Mana of Mayhem: Magic School Blues
Isaac Faulkner sits once more in darkness, brooding; he is troubled in a way he hasn’t been in a very long time. Though he broods, he is not alone: a second presence fills the room, sullen and silent as a storm cloud. It bides its time silently, waiting patiently, for it knows Isaac, and knows something of his moods.
At last, Isaac sighs. “Out with it.” There is no reply save for a faint stirring in the darkness, something that might be equivalent to a twitch of interest. Isaac scowls and presses on. “I can tell you’ve got something on your mind. Spit it out already.”
“I had no wish to interrupt your brooding; you seemed preoccupied with some vast and weighty concerns, and I thought it best to let you reach whatever conclusion you were bound for,” the shadow purrs, sarcasm all but dripping from its every word. “But I am certain you know of what I intend to speak.”
Isaac sighs. “I can guess. The Anansi building, and why I didn’t go through with torching the place.”
“Yes. You will not have such an opportunity again, Isaac; the next time you seek to do this, their defenses will be harder. You know this. So why did you not follow through?”
Isaac sighs. “There are a number of good reasons. For starters, Professor Inkless had the wheels; without her, making an escape would’ve been much more difficult. It seemed like a good idea to accommodate her. For another thing, every second we lingered increased the chance of us being found out. You know that, and I’m certain you didn’t fail to notice that the actual transporters arrived within minutes of our departure.”
“Those,” the shadow says softly, “are excuses, Isaac.” The shadow pauses to allow Isaac a chance to make a reply, but none is forthcoming; after a moment, the shadow continues. “They are sound rationalizations; they even have the benefit of having a certain amount of truth to them. I think we both know that your words are only that, though—rationalizations.” Again the shadow pauses, waiting for rebuttal, and again none is forthcoming. “First, I sincerely doubt that your professor would have left you, and I do not think that you think that either—least of all not while you had the girl. Secondly, even though the transporters were en route, it would not have taken that long to set things in motion. A simple twist of a power line and a ruptured fuel tank is all it would have taken; less than a minute, even had I worked at it alone.” The shadow pauses again; still there is no response. “It was what she said to you, wasn’t it? At the start of this business. Her comment about you learning from your father.”
Isaac’s expression twists sourly. “It was a cheap shot,” Isaac grumbles at last. “Effective, though; right to the bloody heart,” he says, a hint of grudging admiration stealing into his tone. “Bitch,” he adds gloomily.
“It has been years since I have seen you at such a loss, even if only for a second, but I do not think she realizes how deeply she struck; take solace in that. I could see it only through long experience with your mannerisms.”
“Ha. Small solace. Maybe you’re right, but it doesn’t matter much. She got what she wanted,” Isaac snarls, slashing one hand through the darkness in front of him. “Even that doesn’t matter much, though. What really matters is that we’ve wounded a snake, but haven’t crushed the head. What matters is that they’re still out there, and there is absolutely goddamned nothing stopping them from coming back next time they feel like kidnapping someone. Or murdering them in their bed. Or doing what I planned to do and burning the place down, and they might not pull the fire alarm. And if—when—that happens, it will be my goddamn fault for not following through, for not finishing this.” Isaac finishes with a sigh, sliding back towards gloom. “I should’ve known better. I DID know better, but I let myself be talked around anyway, because I was off balance. Because I was worried about those transporters showing up and sounding the alarm, because things went way more smoothly than they had any right to, because I wanted to get the hell away from the table before the bill came due, and yeah, probably because of what she said. ‘Learned that from your father’… ARGH.” Isaac raises both hands to his face, as if trying to wipe something away; he takes a deep breath, gathering his composure. “So now I’m going to have to go forward waiting for the other shoe to drop. Knowing that if and when it does, we probably won’t be as lucky as we were this time. Knowing that if and when it happens, it’s going to be my fault.”
There is a period of silence. “It seems you have an adequate grasp of the circumstances you now find yourself in,” the shadow says at last. “I shall spare you my rendition of ‘The Farmer and the Viper’, then. Instead, I will say that while I am glad you are taking this with due gravitas, this brooding accomplishes precious little. The initiative is still yours, Isaac; your enemy may now have discovered that you have poached their prize from them, but they are still likely off balance, and will be for a while yet. Gather your wits. Prepare, that you may blunt the force of any counterstrike they launch.”
Isaac gives a long sigh. “You’re right, of course. I know it, but…” he trails off, then shakes his head. “No. No buts. You’re right. No rest for the wicked.” Isaac takes a deep breath, then lets it out; in a handful of seconds, his usual air of sardonic amusement is once more intact. “Ignoring the gloomy forecast… it’s been a good day. I most definitely managed to put my thumb in the enemy’s eye; maybe I didn’t pluck it out, but I’ve got a rather nice chunk of information that they’ll probably lose a lot of sleep over once they realize it’s out, and whatever profit Anansi hoped to gain by swiping Chun-wu is out the window.”
“And you the hero of the piece,” the shadow observes, not without irony.
“Ha! A part I’m ill-suited for, to be sure,” Isaac scoffs, his show of good humor faltering. “Besides, in wuxia the heroes always get a miserable end, from what I’ve seen… still, she’s back safe and sound. That’s the most important thing,” he sighs.
“You seem to have taken quite a shine to her, Isaac,” the shadow observes, its voice taking on a tone of careful neutrality.
“…I suppose that I have.” Isaac agrees grimly. “She’s an interesting girl. Clever, pretty, apparently sane… and without an overt and transparent interest in mining.” The last is accompanied by a faintly rueful smile.
“Tell me… how much longer do you think it will last?”
Isaac smirks. “Oh, come on. It’s not even been two weeks yet. Even the really tedious ones I stayed with longer than that, usually.” Abruptly, he sighs. “I think it’s going to be her that ends it.”
“Perhaps,” the shadow agrees. “It may be awhile yet, though. The glare of shining armor in the sunlight can be blinding, and the sun shines long upon heroes.”
Isaac snorts. “If I’m cast in the hero’s part, you can be sure the work is a farce.” He shakes his head, taking a deep breath and visibly throwing off his gloom. “Still… something for further down the road, along with the various other swords being strung up over my head. In the meantime… as you said, there’s work to be done. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, I’m going to take a look at that data; should be interesting to see what Anansi thinks about our ally Miss Kotomine…”