Chapter 112: Scents and SensitivityAlexandraErin on September 17, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Takes In The Scenery
After we went our separate ways, I found a stone bench and sat down on it to try to re-center myself a bit. My new habits of awareness weren’t actually habits as such yet, that had become obvious… I hadn’t done anything to focus myself at all in the morning, I’d boosted my hearing only when it became obvious that there was something to listen to, and I hadn’t been able to retain anything specific about the elves in Ariadne’s office.
It seemed like a good idea to come up with some kind of schedule for exercises… or just cultivate the habit of doing something between all my classes, since I already had a schedule for how my weekdays went.
Whatever I ended up doing in the longterm, though, it was definitely time to do something now.
I felt like I had a solid handle on the elemental stuff. I was kind of awed in retrospect with how well I’d manage to channel input from my elemental connection in the middle of difficult fights. I had five whole senses that I’d spent a lot of time learning how to tone down and ignore, though, so I decided to start by working on them.
Eyes closed, I started by focusing on sounds… footsteps on the path, voices, people. It was early afternoon so the campus was alive and full of people. I didn’t try to pick out individual conversations, but words jumped out at me. A lot of people were asking each other if they’d done this work or that work, or studied, or if they had the notes. It was the middle of the day in the middle of the week and it seemed like most people had practical matters on their mind.
Or at least that was the portion of the ambient conversation that made enough sense for me to pick out.
I took a slow, deep breath in through my nose. The scent of mowed grass and a warning hint of moisture in the air was the first thing that hit me, but then the smell of humanity cut through that like a knife. There was a girl approaching me… walking past me, really, and then away… I could just barely hear the sound of her soft soles on the pavement but with her scent filling my nostrils I had an almost perfect picture of her position relative to me.
That was new.
Was it? Or was it something I’d just never let myself realize before? It was exactly the sort of thing I was likely to recoil from… a predatory instinct, useful for a hunter and render of flesh, but useless in my day to day life.
I didn’t run from it now, though. After all, I was as calm as I’d been all day, just sitting there and experiencing things. I wasn’t tensing to spring, I wasn’t imagining myself ripping out her throat and feasting on her virgin blood… okay, I was a little, but only because I’d stopped to think about it in negative terms and that was like being told not to think about elephants, I was even thinking about elephants after that thought, that’s how easy it was.
She was a virgin, though, I could smell that. So was the guy who was walking towards my bench now… three guys, but the other two weren’t and I didn’t pick them up until they were closer. There were people across the way from me, on the other expanse of grass and the small patch of dandelions in the corner where the grounds crew had been careless, but I could only pick them up when the wind was just right. They flickered in and out of my mental world like fireflies flitting between trees.
There was a building at my back and a set of doors opened periodically, letting the inside air out to mingle with the outside, carrying with it a built-up film of old humanity and other living scents.
Blood and leather walked in front of me without a sound, and my brain put a face to it: Nae. Tiny, clad only in a skirt of black leather. It was iron on her breath, not blood. The resemblance was only superficial, and easily picked apart by my demon senses. One of her toe nails caught on a uneven bit of the path with the tiniest scraping sound and I knew I was right. I could picture her feet. Shiel, the other kobold student, wore sandals and kept her nails filed blunt and short, but I could see Nae’s bare feet and the curving talon-like nails that grew from her toes.
I felt slightly proud to have identified her, like I’d somehow managed to catch my opponent in a trap… Nae wasn’t my enemy, even if we did have to fight each other. I could even just catch her soft foot-falls, after I’d identified the scrape of her toe nail. I even had her position from her scent on the air… a feat that seemed even more impressive to me when I realized I had to be adjusting for the wind speed.
Or else I was completely wrong, but I didn’t think I was. I had no basis for thinking so… no more basis than I had for making the estimate of position. It was all instinctive.
It seemed like my sense of smell was my sharpest one, or the one that was most deeply rooted… not only were my ears not as sharp as an elf’s, but I’d had absolutely no luck in trying to put together a picture of the world around me using them. With my nose, I didn’t even have to try. I just had to shut everything else out and listen to what it was saying.
I started trying to use two senses together, to track the footsteps of the people whose scents wafted by me. I thought it would be a good way to build up an auditory picture of my surroundings, to give myself some basis for comparison about exactly how far away a sound was or where it was coming from in a world of echoes. I thought of it as using my olfactory sense to improve my hearing, but what actually happened was more of the reverse… my impression of where people were sharpened, going from being something like a bunch of hazy clouds drifting through my awareness to something more concrete and definite. I hadn’t even realized how much room there’d been for improvement, I’d just been amazed that I could tell where people were at all…
“Meditating, huh?” a voice said from very close to my ear.
In any other circumstance this probably wouldn’t have got much of a reaction from me at all… I was used to Steff doing it to try to startle me, and Dee had occasionally done similar things when she was trying to be circumspect since she couldn’t communicate telepathically with me.
But when I’d been immersed in my sense, reveling in my ability to notice and identify everyone around me, the sudden existence of a recognizable human voice was enough to make me yelp… okay, shriek… and jump out of my seat.
I resisted the urge to whirl around quickly since that would definitely have resulted in a fall. Instead, I straightened myself up and turned slowly on the spot.
“Not funny,” I said.
“Sorry!” Eloise said, though she sounded more amused. “Couldn’t help myself… saw you testing your senses, decided to test my stealth.”
“Was it that obvious what I was doing?”
“To a druid,” she said. “Maybe to a ranger… but anybody else saw the way your nose was twitching, they’d probably just think you had an itch up in your nostril or something.”
“Why don’t you have a scent?” I asked.
“I do!” she said. She spread her arms out. “It just smells like… this.”
“Like everything,” she said. “My environment. Wherever I am at the moment… as long as it’s sufficiently natural, of course. Landscaped and manicured university grounds are just about the limit of my ability, actually, which is what made this a test and not just an opportunistic practical joke. What, you don’t think the whole ‘walk without tracks’ thing just means no footprints?”
“I never thought about it,” I said. “But I guess it would be pretty humanocentric to only think about visual traces…”
A thought popped into my head. Professor Stone had said that geomantic influences could be a factor in a building rolling over and waking up, spiritually speaking. Eloise probably knew more about the local geomantic conditions than anyone.
“Hey, do you have a minute to talk?” I asked.
“Well, I’m kind of on my way to class… but then, so are you,” she said. “That’s the other reason I goosed you. I don’t like to interrupt someone who’s in the middle of something, but I wasn’t sure you were smelling what time it was, since you’re usually one of the first ones in.”
“I, uh, really wasn’t paying attention to the time, no,” I said. “I guess next time I should set an alarm. Do you mind walking with me?”
“Not a bit, what’s on your mind?”
“Well… you know about the Emily Center, right?” I asked.
“You mean in general, or just lately?” she asked.
“…what’s happened lately?” I asked.
“Not a clue,” she said. “There was some kind of flare-up yesterday, though. Backed up the flow along one of the local ley lines for almost a minute and a half… normally you don’t see that outside of an earthquake, a planar incursion, or a psychic battle.”
One of those things didn’t seem like the other.
“People fighting with subtle arts registers the same as a major disaster?” I asked.
“Well, honestly… it’s more like it takes a major physical disaster to have the same effect as a psychic disturbance,” Eloise said. “But you know something about what happened?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Could whatever caused this disturbance have affected Emily… like spooked her, or altered her mood?”
“If you know for a fact she had a big mood swing, I’d say that’s probably what caused the disturbance,” Eloise said. “Emily’s a major enough entity to affect the local mana structures.”
“How major is ‘major’?” I asked.
“Well, she’s a five,” she said.
“Out of ten?”
“A five on the S.V.S. Scale,” she said. “It’s a scale for measuring the strength of psychic and spiritual entities.”
“So what’s a five mean?”
“One is the ooky feeling you get when you cross the threshold of an old house or a spot where someone died,” she said. “Two is a common household spirit, familiar spirit, or poltergeist. Three is something like the spirit-side of your girlfriend. Excuse me if I’m talking out of turn, but you remember that time Amaranth was getting in my face by the caf? It helped me explain a weird anomaly I’d been seeing here and there for the last year… when she throws a fit, it ripples. More long-lasting than ripples in water, but not really permanent or destructive… like rippes in sand or mud, I guess.”
“And Emily’s two levels above that?” I asked. That sounded kind of ominous, but manageably so.
“It’s an exponential scale,” Eloise said. “Each level is ten times the size of the last one. I don’t have a before and after image to compare, but either she just happened to be built in perfect alignment with the flow, or she actually re-oriented a bunch of the lines when she woke up.”
“…if she’s mad at me, how worried should I be?” I asked.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know!” I said. “Existed wrong, I guess. Amaranth is going to try to apologize on my behalf tomorrow morning… but I’m not sure that’s safe or wise, if a bad reaction from her is the psychic equivalent of an earthquake.”
“Again, the psychic equivalent of an earthquake isn’t actually that big when we’re talking about effects on the physical world,” she said. “I mean, there’s at least one person on campus who’s a strong enough telepath to make the lines go wibbly when she has a headache… which seems to be often.”
“Did she switch dorms over the summer?” I guessed.
“Yeah, it’s your friend Delia Daella,” Eloise said. “I wasn’t going to say. I think part of the reason they get stronger telepaths down there than we do up here is they don’t have an etheric field to disrupt.. and vice versa, I guess. The reaction probably goes both ways.”
“Well, anyway… the reason I was asking about Emily in the first place is I was wondering if you had any insight into how to approach her,” I said. “I don’t know if you have a ‘working relationship’ with her or what… I mean, I’d guess most druids would be acquainted with any place spirits in their beat, but she’s a building, not like a sacred grove or whatever. On the other hand, you’re kind of more…”
“If the next word out of your mouth is ‘urban’, you’re going to wake up with thorns in places you didn’t know you had,” she said. “Fair warning.”
“I was going to say ‘modern in your outlook’,” I said.
“Well, you’re not wrong there,” she said. “Okay, I have had some interactions with the Em, mostly when I was plotting the fields around her… I’ve never had a design class and I don’t think I’ve ever been inside her, but… well, there is a technique.”
“You could call it a ritual,” she said. “I don’t.”
“Would this be a ritual I could perform safely?” I asked.
“It doesn’t have to involve divine energy unless the spirit you’re greeting is divine,” she said “Non-secular druids invoke the goddess when they do it, but that’s not necessary. It’s just a formula for respectfully greeting someone who doesn’t share a language with you, or might not have a language at all.”
“Could you teach it to me? Or is it something I could learn for myself?”
“I don’t think you’d find a non-religious variation of it on the weave, since I had to work it out for myself… and I really wouldn’t want you to fry yourself because you accidentally channeled the wrong force,” she said. “You got time to stick around after class?”
“Yeah,” I said
“Okay, it won’t take long to teach you the basics,” she said. “The thing is, it would be redundant for Amaranth to perform it because she’ll already be talking to the Em on her own level, but if she can clear things so that you can come close without triggering anything bad, it might help you seal the deal… though I’d be more confident if you knew what set her off.”
“You and me both,” I said. I’d talked to two people who were far more knowledgeable about the whole thing than I was, and I still had the nagging feeling that I was missing a crucial piece. The mention of adverse reactions to channeling the wrong energy gave me an idea, though. “There… there isn’t a chance that Emily is a divine spirit, is there?”
“Nada,” Eloise said. “They would have had priests and diabolists and druids all over her when she first went live, to make sure that something hadn’t crept in or got caught in the construction, because that does happen.”
“Okay,” I said.
I tried not to feel disappointed to not have found an easy and obvious answer, since that particular answer would have qualified as a basic incompatibility of the sort Professor Stone had referred to. I really didn’t want to drop his class, not when I was getting along with the teacher and it was my only externally guaranteed connection to Nicki and in terms of design classes it wasn’t that bad.
“Thank for the help,” I added, realizing that Eloise had to have many demands on her time, between her druid skill set and her teaching assistant position and her own work as a grad student. “And for making sure I didn’t space off class. I really appreciate it. I don’t know if there’s anything I can do in return…”
“Well, you did help troubleshoot my viewer,” she said. “That’s not nothing. If I think of anything else I can use your help with, though… I’ll let you know.”