In Which Nae Bites Her Tongue

“Time?” Pala said, confused. “But… the class is not over, is it?”

“No, but the lesson is,” Coach Callahan said. She was grinning like the proverbial cat who’d taken considerable time doing way more than just eating the canary in a land given to very disturbing proverbs. “There’s no point in keeping it going now. Good job, both of you… you both exceeded my expectations.”

Since I hadn’t won… and hadn’t lost, but losing had appeared inevitable… this pretty much meant one thing.

“…I was supposed to lose?” I guessed.

“No, unless somebody is paying you then you are never supposed to lose… but this is a fight you were never going to win,” she said. “You know that. I could see you knew it, or else I would have let you go a little longer. I’d have given you a satisfactory mark if you’d only taken her down in the practice rounds and then lost quickly when she fought back. That was my projected outcome, based on your average effort… and I mean your average effort this year, on a good day, not accounting for all the truly shit efforts you’ve turned in before. So, you know… exceeds expectations.”

“What if I’d beaten her?” I asked.

“Then you would’ve had to have been been damned lucky,” she said. “But unless a shooting star came down through the roof of the building and struck her dead on the spot, that kind of luck doesn’t just happen… it’s a lucky opening, it’s a lucky chance. So you would have still got major points for seeing the opening and taking it. I didn’t see the whole build-up, but I’d bet you had at least one major stroke of luck along the way, even if it was just a bright idea coming along at the right time.”

“My uncle says that warriors make their own luck,” Pala said.

“That’s something that lucky people say,” Callahan said. “Then the day comes that something they couldn’t prepare for or against happens and they’re fucked six ways to Sunday. You can’t control luck. You can control a battlefield right up until the point that you can’t, and then it all goes to hell at once. If you want to impose order, you must be prepared for chaos… not because it’ll lead to order but because that’s what you get when you try to control things. But that’s a lesson for another kind of class entirely.”

“So was the whole point of this for me to face an opponent I couldn’t beat?” I asked.

“I don’t see much point in that as a lesson,” Coach Callahan said. “That’s the sort of situation you want to deal with by avoiding, but ultimately it’ll happen by itself if you live long enough. The main lesson I wanted you to learn today is that the best defense is whatever the hell works. You were getting too comfortable with opponents you could keep at arm’s length or knock out of the running right away, so I found someone with longer arms and more staying power than you have hitting power… she also has more hitting power, but that’s just a bonus. The fact that she was out of your league was a bonus. It gave you a chance to step up, and you did.”

“Even though I couldn’t step up into her league,” I said.

“There was more than one league between you and her,” she said. “Still is, but there’s at least one less of them now. There could be a few less still, especially if you spend some time between classes reflecting on what you did, what she did, and how you both responded. Don’t try to re-fight the last battle because the next one will be different, but… learn.”

“That’s why you had her be semi-passive for most of the time, isn’t it?” I said. “It gave me room to think, so I’d still be thinking when we really fought.”

“So you could be thinking… give yourself the credit for actually doing it. You’ve got a head for problem solving,” she said. “You need to learn how to do that in the moment when it counts, but it’s a good thing to cultiavete. You can solve a fight like it’s a puzzle. You can make it through a battlefield like it’s a maze and come out safely on the other side. It’s not my way, but it’s a way. And there are worse ways to occupy your brain in the middle of a fight than figuring out the best route between Point A and victory. For instance, I know you were thinking about how cool you thought you looked, a couple of times.”

“…yeah, but not much,” I admitted..

“Too much,” she said. “There will be times when can win a fight by putting the ‘show’ in ‘show of force’, but Pala of all people is not going to be impressed if you manage to vogue up a gratuitous battle pose. Save it for the puny mortals.” She turned to the rest of the class. “I hope you all were paying attention. In terms of raw, physical, elemental capabilities, these two are both above you.” She pointed at me. “She is to you what Pala is to her. Not exactly, not literally, but close enough for when you’re dancing on the edge of a sword blade and don’t have time for a lot of quantification or philosophy. But a lot of you have fought her and beaten her, and now you’ve seen her fighting right up to that edge and just a little bit past. There is such a thing as an unwinnable fight… that is, a fight that you can’t win at that moment, which is all that matters if it’s the moment you’re fighting… but there is no such thing as an unbeatable opponent. The gods themselves can be brought down.”

“Yeah, in legend,” one of the other students said. “Or by other gods.”

“What, you think there’s some property of godhood that makes people literally invincible?” the coach said. “The fact that they have winners and losers when they fight each other means that they can lose. People go out and they fight giants and titans and dragons. Immortals can be killed. I’m not saying that after a semester or two with me you’ll be able to go out and duel the Dark Herald for your soul… just that anyone can be beaten.”

“My uncle beat a god,” Pala said.

“See?” Callahan said. She seemed grateful to have an example to point to… if I had needed any proof that the rumors that she herself had fought gods and won were crazily inflated, that was it. If she were remotely heroic, she’d probably be one of the closest things the modern age had to an epic hero, but there were limits. Probably the rumors had started from a rant like this.

“At thumb-wrestling,” Pala added.

“The principle is sound,” Callahan said.

“And darts. And dice. And drinking. Though… he did cheat at the drinking contest,” Pala said. “And at the dice. And at the darts. And at the thumb-wrestling.”

“Which god was this, exactly?” Nae asked.

“Oh, you probably wouldn’t have heard of him,” Pala said. “He is… how do you say it… underground?”

“Chthonic?” I supplied.

“Yes!” Pala said.

“All our gods are chthonic,” Nae said.

“If they are the same as the gods the kobolds in my world… keep… then they are not the same as my gods,” Pala said. This time her word choice sounded deliberate rather than questioning.

“Yeah… we don’t actually worship them, as such, ” Nae said. “Our word that gets translated as ‘cleric’ would really be closer to ‘jailer’. But nobody’s really that religious anymore. It’s more of a Yehutho and Grul kind of thing.”

“Okay, that’s more than enough cultural exchange for one class,” the coach said. “Frybaby, you and Tiger can fight each other now, just to give you an extreme change of pace.. Pala, you pair everyone else up in ways that strike you as interesting. There are about fifteen… no, twenty minutes left, but still, everyone keep with the same partner and fight until the end of class. The goal is to win, like always, but your partner now is going to be your partner for the week. So don’t just fight. Learn. Think. Come back tomorrow and do better. On Wednesday I’m going to come in and watch you. On Thursday I’m going to give you each a personal coaching. Friday is going to be the equivalent of a test, so… study hard.”

Fighting against Nae was, in its own way, more challenging than fighting against Pala was. Winning was considerably more within my grasp, but losing… I didn’t have nearly as effective a defense against “Little Mouse” as I’d had against Tiny Pala. She was small, fast, and agile. If I wasn’t connected to the elements I wouldn’t have had a chance of hitting her… I’d barely be able to see her. Her imprint on the floor was a lot smaller and more fleeting, which made things muddled. She displaced less air. Mostly by the time I sorted out what my senses were telling me about where she was, it was where she had been.

This made the fights between us mostly very short. If I didn’t manage to take her out before she managed to scamper up to my legs, she’d hamstring me and then take me out, or jump up and jab a knife in somewhere extraordinarily painful. I had to find a medium length for my staff… full size was too cumbersome to be much good and the baton just wasn’t long enough to hit someone that small.

Her speed and my inability to track her ended with me inflicting the second unarmed blow of the day, when she tried to dart between my legs and I accidentally kicked her leg out from under her. The impact was jarring… there was enough force in the collision to send her feet up over her head, and she came down as close to neck-first as anyone can get when they have a head in the way, then tumbled into a heap.

“Nae!” I yelled and knelt down to check on her.

Ja, way,” she said, rolling over to look up at me. She sat up and spit out a gob of something that oozed ichorous black… ooze.

“Are you alright?” I asked. Maybe that was a stupid question, but while I didn’t know much about the specifics of goblinoid internal anatomy, I knew they could literally cough up bits of an organ when it went bad and their body would replace it. So while she was a good chance she was hurt internally, it wasn’t necessarily critical.

“What? Oh, yes,” she said, kind of thickly. “Just bit off part of my tongue.”

“I didn’t break anything, did I?” I said. If she wasn’t going to worry about the tongue thing, I wasn’t, either.

“Oh, well, if you take your boot off I can probably tell you… unless it’s something like a hairline stress fracture. If you’re not sure, you should probably just take a potion to be safe,” she said. “How much pain are you in?”

It took me a little bit longer to figure out why she was saying the things she was saying because my brain got stuck on the question of how my boot would help her find a break in her bones.

“Oh, it takes a lot more than that to break a kobold bone,” she said. “There’s a saying: our women hold up mountains.”

“I know you’re tough, but I also know that Oru broke her ankle last year,” I said.

“Oh, well… she’s a goblin,” Nae said, in a way that suggested she that she in no way thought any less of Oru in spite of this devastating personal deficiency. “They don’t get nearly enough iron in their diet growing up, down here in the lowlands and wetlands. They mostly teethe on rocks, as I understand it… good enough for bearing up under a load, but a bit brittle, comparatively. Compared to metal, I mean… I think it fares a bit better against whatever mammal bones are made out of. What are your bones made out of?”

“Um, bone,” I said. “I mean, we don’t have a separate word for the material that they’re made out of. We call the material ‘bone’.”

“Oh,” she said. She sounded vaguely disappointed.

“It’s the same thing that seashells are made out of,” I said. “And coral. That’s why they used to be used as material focuses for a lot of healing spells, and are still used in healing items.”

“Oh, wow,” she said. “You must be so fragile.”

“My bones are actually unbreakable, unless magic’s involved,” I said. “Enough holiness can obliterate them… along with any other bit of me that’s in the way… but physical force by itself does nothing. Well, it hurts, but it does nothing apart from that.

With the excitement of the moment fading, a throbbing in my toes was starting to call attention to itself. I’d taken off my new footwear to fight Pala since I wasn’t yet used to the thickness of the boots’ soles, but if I was going to have Nae underfoot for the rest of the week I’d have to get used to them in a hurry.

“Ah, that’s right,” Nae said. “I guess it wouldn’t make much sense for you to only be immune to walls.”

“Not really, no. Anyway, you never asked… anyone… what their bones are made out of?” I asked. I’d almost blurted out her girlfriend’s name, but I knew they had good reason to keep it private. I also knew that whether their reasons seemed good or not to me, it was theirs, and therefore not my place to divulge it.

“Oh, I asked ‘anyone’,” Nae said. “When she said ‘bone’, I thought she was just… observing her cultural imperative.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

There’s an old joke about two dwarves from different clans running into each other in a tavern full of humans and they get to talking and are getting along great and pledging friendship and brotherhood until one asks the other what the weather’s like where he’s from. At that point he goes quiet, takes a long pull on his pipe, and then says, “Now… who told you that we have weather, friend?”

The dwarven cultural imperative is secrecy. If they have any higher ideal or tradition, they sure don’t like to talk about it.

Dwarven bones would have more of a stone nature to them than most, elementally, but I was pretty sure they weren’t laced with actual rock on a macro level. Still, even if there wasn’t anything special about a dwarf’s bones, it wasn’t that hard to believe they’d refuse to answer a question about them on principle.

“Please excuse me if this is a silly question,” Nae said, lowering her head as she spoke. It was something I did unconsciously a lot, but there was a deliberate air about how she did it. “But it’s not just blunt force? I mean, something that… pierces or cuts, it would not pierce you?”

“No,” I said.

“But you would feel it,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s how my mixed nature interprets human vulnerability and demonic invulnerability, basically.”

“Interesting,” she said. “Would you consider wearing shorts tomorrow?”

The change of direction threw me.

“I… don’t really wear shorts,” I said. “I don’t get hot, and I’ve never liked showing skin.”

“A skirt?” she asked. “A long one?”

“I have a few skirts, but i’m not going to fight in one,” I said.

I knew it was possible to fight in a skirt… Coach Callahan often wore segmented leather ones, but a lot of cultures had adopted a skirt-like battle dress for warriors regardless of gender because of the advantages of mobility. More than enough of the school had seen more than enough of my backside, though.

“If I bought you a pair of shorts, would you wear them?”

“Nae, please don’t take this the wrong way, but we don’t know each other nearly well enough to be having this conversation,” I said.

“Oh!” she said. “I do apologize.”

“We still have some time,” I said. “If you’re sure you’re okay…”

“I am, if you’re sure you’re okay,” she said.

By the last time one of us hit the mat… which was me, but it came right after one of my victories… it was hard to say if there was a conclusive winner between us, especially since I hadn’t really been counting.

Despite Coach Callahan’s focus on winning at all cost and her cautioning us not to re-fight old battles, she ran her class with the understanding that a practice fight wasn’t really about winning the fight in front of you, either. It was about winning future fights. That’s why she did things like give warm-up periods before she started mentally subtracting points and why she graded more on how you won than how often you lost, though her actual grading criteria had never been articulated in full and probably couldn’t be.

However Nae and I had done against each other today or might do against each other tomorrow, the winner would be decided on Friday… but we’d both win if it helped us survive whatever actual battles the future might throw at us.


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37 Responses to “Chapter 106: The Mouse That Floored”

  1. LetsSee says:

    My interpretation is that Nae wants to bite Mac’s ankles. OUCH! Are Kobold teeth magic?

    Current score: 1
    • Kevin Brown says:

      Probably not, more likely its a tactic she can’t test on anyone else.

      Current score: 1
      • Morten says:

        Couldn’t they just mock Mack’s trousers? I’m getting the idea that Nae wants her legs bare so she doesn’t destroy her clothes.

        Current score: 1
        • Brenda says:

          Well, Two is usually willing to repair clothes…

          Current score: 0
        • Navi1101 says:

          But then she’d have to take off her pants to put them in the mockbox, and hasn’t the campus seen enough of her backside? 😛

          (Hey there, my first comment! ^^)

          Current score: 0
    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      My thoughts, too.

      Current score: 0
      • Oni says:

        My thoughts on the matter are “ow”.

        Current score: 0
        • pedestrian says:

          My thoughts are Nae wants to indulge a clothes fetish and get her grove on with Our Mack.

          Current score: 0
  2. Celti says:

    “You need to learn how to do that in the moment when it counts, but it’s a good thing to cultiavete.” — should be ‘cultivate’.

    Current score: 0
    • Lunaroki says:

      Typo Report

      “There will be times when * can win a fight by putting the ‘show’ in ‘show of force’,

      Missing a “you” before “can win”.

      She seemed grateful to have an example to point to… if I had needed any proof that the rumors that she herself had fought gods and won were crazily inflated, that was it. If she were remotely heroic, she’d probably be one of the closest things the modern age had to an epic hero, but there were limits. Probably the rumors had started from a rant like this.

      No typos in this one. Just wanted to say how badly Mack has misinterpreted Callahan’s motivations. Just because Callahan was grateful for an example to point to doesn’t mean that she’s not herself an example. She just can’t present herself as one because she’s a teacher and attempted deicide is a federal crime.

      “Yeah… we don’t actually worship them, as such, ”

      Extraneous space between the comma and the closing quote.

      “Oh, well… she’s a goblin,” Nae said, in a way that suggested she that she in no way thought any less of Oru in spite of this devastating personal deficiency.

      Extra “she” after “suggested”.

      “Enough holiness can obliterate them… along with any other bit of me that’s in the way… but physical force by itself does nothing. Well, it hurts, but it does nothing apart from that.

      Closing quotes are missing.

      Current score: 0
      • fka_luddite says:

        My impression was that the charge of attempted deicide had been dropped in return for her service in the Chaos Wars.

        Current score: 0
      • Erm says:

        Just because Callahan was grateful for an example to point to doesn’t mean that she’s not herself an example. She just can’t present herself as one because she’s a teacher and attempted deicide is a federal crime.

        But she was officially pardoned…

        Current score: 0
        • Brenda says:

          Doesn’t mean she can talk about it…

          Current score: 0
        • DaemonAngel says:

          “Attempted” deicide is a crime. She did not “attempt”.

          Current score: 0
          • Anthony says:

            Of course she attempted. How else would she be successful at it? You don’t think her deicide was *accidental*, do you? 😛

            Current score: 1
          • Ace says:

            As it’s been stated before when Callahan’s past came up, a successful attempt is still an attempt.

            Current score: 0
  3. Klaus says:

    Well that’s a first… (double meaning)
    Cool Chapter. So… Kobolds have Metal bones?
    And Callahan is unable or unwilling to talk about her succesful deicide.
    Plus more insight in Nae!!!
    I like this Chapter

    Current score: 1
  4. Anthony says:

    Uh oh. Legs. Piercing. Teeth.

    And we all know how Mack reacts to being bitten below the belt by sharp teeth!

    Nae: *CHOMP*

    Mack: *collapse* *scream* *gush*

    Nae: I win!

    Mack: *whimper* Please don’t stop…

    Callahan: [no idea what her reaction would be, but it’s sure to be priceless]

    Current score: 2
    • Lunaroki says:

      While I <3'd this comment I would like to point out that Mack has been bitten on the leg before and didn't find it arousing in the slightest. I believe it was Shiel that bit her, or was it Oru? Anyway, one of them was mad at her over something I can't recall right now and one day she just came right up and chomped on her leg. Mack was very not aroused. The difference between that and what Feejee did was build-up, and of course location. Where Feejee bit Mack was someplace a lot more sensitive.

      Current score: 0
      • Oni says:

        I believe that involved the Mail Boy wanting to deliver a package to Mack and Oru’s inbox remaining empty.

        If you know what I mean.

        Current score: 1
      • Lyssa says:

        Yeeeah. This is basically like saying “Well, she loves blood play, so obviously she’ll get turned on if I shank her.” Bad logic, I think. Sexy involves context.

        Current score: 0
      • Anthony says:

        Sure, build-up matters, but how much it matters tends to be heavily context-dependant when it comes to Mackenzie. Who can forget Sooni’s “STOP HAVING ORGASMS WHILE I’M DEFEATING YOU!!!”? 😀

        Current score: 1
        • AylaSophia says:

          Except Mackenzie had big time lust for Sooni. Up to and including sexy dreams and fantasies about her and her clunky sandals. So when Sooni started stomping Mack in real life, it was just a little too much for her.

          Nae, on the other hand, occupies no such position in Mackenzie’s fantasy life.

          Current score: 0
    • Greenwood Goat says:

      I think Callahan’s reaction would be along the lines of “Do that in your own time, ladies.”

      Current score: 1
  5. Maahes0 says:

    I really like seeing Mack starting to truly accept herself. She’s always tried to suppress her demon side, and it’s nice to see her try to use it. Maybe by the time she’s graduating she’ll be comfortable enough with herself to be as casual about it as her brother.

    Current score: 1
  6. Chris says:

    cthonic s/b chthonic

    I love seeing Mack get more aware, yet totally miss the implications of Callahan’s speech.

    Current score: 1
  7. anon y mouse says:

    “Then you would’ve had to have been been damned lucky,” – only one been?

    “You need to learn how to do that in the moment when it counts, but it’s a good thing to cultiavete.” – cultivate?

    “There will be times when can win a fight by putting the ‘show’ in ‘show of force’,” – times when you can?

    Current score: 0
  8. Lakanna says:

    “You can solve a fight like it’s a puzzle. You can make it through a battlefield like it’s a maze and come out safely on the other side. It’s not my way, but it’s a way. ”

    Guess Callahan decided to spell it out for her. The Coach knows what she’s talking about, and is STILL one of my favorite characters. “Fighting to Win” indeed, and giving her students the opportunity to actually learn it for themselves. This is the type of teacher who, 20 years later, you look back and say “they changed my life.”

    Current score: 1
  9. Readaholic says:

    Heh. Very cool insight into the kobold attitude to their gods. Not to mention into kobold insides.

    Current score: 1
  10. pedestrian says:

    Alexandra, Wow! This chapter took several readings for me to get my head around all the insight and information. And I am still parsing your hints of future action.

    I love these kind of puzzles.

    Current score: 1
  11. Havartna says:

    +1 on the Dwarven joke. That’s freakin perfect!

    Current score: 1
  12. Zathras IX says:

    If Mackenzie starts
    Wearing shorts to class she may
    Become Nae’s chew toy

    Current score: 0
  13. pedestrian says:

    “Nae!” I yelled and knelt down to check on her.

    “Ja, way,” she said,

    Very punny, Alexandra, very punny indeed.

    Current score: 1
  14. JN says:

    Gonna ramble her a bit. Bear with me … or just page down. 🙂

    When Mack asked her what it would take to get an A, Callahan replied, “You.” What this means for Mack in my mind is being influence by Multiple sources.

    First, in one of the Star Trek novels, Dr. McCoy is complaining about how people are forming their expectations of Spock. He said something about how you couldn’t just take human reactions and vulcan reactions and just take some kind of average and expect to get the right picture. He’s not some odd kind of mixture, “He’s a Spock.” A 100% unique individual with Vulcan and human heritage, not some sort of 50/50 mixture.

    Mack and everyone else, when their not focusing on half demon = half monster, seem to be focusing on being half demon < full demon. They aren't accounting for what her human heritage brings, and even now, Mack is trying to minimize or mitigate the advantages her demon heritage brings because she is afraid that she can't control it. And even if she can control it, she's afraid of the reaction all of the other people around would have if she used it. She sees both being half human and half demon as being limiting factors. She, and everyone else is forgetting that pure humans, like Granny Blaize, can accomplish epic level feats, like dueling a greater dragon to a standstill — a battle that giants, other dragons, and even gods would rather not do. Her humanity is not a limiting factor.

    As for her demonic heritage, I am reminded of the Manga and Anime, Bleach. The hero of the series, Ichigo, acquires both Shinigami and Hollow powers under extreme circumstances. Shinigami being the beings that regulate death and life, maintain balances, and — incidentally — defeat hollows. Hollows are the souls of people who, while they may or may not have been evil in life, have lost there way after death and become empty inside. They become mostly mindless in the transformation and attempt to fill that “hollow” inside them by consuming other souls.

    Ichigo comes to much better terms with having Shinigami powers than hollow powers, but in both cases they are things that he has and uses. In the case of his Hollow powers, he uses them reluctantly and only in extreme situations. However, before he can defeat the main villain of the first several hundred episodes, he needs more. He has to go inside himself and fully accept his powers and what they mean. Not, “I have Shinigami and Hollow powers,” but, “I am Shinigami. I am Hollow. I am Ichigo.”

    Until Mack gets this kind of unified feeling and acceptance, she is not getting an A in Callahan’s class, IMO. She will have a much more difficult life in general, too, and probably much shorter as well.

    For class, I think she needs a weapon that channels demonfire, too, so that when she mocks it, she can use mock demonfire in her fights … maybe a pitchfork?

    Of course, Ms. Erin may disagree with me on any and all points, but that’s the way I’m reading things right now. I look forward to reading what really happens in the future, AE. Thanks for writing!

    JN

    P.S. That will be 1/50th of a dollar, please.

    Current score: 0