letter. I left blank whether or not they should send you back if that's feasible, should I put that you would like to be sent back?"
"'kay, I'll tell Vira that."
He goes off and tells Vira that, which takes two minutes, and returns to the swoop.
"Next stop: Wildwood! I'm getting the sense that we'll have to be at least as close as 'right city' before you can start looking for the spirit - but then, I suppose you could just fly there ahead of us and check..."
Wildwood province is a great big forest. It is not densely populated, so it's easy to find the place Riale was talking about.
The glittering meadow of Glittering Meadow is full of dormant wildflowers, tiny green buds just barely beginning to emerge from the ends of stems or twigs, and a lovely silvery-green grass filling all the spaces in between. The town itself is built half on the ground and half in the trees, with platforms and walkways and ladders and staircases climbing the enormous trunks like unusually orderly ivy. It looks beautiful and picturesque and cozy and athletically challenging.
Riale's guess was accurate: the next spirit is here, sleeping at the base of a tree a short distance outside of town, close to the meadow but not actually in it.