459: Tall Orders

on September 20, 2010 in Book 16

In Which Something Fishy Is In The Air

The evening was getting darker, and of course, colder as we trudged towards the hall together… and trudge we did. I would been happier with a different pace, but Pala… despite having legs that were each taller than many major races… did not seem to be in the mood for power walking. As much as I wanted to tell her to hurry up, I couldn’t bring myself to… she was there as a favor to me, and I already felt awkward and kind of rude.

I then had the thought that I could ask her if she minded walking faster. That wouldn’t be rude, would it? I had a legitimate reason to want to be out of the cold… it sapped my strength and caused discomfort that verged on pain. Also, it was cold. As soon as I thought of it in those terms, though, I felt like I’d be making an imposition… just because she was “guarding my body”, as she put it, didn’t mean she had to accommodate my weaknesses.

Except it wouldn’t cost her anything, and I would be asking her. Nicely. I could manage that, couldn’t I?

It was weird how the bare tree limbs seemed to get darker faster than anything else. As long as there was any light in the sky, you’d think they would show some of their color against it, but they were like skeletons of shadow grasping at the breeze.

How many students had lost their lives on campus the past weekend? The school year so far? Each school year? It was a dangerous world, and the only way to deal with it was really to not deal with it… but walking across the darkening grounds with the glow of the path giving Pala and me an elven complexion was eerie. It felt more like Veil than Veil had.

Yeah, under the circumstances, I thought I could manage “nice” if it meant getting indoors where it was warm and bright and full of people… many of whom had little to no interest in killing me, a little bit faster…

“Pala?” I said gently, trying to break into her thoughts gently.

“Do you think birds are… ticklish?” she said.

“I… what?”

“Birds,” she said. “Do you think they are ticklish?”

“I… can’t say the question has ever entered my mind,” I said. “But…”

“They are covered in feathers,” she said. “All over. My uncle Halbjorn, he used to tickle my feet with goose feathers.”

“They don’t have feathers on their feet,” I said.

“I think a goose at least would laugh himself silly if he were ticklish, at all, anywhere.”

“The part of the feather that tickles you is different from the part that’s connected to their skin,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. “I was thinking that maybe they were ticklish of scales.”

“What?”

“Scales,” she said. “If I am ticklish of feathers, then maybe a bird is ticklish of fish scales.”

“I… this is not the best topic for me to talk about right now,” I said, as birds and fish were putting unpleasant associations in my mind.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “The cold weather makes me think of geese, and goose down, which made me think of my uncle… what would you like to talk about, instead?”

“I’d actually just like to get back to Harlowe and get inside,” I said. “I don’t really feel like talking.”

“Okay,” she said. “But, do you think it would be okay if I spent the night in the Harlowe Hall? Ian did not say for sure if he needed me to guard your body tomorrow, but it would make things easier.”

“Yeah, it should be fine… I mean, I don’t care and I think the actual rules about overnight guests are same-sex, no sleeping in the hallways or on the lounge furniture,” I said. “There might be a limit of nights in a row or something about needing roommates’ permission, I don’t know off the top of my head. Two probably wouldn’t mind, since you wouldn’t actually put her out.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t! I like Two. She knows so many things,” Pala said. “And many of the things she knows are about dessert.”

“You know Two?” I asked, surprised.

Everybody knows Two,” she said.

“What I mean to ask is… how do you know Two?” I asked.

“Oh, it wasn’t hard,” Pala said. “I met her.”

“So… you’re friends?”

“According to her definition.”

“So you disagree?”

“No, I also think that we are friends,” Pala said. “But unlike her, I cannot prove it. So I mention her definition, because it is the stronger case. You see?”

“That’s… why would you need to prove you’re friends?” I asked. “Who’s going to doubt you?”

“You?”

She was getting kind of frustratingly good at that.

“Oh… sorry, I wasn’t trying to sound skeptical,” I said. “I was just curious about how well you know her.”

“How well?” Pala said. “Um… I think pretty well. I’m not good at knowing people, but I would know Two anywhere. She’s the one who has her name written on her forehead.”

“When did you become friends?”

“Oh, a day ago… maybe three? Veil was… when?”

“The dance was on Saturday,” I said.

“Yes, that was it,” Pala said. “So many things have happened since then.”

Tell me about it, I thought, but even I could see the response to that one coming.

“Well, anyway… I think it would be great if you stuck around,” I said. “There’s still the possibility for things to get very ugly, very quickly if someone takes the ‘monster attack’ report the wrong way.”

The more I thought about, the more I thought it was probably a good thing that the official school broadcast of the press conference had ended with the cameraman getting caught up in the vice-chancellor’s aura of… whateverness. Hopefully at least some of the people who caught the close-up would be sufficiently distracted for their knee-jerk reactions to pass before they could be acted on.

“You think monsters could attack Harlowe Hall?” Pala asked. “But I thought the dormitories were protected by the paths so that monsters can’t get in.”

“No, I mean some misguided human students could attack Harlowe Hall to get the ‘monsters’,” I said.

“Don’t they know that monsters can’t get in?”

I thought about saying “oh, never mind”, then I realized it was a matter of word choice. She didn’t understand monster as a pejorative… or that its traditional use included a lot of humanoid races, including hers and mine. I started to think about how best to explain to her that some people heard “monster” and thought “goblins and ogres and other types of people who live in Harlowe” rather than things like wild creatures and mindless undead, but then I realized that would be shading right up against explaining the sleight-of-word that had gone on at the press conference.

She hadn’t watched it, that I knew of, but I felt uneasy about the idea of putting the idea in her head all the same.

“Oh, never mind,” I said. “Look, the cold kind of bothers me… do you think we could pick up the pace just a little?”

“Okie dokie,” she said. “I did not want to leave you behind… my test assignment, I moved too quickly. You’d think short steps would be faster.”

“Why?”

“They don’t have as far to go.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that… nothing constructive, anyway… so we lapsed into silence. Silent Pala radiated a sort of spaciness that I really didn’t think was just my initial “brainless” prejudice. She was looking all around as we walked, but with a vacant smile on her face and a general air of pleasant blankness. As bodyguards went, I figured she had the imposing stature and the fighting skills, but I wasn’t sure she’d pass any sort of general alertness test.

Not that I was going to win any awards for most vigilant sentinel any time soon.

The perception that she wasn’t paying attention disappeared in a hurry when she suddenly crouched low and angled her face upwards. Her spear swung around like a gate to stop me. I jumped back from it… the last person I’d seen come into contact with the spear aside from Pala was Puddy, and she’d taken a pretty vicious smite-down for it.

“Stay where you are,” Pala said. “No, wait… move to the center of the path and turn sideways.”

“Um… okay,” I said, though I followed her logic. By turning perpendicular to the direction of the path, I would very slightly increase the distance between any part of my body and the unprotected ground outside. “What’s going on?”

“Something moving around,” she said. “Behind a building.”

“You can see behind buildings?”

“No, over.”

“You can see over buildings?” I asked. Pala was tall, but she wasn’t that tall.

“Yes, can’t you?” she said. “You just look at the front of the building and look up… that’s where it peeked out..”

“Something pretty big, then?” I said. I had a brief vision of one of Pala’s relatives coming to pay an unscheduled visit. I couldn’t think of any giant creatures known to live in the area. I was used to the occasional dragon watch back home, only one of which had ever escalated into a full-blown warning, but something about Prax seemed to make it unappealing to dragons… none of the local wyrms had ever extended their hunting territories northward into it, and neither had any of their kin in the other bordering provinces.

“No,” she said. “Something flying. No… big and flying.”

I turned in place to look at what she was seeing, just in time to catch a curving body flashing with scales as it crested behind an old three story class building. The thoughts of dragons resurged in my brain before the thing shot upwards, exposing an undulating form with tentacle-like whiskers protruding from its snout.

“It is hard to tell in this lighting,” Pala said, “but it appears to be some variety of blind sea monster.”

“Oh, the eyeless fish-beast,” I said. It was hard to tell, since it was moving and not close enough to anything to get a real comparison, but it seemed larger than the last time I had seen it. “It’s some kind of ambassador for the underground realms, I guess.”

“It is… looking for someone,” Pala said as it swam through the air with a back-and-forth motion. “Or patrolling?”

“It looks like it,” I said. Maybe the subterranean contingent had taken the “monster” story to heart.

“Stay still,” Pala said.

“Why?” I asked, more than a little annoyed. Every time I stopped moving outside, it seemed like the cold started finding new ways to slip past my increasingly-reflexive insulation spells. I pumped a little more energy into them and then tried to warm myself up with a little very low-key invocation of the heat aspect of fire.

“Because it seems powerful and we do not know for what it is searching,” she said.

“Oh,” I said.

The thing passed directly over us. It was definitely bigger than it had been inside of Harlowe… bigger than a carriage. There was no way it could fit inside one of Harlowe’s hallways, much less squeeze through its doors. The power needed to effect that sort of size change was tremendous, but there was a good chance the fish-beast had other options. It gave off a very unworldly vibe that was probably nothing but accurate, and in some dimensions space was not as much of a fixed thing as it was in ours. It was possible for something from those planes to lack a true size or shape, which meant it could alter how it manifested upon our plane.

The thought of size-changing magic got me thinking, though. It took a tremendous amount of energy to make someone… or something… grow to giant size, or shrink from the size of a human to something you could slip into your pocket, but there were more subtle resizing magics. Disposable rings of protection got by with a cheat, using a flexible outer layer and an inner band that expanded or contracted to fit different sized fingers, but rings with more permanent enchantments often could make adjustments within a small range by actually shrinking or growing the ring band.

Making Pala small enough for her to fit into a human-sized world would take bigger magic than she could probably afford, but if she were even just a few feet shorter she’d have an easier time getting around and fitting in. It was probably worth mentioning to her… once the current situation was over.

I realized the fish-beast had circled around over us a few times and was now fluttering directly overhead. It was kind of discomfiting to see… it was one thing to watch it floating in the air without visible support, and another thing to see it do so right over your own head. That aside, there was just something… off… about the fish-beast, something that struck me as wrong and just got more so the longer I looked.

I felt a prickling feeling in the back of my head, just above my spine.

“Boobies!” Pala said.

“What?” I said, an image of Amaranth popping into my head. I turned and looked at her.

Overhead there was a sound like a long, wet gasp, and the fish-beast flew on. I wasn’t watching it do so, but I could tell that it had… it was a bit like when a cloud moves out from underneath the sun and it’s suddenly warmer and lighter, except that it was still just as cold and dark as before. But it felt like that.

“Why did you say ‘boobies’?” I asked her.

“Because you are a female p… lesbian,” she said. “And I thought it would distract you. I am meant to be guarding your body but I thought your brain is a part of your body, too.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I mean, it’s inside your skull and connected to you…”

“I understand that, but what do you mean… do you think looking at that thing was harmful?”

“Maybe? But it was getting inside of our heads,” she said. “I think it was looking at our thoughts?”

“My mind can’t be read,” I said, then I remembered that this was because of the extraplanar connection of my demon blood. That, and the demon side of my mind could be pretty vicious to intruders. But the eyeless fish-beast wasn’t exactly from around here, either, and I wasn’t about to place bets on my brain against its when it came to the subtle arts. “Usually.”

“Mine, either,” Pala said. “People get… lost. But I think that maybe the blind sea monster can find its own way.”

“Probably,” I said. “You know, Pala… I was thinking. Have you ever considered a size-changing enchantment?”

“Oh, yes!” she said. “I have looked into that quite often. But giants are not as well-affected by size-changing spells. They say that our size is more… inherited?”

“Inherent,” I said. “A giant’s size is more fundamental a characteristic… I didn’t realize that but I suppose it would be true. Still, it wouldn’t have to be a huge change… even just a foot would mean you wouldn’t have to duck your head as much.”

“Wouldn’t it mean I would have to duck my head more?” she said. “Or… am I not understanding what it means ‘to duck’?”

“I think so,” I said. “Lower your head so it doesn’t hit the ceiling… being shorter would mean you’d have to do that less.”

“Why would using magic to be taller make me shorter?”

“I wasn’t talking about being taller,” I said. “I’m talking about making you shorter.”

“Oh!” she said, the light of recognition dawning in her eyes. “That makes sense! Because I thought… wait, why would you do that?”

“What?”

“I am too short by half already!” she said. “Why would you have me shorter?”

“Well… the buildings aren’t exactly made for someone your size,” I said. Shit, I thought. She’d given me a big enough hint, no pun intended. Size was intrinsic to gianthood… even if her folks weren’t full-blooded giants, if they identified with their giant blood then it stood to reason that she wouldn’t be interested in shrinking. “If you had a belt or ring or something that you could put on and take off, you could get around more easily. Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything…”

“These belts,” she said. “They could make me bigger, too?”

“Well, yes… it would be a different enchantment, but similar,” I said. “I don’t know if anything like that’s on the market, and it would have less effect on you, proportional to your giant blood…”

“My blood would grow more than the rest of me?” she asked. “Or less?”

“The same,” I said. “I just mean… your natural resistance to size changing would lessen it, but it should do something.”

“Good,” she said. “Because I drank a potion of giant growth once and it did nothing.”

“Well, it wouldn’t have been permanent, anyway,” I said. That was one of the well-known weaknesses of metaphor magic: trying to give something like, say, the grace of a cat to a cat or the strength of a bull to a bull would accomplish nothing, and at exactly the same energy expenditure as if it had worked.

“They wouldn’t necessarily be cheap,” I said. “But… your family has some money or other resource, I’m guessing?”

The gold armor she wore in the ring hadn’t looked cheap, even without considering the enchantments it would need to be much more effective than a mail shirt made from aluminum foil. That, and the out-of-plane tuition rates were even higher than the out-of-province ones.

She nodded. She seemed happy with the idea, which made me glad I’d said anything, even though she didn’t seem to find my original idea at all appealing. Well, I had tried to help. In the interest of at least not doing any harm, I added, “You’d probably want something you could take off easily when you had to go inside.”

“Oh, yes,” she said. “I do not think I would need to wear it here, but when I go home… I can show everyone how much I grew!”

I was becoming glad that I’d given Pala a second chance… and that she had apparently decided to do the same thing for me, even after noticing how little I had thought of her. Some people spread joy like a torch sheds light, and when Pala smiled, she was one of them.


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31 Responses to “459: Tall Orders”

  1. Special request – if you’re one of my email subscribers and you don’t mind helping me out with a little test, please comment with what time your announcement arrived.

    Current score: 0
  2. SeanB says:

    The Twitter arrived 10 minutes ago, but I took the time to read the chapter…….. 10H38 by me when i started writing.

    A lot more polished than the original draft from ( to me) this morning, but a very nice expansion of the characters. I think a small giant ( an oxymoron? ) would be very nice, though my mind’s idea of Pala is based on a tall ditzy blonde I once knew, very tall, very vacuous. I like the idea that Pala discovers exactly how much she is capable of, and can do in a human size world, where her previous experience has been that she is the small and fragile one, sort of like Mackenzie, in a way, growing up.

    Current score: 0
  3. Morgan Walter Champion says:

    My announcement arrived at 8.30 A.M.,New Zealand Standard Time. ( which is 12 hours after GMT).

    Current score: 0
  4. adam says:

    Tell me about it, I thought, but even I could see the response to that ne coming.

    Should read “the response to that one coming.”

    Current score: 0
  5. Caoimhe says:

    Boobies!

    I liked this one. Pala is neat.

    Current score: 2
  6. Jenn. says:

    Arrived at 21:30 GMT for me 🙂 thanks.

    Current score: 0
  7. Jennifer says:

    My email says it arrived 54 minutes ago, so that is 4:30 eastern standard time. I have google notifiers and it didn’t let me know until 10 minutes ago, though. Good chapter! I enjoyed watching it develop, too.

    Current score: 0
  8. Yumi says:

    I got the email announcement at 4:30 PM (GMT-5:00).

    I really like Pala, and I’m glad to see Mack veering away from the snap judgments she makes. 🙂

    Current score: 1
  9. niall says:

    I also received my e-mail at 4:30 PM EST. Political roundtable? Sounds interesting, though I must admit that most of the time Sooni tends to annoy me she’ll likely be annoying Mack and friends as much next chapter as I’m quite sure her suspect is quite different from Mack’s.

    Current score: 0
  10. DanW says:

    22:10 GMT+1

    Excellent chapter by the way, nice to see more of Pala 🙂

    Current score: 0
  11. Brenda says:

    Okay, I laughed at the preview – “Sooni cracks the case!”

    I enjoyed this chapter, with Mackenzie practicing thinking before speaking. Not that she doesn’t still need practice on that in general, but she’s starting to get a feel for how literal Pala is.

    Just a couple of minor grammar errors that I noticed – I don’t know if it’s supposed to be Mack’s narration doing it, or if you didn’t plan to do it.

    “walking across the darkening grounds with the glow of the path giving Pala and I an elven complexion” – should be “Pala and me”

    “or that it’s traditional use included a lot of humanoid races” – should be “its”, not “it’s”

    Current score: 0
  12. Greenwood Goat says:

    Typo report:

    Tell me about it, I thought, but even I could see the response to that ne coming.

    Anyway, I’m busy trying to think how I would go about squicking out an eyeless extraplanar ichthyan mastermind. Obviously, since a short jolt of lesbian attraction appeared to do the trick here, there would be a whole range of baser desires that I could deploy to even more devastating effect… But how would it handle the idea ofsushi? Or lolcats?

    Can I haz FISHY? :3

    Current score: 1
  13. carson says:

    I’m going to be tempted to blurt out BOOBIES! all day tomorrow. Ah well. Fun seeing this in process.

    Current score: 1
  14. Lunaroki says:

    “Sooni cracks the case.” Right. Like she didn’t do enough damage when she broke the TV.

    Current score: 0
  15. Zathras IX says:

    It’s no surprise that
    Everybody knows ŦΨØ—
    She’s a hot number

    Current score: 0
  16. Rhamantus says:

    “Why did you say ‘boobies’?” I asked her.

    “Because you are a female p… lesbian,” she said.

    LOL, I giggled so much! I loved this chapter; one of my favorites so far! 🙂

    Current score: 0
  17. Sarah Mac says:

    I got the email at 3:30 Central time. ^_^

    Current score: 0
  18. Oitur says:

    Wasn’t there a Ren & Stimpy episode about “The Littlest Giant”? …why yes, there was. Stimpy read the story of the Littlest Giant–he was barely even enormous…merely huge.

    Current score: 0
  19. Rin says:

    By the way, I sense a definite D&D reference in “the grace of a cat” and the “strength of a bull”. Subtly woven into the story, yet at the same time fairly obvious to anyone remotely familiar with D&D spells. Nicely done.

    Current score: 0
    • Rin says:

      If she named just one of them, I might agree, but specifically picking both ‘cat’s grace’ and ‘bull’s strength’ (two extremely common D&D spells since they are available to druids, rangers, wizards, sorcerers and clerics with the right domains) out of all the possible animal aspects you could name just seems like too much of a coincidence to me.

      Current score: 1
      • Rin says:

        Crap, the above comment should have gone with the one below.

        Current score: 0
  20. Dan says:

    I’d guess she was referring to common aspects of those animals rather than D&D, but who knows?

    Sad to see Mack back to her self-centered ways as much as ever. I think I prefered the naive, innocent Mack in the beginning to the stuck-up bitch who thinks she knows what’s best for everyone and everything that we have now. I really enjoy Pala’s simplistic, honest approach though she kinda just seems like another Two.

    Eat Mack’s brain eyeless fish-beast! Go go!

    Current score: 0
    • Zergonapal says:

      Well AE is running a D&D campign, but I like to think she is a bit more subtle than the geek equivalent of a brick to the face. The way I see it is that when you cast a physical buff you would reference a common animal thats exhibits the desired trait you wish to enhance, Commonly this is common animals such as cuts and bulls as heroes come from the upper world and that is what is common to their sphere of influence. If you came from somewhere like the African Savannah you would probably cast Gazelle’s Grace and Buffalo’s or Elephant’s Strength, though the later might be a bit of a mouthful. In fact if you cared about such you could enhance your roleplay by changing the wording of some spells to reflect your characters origins.

      Current score: 2
      • Rin says:

        I agree she’s usually more subtle. She has also been known to make more obvious, even downright blatant, references though. This I take to be one of them. Yes, it would be the proverbial ‘brick in the face’, but it is also woven into the story completely naturally. Being so obvious yet subtly natural at the same time is good writing in its own right.

        Also, while you might like to think AE is more subtle than that, I think AE is far too aware of what she writes to make such references unintentionally.

        Current score: 3
  21. Chips says:

    I’m glad to see Pala’s character in-depth. Proving herself just as capable of being scatter-curiosity as any of the rest of the cast, with her own competence the very next second. To my eye, this puts her ahead of Mack in that she knows when it’s necessary to focus on the task at hand, and can do it at the drop of a pin.

    For Mack, I’m glad to see ~her~ putting thought into her words and actions more than she had in the past. Sure, she occasionally makes prejudicial judgements, but she can also see past that. The last line is a perfect example.

    In about four years (as RL-time vs Mu-time goes), I’d love to see Mack build such an item to let Pala fit in with her native society and with human society turn-as-turn comes.

    Current score: 2
    • Zergonapal says:

      No, I see it as that no one has told Pala that you have to look steely eyed and exude menace while playing bodyguard. Funnily this makes her a highly effective bodyguard, being the best bodyguards are those who can melt into the background ready to launch into action to protect their charge.
      At any rate I can’t say I liked this chapter much, this better be setting up for something and that fish beast had better be the equivalent of Chekhov’s Gun. Otherwise I think is a good example of a filler chapter that doesn’t do much to advance the story unless AE is angling to make Pala a more prominent character in which case the development is needed.

      Current score: 0
  22. Kevin says:

    I didn’t know you could subscribe to email…

    Current score: 0
  23. Rey d`Tutto says:

    Nice update. Giving Mack more to think about than “Boobies!”

    Current score: 0
  24. Steffen says:

    Wasn’t the dance on the Friday?

    Current score: 1
  25. holodrum says:

    *chuckles* I’m finding it amusing that so many have noticed the “bulls strength/cats grace” reference, but no-one’s mentioned the “ring of protection” yet. Perhaps that one’s just been in the story too often?

    Current score: 1