Chapter 78: Surrounding Steff

on April 8, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 3: Figments & Fragments, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Mackenzie Embraces The Dark Side

It wasn’t quite like a slumber party.

Not because nobody was in a hurry to go to sleep… that was normal for slumber parties. It was more because we were all too aware of what was going on… or at least that something was going on, when it came to Steff… even if we weren’t in a hurry to talk about it.

Everybody figured out pretty quickly that Steff didn’t want people actually hovering around her… or even touching her, really. She sat alone in the desk chair while Amaranth sat on the bed, Two and Dee sat on the loveseat, and Ian and I sat together on the floor. I told everyone how my class with Coach Callahan had gone.

Ian seemed excited by the thought of me sparring with the more powerful gladiators, and like he knew better than to be excited by the idea of me actually signing up for matches… though I could tell that he was.

“Would it make you feel better if I signed up with you?” he asked.

“No, but it would make you feel better to sign up,” I said. “I can tell.”

“I don’t want to join the stable again,” he said. “I think I did what I set out to do there.”

“Lose?” Steff said.

“I didn’t lose,” he said. “I finished pretty near the middle of the ladder, really.”

“So you were an average loser,” she said.

“I was a gladiator,” he said. “It was my decision and it was something I did for nobody but me… it’s not something I need to go through again. The training, the… training. But a couple of fights? Just for fun? Minimal preparation, no expectations… yeah. I could be into that.”

“We wouldn’t actually be fighting together, is the thing,” I said.

“Unless we sign up as a team,” Ian said. “There are mixed doubles.”

“Wrong move,” Steff said. “Much as Jilly respects Ian’s stones, you’re not going to actually get anything from stepping into the ring with him at your side. If you ended up fighting against him, that would be more her style.”

“Yeah, I can see that,” Ian said. “Especially since it was such a big deal that I would fight girls. That’s all the more reason that I should sign up, too.”

“Don’t be too obvious,” Steff said. She was coming alive all over, her hands and face showing increasing animation as she spoke. “What you want to do is sign up at different times, for different times… only have some of them overlapping. Make it seem like Mack signing up gave you the idea, or the excuse. If you can do it in front of her, check out some of the slots that are full and act disappointed. Maybe say something about how you were hoping to get different nights because the two of you were hoping to see each other in the ring…”

“I thought you said not to be too obvious,” I said.

“Well, I could say it and not be obvious,” Steff said. “Just think about all the things I’ve talked her into.”

“I would really rather not,” I said. “Seriously.”

“Yeah, and I think you’re maybe confused about who’s going along with who there,” Ian said. “Anyway, I’m not planning on saying anything… I’m not a naturally tricky person, and I think if Callahan wants to throw us together and she has the opportunity, she will. Hell, if she wants to I think she’d make it happen regardless.”

Steff moved her chair closer as the conversation shifted to other gladiatorial-related subjects. She eventually moved to the bed, near Amaranth but not touching her. For her part, Amaranth had mostly been quiet. She kept her face warm and pleasant, but I could feel the depth of her concern for Steff.

Her presence was clearly helpful, but it had to be hard for her to not be able to do more. Amaranth had a healer’s spirit, and if she was self-centered in her approach to solving a problem, her intentions were good and her results often were, too. To be so close to a friend, a lover, who was in pain… it had to be painful for her, though she didn’t show it.

I figured that she, like myself, was trying not to read too much into anything Steff did. I was aware that she might be comfortable enough to come out and talk about it in the course of the weekend and I didn’t want to rush to any conclusions before then… especially when it wasn’t really necessary. I didn’t need to know why Steff didn’t want to be alone in order to be with her, and I didn’t need to understand why she wasn’t looking for physical intimacy to give her some space while we were together.

Trying to guess at the circumstances beyond that might lead me in the wrong direction.

One thing that became clear as the night went on: I didn’t have it in me to stay up all night. Not without preparation, not after a week of iffy and often-interrupted slumber, and often with busy evenings beforehand.

Steff had plenty of company around her, though. She was still staying close to Amaranth, which was exactly what I would have done if I needed comfort for reasons I couldn’t explain. Most of the group drifted out into the hall to go pay a visit to Hazel and Shiel’s game room when I started getting ready for bed, just after Dee excused herself.

There was no question that Steff would find distraction there. It was Friday night, and as far as the stone soldier enthusiasts of the campus were concerned, the weekend was made for miniature warfare.

When I was alone in the room, there was a soft knock on the door to the shared bathroom. Even if I hadn’t just waved goodbye to Two going out the front door, I recognized it as Dee… she knocked just firmly enough to be distinctly heard, where Two had a slightly more insistent rap.

“Come in,” I said.

“I have undertaken some research on the subject of lucid dreaming, and more generally on the subject of telepathy and dreams,” Dee said. “It amounts to little more than some quick reading between classes, but there may be some information there from which the owl-turtle thing can synthesize something useful.”

“Would it be able to notice something that you didn’t?” I asked.

“It frequently does,” she said. “This is one of its virtues, and most of its vices.”

“So you buy its whole avatar of self-awareness thing?” I said.

“I do not know that I precisely buy it,” she said. “Or that its awareness of my self exceeds my own. But it has a certain perceptiveness that I cannot deny. I must ask, though… has it made any overtures in the direction of finding your pitchfork?”

“Not really, no,” I said. “It hasn’t really brought up the idea of following after my father much at all, since the first time… it seems pretty content to follow my lead, within reason. I mean, it tries to steer me away from things it thinks are a bad idea, but it hasn’t been steering me back around to its idea.”

“I see,” Dee said, though she sounded unconvinced… unconvinced of what exactly, I wasn’t sure.

“You’re the one who said I could probably trust its motivations,” I said. “Are you having second thoughts?”

“I have been having a profusion of thoughts,” she said. “Among them is the thought that we don’t yet know what the owl-turtle thing is. The entity within the pitchfork… the ancient vestige of a long-gone demon… it has a power and presence and permanency that the owl-turtle thing lacks. I have not had the opportunity to press it in depth about its interests, but the more I reflect upon it, the more I think it might strongly covet that sort of existence.”

“But the pitchfork fragment doesn’t have a mind of its own,” I said.

“Yes, and the dream thing doesn’t have a life of its own,” Dee said. “You see how the two might come together? I admit that this is mere suspicion on my part, and that it is based on the trepidation with which I view the pitchfork entity… but that trepidation, at least, is well-founded. As far as I’m concerned, anything that involves it and contact with another mind is cause for worry.”

“If that’s true, though, it might be that the most dangerous thing would be to leave it in my father’s hands,” I said.

“To the contrary… when dealing with a volatile and dangerous quantity, the most dangerous thing would be moving rashly,” Dee said. “At the moment, the pitchfork is either inert, or being applied somewhere far from here and anyone we know. If it’s being put to use by your mother’s former… that is, by your father… it is beyond our knowledge or responsibility. But if we were to bring it into play within our sphere and someone were corrupted or injured as a result, we would bear responsibility.”

“Well, like I said, it hasn’t been making any kind of a play for the pitchfork,” I said.

“That you are aware of,” Dee said. “The thing that strikes me, when I contemplate what Ian relayed to me this morning about your father’s abilities, is that I have learned more about the owl-turtle thing’s capabilities from its interactions with you than it has yet revealed to me directly. It makes me wonder if it is not capable of more subtlety and misdirection than I originally gave it credit for.”

“Maybe it’s picking things up as it goes,” I said. “Two is pretty straightforward and literal. Your mind is… nuanced, but you seem to be pretty honest.”

“I believe that we both strive to be,” Dee said. “Do you think it more likely that it learned the art of lying from you than from me?”

“Maybe it’s more a matter of guilt by association,” I said. “If there’s enough of Ian floating around inside me for it to conjure up a simulacrum, there could be enough of my father for it to pick up some tricks when it comes to twisty thinking.” I sighed. “The thing is that I don’t have a lot of options, and none of them seem perfect… but the owl-turtle thing is useful, and i don’t want to give it up just because it might have the capacity to lie. I mean, we all do, right? If tomorrow I suddenly became aware for the first time for some reason that Amaranth can lie, I’d still trust her.”

“I agree,” Dee said. “But I would also say that while it makes little sense to renounce the owl-turtle thing’s support, you should not treat it as a recent acquaintance of unknown principles, as that is what it is. Whether it has been dishonest all the time or may be growing dishonest… or if it is indeed still honest now… I fear it bears watching more closely in the future.”

I nodded.

“So are you going to send it over tonight, then?” I asked.

“That is my plan, after a brief conversation with it,” she said. “I have recovered from my spell yesterday in the sense that it is has passed, but in terms of the mental and physical reserves that were used up in coping with it I still have some distance to go, and so will be retiring now.”

“You look a lot better,” I said.

“You are kind to say so,” she said. “It does not take much effort for an elf to look good.”

“Seriously, though, I was very worried for you,” I said. “We both were.”

“Two was, as well, until I told her that it was no cause for alarm,” Dee said. “She is easily reassured, though. If you could set your mind at ease just by choosing to, I would bid you to do so. It was a passing affliction, nothing more.”

“It looked serious,” I said. I thought again of how Dee had managed to lock herself into slumber early in our freshman year… and how she’d taken on the pitchfork entity fragment. “You weren’t… trying something, were you?”

“Your concern is understood, but misplaced,” Dee said. “It is something like an allergic reaction, or the sort of random seasonal illnesses that the more mortal races fall to… or like a migraine, I suppose, but affecting the whole field of sensation.” She gave her mane of long white hair a shake. “It surprises me that even with telepathy a known and practiced art, humans have no words for so many things.”

“Yeah, well, until pretty recently the subtle arts were considered a form of witchcraft, basically,” I said. “Proof of consorting with demons or far-outsiders… which were considered basically to be demons in another guise. Even the name ‘subtle arts’ comes from religious tracts against it, though wizards picked it up because, you know, it doesn’t register like magic does. Give us a few more hundred years and we’ll probably have a whole vocabulary.”

“In a hundred years, few humans now studying it will be alive,” Dee said.

“That’s just one reason we have language,” I said. “Their studies will be.”

“Interesting,” Dee said. “I had never considered… you know, neither branch of elvenity has ever been much for record-keeping. We have writing, of course, but much of our literature is oral. What would be called sacred texts are more like mnemonic primers… the import of what they contain is passed on from teacher to student, and without a teacher’s guidance it is just so many obscure symbols.”

“Strangely, that’s how a lot of our sacred texts work, too,” I said. “Anyway… I’m glad you’re feeling better.”

“Indeed,” Dee said. She bowed, then looked embarrassed in a way that I’d never seen her before and gave me a quick hug. “Goodnight, Mackenzie… and may your dreams be no more troubled than you wish.”

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20 Responses to “Chapter 78: Surrounding Steff”

  1. zeel says:

    Ack! My twitter client messed me up, I just saw the tweet about a chapter coming in an hour, thought to myself: “All right guess I’ll start reading Hunger Games now”. One page in and DING! goes twitter, new tales posted. . . And I check, the other tweet was an hour old.

    Now I have two things I am dying to read at the same time. . . Is it possible to read two things at one? I have two eyes? Can Two read two things at once with her two eyes and golem brain? (Wait, does she even have a brain/internal organs? It is it like the wax people in night at the museum?).

    Edit: Oh hey ya. . . First. . . 🙂

    Current score: 0
    • zeel says:

      More on topic:

      I love this line:
      “It frequently does,” she said. “This is one of its virtues, and most of its vices.”

      Rather clever.

      Also: “Far outsiders”? Who are they? Someone should ask about them during that one lecture class.

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      • q says:

        probably more or less like in dnd.
        outsiders, things of become or from other planes than material but far outsiders meaning more so than demons and divines i guess. like the eyelessfishbeast

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    • pedestrian says:

      Alexandr – Good Chapter, I admire your skill at weaving exposition and speculation into a coherent plotline.

      Zael, if I understand the parameter’s of ToMU, an advanced golem design such as our loverley TWO, was transformed from clay into biology, so as to be self-sustaining, self-maintaining and self-regenerating. In support of her functions as a magician’s laboratory assistant.

      Our closest AI equivalent would be the classical android. A manufactured biological robot/entity. Or Chobit? I’m not sure if I got that right, I’m too easily distracted by some of the imagery in Japanese soft porn cartoons.

      TWO’s innate capabilities as an MLA, is the foundation for her becoming a chef. Cooking is Alchemy! Just different ingredients and usually with a more satisfying result. Yummies for our tummies….Instead of blowing up or poisoning ourselves.

      “without a teacher’s guidance it is just so many obscure symbols.”
      “Strangely, that’s how a lot of our sacred texts work, too,” I said.”

      When Religion is taken out of context, we are left with only the hypocrisy.

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      • Gruhl says:

        When religion is taken in context, unfortunately, we are often still left with only hypocrisy.

        (This is merely my opinion, and should not be taken as some sort of truth.)

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    • pedestrian says:

      I’m not certain if it factual or apocrypha but I remember reading somewhere that Julius Caesar was suppose to be able to read a document while dictating other subjects to his secretary’s. And also J.D. Rockefeller.

      I’ve never been any good at multi-tasking and recent research {and traffic accident reports} graphically display that most people are as equally incompetent at doing more then one thing at a time.

      The volume of bragging does not install any confidence in the outcome of foolish activities.

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      • helen rees says:

        instil works as well as instal in this category fyi & imho.

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        • pedestrian says:

          Thanks Helen, I had meant instil.

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  2. bangle says:

    There is just something about the way Dee talks that I love so much. <3 Also, that embarrassed little hug at the end was just adorable. =3

    Current score: 1
  3. Anne says:

    I noticed the following typo: useful, and i don’t


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  4. Zathras IX says:

    It is wise to have
    Trepidation about the
    Pitchfork entity

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  5. N. says:

    I really enjoyed the conversation with Dee.

    Current score: 1
  6. anon y mouse says:

    “you should not treat it as a recent acquaintance of unknown principles” – should you not, or shouldn’t you, maybe?

    “I have recovered from my spell yesterday in the sense that it is has passed” – it has passed?

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    • helen rees says:

      maybe the point is ‘not acquaintance, but tool’.

      and maybe the concept she reached for in her language unfortunately means both and she stuttered/stumbled.

      just some thoughts

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      • anon says:

        “you should not treat it as a recent acquaintance of unknown principles, as that is what it is. ”
        based on the sentence structure and the lack of a question mark it looks as if the ‘not’ did not belong.

        –you should treat it as a recent acquaintance of unknown principles, as that is what it is.

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  7. William Carr says:

    I realize this is out of the blue, but if Amaranth is so…enthusiastic about horses, could she get around her Mother’s restriction by being transformed into a horse?

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    • Erm says:

      I think it was more about comparative levels of awareness than about forms. The way transformation seems to work, she’d just be Amaranth in a horse shape, not an actual horse.

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    • That one guy says:

      I think if she was with that one guy who’s elven friend can transform the guy into a stag… although that elf hates women so I don’t think he’d share the guy with Amaranth.

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  8. JN says:

    Perhaps the the ROTT does have designs on life and permanence through co-opting or merging with the pitchfork entity. Mack could end up wielding the semi-demonic ridiculous owl-turtle pitchfork thing…

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  9. Omega Wolf J says:

    *smiles softly*
    I truly adore Dee, and seeing her show affection so openly like that is heart-warming.

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