406: Mental Block

on August 22, 2009 in Book 14

In Which Mackenzie Is Given Some Things To Think About

That night, I received another visit… or maybe “visitation” would be the better word.

I found myself dreaming of the practice field, a place I had thought I was done with for the year now that Callahan had moved classes indoors for the winter. It was empty, but I could hear and almost see someone past the far side of the field, back by the trees. It sounded kind of like someone was splitting wood.

As I drew closer, it looked that way, too… I saw the man from my previous dream standing in front of a big tree stump, with an axe raised over his head. He brought it down… and an arm rolled off the stump and onto the ground. There was most of a body, missing only the head and an arm, draped over the stump.

Other bodies… some intact, some completely dismembered… littered the ground. They were all people I knew, mostly from Harlowe: Puddy, Mariel, Trina, Iona, Leda… it was Kiersta on the chopping block, though I only realized that when I spotted her head on the ground.

I felt strangely blank at the sight of it all… there was neither revulsion nor an awful hunger nor anything else. It was a surreal sight, and I was surreally apathetic about it. The fact that I knew it was a dream might have helped.

“Well, good morning, sleepyhead,” the man said. He took his hat off and mopped his brow. His hair underneath it was dark, like mine, but very short. It receded a bit at the temples.

I couldn’t think of him as my father… while I could acknowledge that in all probability he was, I just couldn’t apply the label to him as though it were a name or a title. I didn’t know him. He’d had nothing to do with me for my whole life.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Waiting for you to show up,” he said. He looked down at the carnage and grinned. “Guess I got a little bored.”

“Are you possessing me?” I asked. “Is that how you can keep showing up like this?”

“Do I seem like the possessive type?” he asked. “No, listen… when you let your friend with the tines get the best of you, it left a tiny little hole in you. To anyone… anyone like us… that hole would be an opening, a point of vulnerability. To me, it’s like a tunnel. Until it heals, I can crawl through it any time I want.”

“And how long will it take to heal?” I asked.

“Oh, it never will, as long as I keep coming along and wriggling through it,” he said. “So you don’t bother your head over it, you hear?”

“I’ll find a way to shut you out,” I said.

“Why would you want to do that? I haven’t done anything.”

“Yeah, and I want to keep it that way.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. He shoved Kiersta off the stump with his foot and then sat down, patting his lap obscenely. I ignored the implied invitation. I kept my eyes fixed on his face if only so I wouldn’t have to see what was on the ground all around us. It was my mind… if I ignored them, they might go away. “Suit yourself,” he said again. He nudged Kiersta’s body with the toe of his shoe. I winced as I looked down at it… so much for that plan. “You’ve got a lot of hate in your life, you know that?”

“Says the one with the axe.”

“I didn’t chop them up because I hate them,” he said. “I did it because they were here, and they were here because you hate them. Do you know how unproductive it is to go around carrying people you hate in your head?”

“I’m working on getting rid of them,” I said.

“You might work harder,” he said.

“I mean, on getting them out of my head,” I said. “You’re not helping.”

“The devil you say,” he said. “You didn’t care one way or the other until I made them uncomfortable to look at. So, that’s progress.”

“You said you were bored.”

“So? Silver lining,” he said. “Anyway, there’d be no harm in you taking out a little of your own aggression sometimes… if imaginary violence was against the law, they’d have to lock your boyfriend up, wouldn’t they?”

“That’s different,” I said. “It’s not like he’s a member of a race that’s known for actual lethal violence.”

“Oh, of course not. He’s a human.”

“There are human murderers, but not every human’s a murderer,” I said.

“No, but everyone’s got to eat.”

“Demons don’t just eat,” I said.

“Of course not,” he said. “We all have our little hobbies. Humans, demons, otherwise. You know what Jillian Callahan does in her spare time?”

“No, and I don’t want to know,” I said. “Though if you tell me she’s a serial rapist or a serial killer, I won’t be terribly surprised.”

“Not in this lifetime. Jillian Callahan writes a letter to the administration on a weekly basis asking for permission to kill you as part of an in-class demonstration,” he said in a don’t-that-beat-all tone. “She and the school butt heads over this at the start of every year… every year since they banned it in the first place… but this is the first year she’s stuck with it, and with such a focus on a particular student.”

“Why would she spend so much time trying to get me to learn how to fight if she wants to kill me?” I asked.

“Because she’s got to do something about you, I suppose,” he said. “She likes to kill, that’s the bottom line… but she’s focused on you, and she’s just one. Have you forgotten about the Widow Einhorn? She hasn’t forgotten about you.”

“If your point is that a tenure system ensures a certain number of lunatics will be able to hold down jobs, then point taken,” I said. “If your point is that I should feel free to murder people in my mind because they’re doing the same, you’ve got a ways to go.”

“Oh, well, let’s talk about students, then,” he said. “Do you think Miss Delia has never meditated on what she’d do with you if she decided you were too big a threat to be left alone? Let me tell you, she didn’t have to meditate long on it. Any other race… mortal ones especially… are barely more than animals to her, and you’re a dangerous animal.”

“You think you’re shocking me,” I said. “But I’m glad Dee lives next door to me… I’m glad there’s a psychic priestess with warrior training who can stop me if it comes to that.”

“If you’re glad of that, you’ll be thrilled to hear what your sweet little roommate’s been up to,” he said. “Why do you think she’s been doing so much demon research?”

“To help me, she said.”

“Yes, well, your golem friend sure has some different ideas about what things mean, doesn’t she?” he said. “She helps mend your clothes and clean up your messes, but what has she done with her newfound demon lore? Anything helpful?”

“So? I didn’t think she’d be able to help me much,” I said.

“She’s been taking precautions,” he said.

Good,” I said.

“Do you want to hear what they are?”

“No,” I said. “I want her to be safe. I don’t care how she does it.”

“Fair enough,” he said. “That mostly takes care of the friends who might want to someday kill you for your own good. You want me to start on the ones who want to do it for fun? Or should we move on to the enemies and perfect strangers who would be happy to see you go?”

“You think this is going to faze me? I’ve been dealing with this shit for nine years. It’s internalized now. I spent years sitting in a desk in a corner of the classroom, even after they decided to ‘re-integrate me’, because I was as terrified of what the other kids would do as they were of me,” I said. “There were parents demanding my execution at PTA meetings. That’s not even getting into what it was like living with my grandmother, who never missed an opportunity to tell me that she’d ‘do what needs doing, if it needs doing’.”

“Let’s talk about your grandmother,” he said.

“Let’s not,” I said.

“Could be important.”

“Not likely,” I said. “She’s my past. If she comes into my present, it’s going to mean I like her company better than yours.”

“Family’s family,” he said. “I would never make you choose, if it were up to me. But would you like to hear one interesting, useful thing about your grandmother?”

“No,” I said.

“I can swear to you the information will be useful,” he said.

“Then I really don’t want to know,” I said. “I don’t want to owe you anything.”

Owe? I think you got me confused with a dwarf, little lady,” he said. “If I’m not pressing the point, it’s because I don’t want you having anything else to worry about when you go into town tomorrow. I want you to be focused on getting through this thing.”

“So supportive,” I said.

“Oh, don’t think you’ll be getting off the hook that easily… I’ve got a lecture waiting for you when it’s all over,” he said. “There’s being gutsy, and then there’s just plain stupid, and betting your ass over some cheap jewelry is just plain stupid. Risk versus reward, baby girl. Risk versus reward.”

“It wasn’t cheap,” I said. “If it was cheap, I wouldn’t have had to make the deal to get it.”

“Yeah, when you’re poor, you think anything that costs more than you can afford to spend is sheer luxury,” he said, shaking his head. “Rich folks will throw themselves away over the strangest things, but poor folks will do it over the cheapest.”

“So what, I should have bargained her up to something more valuable?” I asked. “That would just give her more incentive to screw me over somehow.”

“You shouldn’t have done it in the first place,” he said. “Your invulnerable skin is a blessing… the only kind of blessing we get. You willingly let it be defaced with magic needles? Back in the day, a magic weapon was something rare and precious and terrible… now it’s something you use for decoration.”

“Yeah, back when dragons ruled the world,” I said.

“Oh, they still do,” he said. “At least compared to us. Do you know what the legal term is for when a dragon kills a mortal?”

“What?”

“Death by natural causes,” he said. “It’s not a crime, you see… not a tort of any sort, not what they call an actionable complaint. At the lower end of the spectrum, a dragon’s little more than an animal… an animal unlike any other your dear old mother-out-law ever dreamed up, but an animal… and at the other end, well, you might as well be suing a god. And we all know how well that turned out. Dragons… they burnt the whole damned world down once, you know… and are they anybody’s ‘ancient enemy’? No, they get treaties and conservation groups and imperial recognition and cushy office jobs.”

“Cushy… what?”

And us? We are forevermore rendered as hostem humani generis. Sort of rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Poetic, isn’t it? ‘Enemies of all mankind’,” he laughed. “They admire dragons, from a distance… but they kill us on sight.”

“They kill dragons, too,” I said. “Or at least they used to. The really big ones get left alone because they do less damage on their own devices than they’d do in an all-out war… and besides, the prevailing thought is that having dragons around prevents something worse from rising up. I don’t think the same thing can be said about demons.”

“Don’t you?”

“Demons only exist to hunt humans,” I said. “That’s the only reason you come back to this plane.”

“That is a fact,” he said. “And for our trouble, we are ‘hostem‘.”

“Are you implying that humans are as bad as what comes out of the chaos?”

“Not at all, little lady,” he said. “I’m suggesting that dragons are to demons as those… aberrations… are to humans. If humans didn’t have so many enemies, they’d cover this tiny sphere…”

“…like ants on a piece of fruit,” I said.

“Right you are. Every generation since Khersis first incarnated, there have been less and less of us, and more and more of them,” the man said. “And look what’s happened. Sea travel. Air travel. Even planar travel’s starting to take off in ways the folks who laid out the boundaries never anticipated. Healing has gone from something miraculous to something so cheap they can practically give it away. Magic weapons have gone from being the legendary artifacts that whole wars hinge on to being trendy accessories.”

“Seriously?” I said. “I mean, are you serious? You have all of human history you could be using to convince me that humans are evil and you’re actually the good guy who’s fighting against them and you choose to talk about progress?”

“There’s nothing in nature… or in supernature… that humans haven’t found, tinkered with, taken apart, and put back together,” he said. “Who knows where it will lead next? Who knows where it’ll end?”

“So we should just wipe them all out, I suppose, instead of waiting to see,” I said.

“Nah,” he said. “Perish the thought. I’ve got nothing against humans. I consider myself something of a humanitarian.” I snerked, against my will. In my defense, it was mostly scoffing at the literal meaning and only a tiny little bit of ingrained appreciation for the stupid pun. “See? I thought you’d like that. No, seriously, no one’s talking about wiping anyone out… well, humans are, maybe, and they’re doing it even when they’re not talking about it… but us? No. There’s a balance to things. They’re part of it. We’re part of it. The Big Kh really stepped in it, when he stepped in and started re-ordering creation because he couldn’t stand to see a few of his creatures who strayed out of bounds being eaten.”

“Oh, right, the fact that he pitched you all into hell was a terrible mistake,” I said.

“It was,” he said. “He threw us across the planes because he couldn’t destroy us… didn’t have the right, didn’t have the power. If passing through the flame couldn’t destroy us, what else could it do but make us immortal? We’re more powerful now than we ever were… more limited in certain ways, but more powerful. And that brings me to the reason I’m here.”

“Oh, so you’re not just killing time, then?” I asked.

“No, not just time,” he said. “The thing is, I know what you think you came here for: you want to be powerful.”

“You don’t know me at all,” I said. “I’m here to get an education. Knowledge might be power, but a four year education… even a graduate degree… isn’t exactly the sort of knowledge that people fight and die to control.”

“True enough,” he said. “That’s true enough. But what I said is true, too. You want to be an enchanter. Why? Because you heard they make good money, and you think if you have enough money, you’ll be able to do whatever you want and people will just leave you alone. That’s your ultimate goal, isn’t it? And everything along the way: education, career, even money… those are just steps towards it.”

“Yeah, okay, granted… but you can put ‘power’ in that chain, too,” I said. “Comfort and security are what I want. Education gets me a career, career gets me money, money gets me power, power gets me left the fuck alone. That’s what I want. I’m not interested in hearing lamentations or ruling the world from top of a big pile of skulls or anything like that, so if you’re going to launch into some big tempter speech, you might as well save your breath.”

“Why should I?” he asked. “I can afford to waste some breath. It’s not like I’m apt to run out. But do you really think industrial enchantment’s going to get you what you want?”

“It’s a lucrative field,” I said. “Everybody knows that.”

“Right, that’s exactly right,” he said. “Everybody does know that. You know, your little girlfriend likes to take exception to you saying things like that. She likes to take exception to a lot of things, it seems, but if she was here now, I don’t think she could argue with that: everybody knows there’s money to be made in enchantment, which is why everybody and her brother are looking to get into it. By the time you graduate… well, so will lots of other folks, equally qualified for the same jobs. Supply and demand, baby girl… supply and demand.”

“Yeah, and right now demand for enchanted goods outpaces supply,” I said. “Newer things like crystalware cost so much because there’s not enough enchanters out there producing them. Older devices like fridges, warmers, and simple TVs are only affordable because of the secondary market. As more enchanters enter the workforce, the supply will increase, the prices will drop, and demand will rise as more and more people see them coming within their reach.”

“Right,” he said, nodding. “Your fancy enchanted toys will go from luxuries to commodities… and so will the people who make them. Oh, you’ll have a career… a career as a drudge, as a drone. There’ll be gobs of money being made, and it’ll pass on right by you. You’ll get an hourly wage and you’ll pay out the ass for healing benefits and you’ll still have a big ol’ target painted on your forehead, only if you think you have a hard time here at a liberal arts university just wait until you get out into the workforce…”

“Hey, I have a few advantages other enchanters won’t,” I said. “My energy reserves, for one thing.”

“Right, so you’ll be able to pick up more shifts,” he said. “You’ll earn slightly more gold but you’ll have less time to do all the things you want, less time to keep up your little interpersonal relationships… and of course, you’ll be drawing over that target in brighter colors by flaunting your advantage in front of your fellow drones. Of course, someone could decide it’s more cost-effective to just use your energy reserves to power more skilled enchanters… in which case you might make more money in less time, but what’s your fancy education doing for you, then?”

“Well, there you go,” I said. “I just need to figure out a way to market my energy surplus. I can do that for a couple years and I’ll be set to set up my own shop, or I do that part time for the rest of my own life and have money to goof off.”

“See, now you’re thinking,” he said.

“Oh, please,” I said. “You were trying to convince me I was making a mistake, now you’re acting like you’re giving me advice to do what I just thought up on my own.”

“I was trying to convince you to embrace the power you already have,” he said. “Now you’re thinking about how to leverage it. That’s good. I taught your mother a thing or two about that, you know.” He stood up and picked up his axe. “I’m going to let you get back to what you were doing, but I want you to think about this some more.”

“That is such a lame mindfuck,” I said. “You tried to make it sound like it would be lame and horrible to sell my energy, and you failed, and now you’re trying to turn it around me. I will think about it, but because I recognized that it’s a good idea.”

“Of course you did, baby girl,” he said, heading back into the trees. “Because you’re sharp like that, just like her.”

I ignored the bait, just like I’d ignored the previous reference to my mother. He was clearly smart enough to know that the only thing he could ever offer me was information about my mother, if I was stupid enough to trust him.

On the subject of things that were ignored, the body parts on the ground hadn’t disappeared. Nor did the scene disappear or change any after he left.

I closed my eyes.

A few seconds later, I awoke to the sound of knocking.


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12 Responses to “406: Mental Block”

  1. pedestrian says:

    uhh, did I just miss something? Or did Daddy Dearest just reverse psych Mackenzie into making a living by selling her energy? Instead of starting a business or career? If she is loafing around, well, idle hands are the devils workshop.

    And how is she going to protect herself? If she is unable to defend from the native taliban, she would quickly become more dependent on daddy for safety and security.

    That would be neither safe nor secure for Mackenzie or any one close to her.

    Current score: 2
  2. tegud says:

    Wow, he convinced me of… I don’t know what.

    Of course, what Mack should have asked is: Did you think that alchemically manipulating me into killing some people would have put me in a position to take real control of my life?

    Current score: 8
    • Kanta says:

      What she should have asked is, “Are you going to mess with my bath stuff again? I kind of need my bath stuff.”

      Current score: 5
  3. MentalBlank says:

    “I’m not interested in hearing lamentations or ruling the world from top of a big pile of skulls…”
    Love the Conan reference 🙂

    Current score: 3
  4. JerK says:

    Demon daddy is kind of badass. I wish dream Mack showed up in the real world more often.

    Current score: 1
  5. Moridain says:

    The alchemical manipulation was a kind of distraction, a big and dangerous obvious attack to make her think she had dealt with him. Then he comes in and does the real damage in the best way he has.

    By talking. An idea, in teh right mind and at the right time, can do massive damage.

    Current score: 7
  6. Jechtael says:

    “And look what’s happened. Sea travel. Air travel. Even planar travel’s starting to take off in ways the folks who laid out the boundaries never anticipated. Healing has gone from something miraculous to something so cheap they can practically give it away. Magic weapons have gone from being the legendary artifacts that whole wars hinge on to being trendy accessories.”
    Sounds like a certain demon is yearning for the good old days of First Edition.

    Current score: 6
    • Kanta says:

      He’s a massive grognard. He probably wants OD&D.

      Current score: 1
    • Taleshunter says:

      Your coment made me realise he was sothing her up there. By talking about how things has changed, he made it easier to convince her, that things would keep changing.

      Current score: 1
  7. AB says:

    Well, this is one impressively scary demon. Not physically impressive or opwnly powerful, but subtle and highly intelligent. I wonder what The Man has in mind for his daughter, but I also love the humor of this situation… daddy giving mack a talking to about sensible career choices and her future 🙂

    Current score: 1
  8. Kalamorda says:

    Has anyone through he might care, and is attempting to give her his idea of good advice?

    Current score: 1
    • Athena says:

      Actually, that’s kind of what *everyone* is thinking… “his idea” of good advice.

      Current score: 1