In Which Mackenzie Goes For The Knob

There’s an elven saying that whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.

I think I have kind of a unique perspective on that saying.

On the one hand, I had always been of the opinion that the gods didn’t actually concern themselves with targeting individual people for destruction. The evidence for this seemed pretty abundant. As a half-demon, I was well aware that the great god Khersis was all for the destruction of demonkind, and yet living demons still existed in the world. So either he was working his way alphabetically down a very long list of them, or else his approach was a bit more distant and scattered.

On the other hand, I’d had a major goddess mention me during a TV interview. So at the very least the divine powers might take an interest in a mortal if they’re dating one of her daughters.

So far, she hadn’t driven me insane that I’ve noticed. Though she also hadn’t made up her mind about Amaranth and me. The feeling of an axe blade (or meteor) hanging over my head that had accompanied knowing that she was weighing me in the balance had long since dissipated. Tension had given way to frustration and then a feeling of something that wasn’t quite apathy and wasn’t quite acceptance, but that had qualities of both.

Mother Khaele had been judging my relationship with Amaranth for most of the time we’d been together. The knowledge that at any time she might step in to end it was just part of the normal state of affairs. According to Amaranth, this sort of thing wasn’t at all unusual for her… the great goddess of nature apparently still considered the matter of what to do with all the people who were cluttering up her ecosystem to be an open question.

While knowing that was not precisely reassuring in a big picture sense, it certainly gave me some perspective. I was content to let her ponder the nature of my relationship with Amaranth at her leisure.

Anyway, if the gods… in the sense of vast and distant implacable forces of fate rather than actual individual gods… were going to destroy someone, I’m not sure they’d bother delivering madness beforehand. Any kind of mental imbalance worthy of being a divine curse would probably count as destruction anyway. I think if the gods were going to adjust someone’s mind as a prelude to classical hubris-smiting, they would first make their victim complacent. Complacent targets would not only be easier to hit, but could be liable to destroy themselves.

I ended the second day of classes on my sophomore year feeling pretty good about things… I’d made it through all my classes once and felt like there was nothing I couldn’t handle. I was especially relieved that the two classes that were the furthest outside my comfort zone… a fighting class and one on design aesthetics… seemed totally doable.

With all my worrying focused on them, though, I’d kind of forgotten to keep an eye inside my comfort zone. That made what happened next a little bit like being stabbed in the back by a trusted friend.

I woke up Wednesday with plenty of time to do the reading for my first class of the day, spellbinding. As an applied enchantment major, this sort of thing was going to be my bread and butter out in the post-college real world.

Or it would be my bread and butter if I were the sort of person who needed to eat food. Somehow the existing saying seemed safer than “my virgin blood”.

Whatever spellbinding was metaphorically, I still ate it up. In the first day of class we’d learned nothing more than an exhaustive list of safety requirements and a few simple techniques for working with our classroom tools. But since our classroom tools were things like wands and powerstones that we made ourselves, those few scraps were like a tantalizing glimpse into a future of awesome possibilties.

I’d rushed out after class to try to get a head start on the practical side of our first assignment, and made some pretty decent headway. The reading I’d left for later, because… it’s reading.

It’s not that I don’t like to read, because I do. I love reading, even geeky texts on highly technical subjects. Twelve pages of reading is nothing to me.

And that, of course, is why I’d let it slide until the day of class. “Read twelve pages” isn’t even a requirement. In high school it’s the sort of thing I might have done between bells immediately before the class where it was due, assuming I hadn’t already read the textbook in its entirety because hey, I’d been carrying around that book all year and that’s what happens.

But I’d only got my textbooks a week before class started, and I didn’t tote it around everywhere during that time. The spellbinding text was such a slim-looking volume, soft-covered and with holes for a three-ring binder… more like a workbook or a manual than a textbook. When I had first looked through it, I’d thought the technical drawings and spell diagrams and runic notations were all very cool.

What I’d missed was that it was pretty much only those things. The paragraphs of explanatory prose were tiny and cramped and just sort of shoved in wherever there was enough room for them. It’s not that I couldn’t deal with that kind of thing, but it changed the nature of the assignment… deciphering and digesting twelve pages of magical techniques and theories that were more advanced than anything I’d mastered was quite a different matter than reading twelve pages of text talking about those techniques and theories. The amount of time and attention it required was a lot higher, and there was less room to rush or fudge anything.

Amaranth came out of the bathroom while I was trying to get an initial grip on the material, talking about her plans for the day. Her long golden hair was wet, but it was drying quickly and it had lost none of its slightly curly volume under the weight of the water. She had a towel under her feet that she was moving by shuffling it along, so she wouldn’t drip on the rug. She didn’t need to wrap one around her for utility because even water couldn’t stick to her skin for long… she technically didn’t even need to shower, but it’s not like it’s possible to exhaust the supply of one of the four basic elements of the universe.

She didn’t opt for a towel for modesty, either, because she had none. As a nymph, nudity was her natural state of being… more so than for most people, anyway.

“Amaranth” wasn’t exactly her name, it’s the name of the plant that grew in her field. That is, the field that was her. Her actual name’s more of a sensory impression, of sun and wind and scent.

The body she used for walking around had never needed a separate name until she decided to enroll in college. That form had been created in the image of a human woman, according to her human propagators’ ideals about perfection. She liked to say that beauty was subjective. I think it’s easy for someone with perfect beauty to say that. In any case, the farmers who’d put a bit of themselves into her creation must have had similar tastes to me, because I couldn’t imagine anyone more stunning: tall, at least in comparison to me.

A little broad across the shoulders, but quite a bit broader at the hips. Her waist wasn’t tiny, but I’d never understood the need or point of a tiny waist. Her breasts would probably have been the first thing I noticed about her, though, anyway, even if they weren’t uncovered. And if she hadn’t been wearing a Khersian holy symbol pinned to one of them the first time I met her.

It had been painful for me to look at, in more ways than one.

She’d described it as an act of religious tolerance, but from what I’d learned of her since then, it seemed more likely that she was testing the limits with her divine mother. Clothing was verboten, but she could get away with accessories, as evidenced by the old-fashioned horn rimmed glasses she wore… apparently, somebody back home had either thought that glasses were sexy, or that the ideal woman would be extremely near-sighted. Wearing the holy symbol associated with a god who was known to be jealous bordering on monotheistic when it came to his followers was a tiny, harmless act of rebellion… the kind she was best at.

As for the fact that she’d opted for a pin rather than a pendant… well, she was adventurous even for a nymph, and if you’re just bursting with divine healing magic anyway, what’s a little puncture or two?

I wasn’t too fond of seeing holes in her, but I didn’t mind her kinky side one bit.

“You know, it’s funny,” she said, a change in her tone catching my attention. “You were frowning when I came out of the shower, and you’re smiling now, but I have the strangest feeling you haven’t heard a word I’ve been saying.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, ducking my head. “It’s this reading for my class… it’s a lot denser than I expected, so I was kind of concentrating on it. So I was kind of distracted from you, and then you distracted me from it, and… well, it was all very distracting.”

“Isn’t spellbinding your first class today?” she asked, frowning. She fumbled her glasses from the unseen space perpetually behind her where she kept her belongings when her hands were busy and put them on, specifically so she could look down over the rims of them at me.

“Yeah,” I said. I ducked my head. “Yes, ma’am. And yes, the reading is for today… I thought I’d be able to knock it out no problem while you were in the shower.”

“Well, I hope this teaches you something about leaving your homework to the last minute,” she said.

“I do know not to do that,” I said. “But I always considered assigned reading to be different than actual homework-homework.”

“Then I hope you’ve learned a lesson about that,” she said. “You don’t suppose you’ll be too badly off if you’re a little behind the rest of the class on the second day, do you?”

“Probably not,” I said. “Especially since I can’t be the only one who didn’t think to get a jump on it, and there will be at least a few people who didn’t bother to read it at all.”

“Do you really want to be comparing yourself to them?” Amaranth asked.

“No,” I said. “Not really… and I don’t want to be even a little behind, either. Is it okay if I skip breakfast today? I’d like to get through as much of this as I can, as well as I can, before class.”

“Okay, baby,” Amaranth said. “But don’t make a habit of it. I know you spent most of the summer alone and focused on your classes, but you need your social time, even if you don’t need meals.”

“Thank you,” I said. She gave me a kiss before heading through the shared bathroom to the adjoining room in our dorm suite, where Two and Dee were waiting.

I was dimly aware of her explaining the situation to them, though this was largely an orchestrated bit of politeness. With the doors open, conversations in one of the two rooms were pretty audible to people in the other room even if they didn’t have Dee’s elven hearing.

Then I heard the other room’s door open and close, and I was alone in the suite.

Alone, the manual didn’t seem as daunting. It was like my mind had space to stretch out. To say that I enjoyed Amaranth’s company was an understatement, but she had a way of filling up a room with sound and light that made it hard to concentrate on anything else, or even sometimes on her.

We also had very different study habits. She liked to talk things out, thinking out loud while flitting from topic to topic and book to book. If I had been reading for pleasure or gazing the ethernet through one of the crystal balls in the school library, that sort of thing would have provided a pleasant and interesting background noise. She hadn’t exactly been talking seven leagues a step at me while I’d been trying to read the text, but it hadn’t occurred to her that I might be distracted by even light conversation, because she wouldn’t have been.

And also because I hadn’t thought to tell her that yet. Outside of a very limited area of interest, she wasn’t exactly a mind reader… and she would hasten to point out that she didn’t read minds when she looked at someone and understood their desires, but their aura or even possibly their soul.

I made a mental note to make sure I told Amaranth that I needed quiet time when I was working on spellbinding and turned my attention back to it.

It was all interesting stuff, and it looked useful. There were spell formulae for doing things like gauging the amount of energy charged into an object and the strength of the seal holding it in place. I had a pretty fair natural talent for that sort of thing, but purpose-specific spells would be more efficient than just probing everything with magical detection.

Part of the reason the reading was so tricky, though, was that the spells were incomplete. They had to be in order to work. A finished spell formula of any quality would work for its creator and maybe a small number of other people in the entire world, based on the universe’s own inscrutable criteria for such things. Reading the spells from the book meant not only deciphering what was there but mentally filling in what wasn’t with something that fulfilled the missing parts but would work for me.

I quickly discovered that reading for this class was even more like homework than I’d thought, as I had to dig out my notebook to write the spells out in expanded form in order to get anywhere. I wouldn’t copy them into my grimoire until I’d tested them and tweaked my additions… magic’s unpredictable enough that things never work out exactly the way you expect them to, except when they do.

Once I got going, I discovered that things weren’t as dire as I’d thought… trying to slog through the material by reading it had been like wading through mud made out of symbols and numbers, but working through it made me realize how little there was. I guessed that this was what Acantha had meant when she assigned it as reading, as I couldn’t see her spending a whole class period going through the spells in class… though she certainly hadn’t made that clear. As she was a last-minute substitute for Professor Leclerc, it was possible she was just going by his notes and hadn’t been sure what he’d intended. In any event, I was already good eight pages in and starting a third spell when there was a knock on the door.

I jumped up. The sound startled me not because it was loud, but because it was so quiet. If I hadn’t spent a whole calendar year in one dorm or another… I never had anywhere to go on the holidays and I’d worked my way through the summer session… I would have told myself that it was so quiet that I must be hearing someone knocking on another person’s door. But I knew the way sounds involving doors other than one’s own resonated through the building, weirdly undiminished by distance. Knocks on nearby doors sounded so loud that you thought they had to be on yours, until someone knocked on yours and the immediacy jumped out at you. This was not a regular knock heard from some distance away, it was a very shy knock on the one mere feet away from my desk.

I hated unexpected knocks. One of the reasons I liked the four person suite was that it meant two of the people most likely to come around to see us could usually walk right in, and if they did knock I’d know it was them and not someone else. Life as a half-demon had taught me that the unexpected was often unpleasant.

The knock came again, a little louder but not much more certain. It was hard to be afraid of someone with a knock like that. I got up from the desk… aware as I pushed back my chair that I was making too much noise for pretending not to be in to be an option… and went over, standing on my toes to look through the peephole.

I was almost relieved to see that the would-be visitor was already turning to leave, but a glimpse of her horned head made me reach for the doorknob before I even thought about why.

Twyla wasn’t exactly my friend, but she’d never been anything like an enemy. If she was showing up at my dorm room, I was suddenly more curious than worried.

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32 Responses to “Chapter 21: The Unexpected”

  1. Bubble says:

    Bloody good chapter, loved the intro.
    Just out of curiosity, I wonder how things like meteors are explained in Mu. Bits of the sky ‘ceiling’ falling off?

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    • Oni says:

      There’s always the explanation from “Stardust”.

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    • TheTurnipKing says:

      I think meteors would probably be an “act of (insert deity here)”.

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  2. Adele says:

    “That made what happened next a little bit like being stabbed in the back by a trusted friend.”

    Ooh, hook!

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    • Zergonapal says:

      erm, maybe she is just talking about the required reading, except it sounds unnecessarily dramatic, but on the otherhand it is Mack.

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  3. Null Set says:

    From the subtitle, I was *sure* this chapter was gonna have Ian in it.

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    • erianaiel says:

      But you should know by now that the subtitles never have only one meaning and that the direct interpretation never is the right one either.
      That said, I expected this chapter involving Ian a bit more too … 🙂

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      • Sapphite says:

        Much like predicting magic, the direct interpretation is never the right one, except when it is.

        Very nice chapter – I’ve been really wanting some domestic experience from the new living arrangement. Great tease for what comes next as well.

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    • Krey says:

      I wish that had been the case! Remember when this story used to have sexy chapters?

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  4. HiEv says:

    Thanks. I always like the ones that get into the technical bits about magic.

    One note, this part: “because I couldn’t imagine anyone more stunning: tall, at least in comparison to me.” I’d change the colon into a period and move the rest after that into the beginning of the next paragraph. Either that or make those two paragraphs into one paragraph so the colon makes sense there.

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    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      Agreed. The paragraph break as is seems really awkward to me, enough that it jarred me out of the flow of the story when I read it.

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      • Lunaroki says:

        Same here. I had to stop and analyze the structure of the sentences and paragraphs in that section to make sure I understood what was going on before I could reread that part and move on. It is quite awkwardly constructed and interrupts the flow of the narrative.

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  5. Zathras IX says:

    If in fact all Men
    Are Brothers, would you let your
    Sister marry one?

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    • erianaiel says:

      *grumbles* I always hated that kind of saying … I mean it was none of my brothers’ business who I dated or married. And they certainly do not have the authority (neither legally nor morally) to allow or deny me to do anything I want.

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    • OhPun says:

      One of my best friends was dating my sister. Another friend wondered, privately to me, how awkward it would be if the first guy married my sister and I asked “Are you getting any? wink wink nudge nudge.” It turns out that the first guy ended up marrying my other friend’s sister.

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  6. Another Greg says:

    I like speculating about Mother Khaele. Here’s to her (hopefully) bemused blessings. It’s always a worry to attract the attention of divine powers when you’re of an infernal inclination, though. Anonymity is it’s own reward.

    P.S. Glad to see Twyla getting some air time 🙂

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  7. Vee says:

    I knew it was Twyla by the sound of the knock. I’m so excited!

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    • Krey says:

      Book 2 is called, “The Trouble with Twyla” so I expect we’ll be seeing lots of her.

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  8. Triof says:

    Unrelated question, but wasn’t Ian supposed to be taking a history class with her? Or was that last term?

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  9. Brenda says:

    I’ve definitely been there on the putting-off-the-assigned-reading thing… The worst was when no one had read the assignment and then the professor told us to explain and debate the two sides of the issue in the article…

    I hope Mack has a chance to finish the actual spell she’s supposed to do before class!

    Twyla came as a total surprise to me. My first thought was Sooni, although on reflection that would have been sustained, loud pounding rather than just a regular knock.

    I wonder what Twyla wants to talk to Mack about?

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    • Alico says:

      Your first paragraph reminded me of one of my college professors from last year. On the second day of creative writing, most of the people had not read the assigned reading. His comment about the situation?

      “What are you, a bunch of 7th graders? Do I need to babysit you? No, DO YOUR FUCKING HOMEWORK.”

      One of the best quotes I have heard from a college prof so far!

      On the story itself, I really do love the way you brought Twyla in without me even expecting it, even though the name of this book is The Trouble With Twyla. Brilliant chapter! Oh, and thanks for updating on my birthday, I was wondering if I was going to get a gift from ToMU =D

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  10. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    I ended the second day of classes on my sophomore year feeling pretty good about things…

    I don’t think “on” is the right word there. I think “in” or “of” would work better.

    In any event, I was already good eight pages in and starting a third spell when there was a knock on the door.

    Think there’s an “a” missing between “already” and “good”.

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  11. Month says:

    Twyla wants something from Mac. Something she doesn’t feel really comfortable. So, most probably is a personal question (how does it feel to be a lesbian, perhaps? Nah.), or something that she knows that will bring harm to Mac.

    We only need to wait and see.

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  12. Forum Solipsist says:

    Mack is socially awkward, and things with Twyla didn’t start off well. However, part of that was because everyone assumed Twyla was the half demon since she had horns, and that made life more awkward for her in general.
    However, Mack is damn good at teh magiks. We’ve already had an indication that Twyla has maybe a bit more power than control. Who else is the socially cut off part-dragon going to be able to ask for a bit of help than the person who has actually tried to have a normal conversation with her that didn’t go too badly? Especially given that they have got a bit of history at least. Heck in a strange (but totally Mack) way there might even be a bit of giri there…

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  13. Yay, metalearning!

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  14. readaholic says:

    Heh heh heh. Here I was, expecting some dreadful revelation from Amaranth, and the “stab in the back from a beloved friend” turns out to be the homework. Or does it??

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    • erianaiel says:

      Could have been Steph too 😉

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  15. Bee says:

    “To say that I enjoyed Amaranth’s company was an understatement, but she had a way of filling up a room with sound and light that made it hard to concentrate on anything else, or even sometimes on her.”

    Does that sound to anyone else like Amaranth’s secretly doing that “expose Mack to small amounts of divinity to build up resistance” thing?

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    • Jennifer says:

      Nah, that’s just love. Divinity in even the smallest amounts causes Mack a lot of pain, and based on past readings, it doesn’t seem to be psychosematic…. even if she doesn’t know something has been blessed (like a pen), she feels it – and if someone is sincerely praying, she can feel that too.

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      • bramble says:

        Well, both blessing and praying are focused, active uses of divine energy; it’s possible that low levels of passive divine energy, if such a thing is possible, would be distracting rather than outright painful to Mack. Wasn’t there speculation that Winnie’s laugh is somehow infused with divine energy, and that’s why Mack finds it so annoying? I wouldn’t be surprised if a being such as Amaranth constantly emitted a tiny amount of divine energy without meaning to – background radiation, if you will.

        Or it could be nothing more than that Mack is in love, and rather distractable, anyway.

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  16. pedestrian says:

    Remember the danger from anti-demon bigots and how Amaranth began the BDSM show at the club. I have been considering that Amy should, every two or three days, flash? Our Mack with low levels of divine light.

    To see if careful exposure and slowly dialing up the intensity could assist Mackenzie into building up a tolerance too some foe attacking her with a holy weapon?

    The girls would love sharing the loving agony.

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