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The astral realm is the place where magic in our world originates from. Priests of the Aztec empire can access that magical power for their own purposes through the use of spells and rituals. The amount of power they wield depends partly on their own abilities, but also on the amount of magic within the vicinity. In most locations, the level of mana is fairly limited, but there are certain areas in which the mana content is dramatically higher. Places of power are sites in which the veil between the mortal and astral realms are weakest, allowing for the most powerful magic to be performed. For centuries, users have gathered here to perform various rituals at certain times of the year. The power of a spell can increase tenfold in these areas, increasing its effectiveness and likelihood of success. However, the mana from the environment is not infinite, and does not replenish by itself after being used. This risks draining all the mana from this hotspot, rendering it a dead-zone where no magic can be conducted.

Priests of the empire subscribe to the law of equivalent exchange: In order to gain something of value, something of equal value must be lost. This rule transfers into reality regarding how they practice magic. Whenever a spell is performed, the mana used in that spell has to be manually replenished in order to preserve the place of power's resources for future use. They do this through ritual human sacrifice, in which the heart of the intended victim is carved out with a specially made dagger and destroyed. This releases the human soul contained within the heart and unravels it, releasing the mana within. The freed mana replenishes the mana that was just lost in the previous spell but deprives the victim of an afterlife. This method has worked for centuries, allowing the Aztecs to remain in power. However, the amount of mana being replenished after a human sacrifice has decreased, and continues to fall in the preceding years. This has led to a deficit in mana content within these places of power, forcing priests to sacrifice more victims after a ritual has been completed. The numbers of sacrifices that originally started with one increased to five, and has steadily increased as the years go by. The Aztecs have had to deplete more human resources at a faster rate just to maintain the same level of magical power they once enjoyed for cheap.

How can the law of equivalent exchange that has worked so well for decades not be returning the value it once did?

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    $\begingroup$ "In order to gain something of value, something of equal value must be lost": Isn't this the very fundamental idea of a commercial exchange? If I want a Pentel Graphgear 500 mechanical pencil I must pay 46 Romanian lei, about 9 euros. That is the price. The price is the monetary representation of value. I pay the equivalent of the value in local money. Or have those mysterious priests found a non-monetary quantitative measure of value? If so, then you are wasting time: publish it and go claim your Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. (Continued...) $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 20:32
  • $\begingroup$ ... The point being that there is no such thing as equal universal value. Maybe I value the pencil more than I value 46 Romanian lei, and in this case I will buy it. Maybe I value it less than 46 Romanian lei, and I won't buy it; after all, a Bic Criterium is almost as good, and if I look closely even better, for me at least, and it is priced at only 15 lei. The value of a good or service is what each of us say it is, and what we are actually willing to pay for the good or the service. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 19, 2022 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ Can you explain how the priests are measuring the mana? What is making them believe that one human heart is no longer paying for spells? Do they talk with the gods, or do they have some ritual that shows them when the “mana tank” is full/replenished? This info could give more appropriate answers. $\endgroup$
    – Vogon Poet
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 2:24

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Conservation efforts by the astral powers

Places of power are sites in which the veil between the mortal and astral realms are weakest

The veil is not supposed to be crossed. It was erected for a reason: magic is not supposed to be available on the mortal plane. The veil is not supposed to have weak places, it is supposed to be uniformly strong.

But nothing is perfect, and so it does have these "thin" spots. They went undetected by the lords of the astral plane since the beginning of time, until increasing exploitation by mortals became severe enough to attract attention.

The lords of the astral plane actively intervene to reinforce the weak parts of the veil. These "mana leaks" are unacceptable.

They could go looking for these places, but it turns out that mortals are such myopically rapacious creatures that it's far easier for the lords of the astral plane to sit back and let the mortals highlight these spots for them through aggressive over-exploitation.

The veil was erected by even greater powers at the beginning of time, so it is no trivial thing to reinforce the veil, even for the lords of the astral plane. It takes a long time, and a lot of effort. But they are immortal, and determined to uphold the proper order.

Thus:

Each of our "places of power" is a literal flaw in the cosmic foundation. The return-on-investment at a place of power begins to diminish when the lords of the astral plane begin to repair that flaw, precisely because one of their goals is to stop the improper leakage of mana into the mortal realm.

Presumably, a place of power could remain at "peak efficiency" indefinitely if the mortals who exploit it could muster enough self-control to regulate the mana exchange at that site below the notice of the lords of the astral plane. But, human nature being what it is, it's practically inevitable that each weak place in the veil will be systematically overfished overlogged strip-mined overgrazed overhunted overdrafted abused by mortals and subsequently repaired. Once repair is complete, the place of power becomes just a place.

Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush

-- Garrett Hardin, The Tragedy of the Commons

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  • $\begingroup$ lol: accepted answer + 50 bounty, but only vote is a downvote. C'est la vie! $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 1:12
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Because the value of a sacrifice is equal to the value that the person performing the sacrifice places upon it.

Human souls do not have any intrinsic value. Their value is imposed from outside, by those around the sacrifice. If the sacrifice is valued less by the person performing the sacrifice, then it contributes less to the replenishment of the magical aura.

So, the first sacrifice having as much value and providing as much aura replenishment as a hundred sacrifices in recent times is a reflection of the value the sacrifices have to the priest-magicians. The first sacrifice would have been emotionally hard. With repeated sacrifices, they have become no more emotionally difficult than eating a meal... in fact the value of a sacrifice is probably now equivalent to no more than the time it takes for the person performing the sacrifice to perform the ritual.

So, for a sacrifice to have the same value that it once did, a sacrifice must be a sacrifice, not just another time-consuming performance of a ritual. If a sacrifice was to be performed by a person who truly values the person being sacrificed, as opposed to the sacrifice being just another in a long line of sacrifices, then such a sacrifice would have more value. Were one of these priest-magicians to sacrifice their own beloved child, or were a lay-person to sacrifice one of their own relatives, that would have more value.

However, even here, psychology is working against the priest-magicians. Because human sacrifice has become so common, has become so accepted within their society, the value of even the most valued human soul has been diminished. Even sacrificing the king or the high priest would be worth less than the first person sacrificed.

Probably the only way to regain the value of a sacrifice would be to sacrifice something that one of these priest-magicians values above all else: themselves. Should one of these magicians carve out their own heart and destroy it before they expire, then that would be a truly worthy sacrifice... probably worth more than even the first person sacrificed by another.

The sad thing is that these priest-magicians have made a rod for their own backs with this practise of human sacrifice. At first, it was the quick solution, but as they became indifferent to the loss of human life, sacrifice has become no more valuable to them than their time. They might just as easily take up ritual meditation to replenish the auras. In time, after a human lifetime or two, a human sacrifice might once again be worth what it once was, and could be used as an emergency means of boosting the magical auras when meditation just isn't doing it fast enough.

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Depriving souls of an afterlife is what's causing the diminishing returns.

Souls have to come from somewhere. As more and more people are born over time, more and more souls are needed. In the process of simply living out their afterlives, deceased souls generate the mana that the world uses to create new souls, and all is right with the world.

When you sacrifice people, depriving them of an afterlife, you release their current mana back into the environment -- at the cost of the mana they would have produced in the afterlife.

Of course, most people still die normal deaths, and the souls already in the afterlife aren't going anywhere (probably), so new mana for new souls is still generated. It's just not enough. So newer, modern souls have less mana, leading to diminishing returns.

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  • $\begingroup$ This reminds me of the multiplier effect from economics (I think that's what it's called). Seems like a great fit. Also, lots of existing research that could be mined to flesh out the mechanics. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Feb 24, 2022 at 2:56
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Overuse

The conduit that carries the power has started to break down and not carry the same amount.

There were always losses to friction, they just had no way to measure them. Now they are getting serious.

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All good answers so far, overuse, value per sacrifice going down, the mana content for newer souls going down. But you ignore several factors in all this.

First. Is it absolutely certain that no one else is using to same sites to drain them, in order to weaken the dominant force? A rival tribe sending sacrificial pawns in to weaken their source of power over time? Small gods with an agenda of their own? Perhaps even the god of death and/or the underworld is upset because they are receiving less people, or demands some sacrifices and is creating problems.

Second. Who says these sites are eternal? Perhaps they migrate over time, and there just isn't a natural abundance anymore. That's why costs more, because the 'tide of mana' pulls the reservoir elsewhere, so they're effectively confusing a pool with a river.

Third. Equivalent exchange is good and well. But at what loss in conversion? There is never a perfect 'transference', heedless of medium. Perhaps they were draining the 'pool' before, and are now learning enough about the magic to refill it now, and that's why it seems to be costing more.

Fourth. Maybe they're using more and more of the source, and therefore need to put more and more back. Even if you were to mandate everyone be super careful, that doesn't mean that everyone will be. Some will 'err on the side of caution' and overspend on a ritual, costing more. And 'we have enough sacrifices', so 'it just isn't a problem'. After all, this source has been here 'since my grandfather's time', so what are the odds that it won't be here for my grandchildren's? (human error and human arrogance mingling in the most dangerous way)

Fifth. Maybe the warriors are bringing back more and more, and you can't feed them all. So sacrificing them for the ritual makes sense. But filling the pool to overflowing is having effects they didn't anticipate. And instead of 'explaining that to those who understand such things', they act like they don't know what's wrong. After all, with all the extra mana, those rituals are coming out much more potent than they used to. So no harm done, right?

There are a million different factors to consider.

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The temples are wearing out.

The temples have been around for untold hundreds of years, possibly millennia. During this time, there have been untold thousands of spells and sacrifices performed on them.

Naturally, this results in wear and tear. Externally, it doesn't show; at most, people will remark that some blocks have gotten a bit chipped. After all, stone is tough. However, its effect on the temples' ability to absorb mana is much more marked.

The gradual wearing out of the temples' mana-absorption abilities follows an exponential curve. As such, it only recently became a problem. The priests don't know that a location can lose its ability to absorb mana, so they assume something's wrong with the law of equivalent exchange.

A few minor priests have suggested building new temples in different spots. However, nothing's ever come of it, as building temples is expensive.

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The value of a human life is hard to judge, but they treat those about to be sacrificed as little more than cattle

The law of equivalent exchange is saying that to gain something, something of equal value must be given. Seeing as we probably aren't talking about chemistry with all this magic-talk, I'm going to assume that the value of mana gained from one soul is dependent on how valuable everyone sees that person as being. The first sacrifices would have been monumental. A man is being sacrificed in brutal fashion to release his mana for others to use would have been huge for the first peoples who began conducting these sacrifices. But the value of these lives turned from people with lives and mana and spirits and such into just a tool to increase the mana content in the area. They are seen as lesser beings and as such, are viewed as being worth less than a regular person.

Think about it like this. I'm hungry. I go eat some chicken, because it tastes good and is filling. That chicken gave its life and I barely cared. I viewed that chicken's life as having as much value as a dinner for tonight and a 10-dollar purchase. how valuable was that chicken's life really? Well to me, the one consuming it, 10 bucks. Thats why the new sacrifices are worth less mana. Because the people doing the sacrificing, and the people doing the consuming, see those being consumed as barely worth anything. The increased rate of sacrifices shows me this too. Let's just toss more bodies into the sacrifice temple and faster too, we need more mana after all. It ignores that these are people. It treats them as a resource.

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Competition: Basic supply and demand

An afterlife is eternal, it cannot be given or maintained for free. Mana powers “Heaven/Paradise” and feeds the eternal souls, runs their golden city, and empowers their lives. It is their eternal reward, after all, and the gods manage this reward for them.

When the gods grant a spell, the mana is essentially “borrowed” from the quality of care one or some of the eternal souls are enjoying. It is taken from one soul, with the promise from the gods that it will be returned.

When very few souls were in paradise, providing for them was cheap. One human soul could provide a lot of quality to paradise.

But another tribe has asked for the favor of the gods. This tribe learned the secrets of the priests, and asked the gods to tend to them as well, and the gods granted them access to paradise in exchange for worship.

Two things then happened. More souls were entering paradise, and it was becoming crowded faster than when only one tribe was served. More mana was needed to keep paradise thriving. The cost of mana went up a little, but that wasn’t the biggest problem.

The new tribe honors the afterlife for its contribution to paradise, and they refuse to offer human souls for mana. They do not cast spells, so it doesn’t matter to them. They only ask the gods for access to paradise in exchange for worship.

This means the original tribe is now paying the mana wages for both tribes, and so their spells have become more expensive. It would not be a problem if mana was only used for spells, but a crowding paradise is pulling more mana every year as it fills doubly fast. The souls in paradise do not want to loan out their quality lifestyle like they used to - their eternal existence is now more expensive. They simply need the mana. That is why the “price” has gone up for spells.

The second tribe doesn’t notice this. They don’t borrow mana for spells, so when they fail to make a sacrifice, it doesn’t hurt them.

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Modern children are week and feeble.

In the olden days before all this magic most people had to fight and work hard for themselves. This led to much growth of their soul, and meant they delivered much more magic to rituals.

The easy life made by magic has meant that most people don't fight as hard. The weaker souls they have give off far less mana. Easy times make for weak souls.

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