In Which Mackenzie Helps

I asked Nicki if she wanted to hang out or do something after dinner, but she said she just wanted to go back to her room and study. I think she felt a little dejected… a little rejected, even. Like she’d offered herself up and been declined, rather than just not yet been accepted. No one else was really into my idea of going to the floor meeting, though Amaranth seemed pleased that I was interested.

With the meeting at nine, there was a lot of time left after dinner but not so much that I felt like I could go off and do something like go to the library without worrying about losing track of time. I thought again about going to inquire after Nae at the healing center, but realized that made even less sense now… chances were she was back in her room.

Even though I was concerned about her, I couldn’t see myself actually going to the kobolds’ room and knocking on the door… it was a case of feeling like I needed to say something but not having anything to say.

Like, I was pretty sure that I owed her an apology but I wasn’t sure for what… sorry I kicked you through a complex magic item? Sorry I temporarily inconvenienced several major organs? She’d escalated the fight first, and we’d both been trying to win at any cost.

It just cost her more than it did me.

But how did you frame an apology for that?

I decided that the mistake was trying to frame it at all. I was sorry about what had happened and I hoped she was okay.

I walked to my room the long way, following the winding hallway. The two room suites in Gilcrease Tower were kind of packed in every which way to make the most of the floor space, and as a result it was impossible to see very far down the halls before they turned at an odd angle.

It was both cause and effect of the tower architecture… much like a staff, something about towers was just wizardy. Let a straight line go on too long in a tower and things might start to… flow. The twists and turns reduced the danger by reducing the capacity of each part, but they increased the number of parts. There was less energy flow, but more charge built up overall, and so the more intricate a tower design got, the weirder the side effects could be.

Gilcrease Tower was more stable than Paradox Tower, even though they were built on similar designs. I figured the reason was probably environmental… something Eloise could explain with her applied geomancy. They’d warned us when we moved in that sometimes our rooms wouldn’t be in the same place relative to the rest of the floor, though we’d usually remember where they were now even if they’d been in a different place at the time we were remembering from.

It was stable enough that you didn’t usually notice unless you tried something like counting the steps it took to walk the length of the halls… but I wasn’t foolish enough to do that. Incidental strangeness might like an audience, but it hated being observed, and hated most of all being caught in the act.

In fact, not paying scrupulous attention to every step along the way was pretty much a survival skill for people living in the towers. Even though they were two of the most popular dorms on campus for the extra autonomy and privacy they offered, there were always a certain number of people who moved out as soon as the two week freeze was lifted. Walking the hallways gave them headaches, or made them feel anxious and unsettled.

My new habits of attention weren’t so fully formed as to give me any problem, and I kind of doubted that they would. It still took conscious effort, and probably always would, and that made my attention selective. I could look at the posters and flyers that I’d walked past without a first glance, much less a second, and not try to sort out how long it was between any Point A and Point B.

It didn’t seem like I’d been missing much, though… the same groups that had advertised for members last year were advertising again. Some of them were using the same flyers, which made sense as they had to be approved by Student Life to be posted. There were other handmade notices that didn’t bear the official imprimatur advertising things like a party at suite such and such… it was at, not in, because two cramped rooms connected by a bathroom don’t add up to one spacious one.

There were also a few posters for the student senate elections, which I realized was tonight. Some people had their names and pictures on their posters, but there were more signs reminding people that it was happening than there seemed to be actual campaigning. That was a nice change. There had been so much drama around them my first year… and of course, I’d been in a much smaller dorm, which made drama easier.

The door was open in Hazel’s room, even though she’d wandered off somewhere with Two after dinner. I was pretty sure she left it open a lot of the time, though… two cramped rooms sized for four human beings made for fairly spacious accommodations for a burrow gnome and two kobolds. The three of them used one room for living quarters and kept the other for gaming.

They’d even had Amaranth help them temporarily displace the furniture from it, replacing the school desks and bunk beds with a bunch of throw pillows and bean bag chairs… when you played on the small folks’ turfs, you played on their terms, which meant floor mats rather than a table.

There were voices coming from the game room, so I poked my head in to see if Shiel was there so I could ask after Nae. At the moment there was no sign of either of the kobolds… there were three human guys sitting on the cushions, talking about what sounded like full-sized, flesh-and-blood horses. Apparently the room was just a hang-out spot when no games were on.

“Hey, there… you looking for Hazel?” one of the guys said.

“Nah, actually, I was looking for her suitemates,” I said.

“I think they went into town,” he said.

“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling pretty relieved. There was no particular reason to be worried for Nae’s well-being… magical healing was pretty all-encompassing. I guess it was the relative strangeness of kobold anatomy that was giving me misgivings… if injuries didn’t affect her the same way, maybe healing magic wouldn’t, either.

But Nae and Shiel would have both had their share of injuries in the past, and so they would know what to look for. There had been a lot of bluster in Nae’s mangled speech, but I doubted she would have been able to bluster if she’d never had a bent skeleton or ruptured organ before.

I wondered if Nae had gone to visit her girlfriend, but I kind of doubted she’d take Shiel along for that, for a variety of reasons.

“They, uh, have a markerboard,” the guy said. “If you wanted to leave a message.”

“No, that’s okay,” I said. “I was just… thinking.”

But then I did go around to the door on the other side of the suite anyway. The bottom of the markerboard was only about a foot off the ground, but it was stuck there with velcro so that tall folk didn’t have to stoop to right. I pulled it off and… after more thought than was probably strictly necessary… wrote “Stopped by to see how you are.” I almost added “Sorry I missed you.”, but that seemed kind of in bad taste when I was mainly sorry I’d hit her. I decided to save the apology for when I saw her in person, and just stick with the generally being sorry when that time came.

After a little more thought, I signed it “FB” and drew spiky flames around it. Might as well use my coach-given nickname to give context for the interaction.

On the whole, it seemed like the sort of thing that one person did to interact with another… which might be why the whole thing seemed forced and alien to me.

Well, I’d wanted to make a change.

“Who was that?” I heard one of the other guys ask as I was walking away.

“One of Two’s friends,” the one who’d spoken to me replied.

“The demony one?”


It was… nice, kind of, to have another identifier come up first. I decided to count it as progress.

I made the circuit around to my door, which was right where I remembered it being. Somehow, though, I didn’t feel like the idea of being shut up inside it at the moment… of course, the thought of sitting in there with the door open felt even worse. Change was all well and good, so long as it was reasonable, and the idea of a room that people could see into… or worse, just walk into to shoot the breeze… was frankly terrifying.

I decided to head for the lounge. I’d be early for the meeting, but it was still a lounge and technically I was entitled to use it at any time.

The dorm rooms all had to have windows, which meant they were nominally towards the outer edges of the floor. That was another reason for the oddity of the layout… in order to increase the amount of outer surface, the tower was more like a big plus sign than a square. The middle section was honeycombed with laundry rooms, a kitchen and small dining area, and a separate lounge area with reasonably comfortable seating and some larger tables. It was wrapped around the kitchen and shaped like a stubby L, and could in theory be divided by curtain-like partitions on sliding tracks into three different areas though at least one of the dividers didn’t look like it had been moved during the reign of the current emperor.

There were a few people, mostly hanging out around the televisions that were at either end of the L. I decided it was more like a very wide V, because the arms were the same length. There was a cardboard box whose appearance had not been much improved by being wrapped in brown construction paper with a slot on the top sitting on one of the tables… for the student election, I assumed.

A not-quite-rhythmic sound drew me to the kitchen, where a girl with dark auburn hair and freckles was working a vintage paper cutter through stacks of paper to make little slips of about the same size as index cards. I vaguely recognized her, though not by name. Seeing her preparing for the meeting was enough context for me to remember she was an RA.

“Hey, uh, you want some help with that?” I asked, after seeing how much effort it took her to work the thing.

“No, thanks!” she said. “I should probably be doing this myself… student elections, you know. Not that I think you’d tamper with them! Or can think of how you would, unless you, you know, cut them in a way that subtly suggested voting for one candidate over another. But I just feel better doing it myself.”

“That’s a lot of ballots,” I said.

“Well, I figure I should have one for everybody on the floor and then some, whether they show up or not,” she said. “Because if they don’t I can save the paper for notes, but if they do and I don’t have any… well, I could make more in a hurry, but it would be awkward to have to.”

“Aren’t there like three other RAs on the floor?” I asked. I was pretty sure they had two girls and two boys… ostensibly each was responsible for a quarter of the floor, but I imagined it could be tricky to figure out which quarter you belonged to, and half the people in each quarter would be closer to another RA than their assigned one anyway.

“Oh, yeah. Don’t worry, they didn’t stick me with this,” she said. “I volunteered. We divide up the big stuff… it’s easier that way, and more consistent. Imagine if we all ran our own elections and then had to tally up the votes together? I figure on doing separate ballots for each office… that’s the other reason there are so many slips of paper.”

“Each office?”

“Well, there’s the senators, and the student body president, and the secretary, and the treasurer…”

“Huh,” I said. “Back in Harlowe, they only told us about the student senate. I mean, I knew those other offices existed, but I figured they were appointed.”

“Nope, we’re a veritable hotbed of democracy here,” she said, then giggled, then looked around. “Honestly, the whole thing’s a bit silly to me, but apparently they’ve been doing it this way for years. You’re Mackenzie, right? I thought you might have been, and then you mentioned Harlowe.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And you’re… one of the RAs.”

“Chessa,” she said. “Chessa Blanc… your RA.”

“Right,” I said. I knew I’d seen her briefly the first weekend back, when she’d come around to check that everyone had found the right room, but there hadn’t been much of an impression.

Also, I assumed my brain had rebelled at the thought of remembering that there was someone with the name “Chessa”, because I couldn’t otherwise explain how I’d forgotten it.

“It’s okay,” she said. “I’m sure you met a ton of people, your first day in a new dorm.”

“Actually, not so much,” I said, deciding that honesty would take me farther… I knew how much introversion could come off as aloofness from the outside, so it seemed best to declare my intentions up front. “That’s kind of why I’m here… I have a hard time meeting new people, and I wanted to make an effort, so I decided to come out to the meeting tonight.”

“Super!” Chessa said. “Well, you’ve met one person and the meeting isn’t even for… crap, it’s in less than half an hour! Um, on second thought… would you mind terribly…?”

She stepped back from the table and gestured at the paper cutter.

“No problem,” I said.

“It’s just… I have lemonade to make and cupcakes I need to finish icing…”

“So, tell me more about this division of labor you’ve got going on with the other RAs,” I said. I inspected the paper cutter… it was pretty dull. I thought about doing a simple enhancement spell to sharpen up the blade, but decided against it. I had the strength to make it work as it was, and a mundane blade wouldn’t do more than hurt if I caught my finger in it.

“Okay, well, in fairness to them I do tend to volunteer,” Chessa said. “I like doing things! I really do. I just don’t always think before I say something.”

“So… is your family from around here?” I asked as I began to work the cutter. This approach seemed a little more tactful than straight-up asking if she was a La Belle cousin by a different name. She didn’t quite have the look, but her last name was Kharoline, and there was something about her frantic cheerfulness… but then, La Belles tended to be those who put more than they were the put-upon.

“No, we’re from Treholme,” she said.

“Western end?” I asked, since I’d spent half my life on the eastern end of Blackwater, practically straddling the border.

“You mean the ‘wetter’ end?” she asked, laughing. “No… we were hillbillies, not swamp lizards.”

“Oh,” I said. “I asked because I’m from Blackwater.”

“Ohhh,” she said. “I did say we’re hillbillies, right?”

“I don’t take it personally,” I said. “I just thought I’d mention it in case you had any more regional humor to share.”

“Oh, kheez, I imagine you probably get sh… crap about it all the time,” she said. “Who do you root for when we fight the Hydras?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“No wonder you have a hard time making friends,” she said. “Oh! I don’t mean… I just mean that it’s easy to meet people when you follow Skirmish, because there are a bunch of other people into it and it’s a big social thing… I’m sorry, I’ve been trying to put you at your ease and make you feel welcome and I can tell I’m doing the opposite.

I actually felt more awkward for her sake than my own… Chessa was clearly out of her element and I didn’t think it had anything to do with me in particular.

“It’s funny, they told me you probably wouldn’t show up at any of these,” she said.

“Who’s they?” I asked. My goodwill towards her hadn’t exactly evaporated, but there was an air of suspicion creeping in.

“Oh, just other RAs… returning ones from last year, I mean. I’m new. You can probably tell that, though. There was a lot of gossip during our orientation/training… us newbies kind of hung on to the veterans’ every word for some hint of what to expect, especially once realized that our residents were going to be arriving in a few days and nothing had happened to make us feel like anything other than ordinary students just like them. Which we were… are.”

“I’d ask if you were expecting anything else, but I guess I kind of would, too,” I said.

“Call it the first peek behind the curtain of the adult world,” Chessa said. “Just because someone is in a position of authority and responsibility doesn’t mean they’re anything more than, uh, normal. It’s kind of sobering, and kind of scary. Like, the people driving the big high speed wagons are just people. The people piloting airships are just people. Where does it end?”

“There’s actually a lot of training for airship crews, but I know what you mean,” I said.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like they have zero standards,” she said. “You have to be in good standing, both academically and with discipline and stuff, and it helps to have recommendations from current or previous RAs. But… I mean, you’re a sophomore, right? Well, so am I… and I have the exact same amount of prior experience you do.”

“Good point,” I said.

“But people look at me like I know something they don’t, like I am something they’re not… I mean, other sophomores do. The juniors and seniors mostly know better. But I’ve had three people mistake me for a senior already. Still better than the freshmen, though… they look at RAs like we’re actual grown-ups, or a fixture of the dorms. Like a caretaker attached to the building, who’s been there for years and will still be there after everyone who’s there now leaves. At least, that’s how I felt about them when I was a freshman.”

I didn’t mention how little my previous RA had seemed like a caretaker of any kind, because she’d just told me that the RAs talked to each other. If she wasn’t actually friends with Kiersta, she might well have been friends with someone who was.

I was being tactful and observant.

Bonus points for me.

“Wow, hey, you tore through those,” she said, looking at the results of my work. “You don’t happen to want to help me decorate some cupcakes, do you?”

“That depends,” I said.

“On what?”

“On how important it is that they look like anything anybody wants to eat afterwards,” I said.

“Well, since I was going to offer to split any leftovers with you, I think that works out fine,” she said. “How’s that sound to you?”

“Like your firm anti-corruption stance is crumbling by the moment.”

“I know, right?” she said. “I used to be so principled when I took this job, but the power’s gone straight to my head. I’ll go get my icing bags.”

“…icing comes in bags?” I asked.

“Your, uh, suitemate isn’t…”

“Two’s working tonight,” I said.

“Oh, okay, because I was thinking we could ask if she wanted to help, also, in addition to you,” she said. “But I’m sure you’ll do fine. It’s not like you can ice a cupcake so badly that it catches fire, right?”

“I’ll still help, if you want me to, but I… uh… I’ve learned not to say things like that,” I said.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Well, there’s actually elemental fire in the core of every bit of matter in the world,” I said. “Including cupcakes. It would only take a little bit of effort to make them combust on purpose, so…”

” …so you’re not kidding.”

“I’m sure it will be fine,” I said, and immediately wondered how I was going to end up regretting that.

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41 Responses to “Chapter 129: Paper Cuts”

  1. Next chapter will be up Tuesday. Tuesday and Friday. The frequency’s working well but the timing I’ve been doing doesn’t mesh with my housemates’ schedule.

    Thank you!

    Current score: 0
    • Boras says:

      Hi, I tried to donate but the support link (to just times out. Would you have another or a direct link?

      Current score: 0
      • Hi! Thank you so much for that. I’m having some server issues with my other host (I use two separate hosts so I have a back up), that’s why that’s not working at the moment. It’s being resolved, but I don’t have a time frame. In the meantime, here is a direct link.

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  2. 'Nym-o-maniac says:

    Haven’t read the chapter yet, so maybe it’s a reference I missed, but I think the subtitle may have accidentally a word.

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  3. e says:

    I really identify with Mackenzie’s overthinking the visit and whiteboard message.

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    • Seth says:

      I can relate to the difference between Cupcake and Fireball being marginal at best.

      Baking isn’t exactly a strong suit.

      Speaking of things that burst into flames unexpectedly… I wonder how badly signing the note FB is going to backfire. At least she should spell out the whole nickname!

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      • anelfgirl says:

        Did I miss something about “FB”? it’s for frybaby?

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        • Lyssa says:

          Yeah, it is. And I didn’t think of that until she explained that, so I’m not 100% sure Nae will, but the fire should probably help. 🙂

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          • Alico says:

            You also have the fact that not many people will be coming specifically to see how she is feeling, or even know she went to the healing center, so Nae will get context clues from that.

            The only thing Mack could have done better would have been to add Tiger in there somewhere.

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            • Cadnawes says:

              But she’s TREES, dammit! (Ok, I just loved Nae when her brain wasn’t braining right.) I get the feeling Nae likes her nickname about as well as Mack liked being Emokid.

              However, her fighting technique shows what an apt name it is. 🙂

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          • Jack V says:

            I worried that she might totally misinterpret it as something sinister, with Mack impulsively adding flames…

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  4. Alico says:

    Those cupcakes are going to be HOT! Knowing Mack, everything will be fine until Nae comes and asks for a bite.

    New characters, yay! And now we get to see Mack get into hall politics without being forced. Neat to see how far she has come since the Opening Weekend.

    This chapter was very enjoyable. It is so nice to see Mack taking initiative in making a friend for once.

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  5. C8H9NO2 says:

    I’m just wondering if Mack might not suddenly find herself the student representative…

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    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      Probably won’t happen, but I would laugh uproariously.

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  6. Readaholic says:

    Dawww… Mack is so cute when interacting with others uncertainly.

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  7. Krey says:

    “with velcro so that tall folk didn’t have to stoop to RIGHT.”

    should be WRITE, right?

    Current score: 1
  8. LetsSee says:

    “tall folk didn’t have to stoop to right.”

    Good thing tall folk do not know how to write, otherwise all that stoopage would be a real problem.

    Oh, fine, someone beat me to it by an hour, as I got distracted while reading and didn’t see any mention of it in the comments.


    Current score: 1
  9. pedestrian says:

    I gotta worry that attending this meeting is another half-baked idea by Our Mack. If she gets herself dragged into anything like the previous years conniption fit, it’d be icing on the cupcake for this year for her. And I don’t mean the sweet, creamy good kind either.

    But that’s the way the crumpets crumble.

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    • Eris Harmony says:

      Well, if she wants to be safe she could wait until after the meeting to eat the cupcakes, so she doesn’t have to vomit at a very (in)opportune moment.

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    • Brenda says:

      Well, last year she was almost literally dragged. This time she thought about it, decided to go, and has made a good start at socializing – not to mention a good impression with one of the RAs.

      I wonder if the other RAs will show up?

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  10. Joshua says:

    Another fun chapter, thanks! I love the “trying not to be awkward” here, especially since Mack seems to be the relatively competent one at it for a change.

    “In Which Helps” doesn’t make sense to me as a subtitle.

    “Especially once realized” should be once WE realized, I think?

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  11. Potatohead says:

    The only thing I can guess is that the title is theoretically ‘In Which Nothing Helps’, with a silent ‘Nothing’.

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  12. Erm says:

    It was both cause and effect of the tower architecture… much like a staff, something about towers was just wizardy. Let a straight line go on too long in a tower and things might start to… flow. The twists and turns reduced the danger by reducing the capacity of each part, but they increased the number of parts. There was less energy flow, but more charge built up overall, and so the more intricate a tower design got, the weirder the side effects could be.

    There’s a tower like that at my real-life non-magical university. I could swear some of its corridors extend through a fourth dimension.

    (Also I sometimes think I feel it watching me when I’m inside it.)

    “Call it the first peek behind the curtain of the adult world,” Chessa said. “Just because someone is in a position of authority and responsibility doesn’t mean they’re anything more than, uh, normal. It’s kind of sobering, and kind of scary. Like, the people driving the big high speed wagons are just people. The people piloting airships are just people. Where does it end?”

    Remember that feeling when I first started to TA classes. 😀

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    • Luke Licens says:

      On the subject of Tower architecture, I remember getting the impression that they were round towers. When they moved in, there were references to the room being narrower at the center and wider at the (curved) exterior wall, and the room not having 90 degree corners.

      Granted, that could have been edited out. Or I could be crazy and remembering wrong.

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      • Marian says:

        Or maybe the towers are round when they feel like it?

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        • pedestrian says:

          I’ve been wondering about that. Considering how many resident students are studying the various forms of magic, could all these ‘observers’ be influencing the reality of the towers topology? This being in the tradition of great writer’s such as Heinlein and Anderson. Who did amusingly wicked stories based on confabulated dimensions.

          As with the multitude of versions of GUT. Where each experiment ‘proves’ that each theory it was devised for is correct until the next theorist devises a new experiment to prove their newer theory is ‘more correct’.

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      • They’re wider at the back because the bathroom is intruding into space that would be the front. The corners aren’t straight because of how the rooms are packed in together at whatever angles fit.

        (I modeled them after an actual dorm room that was in a definitely-not-round tower).

        Current score: 1
    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      Yeah, I’m TAing this semester (and this upcoming one as well) and I have that feeling all the time.

      It’s even weirder when you meet with the TAs for the classes you’re taking and realize that they are in the exact same boat as you.

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      • Erm says:

        That works in both directions too; I’ve had colleagues who were formerly in my classes, and in whose classes I once was. The weirdest thing would be sitting in each others’ classes, which I guess is rare but possible for specialized courses.

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  13. elle says:

    Chessa was the name of my longest running d&d character. 😀

    And yes, I think FB is Frybaby.

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  14. pedestrian says:

    Devilfood cake, anyone?

    dammit! it took me long enough to think of that.
    I’m going senile. What’s your excuse for not
    thinking of it?

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  15. Erm says:

    Paper Cuts

    I wonder if Mackenzie could get one of those while reading a spellbook, actually. If the paper is enchanted, does that count as a magical weapon?

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    • Prometheansky says:

      It doesn’t have to be a weapon specifically. Mack broke her foot on a summoning circle. Scraped her knees on the enchanted paths in the pent. Has bit her lip hard enough to bleed. And those are just the ones that spring to mind.

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  16. N. says:

    Cute chapter. I love it.

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  17. Liking Chessa and enjoying the repartee.

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  18. Anthony says:

    First time in a while where we’ve introduced a new character who I liked right away. She’s just got that same adorkable quality that makes Mackenzie so endearing…

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  19. Kyribug says:

    Oh my gosh perfect ending! 😀 love it

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  20. Month says:

    Cupcakes on fire? Hmm, they sound Dragonlicious!

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    • 'Nym-o-maniac says:

      And yet, I think that might make Mack lose her appetite…

      Current score: 0
  21. Sandra says:

    Alexandra, thank you for your spectacular writing over the years. Your work has impacted me in many ways and has sparked a lot of growth. I appreciate you very much! I hope that my donation will help you to continue doing what you love : )

    Current score: 0
  22. Jack V says:

    Oh yay, it’s really nice to see Mack able to interact normally with someone, putting them at their ease, helping out.

    Current score: 0