In one of Lord Dunsany’s stories, a merchant caravan pauses in the desert. They ask a man in rags to join them at the fire, and offer him food and drink. He tells them stories of the luxuries of the city to which they travel: ancient Babbulkund. In time they leave him behind, but because of his ceaseless tramping, the man in rags catches up with them, and they have another evening of stories of Babbulkund.
When they meet the ragged man a third time, he is deeply distressed. He confides in them.
I am the servant of the Lord the God of my people, and I go to do his work on Babbulkund.
She is the most beautiful city in the world; there hath been none like her, even the stars of God go envious of her beauty. She is all white, yet with streaks of pink that pass through her streets and houses like flames in the white mind of a sculptor, like desire in Paradise. She hath been carved of old out of a holy hill, no slaves wrought the City of Marvel, but artists toiling at the work they loved. They took no pattern from the houses of men, but each man wrought what his inner eye had seen and carved in marble the visions of his dream. All over the roof of one of the palace chambers winged lions flit like bats, the size of every one is the size of the lions of God, and the wings are larger than any wing created; they are one above the other more than a man can number, they are all carven out of one block of marble, the chamber itself is hollowed from it, and it is borne aloft upon the carven branches of a grove of clustered tree-ferns wrought by the hand of some jungle mason that loved the tall fern well. Over the River of Myth, which is one with the Waters of Fable, go bridges, fashioned like the wisteria tree and like the drooping laburnum, and a hundred others of wonderful devices, the desire of the souls of masons a long while dead. Oh! very beautiful is white Babbulkund, very beautiful she is, but proud; and the Lord the God of my people hath seen her in her pride, and looking towards her hath seen the prayers of Nehemoth going up to the abomination Annolith and all the people following after Voth. She is very beautiful, Babbulkund; alas that I may not bless her. I could live always on one of her inner terraces looking on the mysterious jungle in her midst and the heavenward faces of the orchids that, clambering from the darkness, behold the sun.
I could love Babbulkund with a great love, yet am I the servant of the Lord the God of my people, and the King hath sinned unto the abomination Annolith, and the people lust exceedingly for Voth. Alas for thee, Babbulkund, alas that I may not even now turn back, for tomorrow I must prophesy against thee and cry out against thee, Babbulkund. But ye travellers that have entreated me hospitably, rise and pass on with your camels, for I can tarry no longer, and I go to do the work on Babbulkund of the Lord the God of my people.
Go now and see the beauty of Babbulkund before I cry out against her, and then flee swiftly northwards.’
The man walks off into the darkness.
The merchants are delayed in their travel and arrive to where Babblukund should be, to find the old man in rags sitting in the empty desert, his tear-stained face obscured by his hands.
The man in rags is, in Ars Magica terms, clearly an angel. He has been sent to an angel. He has been sent to re-enact Soddom and Gammorah on Babbulkund. He loves the city, he may even be its guardian angel, and yet must destroy it. He cannot avoid this task because, like all angels following the moracula, he is unable to fall, and thus unable to disobey.
Knowing that the hour of Babbulkund is not yet come, he finds some worthy mortals and says to them “Go and see Babbulkund.” as a way of preserving, in story, some of the wonders he is about to destroy. Perhaps he hopes they will take away some small stores of the treasures of the city.
God in Mythic Europe might chose to do similar things to any city. He could choose Jerusalem, to stop the incessant fighting in his name, or perhaps a place with a greater reputation for vice, like Paris. If you are willing to rework the start date for your campaign, the fall of Constantinople in 1204 offers many of the same storytelling opportunities. God, being mysterious and plot driven, might choose any city.
The question is not how to save Babbulkund: it is what the characters do when they cannot save everything. It writes large the thought experiment of what possessions you would save if your house were on fire. Some characters will just try to steal everything not nailed down. Others will try to direct the flow of refugees from Babbulkund.
The city is being destroyed because of the worship of a cult. A magus might try to preserve one of its initiates, to allow their magic to be studied, while another might steal the sacred books of their liturgy, because there will be no-one alive to seek revenge.
This sort of scenario shows one of the strengths of Ars Magica as a game of consequences. The characters have enough power to make interesting choices, and when faced with this implacable constraint, they are forced to develop beyond superheroics.
The foe is not simply a monster that can be killed with magical fire. The foe is indecision: a refusal to develop as a distinct character, with specific personal goals.
Thanks to Alex Clarke for his recording, used in the podcast episode for this text.
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