Chapter 166: Three’s CompanyAlexandraErin on July 17, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Acantha Puts The Mockbox To A Creative Use
We each took a box. Acantha went into hers immediately and shut the door. I approached mine a little more slowly.
I’d been through the process many times before, but this was the first time there wasn’t anyone who would threaten to dump me out of it if I dawdled and I was supposed to be learning what I could about the boxes, so I took my time.
I didn’t close the door immediately… doing so triggered the duplicating enchantments. Most modern items that were always on or had a convenience trigger like this had what was called a negative invocation or a hold word… a way for the user to temporarily suspend the enchantment. I couldn’t exactly foresee a situation where it would be terribly important for someone to be inside the box with the door closed without triggering a duplicate, but being able to suspend the enchantment could be considered a safety feature, in general terms.
Extending my magical senses, I “felt” around the complex structure of spells that made the box work. What I was looking for was there for the user to interact with, so it would be something bright and obvious among the tangle of spells.
And there it was… a trigger phrase tied to a spell of negation. Untangling the bound-up threads of energy that made up the trigger and translating them into intelligible language was the sort of thing that required specialist knowledge and a lot of time, which is why trigger words had been an effective way for wizards to protect their wands and staves for centuries.
Nowadays we had other magic items for teasing out the right syllables… well, a very general “we” did. The more specific “we” did not.
“Power word off,” I said, trying some of the common ones. “Hold. Suspend.” Those might have been too common. “Fini?”
At fini, I felt something… a kind of shift or click, and a definite momentary dimming of power… but only a momentary one. I was pretty sure that the box was fully operational, as sure as I could be without closing the door. I was about to remove that last bit of doubt when I heard the other box open.
“Ms. Mackenzie, did you… do something to my box?” she asked.
“…I might have,” I said, ducking out of mine in time to catch Acantha closing a clamshell compact, similar to the one with my magic mirror but in a different style. I wondered if she’d been about to contact someone about whatever problem I’d just apparently caused. “Sorry, I was trying to see if I could suspend the enchantment. I mean, using an existing function I discovered, I wasn’t trying to disenchant them. But I was addressing my box, so I’m not sure why it would affect yours?”
“Ah,” she said. “I believe you actually accessed a termination feature rather than a suspension one.”
“Termination?” I said. I had an image flash into my brain of using it to win a fight on a technicality by eliminating my opponent with a word, but that image was quickly replaced by one of Coach Callahan kicking my ass, or worse, kicking me out of class. Winning by any means possible didn’t extend to winning by means that only applied if my opponent was a phantasm conjured by a specific device used for simulated battles. “That makes sense… it was definitely a negation spell… I’m not sure how you would set up a temporary suppression of an enchantment, to be honest, but now that I’m thinking about it I’m guessing it would look a lot less like a dispel magic effect?”
“You are quite correct,” she said. “As for why it affected my box, they are closely linked… it could be an unintentional bleed-through, which could potentially be very bad.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But since they were meant to be used together, I could also see it being intentional… an emergency stop feature that shuts the whole thing down.”
“The word you used was… f-i-n-i?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess you heard me?”
“Actually, I was preoccupied with the contents of my box,” she said. “But there was a list of command words in one of the documents… I don’t believe it specified the intended scope of effect, but that may be elaborated upon elsewhere. For now, I will make a note of this possible issue and follow up on it later to learn if it is a feature or a flaw. For safety’s sake, I suggest we not experiment with such words until we know more of what we’re dealing with.”
“Agreed… and I’d appreciate a copy of the list,” I said. “It’ll be simpler than trying to find them by guessing and feel.”
“Of course,” she said. “And if it is evidence of an underlying issue, I will make certain you receive due credit for stumbling upon it.”
“…actually, I’m not sure I want credit for anything like that,” I said. “If there are problems, I want to find them, but I’m pretty fine with your name going on any report of them.”
“I see,” she said. “Well, I am not here for personal aggrandizement, but one never knows when a little cachet will come in handy.”
“I’m kind of surprised at the idea that there would be an error with a safety protocol of all things,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know what kind of process went into creating these things, but I know it would have taken serious work by serious enchanters… I can’t believe they wouldn’t have better quality control. I mean, I know they’re prototypes, but wouldn’t it have been caught?”
“The exact issue may only become evident in certain circumstances, such as when both boxes are occupied,” she said. “If I understand the sequence of events, you used the termination word when my box was active but yours wasn’t… this is exactly the sort of situation that can easily pass unnoticed, since those responsible for weaving the spells wouldn’t expect anyone to terminate a spell that hadn’t been activated.”
“True. Anyway, I’m sorry I interrupted your testing,” I said.
“Oh?” she said. “Oh. Yes. Well… we had not precisely moved onto what I would call the testing phase, per se.”
“…but you said your box was active,” I said.
“…this is correct,” she said.
“When you said ‘we’… wait. Were you… were you checking your lipstick when you came out?”
“A reflex,” she said. “Obviously any smudging that may or may not have occurred would have been as illusionary as the injuries you suffer when a mockery attacks you.”
“You used the mockbox to make out with yourself,” I said. “Is that the reason you volunteered?”
“I can assure you, it did not form a part of my plans,” she said. “Ms. Mackenzie, try to understand… the elven concept of beauty is me. I don’t mean myself, Acantha… I mean the concept identified by the first person objective personal pronoun. The Pax word ‘narcissism’ is derived from an elven word meaning, roughly, ‘self-image’.”
“I’d heard that, but I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a joke,” I said.
“It isn’t. Imagine if you found yourself face to face in an enclosed space with the most beautiful person you can imagine, and you find that you both wanted the same thing…”
“You don’t have to draw me a picture,” I said, which was technically true because the one forming in my mind was probably more vivid and more lurid than anything she could have described. “We should probably get back to… what we’re supposed to be doing.”
“I agree,” she said. “I just need to absent myself for a minute or two to… compose myself.”
“Okay,” I said, and she hurried out of the room.
When she came back a few minutes later, she did look a bit more composed… though she’d never really looked that de-composed.
“On the subject of being an elf…” I said, since it had occurred to me that she might have some insight into the situation with Glory. Normally I wouldn’t have dragged a teacher into my personal life, but we weren’t exactly interacting as teacher and student at the moment anyway.
“I’ve got sort of a… a tenuous association forming with some of the elven students from Treehome,” I said. “I’m trying to be fair to them but also reasonably careful.”
“A prudent position,” she said.
“So I was wondering if you could tell me anything about middling culture,” I said.
“The first thing that you need to understand is that there is no middling culture,” she said. “At least, there is not any one single such culture. The middlings who join or form enclaves are essentially creating an island off the coast of the continent of whichever elven culture they originated from… in some cases these islands may be close enough to be in sight of the shore, but others are quite isolated and deserted.”
“Do a lot of middlings not do that?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I, for instance, opted out before I even reached middling age. I apprenticed myself to a human enchanter—well, I was more of a maid than an apprentice, to begin with—when I was twelve… still a child in the eyes of my culture, but most humans of that age in that age would have expected to be securing their future in some fashion by that point. Even today, there are middlings who take advantage of the fact that they are adults under the law of the Imperium to enter the workforce or pursue what you would call a ‘traditional’ education. The drawback to this approach is that the concept of middling years is so ingrained in elven culture… it’s seen as a rite of passage, part of the necessary maturation process. Those who skip it will forever be treated as if they are a bit childish, since they didn’t go through it.”
“Even though you’ve got an eighty year head start on acting like an adult?” I said.
“Eighty years isn’t so much, in the long run,” Acantha said. “Though perhaps I shouldn’t say forever… it is, after all, an awfully long time.”
“Do you know anything about the culture of Treehome, then?” I asked. “I mean, since you’re teaching here anyway, have you learned anything about it?”
“I have not,” she said. “I will not be here for long, and in the event that I had to deal with any elven students, they would be lone individuals and so I saw no point in prejudicing myself by making inquiries into the place they come from. Besides, the most likely outcome of an elven student ending up in my class would be that they would transfer out of it. Middlings tend to be fiercely protective of their isolation from the world of elven adults… and similarly, among mature elves, it’s considered unseemly to meddle or even pry too deeply into their affairs.”
“But you said that other elves don’t see you as mature, anyway,” I said.
“That’s all the more reason for me to cultivate an air of maturity,” she said. “Please do not misunderstand me, Ms. Mackenzie… the human world has been very good to me, but I am still an elf. I would no more change that, given the opportunity, than I would sand the points off my ears.”
“I take your point,” I said.
“Oh, but I hope you don’t,” she said, covering her ears. It took me a moment to understand that she was joking, since her tone didn’t change at all. Acantha wasn’t monotonous, she was… controlled. “Was there anything else?”
“No,” I said. “I guess we should get back to it.”
“Indeed,” she said. “But remember… stay clear of that command word. A reliable enchanted item will function correctly every single time it is used. One with a flaw or quirk is less predictable… it may well fail differently each time. If the word was not meant to behave the way that they did, the next misbehavior may well be less innocuous.”
“…when you put it like that, it sounds like we shouldn’t be using them at all until we’ve cleared it up,” I said. “Safety first, right?”
“What?” she said. “Oh, yes, correct again… I doubt your coach would appreciate you withdrawing in fear when she’s hoping for your support, but since you were willing to give me credit for the flaw, I will also take the blame. As I know you are not allowed to use the boxes without supervision, you may tell her that I ended the test session to pursue more information about this potential issue.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But couldn’t we still examine them, without invoking the enchantments at all? I’d meant to get a good look at the structure of the enchantments before I even closed the door… we could prop them open, just to be extra sure.”
“No, I’m afraid you’ve convinced me,” she said. “I understand your enthusiasm for poking at powerful magical things, but if the issue is that it is behaving upredictably, we shouldn’t try to predict what will or won’t be safe. The enchantments will keep for another day, I promise.”
“Okay,” I said, a little reluctantly… I hadn’t really been pushing for it even when I brought up the possible danger, but I couldn’t argue with the logic.
If it turned out that the command word was meant to be linked to both boxes, there would be no harm to the project overall because we’d stopped to check that… and if there was an unknown quirk in the enchantment, there would be no harm to us if we didn’t stumble blindly into it.