"The only thing necessary [...] is for good men to do nothing."
-- Edmund Burke Abridged
"Matters of the Dark Tapestry are reported to my office immediately, yes."
"- you believe Keltham was involved in that? To what end? Stranger things happen daily in Golarion, and we can hardly attribute them all to Keltham's hand."
Her voice is a pleasant one, now; and in truth a little of Abrogail's injured pride has been restored. "You, and your underlings, are all idiots. I will summarize this report, in case the general trend has been lost within the details."
"One. A mad cleric, posthumously identified as Vediss Halurexis, kidnapped a Chelish farming village and brought them to the Pillar of Palamia in our northwestern Whisperwood. The sacrifices were bound and enshrouded in darkness and silence, but one among their number was a tiefling of devil's line who could see through deeper darkness; hence, supposedly, our apparently accidental reception of this report."
"Two. Vediss Halurexis shattered the Pillar of Palamia, previously thought to be a monument to some unknown god, with a great explosion of flames whose description does not particularly match any known spell signature. The idiots who produced this report failed to consider that chemistry might be a means of producing this explosion. I have commanded Project Lawful to examine the Whisperwood site, to see if they can detect any useful residues that can hint to us about how we could make our own great explosions."
"Three. A huge horror from the Dark Tapestry bubbles up from the ground: a great ooze, forming and reforming hands and teeth and faces, and mouths presumably gibbering blasphemies that were silenced."
"Four. Before the gathered villagers can be sacrificed, an as-yet-unidentified person in the uniform of Chelish Security appears. The apparent Security approaches Vediss Halurexis without attacking. Halurexis attacks with a quickened spell once the mage is near. Halurexis's head explodes."
"Five. The gathered sacrificial villagers hear a male voice informing them that rescue has arrived but they will wait in protective darkness and silence for a time, as there are heretical affairs going on outside."
"Six. The strange mage flies above the horror from the Dark Tapestry and engages in several inscrutable activities. They included casting flashes of light and trying to drop animal sacrifices onto the horror in different numbers and groups. Our apparent witness thinks he remembers seeing early on one flash, one flash, two flashes, three flashes, five flashes, and a similar pattern appearing among the animal sacrifices dropped down. Does that pattern signify any particular Dark Tapestry eldritchness to you?"
"Not that I've been told of. I'll inquire of Gorthoklek."
"Mm. I suppose it's possible you might be telling the truth about that. In any case."
"Seven. The mage eventually gives up on whatever ritual or bargaining he was trying to perform, if that's even what was happening, and spends nearly an hour casting an incredible variety of different attack magics on our Dark Tapestry horror, using items and scrolls for it, increasing in their magnitude and spell-circle over time. The Dark Tapestry horror writhes and throws its bubbling self about, probably screams unheard in voices that would drive mortals mad, is little damaged by the spells and regenerates the damage swiftly."
"Eight. The mage finally destroys the Dark Tapestry horror with another vast explosion. Still guised as a Chelish Security, he unblinds and frees the gathered sacrifices, informs them that the day's events will no doubt be classified a secret of Cheliax, and commands them to go home and say nothing of this. He throws down some silver and a few gold coins, saying that he's not troubling himself to distribute it but he does expect all there will receive and keep a payment for silence; and states that the consequences of running their mouths will be left to their imagination."
"Nine. The next day, our single witness tiefling heads into the nearest town and reports."
"I suppose I see the connection to Keltham's chemical secrets, now that you've pointed it out, in the form of great explosions that a tiefling villager's description couldn't identify as spellwork. I still don't see what purpose Keltham would have in -"
"If we believe our tiefling subject's eyes - then who the fuck else would have access to that quantity of scrolls and magic items and would use them to run inscrutable experiments on a horror out of the Dark Tapestry?"
"And if we don't believe his eyes, only Keltham would think of casting that illusion or falsifying that memory."
Aspexia doesn't, quite, think in that way herself. It isn't really a compliment to notice that Abrogail Thrune seems able to put herself in those shoes. "I see."
"And - do you know the purpose of all that?"
Abrogail Thrune laughs. It's high and bitter, it might perhaps, be tinged with a touch of madness, if her Splendour permitted any such thing to enter her voice, which it doesn't.
"Oh, I know what we're meant to think. The same way we were meant to think that Keltham has a means for aggregating lesser diamonds into greater ones. Unless of course that simply is what Keltham was about, in the City of Brass, and he didn't bother to conceal it from us because he thinks there's nothing we can do."
"Things out of the Dark Tapestry cause fear. They cause horror. Even a very prepared mind will still feel that fear, it is said; you must find fighters and wizards with high Wisdom to gather about you and conclude the fight quickly lest they all go mad. Who fights a horror like that for an hour, casting spells of increasing power, when they evidently have the means about themselves to kill it more quickly? Why?"
It takes Aspexia a moment to get that, and then her eyes widen very slightly yet visibly, so vast is her dismay.
For wizards and sorcerers to deliberately put themselves in a situation that outwardly seems painful and scary, but is ultimately safe, in order to increase their power - does not in fact work. Otherwise everyone would do it. Abrogail Thrune staked her life when she went to Hell, forfeit if she could not reach at least the fifth circle of sorcery, so that she would be frightened enough despite having deliberately put herself into that situation.
As for putting yourself under sufficient stress via exposing yourself to a powerful horror from the Dark Tapestry; well, the obvious reason why not everyone does that, is that you would go insane.
"I quote from the Project Lawful transcripts: 'Civilization would cheat. They'd figure out exactly what mental state somebody had to be in to absorb extra magic like Carissa did during her date with Abrogail, and then some sixth-rank Keepers would go into that exact mental state on purpose because they could just do that, and very very quickly Civilization would have its own powerful wizards.' End quote. He told us, back when he was more naive, exactly how a person like him thinks about the problem of only being a first-circle wizard, showed how much disdain he had for the thought of his Civilization needing to earn power the hard way. Put yourself under the right kind of stress, into the right mental state, and channel sufficient magic from enough items and scrolls; that's how he thinks of it, and all our lifelong struggles a meaningless ritual we go through because we're dumber than he is. Is he now fifth-circle, to match his rival and lover Carissa? Ninth-circle, with Sevar finding her own way of it? Who the fuck knows?"
"That's all just what he wants us to think."
The thought occurs to Aspexia that perhaps Keltham tried his clever idea, spending increasing amounts of money on casting from more powerful scrolls, but by the time he was done he was, say, only second-circle and starting to go permanently insane despite his alien disciplines; so he slaughtered the horror and went on his way.
It even matches Aspexia's understanding of tropes - it would be humorous (she does understand humor, especially cruel humor) if Keltham went to all that work, maybe did himself some permanent damage, in order to gain one caster-circle he could as well have gained from harder longer study. And a fine joke if Abrogail then became unduly terrified of him too.
Aspexia doesn't say it out loud; it's a hopeful thought, so it must be kept from anyone who might be a viewpoint character.
Or on the other side of things - also an overly hopeful thought - maybe Abrogail remains unassassinated because Keltham has already gained greater interests than Cheliax; maybe greater than all Creation, if the tropes operate on scales larger than that.
Maybe the story's ending, from Golarion's perspective, is that Keltham simply pursues his own inscrutable purposes from now on, in a way that leaves world politics untouched? It would be a beautiful blow to Abrogail's mighty pride, if Keltham's pride deemed her beneath its own notice. Maybe he has reached the ninth-circle indeed, now, and the report was accidental from his perspective, and none of it is about Abrogail in the slightest because she isn't that important.
To Aspexia, at least, it seems like this would be a nicely dramatically resonant 'ending' to the story, which really does give her some substantial hope for it being true. If Keltham is in some sense smarter than just INT 29 implies, he may be so intelligent as to be, in an odd way, harmless to Asmodeus's plans for Golarion, having outgrown the mortal concerns that once led him to meddle.
"Is there anything you believe we ought to be doing about it, if you're right?" Aspexia says aloud.
"If he's now fifth-circle? It makes no difference I can understand. I can't see the plot which depends on Keltham being fifth-circle in his own right rather than using scrolls or hirelings. If he's gone over to the upper end of ninth-circle magic, and can cast Wishes in his own right from an unlimited supply of diamonds? Then our planned assault on Osirion, which approaches by the day, is doomed even if Keltham would not destroy all Cheliax to halt it."
"It's a hopeful thought and so I wouldn't usually speak it to you, but you can't have missed that Keltham might have arranged that play intending you would conclude that -"
"Fool. Keltham would know that, did I find myself deciding to stay my invasion for reasons traceable to information Keltham might have chosen to give me, I'd question if that decision might have been intended; and not actually stay my hand from Osirion, without first, for example, asking Keltham to demonstrate his ninth-circle power. If he was actually ninth-circle and wanted me to not invade, he could do it that way directly; only hinting at it implies his actual weakness."
"Therefore he is not doing it for hopes that I'll refrain from invasion, for if I found myself refraining from invasion on that account, I'd thereby know he'd planted the information to that end; and so, since I will not refrain from invasion, I go back to wondering if he is in fact ninth-circle, or if he planned my receipt of the information and it is meant to accomplish something else."
"You lack talent at using Cunning, Rugatonn, for all that your headgear grants you a little more than you were born with."
"My Wisdom whispers to me that such intricate reasoning seems risky. I sometimes reason as if gods can predict our choices, since often they can; but when I reason so, I reason in fewer steps."
"It would not be reliable thinking if we were trying to ravel anyone else but Keltham or perhaps now also Sevar. They might miss some step of that reasoning that I have reasoned they would use. But Keltham has grown up in an entire society that makes legend and custom of games like these; he will not miss any step of the reasoning, and therefore my reasoning over his reasoning is reliable. And he knows that I will not miss it, for he taught that subject explicitly and he knows I have read his transcripts. There is no consistent story where Keltham tries to scare me off from invasion, for he knows that, in the moment of my deciding not to invade, I would thereby know that had been the purpose of his bluff. So whatever is going on, it is not that."
"Perhaps he's doing it to drive you mad with worry and make you less useful to Cheliax, since that seems to be the result being achieved." Or maybe Keltham is tormenting Abrogail for his own sadistic amusement, in preparation for returning to claim her as vengeance-bride and torture-doll; he's intelligent enough by now to have thrown off the chains that dath ilan lays upon its peasantry. But this yet again is a hopeful thought and should not be spoken aloud before Abrogail.
"That presumes there's something I would figure out, of danger to him, if I'm not given other things to worry about."
"Isn't that a hopeful thought?"
"Not for these purposes, no. It sets up a mystery whose answer the audience hasn't heard yet."
"- this situation is not tenable, Rugatonn. You may be wise, but you are not smart enough, to ravel these puzzles in my place."
"And you're not smart enough either, and less Wise than I. We will keep the command structure as it is."
"It is ultimately my decision."
"So it is; and I've just informed you of which decision is the correct one."
Abrogail doesn't give her the satisfaction of snarling. "This is madness. Cheliax cannot possibly win like this, with its greatest mind cowering inside a prison cell with imaginary bars. Better that I should take all the knowledge and decisions back into my own hands, and trust that the tropes will reward a real fight more than these pathetic attempts to manipulate them."
"You tried your hand at tropery, calling on them to witness your tryst with Sevar; and that went miserably, to all our costs. You were given your one chance at this way of thinking, and you failed it."