"The only thing necessary [...] is for good men to do nothing."
-- Edmund Burke Abridged
"And you are succeeding?"
So far as Aspexia knows, Cheliax has had no further disasters brought on by hubris, which is really a lot of what Wisdom buys you in life, she feels.
"That's a foolish question to ask out loud. What do you expect the tropes to do to me, if I go and answer yes?"
"I am beginning to fear that you are too ignorant to recognize whatever stupid disasters you are blundering into, that I am not being told about! You heard the report of the Whisperwood Incident and didn't recognize Keltham's hand, or his purpose, or his person! You haven't figured out that it was Sevar and not Pineda who slew Zhanagorr and claimed Wanshou for Hell!"
(Well, that answers that, at least.)
It hasn't been lost on the Most High that Abrogail's been put to unusual-to-her travail this last month, not free to pursue her usual plans and plots and whims; forced instead to wait on a child growing in her belly and Keltham's possible destruction of Cheliax, while Carissa Sevar's doings and Aspexia's own paltry plottings are kept from her.
Aspexia is, for a fact, starting to worry that the Queen may be going mad of it, being permitted little or no important action.
As the Grand High Priestess of Asmodeus, it falls to her to deliver solace in such situations.
"Is this truly all it takes to drive you unstable?" Aspexia says acerbically, letting some of her real contempt creep into her voice. "One month, living as a literal queen in fine palace, only you have to contend with a few unfamiliar uncertainties and aren't allowed to meddle as you feel like it?"
"Don't fucking patronize me, Aspexia. I'm not a child in need of some motherly cruelty. The aspect of this situation that is giving me difficulty isn't the lack of action, it's trying to play the game against fucking Keltham, who I suspect of falling barely short of a Dark Tapestry horror himself in terms of his effects on others' sanity. Sevar's doings at least make sense. This report of Keltham - is it a record of a true event that reached us accidentally, or sped along only by tropes? Is it a report that Keltham permitted and intended to reach us? I can't analyze the plot just by comprehending its obvious effect if I believed it, because Keltham hails from a world of over-intelligent madlings where my imagination of that intended effect would just be the first layer of his own intended plot. Calculate the consequences of that? He expects me to do that too! And I can't guess how many layers deep he'll think I'll go! He's from a world that plunges their children into false realities to toughen them!"
"There must be, there must be some Law to govern it, but Sevar is lost, Asmodia is lost, Avaricia and Meritxell and Shilira are not trope-touched and haven't the skill, Tallandria has twisted herself into a knot that's fucking useless for any plots more diabolical than diamond chemistry, Gorthoklek won't give me any useful answers unless I ask exactly the right question, and you are fucking useless because for all your vaunted dealings with divinities you seem to have no concept of what it means to fight someone, fight something, that -"
The math that Abrogail Thrune lacks is not actually all that complicated; it's just the notion of a mixed strategy in an adversarial equilibrium.
Once you've fixed a probability distribution over your adversary's probabilistic models of you, there's some mixed strategy that brings maximum expected dismay to all the probable people your adversary might be, given (your beliefs about) how they're unsure of what the reality is, and unsure of how many layers deep you might go, correctly modeling that you'd randomize in choosing layer depth in order to make the problem as hard as possible for (their beliefs about your beliefs about) their intelligence to solve. Just answering "one level higher than you" only works if you can predict them perfectly, and also they can't predict themselves.
Once you phrase it that way, it's obvious that any deterministic rule would make things too easy for the adversary, if they correctly guessed that you'd reason that determined way. And conversely, once you realize there mustn't be a deterministic rule for determining the number of layers in a deception, the notion of a mixed strategy follows quickly.
Really, when you put it that way, it makes you wonder why Abrogail Thrune herself did not work it out. She is not less Cunning, as measured by Detect Thoughts and raw Intelligence, than those mathematicians who first worked out the notion of randomized fixpoint strategies of adversarial games, somewhere in dath ilan's buried history. So why didn't Abrogail Thrune solve it herself?
Let's take this moment in time to talk (as one often does) about the notion of conflict between entities of asymmetrical intelligence.
Such conflicts are a surpassing theme of dath ilani literature, usually with the smarter entity starting out with the worse position in resources, and having to overcome that through wit that the other side failed to anticipate.
And because there are buried warnings in that same literature, it's emphasized also that the conflicts between humans of shared culture are only a small special case; what matters more than disparities in time-local thinkoomph are disparities in cumulated thinkoomph.
When you get into a contest of intelligence with one of your contemporaries, it's really two tips of one iceberg that are fighting each other: you and they are each the inheritor of a roughly equally vast body of ancestral thought and literature, and then they did a little bit more thinking of their own on top of that. Even if you're exploring some entirely new territory to your shared culture, you'll be coming in with similar concepts of math, science, how broadly and basically to think. (At least, that's how it is in dath ilan where people wouldn't just not learn probability theory, or the litanies of known heuristics and their exploits; there, most people do start out with a common broad base of basic knowledge. Dath ilan, in the course of making sure that everyone gets all the boosts they can, does tend to eliminate that source of variance in advantage.)
Abrogail Thrune wearing the Crown of Infernal Majesty is decently smart as an individual. She didn't invent the notion of mixed-strategy equilibria in layered reflective deceptions from scratch, or solve for that equilibrium, because it's surprisingly hard to invent that sort of thing if you have literally zero hints; literally surprising in the sense that people would be surprised by it. (Most dath ilani would be shocked out of their heavily technologized shoes to learn how late in their history probability theory was invented, far after the dawn of agriculture, and even after the dawn of gambling as turned out to have motivated the question.)
Nex and Geb had each INT 30 by the end of their mutual war. They didn't solve the puzzle of Azlant's IOUN stones... partially because they did not find and prioritize enough diamonds to also gain Wisdom 27. And partially because there is more to thinkoomph than Intelligence and Wisdom and Splendour, such as Golarion's spells readily do enhance; there is a spark to inventing notions like probability theory or computation or logical decision theory from scratch, that is not directly measured by Detect Thoughts nor by tests of legible ability at using existing math. (Keltham has slightly above-average intelligence for dath ilan, reflectivity well below average, and an ordinary amount of that spark.)
But most of all, Nex and Geb didn't solve IOUN stones because they didn't come from a culture that had already developed digital computation and analog signal processing. Or on an even deeper level - because those concepts can't really be that hard at INT 30, even if your WIS is much lower and you are missing some sparks - they didn't come from a culture which said that inventing things like that is what the Very Smart People are supposed to do with their lives, nor that Very Smart People are supposed to recheck what their society told them were the most important problems to solve.
Nex and Geb came from a culture which said that incredibly smart wizards were supposed to become all-powerful and conquer their rivals; and invent new signature spells that would be named after them forever after; and build mighty wizard-towers, and raise armies, and stabilize impressively large demiplanes; and fight minor gods, and surpass them; and not, particularly, question society's priorities for wizards. Nobody ever told Nex or Geb that it was their responsibility to be smarter than the society they grew up in, or use their intelligence better than common wisdom said to use it. They were not prompted to look in the direction of analog signal processing; and, more importantly in the end, were not prompted to meta-look around for better directions to look, or taught any eld-honed art of meta-looking.
So Nex and Geb weren't really, in the end, that much smarter than their societies; not least, because that society and its cumulated thinkoomph didn't tell them to try to be any smarter than their society.
The real cautionary warnings in dath ilani literature, then, are woven into stories of meetings between humans and aliens, not conflicts between one human and another. Aliens with a culture a thousand times as old. Aliens from a chronologically younger species but that think faster. The real disparities in cumulated thinkoomph would appear in meetings like that.
You can imagine (and dath ilani authors have) an individual alien so smart that it doesn't need to learn about standard openings and ploys in Go (a game that exists in many places), it doesn't need to come from a culture that plays Go, it can just play out possible games in its head for a few hours and be superior to every human player at the end.
You can tell stories about how, if you yourself have higher thinkoomph individually than your opponent, but your opponent comes from a society of greater cognitive depth, you could perhaps try to move your conflict to some new territory that your enemy's society knows not; and beat them on conflict-grounds of fluid intelligence, having moved out of crystallized known facts.
Conversely (the stories go in dath ilan), if you are facing a terrifyingly smart opponent who is but for the moment more ignorant than you, you had better be ready to try to fight them on grounds that you know better, and defeat them very quickly before they can learn from experience much faster than you would learn from it.
There can be stories about how one side has greater depth of cumulated thinkoomph, and fluid thinkoomph not inferior to yours - minds of the same level but with better technology including mental technology - but the side with better technology is outnumbered and ill-resourced.
There can be stories about fighting aliens that have greater cumulated thinkoomph and greater resources and equal fluid thinkoomph, and your one advantage is surprise; you have time to prepare with your lesser resources, and you can choose your battleground, but you must make all your moves without alerting them, and once you strike you must win very quickly.
As for a story where the opposition has greater fluid thinkoomph and a far greater depth of cumulated deep-thinkoomph and has had time to acquire roughly equal resources and holds the advantage of surprise - well, what would be the literary point?
It wouldn't even make a good sad story about a desperate doomed battle. If the truly smarter agency has had time to think and prepare and plan, it's not going to battle you at all. It's not going to attack you through any channel you've thought of, unless your knowledge of that vulnerability still leaves you helpless to defend it. The smarter agency is not interested in fighting you if that can be avoided. It would rather just win, in a way that doesn't make a good story.
If you get a chance to fight - if you get a chance to act - the alien is doing it wrong. There does come a point of wisdom beyond which an agent does stop doing it wrong; or at least, stops doing it wrong in ways that sufficiently smaller agents can understand in advance as wrong. If there's extrauniversal forces that want things to be dramatic (dath ilani authors, for example), they'll have to content themselves with picking a dramatically suitable moment for the instant win to occur, or maybe focus on the aftermath (if there is one) - at least if they want their stories to be taken seriously by the Very Serious literary critics.
And if you had to derive a single cautionary message from all that dath ilani literature, about what-if you end up in the position of opposing an agency of greater current and cumulative thinkoomph - and you do not have the advantage of surprise - and you do not have greater resources - that message would be -
A short time ago, Abrogail Thrune was observed in the presence of Aspexia Rugatonn.
At some distance from the Imperial Palace, a hovering rocket ignites, very quickly accelerating towards nearly the speed of sound. It's harder to keep a projectile stable over the speed of sound; and by the time it nears the Imperial Palace, it will already be moving faster than the reflexes of anything that could stop it.
"- is -"
No mortal hand could guide the rocket precisely enough, to the point where it's now been targeted, given the turbulence of the rocket's wake and the way that tiny errors would amplify. So the fine steering is being done by an analog magical processor inspired by the navigators on Azlanti IOUN stones, as hinted at by a more cumulated civilization's concept of a "guided missile".
The rocket approaches the wall of force guarding the palace, and a Disintegrate already in the process of going off completes at just the right time and destroys the wall of force.
"- smarter -"
The rocket crashes through a window at nearly the speed of sound; at nearly the same instant, a Dispel completes on a half-ton of low-quality high explosive previously under the effect of a Shrink Item spell; at nearly the same instant, that explosive detonates even as it expands back to normal size.
This explosion has been targeted to launch the Crown of Infernal Majesty out of the Imperial Palace into the air over Egorian. Not on an exact precalculated trajectory, you can't do that with explosions at this magitech level; but the vector between the Crown and the center of detonation has rendered it predictably the case that the Crown will get launched in a known rough direction. A certain person has just Teleported into Egorian to watch from that direction, ready to spot the magical signature of the fast-moving major artifact and move to grab it after.
Abrogail Thrune and Aspexia Rugatonn have impressive resistances and saves and protective magic items, none of which mattered any more than the Palace's security precautions mattered. A half-ton of explosive going off in the same room isn't a combat attack, it's just you being dead.
It's not her first time dying, not her first time waking in Hell in company of the devil who holds her soul as custodian for Asmodeus. But along with everything else it means that the Crown of Infernal Majesty has been abruptly removed from her; it's that, more than the shock of being dead, that she struggles to recover from, in that moment of surprise.
(And because of that, she doesn't think, fast enough, to think all of the things that she could have thought -)
Those devils that deal at all with mortals in their tedious unpolished form are not held in particularly high regard among devils; mortals are, after all, paving stones in expectation and mostly in practice, and those torments and betrayals that can be visited on stronger and more interesting beings are more sophisticated, more impressive, all-around better, than those routine, boring, and limited torments that can be attempted on the recently-dead without destroying any hope of further use from them.
There is another reason why such devils are held in less regard, and it's that they have to pretend the mortals are interesting and important and impressive, at least a little bit, to lure those mortals into signing their souls away, to give those mortals a tiny fragment of a line with which to trick themselves into believing they matter. They can call the mortals worthless worms, of course, but they have to do it in a tone that concedes that this great devil is here, after all, treating with them. Mortals love that.
Abrogail Thrune II is generally to get a warm welcome, on arriving in Hell, because her presence is likely temporary, and her loyalties need to be permanent. Abrogail Thrune II is certainly smart enough to know that the greeting she gets on arriving to Hell, with hope of resurrection, is nothing like the greeting she'll get when she falls to them forever. But still, she's a mortal, and like most of them she thinks she matters, and feeding that little delusion of hers is critical to not losing her entirely.
So the senior contract devil in possession of Abrogail Thrune's soul pauses in his conversation when Abrogail Thrune arrives, much as it galls him, and turns from the beings that actually matter to the disoriented shell of this mortal, and says, "well, well... I take it this one wasn't on your schedule?"
He's reading her mind, of course, in case she has the expectation she won't be resurrected and he can drop the farce, or in case she's in a mood where he can light her on fire and then claim later it was for her own good really.
Her sorcery is not about her, a gaping hole in place of what is, at eighth circle, more a part of herself than her own hands -
- schedule. Devil talking to her. She's dead. Being dead... wasn't on her schedule? That doesn't sound right. Aspexia was just worried that she hadn't been assassinated -
Keltham killed her.
She doesn't even know how. Didn't feel it. She was in her own palace.
Clever boy, thinks the part of herself that, without a whole coherent mind in control of it, thinks such things, remembered condescension mixing with a touch of actual admiration.
But does that count as it being on her schedule?
"It's complicated," her mouth says regally.
"Tedious mortal complicated, or is there something in your latest complications of interest to Hell? - actually, think of that but don't speak."
Someone's attempting to scry them. It is trivial enough for a devil to shut down a scry on his own person or his own slave, but not obvious he'd care to; perhaps these are Abrogail's allies, and serve Hell, and if not, well - Abrogail's enemies can see her in Hell, if they like, and if they look again next week and she hasn't been resurrected, what they see will be a great deal more fun.
Interest to - Hell? Her life has been so enormously complicated that she doesn't know where to start (isn't prioritizing in this scrambled state), with 6 INT missing from herself all the endless complications feel like a ruined tower collapsing down into a heap of stones. Her mind goes to the most-recent complications, possible layers of what Keltham could be trying to trick her into believing, about whether he leveled from his fight with a thing from the Dark Tapestry, about diamonds and the City of Brass (no, Hell already knows about that, Hell was first to inform Cheliax), she's not supposed to think about hopeful plans because then they can't come to pass the way she hoped them, only that - somehow seems much stupider, in her own stupid state, Aspexia can't be right about that, she suddenly feels -