In Which The Best Defense Is Debated

The idea seemed to alarm the owl-turtle thing for some reason, but as soon as I’d given voice to it, I found that I liked it.

A weapon. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would normally reach for, but… something I could hold in my hands appealed to me. I found myself wanting something I could swing and feel connecting… something I could put between myself and any nocturnal invaders even after they’d breached the owl-turtle thing’s walls.

The first magic staff I’d used had been enchanted for defense, and I’d come to think of my staff as a shield as well as an offensive tool, although just lately it had been more of a “the best defense is a good offense” kind of thing… ending fights before there were many chances for me to suffer harm. Still, the thought of having something in my hands that I could block and strike with… it really called to me.

It would take more than a big stick to hit him with to level the field between my father and me, but it seemed like a good start… a motorcycle would probably be a bit much, and flames would definitely not help anything, but if it was possible for me to ride to Dee’s rescue, why couldn’t I do something like that for myself?

A motorcycle might be much… but I thought I could probably manage to fly around on my own, or something. People flied in dreams, didn’t they? It wasn’t something I tended to do, but it was possible… or close enough to possible that I could dream it.

“Well… technically, it is possible,” the owl-turtle thing said, its words breaking into my fantasy of of flying through the air with some sort of gleaming silver staff. “But… I really wouldn’t recommend it.”

“Why not?” I asked.

Maybe some kind of blade on the end of the staff would be good.

Blades, or tines.

Or both, on opposite ends.

“Escalation, in the first place,” it said.

There was a prickling sensation in the back of my head, mixed with a feeling that the room we were in… the domed space within the fortress of my mind, such as it was… had just slightly shrunk or that the walls had bowed almost imperceptibly inwards.

“Someone’s at the door,” the constructed figment of Mostly Ian said.

“Just probing,” the owl-turtle thing said. “He just found the barrier.”

“It’s him?” I asked, my evolving mental image of the polearm disappearing again. “I mean, for sure?”

“If you can’t tell, I can’t tell,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But who else are you expecting?”

“Can he hear us?” I asked.

“No,” the owl-turtle thing said. “The barrier’s not sophisticated enough to let anything in or out while it’s up, and you’ll know it goes down. But he can bring it down any time he wants.”

There was another weird feeling of space itself pulsing slightly.

“Why doesn’t he?” I asked. “What’s he doing?”

“Testing,” Mostly Ian suggested. “Wants to know how strong it is?”

“He can’t tell that it’s weak enough to just knock down?” I asked

“He should be able to know that on a glance,” the owl-turtle thing said.

“Wants to know exactly how weak,” Mostly Ian said. “Because that’s the same as knowing how strong it is. He’s nervous about who you’ve been talking to, remember? Not sure what he’ll find if he tears the wall down. Trying to get a feel for it.”

Despite the owl-turtle thing’s assurances that we were safe from eavesdropping, nobody said anything for a bit. It was like we were all waiting to see what happened next, if we were going to be interrupted or not. There were no further… incursions, I guess… but I had the dim impression of someone circling around, like a great hunting beast sniffing the edges of a bolt-hole for its prey.

That might have just been my imagination. It was hard to say, since the whole thing was by definition happening inside my mind… I had definitely perceived his probing of the wall, though.

I shook the feeling off and put my focus back on the conversation at hand.

“If the walls do come down, can you hide or escape fast enough that he won’t get a good look at you?” I asked the owl-turtle thing.

“That depends on how fast he is,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But I think I’m generally baffling enough that he won’t be able to get a good enough look where it counts.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do that, then.”

“I was planning on it.”

“Anyway, you said escalation… I’ve already escalated things,” I said. “I don’t know that the next time he sees me, he won’t attack me.”

“If he wants to fight you here, you’d be better off denying him the satisfaction,” it said. “Especially since you’re already being stretched pretty thin here… I’m bringing the patterns for the wall and for Ian, but your mind has to have the capacity for them. You want to talk about adding an offensive capability on top of a mental fortress and an aspect of your boyfriend? You’d never be able to hold all that together, even with me running around and shoring up things around the edges. Metaphorically speaking.”

“Honestly, not sure what I’m adding to the proceedings,” Mostly Ian said. “Seems like a lot of effort for little pay-off. No offense intended, of course.” He paused a bit, and tilted his head like he was thinking. It was oddly Two-like. “Or taken.”

“I thought it would be comforting,” the owl-turtle thing said.

“If nothing else, you can give me a second set of eyes to spot things,” I said to the figment of Ian. Even knowing that he wasn’t real and hearing the ragged edge of the gaps in his speech, he still felt real… the way a dream always does, while you’re having it. His presence was comforting, and it made me want to comfort him.

“Can I?” he said. “Isn’t it just your eyes, going through an elaborate charade to trick yourself into thinking they’re my eyes?”

“You’d be surprised how useful ‘tricks’ like that are in getting corporeals to even consider another perspective, much less do more than acknowledge it might exist,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Something in your mind just rebels at the idea. Convincing yourself that it’s not your mind that’s entertaining the perspective helps a lot. Anyway, even a poor imitation of another person is going to be more useful in the long run than a poor imitation of a weapon.”

“Getting back to the topic… it seems to me that a copy of a person has to be way more complicated than an inanimate object,” I said. “What would a weapon add on top of that?”

“Well, when you throw in the ability to interact with other minds and impose effects on them, that’s a whole other kettle of fish-beasts,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I mean you could dream up a staff to lean on all by yourself, and it would support your weight because everyone involved in the operation… that is, you… would agree that it did. But you want to swing that at your dad’s head in a way that compels him to agree it should split open? That’s getting into trickier territory. Way trickier.”

“As tricky as a whole simulation of a mind?” I said.

“Whole simulation of a partial mind,” Mostly Ian said. “To be specific.”

“Tricky in a different way,” the owl-turtle thing said. “More like the way a wall that will actually work to keep others out is tricky. If you wanted gladiator boy to be able to cut him, it would take a lot more than it does to have him just standing there and make observations.”

“So it’s really less a matter of having Ian or a weapon, and more a matter of having the walls or a weapon,” I said. “Since we know you… I… we can do Ian and the walls at the same time.”

“Yes, but the fortress has already been useful,” the owl-turtle thing said. It sort of looked over its shoulder, and again I had the impression of a looming presence lurking just outside the periphery of the walls. “You want to throw away that security just to give yourself a fleeting feeling of control? And it would be fleeting.”

“How fleeting would my sense of security be if he decided to knock the walls down?” I asked.
“And is there any reason why the ‘capacity’ the fortress takes up wouldn’t be freed up as soon as the walls come down? Does it have to recharge or something?”

“No,” the owl-turtle thing said. “It gets used up in the way that space is used up, not the way that fuel is. As soon as the walls aren’t around any more, the room they occupied is free.”

“You don’t mean literal room,” I said, seeking to confirm my understanding of what it was saying. “You’re still talking about complexity, not how big they are within the dream.”

“You’re right about that,” the owl-turtle thing said. “You could fill this space up with sand almost as easily as you could dream up a single grain… and it would do about as much to slow him down. Well, a bit more. He’d still have to deal with the fact that there’s sand there. Even if he had to will a path through it, that would still take a little effort. But the best defense is to keep him out.”

I filled my hand with some fine, white sand and let it run between my fingers as I thought about what it was saying. It was exactly the sort of thing I didn’t do very often in dreams, even when I knew I was dreaming and was trying to assert some control. The sand whipped to the side as though caught in an invisible wind.

I remembered watching dust blowing off the side of the road when I’d been a child, and thinking it had been smoke. The sand became a white flame, which also slipped between my fingers and vanished.

“The thing is… I wouldn’t ever need that particular kind of defense at the same time when slowing him down or hitting him with something is even an option,” I said. “I mean, if there’s someone here for me to fight, we’re past the point where walls can help me.”

“I think if you’re fighting an experienced demon inside your mind, you’re past the point where weapons can help you, too.”

“Might catch him off guard,” Mostly Ian said. “Once. She made a good distraction in Dee’s mind?”

“A distraction’s only good if there’s something to distract from, some kind of payoff to follow it up with,” the owl-turtle thing said. “And anyway, that would be equally true of filling the room up with sand, or dreaming up other obstacles.”

“Hold on,” I said. “I’m just trying to get a handle on all this so I can use it. Why do I need special skills to make a weapon that will hurt him, if he would be affected by things I put in the environment?”

“You’re trying to learn the rules so you can figure out how to use them? The only hard and fast rule for dreams is that there are no hard and fast rules for dreams,” the owl-turtle thing said. “But it’s generally going to be true that you can’t do something that affects others unless on some degree they agree with it.”

“Pala could hurt you,” Mostly Ian reminded it.

“She’s a lucid dreamer,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Mackenzie? Not so much. When there isn’t another mind lending order, her dreams are all disjointed and symbolic.” It turned to me. “Now, if you dreamed you had something in your hands and you swung it at him, he might reflexively agree that it hurts him…”

“…but magic weapons weren’t available until pretty recently,” I reasoned. “I mean, even though they’ve pretty much expected these days, the classic lore is still that demons are invulnerable to weapons… and that would have been true for most of his lifetime. So even if the front of his mind would be wary of swords, he’s not going to have any instinctive reaction to them.”

“Exactly,” the owl-turtle thing said. “The core belief is going to be that he has nothing to fear from weapons. Actual physical impediments, on the other flipper-wing… well, those are things that he has to deal with the same as anyone. He probably has his ways of getting around them, but he does have to get around them. So he might stop and hesitate for a moment… but no longer. You’d be better off ejecting him by waking up than trying to fend him off with environmental measures.”

“Unless I could throw something more permanent at him,” I said. No matter what objections were thrown up, I kept coming back to the idea of some kind of epic duel, with me flying at him with a silver trident/sword-spear thing.

It wasn’t that the idea of fighting appealed to me…. but the idea of beating him, defeating him, held a certain charm. That was almost definitely Callahan’s influence.

Not that the fight wouldn’t be cool…

“Okay, answer me this,” the owl-turtle thing said. “What could you accomplish with a weapon that you couldn’t manage quicker and more easily by waking up?”

It was a good enough question to again jar me back to the local equivalent of reality. I didn’t have an answer for it, though… I really had no idea what I could or couldn’t accomplish.

Luckily, I had an idea about who might.

“I don’t know,” I told it. “What could I accomplish with it?”

It sighed and raised its flipper-wings in a sort of a shrug.

“Okay, well it is possible to damage another mind through that kind of mental combat,” it said.

“In a way that translates to the real world?” I asked.

“Yes,” it said.

“How badly could he be damaged?” I asked.

“Better question… how possible is it?” Mostly Ian asked.

“To the first question: anywhere from a bruised ego to destroying memories to permanent mental damage or death,” it said. “And to the second: not very possible at all. You’d be outmatched in every way. There’s no chance you’d match him in physical fighting skill even after another semester of Callahan’s classes, and you lack the mental skills necessary to dream otherwise.”

“Could you give me Dee’s?” I asked.

“No,” it said. “I can’t just lift a skill out of her mind. When she does something with her mind… to her mind, I mean, everything she does is with her mind… I can see what she does and copy it, but I can’t take the whole sum total of the mental and physical disciplines that make up her fighting skill, extract it, and put it into you in a way that would make sense.”

“This focus on physically fighting… don’t like it,” Ian’s figment said to me.

“Hey, it wouldn’t be my first choice,” I said.

“Except… it is,” Mostly Ian said.

“Well, maybe Coach Callahan’s training is having some effect on me, in terms of steering me towards the most direct solution.”

“It’s direct, but if it doesn’t work at all for you, then it’s not exactly a solution, and thus can’t qualify as the most direct one,” the owl-turtle thing said. “And given that you have a foolproof solution for people invading your dreams that you’re ignoring, I’d say that her training is steering you towards the violent solution.”

“Okay, you do have a point,” I said. “But I don’t even really think it’s about that. It just… it would feel really satisfying to do more than slam the door in his face. And when I think about how you described me coming to Dee’s rescue… I want to do something like that. In my own mind, where I can experience and remember it. That’s not rational, exactly, but it’s how I feel… and anyway, waking myself up isn’t a long-term solution. If push came to shove, he could keep me from getting the sleep that I need by being there every time, until I gave up and talked to him.”

“Still don’t like it,” Mostly Ian said. “Understand what you’re saying, but don’t like it.”

There was a weird blip that wasn’t quite a pause when the figment of Ian skipped a pronoun. It was like something was being skipped or edited out. I supposed it was the sort of gap that was probably common in dreams, but that a mind in a less lucid state wouldn’t notice.

“Well, what would you have me do?” I asked him. He seemed to inflate slightly as I focused my attention on him.

“Something more like you,” he said.

“What, like sit on my butt and argue in circles in my head until it’s too late to act except in desperation?” I asked. “When you talk about it as wanting to fight, no, that doesn’t sound like me… but I spent a lot of my years growing up imagining having enemies and battling them. I mean, that wasn’t the fantasy, really. The fantasy was being a hero, a Mecknight, one of the good guys. But being a good guy means having bad guys, and… you know, I think part of the problem is that since this is a dream I’m treating it like I would a fantasy. So maybe it’s not a good idea. But I need to do something more.”

“Think things through,” he said. “Find out more. The owl-turtle thing offered to reconnoiter. You’re focusing on the tricks it can help you do, things that are cool and flashy, and forgetting your basic position.”

“And now I have a feeling that I am arguing in circles with myself now,” I said. “What is my basic position?”

“Not wanting anything to do with him,” he said. “You got Law involved in real life to keep him off your back, remember? You sent someone else to fight him.”

“I did that because I needed to do something,” I said.

“And you did it.”

“Except… now that I’m here, I don’t really feel like I did,” I said. “I feel like I passed the buck, like I’m ducking a responsibility somehow.”

“He was never your responsibility to begin with,” he said. “You are your responsibility, Mackenzie… taking care of yourself, looking out for your future. That’s not your sole responsibility, but it’s your first one. It’s the foundation of the others.”

“So what am I supposed to do now?” I asked.

“Take care of yourself,” he said.

“That’s not an actual course of action.”

“Don’t pick a fight you can avoid,” he said.

“But what do I actually do while I’m not doing that?” I asked.

“Learn,” Mostly Ian said. “Learn about dreams, and train.” He turned to the owl-turtle thing. “Lucid dreaming is a skill, right? It’s not a subtle arts thing. Anybody can learn it.”

“It’s a thing that people can learn,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Whether that means anybody can learn it…” It shrugged. “Anyway, I’m a dream. Mind or not, I’m sculpted of the same stuff as your grains of sand.”

“What’s my father’s body made out of, when he’s here?”

“The same stuff you are,” it said. “Oh, his body might as well be sand… and so might yours, but there’s a core there that I don’t have.”

“So would lucidity do anything for me?” I asked.

“It wouldn’t hurt,” the owl-turtle thing said. “It would give you more control.”

“That’s something,” Mostly Ian said.

“So about my plan to scout?” the owl-turtle thing said. “Are we doing that?”

Both dream-figments… if that’s what the owl-turtle thing was… looked at me.

“Eventually,” I said. “But let’s get my house in order before we think about invading his. Can you teach me how to do this?”

“No,” it said. “But Dee might be able to.”

“Teddi might, too,” Mostly Ian said. “Wouldn’t ask Pala… she might offer to show you and then fall asleep.”

“Okay,” I said. “So there’s nothing more to do tonight, then… and I don’t know what the exchange rate is on time here, but I don’t really want to spend the whole night talking to an owl-turtle thing and my imaginary boyfriend in a fortress the size of my skull, so… can you leave, or do I need to wake up?”

“If I go, he goes, and the walls go, too,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I can’t tell if anyone’s hanging around, if they’re not pressing in.”

“That’s a risk I’ll have to take,” I said. “Can you hide what I did earlier today?”

“Why do you think I’d be able to do that?”

“You’re good at hiding things,” I said. “He’s pretty good at picking things out of my mind but he didn’t have a clue about you.”

“That means I’m good at hiding myself,” it said.

“Yeah, but that requires covering up things that have to do with you,” I said. “And since I don’t think ‘having to do with the owl-turtle thing’ is an intrinsic property of thoughts and memories, this means you can cover up anything you want.”

“Not anything,” it said. “No hard and fast rules, remember? But I can obscure some things. I can change how your brain stores a memory. You’ll still remember it. You might remember it a bit differently… not in the details, I mean. I don’t change what you remember. I change how you remember it. This is something else that would be easier to explain in deep elvish.”

“As long as it doesn’t mess up the actual memory or change my personality or anything,” I said.

“Okay,” it said. “It’s done.”

“Just like that?”

“Memory is surprisingly malleable,” it said. “It might scare you if you knew how much it is. And yesterday morning was already half a dream to you, anyway… anything else?”

“No,” I said. “No sense putting it off any longer.”

“Okay,” it said. “I’m going to leave your mind now, so things might get a bit…”

“Disjointed and symbolic?” I said.

“Yeah,” it said. It spread its flipper-wings as if it were about to fly.

“Wait!” Mostly Ian said.

“What?” we both said, looking at him.

He gave me a kiss, and then blushed deeply.

“Sorry,” he said. “But technically, I’m never going to see you again. I mean, even if another figment gets created… if you think about it, I mean, is that really me?”

“Then don’t think about it,” I said.

“Is there anything else?” the owl-turtle thing said. “Because I don’t do those kinds of dreams. Not my department.”

“No, that’s all,” Mostly Ian said.

“Yeah, do it,” I said. “Withdraw, or whatever… might as well get it over with.”

“You’re the boss,” it said.

And then I woke up.

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25 Responses to “Chapter 72: Dreaming and Scheming”

  1. Hey, folks… my vacation ends tomorrow. Wednesday I’ll be back at home all day and back to work. So schedule’s going back to listed, starting with the chapter on the 16th. Thank you for your patience! Things were a bit more disjointed than I expected here. I think for future trips with my parents I’m just going to declare it a total vacation.

    Current score: 0
  2. Burnsidhe says:

    Welcome back, and I’m glad you took the extra time to write this one up. 🙂 It works but I can see how problematic it could’ve been.

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  3. pedestrian says:

    Hope you got some R&R. That is the purpose of a vacation.

    We would all be waiting for you. Squirming in our seats and texting each other frantic “where the heck is she?” as we jones for our next TOMU fix.

    I like how this chapter continues the analysis of using subtle arts. Your explanations shrewdly peel the onion.

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  4. Sammyboy says:

    I like it!!! Great job again. Seems like the owl-turtle thing is going to be an impressive asset for Mack.

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  5. spoonybrad says:

    flied or flew

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    • spoonybrad says:

      (just helpin

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    • Electra says:

      Or “People fly in dreams, don’t they?” subjunctive tense

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  6. spoonybrad says:

    dropped an if or when
    “you’ll know it goes down”

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  7. Readaholic says:

    Om nom nom. Disjointed seems appropriate, what with disjointed and symbolic dreams being the subject of today’s update.

    Oh, and I think you meant “flew”, as opposed to “flied”

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    • Zergonapal says:

      Can’t even begin to see how you came up with “flied” do you have your spellchecker disabled?

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      • sliversith says:

        Writing fantasy?! Heaven forbid!!

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  8. sliversith says:

    So…. Ridiculous Owl-Turtle Thing…. less dislikable than usual this update…

    Current score: 1
  9. Zathras IX says:

    The best defense may
    Be offensive to those now
    Feeling defensive

    Current score: 1
  10. pedestrian says:

    I am reiterating my impression that the ROTT is a meme in the Jung/Campbell sense of Humanities shared genetic programming. This meme follows a common guideline and each person experiencing it adds their own personality to build onto its basic structure.

    That is why Ridiculous Owl-Turtle Thing is maturing as a incorporeal entity. And after TWO, and Dee and the Eyeless Fish, ROTT is capable of assisting Our Mack with her internal defenses.

    I would suggest to Mack that she needs to gather a brain trust and group think possible actions and training. Dee of course and Teddi, but also Callahan and Embries. Pala and Twyla may be helpful. And the Paladin Commander of training soldiers of Khersis Dei. I would think He/She would be throwing six different fits at any encroachment of a full demon in their bailiwick.

    The only reason I can think of that University authority originally got the support of the religious-militant orders, to permit Mackenzie’s admission, was for her to be their straw-dog. To train inexperienced recruits with a realistic danger. But, I cannot believe they would tolerate Demon Daddy for a second!

    Callahan has experience in combating ostensibly more powerful entities and sometimes she has won.

    MU is Embries’ territory and the Demon Daddy has been invading it with both psychic and physical raids against the best interests of a student. I still don’t understand the “blase” attitude at several breakins and the poisoning incident. I can not believe that a Silver Dragon would be complacent at these incursions!

    It would be ridiculous to think that LAW & IBF & other Imperial/Republic instrumentalisties are not monitoring Mackenzie
    to attempt to trace her father’s movements.

    And how come no Diabolists have expressed any interest in Mackenzie? They should be jonesing worse then Steff in wanting to run “experiments” on our young heroine.

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  11. Dani says:

    > less dislikable than usual this update…

    Is dislikability an attribute? Having the Owl-Turtle-Thing be intrinsically dislikable seems to me to be a fallacy of reification. Dislike is a reaction that one person may have to another. If enough people tend to have the same reaction, we can communicate about the other person being dislikable – but that doesn’t mean that the person possesses an actual attribute we can identify as ‘dislikability’.

    Suppose someone who only speaks Lower-Middle Upperspracht is disliked by all fellow-speakers of that language because of his unstoppable torrent of bad puns. Could someone, in principle, instill that dislikability into an OTT and have the OTT automatically be disliked by beings who don’t speak his language? by beings who don’t have spoken language? by Mack?

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    • Oni says:

      In this case I think “dislikable” works as a trait because that’s what the ROTT is: at it’s core it is a mash of traits. They’re it’s DNA, so to speak, in the same way that somoene might have blue eyes. This isn’t to say that people it interacts with can’t work beyond that, but there’s also no getting around it.

      Also, the ROTT seems to be slightly different with everyone that it interacts with, based on the sleeper’s mind. For TWO it seems to be a lot more random, and maybe even more disliked because TWO has a personal connection to those traits; her mind is what categorized those traits as “do not want/do not like”. In Dee’s head it has a lot more clarity, or at least thinks it can be more clear in the different language (assume that Dee doesn’t happen to have that particular dream in Common). In Mack’s head it’s… annoying. She seems to get on the best with it, perhaps because most of the people she’s interacted with have been “annoying” to her. Her grandmother, her classmates, her teachers, her father; “dislike” is a quality she might be more accustomed to, and is also accustomed to moments where she can push past various minor issues to deal with a Big Bad issue.

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  12. JS says:

    I’m mildly concerned that the only people who seem to have had contact with the owl turtle thing are people who came into contact with a demon, or with Pitchy.

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    • Oni says:

      True, but that’s… basically the entire cast.

      Has Steff had direct contact with demon/pitchy?

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  13. anon y mouse says:

    “The barrier’s not sophisticated enough to let anything in or out while it’s up, and you’ll know it goes down.” – if it goes down?

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  14. helen rees says:

    typo alert

    even though they’ve pretty much expected these days, the classic lore

    i think ‘they’ve’ should be ‘they’re’


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    • Lunaroki says:

      Typo Report

      People flied in dreams, didn’t they?

      As a few people have pointed out above, “flied” should be “flew”. Also, I just noticed my spellcheck doesn’t flag “flied” as misspelled, although it does flag “spellcheck”. o.O

      its words breaking into my fantasy of of flying through the air with some sort of gleaming silver staff.

      There’s a stutter where we wind up with two “of”s in a row.

      and you’ll know * it goes down.

      As has been mentioned above, missing either an “if” or a “when” after “know”.

      “But it’s generally going to be true that you can’t do something that affects others unless on some degree they agree with it.”

      The phrase “on some degree” is mangled. Probably should be “to some degree”.

      “I mean, even though they’ve pretty much expected these days,

      As has been mentioned above, “they’ve” should be “they’re”.

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  15. V says:

    Am I the only one confident that AE has a grip on basic grammar and wrote off “flied” as a total Mackenziism, putting her classic awkward and absentminded stamp into the middle of something that was otherwise flowing smoothly?

    Maybe some kind of blade on the end of the staff would be good.

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  16. fka_luddite says:

    What is the difference between a trident and a pitchfork?

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    • HiEv says:

      A trident has three usually straight tines, sometimes barbed, is used as a weapon or for hunting, and most can be thrown as a spear.

      A pitchfork can have two or more tines, never barbed, usually curved like a shovel for shoveling hay and the like, and is generally used as a gardening tool, though it can be used as a makeshift weapon.

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  17. Mike says:

    Re-reading this, all I could think of is the various Nightmare on Elm Street movies, especially the Dream Warriors.

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