Chapter 132: The Wet WoodsAlexandraErin on March 5, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Goes The Distance
The air-umbrella made walking around on the paved pathways tolerable, so instead of making a beeline for the treeline I decided to keep going until we got to a place where the sidewalk transitioned into a dirt path that led into the woods. I knew I couldn’t stay on solid pavement forever, but I was hoping the ground beneath the trees would be dry enough to be fairly solid.
The path was narrow and anything but straight, but at least the trees provided a decent canopy. That was really a good thing, since I had to cancel my spell soon after we reached the woods as the trees around us kept disrupting it and vice-versa. We still got dripped on, but it was better than getting rained on directly.
Amaranth was pretty good at figuring out elapsed distance in relative terms between green and growing things, but she wasn’t able to translate that into feet or yards over a long distance. I wasn’t good at either, but I knew spells for measuring dimensions of objects. An imaginary line nine hundred yards long was a bit beyond my abilities, especially since we weren’t able to move in a straight line through the trees… well, I wasn’t able to… but I was able to keep a running estimate in my head by measuring things like logs and tree roots and limbs as we went past them. I decided to keep going until some time after my internal counter reached a thousand feet, just to be on the safe side.
“I don’t suppose that Professor Swain has any real way of knowing where you collect your sample from, does she?” Amaranth asked me as I picked my careful way over the uneven ground. I knew it was an observation, not a suggestion to cheat.
“I really don’t imagine she does,” I said. I wasn’t sure, though. Her teaching assistant was a grad student who probably knew more about the energy flow of the grounds around the campus than anyone else. If there was anyone who could look at a bit of moss and gauge how close it had been growings to buildings and landscaped grounds, it would be Eloise Desjardins.
“There’s going to be a lot of moss here after a few more weeks of weather like this,” she said. “We’re in for a wetter, cooler season than we had last year.”
“It’s not going to rain like this all week, is it?” I asked.
“No, this will blow itself out sometime tomorrow and then it’ll rain off and on Monday and Tuesday,” she said. “After that, it could go a couple of different ways.”
“You knew this was going to happen back at the start of the week.”
“Well, yes, but I didn’t have a really specific picture beyond rain,” she said. “I couldn’t have told you it was going to be raining as hard as it is, for instance, or exactly when it would start. And sometimes there are more possibilities than others. What happens later in the week next week is going to depend on what happens between now and then, elsewhere. Weather’s complicated. I… I don’t actually have an in-depth understanding of how it works, to be honest. It’s not something I ever needed to learn about, and it never occurred to me to study it on a deeper level than my intuitive understanding.”
“So it’s not just your mother throwing darts at a celestial dartboard,” I said.
She laughed at that.
“Oh, goddess, no,” she said. “Mother Khaele… she likes to line things up so they’ll run on their own. She’ll give things a nudge sometimes, or even a shove, but mostly the weather is just… just a bunch of elemental interactions cascading into each other. There are limits to how often and how much a god can intercede in the physical realm. Not hard ones, but… the more they do, the harder it becomes to do more. Mother Khaele has some advantages over the others there since the mortal realm is also her realm, but even she has her limitations. That’s why the animals and plants she created reproduce instead of simply being called into being again each time. The weather works like that… well, not exactly like that, obviously.”
“I never really knew that about gods,” I said.
“Well, you got most of your religious instruction from your grandmother, and I can’t imagine that she’d be one to talk about the practical limitations of godhood,” Amaranth said.
“No, she pretty much considers ‘The Almighty Khersis’ to be a description rather than a title,” I said. “I don’t think she gives much thought to what the other gods can or can’t do.”
I realized at this point that I’d stopped measuring and adding. I knew I’d been past five hundred, and rather than trying to guess at how much further we’d gone since then, I decided to just resume counting up from there. The goal was to go at least three hundred yards, not exactly anything.
“I’m sorry, but I’m losing track of the distance,” I said. “Do you mind if we walk in silence for a bit? I really need to focus on this for a while.”
“Go right ahead, baby,” Amaranth said. “I’m sorry for distracting you… we can talk more on the way back.”
The task of measuring the distance was enough to keep my mind occupied enough to not end up distracting myself as we continued in silence. Since I was on the lookout for things to measure and most of the things around me were trees, I couldn’t help noticing that moss was more than abundant enough to make the finding part of the assignment beyond easy. Though, being aware of moss all around me made me nervous about where I put my hands and feet.
Since we’d been walking without counting for at least a little while, I decided it would be safe to stop right at a thousand. Even if Eloise or Professor Swain had some way of checking the distance, it would probably be an estimate, too, and I had to assume there would be some wiggle room. I could document my method of verifying the distance to show that I really had made the effort.
“Okay, I think this is far enough,” I said.
I put on some thick gardening gloves I’d borrowed from Two, took a jar out of my pocket, and drew a spare wand that I’d specially charged from my belt. I’d figured it would work as well as anything for poking at moss or scraping it off a tree, and better than most things if I needed to channel some magic through it in a hurry.
Most of my offensive magic options were elemental in nature. Fire was the easiest and most obvious, but there were some solid reasons not to simply flame on in the middle of a forest. The rain would probably keep things from getting out of hand, but the moss was also bound to be damp.
Besides, some of the varieties of moss that we’d profiled in class liked fire.
My default plan for encountering any belligerent or harmful moss was to desiccate it by drawing all the water out of it. That would be harder than air-blasting it, especially if it was saturated to begin with, but it seemed a sudden explosive gust of wind would do little more than spread it around.
Since most of the moss around the campus was of a perfectly ordinary, non-magical, non-mobile, non-hostile variety, it was possible that I was overthinking things a little bit. But it was far better to have a spell ready that I didn’t need than it would be to need one and not have it.
“See anything that you like?” Amaranth asked, spreading her arms out and turning a slow circle.
“Yes, but I’ve got to scrape some moss off a tree before I can have it,” I said. “And I know dirt and rain don’t bother you, but I think we should probably go back inside first, too.”
“Very funny,” she said. She gave me a slap on the butt. “Get to it, then.”
“Okay,” I said, approaching a tree that had a fairly thick… vein, I guess… of the stuff on one of its side. I was trying not to pick the one with the most coverage or one with a tiny little patch… either could have been an ordinary moss infestation at different stages of progression, but they still seemed suspicious to me.
I held my breath as I leaned in close to inspect my chosen quarry. One lecture had not been enough to make me an expert in what regular moss is supposed to look like, much less what each of the dangerous and interesting varieties that Professor Bryony Swain had catalogued in the vicinity of the Enias River Valley looked like. I was mostly just looking for anything that was obviously out of place… like little teeth or blades, or eyeballs, or any obvious blurring of space around it.
I could see nothing that worried me, which strangely did not reassure me at all. If I could clearly see that this moss was dangerous, I could back off from it and find another patch. I know the odds of the new one being something weird wouldn’t actually change, but I’d feel better about it anyway. I couldn’t see anything wrong with this one, but that didn’t mean there was nothing wrong with it, only that there was nothing I could see.
There was also nothing I could discern using the elemental and magical detection techniques that I knew, nor did any attempt to divine information from it using other means available to me. I could detect very low qualities of acidity and awareness, but not at levels that suggested it was conscious or capable of attack.
Still, I couldn’t help stealing a glance at Amaranth… she was supposed to be there to step in if I needed help defending myself, not to identify my subject for me or even warn me if it was dangerous. I couldn’t believe that she’d be able to hide her reaction if she was watching me about to stumble into danger. She was just too expressive.
Right now her expressive face wasn’t showing mortal concern, but something like interest and maybe disappointment. She was definitely conflicted about something… which she would be if there was something she needed to tell me about my moss.
“Is everything okay?” I asked her.
“What? Oh, yes, everything’s fine,” she said. “You didn’t happen to bring more than one jar, did you?”
“No,” I said. “The assignment is to bring some moss, any moss. One sample’s enough.”
“Well, then, don’t you think you might want to look around a little more before settling on that moss?”
“But any moss fulfills the requirements of the assignment equally well,” I said. “I’ll get a hundred percent for walking in with this.”
“But some moss is worth extra credit, right?” Amaranth asked.
“Yes, but I don’t need extra credit.”
“You don’t yet,” she said. “But this class is only going to get harder as you go, right? And think about how much you’ve hated even coming out here to collect a bit of harmless moss… I’m not saying you’ll blow off later assignments if they ask more of you, but you might find them… harder to fulfill? So why not go the extra mile on this early, easy one?”
“I’m not walking a mile into these woods,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “Just… go a little further. Take a little look around the area we’re in right now and see if there isn’t something a little more… interesting.”
“But I’ve already examined this moss,” I said. “If I don’t find something more… interesting… then I don’t want to have start over.”
“I can bring you right back to that tree if you need to find it again, I promise,” Amaranth said. “For me, telling plants apart is as easy as telling people apart.”
“Yeah, well, for me, it’s as hard as telling people apart,” I said. “But you really think I’ll find something… interesting… if we go a little further?”
“I think it certainly might be possible,” she said, but the twinkle in her eyes said she was a bit more certain than that.