This is a Tomorrowlands universe story; they are listed at http://www.tomorrowlands.org/story/stories.html.
© 2002, Tad "Baxil" Ramspott
The hero's enemy is that what is best and what is good are sometimes at odds. LEARNING EXPERIENCES An Ash story by Baxil, 12-1999; 2-26-2002 edit ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I stayed cool enough not to turn around when I heard him say: "Well, I guess that makes you pretty damn bad-ass, doesn't it?" I restrained the urge to shoot back, "No, that makes me a mage." I hadn't gotten this far by being flip or cocky. I did, however, glance at my companion across the table as I took a measured sip of my hot cider. She was staring over my shoulder with a sudden flash of prey-fear showing through top-of-the-food-chain eyes. I didn't turn around; I didn't need to. The instant his first word careened from his throat through the air into my ears, I picked up the tone of hostility, adrenaline surged, and my automatic defenses kicked in. All I had to do was keep a mental eye on his aura, and the interactions of his body with the background energy of the place, and I'd have as good of a warning of his actions as if I had turned to face him. With tensions rising from seconds of silence, though, I spoke. "No, that makes me a mage." Sometimes the appropriate line is all in the timing. I could sense that my failure to turn around was beginning to anger him. Simultaneously I heard the creak of the cafe's gracefully aging floorboards, and felt his energy flare in movement and emotion. I was readying a stun spell, irritated at the general idiocy of the human race, when Terri leapt to her feet. She looked past me pleadingly, clutching the table with white knuckles. "Justin, don't. He isn't doing you any harm. Let him be." "Of course not, Terri, the fucker knows better'n to mess with me. It's you he wants, don't you see? He's feeding alla his crap into yer head so he can use you." I shifted my weight onto my legs and gripped the chair underneath me, swiveling around and resting it again on the floor, then sitting back down and looking up into the angry eyes of the man hulking over me. He was probably about my height, six foot something, but built more solidly. Which, granted, wasn't hard. I'm wiry as a fencepost; he was probably of medium build. Justin was wearing a stony face and a red plaid-checked flannel shirt, buttoned most of the way up, over a pair of dirtied and faded blue jeans. He'd re-crossed his arms once I started to turn, and was hovering over my chair in that way big men use when they're trying to intimidate you through mass alone. I smiled respectfully up at him, and said politely but firmly, "I apologize if you've taken any offense at my statements. I don't want to make trouble." He turned his head and spat on the floor; I could feel, in the background energy, Terri stiffening behind me. "The fuck you don't," he said, glaring down at me with the condescension of the self-righteous. "Then why you come around here sayin' things like 'I can do anything'?" "If you'd waited long enough for me to explain myself you'd have found out," I said, injecting only a hint of irritation into my level voice. "And if you're really interested, I'd appreciate it if you found a more polite way to enter our private conversation." "I know what you want," he said emphatically, still hovering over me with his arms folded. "You fuckin' wizards, with all your bullshit --" "Sir," I interrupted forcefully, "there are children in the room." That took some wind out of his sails; he turned around, and the illusion I'd conveniently placed in the doorway, of a shocked mother and her two five-year-olds just entering the restaurant, was there to greet his eyes. As well as those of everyone else, whose attention had just been re-focused away from the brewing storm near the rear of the non-smoking section. To his credit, he recovered quickly. "Then you and me, mage, are going out back for a chat," Justin said, turning back to me and jabbing a finger into my chest. I struggled to keep my eyes focused on his while I programmed the "family" to back out of the building and walk around a corner before dissolving back into thin air. Wouldn't do to tip any of my cards this early in the game. "Certainly," I said after a short pause as I mentally cleaned up the now out-of-sight phantasms. "Terri, you want to come along? I have a feeling it'll be rather a learning experience." She misinterpreted me, and tried to compose a suitable excuse for returning to her waitressing duties. Justin misinterpreted me too, and he spoke first. "You still don't understand, do you? This is about you feeding your" -- he stopped, presumably, to search for an alternative to his upcoming vulgarity involving excrement -- "lies to people, makin' them think what you want." I shrugged noncommitally and glanced back at Terri. Her face was pale and I saw tears of fright gathering around the corners of her eyes. "Why don't you head back behind the counter, then, until Justin and I come to a rational, gentlemanly agreement? Afterward, we'll all share a drink," I said with false optimism. It seemed to help; she nodded and backed away with a thin, doubtful smile on her face. The restaurant's back side was a tiny shaded porch overlooking a small clearing in the surrounding plain. In the cool and cloudless November afternoon, long grasses shimmered a dusty golden-green, enclosing our frigid little oasis in a sea of sunlit fire. He paused just outside the door, on the porch, but I could see that his momentum was not spent; I walked down the two steps to the bare, scuffed dirt, and he followed behind. We squared off, two yards apart, my shadow teasingly close to his feet, and Justin drifted into an Army-precision "at ease" position, steel-toed shoes oriented at me. I kept my hands in the pockets of my dust-greyed black trenchcoat. "I understand that you are Justin. My name is Ash," I said civilly. He ignored me and stood up a little straighter before looking me in the eye and talking. "You made a mistake coming into this town," he said, more calmly than I'd have expected, given his behavior inside. "You won't make it again. You ain't leavin'." I sighed. "Now that the obligatory threat's been made, can we get on with whatever it is you're trying to accomplish?" Justin looked at me expectantly for a few seconds, then set his jaw and re-crossed his arms. My quiet refusal to meet his machismo head-on was apparently throwing him off. I felt equally off-balance, like an ex-smoker trying to resist a cigarette. The confrontation was giving me uncomfortable flashbacks to the Redeemers -- uncomfortable because part of me did want to give him the fight he wanted, and I was struggling to hold myself above that. So I looked at him with a forced smile. "It sounded like you had some interesting theories back there in the restaurant. Care to explain what you meant by 'I know what you want'?" Justin smiled darkly. This put him back on familiar turf. "You're out to corrupt people. To make them think what you want." "I was talking to Terri about magic because I saw her reading a book of rituals on her lunch break. That's hardly preying on innocents." "If it weren't for people like you she wouldn't be reading them books in the first place." I crossed my arms. "And if it weren't for Democrats, we'd all be Republican. What's your beef against mages?" Oddly enough, he launched into a story. "Back before Terri got into all this magic shit, see, all those books of hers were mine. I let her have 'em after I found out the secret. I shoulda burned 'em." He cracked his knuckles. "I wouldn't have taken you for a mage, given what you said earlier," I replied. "I got into magic when the Changes hit," he continued, managing to sound accusing. "I knew what was going on long before the scientists said 'Fuck it.' I picked up every book I could find on magic. I started readin'." He paused. I let him continue. "I picked the first book at random, read it all the way through. And you know what? It worked! I felt ready to conquer the fuckin' world." "Please cut out that goddamn language," I said. He looked at me through narrowed eyes, then shrugged, apparently deciding to humor me. "Then I started reading the second. Got most of the way through it before I realized -- it was totally different. The two books didn't have a single ritual in common." He stared at me and unfolded an arm to point. "And I know you know what I'm talkin' about here. Because I started from scratch, tried out the shi--, spells, in the second book, and it worked too! I grabbed a third book, picked something at random. It worked! And all of 'em were claimin' that they had some way of makin' it work that only they could use." I nodded. Justin went on, in full rhetorical swing, pacing about his half of the clearing and making broad hand gestures to emphasize his points. "It didn't take me long to realize that there was some serious cover-up here. I knew all of them were hiding somethin'. I even managed to find a few articles written after the Changes. Same deal. Everyone talked about the years of practice and expensive ritual gear. And here I was, two weeks into my trainin', without even a two-bit walking stick, makin' things burst into flames and twistin' them inside out. It took me a while to figure out what I was doin' that they didn't want me to," he said dramatically. He paused again, and I waited impassively. "See, it wasn't what I was doin'," he said, "but what I was thinkin'. I knew magic would work, so it worked. But most importantly, I knew I could do it myself. I knew it was me doing it and not any of that garbage they was tryin' to sell me." "Congratulations," I said. "You've gotten a heck of a lot farther than most mages." "After that I wasn't going to let any book tell me my limits. I knew I could do any damn thing I wanted. I knew I ruled the world. And then I stopped to think," he said ominously. He stopped pacing and turned to face me fully. "I wondered just why none of you mages was givin' anyone good, proper advice. I wondered why I had to figure out the big stuff on my own. I wondered why there's so goddamn few mages with so many goddamn people on this world. And I figured it out." I had a few answers ready at hand, most of which happened to be right. But he was building up to his main point. "Go on," I said graciously. "Because," he said triumphantly, "it's a fuckin' conspiracy. You guys know you're Superman. You guys know magic can mow through armies. And what've you got to fear from nukes if you can just teleport away from where they're bombin' you? I figured it out, see -- the only thing that scares you is other mages. You're on the top of the world. And you don't want any more competition." "An interesting conclusion," I acknowledged. "And wrong. I'll explain why." He made an obscene gesture at me, and held it. And started smiling. "You ain't talking your way out of this one. See, I know. Magic is only here because you guys want to prop up your little world takeover. But there's guys like me out here, now. We know that magic just means changing reality. And we're here to keep reality from moving." Justin balled his hands into fists and shifted into a boxing stance, attacking the air a few times to stretch his arms and rocking back and forth on his toes. "See, I know. Magic is belief. The more people you can pull into your game, the stronger you get. But guess what? I don't believe you can do any magic, not here, not with me around." He grinned menacingly. "Go on, try it." I occasionally find myself believing that there are quite a number of people in the universe whose only function is to prove the old adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I kept my eyes locked with his, and did a quick mental scan. Sure enough, he'd laid a dampening field around the area so thick that I was having trouble even checking its strength. I felt my body begin to tremble, clenched my teeth, and fought for control. Very well; he'd made my choice for me. "Nice work," I said, stiff-jawed. "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I experimentally picked a point in the air in front of me and made it glow with magical light; it flared briefly, then the dampening field concentrated a hundred-fold at my point of focus, and the light dimmed and winked out. Justin saw this, and laughed. "See? Magic ain't everything. Without your spells, you're helpless, and I'm gonna kill you. The good old-fashioned way." A spasm wracked my body, and I stood still with an effort, I'm sure twitching noticeably. I saw that Justin indeed noticed. He shuffled slowly toward me, maintaining his boxer's stance, advancing cautiously, and smiling in triumph. "Scared of the little mundane?" he asked, mocking. "Deathly," I deadpanned, my voice wavering. The surges of energy within me were getting extremely insistent. I noticed I was sweating intensely. "So what are you going to do when I pull out my Ssmith and Wesson and pump half a clip into your face?" "Hah!" Justin barked. "Mages don't carry guns. You're defenseless." " 'Zat sso?" I asked. I found myself barely able to stand. My vision was blurring. I could barely control my vocal cords and mouth long enough to spit my last sentence. My S's came out long and slightly gurgled from unswallowed saliva. "Jussstin, you have sssome lesssonss to learn." He took one last cautious hop forward, then leapt at me in a blur. I stopped trying to hold myself up, and released control of my body. I knew exactly what was going to happen. He didn't -- and he still attacked. That was his first mistake. (Well, not counting persuading himself to believe his stupid conspiracy theories.) His fist connected with what should have been my head. There was far too much give; instead of snapping into bone and transferring momentum to my cheek, his hand sunk in slightly, as if he'd just hit a giant, mostly-inflated airbag. I couldn't quite keep track of what part of my body he actually contacted, but it was probably my chest. As I let go of my bodily control, I more or less literally exploded outward. For, you see, my name is Ash. I am a dragon. I lived in human form before the Changes, and shed it gladly to return to my true body. When magic was but a glimmer in the back of half a million minds, before the world shook in a giant orgasm of returning energy, it was the weight of disbelief that held me inside my fleshy prison. Nowadays, when I act human so that I can wander around in their society, I do the holding myself. Justin had been kind enough to dampen the hell out of the area. I've found that as a dragon, I'm naturally a thaumivore, so this was indeed an inconvenience (I'd eventually suffocate or starve if I stuck around, and I couldn't fly). But I am also naturally a dragon, and when I shapeshift, any change from that norm takes constant (if not conscious) maintenance. Since he seemed so anxious for me to stop maintaining any spells, I obliged -- and shifted back. My expansion flung his arm backward, and I think I felt rather than heard something break. The rest of his body soon followed. He'd been standing far too close. As I took a deep breath to clear out a yard and a half of neck, and opened a pair of leathery wings (there's no humanly flexible analogue, and I'd gotten used to spreading my wings every time I changed back as part of an internal check), I absentmindedly walked forward to his prone form and stomped a forepaw down over his chest to pin him to the ground. He looked at me in utter panic. It's possible he wet himself. I was hoping not to accidentally find out. I also noticed that the dampening field he'd erected was almost completely gone, lost in the freeze of panic. Pity. He was really making this too easy. "The first lesson any fighter should know," I rumbled in the sort of bass voice that's impossible from a merely inches-long neck, "is 'Know thy enemy.'" I shifted my weight to the forepaw holding him down. He whuffed as the pressure forced air out of his lungs, and started feebly struggling, making little gasping noises, face turning red. "I can do anything," I said. "So can you. So can Terri. So can the President, or the Pope, or Norman Smith of Kennebunkport, Maine, or any damn person in the world. That is the essence of magic. Forget that, and you underestimate your foe. And, usually, you die." He was turning a strange color from lack of air. "I could kill you," I said, "and be done with this. A month or two ago, I dare say I would have, but I want to think I can be better than that. Or I could stop, and let you up. That's unwise, given your stated intentions. So I think I will show you just where you're wrong. I reserve the right to kill you anyway, but if you listen to reason it won't be necessary." I finally eased up on the pressure on his chest, but kept him pinned. "And nothing teaches like surprise. So, you're about to get a series of possibly nasty shocks. Well, you, specifically, won't. But you'll remember them all." I lowered my head and brought our noses almost together. "Do you remember that light I made in your dampening field?" He hadn't recovered the breath to speak; he nodded, still frozen in panic and trying desperately not to get me any madder than I sounded. "You know what that was? It was a time anchor." Well, it wasn't. But it is. And with sufficient tweaking of reality, that can also mean that it was. You don't even have to change causality -- just your interpretation of history. Trust me, it's easier than it sounds. "And now I'm going to pull us both back there," I said. And I did -- "Nice work," I repeated (back in my human body). "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I experimentally picked a point in the air in front of me and reinforced a magical light waiting to be lit; it flared briefly, then the dampening field concentrated a hundred-fold at my point of focus, and the light dimmed and winked out. Justin saw this, and laughed. "See? Magic ain't everything. Without your spells, you're helpless, and I'm gonna kill you. The good old-fashioned way." I had a little more self-control this time around; after all, I was replaying the sequence. So was he -- but I remembered how I'd gotten there, and he didn't. If you pressed me for an explanation, I'd probably have to mutter something about jumping timelines. So I stood still, focusing inwardly a little bit more strongly to take care of the trembling. The shakes subsided, but Justin noticed. "Scared?" he laughed, and shuffled forward in his boxing stance toward me. "Not in the slightest," I said, dusting off my sleeve. "Well, you ought t--" Then I tapped into my energy reserves and stopped time. He paused in mid-hop, frozen feet dangling in empty air. I sprinted forward, and with all the power I could muster, launched an uppercut at his jaw. I used most of my remaining reserves to magically boost my muscles for the blow -- I wanted to ensure it would break something, although with the dampening field still oppressively around us, it was more taxing than I would have liked. Time restarted as my reserves drained away. The momentum of my fist caught up with the momentum of his hop; he flew off, spinning, at a crazy sideways angle. The remainder of his sentence got lost in the snap of his lower jaw crashing through his upper. There was a muffled, indistinct screech of pain which got cut off as his side crashed into the dirt. The anti-magic field wavered and fell. I rubbed my knuckles and took a deep breath. "Lesson two. Magic is a constant struggle of willpower. Strength versus hubris. Thinking you're invincible fails in at least two cases: One, someone else disagrees and is strong enough to impose their point of view on you. You thought you had me beat, since you nullified my magic. I begged to differ. In this particular case, I won." Because replaying the sequence had given me a home-field advantage of sorts, and because I'd used energy that I had spent days carefully storing for when the time was right -- but I didn't mention the details. "Two, you're so hot on the idea that you refuse to be budged on the point. That, incidentally, is a hollow victory. The only way for the universe to resolve the situation is to separate you from reality. In order to even interact with anyone else, you've got to let go of your dogma." He groaned and rolled around on the ground, clutching his jaw. I continued, knowing he could hear me, even if he wouldn't remember it all until afterward. "Why is this lesson important?" I asked rhetorically. "Because it shoots a gaping hole in your conspiracy theory. Most people don't believe mages rule the world. So we can't. If we try too hard, we rule a world of one." I noticed the punch had drawn blood on my knuckles, and gathered a little energy to knit the skin back together. "And as for running around evangelizing people -- why the hell do you think no two magic books agree? Because their writers all have their own agendas to push. Magic is a constant game of King of the Hill -- all the mages have a foothold at the bottom, and spend all their time trying to push each other off the rock, so nobody ever gets to the top. It's a very equitable way of running things." I caught myself getting long-winded. "Let's visit the anchor again, shall we?" Justin made a gurgling groan and coughed up a few teeth. "Nice work," I repeated, fingering the solidity of the pistol in my pocket. "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I picked a point in the air, with my right hand, and reinforced a magical light just waiting to be lit; it flared briefly. Before the anti-magic field could clamp down on the anchor, I pulled my left hand out of my pocket and snapped my arm straight. Justin's eyes widened as the gun coughed three times around the silencer, and two small holes sprouted a darker red on his tomato-bright shirt. He staggered back a step, wheezed incoherently, and dropped to his knees. My stomach flipped over. I'd done my share of killing, and you get used to the deaths, but you never really adjust to the blood. "This one will be quick, because you dying is not good. Lesson three. The essence of magic is surprise and anticipation. Now, I want you to think long and hard -- when we're done with the lessons, anyway -- why I'm bothering to tell you all this and leave you alive if I'm really a member of a conspiracy bent on your destruction." I yanked us back again before he could collapse on the ground. "Nice work," I said. This was beginning to remind me of a drama rehearsal. "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I picked a point in the air in front of me and lit a magical light, flaring bright and strong with repetition. I broke my concentration and let the dampening field gather and squelch it. Justin saw this, and laughed. "See? Magic ain't everything. Without your spells, you're helpless, and I'm gonna k-kk--" I had been prepared. I held my breath and stared at him calmly, not really having a choice. When I layered my damper field on top of his, and attached the two together -- anti-magic didn't hinder further dampening -- not only energy flow but physical movement were slowed to a crawl. He widened his eyes, and struggled to breathe; I knew that with the strength of the field he'd thrown, it would cost him more than it would gain. Twenty seconds passed in suspense, during which I felt a bare twinge of oxygen deprivation; I could tell it was hurting Justin far more. Suddenly, Justin's maintenance of the effect gave out, and the fields started draining away. He gasped for breath; I snapped my arms up, thumbs touching, and extended a magical net around his body. Suddenly I shoved my hands past each other, crossing my arms, and Justin's body obligingly doubled over backward. He had the presence of mind to resist the effect, but it still broke his spine before he wrestled himself out of my grip. I stepped over to his prone body, and he moaned in pain, letting out a stream of profanities. "Lesson five," I said understatedly. He glared up at me weakly. Sudden puzzlement hit his eyes, and amid the cursing, he slipped out two words: "Lesson five?" "Thank you. My mistake. Four." "Four? Wha'fuck?" "You'll understand soon. Lesson four: Fight fire with fire. Do you know why your anti-magic field should have worked? Because it is itself a form of magic. Do you know why your back just got broken? Because I used the same magic back at you." He tried to grab my legs; I took a step backward. "You really want to save the world from the conspiracy of the mages? Make everyone a mage. You try to put out every fire you run across, you'll never run out of fires, and meanwhile you're getting a lot of people miserably cold and wet. You want to help people against this 'conspiracy'? Don't go after the bad guys -- take that effort, roll your sleeves up, and help uplift the downtrodden." "Fuck you," he said weakly. "Someone has to fight you. Someone has to keep the public safe from magic." "Someone," I said darkly, "needs to consider the hypocrisy of his stand. Someone is reminded that keeping reality from moving is just as magical, and just as dangerous, as shifting reality is. And 'fighting for public safety'? I'm not impressed by your rhetoric." I walked a few steps away, stood, and concentrated; this last one was going to take some advance preparation. "I tried that myself; it took me a while to learn that fighting for a good cause doesn't guarantee you improve people's lives. Sheesh, look at history." I felt ready, and started listing off some twentieth-century examples as I reached for the anchor. "Lenin's communist revolution, Joseph McCarthy, Prohibition, the War on Drugs, Vietnam ..." "Nice work," I repeated. "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I experimentally picked a point in the air in front of me and a magical light flared out into my waiting fingers. The dampening field concentrated a hundred-fold at my point of focus, and the light dimmed. I furrowed my brow, pretending to concentrate on the effect; Justin dampened the point even more, and the light died. Justin saw this, and laughed. "See? Magic ain't everything. Without your spells, you're helpless, and I'm gonna kill you. The good old-fashioned way." "Says you," I said, and drew a knife from inside my trenchcoat. Justin dropped into a fighting stance, and circled toward me. I leaned back in a defensive half-crouch, waiting for him to make the first move. He drew his arm back for a punch at my face, and I moved my wrist in to block with the knife. A foot lashed upward and contacted my wrist; the knife went flying. I stopped to locate the weapon, and that was all the time he needed. He was on me, then, pummeling me with heavy, repeated blows. I took a knee in the groin, doubled over, and an elbow sent me to the dirt. He kicked me a few times for effect, then stepped to the side to get the knife, and held it above my neck. "Goodbye, fucker," he said, and plunged it through my throat. I made a panicked, strangled cry. For effect. Then reached up and removed the knife. With a flip of my wrist, I tossed it away into the tall grass before he could react. Or anyway, I tossed the illusion of a knife away, maintaining -- against the dampening field that repetition had made almost a joke -- the illusion of a neck sliced halfway through. "Buh -- grt -- thg --" he sputtered. I started sitting up, still on the ground at his knees. I was a little sore in the places he'd hit me, but magical wards had taken nearly all of the impact. "That wasn't lesson five," I said. "That was just to get your attent--" He was on me like a wildcat. I rolled away from the blows, or tried to. He pulled me back, and ended up kneeling on my body, repeatedly slamming his fists into my face until I caught the hint and stopped moving again. Justin stopped, looking cautiously down at me, breathing hard. I blinked involuntarily. He went at me again. Right. This was getting annoying; he had the persistence of a telemarketer on commission. I continued blocking out the repeated impacts while checking out the background energy. It looked like he was too busy killing me to be maintaining the anti-magic field. Alright, then. He was getting careless. I resorted to an old trick. First order of business: Misdirection. Despite the mounting pain (nowhere near what I should have been feeling, but real nonetheless), I looked up into his face, warding off a blow or two, and laughed. "You fool," I gasped, coming up with the first plausible B.S. I could think of. "Imagine trying to kill an earth mage in contact with the ground. I think I'm done toying with you now." I could see his snap decision to believe me; I suppose he was too exasperated to compensate for the trap I was laying, and figured me for a braggart. He hauled me to my feet; I let him. Then he spread his arms and shouted a few words I didn't recognize -- probably Latin. I was suddenly grabbed roughly by my feet and flung into the air by an invisible force. Whatever had grabbed me held my ankles, and dangled me upside down, outstretched hands still a foot from the ground. "You three-cent hypocrite," I gasped. His tactic shift had been something of a surprise, but I'd spent too much time dueling with other mages to be caught at a loss. "I thought you were on some big anti-magic kick." He smiled thinly; it took me a second to interpret, being upside down. "This is too important for me to ignore the weapons of my enemy." I smiled genuinely. "Good. You're learning. That was part of Lesson Four." He looked at me in confusion right as the first of the rocks smacked him on the back of the head. They weren't very big ones. I was still toying with him, laying distractions. He threw up shields of solid, still air, then stood rigid in concentration, and suddenly a bolt of lightning seared from his outstretched hand to my immobile body. I shouted an epithet; I was too much of a pro to let it through my wards, but the point defense had ruined my concentration just as I'd almost gotten my trick prepared. A few more lightning bolts shot my way while he concentrated on weaving air into a long, straight, solid pattern. He was going to come after me with a sword. How quaint. I deflected a few lightning bolts in his general direction to delay him, and when he charged and swung, my trick was ready. He hit me, and sliced almost halfway through my chest. I screamed in real pain. He grinned and struck again, this time stabbing me through the abdomen. I blinked out tears and made incoherent noises, writhing in miserable agony. It took him three strikes to catch on. About average. Midway through drawing the insubstantial blade back for a fourth, he glanced down, then did a double-take and stared at his shirt. "Oh," he said. "Fuck." Wine-dark blotches were sneaking across the red plaid. He looked back at me; my body hadn't been damaged by his attacks. "How the --" he gasped out as his concentration faltered. I got dumped unceremoniously on the ground and lay there in a ball, coming to grips with the searing heat still coursing through my body. His sword and wards tore apart into smoke. By the time I was struggling to my feet, knees weak, he had already collapsed on the ground and a dark red stain was creeping out into a Rorschach pattern around him. "Lesson five," I said hurriedly. "Aahh. Ow. Pain begets pain. You hurt people, and it'll come back to you someday." An appropriate last lesson; he'd remember it most strongly. And with that, it was time to get back to the business of reality. I took a breath to steady myself as the agony subsided to a tolerable level, and yanked back to the anchor one more time before Justin's last breath left his lips. "Nice work," I repeated, voice wavering. "Very consistent. No obvious loopholes." I experimentally picked a point in the air in front of me and a magical light flared out into my shaking fingers. The dampening field concentrated a hundred-fold at my point of focus, and -- with something of an effort on Justin's part -- the light dimmed and died. Justin saw this, and laughed. "See? Magic ain't everything. Without your spells, you're helpless, and I'm gonna kill you. The good old-fashioned way." "I've got a better offer," I said, teeth clenched in pain. "You only wish," he said, sinking into an aggressive fighting stance and taking a few steps toward me. "A choice, actually. Pick one of the two." I focused what power I could gather, and re-activated the anchor light, punching right through the anti-magic field. Justin circled to one side cautiously, wary of whatever it was I was doing that was getting through his dampers. "Either you stare into this light," I said, "remember your lessons, and we sit down and talk like civilized men." I closed my eyes briefly to summon enough strength to keep the light lit and linked to the alternate fights. "Or we go through this again, and I'll leave you dead." "Your tricks won't save you ..." he began, but trailed off as he glanced, almost against his will, into the light. I broke the barriers separating him from his memories of our earlier five encounters. His body jerked spasmodically as he mentally relived about two minutes of experience, three near-deaths, and a great deal of personal injury, in a second and a half. He was out of it for just long enough to hit the ground. He immediately sat up, screaming, and scrambled away from me toward the porch, repeating an especially meaningful four-letter word like a mantra. I stood there calmly, watching him. He looked down at his unmarked body, then, breathing heavily and raggedly, stood up on trembling legs. "You son of a bitch!" he shouted in a frenzy. "Invading my fucking mind! You'll die slow!" "Don't make me go through Lesson One again," I said, and let myself flow back into dragon form. Justin gibbered a bit and sank to the ground in a cold faint. I had just enough time to shift back to human form before half the restaurant burst through the back door. I smoothed down my rumpled trenchcoat and shrugged at them. The crowd gave me a collective worried glance and backed slowly away, back to their food. Few people, I have found, care to deal with a mage. Terri squirmed through the crowd as the last of them was leaving, ran over, and knelt down to examine Justin's unmoving form. I watched in silence as Terri gently straightened his unconscious body out on the ground, propping up his head on a discarded segment of two-by-four, occasionally glancing back at me in increasing confusion and horror. My fingers crept into my pocket, wrapping around the silver ring Hessus had given me as a farewell gift. You'd have killed him, I thought bitterly. You'd have told me to kill him, that it was more merciful. A chill ran down my spine. I know I was right to leave. I know I was right to do what I just did. It just doesn't feel as good as I'd hoped. Terri's voice interrupted my introspection. "Jesus H. Christ, Ash. What did you do to him?" "Taught him a few lessons," I said, forcing myself to sound cheerful. "I don't think he'll give you any more trouble." "That's not what I'm concerned about," she said, glaring at me. "He'll be fine. I did my best to resolve things peacefully, but --" "What do you mean he'll be fine? What did you do, Ash?" Terri pressed. I sighed. "If it makes any difference to you, he tried to kill me." "Ash," she said emphatically and slowly, "what did you do?" I lost my patience. "I defended myself. I showed him what I could have done to him if I was being less gentle. You seem particularly unconcerned that your friend here is a raving homicidal maniac. I was more than fair to him." Terri stared at me for several seconds, then said quietly, "I think you'd better go." "Is that advice or a request?" I asked acidly. "Both," she responded coldly. "I don't want any more trouble." "I was never here to cause trouble. I stopped here to teach you a little bit about magic, and then Thrud the Neanderthal here stepped in." "Well, if this is what learning magic means," Terri said quietly, "then maybe I've changed my mind." I smiled grimly, letting go of the ring, and took my hands out of my pockets. I reached up deliberately to adjust the trenchcoat's collar, looking straight into her eyes. "I guess I have taught you something after all," I said, then turned and walked away. Sometimes, I reflected with a tinge of irony as I flew away some minutes later, the appropriate line is all in the timing.
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Feb 25, 2002. Design (c) 2001 Tad "Baxil"