Chapter 291: The Cold Road Home

on March 13, 2015 in Volume 2 Book 8: Elven Holiday, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Mackenzie May Already Be A Winner

The worst thing about a sunny vacation getaway in the dead of winter has got to be coming back to the snow-swept plains at the end of it.

Seeing the white landscape below us as we neared our destination had been kind of nice… it was actually really pretty. It allowed some of the dream-like nature of the whole extended experience to slip back in after the rude dose of reality that had been the chaos of the cruiseline complex.

Actually touching down within that snowy landscape and being bundled off into the cold… that was like waking up from a nice dream that was interrupted when your alarm triggered and reminded you that you have to get up and go to class, and there are several feet of snow on the ground and it’s cold and windy and terrible.

That last clause wasn’t so much a metaphor as an accurate and straightforward description of the circumstances.

It was likely doomed from the start, but the bleak weather probably doomed the last chance we had for a truly united front. The fact that things had come to a head less than halfway back to Prax had probably already done that, though. If everyone had needed to make their decision right then and there, then who would have wanted to be the first person who stood up and said she was going to turn her back on her friends?

But the timing was all weird and wrong, not at all the way it is in stories.

If my life was a story, then probably the thing that would have happened is that all of the elves would have stood up beside Glory and marched… or swished, or glided… back into Oberrad House with her.

Or the lone holdout… who would have been Prudence… would have gone her own way at the airfield, but then turned up unexpectedly at a suitably dramatic moment, having been unable to keep her distance under the circumstances.

…actually, though, if my life was a story, then what probably would have happened is that none of them would have come. Any of the elves who were even leaning towards throwing in with their queen would have been so annoyed by my attempt at swaying the crowd that they would have ran for the hills as soon as we touched ground.

Life isn’t a story, and none of those things happened.

We lost three of our party at the airfield. They didn’t really say anything, didn’t wait around for goodbyes. I didn’t know who was missing… I only knew how many were missing.

I would have spotted if Prudence bailed, but she didn’t. Maybe she wanted to, but as the one who’d prompted my rant, she was also the one most affected by it. The girls who’d kept quiet could slink away when no one was looking, but Prudence didn’t really have that luxury. Too many eyes were on her.

Glory must have known who was absent, but I didn’t bother asking her.

The prediction I’d based my speech around had been just that, a prediction… not a promise. If the deserters did show up later and somebody made a big enough deal out of it that I knew who they were, I’d probably hold it against them, yeah. But I wasn’t going to swear out a vendetta against them or anything. Who had the time? Even if there weren’t real enemies arrayed against us… and for all that I knew at the time, there might not have been… I had better things to do.

Glory and I were alone for the last little leg of the trip. She’d put Nicki and Grace into the seats that were vacated in one of the other carriages. She’d laughed when she did that, saying that she wanted to savor her last bit of time alone with me and that she hoped her sister hadn’t grown too used to the royal treatment, but I think she was thinking about what would happen if the lead carriage… ours… was attacked when we got back to campus. Elven eyes and ears could certainly determine which vehicle Glory was in, even if they didn’t attack the first one just because it was first.

If it came to an ambush… well, I hated the idea of fighting and I would avoid it if I could. I found myself imagining scenarios where we were attacked on the road. None of them seemed very likely, but then, nothing about the situation seemed less than ridiculous, now that we were closer to it.

If push came to shove, though, I wouldn’t bother with either pushing or shoving. I had other options. Coach Callahan had drilled into me the importance of seizing opportunities to end fights quickly, but I was remembering someone else’s advice. When I’d started dealing with Glory and we’d had reason to be suspicious of her motives… or at least no reason to trust her… Dee had advised me to light the room on fire at the first sign of trouble.

Her reasoning had been that I was unlikely to defeat elven reflexes backed by decades of combat practice in close quarters, but demon fire is a hell of a thing.

It was sound enough. I was just never sure if I would have been able to bring myself to do it.

Now, though?

I’d have to protect Glory, but I could do that, especially if I only had to shield one person from the flame. I’d be directing most of the force outward, anyway… I could turn the coach into an inferno, blow it to hell and then direct the flames at anyone or anything that didn’t take the incredibly unsubtle hint.

It was kind of scary how easily I could think of doing something like that, but I’d used my fire in a pitched situation before without thinking about it, and that was worse. I’d hurt Amaranth very badly once without meaning to, without even realizing what I was doing… she’d been trying to prevent me from doing something I’d have regretted.

At the time I’d had a hard time imagining regretting anything more than burning her, but she’d made the call knowing she was immortal. One way or another she could walk away from it.

“Would you mind if I put a protection from fire spell on you now?” I asked Glory.

“Do you really think anyone who knows anything about the company I keep would attack us with fire?” she asked.

“I’m not thinking about what other people might do,” I said.

“Oh… I see,” she said. “Yes, that seems prudent.”

I thought about weaving a few more spells of protection around her, but decided against it. Better to keep things simple, keep them pure. My spellwork was inspired from time to time, but it was a little sloppy… I liked to do things by feel. Raw power would make any fire spell I wove around her hard for anyone who lacked my elemental affinity hard to undo. If I complicated it by adding an air shell or trying to buff her natural defenses, I could easily leave enough loose threads for a more experienced mage to unravel the whole thing.

It was tempting to think of middling wizards as dilettantes, but if they were, they were dilettantes with upwards of half a century on me.

“You know… I remember when I said I didn’t want to get involved in elven political bullshit,” I said to Glory when the spell was in place.

She laughed.

“If you wanted out, you probably should have left before making that pretty little speech,” she said.

“I didn’t want this, but I don’t want out,” I said. “That’s the weird thing… I didn’t even think about it.”

“You? Didn’t think?”

“Okay, I mean, I was thinking about what I was saying,” I said. “But there was no moment… or multi-day period… where I sat down and wrestled with myself over whether or not I wanted to get enmeshed in the fighting. I never changed my mind. I’m not even sure it’s my mind that’s changed, so much as my feelings.”

“You involved yourself emotionally,” Glory said.

“Yeah.”

“Throwing in physically is almost an afterthought after that,” she said.

“You don’t sound surprised,” I said.

“Should I be?” she said. “I’ve been watching it happen. I’m sorry I didn’t say anything…”

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “You had no reason to. Every step I’ve taken has been my idea… I’ve kept my eyes open, if I didn’t put together what I was seeing.”

“And now that you know?”

“I… don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never been very clear on what my future is going to look like, and right now that goes for my immediate future… I can’t really think about what I’m going to do when it comes to you or Oberrad House when there might not…”

“You know there’s a very good chance we aren’t actually riding towards a life-or-death battle,” Glory said.

“I know that,” I said. “And I definitely like to think it’s way more likely that we’re not… but I can’t make a plan based on that. And right now, thinking that it might be… that we might be heading towards disaster… I mean, it’s like you said, I’m emotionally involved.”

“So it’s not the time to be making long-term plans,” Glory said.

I nodded.

“You have a very wide protective streak, Mackenzie Blaise,” she said. “It’s one of the first things I noticed about you… you’d rarely stand up for yourself, but you’d stand up for others. And if somebody threatened or touched someone you cared about…”

“I’ve… done some things I regret, in that circumstance,” I said.

“You’ve done a lot of things I admire,” she said. “I swear, my interest in you predates any situation where it seemed reasonable to think I might need such a fierce protector, but… it gives me some comfort to think about that.”

“I really don’t like thinking of myself as fierce,” I said.

“You are, though,” she said. “It says so on your student ID.”

“It also says I’m a creature, and I’m not too fond of that, either.”

“We’re all creatures,” Glory said. “There are as many stories about people… humans… being carried off by elves as by demons, I think.”

“Yeah, but they have less religious significance,” I said. “And because elves don’t need to be absolute dicks, a lot of you just got jobs, or got married, carrying off mortals the… relatively new-fashioned way.”

“And a lot of us spend 82 years acting out the part of monsters and fairy tale villains or re-enacting our own petty versions of the old epics to get it out of our system, before we spend potentially forever being mature, responsible adults,” she said. “You know, that’s why I didn’t blame Prudence, or anyone who wanted to walk… or anyone who did. Because it’s stupid. It’s stupid that we have to do this. It’s stupid that we are doing this. The whole system, the whole thing, the whole idea… it’s stupid.”

“What’s the alternative, though?” I said. “I mean… ideologically, I get that the alternative is just don’t. But right now. On a practical level.”

“None that I can see,” Glory said. “We owe it to the people who’ve been spending their break watching the house not to ditch them… and if we pulled them out to just go crash somewhere in order to make some kind of point that we’re above it all, the stuff we’re supposed to be above can burn our house to the ground, or trash the inside without disturbing anything on the outside… or even just go in and mess around with stuff to prove that they can. And then what?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I tell you this, Mackenzie Blaise: if they come at me… at us… I am going to fight,” she said. “I will give as good as I get, and better. I will fight to defend myself, my people… my thing. But if there’s a space before the attack, if it’s not just arrows and blades coming out of the darkness but starts with words, if I can look my tormentors in the eyes before they become my attackers, then I’m going to tell them: I’m done. No more. We aren’t children. We aren’t monsters. We aren’t living in fairy tales or living out the last days of Athanasia. We’re college students in the modern world. We’re adults, legally and physically and mentally.”

“Now who’s making speeches?” I asked. “Do you think anyone’s out there listening?”

“I kind of hope so, but probably not,” she said.

“It’s a shame,” I said. “It’s a good speech.”

“Well, you heard it,” she said.

“I… I think I kind of needed to,” I said. “I mean, I’m not an elf and I’m not even twenty, but… yeah. We’re all adults here. People, not monsters. Maybe it’s time to stop letting stories define us.”

“You’re thinking of those religious stories again,” she said. “Your grandmother’s influence… it never really goes away, does it?”

“Maybe it’s always going to be with me,” I said. “I don’t feel like I’ve defined myself by her thinking for a while, but maybe I’ve been trying to define myself against it. That’s not the same thing as forgetting it, or leaving it behind me where it belongs.”

“No,” Glory said. “But it’s not defining yourself by it, either, and that’s something. You know, I don’t really care what happens next… I feel like in a very real way, we’ve already won.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I kind of also hope we win in the actual, even more real way, though.”


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28 Responses to “Chapter 291: The Cold Road Home”

  1. Dani says:

    > demon fire is a hell of a thing

    Word order? 🙂

    Current score: 9
    • Xanni says:

      No, that’s a correct use of a common idiom. Have you never heard “a hell of a thing”? In this case, it’s also an amusing tautological turn of phrase.

      Current score: 14
      • Lunaroki says:

        True, but it could also be said that demon fire is a thing of Hell. 😉

        Current score: 1
        • Erianaiel says:

          Even demon fire is a hell of a thing from hell.
          Only, in the MUniverse it isn’t actually from a place called hell, is it?

          Current score: 0
          • zeel says:

            That is an interesting question. . .

            But the word “hell” certainly appears in the story a lot. And they also call it “hellfire” on multiple occasions. So my guess is that “hell” is in fact one of the names for the plane to which demons were exiled.

            Current score: 1
            • Nocker says:

              Well there’s that, and that there’s an actual afterlife that presumably mortals go through that isn’t the demon realm. Infernals wind up there but it’s been indicated that others don’t. So hell could be a totally different place.

              Current score: 0
            • zeel says:

              Considering the messed up theology going around, I bet there is some disagreement on that score. I would guess that the term “hell” could refer to either the infernal plane, the place souls go to be punished, both, or neither – all depending on one’s point of view. It could also be a generic for “really bad place”.

              However! In Splish Splash Callahan and The Man directly refer to that realm as hell:

              “If we stood on the plains of hell and you were battered and bloody, and I had my sword at your throat and told you the only thing that would save you is if you told me your name, what would you say?”

              Which pretty much answers the question. Yes, colloquially at least, the place really is called hell.

              Current score: 0
          • Arancaytar says:

            Technically. It’s between hell and the mortal plane somehow.

            “Uh… yeah, on my father’s side… but also no,” I said. “Every demon is a fire demon, there aren’t different kinds. The fire is because of…”

            “The route ancient demonkind took when Lord Khersis cast them out of this plane and into hell,” Twyla said, nodding. “He bound them to the lower plane so that even in death they could not escape it, and so they passed through the fire and did not die, but were changed.”

            http://www.talesofmu.com/2book02/chapter-22

            There’s a balance to things. They’re part of it. We’re part of it. The Big Kh really stepped in it, when he stepped in and started re-ordering creation because he couldn’t stand to see a few of his creatures who strayed out of bounds being eaten.”

            “Oh, right, the fact that he pitched you all into hell was a terrible mistake,” I said.

            “It was,” he said. “He threw us across the planes because he couldn’t destroy us… didn’t have the right, didn’t have the power. If passing through the flame couldn’t destroy us, what else could it do but make us immortal? We’re more powerful now than we ever were… more limited in certain ways, but more powerful.

            http://www.talesofmu.com/book-14/406

            Current score: 0
            • zeel says:

              True, the fire isn’t really from hell, it’s from the plane of fire they passed through.

              Current score: 0
  2. sliversith says:

    What happened to 291?

    Current score: 1
    • zeel says:

      It’s a mistake in the title, 290 is the last chapter still, so this one is 291.

      Current score: 0
  3. Not her, the other girl says:

    ” but demon fire is a hell of a thing.”

    Indeed, Ms. Blaise, indeed.

    Current score: 8
  4. Yumi says:

    I just want to share that last night I had a dream where I found out that my aunt, who always talks about writing and has me read through stuff of her and edit and give feedback, was actually the author of Tales of MU and used AE as her pen name. And I was all, “Wow, you write way better than I thought you did!” And she got upset that I had discovered her secret, and then she told my mom and I had to explain to my mom about the occasionally erotic fiction I starting reading on the Internet when I was fifteen, and it was a whole thing.
    Anyway.
    *goes to read chapter*

    Current score: 12
  5. tomclark says:

    If my life was a story…

    Easy on the fourth wall there, Mackenzie! o_0

    Current score: 11
  6. Zdawg says:

    They should really revisit the pretend scenarios idea. Mack needs more practice blasting things with hellfire!

    Current score: 1
    • Nocker says:

      She did get some practice in actually. She can manage a contained and constant stream channeled through her weapon without any ill effects and is reasonably accurate at it.

      It’s never come up because open flames in a non life or death battle is a bad idea, but it’s something she’s somewhat prepared to handle.

      Current score: 4
      • Seth says:

        But Callahan would have been more than happy to provide life or death battles to practice with, and blinding an opponent with hellfire never came up.

        Current score: 0
        • Nocker says:

          Hellfire isn’t a light for blinding. It’s the elemental equivalent of pure, unfiltered destruction. She can’t do as much as a full demon automatically but it’s the kind of thing you DO NOT play around with. The collateral damage risks and the side effects are too great.

          There’s a reason Mackenzie hasn’t used it in a fight before now. It’s an all or nothing that’d completley destroy EVERYTHING if it got out of hand.

          Current score: 0
      • zeel says:

        She did use fire a couple of times when using the new mock boxes, though it was more of an intimidation tactic than anything else.

        Current score: 0
        • Maahes0 says:

          In the fights we saw. There were plenty of days (like during the thing with Acantha) that we didn’t follow her to her combat class.

          Current score: 0
  7. pedestrian says:

    Mack dies not
    curse
    the Darkness.
    Instead,
    she strikes
    a Lucifer
    and illuminates
    her presence.

    Current score: 6
  8. Readaholic says:

    Rather nice, the comments on personal growth.

    Current score: 0
  9. Zathras IX says:

    Life’s not a story
    And the plots we imagine
    Never quite come true

    Current score: 2
  10. Random Lurker says:

    “We aren’t living in fairy tales or living out the last days of Athanasia.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athanasia_of_Aegina

    Given the context of that line, it’s funny.

    Current score: 0
  11. Arancaytar says:

    “Would you mind if I put a protection from fire spell on you now?” I asked Glory.

    “Do you really think anyone who knows anything about the company I keep would attack us with fire?” she asked.

    “I’m not thinking about what other people might do,” I said.

    Look at Mackenzie being badass again.

    “You know there’s a very good chance we aren’t actually riding towards a life-or-death battle,” Glory said.

    Yeah right. 😛

    Current score: 1
    • zeel says:

      I’m not sure if it’s more in character for AE to give us another anticlimax, or to subvert the expectation of one with a giant battle. . .

      Current score: 0
      • Nocker says:

        Honestly I’m mostly just expecting an introduction of whoever did this. It’s the kind of thing we can rule out most recurring characters and thus is kind of a big deal. Even if it’s just some random harlowite we’d probably hear about them sooner or later. I mean to surpass so many elven warriors by so much would need to make you some serious bullshit race.

        Current score: 0
      • Glenn says:

        Ian is supposed to show up the next day, planning to spend the rest of the winter break at Oberrad House. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in all the excitement, Mack has completely forgotten about that. I suspect that if there is an attack, it will happen when Ian is actually present, so he can get involved in it somehow.

        Current score: 0