Archive for the month “October, 2015”

PSA: .epub files are compressed webpages. That is all.

OK, this is niche even for me, but I just found out about this a few days ago and I’m still buzzed. I just spent a few delightful weekends in a coffee shop with a tablet devouring the basic tutorials, so web programming is fresh and interesting to me, and I’ve just lately spent some time digging into my collection of ebooks, comparing and contrasting stuff. It’s really interesting to me to dig into what my ebooks are doing, both in terms of general structure, and in the different ways different authors use HTML and CSS to accomplish the basic goal of sequential text.

This is neat stuff. I wonder if this means I could stitch together some of my already-written short fiction into ebook form, just as a learning exercise.


Leaky abstractions and false assumptions.

People go back and forth a lot about the usefulness of “Calories In – Calories Out” as a weight loss vs. a weight gain model. People referred to it as a leaky abstraction, or a simplified model that leaked crucial information in the complexities that it discarded. For a while, this confused me.

On one hand, we know the biochemistry of nutrition as well as we know any trivially-verifiable experimental result. For all animals, if they consume fewer calories than they expend, they’ll lose weight as their body depletes their reserves, and if they consume more, they’ll gain weight as their reserves get filled with the surplus.

Calories in, calories out. A simple model. But also an abstraction. When we say “Calories in”, we are pretending that we know that number.

Do we? We get a label on our food telling us the precise nutritional information. How good is that information, really? Do we really eat the recommended portion sizes? And when they tested the food in a calorimeter, how homogeneous was their sample? And the big question; how closely does your individual digestive system’s ability to liberate calories from a specific foodstuff map to the energy released by just setting the food on fire? And how efficient are each of your individual metabolic pathways, for using the calories immediately versus storing them as fat and so on?

And calories out? How many people go and get their resting metabolic rate measured, and then carefully track their mean activity levels? Do you really trust those numbers around how many calories given exercises burn? Most of them aren’t even adjusted for body weight, and the ones that are don’t take into account that different people do different exercises differently, and that there can be really steep cliffs in metabolic results between briskly walking at 3.5 miles an hour versus 4, depending on what you’ve trained yourself to do.

I don’t think that “Calories in, calories out.” is a leaky abstraction. The leak, I think, comes from the fact that the world pretends that it’s easy to know calories in and calories out.

The 12 Labors of Hercules, As Performed By a 13th-level Wizard in D&D 3.5E.

This is what happens when you get an idea, start writing it out, and sleep deprivation sets in before you can evaluate “Does this make any sense whatsoever?”

I make no apologies.


Eurystheus: “Bah! Where is this troublesome demigod? I must have-”
Wizard: *appears suddenly* “Yo king!”
Eurystheus: “Augh! What was that? Who are you? How did you do that?!?”
Wizard: “A teleport spell, a wizard, and I’m a wizard. Really, you should get used to that last answer-”
Eurystheus: “Whatever it was, don’t do it again in here! Now, what are you doing in my court? Speak, wizard!”
Wizard: “I’m here from the lands of the heathen North to serve you in a number of tasks!”
Eurystheus: “Heathen North?”
Wizard: “Yes, from the quasi-medieval fantasy land instead of the era of Greek myth? Although I should be quite at home here. We’ve got pegasai, medusae, gorgons-”
Eurystheus: “You are here to help me? But I was promised aid by the great Hercules!”
Wizard: “Subcontracting is a little-known demigod power. Anyway, I really want to get the XP to make it the next few levels. I mean, who wants to retire at level 13? That’s just begging for bad luck in your epilogue! And it means I’d never taste the penultimate power of Level Eight spells!”
Eurystheus: “Penultimate doesn’t mean super-ultimate, just so you know.”
Wizard: “Oh, yes, but once you get to Level 9 spells, you can just use Shapechange and start acquiring random magical abiltilies, like, oh, the ability of djinni from the heathen…East-Southeast, I think, I didn’t put any ranks in Knowledge(geography)…but anyway, once you can get the ability to grant wishes to people who capture you, and you can rustle up a cooperative bondage enthusiast, well, then-”
Eurystheus: “Your words are strange and distressing.”
Wizard: “Really? I have the Tongues spell up, so it’s not translation errors-”
Eurystheus: “Enough! Go, wizard, and test your magics against the Nemean Lion!”


Wizard: “OK, this should be easy. I’ve been wrangling dire animals for my entire adventuring career. Hah, I remember my very first quest, back at level one. Old Helda had a dire rat in her basement. And I got cocoa! I really should swing back and see how she’s doing one of these years. Anyway! Lion! Lions can’t fly and aren’t immune to magic, so this should be really quick…what? Seriously?”
Wizard: *inspects cave*
Wizard: “Really? Really, lion? You want to hide out in a cave to neutralize my ability to fly above you for extended periods and rain down arcane death with utter impunity? Well then, fine! Be that way! Summon Monster V!”
Earth Elemental: *appears from the ground*
Earth Elemental: “I hear you call and obey, mast-, oh, it’s just you, wizard.”
Wizard: “Rocky! Lovely to see you again!”
Earth Elemental: “This is going to hurt, isn’t it?”
Wizard: “Not at all! I’m just on a Labor to hunt some kind of lion in this cave. It looks like the cave has multiple entrances, so I want you to block all of the other entrances up.”
Earth Elemental: “It shall be done! And it’s very in-keeping with the way a warrior of legendary strength would do this as well!”
Wizard: “Yes. OK, now hold on a moment. I’ll need a bodyguard in case this doesn’t work.”
Earth Elemental: “I am actually impressed. I figured you’d just be cheating your way through these labors, but it does seem like you’re genuinely trying to walk the path of a-”
Wizard: “Cloudkill Cloudkill Cloudkill Cloudkill Wall of Force.”
Nemean Lion: *is vaguely visible through the thick mist of toxic vapor blanketing the cave, clawing futilely at the Wall of Force*
Wizard: *goes ding*
Wizard: “Wow, I felt that! That must have been some lion! It was probably magical! Well, time for the usual stuff. Time to loot the cave! And off you go, Rocky! Thanks for the help!”
Earth Elemental: “It’s not like I had any choice in the matter! And my name’s not-”
Earth Elemental: *vanishes*
Wizard: “Well, I’ve got spells to burn, so no reason to wait around! Gust of Wind! Detect Magic!”
Wizard: “Aha! The lion’s pelt is magical! And shiny!”
Athena: “Ahem.”
Wizard: “Oh, greetings, your divineness! I didn’t see you there! Actually, sorry, were you in the cave previously? Because if so, I do apologize for dumping a lot of poison gas on you-”
Athena: “Actually, no. I was just watching. The Nemean Lion was actually a shapechanger, and knew you were coming. I was supposed to offer you a divine warning when you saw it in the form of a chained-up injured woman.”
Wizard: “Oh! Well, thank you for being ready to aid me! Although I can’t imagine that working very well. Doesn’t everyone know you’re supposed to Sleep and restrain random prisoners until you can cast Detect Thoughts and determine their innocence?”
Athena: *sourly* “Yes, well, not all heroes are as paranoid as you are, wizard. Oh, and as a bonus hint, you’re supposed to skin the lion with its own claws, because it’s got an impervious hide. Which you’d know, if you’d actually tried attacking it like a proper hero.”
Wizard: “Thanks again, but that sounds uncomfortably like manual labor. Fabricate!
Athena: “Wait a minute, how many level 5 spell slots do you have, anyway?”
Wizard: “Just the ones you’ve seen. I used Pearls of Power on the Cloudkills, honest.”
Athena: “Hmnph. See that you stay honest, then.”


Eurystheus: *is lounging about in court, being fed olives*
Mysterious Voice: “Who’s got two thumbs and a swanky new lionskin robe?”
Wizard: *appears suddenly, wearing horrifyingly-uncured lionskin as robe, still smeared with blood, pointing thumbs at self and grinning*
Eurystheus: “Augh! I told you not to do that!”
Wizard: “You said no teleporting! This was just me walking in invisibly! Totally different!”
Eurystheus: “What…augh! That’s a lion skin! You…you actually did it? You killed the Nemean Lion?”
Wizard: “Of course I did! And I wore its skin back as proof! Actually, I grabbed a bunch of body parts. Did you know that the viscera of immortal creatures can be used for-”
Eurystheus: “No! And I don’t want to know! Don’t…do that! In fact, when I give you your next task…or any future tasks, I’ll want you to meet me outside the city! And upwind!”
Wizard: “Oh, come on, it’s perfectly sterile! I know because I rolled it around in a puddle of leftover Cloudkill-chlorine!”
Eurystheus: “Your excuses are as noxious as your odor! In fact, your next task will be to face the Lernaean Hydra!”
Wizard: “Hah! I’ve been killing regenerating hydrae since I was a single-digit-level-”
Eurystheus: “-with the help of my worthless half-nephew Iolaus.”
Wizard: “…Escort missions. Why’d it have to be escort missions?”


Iolaus: “All right! I’m ready! Let’s do this! For the glory of Thebes!”
Wizard: “Kid, slow the hell down. You’ve…Boccob’s eyebrows, kid, is that a torch?”
Iolaus: “It sure is! You cut off the heads, I’ll burn the stumps!”
Wizard: “…kid, look at me. Do I look like I’m really keen to get with melee range of a giant multi-headed monster with a sharp thing?”
Iolaus: “Well, you killed the Nemean Lion! Could you just use whatever killed that beast?”
Wizard: “Nah, that was dependent on the lion fighting me in a cave. Rookie mistake on its part. OK, hydras regenerate, so I can’t just pummel it with spells from above like I usually do to dumb beasts. There’s optional rules that give hydrae multiple saves versus mental effects because of their heads, and I damn well know Hera will be using them. OK. …Actually, you know what, kid?”


Wizard: “All right, kid, let’s review this. When I cut off a hydra’s head, what are you going to do?”
Iolaus: “Throw a stone from the Necklace of Fireballs.”
Wizard: “Good! What aren’t you going to do?”
Iolaus: “Drop the necklace!”
Wizard: “Great! What else?”
Iolaus: “Don’t rush in if I see you getting eaten.”
Wizard: “Wonderful! And if things go wrong in any way?”
Iolaus: “Use the Water Walk spell to run away, since we’re on a swamp.”
Wizard: “Fabulous.”
Iolaus: “I didn’t even think wizards could cast that spell!”
Wizard: “Most can’t, but I got a wand of it made. Yeah, it’s a bit expensive, but I don’t really have to get someone to walk on water every day of the week, so it’s no big deal. Right. Hey, beastie!”
Lernaean Hydra: *roars*
Wizard: “Eat shaped planes of force! Mage’s Sword!”
Lernaean Hydra: *makes spirited attempt to chew on sword-shaped construct of indestructible magical force as it hacks away at hydra heads*
Iolaus: “Burn, monster!” *hurls an orb, cauterizing one stump*
Wizard: “…wait. Crap.”
Athena: “Aha! You’ve noticed!”
Wizard: “Yeah, that the sword is cutting through the heads too slowly, and I only prepared one Mage’s Sword spell today.”
Athena: “Not just too slowly. Look at that one head.”
Wizard: *observes sword striking central hydra neck, which glows gold and resists the blow* “Aw crap.”
Athena: “Yeah, that head’s immortal, and you need a magic sword to sever it. Which I have here. You are trained in the sword, I hope?”
Wizard: “Crap crap crap. OK. I’ve got about a minute before the Mage’s Sword goes away. I can do this. I have to do this! For Iolaus! And the extra quest XP from bringing back the escort target!” *hefts sword awkwardly, scowls at sword*
Wizard: “Really? This thing is barely +2! I’m supposed to fight with this? OK, Greater Magic Weapon! Keen Edge!”
Golden Sword: *thrums with power, hisses through the air as wizard gestures while holding it*
Wizard: “Stoneskin! Haste! Enlarge Person!”
Wizard: *is now 10 feet tall, wrapped in an ablative layer of physical force, and moving at double-speed*
Wizard: “Crap, almost out of time…oh, almost forgot, Protection From Fire!”
Wizard: *sighs, muttering to himself* “You owe me big for making me cast this spell, Herc.”
Wizard: “Iolaus! Stick to the plan! No matter what happens, remember the plan!”
Iolaus: “The plan! Yes! What-”
Wizard: *pulls out a potion vial, sniffs it, grimaces, downs it*
Wizard: “I really hate this part. OK. Transformation!”
Wizard: *muscles twist and grow, calluses of years of weapon-use sprout on hands, psychotic glint suddenly shines forth from eyes* “Ahahaha! Charge!”
Wizard: *performs flying charge at Laernean Hydra, cleaving a head off with oversized blade*
Iolaus: “For Thebes! I salute you, brave wizard!” *hurls fireball, gapes as shimmering, layered-with-enchantment wizard shrugs off both rush of fire and the many venon-tipped teeth of the hydra*
Lernaean Hydra: *roars, tearing at wizard’s many layers of protective spells with remaining heads*
Wizard: “You are Huge-sized! That means you have Huge-sized guts! Rip and tear your guts!”
Iolaus: “Necks! Go after the necks-”
Wizard: “No correcting me when I’m disemboweling!” *cleaves another head, is bathed in toxic blood before rush of flame washes over him*
Lernaean Hydra: *roar has gone from a dread choir to menacing barbershop quartet, but still is fighting, and has finally chewed through Stoneskin spell*
Wizard: “Witness me! Through Valhalla I planeshift! Aha! A crit! An actual melee crit! I’ve never done that before in my life! Goddamn, I’m badass!”
Lernaean Hydra: *seizes wizard’s giant arm in immortal head, bites down heavily*
Wizard: “You are the weakest link! Good-die!”
Wizard: *sunders final head, pries teeth off arm with golden sword, drops snarling immortal head into Bag of Holding*
Wizard: “Ahahahaha! Hahahaha! Hahahaha…oh. Ow. And there’s the Transformation spell gone.”
Iolaus: “Wizard! Oh no!”
Wizard: “What?”
Iolaus: “I will sing the song of your glorious death to whoever listens, brave one!”
Wizard: “Kid, calm down. I may not have a barbarian’s hit dice, but I’m not exactly fall-in-battle-to-housecat over here. Yeah, I’m bleeding a bit, but I’ve got hit points left. This is no biggie.”
Iolaus: “Oh! You must be maddened by the deadly venom of the hydra.”
Wizard: “The what?”
Wizard: *looks down at swamp life floating belly-up and gently dissolving*
Wizard: “Oh, that. Nah, got that covered. Picked up a Periapt of proof against poison a few levels back. I’m immume.”
Iolaus: “…but none are immune to the deadly toxin of the Lernaean-”
Wizard: “Immune.”
Iolaus: “Even the mightiest of all, Hercules himself, is vulnerable to the insidious and agonizing-”
Wizard: “Hey, if this stuff is really that valuable…Fabricate!”
Athena: *looks on mutely as wizard cheerfully loads hydra’s body into giant press, begins extracting industrial quantities of poison*
Athena: “Ok, that’s something Hercules would have done himself, so I’ll allow it-”
Wizard: “Hey, I can just dig out the head, stick it back on the body, press some more juice out of it, and get unlimited deadly god-killing poison-”
Athena: “No.” *snaps her fingers, summons both golden sword and bag of holding to herself, vanishes*
Wizard: “Aww.”


Iolaus: “…and then he said ‘You are the weakest link! Good-die!'” And with one mighty blow, he struck off the Hydra’s immortal head with the great golden sword! And then, he-”
Eurystheus: “Yes, yes, I get the idea! Well, as much as I appreciate him not assaulting my sensitive royal nose with his presence, I must speak with him to deliver his third labor, so-”
Wizard’s disembodied voice: *whispers in Eurystheus’s ear* “Nah, it’s cool.”
Eurystheus: “Gaah-ah!”
Wizard’s disembodied voice: “You make the weirdest noises. And no, I’m not invisible. I’m eavesdropping on you with a Clairaudience spell and speaking to you with a Message spell.”
Eurystheus: “Don’t do that either! And for your next task…heh heh heh…bring me the Ceryneian Hind!”
Wizard: “Cool.”


Iolaus: *gasps in shock and delight*
Wizard: “This is an internship gig I’m offering you, just to be clear. Not a hireling deal, and definitely not a share-of-the-loot thing. But if you want to hang with me and help me trash some more monsters, you did a damn fine job helping me with that hydra…”
Iolaus: “I would be honored to fight by your side!”
Wizard: “Great.”
Iolaus: “But just to be clear, this is a strictly platonic adventuring relationship. I mean, I’m not saying you’re an unattractive man, but I…well…”
Wizard: “…Mythic Greece is weird. Anyway, I want to take my time with this next beastie. See, I may not have the most ranks of Sense Motive of anybody, but I do pay attention when my quest-giver says ‘Heh heh heh’. So, what can you tell me about the Ceryneian Hind?”
Iolaus: “Well, it’s sacred to Artemis, I know that much.”
Wizard: “Oh. Good.”


Wizard: “So, we’re cool?”
Priestess: “Well, as long as you don’t injure the hind in any way, and as long as you return it to its place when you’re done with it…this is part of a divine mission, so I don’t think Artemis will object too badly. Although, some form of compensation would probably help to smooth things over, since you are not exactly within her purview…”
Wizard: “No, that’s perfectly fair. Alter Self!”
Wizardess: “OK. Do I have the favor of the Shield of Maidens now?”
Priestess: “…I choose to answer whatever will get you out of my temple the fastest.”
Wizardess: “OK, then I’ll just borrow that lovely silver-bottomed reflecting pool…and Scrying!”
Pool: *shows Ceryneian Hind resting in forest*
Wizardess: “Hah, first try! Looks like the Hind needs to brush up on its Will Save Bonus! Well, that’s what you get for being a Magical Beast. OK, and…Teleport-”
Wizardess: *disappears from temple, appears in scene shown in scrying pool*
Wizardess: “-Quickened Sleep!”
Hind: *wakes instantly, bolts with preternatural quickness, but fails to move 230′ away from wizard as a reflexive action, and tumbles to the forest floor, fast asleep*
Wizardess: “That was easy enough.”


Wizardess: “Yo king!”
Eurystheus: *emerges atop city wall* “I am not to be referred to as…”
Eurystheus: *takes in sight of wizardess, still wearing horribly-uncured Nemean Lion robe, and unconscious Hind*
Eurystheus: “…you know what? I had this really clever idea to piss off Artemis by claiming the Hind for my menangerie and blaming you for it, but…yeah, with you looking like that, I’m calling an abort. OK. New quest. Travel to Mount Erymanthos, capture the monstrous boar that lives there, and return with it, alive. And no teleporting this time!”


Iolaus: “Wizard, I don’t want to seem ungrateful, or unappreciative, or disrespectful of your arcane might, but..well, we’ve been walking for weeks now! Don’t you have any non-teleporting magics that would get us to the mountain more quickly?”
Wizard: “Dozens! OK, maybe a dozen. But overland trips mean random encounters, and since I missed out on a cool fight with the priesthood of Artemis, I want to keep my XP gain up, you know?”
Iolaus: “…Ah! You seek greater glory by finding monsters to fight as we travel! I salute your valor, great wizard!”
Wizard: “Aw, shucks. It’s just basic leveling math-oh, hey, centaur. Yo centaur!”
Centuar: *emerges from behind rock, arms extended* “Peace! Know, travelers, I am not like my bestial and savage kin! I am Chiron the teacher!”
Iolaus: “Um.” *is distracted by Chiron*
Wizard: “Sweet! Teachers are cool! Hey, would you happen to have any provisions on you? Somebody – I don’t want to name names – but somebody is tired of eating flavorless Sustaining Spoon gruel three meals a day while we’re on the road. And hey, meals are always a good reason to chat, right?”
Chiron: “I…really? You’re not going to ask how come I’m not like all the other centaurs?”
Wizard: “Look, dude, I’m from a world that draws from C.S. Lewis rather than traditional Greek myth. Where I’m from, centaurs like you are the rule, not the exception.”
Chiron: “…Really?”
Wizard: “Yeah! Wise centaurs are totally a thing!”
Chiron: “Could you stay and tell me more? I have booze!”
Other Centaurs: “Did someone say booze?”
Wizard: “Goddamn it, where did they come from?”
Other Centaurs: “You said booze! We want booze!”
Wizard: “Fine! Have your goddamn booze! Prestidigitation!”
Wizard: *hands over barrel*
Other Centaurs: “Haha, wow! Check this out! This is some good shit, man! We’re gonna get fucked up on this, man!”
Chiron: “You fool! Do you know what you have done?”
Wizard: “Nah, it’s cool! I just twiddled the flavor of the water so it would taste like Everclear. It’s actually completely nonalcoholic!”
Chiron: “But the loosened inhibitions and violent behavior of most drunks are entirely due to a loosening of the social script, with alcohol as an excuse, not a cause! There are studies and everything!”
Other Centaurs: “I’m so wasted! Let’s go beat up that wizard!”
Wizard: “Huh. Cone of Cold. You know, I never really considered that. But when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Thanks, Chiron! You’re a really good teacher!”
Chiron: “…You just froze solid a dozen centaurs with a wave of your hand.”
Wizard: “Sorry, were they friends of yours?”
Chiron: “No, but…look, can we make this a short visit?”
Wizard: “That’s cool. Hey, do you know if there are any other sidequests in the area? I’ve still got most of my spell slots left.”
Chiron: “…Sidequests?”


Wizard: “Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh…”
Iolaus: *looks on dubiously* “So, you’ve heard of him in the heathen North, then.”
Wizard: “Heard of him?!? He’s…look, if there were a patron saint of adventurers, it would be him! And he’s here! And he needs my help!”
Iolaus: “What’s a saint?”
Wizard: “Shush! I heard a chain rattle! Is it…It’s him!”
Wizard: *runs up barren hill, squeeing madly*
Prometheus: *looks down in confusion at smelly, lion-skin wearing wizard bearing down on him!”
Wizard: “It’s you! It’s really you! Gosh, this is such an incredible honor, sir! Really and truly it is! *points at chain binding Prometheus to rock* Disintegrate!”
Prometheus: “You have freed me! Who are you, to brave the wrath of Zeus for the sake of one such as I?”
Wizard: “One such as you? One such as you?!? You, sir, are the original hero! You spat in the eyes of Fate and the gods and shared your wisdom with mortals! And so, I, as a mortal, am honored to return the favor.”
Eagle: *screes questioningly, but wants his daily does of titan liver, and dives from the sky*
Wizard: “And so, let me show you how we’ve cared for your gift! Kame…kame…Maximized Fireball!”
Prometheus: *looks as fine ash that used to be eagle rains down*
Prometheus: “Thank you, mortal.”
Wizard: “No, thank you, Prometheus. For everything.”


Wizard: “That was the best sidequest ever! OK, I don’t suppose you’d have any advice on trapping the Erymanthian Boar, Chiron?”
Chiron: “Um. Well, snow drifts are traditional, but you’re here in mid-spring. Honestly, I think whoever set up these quests was expecting you to take a lot longer on them.”
Wizard: “Nah, it’s cool, I know Control Weather. Snow drifts, you say?”


Wizard: “Yo king!” *releases boar*
Eurystheus: *cries in terror, flees as rampaging boar causes massive collateral damage*
Wizard: “Best. Labor. Ever.”
Eurystheus: “You dare terrify a king! Your next labor is to clean the Augean Stables of dung!”
Wizard: “I stand by my previous assessment.”


Iolaus: “You don’t feel that this is…beneath you in any way?”
Wizard: “Hey, you wanna break up the wererat cult, you need to wade through some sewers, you know what I’m saying?”
Iolaus: “No.”
Wizard: “Look, in both adventuring and magic, you need to do legwork. You need to put in the hours, and they’re not all glorious hours. There’s a lot of reading books, standing watch, refilling spell component pouches, doing double-entry accounting on the party loot spreadsheet…and it’s all important. It’s not all just making the whizz-bangs and making the bad guys fall down.”
Iolaus: “I…had not thought of it that way. Well, I suppose that it’s time to roll up our sleeves, grab a pair of dunging forks, and get on with it, then? There’s not a spell to make every problem go away, I guess!”
Wizard: “What? No, kid, that’s stupid. You see those two rivers we saw up on that hill the way up here? The ones with the high banks?”
Iolaus: “Yes, the Alpheus and the Peneus.”
Wizard: “Yeah. See, this is why I like having you around, kid. Those Knowledge(geography) ranks. Move Earth.”
Wizard: *rips out river banks, dumps the dirt and silt into improvised dams, diverting the course of the rivers directly in the path of the stables*
Sacred manure-producing cattle: *moo madly as they, their stable, and their dung are all washed away*
Iolaus: “I…don’t know what lesson I was supposed to learn from this.”
Wizard: “If you set a building on fire, no one asks you to clean it twice.”
Iolaus: “I think there was a bounty for doing this all in one day.”
Wizard: “Really?”
Iolaus: “Yes! One-tenth of the total cattle in the barn, if I recall correctly.”
King Augeas: “Hah hah hah! Foolish wizard, now that you have washed the barn away, I need pay you nothing!”
Iolaus: “No! Vile two-faced deceiver! You owe the wizard a hundred cattle!”
Wizard: “Dude. Iolaus. Let it go. That’s like a thousand gold tops. I’ve given bar tips more than that. And what would I want with magical poop-producing cattle anyways?”
King Augeas: “Yes, coward! Flee! Flee with your tail between your legs, in a cowardly and womanish fashion!”
Wizard: “Eh. Did my thing, going home now. Hey, almost halfway done with these Labors!”
King Augeas: “Flee knowing you are weak and I am strong! Flee knowing that you are good for nothing greater than moving dung!”
Wizard: “Probably another monster next, which will be nice. Probably. Might be horrible. Hey, I haven’t heard from Athena in a bit. I wonder how she’s doing?”
King Augeas: “Flee with your catamite! Flee and-”
Wizard: “Disintegrate. Gust of Wind.”
King Augeas: *is rent into monatomic ash, and the ash scattered by a gust of wind, leaving no trace of the king*
Wizard: “…OK ,come on Iolaus. Let’s see what fresh hell Eurystheus’s has for us now.”
Iolaus: “…Wizard?”
Wizard: “Look, people can talk smack about me all day long, and that’s cool. I didn’t take an 8 Cha expecting to be liked and respected. But no one, and I mean no one, disses my adventuring buddies.”
Iolaus: “Thank you, wizard.”
Wizard: “No prob.”
Iolaus: “So, what’s a catamite?”
Wizard: “…let’s walk and talk.”


Wizard: “…so now you’re at war with Elis, since I killed their king. Just FYI.”
Eurystheus: “This is horrific! Why do the gods torment me this way?”
Wizard: “Probably the hubris. So, what’s next on my hit list?”
Eurystheus: “Whatever. I don’t care any more. Here, the Stymphalian Birds. Sacred to Ares, not like you care. Poisonous, talons and beaks hard as bronze. And, most importantly, found only in Lake Stymphalia, a very long way away from here-”
Wizard: “Teleport.” *vanishes*
Eurystheus: *gapes for approximately 6 seconds*
Wizard: *reappears* “-eleport. Hey, did you know that birds sacred to the god of war explode when you fireball ’em? So, what else you got?”


Wizard: *appears* “Yo king!”
King Minos: “Yo, my friend! Words of your legendary journeys and heroic exploits have spread far and wide! You are, I assume, here for the bull?”
Wizard: “Spot on, your highness!”
King Minos: “Excellent! Just say the word, and whatever assistance you require will be provided!”
Wizard: “Really? Wow, that’s great! It sure is nice to be appreciated!”
King Minos: “Of course, my friend! Only the finest assistance for the Hero of Greece!”
Wizard: “You’re not just just saying that because I killed King Augeas with a word, right?”
King Minos: “Of course not!”
Wizard: “…I really need to spend some ranks in Sense Motive some day. Anyway, I think Iolaus and I have got this one. The bull can’t fly or breathe fire or anything, right?”


Wizard: “See? I was nice this time. I didn’t let the bull off the lead…oh, come on, Eurystheus.”
Eurystheus: “No.”
Wizard: “Please?”
Eurystheus: “No.”
Wizard: “Come out of the urn! It won’t bite! I promise!”
Eurystheus: “Hah! Biting! That’s an excellent idea! Fetch me the four flesh-eating mares of the savage half-giant Diomedes!”
Wizard: “Groovy.”


Wizard: “All right, Iolaus, let’s review this. When I kick down the door to Diomedes’s hut, where will you be?”
Iolaus: “Near the stable.”
Wizard: “And what’s your signal to go in and steal the horses?”
Iolaus: “I hear explosions and chaos inside the giant hut.”
Wizard: “And what do you do before you get anywhere near the flesh-eating horses?”
Iolaus: “Apply the Ungent of Stoneskin!”
Wizard: “Great. This should go off without a hitch. Giants are easy, as long as you have the right spells prepared, but they can take a while, and I don’t want to lose track of the horses in the chaos. All right. Let’s do this.”

Diomedes: “Eh?”
Diomedes: *looks in confusion as a solid oaken door mysteriously appears at the entrance to his tent, then explodes inward*
Wizard: “Yo half-giant! Catch! Fireball!
Diomedes: *catches fireball, squeezes it to nothing in his oversize fist*
Wizard: “…huh. Spell resistance. That’s new and interesting.”
Diomedes: “Half-giant, they call me. Few think to ask what the other half is. Your death-screams will be a glorious sacrifice to my father Ares!”
Wizard: *cracks knuckles* “Oh, good. I was afraid after fireballing a bunch of bird and running a mad bull around that I was going soft. Let’s do this!”

Iolaus: *carefully applies the Ungent of Stoneskin, pricks himself with dagger, grins as the point skitters off an invisible, impenetrable barrier*
Iolaus: *carefully sneaks into stable, sees four mares muzzled in bronze and tied with chains, all of whom rear up and snarl in a very unhorselike manner at his approach*
Iolaus: “Hah! Looks like your master is careful with you, beasts! Now, I’ll just take these and…huh?”
Mares: *breathe fire through the nostril gaps in their bronze muzzles*
Iolaus: “…Motherfucker, the one time he didn’t ask if the creature breathed-”


Wizard: “Hah.”
Wizard: *limps out of tent*
Wizard: “Hahahaha.”
Wizard: *points two middle fingers back at tent*
Wizard: “Fuck you, Diomedes!”
Wizard: *waves middle fingers around generally*
Wizard: “Fuck you, Diomedes’ backup!”
Wizard: “Iolaus! Please tell me you got those mares, because I am running on just about empty here!”
Wizard: *enters stable*
Wizard: “Iolaus…”
Wizard: *sees Iolaus’s charred body at entrance to stable, grabs him, and pulls him out of stable, heedless of the flames that crackle around him as the mares breathe fire at him as well*
Wizard: “Hades, I have never prayed to thee. I have not the tongue for it. Also, I’m not a cleric. What matters is that this man came with me, for glory and adventure. And I will see him have it.”
Wizard: *reaches into pack, pulls out giant diamond*
Wizard: “No matter the cost. Limited Wish: Raise Dead!”
Wizard: *shudders as life-force drains from him to fuel the Limited Wish spell, and the diamond crumbles to dust*
Iolaus: “…ah! Watch out, wizard! The mares breathe fire!”
Wizard: “I got that. Thanks. Ow. Wow, there’s a labor worth of XP used up, at least. Ow.”
Iolaus: “Wizard! You are injured!”
Wizard: “Yeah. Diomedes: actually the son of Ares. And now we know. And knowing is half the battle. Ow. On the plus side, that did mean I didn’t go into XP-debt raising you from the dead.”
Iolaus: “Raising me from the…what? I saw…but I thought…it was just a vision…I…”
Wizard: “Yeah, no, you were dead for a bit. And you’ll be weakened for a while now. Sorry. No way around that when returning from the dead-”
Iolaus: “I…was dead. I really was dead. What’s this shiny grit?”
Wizard: “500 cattle worth of diamond, but that’s not important right now. OK, I say we hole up in the tent for the night and tackle those mares in-”
Iolaus: “500!?!”
Wizard: “Look, when you can cast spells like I can, you interact with economies in a non-traditional manner. It’s no big thing. Really.”
Iolaus: “You…you sacrificed a great treasure, and some of your life, that I might live again.”
Wizard: “Yeah. You’re my adventuring buddy. That’s how this works.”
Iolaus: *hesitantly* “Wizard…”
Wizard: “Yeah, look, I’m literally down to cantrips right now. I’m going to sleep. We can have a heart to heart in the morning.”


Eurystheus: *is enjoying breakfast*
Wizard: *appears* “Yo king!”
Eurystheus: *throws plates everywhere* “Augh! The fire-breathing mares of-”
Wizard: “What? You knew they breathed fire? And you didn’t tell us? You asshole, Iolaus died because of you!”
Eurystheus: *looks carefully at Iolaus*
Iolaus: “…I got better?”
Eurystheus: “No, this is fine. I can work with this. In fact, I dedicate these mares, brought to me by this wizard, to Hera!”
Wizard: “…Okay.”
Eurystheus: “Because they are shrill, vicious, fire-breathing, flesh-eating she-devils!”
Hera: *listening in* “What?!? How dare he insult me in this manner? The wizard will pay for this insult!”
Wizard: “I don’t even any more. Just give me the next labor.”
Eurystheus: “Fetch the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons!”


Wizard: *appears* “Yo queen!”
Queen Hippolyta: “Greetings, wizard. Welcome to Themiscyra.”
Wizard: “I’m not sure if you do the whole ‘Man shall not set foot here!’ thing, but I’m levitating just in case.”
Queen Hippolyta: “Your respect for our customs is appreciated, although misplaced in this case. Your reputation precedes you; I assume you are here to right some wrong or slay some beast. How might the Amazons assist you?”
Wizard: “I need your belt, actually. I think that asshole Eurystheus is trying to get me to pick a fight with you, actually, so I’m more than happy to buy it from you. Or if you need some magical work done, I’d be happy to oblige you.”
Queen Hippolyta: “Thank you, but the sacred Hera, our matron goddess, watches over us and protects us. The people of Themiscyra require neither your gold nor your magics. As for the belt, however, you are welcome to it. And feel free to tell this Eurystheus that it was granted in peace and cooperation.”
Disguised Hera: *appears outside* “Amazons! Treachery! The wizard walks among you! He has ensnared the queen, and is controlling her mind for his foul purposes. Even now he bids her disrobe for his deviant pleasures!”
Outside Amazons: “This amazon we’ve never seen before is right! We must protect the queen!”
Wizard: “Thank you very much for this, your highness. I gratefully accept this gift in the spirit of peace and cooperation in which it was-”
Amazons: *kick in door* “Protect the queen! Stab the wizard!”
Wizard: “Treachery!” *begins casting spell*
Queen Hippolyta: “No! My people, listen to me! I am not-”
Wizard: “True Seeing.” *taps Hippolyta*
Queen Hippolyta: “Hera! My goddess! Why do you walk among us disguised?”
Hera: “What? You can see me? But…my veil of disguise is perfected in the divine-”
Wizard: “True Seeing gets past it. Honestly, it’s like you people don’t even know how immunities work most of the time…”
Queen Hippolyta: “But why this deception, O Holy Hera? Why do you seek to set us against this wizard in this manner?”
Hera: “There were horses and disrespectful comments involved! And obviously he is to blame!”
Wizard: “…yeah, this here? A big part of why I never went cleric, even for the bennies like casting in armor and the like. Of course, if I was a cleric, then I couldn’t just Teleport-”


Eurystheus: “The Cattle of Geryon. You must first cross the Libyan Desert, before arriving at Erytheia. There you will face the two-headed hound Orthrus, the monstrous herdsman Eurytion son of Ares, and Geryon, son of Chrysaor and grandson of Medusa. You must defeat them all, before returning to me with the cattle!”
Wizard: “Great. All right, Iolaus, I’ve got a kick-ass plan of attack. Here, let me sketch it out here…”
Iolaus: “…I do not know what to say.”
Wizard: “That stunned by its brilliance?”
Iolaus: “This is madness! They say Geryon has the body of a giant, with three heads and six arms, and wings like a vulture!”
Wizard: “So?”
Iolaus: “I…feel I should remind behind this time as well, my friend.”
Wizard: “Fair enough. All right, time for step one…”

Wizard: *knocks politely on door*
Geryon: *opens door, looks around, looks down* “Oh! Hello there! I didn’t see you there for a moment! Please, come in!”
Wizard: “Thank you! I’d like to discuss business if you don’t mind. I’m in the market for some cattle, you see.”
Geryon: “Ah, then you know my cattle are the finest in all the lands!”
Wizard: “So I’ve heard. Worth ten times the price of a regular cow.”
Geryon: “Er, yes.”
Wizard: “Of course, I’ve also heard good things about the immortal cattle of King Augeas.”
Geryon: “Yes, well-”
Wizard: “Ten of them might well be worth one of yours?”
Geryon: “Perhaps. Did you have a deal in mind?”
Wizard: “Yes. 630 of Augeas’s finest for all 63 of yours. Ten times the herd, and of magical cows at that.”
Geryon: “With respect, stranger, I smell a trap here.”
Wizard: “You know Eurystheus?”
Geryon: “I know of him.”
Wizard: “You know he’s an asshole?”
Geryon: “As I said, I know of him.”
Wizard: “Well, I owe him some favors, and he wants me to bring him your cattle. And I think he wants you dead for some strange reason. Anyway, I’m a dedicated servant of Good, or at least Neutrality, so I’d prefer not to kill people if I can help it, and hey, I could use a break to round up a few hundred cattle from all over war-torn Elis.”
Geryon: “War-torn Elis? That sounds like a story.”
Wizard: “Well, it happened like this, see…”


Geryon: *waves goodbye to wizard, cattle* “A pleasure doing business with you, wizard! It’s so rare that I meet people who don’t judge me a monster at the mere sight of me!”
Wizard: “Hey, if people can’t judge you for your actions and not your appearance, then fuck ’em. It’s what you do that makes you who you are, not what you look like or who you were born to.”
Hera: “Hahaha! Behold my might! I will now flood the rivers and send stinging gadflies to madden the cattle! They will be scattered and-”
Wizard: *snaps fingers* “Circle of Death.”
Geryon’s Cattle: *fall over dead as expanding circle of pure death extinguishes their life energy*
Wizard: “Animate Dead.”
Geryon’s Cattle: *rise as zombies*
Geryon’s Cattle: “Grains…grains…”
Geryon: “…my cows…my lovely cows…”
Wizard: “Are now immune to flood and gadfly!”
Geryon: “But, what you said! You said-”
Wizard: “Yeah. We’re all in the Monster Manual somewhere, buddy. My entry’s’ just between Howler and Hydra.”
Geryon: “…what?”
Wizard: “Human. I’m saying that as a human, I’m not different than…you know what, it doesn’t matter. Got an undead cattle drive to complete. All right, now! Git along, little zombies! Rawhide!”


Wizard: *giggles madly*
Eurystheus: “They’re rotting and dropping parts everywhere! Ew ew ew ew!”
Iolaus: “Do I want to know?”
Wizard: “Probably not.”
Eurystheus: “Enough! I will not be made a fool of again! Your eleventh task, wizard, is to break into the garden of the Hesperides, and steal for me an apple of immortality, sacred to all the gods!”
Wizard: “Ooh! Finally! A proper quest! So, are you with me on this one, Iolaus?”
Iolaus: “For a chance to go where no mortal ever has and survived? How could I say no?”
Eurystheus: “You are both insane and going to die.”
Wizard: “Oh, hush, you.”
Iolaus: “Now, the legend of the Hesperides says that only the Old Man of the Sea knows where their secret garden lays.”
Wizard: “Oh, good, its a legend. That means I can just cast Legend Lore repeatedly until I find out everything I need to know. So, step one: Done! Now, to set out on a quest! I wonder if there will be random encounters again?”


Antaeus: “Ragh! I am Antaeus, son of Gaia! My mother strengthens me, and while I draw strength from her, not even the mighty Hercules himself can best me-”
Wizard: “Reverse Gravity.”
Antaeus: *goes flying off into distance*
Iolaus: “…Was that necessary?”
Wizard: “Well, we’re flying and he’s not, so no, not really. Was funny, though.”


Wizard: “Holy crap, another titan! Hey, Atlas, right?”
Atlas: “That’s me, tiny friend!” *flexes slightly, causing the dome of the sky to shift minutely*
Wizard: “Hey, I bet you don’t get a lot of appreciation all the way out here. Speaking on behalf of everyone who doesn’t want to be crushed by the falling sky, I just wanna thank you for your hard work and selfless dedication.”
Atlas: “Oh, it’s not so bad. Wait, you want something from me. You’re after the apples of my daughters the Hesperides, aren’t you?”
Wizard: “Just one! And it’s not even for me!”
Atlas: “Well, you can forget it! If you set one foot in the garden-”
Wizard: “We’re flying.”
Atlas: “If a mortal lay one finger on the apples they will instantly-”
Wizard: “I can call up an elemental to carry them for me.”
Atlas: “The great dragon Ladon will-”
Wizard: “Oh great, a chance to use my pressed Hydra venom!”
Atlas: *sighs, slumps, causing another minor skyquake*
Atlas: “Well, then. It sounds like you don’t need to bargain for my help.”
Wizard: “Not really, no. Why? Was there something you wanted?”
Atlas: “I wanted a break! I wanted a chance to rest my shoulders, just for a little bit! But only someone as strong as me, or Hercules himself, can carry the burden I carry…”
Wizard: “…hmm.”
Iolaus: “…Wizard? You have that worrying, faraway look in your eyes again.”
Wizard: “Oh, yes. I’m just plotting a terrible idea. And reviewing a few things. Atlas, just to check; you hold up the vault of the sky because you are strong, yes? Not because you have some super-special hold-up-the-sky magical power?”
Atlas: “Yes! That’s how I can hand it off to Hercules!”
Wizard: “So, someone as strong as you should be able to hold up the sky.”
Atlas: “Yes! But there’s no one like that other than Hercules.”
Wizard: “OK. I’ve got an answer. But this is going to be big. You’re going to owe me. I mean, this is going to cost me several times what bringing back Iolaus from the dead did.”
Atlas: “What? You can bring people back from the dead?”
Wizard: “Actually, I used my last big diamond for him, so no, not right now. Happily, I do have plenty of ruby, though.”
Atlas: “Ruby? What does ruby have to do with anything?”
Wizard: “You need it to cast Simulacrum.”
Atlas Simulacrum: “I live! Command me, master!”
Wizard: “You are to spell Atlas for holding the sky duty as long as he needs it. Oh, and try not to die, you were crazy expensive. Arg. Goddamn it, there’s all of the XP from Diomedes used up.”
Atlas Simulacrum *lifts the sky*: “I am holding a heavy thing! I fulfill the reason for my existence! I am suffused with deep existential contentment!”
Atlas: “What magic is this?!”
Wizard: “Arcane magic, seventh-level spell. You’re a twenty-hit-dice creature, so I can make fake yous. They’re fragile, and don’t have any of your magical powers, but they look like you, punch like you, and can hold heavy things like you.”
Atlas: “You! False-me! You…are happy here? Like this?”
Atlas Simulacrum: “Deep existential contentment is a subcategory of happiness, yes!”
Atlas: “Then…I am free! But…if this false-me can assume my place-”
Wizard: “Hold on there, Atlas. This guy is fragile, like I said. You only want to bring him out when you really need a break, otherwise someone else could stumble upon him and pop ’em like a soap bubble. But you can take one now. You’ve earned it, I think.”
Atlas: “In that case, wizard…I shall take my break, and use it to pluck for you an apple.”
Wizard: “Shucks, you don’t have to do that-”
Atlas: “Also, I’ve grown attached to Ladon, and the thought of you anywhere near my daughters terrifies me.”
Wizard: “Oh, come on! I’m a perfect gentleman! Just ask the queen of the Amazons about the belt I got from her!”
Iolaus: “Wizard, I don’t think that example is helping.”
Wizard: “Ah, well. Get me the apple, then. Then you can take the rest of the hour off!”
Atlas: “Luxury and leisure unimaginable!”


Eurystheus: “…no.”
Wizard: “No?”
Eurystheus: “No. This cannot be. This is…this is nonsense. This is a trick. This is sheerest madness.”
Wizard: “Are you doubting my work?”
Eurystheus: “You…you fool. You idiot. You blind, drooling moron! This apple is a thing that cannot be! And…if it is…if there is even the faintest chance that it is…then…”
Eurystheus: *falls on golden apple, devouring it whole, seeds, stem, and all*
Eurystheus: *laughs faintly*
Eurystheus: “And yet is is. And you gave it to me. Immortality! You have granted it to me! And for what, wizard? For your pride? For you good name? You had a treasure beyond all compare, and you meekly handed it over me! And now I am free! There are no terrors left in this world for me now! I could demand that you bring me the guardian of the underworld to be my plaything! I could demand that you storm the gates of Olympus itself! I could demand you slay yourself, here and now, and then, wizard, you will have nothing to show for your quest but bitter failure, and-”
Wizard: “I think I’ll go with the first one.”
Eurystheus: “You cannot command me! I am-”
Wizard: “An immortal man. But a man still. Dominate Person.”
Eurystheus: *is silenced, goes stiff, as only his eyes betray his terror*
Wizard: “Yo Eurystheus, say ‘The final labor is to bring to me the guardian of the underworld.'”
Eurystheus: “The final labor is to bring to me the guardian of the underworld.”
Wizard: “Yo Eurystheus, say ‘I know and understand the special theory of relativity.'”
Eurystheus: “I know and understand the special theory of relativity.”
Wizard: “Works for me. Plane Shift.”
Eurystheus: *vanishes, still Dominated, unable to protest or resist his forced dimensional travel in any way*
Wizard: “See, the special theory of relativity holds that there’s no conceptual difference between moving a thing to a place, and moving absolutely everything else around a thing so that it appears to move to that place.”
Iolaus: “You…took control of him somehow. And then…sent him to Tartarus?”
Wizard: “Right on both accounts! All right, it’s been a pleasure adventuring with you, Iolaus, but I do need to get going. I will look you up next time I’m in the area. But now that I’m off-contract…I was going to check in on Old Helda. And I haven’t had any cocoa in a very long time. Goodbye! Teleport!”

On the limits of rationality.

I always feel weird identifying myself as a rationalist. On one side, this is because there’s a sizable and often fractious community who people tend to think of when they think of rationalists, and I’m not really sure how close I am to the mean member there. On the other hand…how can you not be a rationalist? To be a rationalist is to give preference to reason above all else, and reason is “the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.” according to the all-knowing Google. It is our ability to reason that has driven us from endurance-hunting plains apes to masters of this world and explorers of others. Reason works.

But being the best epistemology does not mean that it has all the answers. Take one of the big problems that the rationalist community has been wrestling with; what should you do when the reasonable thing to do is to become unreasonable?

From an old story-essay on the topic here:

Two cars race toward each other on an empty freeway; the first to swerve is the chicken. How should you play if you want to preserve both your status and your life? The answer is clear: in full view of your opponent, rip out your car’s steering wheel, blindfold yourself, down a bottle of Jack Daniels, scream. If you can persuade your opponent that you’re incapable of making the decision to swerve, then he has to swerve. In other words: the stupider, more ignorant, more irrational you can prove you are, the better the chance you have of winning.

This is entirely correct. The rational way to win a game of chicken is to convince your opponent that you are belligerent, aggressive, and have no care for your life, and given that people are clever and have memories, the best way to do this is to actually be belligerent, aggressive, and have no care for your life.

Rationality tells you this. (It also says to go back and check your work, run tests, and so forth, and this is a crucial step in any rational conclusion, and the fact that I’m about to say “…but let’s skip this for now.” should send mental klaxons a-ringing, but let’s skip this for now.) What rationality does not tell you is “Wait, why am I playing this game again? What are my real goals here?”

And what are they, really? How much do you really value status? Does that answer shift based on who’s giving you status? People, secure within a subculture that they trust to value and support them, feel free to accept the opprobrium of outgroup members as a badge of honor. Why not do this when you are a subculture of one? Are there really no cultures that you could not set yourself against wholly, and be proud to be the lone outsider against?

Rationality can tell you how to achieve the goals you set for yourself. But it can’t tell you what to value. And it can’t tell you when you’re assuming that something you’re striving for is actually something that you really want.

So, what’s the answer to the chicken problem? You swerve. You accept defeat, submit to the macho-er guy who didn’t swerve, and praise him for his courage and machismo. You stop playing chicken, because he’s himself your superior, and you acknowledge this fact whenever anyone asks. You support the idea that the values of that guy are great and grand, and lead to positive social outcomes. You hold him up as an example to young up-and-coming people. You push the group so that the belligerent, aggressive, and careless folk are playing chicken against each other. And when the guy who beat you goes up against someone as belligerent, aggressive, and careless as himself, he dies. This is when you start talking up how noble and true and brave he and his co-gamer were, and use the fact that they were willing to die for honor and glory and bravery to shame anyone else who plays and swerves.

And so the group will eventually end. Because the thing about choosing to blind yourself to let yourself win a fight against someone more rational than you is that you’ll eventually fight someone as irrational as you’ve made yourself. And even if you never do, you’re still living in a world where effects follow causes, and the inevitable effect of promoting machismo, courage, and honor over reason and self-preservation is that people either die en masse, or leave the group.

And really, that last should be your first option when dealing with people playing chicken. Get out of that group if you can, and only attempt to steer the group into a self-devouring reaction of social proof if you want to show off your rational cojones.

Reign of the Lich-King, Chapter 5

“Name, please.”


It helped that he was a soldier of Aldis, that he had been trained that eventual peace was the only legitimate use for military force, and that peace meant compromise, most often with the people you least wanted to compromise with.

“Cargo, please.”

“Hmm. Seed stocks, mostly. Some ploughs and things. All farming stuff. And the cart, and horse. And myself.”

“Which of these things do you plan to return?”

“The cart, and myself.”

It helped that the clerk was keeping his eyes carefully fixed on his paperwork, never raising his head to the point where his gaze would meet Jorth’s.

“Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”


“Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”

Jorth paused.

“Remember before answering that I am capable of smelling lies, please.”

The vampire did turn his gaze up slightly then, enough for Jorth to see his mouth, raised in a pinch-lipped, fang-concealing smile.

“We’re here on private business, not on Crown orders.” he said, after a moment in which he once again reminded himself that fighting his way through the border checkpoint would not help, no matter what Kern had doing clerical work.

“Of course you are. Will you be spying for Queen Jaellin, please?”

“Define ‘spying’.”

“Spying, in Kern, is defined as the gathering or accumulation of information, including publicly available information, for purposes of political advantage-”

“If I say that I am, will it get me through this checkpoint any faster? Because yes, I’m going to see things and probably talk to the Queen about them at some point.”

The vampire resumed scribbling wordlessly.

“So.” said Jorth. “I heard there weren’t that many vampires in Kern these days.”

“Ah.” said the clerk, without looking up. “Doubtless you refer to Talis’s ill-fated treachery against our rightful and true king.”

“So, what happened there? Should I be worried about a coup while selling my stock?”

“Talis has been…dealt with. They say that the King locked her in an unbreakable coffin, then sealed it away in the Vault of the Forgotten, that she would remain forever trapped, forever thirsting. Her rebels are broken, the Silver Skulls shattered. But…there are others, who had grown used to the indulgences the king once allowed us. This is why the Black Gates closes at night, and why this search and these questions are deemed necessary.”

“Hmm. So I suppose you’re under watch as well? Or does Jarek just trust you to run the checkpoint without draining anyone?”

There was a leathery chuckle from the vampire, and a metallic rattle from under the paperwork-strewn desk. The vampire shifted and adjusted his leg, and Jorth saw the heavy manacle, inscribed with red-glowing runes, anchoring the vampire to the ground.

“The king is wise. He trusts no one, least of all my kind.”

“He locked you in here? What if some Jarzoni zealot breaks in?”

The vampire looked up then. Jorth had trained to fight such creatures, and reflexively looked away, but before he did, he caught a glimpse of a hollow, haggard face. If it had been alive, Jorth would have figured it to be starving.

“That…would almost be worth it. For in this brave new kingdom, where blood cannot be taken or even traded, but only sold straight from the vein, in tiny sips, and only by those the king had judged worthy and competent to do so, and only can be bought by those who have proven that their self-discipline can master their thirst. To face foul Jarzoni magics while bound and hobbled, but for the chance to feed again freely, if only once?”

The vampire sighed. “But that, alas, is not a choice offered to me this day. Adept Sethis, also of your esteemed kingdom, has been granted responsibility for agricultural development in this sector. When not afield, he dwells at the common house near Flinoc Pit, some twenty miles northeast of here. He will be able to tell you more about where your seeds and plows should best be directed. May your stay in Kern be profitable, Jorth.”

Wonderful. The vampire knows my name now.


“Everyone’s here? No confiscations? No one started any wars going through the border checkpoint?”

The cold stung his skin and the smog burned his eyes and his nose, but all things considered, it wasn’t that bad. He couldn’t help comparing it to the last time he had been in Jarzon; that had been in midwinter several years ago, and there would hopefully be far fewer horrible monsters trying to kill him or worse this trip.

“One time, just one time, and no one lets me forget it. And it was entirely Jarzon’s fault anyway. And no. Weren’t no sport in stabbing a chained-up vampire.”

“I got a name!” announced Albus proudly. “I was recommended to seek Adept Alais, at the common house near Flinoc Pit, in regards to some complicated and expensive artifice. The pay is apparently quite good for Aldis-trained Adepts.”

“Huh. I got Adept Sethis, same place, for agriculture.”

“There’s a bounty on black trolls out of the Nightpit, apparently. Although I think the vampire was just pointing me at some place far away, incredibly lethal, or both.”

“I received a message from Jarek.” said Nycillia, drawing instant silence from her companions, with only a quiet cough from Albus as some smog went down the wrong way. “It is unopened. I would prefer a second opinion on the wards placed on the parchment. Albus, if you would be so kind?”

“Hmm. Interesting!” said Albus eventually. “There are the standard preservative spells, and…ah! There’s something in the seal. I don’t think…ah! It’s a variant of the Arcane Mark locking, and it’s…hmm…fading? No, gone! I’m just seeing the discharge!”

“Aye.” said Nycillia grimly. “So, some ward on this message was deactivated a few minutes ago. Presumably, when I picked it up. The question that remains, then, is how this message came to be so sealed, since I am quite certain that I did not seal it myself, and Arcane Mark wardings are supposed to be unique to a caster.”

“Vampires aren’t supposed to do clerical work, and yet here we are.” said Albus with a shrug. “It’s the difference between the natural world and artifice, I suppose. Nature mostly makes sense.”

“Well, since I’m apparently inexorably enmeshed in Jarek’s schemes, I may as well open this.” said Nycillia with a sigh, before pulling the seal from the scroll, unfurling it, and reading it.


Welcome back to Kern! I’m a bit tied up with some ‘minor business’ at the moment, and will likely be so until the turning of the year, or more if the Jarzoni are unusually uncooperative. Still, I’m glad that you’re back! I won’t be able to negotiate any long-term contracts for Crown wages until I’ve been freed up, but I have kept your cell open at the Palace if you need a place to stay. There’s even food now!”

“Cell?” asked Shari.

“Jarek…the old Jarek…if it matters anyway…he used to keep cells for interesting experimental subjects near his living quarters. There was nowhere else remotely private or with any kind of amenities on his floor of his palace, and I didn’t want to waste energy going up and down stairs, so I borrowed one. Also, there is more.”

“I’ve dropped a few of these letters around, so you may get this message multiple times. If you happen to get one after the turning of the year, something’s probably gone terrible wrong. In any case, enjoy your stay in Kern. I’d tell you that you’d earned a vacation and should relax and see how much progress your disciples have made, but we both know that’s not going to happen.”

“Disciples?” asked Jorth.

“Your guess is as good as mine.” said Nycillia.

“Be well! Signed, Jarek.

P.S.: The ‘minor business’ is actually quite large.”

“Hmm. No titles.” commented Shari.

“I still can’t take Jarek seriously as a cunning and insidious sorcerer when he feels the need to explain his irony in postscript.” mused Jorth.

“Which is, you have to admit, exactly the kind of behavior a really cunning and really insidious sorcerer would adopt.” pointed out Albus.

“True. Well, it sounds like Flinoc Pit is our destination, for now at least.” Travel, Jorth knew, would soon settle people’s misgivings. No matter how subtle or insidious, Jarek couldn’t be everywhere, and Jorth knew that having to focus on the rigors of travel in Kern, even this new, peaceful, marginally-less-poisonous Kern, would keep his companion’s attention focused quite firmly on the now.

“I figure we’ll sell the horses with the tools once we reach a good place. We could ride ’em, but…uh.”

Jorth paused in his planning, rubbed the smog out of his eyes, then stared into the gloom again. There was a shape in the darkness, and for a moment it had looked like…

“Is that…good gods above, it is! So that’s what Jarek must have been talking about!” said Albus. He gestured, and light sprung up around the figure, illuminating it through the murky gloom. It was a statue, roughly human-sized, and still bearing the marks of the crude mining tools that had apparently been used to sculpt it from the harsh basalt of the mountainous terrain. The pose, the regalia, and the devotional symbols around it clearly marked it as Maurenna, Summer Queen, primordial goddess of summer, agriculture, and community. This statue, however, had Nycillia’s face, smiling serenely.

“What? What is…I didn’t…I never…I’m not…what? How? Why?” babbled Nycillia.

“OK. New plan. First answers, then Flinoc Pit.” said Jorth.

The Leaden Rule.

As a correlary to the traditional metallic rules of behavior, I’d like to advance my own: insult your opponents only by standards that you consider fair and shameful breaches of behavior. Shoot honest lead, in more metaphorical words.

A lot of people don’t do this. And when your stated causes are to fight against the prejudices of people who aren’t rich, conventionally attractive, or neurotypical, turning around to snipe at the neckbeard sperglord living in his mother’s basement makes your concern look less than sincere.

We insult people to hurt them, generally. We can also do it to show virtue to our in-group, or as a kind of public performance art that no one takes seriously or personally, but mostly, people insult other people to hurt them. And when you want to hurt them, it is very tempting to look carefully at them, and identify their weak points. We all want, in the heat of a battle, the silver bullet that puts down the werewolf, after all.

But werewolves don’t exist, and arguments aren’t bullets. (Barring extreme edge cases in regimes with very short gaps between condemnation and arrest, of course.) Giving up your principles and aiming hurtful remarks at your enemies, by a standard you yourself disclaim, is like melting down the family silver to go hunting monsters; you’re giving up an old and cherished resource in the form of your integrity and good name, when you have no evidence that the monsters you’re shooting at are actually movie werewolves in the first place.

And where does following the Leaden Rule get us? Well, it gets me to the point where I pause, delete an angry screed, replace it with “I think you’re overexaggerating the statistical significance of a few outliers here.”, and when I get a reply that consists of “lol dont care”, am enlightened. I realize that nothing I could say to the person I want to insult is more actually insulting than what they’re saying of their own accord, and that my work here is done. I further realize that any further interactions with them in this vein is pointless, and so withdraw, and manage to both secure my own peace of mind, and not end up compromising my own principles for the sake of a meaningless Internet dust-up.

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