Mana of Mayhem: Magic School Blues
The hour is late, and night has long since fallen in Ravensglass; it’s so late, in fact, that the time has already passed from late Friday night into early Saturday morning. Isaac Faulkner has had a busy day; now he lays abed in the darkness, silent and still… but despite his best efforts, sleep remains elusive, his mind still grinding away on the events that had transpired earlier.
Isaac… a voice whispers in the back of Isaac’s mind, but he doesn’t move, doesn’t stir.
“Isaac…” the voice speaks again, this time aloud, as the darkness seems to coalesce into a form darker still. “Isaac, talk to me.”
“Mmph. About what?” Isaac grumbles.
“Whatever it is that has had such an effect on you. You are not your usual self.”
Isaac chuckles. “Oh? Who might I be, exactly?” he asks, his voice sounding faintly amused.
“Isaac…” the shadow growls in exasperation.
Isaac is silent for a moment, and then, bit by bit, the sardonic, amused smile that he wears like a mask slips away. “I am a bit upset, I suppose.”
“Mm,” Isaac grunts, shifting a bit, and silence falls for a long moment. When he speaks again, his voice has a distant tone. “Do you remember what I was like, when we first met?”
“Heh. I would add ‘introverted’ and ‘alone’ to that list, as well, but that covers the gist of it,” Isaac says. “I’d been at that awful place for… what, two years? Three? Four? It all runs together. It had been awhile, in any case; I kept seeing new faces come and go, and I had really and truly started to fear that I was going to be stuck there for the rest of my life,” Isaac says, sounding uncharacteristically grim. “It was a vicious cycle, really; I was a mess when they brought me in, and I didn’t really thrive in that sort of environment, so I withdrew, got a reputation as ‘that weird kid’ and… well, the phrase ‘death spiral’ comes to mind.” Isaac falls silent for a moment longer. “Happily, my net worth is currently orders of magnitude higher than all of the rest of those mewling little twerps put together.”
“…and?” the shadow asks, expectantly.
Isaac sighs. “Every Sunday, we had Bible study; some kind of outreach program or something to that effect, before the whole ‘no religious anything in any state-run program’ thing really gathered steam; I suspect it was as much for the sanity of the staff as for our enlightenment, just to give them a few hours to breathe while someone else got to keep up pacified. Still, I paid attention, and asked questions when I didn’t understand things—which meant I asked a lot of questions, as a great deal of what was being preached did not seem to reconcile with the world I was in. This obviously didn’t contribute to my popularity… but anyway. I occasionally browsed a bit in my spare time, as well, and at one point I came across a specific story that caught my interest: the story of Job.”
The shadow listens silently; Isaac continues after a moment. “Fascinating story, really; one of the big movers and shakers behind the scenes is a figure called ‘the Adversary’ or ‘the Accuser’. Sound familiar?”
“The Grand Prosecutor?”
Isaac’s lips twitch into a sardonic smirk. “Yes, if that’s what he wants to call himself. Anyway, storytime. Book of Job. Up in heaven, the angels are chattering amongst themselves about the eponymous Job. He’s a great man, a blessed man, a righteous man, they all agree… but the Adversary points out that it’s easy to profess belief when one is living in comfort, and suggests that Job be put to the test. God tells the Adversary to do his worst, which he does, and immediately thereafter Job’s life is fucking ruined,” Isaac spits. He takes a deep breath, proceeding in a more measured tone of voice. “He loses his wealth, is beset by plagues, his entire family dies, and he dwells in misery and anguish for years. Despite all this, he never loses his faith, never presumes to question God as to why all of this crap is being dumped on his head. In the end, God grants him blessings and he lives for another century and some change, remarries, has new kids, amen,” Isaac says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “There was a lesson in this, they said; ‘if you just remain steadfast in your faith and endure, and God will make all things right in His time’.”
“…you disagree with this, I assume.”
“Ha! Oh, where do I even start?” Isaac exclaims. “Leaving aside the mountain of crap that got dumped on Job himself for absolutely no reason… what about Job’s family? What did they do to deserve that? What did Job’s wife do to deserve having to watch her kids die? What did Job’s KIDS do to deserve that? And then at the end, it’s ALL BETTER because, oh, hey, he has a NEW wife and NEW kids now?” Isaac laughs hysterically. “Bad things happen. Okay. But all of that misery on a BET? And a bet that doesn’t even INVOLVE them directly? It’s horseshit.” Isaac shakes his head, laughing again. “You want to know the real lesson of Job? That it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how righteous you are, or how hard you try, or what you say, or what you do; everything you have ever loved can still be ripped away from you, just because someone higher in the food chain wants to prove a point. Or even for no reason at all, really—ask Job’s wife.” Isaac spits the last with enough contempt to etch steel.
“Did you identify with that story?”
Isaac is silent for a long moment before he answers. “A little, maybe. No plagues, thankfully… but I had lost my family, I was alone in misery… so maybe a little.” Isaac sighs again, his expression going sour. “Fast-forward to today. Imagine my surprise when I find that the dignitary of the day is the villain of the piece!”
“Yes, I see…” the shadow muses. “Yet the two of you seemed to get along well enough, before he told you who he was.”
“Pfaugh,” Isaac grumbles. “Yes, we did, didn’t we. Truth be told… eerie or not, I rather liked him, up to that point. But to claim that title, and to be proud of it, at that… ugh. It makes my head hurt. Ugh. I see Thessa’s point…”
“So that is the reason you threw yourself into such a reckless frenzy of activity; to keep yourself from thinking too much.”
Isaac frowns. “Wait, wait. Yes, I’ve been trying to keep busy, but I wouldn’t say I’ve been acting recklessly.”
“Hmph. You have been moving all day, without so much as a pause for breath, throwing yourself into every task that came before you whether it needed tending to or not. You did a load of laundry that was only a quarter full, rewrote a perfectly acceptable Philosophy essay that isn’t even due until next week, reorganized your room twice, and went through double your normal exercise routine… and that isn’t even going into the dinner invitation you gave the girl.”
Isaac raises an eyebrow, sitting up a bit. “The date with Chun-wu? What about it?”
The shadow hesitates, sounding oddly defensive. “That you would ask her so abruptly took me by surprise; you have said little enough of her in the past. I confess that when you mentioned planning to ask her out, I thought it was merely a ruse to misdirect the scientist.”
“Ah. That was part of it, I admit… but the best ruses are incontestable by way of being true,” Isaac chuckles. “I may not have said a great deal about it, but I’ve been idly considering the possibility of asking her out for some time now. She’s pretty, bright, knows how to hold her own in a fight, and we’ve both already had run-ins with each others’ demented fan clubs, so why not?”
“Perhaps so… but the timing was certainly a bit reckless. It would be more typical of you to ensure you had the reservations beforehand, then ask, rather than asking and then having to scramble for reservations as you did.”
Isaac scowls. “Hmph. I’ll admit to acting off the cuff, but recklessness is a bit too far, don’t you think? It was a bit of a trial to get the reservations, but I did manage it, did I not?”
“That is true…” the shadow concedes. “You have certainly set yourself a busy day tomorrow, though.”
“Don’t I know it,” Isaac chuckles. “Hopefully I’ll be able to get some actual rest. Let’s see… I need to follow through with Doctor Plott about Woodstock in the morning, and… probably some time in the afternoon I intend to speak with Professor Inkless…” Isaac cuts off as a yawn overtakes him.
“You think that she can shed some light on the whole Job affair?”
“I was thinking more of some of the things said this afternoon, but that is an excellent point; I’ll add that to my list of questions. Then, of course, I have to get ready for dinner…”
Something about the tone of Isaac’s voice at the last draws the shadow’s suspicion. “…what else, Isaac?”
Isaac grins. “Heh heh. It occurs to me that should anyone be keeping tabs on me, an afternoon like this will probably make them get a bit twitchy, don’t you think?” Isaac yawns again, rolling over on his side. “I imagine I seemed pretty worked up. Then all the trouble I went to get those reservations? I’m practically announcing that a.) this event is important to me, and b.) I will be in a given place at a given time. If those Merry Widow goons are paying any attention at all, it should be a pretty tempting target, don’t you think? And then there’s Chun-wu’s own fanclub. What would happen if our respective watchers, unknowing, were to bump into each other?”
“Then this entire dinner was yet another ruse? What if they fail to take the bait?”
Isaac chuckles. “Like I said—the best ruses are ruses incontestable by way of being true. If our observers aren’t present, or fail to notice each other, or don’t initiate hostilities, then our post-dinner entertainment will simply fall to Plan B, Chun-wu will be none the wiser, and I will have spent a fine evening with a lovely girl, eating a delightful dinner. I can think of much worse ways to spend an evening.” Isaac yawns hugely. “Mm. Talking’s made me sleepy. Maybe I’ll be able to get some sleep now. Good night, old friend…”
…sleep well, Isaac, the shadow says in answer, fading once more into the darkness as Isaac’s eyes drift closed.