In Which Mackenzie Steps Outside Herself

There was nothing overly dramatic about the way I fell asleep or how I transitioned into dreaming that night. I was already tired when I went to bed, though I had enough on my mind that I couldn’t fall asleep immediately.

Remembering how abruptly the owl-turtle thing had pulled me into a full dream state the night before, I wondered if that had anything to do with the man’s never-before-seen ability to keep me asleep. Maybe the fact that it hadn’t been a fully natural sleep to begin with had something to do with it… the owl-turtle thing got its mental mojo techniques from Dee’s mind, after all, and she had done something similar to herself in an attempt to get to sleep.

Once this thought was swirling around in my brain, it was hard to ignore. Had my father been telling the truth when he’d said he’d had nothing to do with my inability to wake up?

The hole in that was that… all his protests to the contrary… he’d had no problem sending me back to the waking world the instant it suited him to, right after I’d surprised him with that inexplicable show of force. Even if Dee was no longer sure I could trust the owl-turtle thing completely, it was still the more trustworthy of the two.

Whatever its plans were, it hadn’t killed anyone.

Thoughts of this nature swirled back and forth in my head while sleep overtook me by degrees. I had a sense later that I passed some time in the foggy, poorly remembered fields of regular dreaming before I found myself in a very solid-looking cavern with a high vaulted ceiling. The space was about the same size and shape as the dream fortress the owl-turtle thing had constructed, and as soon as I thought that I realized it was perched on a stalagmite in the middle of it.

“I had a bit of an easier time integrating the defensive pattern with the structure of your mind, the second time around,” the owl-turtle thing said. “If it looks a little different to you, that would be why.”

“Does it not look different to you?” I asked.

“It looks more subtle,” it said. “Less obviously foreign. I see the pattern, I don’t see what you’re dreaming it looks like. Something… subterranean, perhaps?”

“Yeah, it looks like a cavern,” I said, nodding.

“Not quite what I was hoping to hear. But your mind’s accepting it as natural,” the owl-turtle thing said. “That’s progress. I want you to try to do something, and it’s going to be tricky because it’ll be easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing it… to dream you’re doing it… but that’s not going to accomplish anything.”

“What?” I asked.

“I want you to reach out and feel the wall, the way you would if it was a spell,” it said.

“But it’s not a spell,” I said. “The subtle arts aren’t magic, not the kind of magic I can feel and manipulate.”

“Outside your head, you’d be right,” it said. “Inside? Let’s just say that I have my suspicions.”

“How will I know if I’m really doing it?”

“You won’t,” it said. “The difference between you thinking that you feel something and you feeling something are zero, from your point of view. But I’m a self-contained point of view within your mind, so I’ll know.”

“Okay,” I said.

I closed my eyes and held up my hands, extending them slightly towards the wall. When I’d first started reading magical energy, I’d had to reach out with my hand in order to reach out with my mind… learning how to do it without touching was a bit like like learning how to move one finger without moving the others, as small children did. It still helped to gesture.

If the walls had been the result of a spell, there would be traces of magical energy. Depending on the nature of the spell, they could be made out of it entirely, or they could be awash in it as an active spell constantly reinforced them, or they might just have residue from the spells that moved otherwise mundane earth and rock into a stable shape and left it there. Since the mental walls had no reality beyond the pattern they represented, I imagined it would be more like the first or second case than the last one… and yes, there it was.

Like a glowing thread woven through space, I could almost see the signature… it really was just like magic.

Or was it?

It seemed a bit too much like magic, and too easy.

“No, stop,” the owl-turtle thing said, and I opened my eyes. It fluttered its flippers a bit. “You’re thinking about it too much, leading yourself to the wrong conclusion. It’s like how you feel magic, but different.”

“Sorry, but magic’s my only real frame of reference here,” I said. “I’ve never actually done anything like… wait, does this have anything to do with what I did to my father last night?”

“Maybe,” the owl-turtle thing said. “I mean, yes, it does, but I don’t know if it will go anywhere. I got a third-hand description of that, from Ian telling Dee what he remembered and understood of you telling him. It sounded a bit familiar to Dee, but this kind of thing is subjective to begin with, before you get into the language gap.”

“Hold on,” I said. “You have to know what it feels like when Dee pushes thoughts around or whatever, and by now you should know what it felt like when I did…”

“Oh, I should?” it said. “You barely understood what was happening, and then you woke up right after that. Do you have any idea what kind of damage forceful waking does to the nuances of memory? And then you have a day of ordinary mental activity on top of that… right now your predominant impression of what you did is that it would be hard to describe, and let me tell you, that doesn’t give me much to work with.”

“Okay, but hang on,” I said. “The upshot of this is that I might be telepathic?”

“In practical terms? No,” it said. “Not a chance.”

“Then what are we talking about?”

“Something like telepathy, but inside your own head.”

“Isn’t that like saying I’m telekinetic, but I can only move things I’m touching?”

“Imagine that everybody lives inside bubbles. Telepaths can pick up rocks inside their bubbles and throw them into other bubbles.”

“And what can I do?”

“Well, there’s a chance you might be able to pick up a rock.”


“And nothing,” it said. “You could drop it, but good luck throwing it against the inside of your own bubble, much less through it and across the gap to another bubble. But compared to the vast majority of the population, that’s impressive.”

“Is it useful, though?”

“Who knows? We don’t know what we’re working with,” it said. “But I did tell you that the reason you couldn’t keep a defensive pattern up yourself is that you wouldn’t be able to feel what you were doing, and maybe I was wrong about that. You see where I’m going?”

“Yeah, okay,” I said. “Then I think I’m going about this the wrong way… I couldn’t bring the walls down by willing, could I? I mean, in the ordinary course of things.”

“It’s not your will that’s keeping them up,” it said.

“Right,” I said. “So instead of trying to feel and manipulate them like I would a spell… something I can fool myself into simulating… maybe I should be trying to tear them down.”

“There’s not a chance that would work,” the owl-turtle thing said.

“But that’s good, because we don’t want them down,” I said. “But it’d be closer to the thing we know I can do, and you’d know if I ‘hit’, right?”

“Ah, now you’re thinking,” it said. “Okay. But instead of the walls, hit me.”


“Well, listen, just because there’s absolutely no chance you’d succeed in taking the walls down doesn’t mean we should risk it,” it said. “Maybe you make a crack. Maybe you make a gap that lasts just long enough for something to sneak its way in using a less-than-obvious fashion while we think we’re alone and secure. Anyway, if you attacked the walls I think they’d become less integrated with your mind, which is the opposite of the goal here.”

“Okay, but by the same token of ‘what if I do really well?’… what if I hit you harder than you expect?” I asked. “You’re a pattern of thoughts, basically. What happens to you if I destroy you?”

“Listen, there’s nothing that you can do in your amateurish flailing-around that Dee hasn’t tried,” it said. “I can’t be too confident in the walls because they’re cobbled together using your mind’s processes, no offense intended… the mind I was originally made from is much stronger, for certain values of ‘strong’, than yours or Dee’s.”

“So you’re saying that in my amateurish flailing around, there’s no chance that I will try something that Dee didn’t bother to?” I asked. “I mean, maybe there are possibilities she’s been trained out of seeing because nobody ever found any situation they would work in… or maybe the demon side of my mind will see I’m trying to tear something down and get its claws into you? You’re fond of reminding me that you’re so new that even you don’t know how you work… who’s to say that there isn’t a loose thread somewhere that could cause you to unravel just by being yanked?”

It gulped.

“Okay, point taken,” it said. “Let me give you a target. Actually, let’s make this interesting.”

It waved a flipper, and another stalagmite rose up out of the floor. There was a wooden board with a bullseye painted on it, secured to the stalagmite with metal bands.

“What I’ve done is layered three different types of constructs here,” it said. “The bullseye is a figment, like me or your dream lover from last time… less interesting than me, but it still has a mind, even if that mind is just thinking ‘I’m a board.’ The pillar is the same kind of defensive fortification as the walls right now, though it’s not fundamentally connected to them so you can rock it without upsetting the whole boat. The metal bands are just a really solid dream of metal bands. Try to do to it what you did last night, just before you woke up and we’ll see what happens.”

What had I done? I’d reached out and pushed somehow… I’d been angry and frustrated, and it seemed like that was key to what I’d done, but I didn’t think it was the anger itself that mattered. Anger had just stopped me from stopping to think about what I was doing. It had been instinct.

Instinct… a natural reaction.

But even if I’d done it without trying the first time, it didn’t stand to reason that it would be impossible to do it when I was trying. Still, it would help if I could summon up something like the same circumstances, the same state of mind… I thought about my father invading my dreams, violating my mind and my life despite my repeated protests. I thought about the owl-turtle thing, and the way that even at its most helpful there was something fundamentally unwanted about its presence in my mind.

I thought about all the baggage my grandmother had installed in me, all the beliefs about sex and religion and myself that I’d come to internalize even if I hadn’t precisely agreed with it. I’d worked hard to excise those influences from my mind, but it was an uphill battle and an ongoing process. Wouldn’t it be great to just be able to shove an unwanted influence out of my mind as easily as throwing a dead weight overboard?

I thought about what the owl-turtle thing had said about picking up rocks. Maybe it would be a mistake to treat the analogy too literally, but I had to start somewhere. The metal bands were just a dream, it had said. That meant the stalagmite and the target should have some kind of presence, some kind of reality and substance in my mind that it lacked… right?

It didn’t come to me all at once. I slowly became aware of the solidity of the walls around me, and by extension the solidity of the rock spire in front of me. The wooden bullseye had a similar weight, but it also had a sort of pulsing presence that I was now aware of from the owl-turtle thing. The owl-turtle’s pulse was stronger, and also more irritating… its fundamental unlikeability was shining through loud and clear.

Strangely, I didn’t seem to pulse like that… and for a panicked moment, I wondered if it was possible that I was somehow just a dream. Then I realized that this was in fact the case… or rather, the body I was seeing out of was a dream.

My pulse was all around us. My presence was everywhere. My mind wasn’t actually localized inside the arms I could see, or the holes I saw them through.

I held on to the awareness of that omnipresence, as I had a feeling it would be both important and useful in my quest for lucid dreaming… but it wasn’t what I was working on now.

I could feel the pseudo-mind the owl-turtle thing had constructed for the target. I could feel the structure of the tiny fortress it hung upon.

Strong as they looked, the metal bands were an illusion compared to either of them. They had less reality than a phantasmal weapon… they were like the memory of metal, or someone saying, “Hey, think about metal.”

With my mind firmly fixed on the “weight” of the target, I really did feel like I could reach out and shove it or twist it or break it, like I could scream at it with my mind in a way that it couldn’t ignore… but I found myself distracted by the sense of another weight, something that was deforming the landscape of the dream in such a way as to be almost invisible.

As soon as I thought that, I realized that this was basically what had happened: somebody had taken two bits of empty air and folded them over each other to create a blind spot. There had to be more to it than that, because that would just hide a visual presence in the dream and I didn’t think that would fool the owl-turtle thing… the presence being concealed was definitely muted. There was a pulse like the one I felt from my mind and the pseudo-minds, but it was slower and felt… farther off… than it actually was.

I shifted my point of view from where I imagined I was standing to the pulse of my mind, and from that perspective… the god’s-eye-view… there was no mistaking his presence. He was here. Probably he’d snuck in ahead of the owl-turtle thing, while Dee was consulting with it and quizzing it about its intentions.

He was here, and he knew… well, he knew what the owl-turtle thing looked like, and whatever he could glean about its existence from however he was able to peer into its structure. Even if he’d learned nothing else except the obvious, I felt slightly deflated. As disconcerting as its presence could be, there was no way the reality of the owl-turtle thing would be nearly as unnerving as the great creeping unknown he’d been dealing with before.

Still, I’d succeeded in shaking him up quite a bit in the past week, and I knew how to shake him up some more. From my external vantage point, I watched as my dream-self squared off in front of the target. I concentrated, and concentrated on looking like I was concentrating… felt the determination rising, building, and then I shoved with all my might… but not against the flimsy figment that made up the bullseye.

This time I did more than set him back on his heels. This time I heard him scream… maybe more in shock and outrage than pain, but it was a beautiful sound. The flimsy dream-fabric of his hidey hole tore apart as he stopped concentrating on it, but it hardly mattered because he’d fallen backwards out of the blind spot.

His face was twisted and ugly in a way I wasn’t used to seeing, but what stood out more than that his suit looked cheap… patched and threadbare, but cheap to begin with. Off the rack and out of date. I wasn’t any kind of expert when it came to that sort of thing, but I could tell it didn’t suit him. It… he… was kind of almost smoldering.

His edges were kind of going hazy in places and giving off traces of what looked like smoke, but which I could feel were more like bits of him that had lost integrity.

It sounded impressive, but I could also tell that this wasn’t really him… not all of him. He’d projected his own figment rather than coming in himself. The unknown did scare him, enough that he wouldn’t risk getting caught in a locked room with it.

I looked at the owl-turtle thing.

“If I can destroy that thing, he won’t know what it learned?”

“Nope,” the owl-turtle thing said. “Just that he sent out a part of himself that never made it back. Hoo boy, will that ever get to him.”

“Good,” I said.

It was exactly what I’d expected to hear, and in fact it was so obvious an answer that I regretted having asked, because now I’d just advertised my intentions and the figment could make a mad scramble for the walls and I didn’t know who would win that fight.

But the shade couldn’t change its essential nature, and couldn’t resist answering injury with insult.

“Wouldn’t your mother be proud?” it said.

It was exactly the thing I needed to hear to end it.

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46 Responses to “Chapter 79: Within Reach”

  1. Asimov says:

    Haha! Exciting!

    Current score: 0
  2. Null Set says:

    I’ve seen a few authors, and maybe even Alexandra Erin herself (I have a hazy memory of this), say that their characters are all drawn and extrapolated from parts of themselves.

    I wonder if, as the owl turtle thing continues to gather and mash together the personalities of the various cast members, it eventually becomes a self insert character.

    Current score: 1
    • q says:

      yes, I can see the inherent unlikability being a writer’s trait lol

      Current score: 1
      • Jennifer says:

        If YOU were a character in this tale, would YOU like the author?

        Current score: 3
  3. Anne says:


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  4. Jennifer says:

    Excellent! Unexpected “Man” like thing was very interesting. Of course, this will probably make him even more determined to figure out what is happening here.

    I’m really glad Mackenzie is training to protect herself – both from Callahan physically, and now mentally with the ROTT.

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  5. Brenda says:


    GO, MACK!!!

    (My initial reaction…)

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    • Christy says:

      I had a similar reaction. Basically, “YEAH! HAHAA!”

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  6. Orange stripey socks says:

    Well done, Mackenzie! Also, time to send Callahan a Thank You note. (Or a F**k You note with a dirty joke inside, because Callahan might appreciate that more.)

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  7. pedestrian says:

    Now is the time to apply the combat experience of that will-be-famous Burrow Gnome General Hazel;

    “Smack their feet out from under them, knock’em down, giv’em a couple of good jolts, punch’em in the nuts and kick their sorry asses into next week!”

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  8. Lyssa says:

    Fuck yes!

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  9. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    Oh hell yes. Go Mack!

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  10. Zathras IX says:

    As the song has it:
    “Reach out in the darkness and
    You may find a friend”

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    • helen rees says:

      I prefer the song:
      ‘Reach out in the darkness
      and you may find a fiend’

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  11. N. says:

    This was just the right dose of intriguing I needed before going to sleep.

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  12. Burnsidhe says:

    Niiiiiiice! Yay for Mack!

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  13. Month says:

    Gotcha, you son of a…

    Heh, Mack becoming the mistress of her mind.

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  14. anon y mouse says:

    “I couldn’t bring the walls down by willing, could I?” – willing it?

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    • Elxir says:

      As I understand the grammar in that sentence, leaving it as it is or adding either “it” or “so” works quite well. English is a very confusing language sometimes, even for native speakers such as myself, haha!

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    • Burnsidhe says:

      It would be a slightly more archaic use of the verb, but it is perfectly acceptable.

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  15. readaholic says:


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  16. bangle says:

    Beautiful~ <3

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  17. Hasufin says:

    Am I alone in thinking that a demon with access to the subtle arts is possibly more than a bit disturbing?

    Mind, it’s possible demons, or at least some demons, already have it – but it seems to me that they don’t. If they did, they could really easily hurt people – reach out and cause insanity, as it were. But then, if I assume that demons don’t typically have access to the subtle arts, what is The Man doing to get into Mackenzie’s head?

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    • Burnsidhe says:

      Dream magic is the second most likely possibility.

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      • pedestrian says:

        If I understand AE’s hypothesis about dreamers and their dreams and the state of dreaming, that dreams do not have an actual physical manifestation or existence.

        If my understanding is correct, then Demon Daddy must somehow be manipulating memories, which do have a physical existence in multi-layered complexity.

        So Hasufin’s question becomes very important. Is The Man using subtle arts or esoteric teleprojection or some unrealized infernal methodology for fascination?

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        • ylistra says:

          Or does it have absolutely nothing to do with The Man, and this is a construct that the OTT created in the same way as the Ian construct…

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          • pedestrian says:

            Kheez! Another possibility to neurose over.

            But then again, Demon Daddy has his own infernal capabilities and experiences to draw upon. The ROTT seems to be using whatever competency’s are innate to the mind it occupies.

            If it triggered any suspicions as to the morality of it’s behavior the ROTT would be, relatively, easier to dispossess and dematerialize.

            It did not detect mini-daddy hiding in Mackenzie’s mind and so far as we know, it has only had a supportive role and is not combat action enabled.

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        • Erm says:


          Before looking it up, I didn’t even know this meaning of the word. Fascinating!

          Current score: 0
    • Eris Harmony says:

      I imagine there’s just little practical use that a demon could put the subtle arts to because of their infernal nature. We already know that contact with a demonic mind has nasty effects for mortals. I suspect that that would not permit demons to do anything via subtle arts except for cause insanity. Mack Daddy can connect with Mack safely (for her) because she’s also demonic in nature. Assuming he is indeed using subtle arts.

      So, my WAG is that (maybe only some) demons can use the subtle arts, but their own nature prevents them from doing anything, well, subtle with them.

      (And now that I’ve typed out ‘subtle’ so many times it’s ringing in my head like a badly-shaped bell. Still better than ‘Colonel’ though.)

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      • Hasufin says:

        Well, yeah. But having the ability to make people go insane from a distance has its value, too.

        And it’s not necessarily limited to that. Teddi has a device that allows her to at least get emotions from Mack without harm, and that’s something she was able to get relatively easily. There are rather few experts in the field now, but potentially a great deal more might be done, especially by someone who, oh, has the potential to hang around for a few millennia perfecting the art.

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        • Arakano says:

          ACTUALLY, I am thinking that the ability to make people go insane by “reaching out” with her partially-infernal mind via the subtle arts is what MackDaddy was going for when he impregnated her mother. He wanted a half-demon with subtle arts talent, so much is sure, I think – but I myself suppose that the reason for that is just this: insanity-psi-storm.

          It’s just like the Overmind taking over Sarah Kerrigan to create a powerful weapon… *blushing over nerdy reference*

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  18. Christy says:

    “Wouldn’t your mother be proud?”

    Why, yes. Yes she would.

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  19. Erm says:

    “Something like telepathy, but inside your own head.”

    “Isn’t that like saying I’m telekinetic, but I can only move things I’m touching?”

    Hee 😀

    Current score: 1
    • Stonefoot says:

      Hee, indeed!

      But I can think of ways that that could make sense. The simplest: direct contact is necessary. So, if I’m staring at dust motes in a beam of light, I can’t move them or stop them. No telekinetic effect at all. But… if I parked my car too far from the curb and want to fix that, I touch the car, lift it just off the pavement, shift it to where I want it, and let it down.

      Alternatives include: Contact increases the strength of the effect, so that I could control the dust motes without touching them, but something heavier I would need to touch. Law of contagion (things in contact continue to be connected): I can move my car without touching it because I already am connected to it, but a fork I could not move until I had touched it. All combinations are possible (until the author says otherwise), so maybe I could control very small objects that I had never touched, larger objects which I had previous contact with, but the heaviest only with direct contact.

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  20. Erm says:

    His edges were kind of going hazy in places and giving off traces of what looked like smoke, but which I could feel were more like bits of him that had lost integrity.

    Is that just an effect of him being a figment, or that combined with Mack’s blow, or is it possible he recently barely survived what a certain Law agent referred to as an “epic” encounter with a Paladin?

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  21. siberian says:

    ooooh, can you imagine a joint beat down of Mack attacking The Man mentally at the same time Brimstone Blaise attacks his physical form? I know cooperation between the two is extremely unlikely, but 1) it would be cool 2) if anything could make them work together, a mutual hatred for The Man might be it, and 3) Ms. Erin has a way of taking the unexpected route 🙂

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  22. Anthony says:

    Ha! About halfway through, I was thinking, “If I were Mack Daddy, I’d have snuck in before the shield went up, to spy on her.”

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  23. Bau says:

    So, people in glass bubbles shouldn’t throw rocks?

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  24. JS says:

    Fuck yeaaaaaahh! This story just gets better and better!

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  25. Ladyinahat says:

    Is it not possible that Mac has inherited the subtle art from her mother?

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  26. pedestrian says:

    A stray thought I had, that keeps nagging at me. So I’m putting it out for discussion and see what opinions other readers may have.

    That Mackenzie’s mother was young and naive and vulnerable to the seductive wiles of Demon Daddy. For enough years to be impregnated with two children. Whatever innate subtle arts talent she already had were too unformed to protect her. That the manipulative SOB probably left her mind riddled with “handles”.

    Whenever convenient for him, he could easily circumvent her unskilled wards to reach her. Realizing that Demon Daddy could use her to possess Mackenzie, was the motivation for the young mother to abandon her child too the ironclad protection of her mother.

    Then she traveled to learn the subtle arts and esoteric knowledge needed to defend her mind. And of course find and learn to use extramundane weapons to eventually bring the fight to him.

    Current score: 1
    • Lyssa says:

      Interesting line of thought. I’ll have to think on it, too. 🙂

      Current score: 1
  27. Lana says:

    This is my all-time favorite chapter! 😀
    The action in this was so thrilling. It was so smooth and fast I was totally absorbed.
    I really felt this rising crescendo of awesome happening as I read, and the final line hit it right out of the park.

    Mack spends a lot of time spending a lot of time on things (lol), so when she went above and beyond her regular capabilities so smoothly here, it was really great.

    Bravo, absolutely can’t wait until the next!

    P.S.- Your update rate is awesome now, btw. 🙂 I really respect your drive.

    Current score: 0
  28. That Dave Guy says:


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  29. Renshan says:

    Well done
    It seems like Mackenzie can grow confident shooting cans and the occasional rabbit but will that make her ready for the actual bear….

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  30. helen rees says:

    ‘you couldn’t keep a defensive pattern up yourself’

    – but where else could she keep her defensive pattern?


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