Chapter 56: No, Really This Time

on December 28, 2011 in Volume 2 Book 3: Figments & Fragments, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which The Author Double-Checks The Number Before Posting

The rest of Saturday night passed in a dreamless sleep. Dreamless sleep didn’t always mean bad sleep. It could be downright restful… untroubled, in a very literal sense when you were getting used to having your dreams invaded.

Sunday was a busy day for me. Not necessarily hectic. I had more time than things I needed to get done, but I did have things I needed to get done. Even at my best periods when it came to things like study habits I tended to put things off until Sunday, because that was the day when I had time to do things. It gave a last minute feel to a lot of things, but it wasn’t like I had a day off in the middle of the week.

I would spend the afternoon in the library with Amaranth where I would actually do the all-important “doing my homework” part of doing my homework, but my first order of business after breakfast was sitting down with Steff. I had to turn in my design drawings to Professor Stone in two days, and without her help I would have little more than incoherent scribblings.

With her help I would have incoherent scribblings and some really nice pictures that would theoretically relate to those scribblings. I wanted to sketch a rough layout for my illusionary aquarium in front of her, because I thought my picture would help her more if I told her what the blobs were as I sketched them.

“I want like a castle here… with tall spires and coral bricks,” I said as I sketched it near the upper corner of the page. “Maybe three towers, like this.”

“That… looks like a cactus,” Steff said.

I tried not to let her criticism sting me, because I knew she was harder on herself. She was also, incidentally, correct.

“It’s coral spires,” I assured her. “It’s majestic… or at least it will be when you draw it.”

“If I copy your sketch, it’s going to look like a majestic cactus.”

“Then don’t copy my sketch,” I said. “Draw it, you know, right. That’s why I’m asking for your help.”

“I thought the idea is it’s supposed to be your vision?”

“It is,” I said. “I just need you to draw it for me… okay, I’ll go on the weave and find you a reference picture of coral to use. Maybe that will count for more. I mean, Professor Stone did say it was okay for me to get help with the drawings as long as I could show it was done from my ideas. And here near the center… not in the dead center, but near the center… a big treasure chest, just like…”

“Like the TV you broke,” she said.

“Like the TV that Sooni broke,” I semi-agreed. The key thing was that she knew the TV I was talking about, as that had been a particular favorite of my design professor.

“Okay, but I’ve got to say… if you make the chest that big, that’s either going to be a really small castle or a really big treasure chest,” Steff said.

“Nobody says they have to be on the same scale,” I said.

“Not if they’re random things somebody’s grandma thought would be cute in a fishbowl,” Steff said. “But this is a design class… don’t you think you’re going to be judged on, you know, the design?”

“Well, the castle can go towards the back and the chest will be closer to the front,” I said. “So then it’s a perspective thing, right? The castle’s not out of scale, it’s just farther away.”

“I just don’t want to catch it if you get a bad grade,” Steff said. “All last year that was your default excuse for not doing anything… ‘Steff, my grades!’ and ‘Steff, I have to study!’ and ‘Steff, you can’t doodle suggestive pictures on the back of my oration notes!'”

“…I didn’t take any oratory classes,” I said.

“I know, that one was just a very vivid and elaborate recurring fantasy,” she said. “And it was a pretty good one.”

“You fantasized about sabotaging my classes?”

“I fantasized about ways to make you blush so hard you spontaneously combusted out of your clothes,” Steff said. “I mean, as far as sexy ways to get naked go, it’s hard to top that… but I couldn’t see you doing it on purpose, hence the really detailed fantasies of contrived ways to bring it about. That, and the embarrassment just adds to the hotness… you know I like it when you blush.”

“I know,” I said, ducking my head and involuntarily obliging her. “Anyway, I think if I got embarrassed enough to burst into flames, I’d be too embarrassed to function… and that’s before I end up naked in front of a class.”

“Yeah, well, the rest of the fantasy doesn’t really depend on you being functional,” Steff said. “My ideal would be that you can see and feel the things I’m doing to you, but that’s negotiable so long as you were completely helpless and immobile.”

“Do I even need to be there, then?”

“In body, at least, if not in spirit,” she said, grinning wickedly.

Steff had tried to get me to will my body to her on more than one occasion. That wasn’t necessarily unusual… as a necromancer-in-training, she had uses for it that weren’t technically completely lacking in legitimacy. Steff was the sort of person who believed you couldn’t spell necromantic without romantic, though.

The motives behind her attraction to the unliving were probably more complicated than any one thing. Possibly the least egregious part of it was a desire to vent her darkest impulses on something that had a face and person-shaped body but was beyond any harm… that was one of the reasons she liked my mostly-invulnerable body, after all. She could do things to me that she could only fantasy about with someone else. Sometimes, I let her.

For that reason, I did my best not to judge her other predilections… but if by some chance I didn’t survive until graduation, she’d be getting a crack at my dead body over my dead body.

My living body was another story.

“If you help me with this, I’ll do the clothes thing on purpose for you,” I said.

“Are you serious?”

I had to think about that. As it happened, it turned out that I was… with a few conditions.

“You buy the outfit you want to see me burn off… and help me find a safe place to do it,” I added, as I thought a bit more about what we were discussing. “Because I’m not doing it in the dorm, obviously, and I’m not getting naked in a spell lab. And definitely not anywhere public.”

“There are always empty labs,” Steff said.

“And I’m not getting naked in them,” I said.

“Okay,” she said. “Find me some reference pictures, then, and I’ll get this back to you tomorrow night.”

“Remember, you provide the clothes and the venue,” I said. “And no audience, either… you can have Amaranth there if you want, but no one else.”

“Like I’d share you with the world,” she said.

“You’re the one who’s turned on by my embarrassment,” I said.

“The other one, you mean,” she said, and she couldn’t really argue with that.

After I got Steff some pictures of coral and various other undersea features… including a bronze statue of a trident-wielding merman that gave me a small case of the willies but that I thought would make a good aesthetic match with what I was going for… and gave her a rough layout of where everything should go, I spent the rest of the morning ambling around in the sunlit campus trying to imagine monster attacks in various locations.

The walk was pleasant enough, but this wasn’t the way I would have chosen to spend my time… Professor Bryony Swain had given us the assignment in my local hazards class. I might have done some preliminary investigation for that earlier in the week, but I’d had other things on my mind and I wanted to have everything fresh in my head when I went to write it up.

Especially since it really didn’t play to my strong points. As a teenager, I’d learned that the safest thing to do was keep my head down and my eyes on my own business. Danger then had meant human students who didn’t like the way I looked at them and their outraged parents if I breathed in too retaliatory a fashion.

I knew the campus wasn’t a safe place, but it wasn’t ambulatory plants or undead scavengers that I worried the most about. At night there were patrols on and around the school grounds by armed students in the martial and delving programs trying to earn their experience credits. This helped keep the population of marauding monsters intruding from outside the campus grounds down, but made things a little dicey for students who might be considered monstrous themselves.

I looked perfectly human, but my demon heritage was known and there were plenty of people who knew me on sight. You might think that anybody who knew I was a student here also knew that it was perfectly legal for me to be out walking around and perfectly illegal for someone to stick a magical or holy sword through me because AAAH, DEMON!… but it’s not like some central authority made sure that people thought through all the implications of their irrational beliefs before they were allowed to act on them.

It wasn’t just students who’d girded themselves for a fight and were looking for threats that I had to worry about. Anybody who recognized me as “the demon girl” and flipped out was a hazard to me. What made the whole thing even more precarious was the chance that my self-defense would be taken as aggression. Somebody could be trying to kill me and I would have to think about how it looked to anyone watching while I defended myself. Not exactly a great situation.

Then there was the ugly flipside to the student patrols, which was that there actually had been at least one student of what might be called a monstrous appetite who had prowled the campus after dark for a while. Iona had been so casual and matter-of-fact about it that it seemed like she’d only been punished for overstepping, for choosing a high-profile victim who was in an area that should have been relatively safe.

Given how many hazards there were in the immediate area and the general laissez-faire attitude towards public safety, it was entirely possible for opportunistic and intelligent predators to operate on the campus at night while attending classes during the day. If this actually was an ongoing thing, it was my hope that the word of what had happened to Iona had worked its way around whatever channels existed and made people think twice about hunting their fellow students.

I had my doubts about that, though. There had been a flap late in the previous school year when a harpy student was caught snacking on human remains. She’d maintained she’d rested it away from a ghoul, and there were no freshly missing students and a dead ghoul in the area… dead-dead, I mean… so she’d been given some kind of probation.

Of course, what happened to Iona was itself a local hazard. The school’s vice-chancellor was a silver dragon in human form. Metallic dragons were reckoned to be “noble”… the good ones, in other words, but that was in comparison to their less shiny kin, and maybe “less destructive” or “slightly more trustworthy in general” would be better phrases. He wasn’t necessarily dangerous in the same way that a pack of ghouls was dangerous, except when he was… and you could outrun ghouls, or fight them off.

I’d fought off ghouls early in my school career, after some careless words on my part had sent Amaranth off and running straight into a pack of them. As low-level, naturally-occurring undead, their teeth and claw-like nails held no magic and couldn’t penetrate my invulnerable skin. I’d fought without skill or strategy, but with supernatural strength.

Steff had helped…. or maybe it was better to say that I’d helped her. She was the one who’d taken the initiative in going after Amaranth, and in taking on the ghouls. She wasn’t invulnerable but she was a better fighter than I ever would be… and if she wasn’t exactly fearless, she wasn’t afraid of things that a lot of other people would be. Slimy, bloated ambulatory corpses were among those things.

If I said that these things… both her relative fearlessness in the face of ghouls and the fact that she’d helped me when I needed it… were among the reasons that I liked Steff, it might give the wrong impression, that I tolerated her less charming qualities because I felt like I owed her or because she was useful.

It was really hard to pin down the alchemy of liking or disliking someone. Nights like that one and things Steff had done for me… including getting my ass in gear when it came to making up with Amaranth in the aftermath of it… had helped to forge and strengthen a bond between us. Even without them, there was attraction… strong attraction. It wasn’t that Steff’s better qualities canceled out her less appealing ones, or excused them.

There was some calculation of worth-it-ness going on at some level. How to cut ties with someone who was wasn’t worth the harm or aggravation they brought me was among the more important lessons of my freshman year. Steff herself had helped me learn that. But even if Steff had done something that pushed me away… even if I couldn’t think of a single good thing about her as a person… I might still like like her.

I really hoped that it would never come to that point, because it had been hard enough pushing myself away from people I couldn’t stand at all.

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35 Responses to “Chapter 56: No, Really This Time”

  1. There are just two full days left in the site auction for January and as of now there’s only one bid, so someone might be walking away with it for $20. High bid gets your personal message and/or advertisement up in the masthead and tacked on to all the chapters posted for a month. Advertise your site, show your support for Tales of MU, proclaim your love of Cheez Whiz to an oddly specific audience… the sky is the limit. Leave your own bid here and you could walk away with it for a song.

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  2. wg says:

    “Steff was the sort of person who believed you couldn’t spell necromantic without romantic, though. ”

    LOL awesome. 🙂

    *edit* ook! 😀

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    • siberian says:

      omg i know, i loved that line! i had to re-read it and then write it down so i could us it on my face book page (with all due credit to the source)

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      • Cernael says:

        Think I read a variation on that one ages ago in a Discworld novel (The Light Fantastic, maybe?). That was in Swedish translation, though, and arguably a real clever one, at that:
        Necromancy ->
        nekromanti ->
        näck-romantik ->
        nude romantics

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  3. Xicree says:

    … That chapter just now made me miss Feejee… fairly badly. All this talk of Iona and my favorite innocent predator just seems to be forgotten… T_T

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  4. Nemo says:

    ““The other one, you mean,” she said, and she couldn’t really argue with that.” probably has too many she’s.

    “She could do things to me that she could only fantasy about with someone else.” “fantasy” should probably be “fantasize”.

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    • Lunaroki says:

      “You’re the one who’s turned on by my embarrassment,” I said.

      “The other one, you mean,” she said, and she couldn’t really argue with that.

      I think you’re right Nemo. I’m pretty sure that last “she” should be an “I”.

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  5. Burnsidhe says:

    “She’d maintained she’d rested it away”
    should be “She’d maintained she’d wrested it away”

    Anyway, that bargain Mack made is hot. 😀

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  6. anon y mouse says:

    ‘“The other one, you mean,” she said, and she couldn’t really argue with that.’ – I couldn’t really argue?

    “How to cut ties with someone who was wasn’t worth the harm or aggravation they brought me was among the more important lessons of my freshman year.” – who wasn’t worth it?

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    • ayla says:

      I think she’s likely to be referring to Puddy.

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      • Lunaroki says:

        That wasn’t really an inquiry as to whom Mack was referring. It was more of what is commonly referred to as a Typo Report.

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  7. Zergonapal says:

    With the incentive Mack is offering, Steff is probably going to produce something that will have the human art world talking for weeks.

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    • JN says:

      An elf might even call it adequate.

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      • Dante says:

        “In the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Kinda wish there was a way to point that out to her. If she and pure-blooded elves can see and produce are that’s better than a human eye’s resolution, then by our standards their quality would be equivalent.

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  8. Lindzy says:

    Long time reader, first time poster. 🙂
    I might have just been having a blonde moment… but when Steph replies, “the other one, you mean”, it took me until the comments and then rereading it to figure out what she meant. She was refering to Amy right? I didn’t even make the connection that she was talking about a person at first, I was just confused. And usually I’m really good with her witty one liners.
    I don’t know, it was probably just me being oblivious. But I thought I’d mention it, since there’s very rarely anything that’s unclear or confusing like that.
    I’d also like to mention that I’ve been following this for years and recommend it to everyone I think would have even the slightest interest. My mom’s hooked now too, though we don’t talk about the sexual chapters. 😉 We both love it. 🙂

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    • Abeo says:

      I interpreted it as Mackenzie being “the other one”. Both work though.

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      • Zergonapal says:

        Yeah I agree, embarrassment does turn Mack on, to a degree. You have to go back to the beginning to see it though. When Amaranth confiscates Macks pants and spanks Mack in public for the first time that really turned her on, but when Puddy starts diddling her in the cafeteria she really doesn’t like it at all. Later when Mack and Amaranth are hashing out their Dom/Sub agreement Mack decides that the public spanking belongs on the blacklist.
        Though don’t ask me for chapter numbers, a more accomplished scholar of MU could probably help you there.

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    • spoonybrad says:

      to mack

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  9. Zukira Phaera says:

    my new favorite quote: “Steff was the sort of person who believed you couldn’t spell necromantic without romantic, though.”

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  10. siberian says:

    was there a bit of forshadowing there at the end? Steph is a year ahead, and i think Victor is in the same year, so at the least they’d be leaving school a year ahead of Mack, but that read with kind of an ominous tone to me. i hope not, i like Steph, not sure if i like pre- or post therapy steph better, but i like that snarkiness in the story line.

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  11. HoboYodo says:

    “low-level”. I think that may be the first time I have read a reference to something’s level in MU. Even if not intended as a D&D level reference, but instead akin to “low-grade” or simply “minimal threat”, it broke the fourth wall for me unsuspendered my sense of belief and left the chapter wanting.

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    • Burnsidhe says:

      “Low level of sound” “low level of threat” “low level of water” “low level of anxiety” “low, level wall”

      Level denotes relative altitude, in this case on a scale of threat. The association with Dungeons and Dragons is pretty much in your mind; while Alexandra plays and has run D&D campaigns, this story is not a D&D story.

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    • Don’t worry, I’m working on a plug-in for WordPress that filters out any words, phrases, or letters that have ever appeared in a D&D manual.

      (Also, incidentally, ghouls were described using the exact same phrase when they first appeared.)

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  12. Miss Lynx says:

    Hmmm… That’s an awful lot of introspection going on for a scene in which Mack’s supposed to be paying careful attention to her surroundings. Wonder what she’s going to walk smack into while she’s contemplating all this?

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  13. Zathras IX says:

    Dreamless sleep doesn’t
    Always mean bad sleep and can
    Be downright restful

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  14. readstospouse says:

    For a unique take on the assignment, that drives home the theme of danger everywhere she could list places she has personally been attacked by full or partial blooded members of the prolific race whose Monster Manual entry lies between Hulkbeetle and Hummingbadger:
    – punched and threatened in an abandoned classroom
    – stoned on a sidewalk in broad daylight
    – entrapped and imperiled in a clinic
    – shot and threatened in a maze

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    • Krey says:

      Man, we humans sure suck

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      • Kaila says:

        Dunno bout you lot, but I’m pretty sure I’m a halfbreed halfling, and we’re more lazy buggers who like the pipeweed a little too much. Or that could just be my dad.

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    • Trystia Indraea Olyphis Farrower says:

      Which in turn would bring up an interesting take on the overall purpose of the assignment: how to escape from human attackers on a human-dominated campus, without giving any false impressions. It’s not just that Mackenzie has to worry about defending herself, but also how it would look like if running away from people. Far too often, people will try to intervene and stop someone from ‘getting away’, unwittingly helping an aggressor.

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    • Eris Harmony says:

      Didn’t Gloria also go after her outside of class at one point? (And along those lines, let’s not forget Ian’s friend crossing her nearly into a coma.)

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  15. prospero says:

    Mack seems to talk a bunch about her survival strategies dealing with avoiding the attention of human students likely to do her harm. Between the students throwing rocks at her and the delving students who nearly killed her when she found the pitch fork why doesn’t she base her random encounter escape scenario on a human attack, which considering the abundance of magical artifacts of campus seems to pose a more legitimate threat to her health than anything else.

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  16. Crissa says:

    Gosh, I’d be tempted to write in the hazards such as the delving students into my work.

    Then again, I often got taken aside by the teacher about my choice or focus of work…

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  17. Sean O'Braun says:

    “The other one, you mean,” she said, and she couldn’t really argue with that.

    Nobody except maybe Mackenzie argues with their own statements, so it should be “and I couldn’t really argue with that.” 🙂

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  18. Cadnawes says:

    In the world of the blind nobody gives two ears about your one eye, Dante.

    I know you’re being metaphorical but in reality, a) ask anyone with clairvoyance or synesthesia how much respect they get for having unusual senses and b) the fully blind are often at an advantage over those with a little, untrustworthy, sight.

    And yes, I am on a one woman crusade against blindphobicldismissive language.

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