Chapter 113: Down On The GreenAlexandraErin on September 21, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Eloise Bows To No One
Professor Swain’s lecture for the day proved to be about spiders. Surprisingly, this proved to be a less disturbing topic than moss had been.
“We’ll be sticking to the above-ground varieties,” she said. “This isn’t a delving class, after all… well, I suppose it is, now, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to encourage you to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
It said something about Professor Swain’s deeply buried adventurous tendencies that she believed learning about giant subterranean spiders would be an incentive for us to go looking for them.
When she dismissed us, I headed down the rows of seats to where Eloise was waiting
“You ready to do this?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “Do we need any materials?”
“Nah,” she said. “If the Em had more of an organic component or physical senses you might get some mileage out of an offering, but she wouldn’t even notice if you tried to give her something.”
“You don’t think it might be a good thing to include on principle?”
“I’m a utilitarian, I don’t work on principles,” she said. “What works, works. Let’s go to the pent.”
We headed outside and made for the open field that had been the original center of the campus, before it had sprawled westward… or at least, the original center of the current campus.
“On another subject,” I said while we walked, “you could tell I was scenting the air before. You’ve probably had a lot of experience with… new senses, and figuring out how to reconcile them together.”
“Don’t tell me you just now grew a nose,” she said.
“No, but I’m just now becoming aware of it.”
“If you’re going to ask me to teach you to track by scent, you can forget about it,” she said. “That’s mostly instinct for me, and the parts that aren’t would take too long to teach.”
“It’s instinct that I worry about,” I said. “Every time I’ve become really acutely aware of my sense of smell… or the scent of people… before, it’s been… not good. So far that’s happened, but I’m still worried.”
“I have more self-control,” I said. “But I’m thinking that might be as much an effect of something else as the cause of this.”
“I saw your name up on some postings over the summer,” she said. “Trading for virgin blood. Don’t think I saw them before. Was that new?”
“Yeah,” I said. “My feeding system before was kind of… ad-hoc.”
“So your food supply is more secure now,” she said. “That’s probably got something to do with it. If you want to stay even more in control, I’d say you’ve got to feed the beast more often.”
“Excuse me?” I said. I’d heard the individual words, but couldn’t combine them in my head into anything good.
“When I’m working with an animal… and back when I was first learning how to wear wild shapes… I found out that hunger can be more powerful than any amount of willpower on my part,” she said. “I don’t want to pry into the specifics of your diet… and don’t go thinking you need to volunteer them, either… but how often do you feed?”
“Once a month,” I said.
“Would it cost you or anyone too much to do it twice as often?”
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t,” I said. It would just take arranging additional exchanges of energy for blood…. my supply of magical power was not inexhaustible, and neither was my pool of interested donors, but I didn’t think doubling up would cause any problems. Especially since it would matter a lot less if things fell through on an extra feeding.
“I’d do that, then,” she said.
“Won’t that just make my demon side stronger?” I asked her.
“Probably,” she said. “Also calmer and more content. Would you rather deal with a strong animal that doesn’t need anything from you or a starving one? I mean, think about it… if you had the choice of feeding three days early or three days late, which would you do?”
“Three days early,” I said. “I’d be worried about my self-control if I put it off.”
“And do you feel like you have more self-control at the start or the end of your feeding cycle?”
“The start,” I said.
“So if you feed twice as often, you’ll always be in the first half of your cycle,” she said. “And you’ll never have to worry about being a day late because you’d still be two weeks early.”
She was right… it wasn’t just the “extra” feedings I’d be safer on. My hunger wasn’t tied to anything external like the moon or the calendar, so there wouldn’t be anything special about my regular feeding times compared to the ones between them.
It would also be easier to make changes to the cycle, or cope with an emergency that made finding a willing virgin difficult.
Even if this change didn’t bring any other noticeable benefits, it would make my life safer and easier. I might have been surprised that I’d never thought of it, but my life had been governed by my grandmother’s rules for as long as I had been feeding
“Thanks,” I said.
“I’ll add it to your tab.”
The school’s protection spells had been less sophisticated when the campus was established, which meant that they’d had to be more powerful, and the five-sided design of the paths around the pent had been a reflection of that. Now it just gave us an empty common space, an island of green in a sea of buildings and sidewalks.
If it had been closer to lunchtime or later in the day, there probably would have been a lot of people around. The pent wasn’t empty… when the weather held and the sun was out, it was never empty… but it wasn’t full, either. Often there would be people playing at mock combat or practicing their showier and less explodey spells. Now there were just a couple of people sitting on blankets and reading, and one lone warrior practicing a sword drill. There was an ice cream cart that had popped up sometime in the last few days… you’d know when if you paid more attention, I thought… and a bored-looking student sitting inside it.
“This is about good enough,” Eloise said. She looked around and held out her hands like she was feeling for something, which she probably was. “I want to do this away from buildings, so we don’t give anyone any ideas.”
“You don’t want anyone to think we’re trying to mess with one of the buildings?” I asked. Was that something I should be worried about?
“Mostly, I just don’t want any buildings to get the idea that they’re alive,” she said.
“Is that something that could actually happen?” I asked. Professor Stone had made it sound like awakening a building was almost impossible.
“I don’t want to be the one who finds out,” she said. “When you’re a druid, you learn to never anthropomorphize anything without a good reason.”
It sounded like there was a story… or possibly a cautionary tale… there, but she was already giving me enough of her time and I didn’t want to push her off course.
“Okay, so what do I do first?” I asked.
“Alright, the first thing is the frame of mind,” she said. “I cut out the religious parts, but this is not a purely physical exercise. Going through the motions isn’t going to cut it. You need to remember is that this is ultimately about showing your respect. Performing these steps, that isn’t respect… doing this is not a substitute for actually being respectful. Got that?”
I nodded, though privately I was worried about how this would work. Emily wasn’t exactly a mind-reader, but she was a mood-reader. I’d never liked her… well, I hadn’t known there was a her, but I’d had little appreciation for her aesthetically. I couldn’t imagine that would be at the forefront of my mind, but I certainly had little enough reason to like her…
“Is respect in general a foreign concept for you, or just for inanimate objects?” Eloise asked.
“I’m just worried about how to respect someone I don’t even like,” I said. She gave me a look that perfectly conveyed rolling her eyes without moving them more than a flicker.
“The first one, then,” she said, and she sighed. “Respect isn’t admiration. You should respect people you admire, but you don’t need to admire someone to respect them… or to respect what they can do, or respect the fact that they have something you need, or whatever the case may be. Here’s how you respect the Emily: you recognize that she exists. You recognize that she has the power to keep you out if she doesn’t want to let you in. You recgonize that she has the right to control who enters her premises.”
“Legally?” Eloise said. “Not gonna answer that, because it’s beside the point. Reframe the question in your head so it’s about anyone else and see if you’d want to ask me it again.”
“Got it,” I said. It might not have been right that people who happened to have certain classes could be kept out by the ire or whim of what was basically a completely random entity… but Emily was random. She hadn’t chosen to be a school building. I supposed that mostly she must not have minded it or else there would have been a much more widespread problem.
“So you fix those things in your mind, and hopefully it’ll keep your thoughts respectful,” she said. “There are three steps to the physical ritual: the approach, the bow, and the supplication. They are all important.”
“How does a physical bow…”
“We don’t have time for you to learn how to bow in spirit independently of your body,” she said. “I’ll save you a lot of questions: the physical aspect is all about bringing about a change within you. We’ll start with the approach. You stand there acting inanimate, and watch me approach you.”
She backed up about fifteen yards, maybe.
“Start out a ways back,” she called. She spread her arms out wide. “Take a wide stance and spread your arms wide… believe it or not, this makes your aura bigger. Smile your most beamingest smile and open your eyes wide, because these things make you radiate. The point is you need to be noticed before you get close. If you feel damn silly, that’s good, because silly is vulnerable and vulnerable is safe.”
I nodded and tried to mentally commit the advice to memory, then whipped out my mirror instead.
“Yeah, take notes,” Eloise said. “But tell me when you’ve got it down because I want you watching.”
“Okay,” I said. I scribbled furiously with the tip of my finger. Putting a memo into the compact was as much a matter of will as it was painting with the glittery dust inside it, but it was like Eloise had said… the physical action helped shape that will. “Done!”
“Watch,” she said. “Take small steps. Not timid steps, though. Be deliberate. Vulnerable is good, frightened is bad. One foot up, forward, down. Deliberate. Advertise your every move. You’re not sneaking up here. Palms still out, sunny smile still on your face, but dim it as you approach. You want to be noticed, you don’t want to stab anyone with your brain.”
Stab anyone with your brain…
She meant “mind”, I knew… I’d had enough direct dealings with telepaths to know that they really cared a lot about the difference, even if nobody else did.
…could it really be that simple?
“Mackenzie? Are you okay?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “You just made me think of something… but go on.”
She’d given me an idea about what I’d been missing… or overlooking, actually. If I was right, then her greeting ritual was probably the last thing I’d want to do, but in case I was wrong or I found a workaround, I still wanted to know it.
“Okay, so small steps, but deliberate,” she said. “If you think you feel some kind of attention, or you get about halfway there and there’s no response, stop and bring your hands together. You’re closing yourself up a bit when you do this… buttoning up your aura a bit. Think about that while you’re doing it, it can’t hurt. Then nod, slowly. The purpose here is acknowledgment. They’ve noticed you, you notice them. Wait here. Breathe slowly. If you feel any indication that you shouldn’t continue… a prickle on the back of your neck, even a sudden feeling of doubt, this is where you abort. It could be less subtle than that, but don’t ignore the subtleties.”
I copied down the instructions, but my mind was still echoing the words stab anyone with your brain.
Mental contact from interplanar beings could be disorienting, painful, or even harmful… an infernal mind was particularly dangerous to a mind from the material plane. Was it possible that my previous failures to respond to her had been the only thing saving Emily from a very localized headache? If I’d been hanging out with an open telepathic connection to a human for as long as I’d wandered her halls, their mind would probably be shredded beyond repair… but Emily was a five on the whatever entity thing scale, and that apparently meant she was kind of a big deal. Maybe it had just been painful but not permanently damaging.
“So, ideally by now you will have felt a positive response,” Eloise said. “If you don’t, take a couple steps forward a time and pause again until you do, repeat as necessary. If you don’t get anything, back off. If the fish aren’t biting, they’re not biting. You can try again another day, but it might just be an avenue that’s closed to you. Don’t push things. If you do get your sign, cross half the distance that’s between you and go into a deep bow. Step to the side, please… like, come over and watch this from the side.”
I did so, and then watched as she walked with a careful, measured stride, then stopped and sank low to the ground. It wasn’t a curtsy or a dip, she got down on the ground and touched her forehead to it.
“Just like that,” she said, getting to her feet. “You say down and you think respectful thoughts. Focus on what you want to convey. Say the words out loud. Emily won’t understand them but they’ll shape your thoughts… and keep anything else from wandering through your mind. You can’t think about how stupid the whole thing is or how much you hate her rain gutters while you’re thinking about what to tell her. Got it?”
“Got it,” I said. “Thanks… you’ve been more help than you know.”
“I’m more help than most people know,” she said.
“Have you ever done this with a building spirit?”
“Only the once, but it was with your building,” she said. “So if nothing else, I can tell you that she’ll know what you’re about… anyway, gotta fly.”
“Thank you,” I said again.
She didn’t literally fly off, but she did have a brisk pace as she left. I stayed behind, since it was quiet and I needed to think things through a bit.
Plan A was still going to be having Amaranth apologize on my behalf… even if I was right, knowing how I’d hurt Emily didn’t change the fact that I had. Even though it had completely accidental, she was still the injured party. And on a practical level, I still wanted to get to Professor Stone’s class.
If I was right, though, then trying to shine myself up like a beacon and catch Emily’s eye would probably be the biggest mistake I could possibly make. I knew there was more than one single homogeneous part at work here. It was possibly for a telepath to pick up stuff that leaked out of me without getting the effect of contact. My aura could be read without touching my mind.
But I had very little training in this stuff, and just as I couldn’t make my spirit bow down without bowing down in body, I doubted I could beam my aura or feelings at Emily without also opening up the dangerous landscape my mind… I was a child at this stuff, and children couldn’t even move their fingers independently of each other when they were born.
All of this meant that there was one other person I’d need to ask for help… but then, I wouldn’t be asking for anything that hadn’t already been offered.