Chapter 133: EmberAlexandraErin on March 8, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Mackenzie Gets Down On Her Hands And Knees
What followed was a little bit awkward, because Amaranth wasn’t about to take the lead and show me where the “something interesting” she’d clearly detected was or what exactly I should be looking for in a forest full of things with moss growing on it.
I kind of had to take it on faith that she had good reason to assume I’d know it when I saw it and that it would be in my path if I continued moving in basically the same direction we’d been heading, but I had to go slow all the same so that I didn’t miss it… and so I didn’t miss any subtle cues that Amaranth might choose to give me.
In the end, she didn’t need to give me any prompting… there was a trunk that had fallen across the path, sometime long enough ago that the ragged end of it had been covered over so that it looked like it was growing sideways. On the slightly arched underside, something twinkled like fireflies… if fireflies swarmed on solid surfaces and flashed when at rest.
“Is that… moss?” I asked.
“Go and see!” Amaranth said. “Oh, but go carefully.”
I did just that, getting on my hands and knees and creeping in for a closer look. It turned out that the twinkling I saw wasn’t moss, and it wasn’t fireflies… it was fire beetles, with carapaces shaped like tiny jewels that sparked bright orange at intervals. They all lit up at once as they registered my proximity, and the combined heat made the air around them steam before they scattered. The patch of moss they’d been eating or whatever glowed a duller red. If I’d been further away it would have just looked like embers, but up close I could see the mossy texture.
I held out a hand to touch its energy… okay, so I was less cautious with the glowing moss than I had been with the ordinary green stuff, but I’d just seen a bunch of bugs nibbling at it with no reaction, and I could feel warmth emanating from it. Dimensional vortices, psychic assault, and killing cold all worried me, and even physical moss-based attacks that couldn’t injure my semi-invulnerable skin squicked me out, but I was in my element when it came to fire.
This moss was definitely elementally tinged. It seemed to be an inherent property rather than something it had picked up from association with the fire beetles… in fact, it was probably the reason they’d been attracted to it.
But while it was aspected towards fire, it wasn’t actively flaming. We’d covered fire moss, flame moss, flaming moss, burning moss, and blaze moss in class and while it hadn’t exactly been an in-depth look, this didn’t seem to be any of those. I couldn’t remember any mention of a moss that glows like embers. Of course it would have been impossible to cover all the possible permutations of hazardous moss in a single class period, but there was also the possibility that it was simply not dangerous enough to be worth mentioning.
I still performed a few magical and physical tests on it. I discovered that it didn’t like being touched with damp things… that was probably why it only grew on the underside of this tree and hadn’t spread further.
“I don’t know,” I said. “This is supposed to be a class on Local Hazards, not… Local Oddities. Ember moss is definitely more interesting than the regular, non-glowing kind, but if it’s not hazardous I don’t think she necessarily has to give me anything extra for it.”
“You don’t think she would?” Amaranth said. “Most of the people in your class are going to be bringing in samples they could have scraped from the big rocks by the student union patio, even if they did go into the woods for it. Some brave souls will have gone out and specifically looked for something a little less common. Which group do you want her to sort you into?”
“I just think it kind of defeats the purpose of the class,” I said. “I mean, if I take what looks like regular, safe moss and I examine it and determine that it is not actually brain moss or deathspore moss or quick moss, then I’ve, you know, successfully applied the knowledge of local hazards. But glowing moss? I don’t have to look at it up close to know that it’s not normal, and knowing that, I can just steer clear of it. Sticking my face into it to see what it does seems… counter to the intentions of the class.”
Even before I’d started examining it, of coure, I’d been pretty sure that it wouldn’t do anything, since Amaranth had done everything short of actually leading me to it. She wouldn’t outright tell me if a given patch of moss was harmless or not, but I really doubted she would have pulled me away from the one I’d been looking at to something dangerous.
“You really want to go back to your patch of plain, boring moss when you’re looking at a patch of ember moss?” Amaranth asked.
“I’m just thinking about what best fulfills the parameters of the assignment,” I said.
“You told me yourself that any moss will do,” Amaranth said. “If she wasn’t going to take points away for having an ordinary non-lethal variety of moss, then having an extraordinary one can’t be worse, and might be better. Anyway, don’t you think it’s neat?”
“Okay, as far as moss goes, it’s pretty cool,” I admitted. “But I don’t know if Professor Swain is going to grade on cool. She’s a burrow gnome. They think ‘adventure’ is a four-letter word.”
“But will she even be grading them? You know she’s got a T.A. who isn’t a gnome,” Amaranth said. “If you don’t think Eloise will be more impressed with this, I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Anyway, I’m already here… I guess I might as well get my sample before you pick up on something better just a little bit further down the road.”
“Oh, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Amaranth said with a deliberately unconvincing air. “I just said there might be something more interesting in the area, that’s all.”
“Of course,” I said.
I tried removing some of the moss with my wand, but found that that as soon as it was removed from the wood it was feeding upon, it lost its glow and dried out into something gray and sooty. Since the tree was already dead, I broke off a chunk of it, trying to leave most of the mossy patch intact. I had to break the piece down a bit to get it to fit in my jar, but I ended up with a strip of glowing bark that just barely fit with the lid on. It didn’t seem to mind being sealed up, so I fastened it tightly to protect it from the rain.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” I asked Amaranth when it was secured.
“Not in person,” she said. “Before coming here, I’d barely left my field, remember?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know, though… maybe you’ve taken some long walks in the woods since then.”
“Oh, I’ve thought about it… there is a lot of interesting plant life in the area,” Amarant said. “The people in Paradise Valley are living a bit closer to nature than the average Metro-Magisterian humans, but it’s still pretty… tame… compared to the woodlands of the central plains. Somehow, though, I end up spending my free time hanging out indoors, with people or in the library.”
“Well, you’ve got a very long life ahead of you,” I said. “And only a few years of college. I mean, you could keep going for different degrees but I’d guess at some point the people back home will want to see you doing something with your education. So I guess it kind of makes sense to try to get the most out of the college life while you can?”
“I guess,” Amaranth said. “I’d feel better about it if it were something I’d consciously planned or decided, though… I mean, as opposed to something that just sort of happens. Or doesn’t happen. My life changed so much when I decided to come here, and I’ve never really sat down and processed that. Or the way it’s changed since. I feel like I’ve been flitting from person to person and cause to cause, just to avoid thinking about… well, about anything. Well, not anything, but several things.”
“You’re one of the most thoughtful people I know,” I said. I kind of winced after saying it, because I’d been thinking literally… she thought a lot. But because she’d always thought of herself as smart, she also had a tendency to be thoughtless, in the common sense of the word. It was something she’d grown better about, but it could still be a sore point.
“Thank you for saying that, but I really have been drifting more than I like to admit. We’ve both let things slip by when things get busy or life gets stressful.” She turned her face down. “Possibly… possibly me more so than you.”
“I really can’t imagine that’s true,” I said. It wasn’t that Amaranth wasn’t a little scattered from time to time. It’s that I was a lot so, frequently.
“It is, though!” she said. “I mean, I’ve done well enough in all my classes, but I’ve lightened a load a little each semester I’ve been here.”
“That’s because you started out by biting off more than you can chew,” I said. “Recognizing your limitations before you burn out is a good thing.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it’s not just school work I’m talking about. There’s also… personal stuff.”
“Well, to be fair, you’ve got a heavier course load there, too,” I said.
I had three lovers, including Amaranth. She was involved with the other two, but beyond that she was a nymph, and she saw it as her sacred duty to spread the blessings of her body around. There were benefits to being with a nymph, but one big drawback if you happened to be the jealous type. Fortunately, I wasn’t… or at least, not when it came to Amaranth. It probably had a lot to do with our relationship dynamic. I didn’t want to stake out any kind of claim on Amaranth’s life or her body… I wanted her to claim me.
“That shouldn’t affect how I am with you,” she said. “I mean, no one else can give another person their full attention all of the time, not for very long… but when I’m with you, I should be with you completely. And when I make plans, I should see them through.”
“It’s not like you make a habit of standing me up,” I said, not sure where this was going. “You’re much better at remembering commitments and following through with them than I am, I promise you.”
“Oh, I know I am, baby,” she said. “I know we both have our strengths and weaknesses, and I know what yours are… I’m just starting to realize that… that… well, I’m less clear on my own, and that just because you’re weak in an area doesn’t automatically make me strong in it. I started the semester with so many plans for moving our relationship forward, taking it to the next level… giving you what you need from me and so rarely get.”
“I think it’s a little early in the semester to be declaring failure,” I said. “It’s been an eventful couple of weeks, but it’s only been a couple of weeks. The Mother City wasn’t moved in a day.”
“But what if these weeks end up being the foundation of everything that comes after?” she asked.
“Then we’ll build on them,” I said. “That’s what foundations are for, silly.”
I wanted to take her hands in mine, but I was still holding the jar so I took one of her hands and sort of held the jar out in the other. She put her hand on it. We probably made a really sweet picture, standing there under the trees with rain drops dripping all around us and a jar full of ember moss glowing in between us.
It would have been a really great time for a kiss, too, which is probably why she gave me one.