Chapter 18:

An Unbreakable Chain Forged by a Broken Child

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

Childhood was an especially dangerous time for mages. The study of magic required long periods of memorization and concentration, but children were curious, easily bored, and full of energy. No matter how often they were warned about the dangers of giving into temptation and exploring their own magic, they only had so much willpower. Thus, they were given regular breaks to run and play. In order to give them plenty of room to play away from the general population, young mages were trained on the outskirts of the settlements, and it was normal for them to live in a dormitory attached to the training facility. Most days, they did more playing than studying.

To Ashtin however, these breaks were more often than not a nuisance. Since the accident, he had become much more introverted. He couldn’t relate well to kids who had not experienced the same kind of pain, and they couldn’t relate to him either. He also had more internal struggles than most children his age, so he spent a lot of time in counseling, rather than on the field, but physical exercise was important, so the counselors made him go out at least once a day.

During one such forced break, he had been running laps around the facility when he bumped into a trio of other boys. One of them was a year younger than Ashtin, but the other two were older.

“Hey, it’s that kid who gets special treatment,” one of the older boys sneered. He was in a visibly bad mood. “How come you always tuck your arm in like that? Is it crippled or something? Why don’t you use magic to fix it?”

Following the accident, Ashtin had gotten in the habit of folding his left arm against his body whenever he wasn’t using it. There was nothing wrong with it, and it had stopped hurting after a couple days, but he still felt safer when he kept it close. He was often encouraged to talk about it during counseling sessions, but they had failed to alter his behavior. The counselors were at a loss. To their knowledge, nobody had ever lost and then involuntarily regrown a limb before, especially at such a young age, so they had no frame of reference for what normal recovery looked like.

For all their mental advantages, gynoids had trouble thinking creatively. If a biological human had posited to them that the new arm would feel alien to Ashtin, and that he’d try to reject it, they would have assigned a higher probability to that than any scenario they could imagine.

“It’s fine,” Ashtin muttered, stretching out his arm to show the boy. “I just don’t want to lose it again.”

“So what?” the boy spat. “You think the rest of us walk around normally because we want to lose our arms?”

“Of course not,” Ashtin said. “The counselors say it’s a psychological crutch. I feel safer when it’s close, but if I keep working through my trauma, I’ll eventually feel safe.”

“Seriously?” The boy chuckled. “How old are you, kid?”

“Nine,” Ashtin answered.

“What kind of nine-year-old talks like that?” the boy asked.

“Mom says it’s important to listen to the counselors and think about what they say,” Ashtin said, looking at the ground. The older boy's behavior frightened him, but only a little. He was much more scared of doing something that would disappoint his mother.

“And that’s another thing,” the boy growled. “How come you get to live with your mom while the rest of us have to live out here, in the middle of nowhere?”

“It’s better to let kids stay with their parents when possible,” Ashtin recited, “but most parents aren't equipped to raise mages. They don’t understand magic, don’t understand what we’re going through, and they struggle to maintain control.”

“So what?” the boy challenged. “You’re saying your mother’s better than mine?”

“Not better,” Ashtin said, stepping back, “just different. She’s a counselor.”

“Like I said, special treatment,” the boy sneered, assuming that Ashtin meant that his mother was one of the few biological counselors in the city. “It’s not fair.”

“Sometimes life isn’t fair,” Ashtin said. “Bad things happen to people who don’t deserve it.”

“Easy for you to say,” the boy grunted, shoving Ashtin in the chest with one hand.

“Whatever’s bothering you,” Ashtin said after he steadied himself, “it’s not my fault. Don’t take it out on me.”

“Shut up,” the boy said, curling his fingers into a fist. “You sound just like them.”

Ashtin immediately turned and ran, attempting to avoid a fight, but the older boy easily caught up to him, grabbed Ashtin by the shoulder, and threw him to the ground. Ashtin rolled onto his left side, just in time to shield his arm from the boy’s first punch. He tried to push the boy off him with his right arm, but the struggle caused the boy to punch Ashtin’s head hard enough to knock it against the ground. Ashtin briefly felt a swelling pressure in his head, but it just as quickly abated as his body healed itself. Realizing that there was nothing the boy could do to harm him, but the opposite was not true, he ceased struggling and resigned himself to the beating.

The other two boys approached slowly, and the older of the two commented, “Not much of a fair fight. You’re bigger than him.”

The boy attacking Ashtin stopped and turned to his friend. “So what?” he asked. “He deserves it.”

“It’s not very fun to watch,” the other boy said. “Why not make it interesting? We’re mages after all.”

“We’re not supposed to use magic for stuff like that,” the youngest boy pointed out. “Someone could get hurt real bad.”

“Don’t worry about that,” the boy said, climbing off Ashtin. “He’s weak, and I’ve got great control. Come on, get up. Let’s duel.”

“Stop,” the younger boy begged. “It’s against the rules. What if they make us disappear?”

“Don’t worry,” the other older boy said, throwing his arm around the younger boy’s shoulder. “They only do that to kids who lose control to their magic.”

“Even so,” Ashtin said, standing up, “magic should only be used for the betterment of society, not for schoolyard fights. I won’t duel with you.”

“Fine,” his assailant smirked. “You don’t have to do anything.” He raised his left index finger to his nose, and golden chains shot out from his right fingertips, encircling Ashtin’s left arm. Ashtin tried to pull his arm free, but he didn’t cast any spells himself. He tried to call out for help, but the chains wrapped around his throat.

The sight was too much for the younger boy, who cried out for help, but he was quickly stifled by the boy with his arm around his shoulder, who twisted his arm behind his back. Ashtin, seeing that the other boy’s left arm was being hurt, panicked. He tried to summon shields to push the older boys away, but he had yet to master the spell, and all he managed to do was release formless magical energy into the air. In a desperate bid, he grabbed at the energy with his right arm and tried to form it into a chain he could use to reach the other boy.

He had only recently begun to learn to create magical chains, but somehow, he managed to form a chain. The magical energy that coalesced intersected with one of the older boy’s chains, causing the older boy to smirk. When spells overlapped, the stronger spell would win out. His smirk was quickly replaced with a shocked expression, however, as his chain shattered, and Ashtin swung his arm, slamming his chain into the older boy’s side. The boy staggered, his remaining chains pulling Ashtin down with him, but Ashtin was still focused on the younger boy. Even as he struggled for breath, he swung his chain from the ground and managed to hit the other older boy in the shins, causing him to yelp in pain and release the younger boy, who ran off.

Ashtin had now drawn the ire of both older boys, but he didn’t realize it at first. With the younger boy now safe, Ashtin pulled the chain off his throat and started casting healing spells on boys he had hit with the chain, but they weren’t interested in his healing. After removing the chains from his left arm, they pushed him back to the ground and one of the boys yanked Ashtin’s left sleeve up and pinned his arm away from his body. The other boy summoned a small flame, which floated above his palm, and slowly lowered it towards Ashtin’s arm. Ashtin screamed and kicked at the boys, but he was no match for their strength.

As the boy lowered the flame, however, anti-magical energy washed over him, snuffing out the flame and disintegrating the magic chains lying on the ground. Gynoids and a spellbreaker pulled the boys apart. As they marched the boys towards the training facility, the spellbreaker’s foot brushed against a remaining chain. She reached down and picked it up, expecting it to disintegrate in her hand, but it was seemingly unaffected by her anti-magical energy.