Chapter 101: Empty Rooms, Empty HallsAlexandra Erin on July 20, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Listens To Fear
As much to move the conversation on as for anything else, I asked Amaranth if she still had the letter that Ariadne had sent to Acantha, or if she’d forwarded it Lee’s office herself.
“Oh, yes,” Amaranth said. “I figured that I would think about it sooner than you would, so I just took care of it myself.”
It was a pretty diplomatic way of saying that she was less likely to forget it than I was, which I appreciated since I hadn’t forgotten it… again.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I engaged a courier, so he’ll definitely have it today,” Amaranth said. “I can’t imagine Professor Ariadne hovering around the campus mailroom looking for anything that might relate to her, but… well, if nothing else this shaves some time and chances for it to get mislaid off the journey, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What did you tell him about it?”
“Well, he’s already familiar with your history with Ariadne singling you out and basically refusing to teach you,” she said. “So I just said in the cover letter that she had sent this letter to at least one of your teachers and she forwarded it to you, and we’d like him to have it in case she does anything else or there’s anything he thinks he can do with it, that we’d trust his judgment about whether it’s worth pursuing anything or not.”
“Yeah, I think that about covers it,” I said. “I almost hate to bug him about it… but…”
“Baby, you’re paying his retainer because things like this keep happening,” she said.
“I know,” I said. “But my life has been quiet for a while.”
“That just means it’s time you put him back to work,” Amaranth said.
“He does have other clients,” I said.
“And they pay him, too.”
I could have pointed out that I was pretty sure Lee was still giving us a lot of breaks. He’d taken my original case against the school on a contingency basis and then an anonymous donation had taken care of that anyway, but we’d kept needing his advice and help… advice more often than help, thankfully… on other things that it just made sense to start paying him. Defying all lawyer jokes, he’d brushed us off the first few times we asked him what we owed for the consultations. Finally he’d agreed to let us pay him what seemed like a very small fee each month and promised to tell us if we took up enough of his time to go over.
It seemed like the “dealing kindly with small children” version of actual legal billing, though perhaps with more emphasis on the kindness part than the children part.
He’d never sent us a bill for additional time or fees, and barring an actual court case, I couldn’t imagine it happening. I supposed this was a sign that he genuinely didn’t mind helping me out, but it made me all the warier of taking advantage of his time too often.
Then again, that might have been why he felt comfortable with the arrangement.
In any case, it was his business what he charged for his services and did with his time. If he needed more money to look at a letter, it wasn’t like he’d be at a loss for how to let us know.
Since Nicki hadn’t joined us for lunch, I was really looking forward to seeing her in our design class in the afternoon so I could ask for her help with my hair. I had literally no idea what to do with it, or how to go about doing it. I had some vague memories of my mother trying various things with clips and braids when I was younger, but my grandmother had seen hair as something to be dealt with rather than something to do.
Excited as I was, I felt an odd resistance when I actually stepped into the design building. It wasn’t quite a physical sensation, though that was how I registered it… like brushing up against a wall unexpectedly. When I realized I hadn’t actually hit anything, I thought that maybe I’d run into a spider web… though three people had walked through the same space just before me.
The feeling of having run into something wasn’t going away, but the longer I stood there the more obvious it was that it was a feeling and not an actual barrier. There were people coming up behind me, though, so I didn’t linger to probe the mystery any deeper.
There had been a break-in and attempted theft of a dwarven artifact. The coronation sword model was gone now, but it was possible that the school would have decided to implement new security measures anyway just as a matter of principle.
Nobody coming in at the same time remarked upon it, but they might have been distracted. A lot of them seemed really happy to be going to whatever class they had in the Emily Center, since they walked in with big smiles on their faces. It was possible that much like the wards that protected the city walls of Enwich, they hit me with a higher level of scrutiny than human students got.
But then, I hadn’t felt scrutinized, or even invaded… more rejected. Unwelcome. Now that I was through, I felt uneasy… though that seemed less like an external thing, and made a lot of sense, given the circumstances.
I couldn’t say I’d ever felt too at home in the design building. I understood that the center of the school’s art and creativity programs wasn’t going to be a big boxy brick building, but whoever was responsible for the center’s layout had taken idiosyncratic design to new heights… or lows.
The sheet metal signs with the letters punched out were kind of cute. The frequent use of skylights and giant glass walls to let in sunlight was kind of welcome. The long looping hallways and floor plan that basically required you to traverse the length of the building twice to get anywhere, though, was something I could do without.
With function so badly neglected, all the little formal touches seemed cutesy and annoying rather than deliberate and clever. No corners anywhere? What a free-spirited thinker the architect must have been. Corrugated sheet metal hanging from the ceiling? How quirky and fresh!
The worst part of it was that with no rhyme or reason to the floorplan, it was hard to remember how to navigate it, especially when coming back after a weekend. I liked to show up early rather than running to get to my classes on time, but I had to allow extra time for the Aesthetics of Design class because stupid building made no sense.
It probably would have been overly optimistic of me to expect my new eyes-open policy to fix that on day one, but I thought I could at least learn the route better so I wouldn’t have to mess around with it in the future. I pushed aside the lingering sense of worry and set off for the hall that would eventually lead me to Professor Stone’s class.
Somehow, though, I ended up walking all the way around and back again to end at the front entrance. I had to have walked right past the classroom.
Okay… well, there was really no reason for me to be alarmed by that. I just had to turn around and backtrack and not only would I be at the classroom, I’d know how to get there from the front door without going the long way around. I’d made the reverse trip often enough. Nothing to be afraid of.
I turned around and headed back the direction I’d came… or the direction I’d thought I’d came. But I saw that would just take me right into a little curved ornamental wall covered with a mosaic of irregularly shaped tiles and a little indoor garden of palm trees.
I couldn’t remember walking around that… just walking down the long, curving corridor and then I was at the front door.
Still no reason to worry, I told myself. I figured that I must have slipped back into old habits and just zoned out for a bit. It certainly was within my capabilities to have walked past any number of aggressively interesting architectural features without noticing them. I walked around the arboreal display and headed for a corridor that looked like the one my classroom was in. The rooms were round and offset to each other so that the hallway had a wavy shape.
There were no signs hanging outside any of the rooms, though, and all the doors were closed… and locked. Okay, empty rooms shouldn’t have been scary, but I couldn’t help feeling a little… put off? I didn’t know a lot about the Glamour & Design Center, but I found it weird that there would be a whole wing of a big and obviously expensive building that would be sitting unused.
Trying to head back to the lobby, I somehow got turned down a branch of the hallway I hadn’t noticed and ended up at a side door that some custodian must have left propped open, to judge by the smell of dumpsters on a hot day that wafted through it. I turned around to go back to the main branch of the hallway and this time I perked up my eyes and ears, enchanter-style… but the only things I could hear were my own footsteps, breath, and heartbeat.
I eased back on the magic ears until I could no longer hear my pulse pounding in my ears. It was really the last thing I needed when I was already feeling so edgy, a relentless thump-thump noise following me everywhere.
I didn’t have the experience to know how far off I should be able to hear the sounds of people in other rooms from, but I shouldn’t have been the only person in the hall. I would think some of that sound would carry. On that subject, something sounded off about my the echoes of my footsteps… but again, it wasn’t like I knew how to decode them. There was just a general sense of wrongness about it.
It made me feel a little panicky, though maybe I only thought it was wrong because I was starting to verge on panic already?
Then I heard the sounds that signaled “outdoors”… birds and bugs and plants moving in the wind… just before I rounded a corner and found myself looking at the same exit door again. It looked like it wasn’t my sense of direction that was betraying me, after all.
The sun and the fresh… ish… air took the edge off the fear that had been nibbling around my edges, but it started to creep back as I stopped and thought about what was happening. Even with my limited experience interpreting my senses, I was almost positive that the door hadn’t been around the corner much longer than I was.
Fighting a mounting sense of dread, I decided to turn around and try to retrace my steps again.
The third time I ended up by the dumpster door I was sure that it wasn’t me. Maybe that seems like I was a little slow on the uptake, but if you had my sense of direction… my mother used to say that I could get lost in a strip mall.
I tried to feel for a tingle of magic I could try to trace or unravel, but other than a slightly high background level I couldn’t really detect anything. Somehow, that worried me more than if I’d found something.
Maybe I’d wandered into somebody’s experiment. Maybe the school was trying to expand the Emily Center from the inside. Maybe I’d breathed in some spores from the gap moss… if moss had spores. I didn’t think that it did, come to think of it, but I was also pretty sure it didn’t have seeds. Maybe I’d breathed in some of whatever moss had instead of seeds.
That sounded right, but wrong.
Maybe they did have spores…
Regardless, going out the side door was seeming like a more attractive prospect each time, and the third time was the charm.
As soon as I was out, I felt a lot better. Then I realized that I’d broken out of the loop or effect or whatever it was, and I could probably still make it to class if I started from the beginning again… assuming it didn’t just happen again.
Somehow it didn’t feel like it would. I felt so normal, outside in the open air, so different than I’d felt inside, that it seemed like it was worth a shot.
I was pretty sure that getting to class on time was going to be a very close thing by that point… and sure enough, I’d just pushed my way past the barrier-feeling for the second time when the bell rang to signal the start of class.
I was just thinking that if I could avoid any further weirdness I could make it in near enough to the beginning of the period to be let off with a quick apology, but then the streams of student bodies coming down the halls told me that the bell had been for the end of class.
My first thought was that I by some stroke of luck I’d happened to show up earlier than I’d thought, but then I saw a flash of lime green hair in the press of people and spotted Nicki coming towards me. A moment later she spotted me. I stepped out of the way of the crowd and let her come to me, rather than trying to swim upstream.
“Hey, what happened?” she said. “Did you get lost, or something?”
“What makes you say that?” I said, taken a little aback by her wording.
“…because you weren’t in class and you usually are?” she said. “I might have thought you had an encounter with the Monday Monster, except… you’re here now?”
“I was here earlier, too,” I said. “I don’t know, I think someone’s messing with me… I think I need to get out of here.”
My sense of time could just about rival my sense of direction, but I knew it wasn’t that bad and I knew I hadn’t been wandering for that long. Something had either been messing with my perception of time, or my actual passage through it… both were incredibly worrying possibilities in their own ways.
If I couldn’t trust my perceptions, then there was little point in trying to sharpen them… or learning how to protect myself. Not that I would give up, but it would be a bit like building fifty foot walls around a city with a gate that can’t be closed… all the effort in the world could be undone in a second.
If someone was messing with time, though, that implied a whole lot of power. Altering the flow of time was tricky, power-consuming, and dangerous. Skipping someone forward in time was less so, but couldn’t be called simple or easy except in comparison to altering time itself. As I understood it, it made teleportation look like a walk in the park unless you used what was called “the slow method”… which probably fell more under altering perceptions.
Perceptions sounded more likely… despite my beefed-up mental defenses, I did still have a thin spot where my father had intruded into my sleep. If the effect was telepathic then there wouldn’t be anything magical for me to detect, and if it were magical… well, if someone could make me think I was lost in a crazy hallway for a few minutes while I hung out by the side door for more than an hour or whatever, how hard would it be to make me think that I’d tried to detect magic and found nothing?
It was a scary thought. For that matter, I could have been doing something more than just hanging out while I’d been under their influence… assuming there was a “them” and an “influence” involved.
Now that I was standing still, the whole thing was really starting to remind me of my experiences in the school’s labyrinth. I didn’t feel lost or confused so much as manipulated. Whether the effect was tied to the building or to me personally, it definitely hadn’t started until I’d stepped inside so I felt like the safest thing to do was get out.
“Okay… you want company?” Nicki asked.
“Yeah, I don’t need to be alone, I just don’t want to be here,” I said.
“Cool, let’s go,” she said and we headed for the door. I felt a variation of the unwelcome feeling, though this time it was more active than passive and instead of standing in the way of my progress it was all but pushing me towards the door.
“Do you feel that?” I asked Nicki, stopping in my tracks.
“Anything,” I said, deciding not to describe it… I didn’t want to lead her in a particular direction. “Anything weird.”
“Well… Emily has been kind of quiet today?” she said.
I nodded. There hadn’t been any sounds of other students or any activity while I’d been wandering the back halls, if they were real halls at all. Maybe it was related or maybe it wasn’t.
“But you don’t feel anything right now?”
She tilted her head.
“…impatience, maybe?” she said.
“Sorry,” I said. I decided to explain it to her later, when I had a better handle on what the hell was actually happening. There was a better chance I’d be able to actually explain it then. “I did say I wanted to get out of here, didn’t I?”
“I’m following you,” she said.
The immense feeling of relief I felt when I stepped outside the building was almost a scary thing in and of itself.