45: Entering The Circle

on August 3, 2007 in 02: Love In The Time Of Magic

In Which Steff Questions Amaranth’s Morals

I’d come back to Harlowe way earlier than I’d really wanted to… I was still hoping to put off the inevitable run-in with Puddy, but as I didn’t know when or where the circle was meeting, and hadn’t arranged to meet Amaranth and Steff anywhere else, I didn’t have a lot of choice. I ended up hanging out in my room with the door open, reading my logic textbook and plotting out some potential instructions to try for Two. To my surprise, it was past the time we normally would have gone to dinner… and a bit after the sun had set… when Amaranth finally showed up to collect me. I’d started to wonder if we were going at all.

“Is… um… is that what you’re wearing?” she asked me.

“Am I supposed to be dressed differently?” I asked. I could have pointed out that she wasn’t wearing anything special, but of course, she wasn’t wearing anything. I was also remembering that the last time she’d questioned what I was wearing, I’d ended up similarly attired… she’d promised me the circle wouldn’t involve nudity, though.

“Well, I just thought you could put on some cleaner jeans,” she said.

“These are my clean jeans,” I said. Well, cleanest… but cleanest was cleaner than clean, right?

“I’m s… sorry,” she said. She seemed to have developed a small case of the hiccups. “I’m just nervous. I just… I really want them to like us.”

“Is there something we should be nervous about?” I asked, suspiciously… though filled with an odd sense of elation at the word “us.”

“Oh, no!” Amaranth said quickly and emphatically. “No! When I say nervous, I mean I’m excited… I’ve never been… that is, I’ve never met any… well, just remember, you promised to keep an open mind.”

While she’d asked me to keep an open mind, I was pretty sure I hadn’t ever actually said that I would… but I didn’t point this out. The idea that there was going to be something happening on campus that was so outrĂ© that even a nymph… more particularly, this nymph… felt the need to urge me to keep an open mind about it did make me nervous, no matter what else she might say.

“Are we going to meet Steff at her room?” I asked. I kind of wanted to know where it was. I certainly didn’t agree with everything the half-elf had to say, but I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to talk to her more about some of the things I was experiencing.

“Um… no,” Amaranth said. I sensed an evasion in her voice, but I didn’t know what exactly it was. “We’re just going to meet downstairs and head over together.”

We made it to the downstairs hallway at right about the same time Steff did, though she came in from the boys’ stairwell. Of course… she had a boyfriend over there. It was dark enough outside that she was probably just skating by on the curfew.

Amaranth and Steff gave out simultaneous squeals, ran towards each other and hugged enthusiastically.

“Oh, you came!” Steff said. “You came, you came, you came!”

“Of course we came! I’m just so excited!” Amaranth gushed.

“Well, we should probably get going,” Steff said. “We’re going to be a little bit late as it is, but this way our little Mackie doesn’t have to endure the standing around and awkwardly socializing while waiting for the stragglers–i.e., us–to show up.”

She put an arm around me and gave me a little half-hug when she said “our little Mackie.” I kind of resented being talked about like I was some kind of social charity case… but of course, it was right on the mark. I was already feeling like I was venturing out into uncharted territory. Small talk with strangers wouldn’t have helped.

Steff led the way out through the connector hallway, into the warm night air. She and Amaranth were babbling about nothing in particular… which for them, meant boys… and boy parts… and things they had done recently with boy parts. I found myself fervently hoping that Amaranth hadn’t omitted or exaggerated anything when she’d given me her blanket reassurance that the circle had nothing to do with sex. It seemed to be the only thing she and Steff had as a common interest.

I tried to think of anything else that Steff might have expressed enthusiasm for… there was necromancy, of course, but somehow I didn’t figure Amaranth would be all excited about being taken to a necromantic rite. I hoped. Though, of course, at least that wouldn’t involve sex. Unless…

Ew.

Bad brain.

Bad.

“So, um… where exactly are we going?” I asked, mainly to give myself something else to focus on. It was also a very pertinent question, as we seemed to be heading away from the cluster of residence halls in the opposite direction of… well, just about anything. We weren’t heading towards the union, library or any of the resource centers, or towards any of the buildings where classes were held.

“Oh, there’s a high hill, near the edge of the campus proper,” Steff said. “Just before the wild forest.”

“And the building we’re going to is on this hill?” I asked, somehow already knowing the answer.

“Oh, we’re not meeting in a building tonight,” Steff said, a note of excitement in her voice.

“Is this going to be a short meeting?” I asked. The sun was already completely gone, though the sky still held a bit of brightness to the west.

“Oh, Mack, you’re not worried, are you?” Steff asked, with a rather musical giggle.

“Not for myself,” I said defensively.

“Oh, that’s so sweet,” Amaranth said. “But Steff says there’s no danger.”

“Yeah,” Steff said. “You’ll never hear anything ‘official’ about it, but they keep the monsters off school grounds for at least the first week of classes. We have to sign all sorts of waivers to come here, of course, and parents understand in theory that college life is dangerous and we’re responsible for our own safety… but having students sent home dead the first week just makes for bad publicity.”

“What about what happened in your necro class?” I asked.

“Well, lab accidents are accidents… they can strike at any time,” Steff said. “And necromancy’s not exactly for the faint of heart… anyway, this is why the circle’s meeting outdoors tonight. We’re pretty sure they beef up the protections again around midterms and crunch week, and of course, at homecoming… but the first week of classes seems like the best bet. The way we figure it, there hasn’t been a monster-related death in the first week for the last ninety-seven years. It’s just lucky for us the full moon happened to fall within it, this year.”

“If they can keep the campus free of monsters some of the time, why not all year?” I asked.

Steff shrugged.

“I suppose they could,” she said. “But, if they wanted a monster-free campus, they probably could have just put the whole thing elsewhere, right? I mean, in a city, or somewhere else that’d be safer to begin with.”

“So why didn’t they, then?” I asked.

“The way I heard it, the founders felt that being forced to kill random monsters would somehow give the students a valuable experience… you know, help us build character?” She gave a little laugh. “How getting into fights is supposed to make somebody a better sorcerer or bard is beyond me… but, you know, it makes more sense than some of the old policies they cling to.”

“And in the mean time, we all have to carry magical weapons and take stupid WP classes,” I said, a little sourly, as I resented both requirements.

“Oh, the WP classes can be kind of fun,” Steff said. “And, of course, for the truly pathetic, there’s always basic knife or basic staff… or one of the weird options, like darts or whip, though those aren’t really offered consistently.”

“Well, what did you take?” I asked, a little irritably. Steff had a pair of ornate daggers on her belt.

“Mixed melee,” she said. “It’s a good class. I could fuck someone up pretty seriously, if I wanted to.”

“I’ve never understood why a school that caters to wizard students is so wound up about the fighter stuff, anyway,” I said.

“That’s why they call it a ‘liberal arts’ education, I suppose,” Amaranth said with an indifferently pleasant smile. “If you went to a trade school, you could learn magic in a couple years but you’d lack the benefit of the other skills a four year institution like this teaches you.”

“Says the chicky who weaseled out of fighter classes altogether,” Steff said. “‘Moral exemption’, my ultra-fuckable ass. You want to die horribly… that’s hardly a moral decision.”

Amaranth simply shrugged, though her smile slipped a tiny bit.

“So, you don’t even have to take a single WP class?” I asked Amaranth, wishing I’d taken more time to examine my options there. I’d known there was a “fierce creature” category I could have qualified for, if I’d cared to… I’d wanted to skip the combat-related classes, but not at the price of officially labeling myself a “creature.”

“Not a one,” Amaranth said. “They just make me take NWP classes to make up the credits.”

“NWP?” I asked.

“Non-weapon proficiency,” Steff clarified. “Mostly really dull, useless stuff… mountaineering, sound analysis, stuff like that.”

“Oh, I don’t think any knowledge is truly useless, to the creative mind,” Amaranth said, giving me what she no doubt considered to be a very significant sidelong look… though its significance was lost on me.

“Why… what NWP class are you taking?” I asked her.

“Rope use,” she said.

The unbidden fetish images that had come to me when I’d tried to use the crystal ball earlier flashed through my mind. My legs froze beneath me, and I nearly pitched forward.

Amaranth stepped forward, in front of me. She had a pouty look on her face, and it had the effect of making me aware of her not as a beautiful nymph but as a sexual woman. This didn’t do wonders for my mobility.

“Oh, I think I broke her,” Amaranth said.

Steff pointed at me and mouthed a single word to Amaranth: “want.” Amaranth gave a little movement of her head that might have been a shake, might have been a nod, and pretty much might have meant anything. I felt little flurries of both excitement and trepidation running up and down my body. Was Amaranth intending on sharing me, like an actual possession? The very idea made me feel… complicated. It was tinged with the same safe, loved feeling that I got when I thought about being Amaranth’s…. but it was a dangerous feeling, at the same time.

Why couldn’t my feelings make sense?

“Um,” I said, suddenly very uncertain about going off with the pair of them at night like this… about the whole thing. “When you said that the circle wasn’t… that it wouldn’t…”

“It isn’t anything that’ll bother you, I promise,” she said, and kissed me on the side of my head. My heart lightened, and the nervousness dissipated. “Just… keep an open mind.”

She just had to add that last part. Great.

“Amaranth,” I said, and heard a little desperation in my own voice. “I… I don’t want to be… I don’t want any…” I stammered, unable to form the thought inside my head. She silenced me with a finger on my lips.

“Shh, shh,” she said, soothingly, even after I’d grown quiet. “I’ve promised you that nothing sexual will happen tonight, but if you say that you want to go back to the hall, I’ll go with you. There will be no punishment this time… but if you do decide to go on tonight, I’ll give you a special treat when it’s over.”

I flushed with warmth at the promise the last words held, though they didn’t make me any less nervous… but they shifted the nervousness from being about the circle… which was evidently public, or would at least involve strangers… to being about Amaranth, which was private, and which I could handle. Nervousness about Amaranth fell into that fuzzy area where my least favorite emotions seemed to feel good.

Amaranth removed her finger.

“So, shall we go on?” she asked.

Knowing full well that if I opened my mouth, objections might start sputtering out again, I simply nodded.

“Good,” Amaranth cooed.

“You really do have some good instincts,” Steff said admiringly as we resumed our trek.

“Thanks,” Amaranth said, and that was the last anybody said for a while.

We left the lighted paths behind us as the hill Steff had spoken of came into view. It wasn’t overly steep, but it was quite large. A dense line of trees was visible to the south. I’d noticed the western end of the campus looked more like a park on the maps, but I’d had little idea how extensive the undeveloped area was.

The top of the hill was fairly flat, and there was about twenty people gathered on top of it, both male and female. Most of them looked human. There was a male half-elf, and three or four who looked like they might have had blood from one of the shorter races in them… or then, they could have just been short. I didn’t recognize any of them from around Harlowe.

A portable table had been set up off to one side, and there were papers and different sorts of what looked like drafting instruments laid out on it. In the rough center of the large flat area, a tripod had been set up, of the sort used for some divining implements, which is what I imagined was in the large leather case that was beside it. The people on the hill were formed in clusters of two to four… some by the table, some by the tripod, but most were hanging out near a tall, bespectacled boy who was garbed in a long white garment that buttoned up the front.

“Ah… newcomers?” the white-clad one said as we approached the gathering. He sounded glad… maybe even excited… but some of the others looked at us with skepticism, if not actual hostility. Not surprisingly, Amaranth seemed to be getting the bulk of the attention… but more surprisingly, she also seemed to be getting most of the unfriendly glances.

“They’re with me,” Steff said, jerking a thumb at her own chest.

“Hi!” Amaranth said, with her customary cheeriness… though there was an edge of uncertainty in her voice that wasn’t usually there. She’d never acted unsure of her reception before.

“A nymph?” one of them said.

It sounded like an accusation. I felt a sudden, sickening urge to punch him in the face, but Amaranth put a hand on my shoulder before I’d barely even twitched, and I froze for a moment and then felt myself relax… and not just in the sense that my sudden rage evaporated. Amaranth had controlled me, directed me with the lightest of touches, and it felt good to obey.

“I thought all inquiring minds were welcome here,” Steff said sourly.

“Yeah,” a girl at the back of the group said, giving a shaky, not-too-friendly laugh. “Let’s leave the judgmental stereotypes to the Khersians.”

If “nymph” had sounded like an accusation, “Khersians” sounded like an oath. There was some scattered laughing at this, but a few also looked abashed or even reproachful… which made me feel better about the group as a whole. I wasn’t big on “judgmental Khersians”, but I loathed hypocrites.

Well, other hypocrites, anyway. My hypocrisy was okay.

That was a joke, by the way.

Little joke.

Ha ha.

Did I mention this “circle” thing still had me feeling a little nervous?

“Tell me, nymph,” the man in the long, white coat said. “Do you come seeking knowledge?”

“I’m always open to new ideas,” Amaranth said. “I believe in the power of knowledge.”

There were approving nods and murmurs of agreement at this.

“And you?” the group’s leader asked, looking at me. “Do you also come seeking knowledge?”

Every pair of eyes on the hilltop turned to regard me. So much for Amaranth’s promise that I wouldn’t be the center of attention. The answer they were looking for, obviously, was “yes”… but Amaranth’s answer had been more elaborate. Should I parrot what she had said, or keep it simple and just nod?

“She’s mine,” Amaranth said, pulling me in close against her side. “She’s here because I bid her to come.”

“But is she…” the guy who’d challenged Amaranth’s race started. She quelled him with a look. I was in no position to see her face, but I could guess which one.

Mine,” she repeated, with a certain amount of throaty fierceness which made me go weak.

“Well then, welcome to our study circle,” the white-coated man said. I felt Amaranth relax at my side, and she released her grip on me. “I am the Chief Technician, Prevailingwind Silver Sulfide.”

“Prevailing… huh?” I asked, utterly bewildered.

“That’s my trade name,” the self-described technician said. “When we enter the circle, we leave behind us all the trappings of the magic-based world and the narrow-minded thinking which it embodies, including our Khersian names… in their place, we take a name that’s more in accordance with the nature of our scientific studies.”

“Oh, shit,” I said, comprehension dawning. I knew what was going on now. “You’re… you’re fucking Mechans.”


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5 Responses to “45: Entering The Circle”

  1. Moody Mudiaga says:

    I hate hypocrites…that’s my line. Mack’s hypocrisy is unacceptable.

    Current score: 0
    • beappleby says:

      Mack is nothing if not a textbook example of an unreliable narrator.

      Bet you didn’t think she was a textbook example of anything.

      Current score: 3
      • BMeph says:

        On the contrary, she’s a textbook of textbook examples:
        Broken Bird,
        Beware the Nice Ones,
        Can Not Spit it Out (har-har),
        Spank the Cutie,…

        “Do we have a plethora?”

        Current score: 8
  2. pedestrian says:

    Out of context, all that is left of religions are the hypocrisies.

    Current score: 0
  3. Psi-Ko says:

    “I hate hypocrisy when other people do it”

    Current score: 0