Unlike most of my lore articles, I won’t be doing this one completely in scholar-voice. I’d like to talk about the Principle of Imbuement as a worldbuilding element on a writer’s level, as well as in terms of my worlds. It’s a finicky idea and bears some clearer verbiage than my normal, and this is a post about the power and connection of ideas–it’s the closest I’ll ever got to a license for meta-references. And kids, you’d best believe I’ll abuse that license ’til the final scrawl.
But hey, this means I can actually credit my inspirations directly within the article! Let’s hit the biggest one first.
The Principle of Imbuement was originally inspired by the Ork’s belief-based… well… everything from Warhammer 40K. I don’t know whether 40K’s writers in turn got the idea from somewhere else, but I got it from them. The Principle of Imbuement, however, is both broader and less immediately powerful. It doesn’t make things work that shouldn’t be able to (usually), but it makes the things that do work more effective, and sometimes makes things practical as much for their wow-factor as their objective usefulness. And unlike the Ork’s Orkiness (Orkyness? Orkstuf? There’s probably a lore term for this that I didn’t go quite deep enough to find), the Principle of Imbuement is for everybody.
Though not deliberately written to do so, the Principle of Imbuement can and frequently does function as an in-universe Rule of Cool. You may be wondering how that actually works. Well, let’s come back to the way magic works in The Twin Spirals Universe. Since I’m not sure I’ve ever mentioned it before, that’s the overall universe in which all of my speculative fiction writing both present and future is set.
I realized some time ago that if I was going to go with the whole “interconnected universe” thing, I should probably establish that up front so I can start weaving things together from Day One.
Anyhow: magic in The Twin Spirals isn’t so much a set of rules and guidelines in itself as it is a raw component of existence. It’s almost like the energy equivalent of dark matter: it permeates the physical world and seemingly affects it, yet doesn’t normally follow the same rules. This is one of many moments I’ll be glad I’m writing this frankly–the only Twin Spirals world in play right now is Canno, and its peoples are just exiting a Dark Age. They’re missing a lot of Earth scientific concepts that I badly need to explain all this.
Magic, colloquially referred to as “current” since many (but hardly all!) mages perceive it as water-like, responds automatically to sapient thought. Mages are not the only people who use magic–they’re the ones who clearly wield it. It’s the difference between repeatedly putting the idea of doing something in a person’s mind and physically seizing control of the person’s body to make them carry out your will.
I mean, aside from the fact that magic isn’t sapient. I should probably be very clear about the fact that it’s pure energy. My mages are not de facto slavemasters or something similarly horrifying.
But that difference–the difference between suggesting an effect until it happens versus carrying it out yourself–is the difference between the Principle of Imbuement and traditional spellcraft.
The Principle of Imbuement won’t let you reheat a damaged sword blade and wind its fragmented steel-fibers back together as perfectly as if it were reforged anew–but it does mean the swordsmith working with quiet reverence or desperate fervor or raw grit, determined that this blade will surpass the last even as his skill has surpassed what he thought was skill a year ago, might forge a markedly stronger, harder, sharper one than the disengaged master at the other anvil.
Of course, if that master is just as passionate, then his work will be a gleaming monument to geometric and swordsmithing perfection before which the driven journeyman can only weep in awe! Imbuement–at least, most of the time–can’t completely ignore reality. It’s always at its strongest, like any other form of magic, when it reinforces what’s already there.
Adding impurities to this thought-billet, Imbuement doesn’t just work on your ideas about yourself or the world around you; it works on other people’s ideas of those exact same things. Like any other force, magic is most effective on the things closest to it–there’s a reason most mages favor spells which start from their own bodies, even though other spells can be cast–so long-range Imbuement has limits, but the long and short is that nobody in the Twin Spirals has quite as much free-will as they think they do.
I should clarify: it’s not that there’s no agency in The Twin Spirals Universe, and in the vast majority of cases it’s still the individual person’s nature that wins out. But I can’t tell you in all honesty that their decisions aren’t influenced, their emotions damped or inflamed, by the images of them which exist in the minds of others. One final X-factor: Imbuement doesn’t act on what you want. It acts on the ideas which leap highest above the seas of your subconscious. Your fears and hopes, your skills or ineptitudes–these things have no inherent effect. It all comes down to which ones you give the most energy to.
Imbuement can also be thought of as magical thinking that actually works, and if your first reaction is that this could create a huge array of problems: friend, you’re not wrong.
Theoretically, if enough people on Canno managed to convince themselves that magic didn’t exist, all trace of it would disappear from the world. The current would still be there, out of reach–magic is an infinite force and their disbelief in it is not, so they simply can’t generate enough power to remove it from the equation wholesale.
Imbuement is strong enough, though, that over time it can bring certain ideas to fruition. The rules behind this still aren’t understood on Canno, but fortunately yours truly is being open right now and I can just skip centuries of meticulous research to give you the answer.
If you’re concerned this might be spoilers for something you might read in the actual books, here’s another spoiler: it’s not. With the way I’ve written Canno, not everything gets to happen where the main characters can see or be part of it. I personally prefer it this way; it feels more like a world of living beings with agency, and less like a stage set up to yell at you about how great my OCs are.
Besides, they’re pretty cool. They can handle a little competition, I should hope!
As I wrote above, the Principle of Imbuement hefts the most reality-warpage when it doubles down on energies and matter that already exist in a given world. Ideas in themselves are more like energy than physical things, and while they can’t easily change the physical world, the strongest ideas can turn a spirit in a heartbeat–or, for that matter, create one.
With a few exceptions for entities like Sayrsenna–nature-spirits which have voluntarily adapted from pure natural forces to providers of sanctuary as life on Canno changes–most of Canno’s spirits were created by the superstitions of its native peoples. As certain themes became paramount among this culture or that in the murk of Cannoan prehistory and more and more stories featured the same kinds of entities, they eventually reached a critical mass strong enough to become sapient beings in their own right.
One particular group of these spirits became universal.
Just about every culture on Canno, just as on Earth, developed some idea of entities which live in a sort of hell or spirit world–creatures which prey on, bargain with and manipulate mortals for their own ends, sometimes helpful but never trustworthy, or in a word: demons. Demons are the single strongest example of Imbuement on (or more accurately, around) Canno. They acquire power directly from the emotional intensity and beliefs of mortal sapients. Over time this evolved (or devolved) into a nearly-capitalist system of summonings, favors and deals.
Aside: I’m hardly the first writer to compare demons to CEOs and investment bankers. However, I’m one of the few to implement an infamous corporate principle into the proceedings: the customer is always right. That’s more to do with demons and less the Principle of Imbuement, however, so we’ll come to it in its own lore article later.
Of course, the clashing beliefs about exactly what a demon is and how it interacts with humans have reflected in the creatures themselves. The end result is that while they feed upon Imbuement, demons are governed by it only a little more than the mortals who created them.
Another aside: the idea that the Principle of Imbuement should give rise to Cannoan demons basically came from the Spren in Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere. I thought it was a really cool idea that human concepts and emotions could give shape to or attract these entities, and it was a shame that this core idea had (and as of now, still has) mostly gone towards extra sentences of detail here and there. I can’t really count Sylphrena and most of the other “main character” Spren because they’re not what the Spren were originally depicted as. My feelings on The Stormlight Archive have shifted from warm fuzzies to total uncertainty since Oathbringer, so best we move on.
On the flip side, Sanderson’s use of “Investiture” did lead me to change this Principle’s name when I found out about it; unless I’m directly appropriating an idea from the fantasy genre’s bank, I prefer doing this to avoid confusion. Of course Investiture seems to refer to, effectively, magic itself, where the Principle of Investment is just one of a mess of interactions between magic and other natural elements, but I felt it was just barely close enough there might be confusion. Besides, “The Principle of Investment” was a little lifeless from the beginning. And “imbue” already connotes magic and the putting of said magic into things, so this is one time I’m glad I had to work around an established writer’s name-nabbing.
Acknowledgments aside, let’s get back to Imbuement’s deeper effects in The Twin Spirals.
First off, even directed magic still has to obey physical law. You could, for example (if you were a ludicrously powerful mage), create an explosion the size of a city that destroys only one building, but you would need either to ward every other building, cobblestone, and misplaced straw-doll against the blast, or (even more extravagantly) create an equally-powerful containment spell which could condense this magi-nuke into a neat little bubble around the sad subject of this architectural overkill.
For obvious reasons, most mages would just knock out the foundations. If they could be persuaded to do low-grade grunt work which might easily be matched by any farmhand with a sledge and a jilted heart, that is.
We’ll eventually get into exactly why they would be well-advised not to do this, but first: even an entity which feeds off of a certain idea’s Imbuement can’t be shielded from the idea’s nature. We don’t get any tomfoolery a la DC’s Mars/Ares/War/Whatever They’re Calling Him Now, where beating up a demon whose sphere is violence would only make it stronger: the nature of violence is that it destroys things. Such a demon would, then, violate the nature of its own Sphere, and ultimately weaken far faster than a demon which simply reveled in the rip and tear.
Yes, that was a Doom 2016 reference. Considering the context of that passage, can you really fault me for making it?
To be more accurate, such a demon couldn’t exist to begin with: it would be a paradox. On the other hand few spirits are completely mindless or dominated by a single idea; if the idea of the spirit isn’t separated from the idea itself, how would any power go towards creating the spirit? The exceptions are those dedicated to broad enough ideas (or with a broad enough web of associations) that they can glean the traits of a complete identity from those ideas, and the souls of originally material sapient beings, now dead, who persist in pursuit of those single ideas without existing only through them.
No idea truly exists in a vacuum, so even an entity which is dedicated mainly to one idea still has to embrace others by proxy. For that matter, new entities cannot be created by Imbuement which is directed towards discrete, existing entities instead of “pure” ideas. Actually, in most cases, people have to obsess over the idea of a spirit in order to create one at all. When people on Canno think about things that already exist, those things become the recipients of that power. An armorer won’t attract little floating ghost-helmets when thinking about how wondrous this sallet helm shall be; as previously stated, he just makes a better helm.
Which also means, no, there will not be a bunch of tiny ethereal fire-spirits that themselves resemble fires around a large, physically-present fire. Again, I appreciate the underlying notion of the Spren, but let’s be frank: having a hundred different variations on *concept*spren grows a tad silly. Besides, they’re just disrupting the silhouette and colors of the core flame, thus weakening the idea of the fire as this amorphous searing whole and, by extension, undermining their own existence.
Would you look at that? You expected idle nitpicking, but it was (me, Dio!) a clever tie-in to our true topic!
Come on, you love it. Search your feelings, you know dead memes are the best memes.
Imbuement has a huge psychological implication many of you have probably picked up on by now: if you know about Imbuement, you have a vested interest in acting a particular way so that the idea of you becomes stronger in others’ minds, thus making you stronger. Unless that particular way is that you have no pattern of activity, of course. And while this may seem fun at first, being locked into an Agent of Chaos trope is going to get really, really tiring the moment you need to do something “normal” like buying an ale or walking somewhere without bouncing and whooping brainlessly.
Remember, you’re not deriving power from the actual metaphysical concept of chaos: you’re drawing it from the energy people have invested into their idea of chaos. Even though true chaos would allow for normalcy by definition–total disorder is an order in itself, psychologically speaking–that’s not what the vast majority of people think of as chaos.
So, what does this mean? First off, behavior that might not be viable or worth the risk normally has a genuine payoff. You can do the thing… or you can do the thing in the coolest way possible. Suddenly, risky behavior might actually be worth it, and Morkui Bano’s extreme execution of the vampire in Dark Helm and Wing’d Spear becomes a calculated move to strengthen the onlookers’ innate awe of Inquisitors. After all, that awe increases the Vigil’s power!
Why build your stronghold to such absurd size? None of your rivals have enough power to threaten the smaller ones you’ve already got. Why, because people will think this huge dour monstrosity is cool! Why twirl your sword before returning it to the scabbard after you cut down the last bandit? Because it’s cool! Why ride that shark to shore instead of just taking a nice, dry rowboat? BECAUSE RIDING THE SHARK IS COOL, AND SO IS JUMPING IT.
If you’ve not guessed by now, the Principle of Imbuement has as many hazards for an author as it does for the characters themselves! The temptation here is to justify all kinds of alarmingly stupid (but cool!) feats; fortunately, I’ve already established I can’t do that. Remember, the Principle of Imbuement is limited by two things: range, and the emotional power of a given idea. If someone isn’t thinking about something, they’re not imbuing it. And there’s no way enough people can cram into a small enough space to fix, say, a final battle with Imbuement alone.
So while, in theory, the young Black Havener farmhand might be able to pitchfork the vampire enough times to drain all her blood and kill her, let’s be frank: his younger siblings can’t possibly direct enough Imbuement that she won’t punt him into that tree in the blink of an eye.
While this is bad for them, it’s better for the world as a whole. You have to have realized by now that Imbuement’s greatest danger as a worldbuilding element is its ability to create self-fulfilling prophecies. If enough people believe that someone is a villain, that person will start acting accordingly without even realizing it. Could they use their raw will to overcome that influence? Probably, though those odds worsen the more people believe they’re the worst thing since Carl in “Llamas With Hats.”
But in practice, that unfortunate soul (I’m sorry, I’ll cut back on the references now) would need to want to overcome the influence first, and by its nature Imbuement will make them less likely to think of that. This is the most insidious part of the Principle: these little nudges here and there.
How much power does it really take to shift chemicals around in the human brain? By definition, the same amount invested in our own fleeting thoughts! Even if we look at it in terms of souls rather than tawdry flesh and fluids, so many of us struggle so hard to reach the best versions of ourselves as-is. If a thousand tiny jolts bent us slowly down the wrong path, would we ever realize our thoughts weren’t wholly our own? To a large extent, belief in free will and the power of the spirit undermine this Imbuement–but not enough. Not if enough people feel enough hatred.
To a large extent, Imbuement’s meanest effects are the subtlest. Coming back to the mage demolition crew earlier: if you accept this job as a mage, Imbuement pushes you to portray it as an act of whimsical abandon, charity, or pure condescension. This is a banal task for boring non-mage people, so you have to portray yourself in some way that clarifies you know this is beneath you, but you’ve chosen to leverage your cosmic power for some personal reason. Whatever it is, it needs to reinforce in the eyes of the world why you, a powerful mage, would lower yourself this way.
Otherwise, you’ll notice your spells weaken a small but perceptible amount, and experience sudden doubt as to your own merits as a mage. Why? Because you took this weird one-off demolition job instead of doing conventionally magey things. The good news is that on this micro scale, Imbuement is a relatively small effect with finite implications; you’ll only take that power hit as long as people remember what you did. Soon enough something will distract them, and that should take care of that.
Right now, Canno’s people don’t commonly know about or accept the Principle of Imbuement; it’s one of countless once-common arcane facts lost during the Loar War. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond when it’s ultimately rediscovered, won’t it? It has to have all sorts of cultural, social, and moral implications.
I rather like that idea.
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