Chapter 5:

Dr. Shreburn, I Presume?

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

Ashtin had never been so scared in his life, but he managed to keep his wits about him and attempted to flee. Spellbreakers could only suppress magic at short range. If he could get far enough away, he could disguise himself, hide, and build up enough magic to teleport to safety. Without the staff, he wouldn’t be able to teleport all the way back home, but he could make it to a nearby settlement.

“Ashtin, wait,” the woman called after him, but he didn’t slow down. That she knew his name made her no less of a threat. Swearing under her breath, the woman cast the staff aside to chase after him.

The staff clattered to the ground, its magic also having been rendered useless, but as soon as the woman ran far enough towards Ashtin, the effect wore off, and the staff rose into the air. Instead of chasing after Ashtin, however, it emitted a high-pitched siren and fired a bright clump of magical energy into the air. This magical flare soared high above the city and then changed its trajectory, drawing the logo of the Council of Humankind, which shone brightly even in the daylight. The logo was simple, an infinity symbol enclosed in a circle.

Ashtin couldn’t suppress his curiosity and glanced over his shoulder at the commotion. When he saw the council’s logo and the trail leading back to his staff, he stumbled in surprise. One of the spells he encoded into the staff must have been this emergency call for help, but he had allowed his magic to guide him when engraving it. Magic was a force of nature. How could it possibly know what the council's logo looked like?

He managed to keep himself from falling, but the blunder allowed the spellbreaker to get close enough to grab his robes. Being the faster runner, she would have caught up to him anyway. As she tackled him to the ground, a shot rang out, sailing over them. Neither Ashtin nor the woman knew if the shot would have actually hit either of them, but they were both grateful it missed.

“Hold your fire,” the spellbreaker shouted. “I have him.”

“And what good does that do us?” a guard officer asked, stepping close to the two of them. “Let him up so I can take another shot.”

Before the spellbreaker could move, however, a car bearing the logo of the Council of Humankind pulled up next to them, and four gynoids carrying rifles emerged from it. One gynoid pointed her gun directly at the officer who had made the threat, while the others covered the other officers and the two men who had tried to assault Ashtin.

“The council is taking command of this situation,” one of the gynoids shouted out. “Guards, set up a perimeter. Confirm the identities of anyone in uniform. There may be spies among you.”

“We don’t take orders from you,” the closest officer pointed out.

“Do you really want to argue about jurisdiction right now?” the gynoid asked. “We’re exposed out here, and you know I’m right. We’re taking custody of the mage. With the threat contained, what have you been trained to do?”

“Seal off the area and investigate as quickly as possible,” the officer admitted, sheathing his pistol. The other officers on the scene, eager to leave, set about their tasks.

“Thank you,” Ashtin said, as the gynoids helped him and the spellbreaker to their feet. “I didn’t mean to get you involved. The staff acted on its own.”

“We understand,” one of the gynoids told him, wiping some dirt off his robes. “However, you could have avoided this entire situation if you had entered the city through the proper channels. We had an escort waiting for you.”

“I’m sorry,” Ashtin apologized, “I was just so excited to meet Dr. Shreburn. When I was studying magic theory, her books were the only ones that made any sense to me.” This was an exaggeration, but it was a good cover story.

“Shucks,” the spellbreaker said, holding her hand out to Ashtin. “Always nice to meet a fan.”

“Dr. Shreburn?” Ashtin gasped. “My apologies. I didn’t realize you were a spellbreaker, or that you were with the guard.”

“I left the guard a long time ago,” Dr. Shreburn corrected him.

Ashtin took a moment to examine her closely for the first time. She was muscular and exuded a vibrant energy. Her short, wavy brown hair had an unnatural green sheen, the result of a magical experiment gone wrong. She looked to be in her thirties, but Ashtin knew that couldn’t be true. She had earned her PhD long before he had taken those magical theory classes. By the time he first cracked one of her books, she was already well-renowned in the field. If she was in her fifties, she disguised it well. It seemed more likely that she had been in the guard for a few years in her late teens and early twenties, earned her PhD in her late twenties, and was now in her mid-forties.

“Perhaps you should finish this conversation in a safer location,” a gynoid cut in.

“Good idea,” Dr. Shreburn agreed, keeping her attention on Ashtin. “My lab isn’t far from here. Are you up for a walk?”

“Lead the way,” Ashtin said, holding his hand out for his staff. Although it usually stuck close to him, it kept its distance from Dr. Shreburn, instead hanging out in the street near the gynoids. Once Ashtin held out his hand, it sped to him, taking the long way around the car in order to avoid the doctor. Ashtin kept a hold on it for the first few blocks, but once they were past the guard-controlled area, he released it, allowing it to float at his side.

“That’s quite the ingenious invention,” Dr. Shreburn complimented him. “How did you instruct it to call for help without using magic?”

“I didn’t,” Ashtin admitted. “It acted on its own.”

“That’s… interesting.”

“You can say what you really feel,” Ashtin told her. “I find it disturbing too.”

“Ashtin,” Dr. Shreburn said, “the council has never allowed a mage to explore their own magic like this. Those who do so anyway eventually drive themselves mad, often destroying themselves. Wherever delving too deeply into magic leads, it’s dangerous. It’s only natural that there would be disturbing aspects, but that doesn’t make it uninteresting.”

“I can’t tell you why the council approved my request,” Ashtin said, “but I should warn you, they told me they trusted me not to become too obsessed. Whatever it is about magic that drives mages mad, you may not be immune.”

“That’s probably why they asked a spellbreaker to take a look,” Dr. Shreburn said. “My anti-magic particles should prevent anything from getting out of control, but I appreciate the warning. I’ll be careful.”

“Forgive me for saying so, doctor,” Ashtin said, “but this doesn’t look like much of a laboratory.”

“My equipment’s in the back room,” Dr. Shreburn said. “I converted the front into a space where I could give community self-defense courses.”

“You teach guard tactics?” Ashtin inquired.

“Some,” Dr. Shreburn answered, “but I’m not teaching people how to make arrests. I’m teaching them how to get themselves to safety.”

“Do you do spears?” Ashtin asked, clearly excited. “I always wanted to learn hand-to-hand combat, but everyone told me it’s a waste of time.”

“They’re right,” Dr. Shreburn informed him. “Physical combat always comes with the risk of injury or worse. You demonstrated great skill today using your magic to defend yourself, and even better judgment in running when I got close. Your time is better spent improving your magic.”

“That’s true,” Ashtin admitted, “but at the same time, it’s not correct. I’m too reliant on magic. I know it’s what makes me valuable to society, but… But I don’t want to think that’s all that makes me valuable. Without magic, I’m sure I’d somehow…”

“OK, stop,” Dr. Shreburn said. “This sounds like something you should work out in counseling.”

“You’re right,” Ashtin frowned, “but I can’t. I don’t want to disappoint the council.”

“Are you really a historian mage?” Dr Shreburn asked. “I thought they trusted the council implicitly.”

“I do, but I also love them. Haven’t you ever held back something from someone you love because you don’t want to hurt them?”

“They’ll be the first to tell you that they’re incapable of being hurt.”

“Hurt is maybe the wrong word, but I’ve disappointed them in the past, and I don’t want to do it again.”

“Well, you know them better than I do,” Dr. Shreburn said. “Let’s have a look at that staff, shall we?”

“You’re actually going to look at it?” Ashtin asked. Dr. Shreburn was his contact in Settlement 266. Her studying the staff was just a pretext to allow Ashtin to visit the city.

“If you don’t mind,” Dr. Shreburn smiled.

Surely, it couldn’t hurt, Ashtin thought. After causing such a commotion, it would be a while before he could move freely throughout the city anyway. He was about to hand the staff over to Dr. Shreburn when there was a sharp knock on the door.

“Flay, it’s me. Open up,” a man’s voice came from the other side of the door.

“General,” Dr. Shreburn said, an amused smile on her face. “What brings you here?”

She opened the door to reveal an older man in a highly-decorated City Guard uniform. From his mostly-gray hair and the wrinkles on his face, Ashtin estimated he was in his late fifties or early sixties, but there was no frailty about him. He had a look on his face as if he were daring the whole world to challenge him, and though not much taller than Ashtin, his muscles filled out his uniform well.

“May I come in?” the general asked.

“Only if you have a warrant,” Dr. Shreburn answered.

“Then I suppose I’ll just have to shout my apology to the mage from the hallway,” the general snapped.

You, apologize?” Dr. Shreburn scoffed.

“General,” Ashtin cut in, feeling a bit awkward at this exchange, “I am at your disposal, but no apologies are necessary. Rather, I should be the one apologizing to you.”

Dr. Shreburn shot Ashtin an annoyed look but stepped back to allow him to approach the doorway. Ashtin held out his hand and the general briefly shook it.

“Ashtin Blackford,” Ashtin introduced himself.

“Wincent Winmore,” the general replied. “You can save the jokes, I’ve heard them all before. I’ll be brief, Mr. Blackford. I came to offer not only an apology but a warning: Leave this settlement, and never return, for all our sakes.”

“Now that’s a problem,” Dr. Shreburn said, the wry smile returning to her face. “I just promised Ashtin here that he could take part in my self-defense classes. He’ll be here every day.”

“And tell me, Flay, why does a mage need self-defense classes?” the general shot back.

“My magic isn’t very strong,” Ashtin admitted. “I can’t rely on it to protect myself.”

“You wouldn’t have been at risk had you not entered this city,” the general pointed out. “If you agree to leave, you won’t need self-defense classes.”

“That’s not true,” Ashtin insisted. “I’m less likely to be attacked in other settlements, for now, but that doesn’t mean I’m completely safe.”

“No one is ever completely safe,” the general said, “but you are a historian, yes? Has there ever been a safer time and place than this planet, right now? With the temporary exception of this city.”

“I take your meaning,” Ashtin said, frowning. The general should not have known he was a historian mage, or, more importantly, what a historian mage knows about history. “There are certainly diminishing returns to efforts spent on self-defense, but I feel this is something I need to do for my own safety.”

“Perhaps we can compromise,” the general suggested. “Can you teleport directly here, and then leave immediately afterwards?”

“No can do,” Dr. Shreburn answered for Ashtin. “I was hoping to get to know Ashtin better, and if things go well, maybe he’ll end up staying the night.”

“You’re old enough to be his mother,” the general grunted.

“So?” Dr. Shreburn snapped. “You were old enough to be my father.”

“I was not—” the general shouted, then he took a deep breath to calm himself. “And we both agreed it was a mistake.”

“Did we?” Dr. Shreburn asked. “From what I hear, you’re getting fresh with another new recruit.”

“OK, stop,” Ashtin said. “As entertaining as this melodrama is, we are all busy people, and you’ll find I can be reasonable. Why, exactly, do you want me to leave this settlement?”

“You’re a walking target,” the general said, “and I can’t spare the resources to protect you right now.”

“How am I different from any other mage in the city?” Ashtin followed up.

“Mr. Blackford, you’re aware of the crisis this settlement currently faces, correct? The guard has been working around the clock to get a handle on it, but every time we make a breakthrough, we suffer a setback. The men and women I most trust to investigate—who I know are not involved—betray us. They allow witnesses to mysteriously disappear. They commit random acts of violence, but then they come back the next day as if nothing has happened.”

“You suspect magic is at play,” Ashtin summarized.

“I wish I had a better theory,” the general confirmed, “but the council keeps offering weak explanations. Most recently, one of my captains assaulted a store clerk, though they claim to have no memory of doing so. The council told me they found psychotropic drugs in his system, but they refuse to explain how he was drugged, only to say magic wasn’t involved, and they have refused to let us interview any mages.”

“They watch mages very closely,” Ashtin muttered. “From their perspective, they know what their mages are capable of, and they can prove to themselves that no mage under their watch is responsible, but the City Guard does not share that perspective. It is understandable that some might believe the council is behind this.”

“Not just some,” the general said. “I don’t know a single guard who doesn’t suspect the council. Keeping discipline has been a full-time effort. It’s a miracle none of my soldiers have attacked a counselor.”

“The council outnumbers the guard two-to-one,” Ashtin said pointedly. “Gynoids don’t need to eat or sleep, and they don’t often miss their shots. Attacking the council would be suicide.”

“They all know that,” the general said, “which is why they’ve behaved themselves, but they all fear that they will be the next to fall victim to whatever magic is plaguing the guard, or that the council will condemn and destroy this settlement. When one may die either way, revenge becomes more tempting.”

“I appreciate you being honest with me, general,” Ashtin said. “When I am finished here today, I will return and speak with the council. I cannot promise you any results, but I will do my best to communicate to them the importance of regaining the guards’ trust. As to my presence in this city, let’s leave any decisions until after that.”

“I appreciate your offer,” the general said, well aware that it hadn’t been an offer, but a command, “but my position is unchanged. I’ve delivered my warning, and I’m out of time. Your safety is now entirely in your own hands. If you would excuse me, I would like to have a word in private with Flay.”

“Of course,” Ashtin said, nodding to the general. He walked to the back room in the laboratory and shut the door behind him. The general ought to be satisfied that Ashtin couldn’t overhear them, but his cat ears could pick up their muffled conversation.

“What’s going on here?” the general asked Dr. Shreburn. “Did the council put you up to this?”

“It’s the other way around,” Dr. Shreburn answered. “He’s assisting me with some research. You have no idea how many gynoid arms I had to twist to get this kind of access, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you ruin it.”

“Maybe you should relocate somewhere safer then,” the general said. “If the council is willing to loan you a mage, surely they’d let you leave the city. Other important people have already gotten out.”

“And what do you think will happen to those ‘important people’ if the random acts of violence spread to their new homes? They’ll be suspected of causing it. I’m not leaving until this is cleared up.”

“You’re impossible,” the general sighed. “What happened to you? You used to be willing to do whatever it took, but now you’re staggering blindly into danger.”

“I left the guard because I couldn’t stand to think like that anymore,” Dr. Shreburn said. “I can’t see enemies everywhere like you do.”

“No, you left because you felt bad about putting that thing out of its misery,” the general accused.

“He was a human, not a thing,” Dr. Shreburn shot back.

“Barely,” the general scoffed. “Sorry, I didn’t come here to have this argument again. I still care about you. I’m worried about you.”

“I don’t want any kindness from you,” Dr. Shreburn hissed. “Go waste it on your new recruit.”

“Fine,” the general snarled. “But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you about hanging around that cat-eared freak.” With that, he turned his back on the doctor and stomped away.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Dr. Shreburn said when Ashtin opened the door.

“Don’t be,” Ashtin reassured her. “It was very enlightening.”

“There’s something that’s bothering me about his story,” Dr. Shreburn said. “If the council is so insistent with the guard that magic is not to blame, why did they send you here to determine if the cause is magical?”

“Perhaps they’re playing a counterintelligence game within the guard,” Ashtin suggested. “We may be a part of that very game. Tell me, how likely is it, if magic were involved, that we would be able to trace it to its caster?”

“Very unlikely,” Dr. Shreburn admitted. “Spells do leave microscopic evidence of their existence, but it degrades over time. In a laboratory setting, I was able to correlate this evidence to its caster, but only because I’d had ample time to study the casters beforehand. But the council assured me you have unique talents. That’s why I took the assignment.”

“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. I do have unique talents,” Ashtin said, pointing to his cat ears, “but I’m no better at detecting magic than any other mage. We may have to rethink our approach.”

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” Dr. Shreburn said, shaking her head.

“If you want out, I’ll inform the council,” Ashtin said. “I’ll argue on your behalf, but make the decision now. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

“This is too important,” Dr. Shreburn said. “I’m in, as long as… As long as the council isn’t behind this crisis.”

“Of course they’re not!” Ashtin nearly shouted. “Why would they spend centuries traveling between stars and laboring to make this world suitable for life, just to risk the breakdown of the entire planet through random acts of violence? What could they possibly gain from that?”

Kya Hon