Chapter 25: Breath of Fear

on August 12, 2011 in Volume 2 Book 2: The Trouble With Twyla, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Steff Gets Serious

My mouth had suddenly gone very dry, but that was okay because I could no longer taste the chicken I’d just taken a bite off. I forced it down my throat.

It had always been a little cool for my tastes in the big open dining area inside the Arch… not quite uncomfortably so, just a little cool. Now I felt a chill clinging to every inch of exposed skin.

My mind replayed my encounter with Twyla, her standing right in front of me. Her horns had seemed longer… in my mind, I saw them growing larger still, more curved and pointed. She loomed larger.

Twyla… unassuming Twyla. The only person I’d ever met who could recede into the background better than me who wasn’t a gnome. The girl I thought of as kind of mousy. I didn’t know her enough to say she was particularly nice, but she was certainly among the less mean girls of the Harlowe Hall freshman class of 222.

Could it possibly be true?

“Baby?” Amaranth said, reaching for my hand and then giving it a squeeze.

“What’d I say?” Steff asked. “There isn’t some weird midlands human thing where it’s rude to talk about sneezing, is there? I think I would have noticed that by now… not that I go around talking about sneezing all the time… or caring about what people think is rude.”

I tried to shake off the growing image of a strangely lipless Twyla staring at me with all the intensity of a cat hypnotizing a mouse.

It couldn’t be true.

Maybe it wasn’t… it sounded like something from a joke. It really did. Sneezing fire. Even though it wasn’t quite in keeping with Steff’s sense of humor, I clung to the faint hope that this was all it was.

“Why… why do you keep saying she sneezed?” I asked, sputtering a little

“Because she did,” Steff said. “Twyla didn’t make fire… her nose did. That’s why I said ‘gesundheit’ right after… didn’t you hear me?”

“I did hear you say it, but I thought you were just being funny, you know?” I said.

Though it wasn’t really all that funny either way. Sneezing fire fire was like a bad joke… like the kind you get in a birthday card or a kid’s TV show. That was the only sort of place you ever heard about anything sneezing fire.

Still, even the worst joke was still better than a terrifying truth…

“Well, yeah,” Steff said. “But it wouldn’t have been funny if she’d, say, burped fire. Except maybe from a theater-of-absurd perspective? Because while I can kind of see that, it seems a little avant-garde for this crowd.”

“You didn’t think the fact that she sneezed fire was remarkable?” I asked. The fact that she was so calm about it was sharpening an edge of desperation on the dread rising up inside my stomach.

Demons could produce flames, and ifrits could conjure them from air, and elemental creatures like salamanders were made out of living flame, but who sneezed fire?

“Of course it was… I remarked on it. I said gesundheit,” Steff said. “What? It’s perfectly normal for her tray to burst into flames but it’s worth remarking on if the fire came out of her nose? What did you think happened.”

“At the time I just figured it was a spell that got away from her,” I said. “Any first year student with the right classes might be able to accidentally start a fire, or have one get away from them.”

“I’m not sure what the big deal is,” Steff said. “Is somebody sneezing fire scarier or worse than somebody uncontrollably producing fire other ways?”

“Um, I think it’s more a matter of the field of possible candidates suddenly narrowing if you refine it from ‘producing fire’ to ‘sneezing fire’… or, rather, breathing it,” Amaranth said.

She had it. There was no widely-known variety of creature or being who specifically sneezed fire… but there were some who were known to exhale flames and were theoretically capable of sneezing, which is why this sort of thing was considered the height of all-ages humor when it came to sickly dragons.

Not that all dragons exhaled fire. But for people who’d never been up close and personal one, the big billowing gout of flame breath was the most dramatic and iconic image of a dragon available.

For those who had seen one up close, the most dramatic image of a dragon was a dragon.

Or, in my case, a smiling, silver-haired man in a suit. There was little that a flash of destructive breath could have added to that image in my head.

“Oh… wait… do dragons have horns?” Steff said as she caught on. “Because it would be weird if she’s part dragon and also part whatever does have horns. Though I suppose having human and dragon blood in the same body suggests at least one ancestor of an adventurously amorous nature, so maybe the weird thing is that she doesn’t have more extra parts?”

“Some dragons have horns,” Amaranth said. “The first generations of dragons were a lot more… individuated… than most races, so there are strong variations among their descendants. The ones that do have horns come in wildly varying numbers and sizes and shapes, so really it would be hard to say if her horns in particular say anything in regard to dragonhood.”

She was using her authoritative voice, which strangely she used most often when she was trying to hedge things… like uncertainty was the thing she was most certain of. Or like the less clear the truth was, the more sure she needed to be of herself. In any event, I could tell what she was trying to do… there was no way, sitting around the table, to prove that Twyla’s horns hadn’t come from a dragon so she was pointing out how hard it would be to prove that they did.

The uncertainty didn’t help much… I’d never been convinced that she was part dragon, the mere possibility had been enough to get under my skin and start clawing around.

But it helped a little, if only because my mind was more inclined to focus on the possibility that she was than the equally possible chance that she wasn’t.

“Um… not to say anything one way or the other about Twyla,” Ian said, “but red dragons almost always have horns. Gold dragons, too… and those are the most common fire-breathers. A lot of pyromancers use one or the other in their personal crests, or have those little mockdragons as familiars… the mocks don’t usually have horns, so they have them altered to be more ‘realistic’. Reds in particular tend to have horns like goats, or those antelope that look like they have javelins sticking out of their skulls.”

I tried to picture Twyla’s horns… their color, in particular, because I imagined that if they were crowning a full-sized dragon’s skull they’d be quite a bit larger. They seemed in my head to be… well, horn-colored. Kind of ruddy. They didn’t really stand out that much from her slightly pink skin or her blonde hair.

Were a red dragon’s horns red like their scales, or more whitish? Either way I imagined them seemed to work… and so did Twyla’s horns, if they were bigger. I just couldn’t see their color standing out or looking unnatural.

“Are her horns maybe kind of… velvety?” Amaranth said. “Like antlers? I mean, I’ve never handled them but that’s how they look to me. I think a dragon’s horns would be more… horn-like.”

“Well, you did just say a few minutes ago that she’s not very horny,” Steff said.

“I haven’t seen her that much, but I think they’re definitely more bone-like,” Ian said. “I wouldn’t call them velvety.”

“Mmm, maybe I’m wrong,” Amaranth said. “But then I tend to think of fawn horns as velvety, too, even though they’re usually not… just one of those expectations versus reality things, I guess.”

“Velvety, horny, bone… is there any way to talk about horns that doesn’t sound like something you’d find either in romance novels or slash fiction?” Steff asked. “Anyway, why are we suddenly concerned at the idea that Twyla might be part dragon?”

That was a hard question to answer. For me, it had a really obvious answer, but that answer wasn’t easy to give.

Magisterius University’s vice-chancellor was a greater silver dragon who had adopted human form and gone into school administration for reasons of his own, reasons that probably amounted to someone extended an empire into his territory and then built a school in the middle of it and it was something for him to do.

I’d had my own close encounter with Mr. Edmund Embries during my freshman year, though I couldn’t talk about it. My friends knew the barest outline of it.

As a metallic dragon, Embries was classed as a “noble dragon”, one of those admired for prizing the same qualities that humans and the people humans think of as civilized also prize. That didn’t mean he was nice, or good, or even necessarily decent.

The authorities knew about him, but they were content to get along with him. He wasn’t rampaging through the countryside or extorting money. His impact on the local population was probably not much compared to those lost to ghouls and the nastier things that lived in the woods. Whatever deal they had with him was probably considered to be a model of imperial-draconic relations.

I couldn’t deny that it was better for everyone involved for a being as powerful as a greater dragon to be at peace with the political entity temporarily existing in the same space he’s claimed for himself, but the Imperial Republic isn’t just a government, it’s people, and any deal that protected the Imperium but not its people was not a good one.

“To be strictly factual…” Amaranth said, her voice tinged with a level of uncertainty I wouldn’t have ordinarily associated with facts, “we don’t even know for certain that she breathed fire… I mean, did you actually see her blowing fire out of her nose, Steff?”

“No, Amy, but these ears don’t lie,” Steff said.

“Well, they might be giving you an accurate report, but you’re combining statements from two different witnesses and then trying to fill in the gap between them yourself,” Amaranth said.

“Have multiple orgasms?” Steff said.

“What?” Ian said.

“I mean, come again?” Steff clarified. “I am the gap between my ears and eyes.”

“No comment,” Ian said.

“You heard a sneeze, then you saw fire,” I said, seeing what Amaranth was getting at. “Sneezing is a pretty big distraction and loss of control… she wouldn’t have had to actually sneezed fire for the sneeze to be the immediate cause of it.”

Even as I said it, though, it sounded pretty thin… I knew she wasn’t dabbling with a fire spell or anything like that, or else she wouldn’t now be confused and concerned about what had happened. I’d had a few “sneezing plus fire” incidents when I was younger, so it was possible… but even if my face spouted flames involuntarily, that wouldn’t spray the whole top of a table with it.

But that seemed like the best place to leave it, given that we weren’t going to be able to prove anything one way or the other right then and there… or possibly ever, since the dragon issues I had didn’t actually do anything to make Twyla’s heritage my business.

So everyone kind of nodded and the conversation drifted listlessly away to other topics, though my mind stayed on dragons and kept coming back to them throughout the evening.

My dreams that night came in fragments. I’d say I dreamed about dragons, but that suggests a scenario, events. There wasn’t anything so coherent as that… just snatches of eyes, teeth, and scales. More than images, though, there were emotions.

Not heart-pounding terror, but it’s slow and steady friend: creeping, inexorable dread.

When I first read up on lucid dreaming the year before, I came across more than one source that made it sound like having complete control over one’s dreams would flow naturally from the mere act of learning to recognize them. It’s a dream, after all, and more than that it’s your dream.

I’ve since learned that this is true… or seems true, while they’re dreaming… for some people, but it’s not the case for everyone. It’s definitely not for me. Learning that I wasn’t doing something wrong was a big relief, because the lucid dreaming books made it sound like it was something that would be basically automatic.

Really, if you think about it, it’s a pretty ridiculous idea… how much control do you have over your mind when you’re awake? I can imagine a bunny rabbit but I can’t make myself see one that isn’t there. I can try to ignore an unpleasant sight but I can’t remove it from my view by willing it not to be there.

Lucidity might be necessary to control a dream, but lucidity itself isn’t control. Some of the most vivid and clear experiences of my life have been the times when I had no control.

But I have learned to recognize dreams most of the time, and to wake myself up from them. When your dreams have been invaded as many times as mine have been, it’s sort of a matter of self-defense. It wasn’t something I did lightly, though… I’ve also gone through strings of unpleasant dreams often enough to know that trying to opt out of them night after night just turned me into a zombie during the day. Sleep was a need that both my demon and human sides possessed in equal measure, so it was one area where I was on the same playing field as most people around me.

Even that as an option never came up, though, because I never even fell deeply into a dream to recognize it or have a conscience reaction… I did wake up several times all the same.

The upside of this is that by the time morning rolled around and I had to get out of bed, I was more tired and cranky than afraid.

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34 Responses to “Chapter 25: Breath of Fear”

  1. Frelance says:

    “But for people who’d never been up close and personal one, the big billowing”


    Current score: 0
  2. Maahes0 says:

    I hope this doesn’t ruin her budding friendship.

    Current score: 1
  3. Dwight says:

    I really appreciated this bit in terms of thinking about present political realities: “but the Imperial Republic isn’t just a government, it’s people, and any deal that protected the Imperium but not its people was not a good one.” Well said indeed.

    Current score: 1
  4. sliversith says:

    Being ABSOLUTELY nit-picky, but missing a period at the end of:
    ‘“Why… why do you keep saying she sneezed?” I asked, sputtering a little’

    Great chapter, as always.

    Current score: 0
  5. anon y mouse says:

    “I could no longer taste the chicken I’d just taken a bite off” – do you mean ‘bite of’?

    Sneezing fire fire was like a bad joke…” – do you mean to have ‘fire’ twice?

    “Except maybe from a theater-of-absurd perspective?” – do you mean for this to be a question? (You have Steff asking other questions that could be statements, so it’s probably intentional, but I’ll leave this just in case it isn’t.)

    Current score: 0
  6. Speight says:

    I guess any suggestion to keep Twyla’s ancestry under wraps has its limits? Seems like they would have probably guessed it earlier without any such impediment…

    One more typo:
    have a conscience reaction – looks like it should be “conscious”.

    Tiny nitpick: might a word be missing from “theater-of-absurd”? sounds a little off to my ears without a “the” before “absurd”.

    Current score: 0
  7. K-Li says:

    A great chapter, but someone needs to salt Amaranth or build a shopping mall on her or something equally final. Even Callahan is turning out to be a better influence on poor Mack than that nymph.

    I don’t see her ever getting that collar, now that I think on it, since it would waste all her father’s effort. The question is whether Mack sees how bad she is or whether Khaele sees it first.

    Current score: 0
    • Havartna says:

      “A great chapter, but someone needs to salt Amaranth or build a shopping mall on her or something equally final.”

      Holy crap that is funny!

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      • Zukira Phaera says:

        bookstore – books mysteriously appearing and disappearing, including ones that were never there in the first place. “I think we’re haunted by the nymph who lived in the field we built on”

        I didn’t really find Amy objectionable this chapter, mind, outside the quibbling for the sake of quibbling on details bit but it was reasonable for someone to do just to make sure all avenues were explored I suppose. Still, it smells of motive to snoop because of Amy’s curiosity in the matter. The fire is clearly being fueled.

        So as a footnote, if this were to happen to amy where someone ‘did away with her’ permanently – yeah totally have to be with a bookstore atop her field. Perhaps with a wide variety of romances and porn.

        Current score: 1
    • Abeo says:

      I’m not sure where this is coming from to be honest. Amaranth didn’t do anything in this chapter that was objectionable. She was just trying to stop people jumping to conclusions. Which is generally the reasonable way to go about things.

      As far as Mackenzie’s father goes… the guy is a creep. He is dangerously, even murderously, self-centred at BEST. His “efforts” are unlikely to benefit Mackenzie and I would regard their “waste” as a positive change in her life.

      Current score: 1
      • K-Li says:

        Not jumping to conclusions is all well and good, but that is not what is going on here. Amaranth is simply rationalizing her desire to have Mack go poking around in Twyla’s background, and is plainly willing to sacrifice Mack’s relationships with other people to satisfy her curiosities, because she’s unable to convince herself that it’s OK for her to go find out for herself. Everyone around her knows it’s a bad idea and none of her business, and she ignores them. In this particular case, it’s unlikely to cause lasting harm, unless she forces Mack to interrogate a professor or Twyla has a relative who is prickly about the family bloodline, but this is also not the first time Amaranth has acted with callous disregard for Mack or anyone else outside her own addled head.

        As for the father, he’s a demon, and it is not to be expected that he will act in the interest of anyone but himself, and he’s not in any way ‘good’ for Mack, either. I was simply saying that the time invested thus far makes it likely that he’d intervene directly or provoke Khaele into intervening to end the Amaranth relationship before Amaranth decides that Mack needs to do something in line with her twisted ethos that gets Mack killed.

        Current score: 0
        • Havartna says:

          I’m not entirely sure that Twyla’s “background” is what Amaranth is trying to get Mack to “poke around in.”

          On second thought… maybe that is accurate after all 🙂

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        • TLOU says:

          Wow new reader aren’t you? Twyla is adopted and has been desperately seeking her natural born family her whole life, this was covered early in the first book.

          Personally I think Amys’ pushing Mack to talk to the professor is triple fold. 1- get info about Twyla 2- Continue to get Mack to socialize outside their little circle 3- try to keep up the relationship between Mack and the prof which could be very influential for Mack. Amy has many faults but she truly cares for Mack enough that if her mother does finally decide against their relationship that Amy will defy her.

          I do suggest you read the start of the first book.

          Current score: 0
          • K-Li says:

            Not so much, actually. Truth be told, I came to the conclusion that Amaranth was toxic shorty after Barley made her exit, if memory serves, updating it to ‘irredeemably toxic’ after the details of her origin came out. She’s fundamentally broken, and probably incapable of real, lasting change, which is pretty typical for her entity archetype. That none of that is really her fault mostly excuses her having a twisted, self-destructive set of ethics. It doesn’t excuse her trying to push that onto someone else, and especially onto someone who is already having enough trouble obtaining the skills and attitudes she will need to not die at the hands of a Mercy or a Gloria or a Feejee or someone else who isn’t interested in discussing her rights as a person.

            Current score: 0
            • Bramble says:

              But the thing is, Mack will probably also come across more people like Amaranth – people who will be willfully blind to the dangers of what Mack is and, in trying to prove to her/themselves/the world at large that she’s not inherently evil, will push her a little too hard toward their idea of good. And Mack is learning the skills and attitudes she needs to not get herself killed by hanging around the next person who is too vocal about Mack’s heritage not mattering or being a positive force, without completely rejecting the “you are not evil” message and spiraling back into self-loathing or worse. The next “benefactor” who approaches her may have power or authority over her which Mack does not willingly grant them, or may see her as a cause rather than a person. In such a case, the fact that she’s now spent a year learning to push back against a well-meaning but misguided authority may be very helpful.

              Current score: 1
            • erianaiel says:

              Yet for all her flaws and faults, Amaranth has been a tremendously positive effect on Mackenzie. Without her Mackenzie’s social interactions would have been defined by Puddy (who is an abusive bully) and Sooni (who is an abusive bully). And maybe Steff (who tries to be an abusive bully, but mostly ends up being a self destructive nihilist).

              And Mackenzie has been a positive influence on Amaranth as well. The Amaranth at the beginning of the first year was self-absorbed, convinced of her infallability (or rather was unable to imagine she could be wrong) and had no understanding of boundaries, let alone respect for them.
              Now, while she still has plenty of faults and still gallops into situations she has business involving herself in without thinking, she will listen to advice, will even ask for it (true, she more asks for confirmation that she knows best, but she at least asks), she admits to herself that there are things she does not know, and she accepts it when Mackenzie, or somebody else, corrects her.

              Current score: 0
        • Brenda says:

          I find it odd that this comment thread is in this chapter, where they are merely discussing an incident they previously witnessed, rather than in the last chapter, which is when Amaranth was trying to convince Mack to talk to the professor!

          Current score: 0
  8. Sir Bandiger says:

    Excellent! I heartily approve of the reference in the title. A quite enjoyable series of games.

    Also, in “Not heart-pounding terror, but it’s slow and steady friend: creeping, inexorable dread,” I believe it should be “its slow and steady friend.”

    Current score: 0
  9. Burnsidhe says:

    I can’t agree on Amaranth being a bad or poor influence on Mackenzie. I just don’t see where you got that impression, K-Li.

    It’s a nice chapter. Mack’s going to need to keep trying to deal with the events at the end of the last semester, since these things never really fade. And it might be Embries will that she never really forget, which means it’ll come up whenever Mack finds herself facing a dragon or half-dragon or some other dragon-kin.

    Current score: 0
    • K-Li says:

      In essence, it’s a pattern of behavior to which I object. Amaranth has little or no self control, and pushes against boundaries for no other reason than that they are boundaries (consider her petulance on the whole bestiality issue). In a young, callow college student, these are regrettable but almost inevitable character attributes. In the D half of a D/s relationship, though, they are inexcusable and often dangerous.

      Current score: 0
      • Burnsidhe says:

        Yes, and you’ll notice that Mack is willing to push back when Amaranth’s suggestions are inappropriate. And by her nature, it would be hard for Amaranth to *really* push Mack’s hard limits, the things Mack objects to.

        Current score: 0
      • Brenda says:

        Where do you see that behavior in this chapter?

        Current score: 0
  10. Erm says:

    “Well, you did just say a few minutes ago that she’s not very horny,” Steff said.


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  11. Zathras IX says:

    Firsthand knowledge of
    Draconian powers makes
    Mackenzie twice shy

    Current score: 1
  12. Lili says:

    Well done.
    Something like that which Embries put her through would leave scars and her reaction reminds us of that.
    So now we *may* have a Dragonkin about.
    I do SO enjoy these glimpses into Mack’s world.

    Current score: 0
  13. Ducky says:

    Like everyone else, my mind went to “dragon” after you really introduced them and after Steff’s comment last chapter, but I had totally forgotten Mackenzie’s very real dread of the creatures. This chapter left me feeling kind of sick and worried – nice job!

    Current score: 0
  14. Renshan says:

    I love the way Mackenzie now has someone she can have the same feelings about that other people have about halfdemons.
    Very well done!

    Current score: 0
    • Em says:

      good point! wow, i never thought of that. holy emotional growth spurt potential, bat-man!

      Current score: 0
  15. Stonefoot says:

    “Twyla… unassuming Twyla. The only person I’d ever met who could recede into the background better than me who wasn’t a gnome.” This sounds to me like a (perhaps unconscious) use of the draconic ability to influence minds. I wonder if there have been times when someone was being particularly hostile to Twyla and then, for no apparent reason, lost interest in her. If the dragon fraction of her ancestry is large enough, she probably could do that.

    Current score: 0
  16. TimeKitten says:

    Well, we did get part-dragon foreshadowing.

    I smirk a little at many stories of lucid dreaming. I think many people just go to sleep thinking and prepping for it… only to dream that they are lucid.

    Current score: 0
  17. Krista says:

    “Have multiple orgasms?” Steff said.

    “What?” Ian said.

    “I mean, come again?” Steff clarified.

    LOVE IT! Thankyou AE!

    Current score: 0
  18. erianaiel says:

    I wonder, if you ever do revisit chapters, if it would be possible to make the transition from friends talking over dinner to dreaming a bit more clear? As it is now it is rather easy to miss it and be totally confused as to how the subject of discussion could change from sneezing fire to unpleasant dreaming. It really is only the second half of a sentence that starts with not having more to say and ends with going to her room. I like subtle, but for location transitions probably not quite this subtle 🙂

    Current score: 0
  19. Sindyr says:

    Great chapter as always, AE! And good work on the audio tracks. 🙂

    Current score: 0
  20. Khazidhea says:

    “But for people who’d never been up close and personal one”
    Seems to be missing ‘with’ between personal & one

    Current score: 0