In my setting (which is roughly early-medieval in terms of technology), magic comes from the Life-energy of all living beings. There are several factors that affect how much of this energy each being possesses:

  1. The age of a being. Older creatures have accumulated more 'Life' over their years.
  2. A being's sense of self, i.e. How much it knows it is alive, so to speak. A 20-year-old man has more life-energy than a 100 year old turtle, for instance, simply because the man recognizes that he is an individual living being, while the turtle simply tries hard not to die. Sentience, I suppose.
  3. The emotional state of a being. Someone with more will to live has more 'Life' than a merely apathetic one, while a depressed person may have little to no 'Life' energy at all.

There are three more important things to note about life energy:

  1. Your life energy will slowly replenish itself to your 'Current Maximum' after being used, which is determined by the above factors. As long as you don't completely use up your life energy, you won't die.
  2. You will, however, feel extremely depressed. At the above section, I stated how the emotional state of being determines their Life-Energy. The reverse is also true.
  3. When anything dies, it releases what remains of its life energy out, back 'into the Cycle'.

So, all that magi-babble having been said, some clever clogs magister came up with a method to trap the 'Final Breath' of the dying in little bottles, ready to be used. This was very controversial at first, but the magister managed to escape with his technique and began selling it to less 'ethically oriented' peoples, who eventually 'persuaded' him to part with his techniques and allow them to start producing more. Edit: This was roughly 50-ish earth years ago.

Edit: The amount of Final Breath released by a person would be their current amount of Life Energy possessed upon death.

In short, my question is - what would be the social and economical implications that would arise from bottled life? How would society be affected if death could potentially be a beneficial thing?

Edit: After receiving some answers and useful comments, I decided to clarify a few more things:

  1. 'Drinking' a bottle of life does not grant a permanent increase in magical energy. It merely gives you a temporary boost. Most magi prefer to use it once they feel 'used up', rather than before casting any spells.
  2. A bottle of Life is quite valuable, yet not so valuable as to be 'rare'. Sort of like gold, I suppose. You see it all over the place, and yet somehow its still quite expensive.
  3. Life does increase over time, due to birth. A mother splits off a bit of her life to her child as it resides within her. After she gives birth, she will slowly recover her Life back to her own maximum, while the child now produces his own Life.
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    $\begingroup$ What exactly can and can't one do with one such a bottle of life energy? Is it a one-time use thing or will it make me permanently stronger (and I guess more happy and more self-aware)? The details are relevant when you want to look at economical and social implications. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Jan 18, 2015 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ Most importantly, does the process need to be voluntary, or can you forcibly trap one's last breath? Is this Last Breath bottle a large amount of Life Essence compared to say, a day's worth of an average content person? Are there side effects like in the Death Gate Cycle, where use of death magic killed people elsewhere? $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2015 at 18:18
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, what can you do with the bottles (that can't be done with "standard" magic)? Also, how long has this technique existed? Your use of the word "economy" implies it's been around a long time and has become widespread. $\endgroup$
    – Foo Bar
    Jan 18, 2015 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry for the slow replies, I posted this before going to sleep :P @Philipp Drinking a bottle would feel akin to taking antidepressants. It is a one time use thing because you probably would feel exhausted after a while then your enthusiasm would fade. It wouldn't really affect your lifespan, because you're artificially increasing your magic just for the moment. $\endgroup$ Jan 19, 2015 at 0:42
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    $\begingroup$ @FeaurieVladskovitz Please don't just post this as comments but also edit your original question to include this information. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Jan 19, 2015 at 0:44

6 Answers 6


The social implications of this depend on the value of one bottle of life ™.

If the value is high this is largely indistinguishable from slave trade, except more portable, and you can draw parallels from there. But that said slavery had many quite different forms over the centuries, so the social impact also varied. And there are some external variables to consider as well. Many religions banned enslaving fellow believers which led to trade in foreign unbelievers. Barring such prohibition more slaves would be acquired locally, which had a distinct effect on how slavery worked. People generally have more respect for the laws and customs of the country all their property and family are.

If the value of life™ is low, it would more resemble serfdom. You wouldn't be killed for your life™, but a lord would have the rights to the life™s of the people of his domain. Nobody else would be allowed to touch them and then their time comes they'd owe it to their lord to let their life™ be collected before it is too late. Considering that in medieval society almost everyone was a peasant with relatively short life expectancy, this and collecting executed criminals would probably cover the demand in low value scenario. Social implications of this would be minimal. Religions that believe in the sanctity of life would have to reword some of their dogma, but that is not really an issue, as explicitly acknowledging that life™s have immaterial mystical value doesn't really threaten any core beliefs.

It should be possible for a free man, whose life™ is not the property of their lord to sell the right to for cash. Possibly several times. Suicide might be a practical way to get your family out of debt. If you can't pay your debts, the creditor might have the option of taking it in life™.

Euthanasia would be more common and acknowledged. Given medieval medicine this would undoubtedly be a good thing. It might even improve the level of medicine as healers would focus on healing things they actually can understand and heal. Probably help in containing epidemics as well. As a downside doctors would probably be faster to give up and collect the life™, but, as said, given medieval medicine...

In ancient times, prisoners of war were sold to slavery. In the new order prisoners of war might be killed and their life™ harvested. Aztec flower wars actually worked like this. Extrapolating from that the result would be lots of relatively small scale wars that would maintain a steady rate of supply. In low value scenarios nobles and other valuable people would still be worth much more in ransom. This would make small wars a practical method of controlling the population, which would lead to more people being able to marry and have children.

The value of life™ has a weird effect on economy, if such life™ wars exist. Basically, it makes it impractical to do work the value of which is lower than the value of the life™ of the worker. Historically, such a change in the minimum value of human work led to the collapse of serfdom and feudalism. But most pseudo-medieval settings actually already give human life a higher base value, so this is probably irrelevant here.

If the value of life™ is higher, importing and exporting it becomes practical. This would enable areas importing it a style of economy otherwise too magic intensive. The economy would probably also be capital intensive and produce products for trade not immediate use. This is because an economy would be dominated by people with capital to buy life™, who'd then use it to get more money they can trade for life™. Similar accumulation of wealth would happen with the actual life™ traders in even larger degree. In the long ran this would probably change the way economy works into something more commercial and industrial as the amount of capital you can invest on agriculture is limited. People would be forced to figure out other ways to make money.

All of this would probably erode the usually estate based power of nobility and increase the influence of people living in cities. A lot would depend on how well the nobility kept up with the changing times.

Effects of large scale international life™ trade on the source areas would be devastating. It might feasibly lead to colonialism that is even worse than its real world counter-part as the natives would not be just expendable, they would be the resource to be harvested as fast as possible. I am guessing this is really beyond the scope of the question, though.

  • $\begingroup$ Ah, you got euthanasia before me. Nice! $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 18, 2015 at 18:48

Warning: Black humor ahead. If you can't stand the Black Knight sequence from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, this may not be the answer for you.

So, all that magi-babble having been said, some clever clogs magister came up with a method to trap the 'Final Breath' of the dying in little bottles, ready to be used. This was very controversial at first, but the magister managed to escape with his technique and began selling it to less 'ethically oriented' peoples, who eventually 'persuaded' him to part with his techniques and allow them to start producing more.

Anyone up for some bounty hunting? Euthanasia? Capital punishment?

All of these problems are going to spring up in this society.

Bounty hunting

Why wait for someone to die when you can just kill them first? That sounds harsh, I'll admit, but it's the logic that some people will use. These entrepreneurs might at first go to hospitals and hospices, going to the dead and dying (preferably the elderly, since they have more life energy) and eventually building up a large supply of life energy. They can consume (? Ingest? Inhale?) the life energy or they can sell it to others. You've got something similar to what would happen if someone developed a formula for immortality, inasmuch as you can either take some yourself or sell it to others.

But only a small percentage of people die on any given day, and not all of them are elderly (elderly people have more life energy, so they'll be prime targets). So people will want to . . . er . . . speed up the process, shall we say. Are you coveting great-uncle Phil's prowess with card tricks? Hm, maybe he's using some magic - from his excess of life energy. So you hire a bounty hunter. Play your cards right - pun intended - and you'll never be traced as the guy who hired the bounty hunter. Just make sure that s/he doesn't get caught, either.

Actually, the target doesn't have to be in your family. Anyone's up for grabs. Which means that great-uncle Phil has some more people to look out for. Poor guy.


Of course, it's so much better to make things legal. That gets rid of some of the illicit activities. Now you can legally get great-uncle Phil's life energy if he's sick. Just get a doctor to say he has a terminal disease - take your pick - and get ready to start collecting. Voila!

You might wonder just why the government would ever approve this. Well, bounty hunting often brings . . . er . . . collateral damage. The bounty hunter aims for great-uncle Phil and hits the next door neighbor. That's a problem (and nobody can get her life energy!). However, if it's now legal to euthanize great-uncle Phil, there's less of a chance of . . . collateral damage. Here's a slogan legislators could use: "Making death legal saves more lives!" Catchy.

Capital punishment

"Who's in favor of the death penalty?" (rhetorical question, and no, I'm not, despite this increasingly black humor) "Nobody? Okay, now you can get life energy from criminals when they die!" Now the hands come up. People will justify killing crooks because hey, don't they deserve it (disclaimer: not my rationale)?

Now a new dilemma arises. Old people have more life energy. So isn't it better to just let the crooks live their life sentences and then harvest their life energy? Well, it kind of is. More bang for your buck, so to speak.$^1$ But people are inherently impatient, and they'll want some executions now. What a bunch of whiners! Just execute the folks already on Death Row or serving life sentences! Let the others live! Oh, but as per point number 3 in your question, make them happy, so their life energy doesn't decrease.

So sit and wait for the criminals to die. But do execute the ones sentenced to death. Go right ahead!

$^1$ Or if they're executed by firing squad, more buck for your bang! Hey, I did warn you that this would be dark.

  • $\begingroup$ By that principle, we should be harvesting organs and blood from condemned criminals. Why don't we? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Jan 19, 2015 at 2:18
  • $\begingroup$ @jdlugosz Because it's illegal to do so without their consent. Why isn't it made legal? Probably because most people don't care as much as they should. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 19, 2015 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ @jdlugosz It is, in fact, done in many places (eg China). It was even legally done in the West(eg England) not that long ago. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    Jan 19, 2015 at 12:43

What you describe is a rather classic pattern for technology. You start with a process that is beyond human approach. Then, someone figures out a way to approach it, and harnesses it. Then we see where it leads us!

Some corner cases which you may be able to weave together to a cohesive idea:


For thousands of years, the energy of Oil has been trapped under an impenetrable layer of rock. One day, man figures out how to drill into it. Humanity as a whole begins to flow quickly as humanity expends more energy than it ever had access before.

Applicable details might be:

  • Oil is limited. It doesn't contain all of the energy of the system, just a small fraction. Eventually it is running out, and society is having to wean its addiction to oil off (either by transitioning to other forms of energy, or pairing back on usage).

    • While it took millions of years to form our oil deposits, the amount of energy stored there is no more than 2 or 3 days worth of sunlight striking the earth!
  • When it comes to growing "big," societies with oil eclipse societies which do not use it. However, when it comes to other metrics ("soul" metrics), we still recognize that the smaller societies have something useful to give.


Genetically Modified Organisms allow us to bend the power of nature, feeding millions.

  • The power seems limitless. If genes can do it, GMOs can provide it. People are wisely excited about this tremendous potential to solve human problems, rather than waiting for nature to provide solutions.

  • GMOs are deemed dangerous because they seem to escape. GMOs are very close to the raw power of nature, so people are wisely afraid of corrupting the small sphere that keeps them alive until we know more.

Now, for your particular definition of "Life Essence," there are obvious side effects which can occur (such as junkies who get high on the stuff). The key question is how fungible is Life Essence? Can I reliably take it from one person and simply pass it to someone else, or is that Essence "keyed" to the original person. This could be a big deal for "metabolism" of Essence. Few things of interest happen instantaneously. The body is going to have to integrate that Essence into its life style.

Consider as a source material, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). That system has a set of organs called the Triple Burner which is responsible for generating and maintaining life energy (it has no corresponding Western scientific organ). The Middle burner (associated with the Stomach, Spleen, Gall Bladder, and liver) is responsible for providing nourishment to the self. If you were able to imbibe Life Essence directly, and used TCM as a a backdrop for your story, then you should expect to see a large number of illnesses related to those organs. Either they will be overstimulated from having to suddenly consume massive amounts of purified Essence, generating ulcers and such, or they will be under-stimulated by being bypassed. Which way things would go would be very dependent on how you would like to treat the consumption of Essence.

One thing that may approach out of this is a desire for balance. We may find life essence sprinkled on foods to avoid these side effects. Of course, Essence likely has no taste, but it is something we all want. Society would help us out: we would soon choose to put Essence on our delicacies, and not normal food. It may be considered offensive to the previous soul to use it on anything but the best food.

You may find TCM style illnesses. TCM often is associated with "healing the spirit," and your system is clearly feeding directly into the spirit, bypassing as much physics as possible. A TCM dictionary of illnesses might be an enlightening source of plot points which have already been vetted as believable by billions of people.

How much Life Essence are we talking about in worldwide senses? If humans have the majority of life essence in the entire ecosystem, then slowly stealing the "leftovers" at the end of a life would eventually begin to sap the energy of the entire Earth. There are a large number of Gaia stories from which you can draw on here. In most of them, Gaia eventually lashes out against humanity for its "sins."

As a final thought: virtually all human cultures believe in an afterlife of some sort. It would take no more than a dozen seconds for humanity to associate this last bit of energy as required for the afterlife. You would see almost instantaneous rioting in protest of this technology unless you first found a religious solution to this problem.

One resolution, along the lines of Ville Niemi's answers, may be a balance in who "owns" the Life Essence. If there is a serfdom style of rule in the area, a serf's Life Essence may be given to the local lord. A lord is expected to take care of his serfs, so a ritual may form where a lord splashes some of the essence onto the ground before consuming the essence. This would resemble a ritual done with beer where you pour a portion onto the ground as the "ancestor's share" before drinking.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would they associate it with afterlife? While such association would make sense in the context of modern Christianity, that is not what we are discussing here. It is possible that they'd react like modern Christians, and it would probably make a good story, but it is not particularly likely unless so specified. If they had issues with the use of life force, they probably resolved them when magicians first started using life force to fuel their magic. In any case, the mages presumably would know. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2015 at 19:09
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    $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi: They would associate it with the afterlife because they literally have no reason not to. If you came across a strange energy which you know left the body at the time of death. It is literally the last act of life. You don't know where it goes after it escapes. It is associated with birth, on the other end of the cycle. Is there any reason not to associate it with the afterlife? Virtually every religion has some "soul" which escapes the body at death (not just Christianity). Why would this energy not be associated with the soul? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 18, 2015 at 19:14
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    $\begingroup$ Now that I look at it, my comment has an error, I had an issue with people thinking that the life force is required for afterlife, but what I actually wrote said that I had issue with people believing there is ANY association... Not quite what I had in mind, and probably made my point impossible to get, sorry... $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2015 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @VilleNiemi: That makes sense. In fact, an interesting plot point to explore might be the process these magi go through to convince people that the Essence is not required for the afterlife. Off hand, it reminds me of the way governments had to sell us on the idea that currency like the dollar doesn't need to be backed by Gold. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Jan 18, 2015 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, the magi probably would know, or at least think they do, if they really already used life force for some time, but people who can't use magic would be faced with something entirely new. And the magi would be unconvincing precisely because to them it is old news. This is similar to how scientists have issues convincing people of evolution, not because there is any lack of proof, but because they do have such a large disconnect with what bothers people, it is like they spoke in alien language. And yes, gold standard probably was similar familiar-unfamiliar trusted-unproven issue. $\endgroup$ Jan 18, 2015 at 22:15

In one sense, I'd say this question is easy to answer, because there is a very close analogy in real life: harvesting organs from the dead for transplant. The difference between a mystical "life energy" and a more tangible organ would, I don't think, make any difference to the social and ethical issues involved.

So, issues that people would surely think about and debate would include:

Does a person have to give his consent for his life energy to be harvested? Or does the good to society outweigh the person's right to deny this benefit to others?

People might be encouraged to commit suicide so that their life energy can be harvested. It would likely start out with euthanasia for the old, crippled, etc, and spread from there. The age at which a person is judged to be "old and useless" might ratchet downward, and the range of illnesses and infirmities judged sufficiently serious to justify euthanasia could grow.

Sooner or later it would occur to someone to say that person A should be killed so that his life energy can be used to benefit person B. That could be because person A is a violent criminal who deserves to die anyway, or is a member of a racial minority or some other disliked group whose life is not as valuable as person B's, etc. Even if it's not legal, the rich and powerful might arrange for certain people to die "accidental" deaths so their life energy can be harvested.

The more useful this life energy is, the more pointed the tough questions would become. If taking a swig of someone's life energy can cure an otherwise horrible disease or add years to a person's life or give him incredible energy, I'd expect people would find more excuses to take someone else's life energy. If it's some minor benefit, gives you a small extra burst of energy that can help out in athletic competitions or combat, probably less of an issue, though certainly it would still be there for the very selfish.

There would also be what seems to me an obvious theological question: What is the relationship between this life energy and a person's soul? By capturing his life energy, are we capturing his soul, and preventing him from going to Heaven or being reincarnated or whatever the people of this society believes happens to the soul after death?


Many years ago, when they first started putting consent for organ donations on the back of drivers licenses, my father said that he would never sign such a thing because some rich and powerful person who needs a transplant might arrange to have him killed so he could get his organs. At the time I thought he was being paranoid. Since then I've attended lectures by doctors and medical ethicists who say that the criteria for declaring someone "legally dead" have been steadily made looser over the years, and one of the stated reasons for doing this is so that organs can be harvested sooner. Of course they don't say, "yes, we know this person is still alive but we're going to declare him dead so we can harvest his organs". They say something more like, "we must balance the remote possibility that this person might recover against the benefits of harvesting his organs now before they begin to fail and become useless for transplant". Every now and then you hear of someone being declared "brain dead" and then they wake up and completely recover. Etc.

So it's possible that in such a society, the push to kill people so their life energy can be harvested might be blatant: "This worthless criminal must be sacrificed so that our exalted king can be saved". Or it could be very subtle: "Well, sure, in the past we would have continued to care for this person in the hope that he would recover. But we must balance, etc."

Oh, and it's quite possible that they wouldn't say, "We're going to kill this person to harvest his life energy." People who kill others for their own benefit rarely say, "We murdered this person because it was convenient and his life wasn't important anyway." They use euphemisms so people don't have to face the reality of deliberate murder. They might say, "The donor was terminated". Or, "We have harvested his life energy". Or, "We freed up hospital bed number 127". They won't call them "people", they'll make up some slang word for them, like racists use the n-word for black people. Or they'll have some very clinical, technical term, like they'll call them the "animafacients". (Latin for "life-force makers" -- I just made that word up, but you get the idea.)

  • $\begingroup$ About the Latin - Google Translate gives me vis vita-cantium, but that's not necessarily correct. Very creative - and yes, +1 a while ago. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jan 20, 2015 at 1:46
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, that is one way to see it. I actually completely overlooked this idea. +1. $\endgroup$ Jan 20, 2015 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I'm relying on my high school Latin. "anima" = soul, spirit, life; "facient" = "one who makes", from "facere" = "to make". I don't doubt that there are other plausible translations of the English. "Vita" = "life", not sure if the ancient Romans used that in a mystical sense or just in the strictly literal sense. I just looked up "cantium" and couldn't find it. I know "cantitare" = "to sing", and when I was looking for cantium I found "cantus" = the metal band around a wooden wheel. Neither of which sounds relevant. But whatever. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jan 20, 2015 at 15:14

There have been other explorations of this. In particular, the idea that life can be transferred. For example, there is the possibly apocryphal tale of Countess Báthory bathing in the blood of young women in order to stay young herself. The vampire legend involves transference of life from the victim to the vampire. Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker has Breath, which can be transferred from one person to another and which allows magical effects when used. Rather than try to tell you what happens, I'm going to concentrate on suggesting questions. If you answer everything, then you can always post a follow up question for additional feedback.


If life is normally released back to the cycle with death, what happens if the process is interrupted? Is there less life left for everything else? Does it take longer for those low in life to recover? I.e. is there a finite amount of life such that all gains are someone else's loss?

Or does spreading life create additional essence? In this case, everyone would want to spread life so as to have more essence available.

If there are three people, three bottles of life, and three magical tasks, what's the best way to split them up so as to maximize future essence? Do the bottles lose essence over time? Does using essence cause gain to increase?

Under different assumptions, it may be best for each person to use one bottle and take one task, or one person takes all three tasks and they keep the bottles. Or one person uses the bottles while the other two split the tasks.


Ignoring the moral aspects, this would encourage additional production of life. This would have the effect of subsidizing food production, at least meat. Ordinary people would eat the meat while the nobility takes the essence. This is strongest if essence is growing, but even if not, groups would want to maximize their own essence.

With finite life, we'd have a tragedy of the commons. Even though increasing life causes a reduction in average essence, people would still do it so as to maximize their own essence. If life increases essence, then it would be no tragedy. Everyone would want increased life so as to maximize essence.

This would also cause the selfish to value human life. As aging increases essence, even the selfish want to allow people to become as essence rich as possible. This could cause them to subsidize the elderly and poor earlier in their societal development. It's not just altruism; it has a practical advantage.


Earlier, I ignored the moral aspects. That does not mean that they do not exist. The particular danger in a feudal society is that the moral arguments will favor the sacrifice of the serfs to to the nobility. We could even have extreme results like a religion that favors cannibalism.

Assuming essence can be harvested without consent, this could provide an economic rationale for serial killing. It also provides an extra reason for war. Perhaps the real benefit of a war is not land or wealth, but the essence from executing captured members of the opposing army. Perhaps soldiers commit suicide rather than allow their essence to be captured. Or they find ways to use up all their remaining essence when attacked. A whole new meaning for the term "suicide bomber".

If caught in a siege, does it make sense to sacrifice the elderly population in order to gain essence enough to attack?

Can essence be claimed if someone owes debts they cannot pay? I.e. would it be a capital crime to be bankrupt? If someone leaves a bottle of essence, can debt holders enter claims against it as an asset of the estate?

It is likely that different places will come up with different rules handling essence. In one country, anything goes. In another the only capital crime is theft of essence.

  • $\begingroup$ What if there are three people, and three tasks to be done ... and only one bottle of essence? There's an obvious setup for conflict. Depending on the nature of the society you are postulating, that could range from a careful evaluation of the relative merits by a recognized objective authority to fighting it out and last man standing gets the bottle. $\endgroup$
    – Jay
    Jan 20, 2015 at 15:20

The obvious implication is that it gives people incentive to murder. In fact, you could have an entire class of characters who seek out and kill those who "won't be missed" in order to harvest their life force.

There could be another implication depending on two things. First, how dark do you want to get? Second, how attached are you to your entire premise?

You say that the mother passes some of her life force on to a new born child. If instead, you make it so that new (potential/raw/untapped whatever) life force is made at the moment of conception that is more pure and more powerful than the normal human life force, there are new options available. For example, a Magi could perform forced abortions to harness that life force, engage in human trafficking (buying young men and women from poor families, possibly under the guise of "apprenticeship") to repeatedly impregnate the women and harness the life force of the unborn or simply running around killing expectant mothers to get more life force out of a "single" kill.

Note: this answer is not a comment on my personal views regarding abortion or anything along those lines. It is ONLY an idea for the story and should be taken as NOTHING more than that.

I know a good bit of what I've said here goes against what you said in your OP but if you distinguish between life force and "natal" life force and say the latter is that which is required to develop a being from conception to birth and then gives way to normal life force, it could work.


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