Chapter 256: Finals Countdown

on October 14, 2014 in Volume 2 Book 7: Courtly Manners, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort

In Which Mackenzie Is Her Own Worst Enemies

The formal permission for Amaranth to stay and assist Eloise came just a couple days before the official end of semester, though she’d been told before that it wouldn’t be a problem… it was just something that had to be voted on at the community co-op council or whatever they called it.

That made her the second-to-last member of the guard recruit to officially sign on. I won’t say that Nae left it to the last minute, but she did leave it to the last day. I didn’t ask what had taken her so long, and I don’t imagine she would have told me if I had.

The other defenses had been more straightforward, but only just. We did what we could to burglar-proof the house, but there were some serious limitations on the types of defensive wards that could be deployed by private student groups on campus. We did what we could, though, and I rigged a couple of quick-and-dirty enhancements to bridge the gaps between them.

The protections that Eloise and Amaranth had in mind skirted the rules by virtue of their nature. Technically, what Eloise accomplished with druidic magic or Amaranth provided through her goddess-given gifts were natural effects. They could still be dinged for irresponsible use of them, but outright prohibitions were harder to frame under the law. To a large extent, we would be relying on the fact that someone who was trying to sneak into the building to fuck shit up or light things on fire wouldn’t be filing any formal complaints if the lawn tried to eat them on the way in.

The semester ended the way that semesters always end: eventually and suddenly. For months it had been a distant yet important spot on the horizon, and then for a few weeks it was this sudden humongous looming thing, and then suddenly it was no longer hanging over my head but invisibly enveloping every aspect of my existence, consuming every moment of my life until the inevitable moment when it just as suddenly wouldn’t be.

Though different classes and teachers made for a different experience, I knew how it went, in general. This was actually the fourth end-of-semester I’d weathered, though the summer session had been so low-key from start to finish that it had mostly been good for learning to take finals in stride. The value of that lesson was a bit mixed at the moment, since I had never been as busy as I was, socially or academically or what I guess I would have to call professionally. There were definitely times I wished I could have created a duplicate or two of myself… I can’t imagine anything would have helped me as much as that.

The fact that I had basically been in something pretty close to finals mode for most of the second quarter did help me juggle things. It also helped that I’d discovered a door that led from campus to a quiet coffee shop… my worries about being seen as a mooch in the inn of the black door evaporated pretty quickly. I had never been much on drinking coffee and I still wasn’t, but I’d learned by necessity that it still gave the same kick even when it was super-concentrated and then buried under a mountain of candy in liquid form.

I put the final touches on my various projects and papers and abandoned them on my professors’ desks or in their offices. I say “final” rather than finishing “finishing” because while they were the last adjustments it was possible to make, by no means did any of them represent the moment where I could step back and say, “Yes… the thing is finished.”

Nothing I turned in felt completely inadequate, exactly, with the slight exception of my design project. Even though we technically didn’t even need to submit a physical proof of concept and I’d gone above and beyond in enchanting my mock-up with some basic illusions, the fact that I had a physical thing there that was almost but not quite what I’d envisioned made it feel like I was skimping on things somehow.

It was the thing that I had poured the most of myself into, of all my academic work for the year, but also the one where the results felt the least complete. There was probably a correlation there.

In every case, it would be hard to say what exactly was missing, but I still knew that I could do more… if I’d had more time, I would have done more. The same was true of my test preparations, and broadly true of my preparations for the defense of Oberrad House and the formation of the winter guard. Even though I was stuck for anyone else to approach, I couldn’t help feeling like if I’d just had another week… ore ven a solid day with no other commitments or demands on my time… then I could have come up with something more.

The one class… the one area of my life… where I really didn’t feel like I there was something oddly incomplete about my efforts was Coach Callahan’s class on fighting to subdue.

True, I hadn’t thrown myself heart and soul into this one class to the exclusion of all other pursuits, but it was doubtful I could have meaningfully improved on what I was doing, given what I had to work with. Rather than relying on any kind of mundane martial prowess, I’d brought my own actual talents to bear, my semi-demonic strength but also my senses and magic. I could have drilled more outside of class, but whatever that might have done for my form, it wouldn’t have helped my tactical thinking, which was what the class was really about.

Paradoxically, while I felt like I’d done all I could do for that class, it had the final exam that I was most worried about.

I had a reasonable idea what to expect for all my other classes. Even if there hadn’t been study guides and end of semester review sessions, I would still have known that Professor Swain wasn’t going to drop us into the deep woods and see if we could find our way home… not because she didn’t believe in the value of practical experience but because she saw the value in giving plenty of warning before subjecting someone to it… and that Professor Stone wasn’t going to ask us to design an attractive-looking cabinet in a single afternoon.

But Coach Callahan didn’t lead review sessions, and she wasn’t going to be content with a written exam or a simple demonstration of skills.

When she informed us that we would each be given a separate thirty minute slot for our individual finals, that gave nothing away. The fact that we would all be taking it at different times might indicate that the final would take up a whole room, or require the use of a unique resource… but it also might have meant that she was going to watch them all personally, which would make perfect sense.

By that same token, though, it might have meant that we would all be fighting her.

The thirty minute duration made that seem unlikely, but the thing was, that was a lot of padding for any head-to-head fight, a fact she made no bones about.

“I’ll be honest, I don’t expect any of you to last half an hour,” she said. “I don’t expect anyone to win, either… in fact, I wouldn’t expect anyone to, so it’ll be an automatic A for anyone who does. Everyone else will be judged purely on how well they do, judged from the standpoint of the class’s purpose and theme. Talk to Tiny about your availability, because she’s going to be setting the appointments… if you get stuck with a conflict because you didn’t bother to tell her your schedule, then it’s going to be your job to resolve it. Missing your one and only time is an automatic failure for the class, not just the test.”

Well, the theme of the class was fighting to subdue, or as she put it, fighting to win: putting your opponent down as hard and fast as possible, taking away their ability to hurt you before they hurt you to the extent that you couldn’t hurt them.

If she didn’t expect us to win in the first place, then I had no idea how she would judge us according to that standard.

And maybe that was part of why I didn’t feel like there was a whole lot more I could do. I could go over my notes for any of my lecture classes a theoretically unlimited number of times if I had unlimited time to do so, but I couldn’t do any more to get ready for my fighting final than square myself up mentally and declare myself ready.

It wasn’t even worth getting excited about the promised automatic A for victors, even though I was dead certain that was the only way I would be exiting the class with one. I could look forward to passing the class with the grade that I’d earned, and that was it. I had to look at the final as being my chance to either affirm whatever respect I’d earned over the semester or screw it up. I wasn’t going to get more than that.

In order to make sure I didn’t screw things up, I made sure Pala knew my class schedule and then accepted an appointment that was just after the time block designated for my design aesthetics final. This coincidentally… and maybe fittingly… made it my final final of the year.

The test administered by Stone was a written exam in multiple short essay form. It was a combination of a cumulative exam over the principles that Professor Stone had taught us and a defense of our project. Essentially, we had to explain the decisions we’d made in terms of what we’d learned. Since I had been thinking in terms of what I thought Professor Stone would be looking for all along the way, it was pretty easy… I took a little care to make sure I wasn’t coming across as pandering or doing a complete by-the-numbers checklist thing, but I felt like I’d covered things pretty well by the time I left the hall and headed for my reckoning.

It might have seemed like an abrupt change of direction, going from writing about the design of an enhanced television cabinet to fighting for my virtual life against whatever the coach had in store for me, but I ended up with a bit more padding than the schedule suggested, since it didn’t actually take me the whole three hours that had been allocated for the final exam, even with my “what else can I do here?” approach to the essays.

Also, I’d found that throwing myself into something that demands my whole attention was a good way to clear away stray thoughts and distractions. I went into the design final full of generalized end-of-semester anxiety and test jitters, but walked out full of confidence and with nary a stray thought in sight.

It gave me a good chance to gird myself and make the preparations that I could, not knowing what I was preparing for. I’d always done best in fights when I took the time to center myself, to open up my senses and become aware of my self and the world around me. My elemental spells of protection and warning were hardly a thing external to myself anymore. They weren’t quite reflexes yet, but once I had them activated they fit me like a second skin.

It had occurred to me a couple of times over the preceding few days that the test might have been something individualized to take away our strengths, which for me might mean no magic… but if that was the case, there wasn’t anything I could do about it except roll with it. And anyway, I’d certainly forgotten to enact my protections before class enough times that I wasn’t completely dependent on them. That both meant I wouldn’t be completely flat-footed if I had to fight without them, and that Coach Callahan was that much less likely to feel like I was too dependent on them.

It really seemed like a thing that might go either way. On the one hand, she would want us prepared to fight under extremely adverse circumstances, but on the other hand, she certainly approved of using whatever was handy.

And in all fairness to her, she didn’t seem to share in the traditional warrior/wizard mutual disdain… as long as the wizards knew how to handle themselves in physical combat.

I arrived at the salle a good ten minutes before my scheduled time, but the door was open so I went in.

Coach Callahan was there. Pala wasn’t. The dividers had been taken down, leaving the room as one large, unified whole with the two special mockboxes each in a back corner.

“Frybaby,” she said. “You’re up next… and early. A lot of your classmates have shown up right on the dot. I don’t take points off for that and you shouldn’t expect any points for being early, but I appreciate it.”

“I’ll take what I can get,” I said.

“Damn straight,” she said. “Anyway, we can get the preliminaries out of the way and still start ahead of schedule… if you’ll just hop in the boxes, we’ll get set up.”

“I’m mocking myself?” I said.

“You said it, not me,” she said.

I could sort of see the logic there… I was the one opponent in the class’s roster of special fighters and gladiatorial ringers that I hadn’t fought, and maybe figuring out how to take down myself could be seen as the ultimate test of my combat problem-solving skills.

But… the duplicate would know everything I know, and would think of everything I could think of. This was the kind of thing that made for a nice challenge in fiction, but the reality was likely to be a drawn-out stalemate. It was exactly the kind of situation Coach Callahan would have sought to avoid, and not at all what was suggested by her comment about not lasting half an hour.

“Won’t that fight be a little… symmetrical?” I asked. I was picturing the confusion that had come in the first bout using the people-copying boxes, where original and duplicate had continually made the exact same decisions.

“Did you not catch the plural?” she said. “You’re not fighting yourself, you’re fighting yourselves… what comes to you when you’re fighting two of yourself is not the same as what’s going to occur to your duplicates, who each have the other to help them. You’ll be identical combatants, but in non-identical situations. Believe me when I say that makes all the difference.”

I wouldn’t have argued with her even if I hadn’t believed her, but I could see the sense of it… I really couldn’t imagine what I’d do if I found myself teaming up with myself against myself, but… well, that was pretty much the point of the exercise.

It also made sense why she didn’t expect anyone to win. This wasn’t going to be a battle, it was going to be a curb-stomp.

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40 Responses to “Chapter 256: Finals Countdown”

  1. Nocker says:

    Oh Jesus. This is fight is going to be everything I’ve ever wanted and more.

    Thursday can’t come fast enough.

    Current score: 10
  2. Dani says:

    > There were definitely times I wished I
    > could have created a duplicate or two of myself

    Be careful what you wish for. 🙂

    > it’ll be an automatic A for anyone who does

    I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Mack gets an A. (Her best bet may be to convince her opponents that if she wins they all get an A!)

    Current score: 2
    • Order of Chaos says:

      She can win this in one word if she can remember it. 😉

      Current score: 5
    • Anon says:

      I’m not sure even Callahan will count convincing her duplicates to stand down for an A as a legitimate victory.

      The other thing is that I can’t remember if the duplicates can remember that they are, in fact, duplicates – but I think they don’t, if they act symmetrically. So if all three of them think the other two are mocks, none of them will be willing to stand down.

      On the other hand, someone else brought up the fact that Mack knows the command word to shut down the boxes… I wonder if that’ll count.

      Current score: 1
      • Nocker says:

        It’s two vs one. The two need to remember they’re the mocks and on the same team.

        It occurs to me though that Mackenzie can change her own inherent qualities on the fly with magic, but it’s not a terribly fine control thing. If she can rip her aura blocking potions effects off one of her doubles somehow, it’d turn them on each other and leave the survivor distracted enough for an easy kill.

        Current score: 1
      • Yumi says:

        I was thinking about that too… if the duplicates don’t know they’re duplicates, how would they know they’re supposed to team up against her in the fight? But if they know they’re duplicates, why wouldn’t they let her win? I could imagine Callahan failing anyone who’s duplicates she judged as not fighting to their fullest, but that could be tricky to judge.

        Also, when I the “one word” comment, my first thought of what that word would be was “basement.” The off command makes way more sense.

        Current score: 1
        • zeel says:

          I think they have an intellectual knowledge that they are not real, but there is something that suppresses their feeling on the subject so they never act like they are dupes.

          Plus they are color coded, so it’s not too hard to see who is who.

          Current score: 2
        • TheTurnipKing says:

          suffice to say, I think Callahan probably has this well in hand by now.

          Current score: 1
      • Christopher Martin says:

        Duplicates are aware, but tangentially so, nothing is modified about their understanding.

        The thing about the mocks are that they are distinctly ‘like’ the original. So each copy will fight just as hard as she will, because they are fighting like she will in a final.

        Any method of cheating the rules of engagement would do a lot to tick Callahan off… so I really doubt that would count, she clearly does not appreciate smart alecks.

        Though, my thought on the possibility of winning… it could be done, but only under particular circumstances that are not common.

        Basically, the most likely would just be that they are significantly better fighting by themselves than they are in fighting in a team. The mocks my trip eachother up for instance, and she’ll be making different choices because she’ll have different resources (the mocks will be thinking about what they can do together, she’ll be thinking about what she can do herself).

        Looking forward to reading the fight 🙂

        Current score: 3
        • Order of Chaos says:

          There’s no such thing as fair to Callahan so the battle should go.
          MockMacks:casting sound proof.
          Mackenzie:”Fini” Runs to mockbox.
          second MockMack would target its other (doppelganger effect)so it’s now one on one and can be a draw.
          Mackenzie puts dispel on her staff.
          It’s super effective!
          Or target the real threat. Burn the mock box 😉
          Or run away for half an hour and live, it all depends on victory conditions.

          Current score: 0
          • adsipowe says:

            those are all cheating…not in the useful “help you win”way callahan likes but in the detrimental “defeats the entire point of the exercise” way that makes her want to kill students.

            Current score: 0
        • zeel says:

          The real question is whether or not AE wrote the story with a possibility of getting an ‘A’ so that she can give Mackenzie an improbably good grade in a class, or because it just seemed like it was properly in-character for Callahan to provide.

          I mean there are so many ways this could go either way, so trying to predict it based on the story itself is pretty much a shot in the dark, we simply don’t know enough information.

          So based on Meta prediction: Something weird (something that neither Mackenzie nor Callahan expected) and really cool will happen, Mackenzie will “win” (not be not-killed by the Mockenzies) on a technicality, she will get a B+.

          I can’t wait to see. . .

          Current score: 1
    • zeel says:

      The only way she wins is if she is a worse team player than she is a fighter. I can see the Mockenzie’s doing poorly simply because they wouldn’t know how to fight together.

      Current score: 3
      • Nocker says:

        “I’ve never been much of a joiner” is practically her catch phrase.

        They’re either going to be hanging back and watching the other die henchmen style, or knocking into each other like slightly more cartoonish henchmen.

        Current score: 2
  3. Not her, the other girl says:

    With the build up I thought we’d actually get to the combat within this chapter. I should’ve known better. I can’t wait for the next chapter!

    Current score: 2
  4. pedestrian says:



    Current score: 1
  5. Ilya says:

    I’m first this time! Great cliff hanger 🙂

    Current score: 0
  6. Glenn says:

    Back in Chapter 143, Mack told Callahan about the doppelganger paradox. It refers to the way perfect duplicates of intelligent beings won’t be able to rest until they’ve destroyed each other.
    I think Mack will use that law of magic to get the two duplicates to kill each other. She just has to enhance their similarity to each other to the point where each duplicate finds the existence of the other intolerable.

    Current score: 0
    • LukeLicens says:

      If only she knew more glamour, she could turn them both green…

      Current score: 0
    • Zukira Phaera says:

      or herself the not mock version, more dissimilar after the mocking up. maybe by spelling up somehow, then mock, then dispel it after from herself, since the mocks will both have it, and she then wouldnt, it might make them trigger off on each other rather than on her.

      Current score: 0
      • Glenn says:

        I think it will be even easier than that, which is why Mack says the fight will be a curb-stop. In Chapter 165, Acantha explained illusion magic to Mack.

        “Tell me, if you don’t know why it’s easier to copy than to create, why do you think it would be?”

        “If I had to guess… I mean, infer from what I know… I’d say it’s because the illusionist is somehow copying the properties of the original’s appearance. That’s not possible when you’re creating an original image, but if you’re copying something that’s right there…”

        “That is more or less the case, but it’s even simpler than that,” she said. “There’s a single quality that is possessed by illusionary duplicates of all stripes. Call it… likeness. Or sameness. When you pull a mocked weapon out of a standard mockbox, it seems to possess all the qualities of the original, but only by virtue of possessing this one singular quality of identicalness.”

        “But mocked weapons have individual properties,” I said. “I know… I’ve enhanced them on the fly.”

        “Viewed one way, they do,” she said. “Because the original does. They wouldn’t be just alike if they didn’t. Viewed from the other perspective, they possess only one quality, that of being alike… the look on your face is understandable, Ms. Mackenzie. This property was not uncontroversial when it was discovered, but it forms the basis of the whole field of phantasmal mockery.”

        “Well, you’re the one who’s been studying the subject, so I’ll take your word for it,” I said.

        “Believe me, I spent some time grappling with this, and even spoke with a few of the professors of illusion,” she said. “And believe me also when I say that the illusion department is not easy to find. But this brings me to my point: the duplicate of a living being created by a mockbox also possesses this quality of sameness…””

        Mack’s duplicates each possess the quality of sameness, while Mack does not. So Mack just needs to enhance their sameness.

        Current score: 0
        • zeel says:

          That is actually an interesting point. Accept it has a flaw, they are the same as her not each other, so I think it would backfire to try it out.

          Current score: 0
          • The Chosen One says:

            But because they are each the same as her, while she is not the same as herself, they will be *more* the same as each other than as her!
            Like all magic, it makes sense if you don’t think about it.

            Current score: 0
            • zeel says:

              Or, like all magic, it blows up in your face when you overthink it.

              I feel like trying to play that “sameness” against itself is cheating. And not like “You fail the class because you cheated” but like, “Horrible things happen because the universe doesn’t like it when you cheat.”

              It would backfire simply because it’s the nature of magic to backfire when you try to get smart with it. Sure we could logic out who would be the same as who – but the universe doesn’t care about our logic.

              Current score: 1
            • Glenn says:

              Zeel, you’re right that the universe doesn’t like cheating. But who would the universe think is cheating here, Callahan or Mack? Callahan is the one using magic to do something previously impossible, having multiple duplicates of a person attack the original person. If Mack can mess up Callahan’s plan by manipulating the definition of “sameness” it returns the universe to being more like the way it was before Callahan started meddling with the primal forces of nature.

              Current score: 0
            • zeel says:

              My thought is that the doppelganger problem is itself a result of the universe fighting back against people screwing around. The special boxes subvert this by colorizing the duplicates. So if Mackenzie tries to subvert the subversion in order to invoke the doppelganger problem I don’t see how it could possibly end well for her.

              Current score: 0
  7. Readaholic says:

    Eeeee!!!! Can’t wait!!

    Current score: 0
  8. Yamaraion says:


    “To a large extent, we would be relying on the fact that someone who was trying to sneak into the building to fuck shit up or light things on fire wouldn’t be filing any formal complaints if the lawn tried to eat them on the way in.”

    As a matter of fact, that is EXACTLY what happens to you at the end of ULTIMA III. The grass tries to eat you while you are cornering the Big Boss MOB.

    Current score: 1
  9. Assembler Maniac says:

    “ore ven” kinda threw me, should it be “or even”? Only typo I noticed.

    Can’t wait for the big fight. 2v1 should be a stompfest, unless Frybaby pulls a hat out of a rabbit. She does know more about the mock boxes than any other student – might be helpful.

    Makes me wonder, now that she knows what she’s dealing with, will it change her thinking enough to overcome the dupes having the same thoughts – in other words, will the dupes be able to consider what a single version of themselves might do AND what they need to do to combat it, or will they miss something important? Will she be able to do similar, and pick up on something they might have missed?

    Current score: 0
    • spess imvader says:

      I would assume gaming the system won’t be a way to win. In best-case scenario Mackenzie holds her opponents to a draw long enough.

      Current score: 0
  10. Yamaraion says:

    As someone who was trained, and trains others, to fight close-combat as a team (and has a lot of real-life experience doing so) I can tell you that two people, who are NOT trained to fight as a team, are not only not 2x the “strength” of the one but are quite possibly weaker than the one alone (particularly if that one is trained in basic 1 vs 2 [or more] tactics). They will wait for the other team member to move first or just get in each others way.

    If those two are trained and practiced at fighting as a team they can be a well-oiled explosion that ends the fight in seconds. Even when you do it, you often do not know yourself where it came from and it can be a surprise to both sides. It is like a mousetrap going off.

    At the moment Mack has the wrong mindset. Callahan has been teaching attitude/mindset all along. Now, I think, she is testing for it. Not winning a fight is not an acceptable option. Thinking about not winning is not an acceptable tactic. If Mack can change that mindset, before the fight is on, she could win this.

    I love the Callahan classes best of all. AE does those so well.

    Current score: 3
  11. Zathras IX says:

    When you double down
    Then you’d better go all-in
    And even the odds

    Current score: 6
  12. Lunaroki says:

    Typo Report

    I say “final” rather than finishing “finishing”

    This one reads to me like the “finishing” before the quotes doesn’t belong.

    ore ven a solid day with no other commitments or demands on my time…

    Should be “or even”. The space got misplaced.

    it had the final exam that I was most worried about.

    I’m thinking that “had” should be something like “was” or “had been” or “had to be”.

    Current score: 0
  13. Nocker says:

    Thinking about this a bit, it’s probably a super invaluable training opportunity.

    We must not forget, there ARE two half demons nearby. They’re older and hungrier and have killed more than their fair share of females before.

    Fighting two against one like this strikes me as a thing she’ll have to do at some point either way. If not then, well it’s suspected that The Man’s been working over a few of his own from birth and LAW is recruiting them too. Being outnumbered by her own kind is less a possibility and more an eventuality.

    Current score: 1
  14. Seth says:

    I’m hoping that she doesn’t win by any of these gimmicky methods. Hopefully she pulls a win because one desperate Mackenzie is a lot stronger than two Mackenzies who believe that they can half-ass the fight just because it’s two on one.

    Current score: 1
    • Nocker says:

      Indeed. Because to reiterate, she can try to cheat it this time, but not next time. If she’s not going to be locked in with Brutus and Cassius, then it’s going to be The Man and one of his other progeny, or a couple of Art Kent’s goons. Or maybe some Middlestone alum think she’s going to be in the way. Hell, if it’s not half demons, odds are it’d be half dragons, or half djinn, or literally anybody else who can group together even more easily and can tear through a regular fighter even individually.

      Mackenzie is alone in a world full of factions that all have multiple people at least as good as she is, and there’s no love between her and any of them. None of them have a convenient magical off switch or are made of simple illusions either. She either learns to compensate now in the relative safety of MU, or she dies right after she graduates. There’s no middle option and any enemies she makes will be way less accommodating than Callahan is.

      Current score: 1
  15. not her, the other girl says:

    So I came back to re-read this along with the actual fight and two things stood out to me:

    “I wouldn’t have argued with her even if I hadn’t believed her, ”

    Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa. Whoa. This is Mack right? What happened to the reflexive arguing from her first semester?

    “The value of that lesson was a bit mixed at the moment, since I had never been as busy as I was, socially or academically or what I guess I would have to call professionally. There were definitely times I wished I could have created a duplicate or two of myself… I can’t imagine anything would have helped me as much as that.”

    I see what you did there, AE. Nice.

    Current score: 0
  16. Arancaytar says:

    each be given a separate thirty minute slot for our individual finals

    Well, they’ll be fighting someone, but if they have separate slots rather than pair-ups… who? Their own duplicates?

    Current score: 0
  17. Arancaytar says:

    You’re not fighting yourself, you’re fighting yourselves…

    ooooh shit.

    Current score: 0
  18. Arancaytar says:

    (Three Macks enter, one Mack leaves.)

    Current score: 0