Chapter 100: But That’s Not How It Used To Be

on July 16, 2012 in Volume 2 Book 4: The Reinvention of Mackenzie Blaise, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which The Bark Is Worse Than The Bite

Eloise was not there for Professor Swain’s Local Hazards class.

We were hardly close enough that I would have expected to be kept apprised of her schedule, but the first thing I thought of when I realized the professor had arrived and was starting the class without her assistance was Eloise telling me she’d see me in class.

Maybe that had been reflexive, her way of saying “see you later” to people she was used to seeing in classrooms. She hadn’t said “see you tomorrow,” after all, that I could recall.

But I still couldn’t help thinking that something bad had probably happened.

Worried as I was, I consoled myself that it wouldn’t necessarily take something bad happening to her to keep her away. She could be out stopping bad things from happening to other people, since Eloise did search-and-rescue detail in the lands surrounding the campus.

I knew she’d been called out to find lost hikers before. She probably dealt with everything from stray ghoul packs to forest fires. It had been a dry summer, so a ghoul population boom was probably unlikely… but by the same token there could have been a fire danger.

Without Eloise to work her magic map, the professor instead gave us a lecture on carnivorous and dangerous plants of the Enias River Valley and it surrounding environs. As far as I was concerned the whole forest was enough of a nuisance that any danger posed by specific plants was just icing on the stay-the-hell-away cake.

I didn’t mind the great outdoors. You couldn’t grow up in the midcontinental provinces if you didn’t like open spaces or trees or wetlands. I just preferred it in manageable forms, like parks with clearly marked and well-maintained trails and trees that drank in the sunlight rather than blood

Not that we were up to vampiric trees yet.

“This is gap moss,” Professor Swain said, holding up a great big piece of bark, curved like the trunk of the tree it had come off of. “This is why it’s called gap moss.”

She set it down and picked up a stick, then poked at the moss… or that’s what it looked like she was doing it. The stick went through the moss like it wasn’t there, and like there was nowhere for it to stick out behind. She pulled the stick out and it was coated with a layer of ice, up to the point she’d stuck it through.

“They don’t all lead somewhere cold, mind… the destination is specific to the patch. But if anyone’s ever found a patch of gap moss that led somewhere pleasant, it was so nice they never came back to tell us about it,” the professor said. “Of course, most patches aren’t big enough for a person of any description to climb through. At least not in one piece… moss does spread, so if you find a bit of gap moss in an area, it’s probably all around you. Mind what you lean up against or where you put your hand. Now this, this here is quick moss.”

She touched the end of the icy stick to another moss sample, this one sitting in a glass box. There was a cracking sound and tendrils of green growth began to shoot up the length of the stick. She dropped it quickly, but not before three quarters of it was covered with moss.

“It’s normally a bit faster than that,” she said. “The cold slows it down. Notice it went dormant when I wasn’t touching the wood anymore. It’s not exactly clever, but it is responsive. Interesting fact about quick moss: the natural philosophers say it first came here through a patch of gap moss.”

“What happens if the quick moss… gets you?” someone asked, in a voice of horrified curiosity.

“Well, we’ll cover that a bit later, when we get to simulacra, constructs, and ambulatory dead, because technically the shambling heaps aren’t a plant, per se,” the professor said. “For now, you’ll just want to bear in mind to be careful about what mosses you touch and which ones you don’t.”

I tried to imagine why it would ever be worth it to touch a mossy tree or log in a forest where the moss could either teleport parts of you to somewhere fatally unpleasant or take over your body.

I failed.

It was hard to imagine the gnomish professor… a tiny little barefoot woman who would pronounce the word “adventure” with four letters and then only if no one was in earshot… stomping around in the forest. I felt another pang of concern for Eloise. Sure, she was more qualified to take care of herself in the deep woods than anyone else I knew, but there was so much to guard against.

With so many advances in things like divination and healing magic, I wondered how many of the people who got lost in the forest wandered in without a thought because they were sure that if anything went badly there’d be someone to rescue them. I hoped that if she had to swoop out of the sky to rescue anyone, they’d remember that the human form was really her and thank her for it.

Professor Swain looked around the room at the faces of her students and frowned slightly.

“Look, I think you’re all getting slightly the wrong idea from this,” she said. “I’m here to educate you on the nature of local hazards so that you can recognize and avoid them, not to scare you senseless. You’re going to hear about a lot of dangerous plants and animals and geography and weather and invisible phenomena in this room, and since you’re getting them one after the other with nothing pleasant or benign in between, it can begin to seem like the whole world outside the door is just lying in wait to kill you.”

She smiled broadly.

“But that isn’t the case at all. There’s more to the forest than the shadows. I mean, we’re talking about dangerous moss… of the eighty-seven types of moss I’ve catalogues that can seriously injure you or kill you on contact, not a one of them is particularly common. Yes… question?”

The student who’d raised her hand asked, “How many of those are found around Prax?”

“Oh, all of them,” Professor Swain said. “This is where I do my cataloguing. I can’t show you all of them, mind, because some of them aren’t as safe to handle as these ones here. Now, recognition is key. You can tell quick moss because if you lean in close or put your hand near to it, all the little bristly bits will coil like tiny snakes that want to strike you. Though that could also be cobra moss, with has bigger bristles that end in a little bulb with barbs on it… you want to be careful with that one, because it can strike across a surprisingly long gap and the barbs are venomous, of course. Gap moss is inert, but you might notice a temperature change or an odd smell or even an alien quality of the light around it…”

Yeah, staying away from moss seemed like a much better strategy than leaning in close to see if it tried to bite me. Even being physically invulnerable and able to produce fire from my skin didn’t make it any less creepy to hear Professor Swain descriping mosses that would hold you in place, mosses that would detach themselves to crawl over a sleeping body, mosses that attracted insects and produced natural potions that made them grow to five times normal size and ten times normal belligerence…

I had no business messing around with that kind of stuff, and no reason to go near it. At least I wouldn’t need to be rescued.

“And that’s it, really. The rest is all just pretty much a variation on those themes,” she said after telling us about mosses that could entrance, lure, bite, bind, blind, beguile, burn, and explode. “Now, a homework assignment for the week, to be handed in Monday: go at least three hundred yards into the forest and collect a sample of moss. Document where it came from and the steps you took to verify it was safe to touch, or the method you used to collect it if it wasn’t. You’ll get extra credit towards the mid-term if you do find something nasty. Moving on to what we call ‘vascular plants’, which have a bit more of an internal structure and thus more strength for things like gripping and moving around…”

I still couldn’t convince myself it was worth going into the woods and fucking around with moss for a grade.

I couldn’t manage it, but I knew that I was going to do it anyway.

I didn’t have to do it alone, though… I wasn’t sure how well “asking a nymph if it was cool” would satisfy Professor Swain’s criteria for the question about how we ascertained that it was safe to touch, but I could always try waving my hand in its face or poking it in the eye with a stick once I knew for sure it didn’t have a face or eyes.

“Of course, baby,” she said when I asked her if she’d help me identify some moss for class. “What kind of moss are you looking for?”

“The ordinary kind,” I said. “Safe, cuddly tree moss that just sits there being moss.”

“Is that all?” Steff said. “Because there are actually some pretty cool mosses in the woods around here. There’s this kind, corpse moss, that only grows where a ghoul’s un-undeaded body has been left to rot away. If you look really close, it’s got these nodules that look like tiny screaming skulls, but you have to be careful because if you get too close…”

“Yes, I know what corpse moss does,” I said.

“I don’t,” Ian said. “What does it do?”

“Not while we’re eating, please,” Amaranth said.

“…oh,” Ian said, as Steff evidently elven-whispered across the table. “Cool! Gross… but cool.”

“Then there’s fire moss,” Hazel said. “Bit of a miswhatsit, if you ask me, since it doesn’t actually flame, but it burns like the dickens if you get any of its spray in your eyes. Or mouth. Or an open wound. Or your skin and then you get near an open flame, in which case I suppose the name works on two levels, at least for a few brief but memorable seconds.”

“Yes, I’m also familiar with fire moss,” I said.

“What class is this for?” Amaranth asked me, frowning slightly.

“Professor Swain’s.”

“Oh, her,” Hazel said. Hazel had never had any of Bryony Swain’s classes, I was pretty sure, but the professor evidently suffered the common gnomish prejudice against river folk.

Or rather, Hazel had suffered it from her.

“And you’re just looking for ordinary moss?” Amaranth asked. “Isn’t this class supposed to be about identifying hazards?”

“Yeah, it is,” I said. “Finding moss that’s safe to touch is, you know, the flipside of that.”

“Then wouldn’t having me along defeat the purpose of the assignment?”

“The assignment is just to collect some safe moss and document how we found it,” I said.

“But the purpose of the assignment has got to be something about spotting dangers in the woods,” she said. “So it seems to me that you’d be going against the spirit of the assignment… were you planning on documenting the fact that you found the moss by asking your girlfriend?”

“…no, ma’am,” I admitted.

“Then I think you know it’s cheating,” she said.

“I didn’t think of it as cheating, though,” I said. “I thought of it as… as an extra precaution that’s irrelevant to the scope of the assignment. Professor Swain doesn’t expect us to actually run into any killer mosses, she told us how rare they are… I think this assignment might actually be to drive that home, honestly. Get us all out into the woods a little bit and face-to-face with some moss so we can see that it’s mostly just… moss.”

“Then what do you need me for?”

“Because I spent an hour hearing about things like moss that shoots bits into your ear canal that multiply and dissolve your skeleton and I’m freaked out by the idea of even being on the same plane as a tree right now,” I said.

Amaranth didn’t say anything for a while, but I could tell she was thinking… and that she was conflicted, because she was chewing her lip.

“Okay, baby,” she said. “I’ll go along with you, but as a spotter… so that in the unlikely event that you meet a moss that can hurt you, I can try to stop it, or go get help. You’ll have to do the identifying and approaching and collecting on your own.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, baby. When do you need this by?”

“Just next Monday,” I said.

“Well, we’ll go during the afternoon sometime this week,” she said. “No sense putting it off until the weekend, I’m expecting it to rain.”

It really was a fair compromise. I didn’t mention the fact that I was pretty sure I’d know if I was in any peril anyway, since I didn’t believe for a second that Amaranth could watch impassively while I reached out towards something that was actively dangerous… her face would give it away even if she said nothing.

Of course, in order to not let on that I was relying on her I would have to not actually rely on her… going through the motions of approaching with caution and testing to see if the moss was safe would be the same as actually approaching with caution and testing to see if the moss was safe.

The knowledge that she was there would just add to my sense of security and let me get on with the assignment, which was really all that I really needed.

Besides, with my sense of direction, three hundred yards into the forest was easily deep enough for me to get lost if I was by myself, and then I really would need to be rescued.

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36 Responses to “Chapter 100: But That’s Not How It Used To Be”

  1. Julian Morrison says:

    Ouch, scary. That’s pretty grimdark flora, we haven’t even got into the fauna yet.

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    • Ducky says:

      I wonder where the green men fit in. Weren’t they ambulatory plants?

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    • Zergonapal says:

      If this was the grimdark future of 40K I’m pretty sure the world of MU would qualify as a deathworld. Which now makes me think of Professor Swain as a rather diminutive Catachan jungle fighter.

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  2. Apollo says:

    Mack — doesn’t need to be rescued if she’s surrounded by fire moss, but does need to be rescued if it’s more than a couple of yards back from the treeline.

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  3. Zathras IX says:

    For some reason the
    Enias River Valley
    Leaves me feeling Platte

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  4. Xi says:

    … Why do I love this section so?

    Vascular plants… hahaha!

    So… Is there any particular reason Prax is made of so much Doom? I mean that comment, ‘All of them’ kinda says to me that there is something unique about Prax that invites such insanely scary things to thrive, at least in numbers greater than other places.

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    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      I think that it’s more just that Prof. Swain just sticks to local stuff, this being a local hazards class and her probably not traveling a lot. I imagine all the other areas have their own hazards- this is a magical world, after all.

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      • Gordon says:

        I get the impression Swain has traveled extensively, but her intensive study has been on the local stuff.

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        • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

          This is probably true. I do remember her traveling, though I for some reason had it in my head that it was before she did most of her research. It’s more likely that she has traveled but studied the local stuff most intensely.

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    • erianaiel says:

      While the danger posed by the local plants and wildlife is a bit more varied than what we can find in our forests, there is a surprising amount of plants and animals in even a regular forest that is dangerous and even deadly.
      If you sum up every plant and animal that could cause you severe harm and that can theoretically be found in our forests you would get a scary and depressing list too.

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      • Oni says:

        Yes, but these plants generally require you to put them in your mouth. They do not typically do that part of the process themselves.

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      • Zergonapal says:

        True, though the the only real threat of the Australian bush is the dreaded Drop Bear as we have built up strong immunity to poison through excessive consumption of vegemite.

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    • Kaila says:

      Maybe it’s Australia. Just all part of the ‘watch-out-this-will-kill-you’ guide for visitors.

      Went to the UK for a holiday – asked my english friend what to look out for. Her answer ‘Erm…the neighbour? The sheep in Northumberland sometimes won’t get out of the way of the car…’

      Hell, I think it’s weird that there’s an entire country with only one species of snake.

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      • Amelia says:

        If you mean the UK we have two: grass-snakes and adders.
        We also have slowworms which look like snakes but are really lizards without legs.

        I always describe the difference between Australia and New Zealand as “In Australia the animals are out to get you, in New Zealand it’s the landscape”. (parts of it are actually poisonous).

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  5. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    “Besides, with my sense of direction, three hundred yards into the forest was easily deep enough for me to get lost if I was by myself, and then I really would need to be rescued.”

    I feel your pain, Mack. *Managed to get lost in her high school parking lot once… in her senior year*

    All in all, an excellent chapter. I kind of hope Mack does run into some weird dangerous moss, just because I want to see what it does. And I really wonder what corpse moss does now. And how much of the moss could actually hurt Mack.

    How does one pronounce “adventure” with four letters, by the way?

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    • Amelia says:

      W A L K?

      or maybe D O N’ T?

      or T O O K (in the hobbits sense)?

      I too feel the pain of the Mack, having got lost on the way back from the library, on the way home from work, on the way home from the common at the end of my road (here’s a tip: squirrels rarely give directions and when they do they lie) and on the way out of a one-way maze.
      I am impressed by the parking lot however: how did you get lost in a presumably featureless open space?

      And does anyone else feel that, burgeoning enchanter though she is, Mack could be well on the way to some sort of multi-class (or non-straightforward-mage class) if she wanted? She has a surprising amount of friends in and seeming affinity with nature (however much she fears those untrustworthy trees at the moment) and could handle herself well in combat if she keeps up the good work.

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      • Amelia says:

        More seriously, Mack probably means “like it had four letters”.

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      • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

        I accidentally left through the wrong door, had no idea where the part I’d parked in was in relation to my location, guessed the wrong direction, and circled the entire building before I managed to find my car. My high school was big…

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  6. Lyssa says:

    Lovely chapter. I laughed and laughed at her attempts to avoid terrifying them, by terrifying them reassuringly. Adorable.

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  7. Erm says:

    eighty-seven types of moss I’ve catalogues that can seriously injure you or kill you on contact

    Woah. Prax sounds almost as dangerous as Australia. 😛

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    • Greenwood Goat says:

      And typo report: “catalogues” should be “catalogued”.

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    • Readaholic says:

      Aww, it’s not that bad. It’s really just the snakes and spiders (and jellyfish, and octopus, and platypus, and echidna) that are venomous. It’s only really the drop bears that you need to worry about.

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      • Kaila says:

        Yup. Drop bears. Very dangerous. HUUUGE teeth.

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        • Readaholic says:

          And not where you would expect them to be – at least, their mouth is not where foreigners expect it to be. Like we keep telling people, there’s a reason that drop bears attack like they do.
          Remember folks, never walk under a koala in a tree…

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          • Avire says:

            DAMNIT i knew it had to be something .. but i had to google drop bear.

            and they are so cute the pics tho .. f!#& for 3 seconds i thought … well you got me <.<

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  8. pedestrian says:

    When I was a kid I bow-hunted along the Arizona-Sonora border and the ecology was as unfriendly as the environment.

    Today now that humans have overrun the area I understand it’s ten times worst, between the drug cartels and the right-wing militia nut cases.

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    • Tamina says:

      Don’t forget there’s a conch shell that shoots a dart at you that’ll paralyze/kill you in a few minutes unless you have the antidote handy. They look just like regular shells! Queensland is…interesting.

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      • Readaholic says:

        my apologies. I knew I’d forgotten at least one venomous Australian creature.

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  9. Krey says:

    going through the motions of approaching with caution and testing to see if the moss was safe
    would be the same as actually approaching with caution and testing to see if the moss was safe.

    I love that at my font size the repeated sections lined up directly on top of each other.

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  10. Alter-Alias says:

    Eighty seven lethal forms of moss, Gygax would be proud.

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  11. Burnsidhe says:

    It’s good that Amaranth is coming along with Mack as a ‘backup,’ given the scare that Swain put into her students; note that Prof. Swain does do her collecting in the local area, so she’s found these things nearby-ish.

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  12. Greenwood Goat says:

    This does seem to chime with the goblin creation myth, where the Old Ones, dwelling beneath, created a whole lot of things that were really out to get the outsiders (Star Drake, Khersis Dei) and their creatures (humans etc). This included all the greater and lesser undead, of course, and the slimes and shambling mounds and all the goblinoids. Subverting mosses into Improvised Ecological Dangers sounds like their sort of thing, as does spreading undeath or making odd little vegetable portals to the negative material plane or similar.

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  13. pedestrian says:

    I was just wondering Mackenzie and Amaranth stumbling through a portal moss.

    Whoo Hoo! Road Trip! Classic College Experience.

    Of course with Alexandra’s perverse sense of humor they are more likely to wind up doing ‘Thelma and Louise’.

    Would this be a trope trip?

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  14. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    Without Eloise to work her magic map, the professor instead gave us a lecture on carnivorous and dangerous plants of the Enias River Valley and it surrounding environs.

    Should be “its” surrounding environs.

    or that’s what it looked like she was doing * it.

    Missing a “to” or “with” or some such after “doing”.

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  15. ShadowKat says:

    Hazel should be tagged because she has a slight speaking part and is in the lunchroom with them.

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  16. Cass says:

    A typo here
    lecture on carnivorous and dangerous plants of the Enias River Valley and it surrounding environs.

    You’re missing an “s” after it 🙂

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