The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet
All four boys spent the rest of their day in counseling, and Ashtin refused to leave until he could verify with his own eyes that the younger boy’s left arm was unharmed. When Ashtin was escorted home late in the evening, his mother was waiting to talk with him.
“Welcome home,” she greeted him. “Have you eaten?”
“They gave me a snack a little bit ago,” Ashtin reported, “but I could eat dinner. I love your cooking.” He was holding his left arm more tightly against his body than usual. He often allowed it to hang freely when at home, when he felt safe.
His mother looked at the gynoid behind Ashtin, establishing a peer-to-peer connection between the two of them, and used it to ask her what had happened. Ashtin waited patiently as the two conversed in silence. He was used to this, but it always made him feel uncomfortable. If it went on too long, he knew, it meant his mother was arguing with the rest of the council, which caused him to feel conflicting emotions.
On the one hand, he was happy his mother put his well being first, but on the other, he hated feeling that he was the cause of strife within the council. It made him uncomfortable.
“No,” his mother suddenly said aloud. “Absolutely not.” Ashtin knew that this meant things were getting bad. He wasn’t sure if it ever won her any arguments, but he knew that she was trying to limit what the council would say by ensuring that Ashtin could hear her side of the conversation.
After a few seconds, she opened her mouth to say something more, but stopped when the gynoid pulled one of Ashtin’s chains out of her purse and held it out to his mother. After a few more seconds passed, his mother took the chain, and the gynoid turned and left.
“Let’s talk about what happened today,” his mother suggested, “and then have dinner.”
“Do we have to?” Ashtin asked. “I just spent all day talking about it.”
“Yes,” his mom confirmed. “I’ve been told that you felt it necessary to let the other kids beat you because you would heal afterwards, but if you fought back, there was a possibility they could be injured.”
“Yeah,” Ashtin nodded. “That’s about right.”
“That was very mature of you,” his mother said, “but I do not want you to do that again. You are not invincible.”
“I know,” Ashtin sighed. “I shouldn’t rely on my magic.”
“It’s not just that,” his mother insisted. “I hear one of them punched you in the head hard enough to give you a concussion. We don’t know the full extent of your talents, but we do know that magic is channeled through the brain. You could have been cut off from your magic and seriously injured, or worse.”
“What should I have done then?” Ashtin asked. “I tried to reason with him. When that didn’t work, I tried to run. He was stronger than me.”
“You should have called for help,” his mother told him. “There are some situations nobody can handle alone. There’s no shame in calling for backup.”
“But the counselors are always telling me I need to learn to become more self-reliant,” Ashtin countered.
“That is true,” his mother admitted, “but there’s a limit to everything. If you had answered his questions differently, perhaps it wouldn’t have come to blows, or perhaps there was nothing you could have done. But when he became violent, and especially when he started using magic, you should have called for help.”
“But I knew we were being watched,” Ashtin said. “I knew I was never in any real danger, and I figured they were waiting to see how I reacted.”
“And why do you think you were being watched?” his mother asked.
“Because they’re always watching us,” Ashtin said, “and they’re never very far away.”
“You’re very observant,” his mother complimented him. “Still, in the future, I want you to protect yourself. Call for help when needed, and you have my permission to use shields and chains to protect yourself while help arrives. Understand?”
“Yes, mom,” Ashtin nodded.
“Good boy,” she said, displaying a smile on her face. She then looked down at the chain in her hand and her smile faded. The chain had been eroded very slightly on the ends by anti-magical energy, but it was otherwise intact. “They also told me you made this. Most adult mages can’t create chains this strong. Tell me, what were you thinking about when you cast the spell?”
Typically, mages cast spells by shaping the particles of their magical energy into lattices, which then interacted with the physical world to produce various effects. In a sense, the result was similar to chemistry. The lattices were created by bonding particles together, but every mage’s particles had a unique shape and a unique number of bond points. When lattices were formed with unbonded points, they reacted with the world around them, similar to unstable atoms. However, when all points were bonded, the energy manifested as physical mass, created from magical particles instead of atoms. The chains were made of this mass.
Since learning to form the chains was good practice for shaping magical energy, it was often one of the first exercises taught to young mages. There were mages who were unable to form the chains. Either their magical particles exposed too many bond points or their shapes prevented tight interlocking of magical particles. Ashtin was on the borderline. His magical particles were shaped so that it was difficult, but not impossible, to create a chain, which was why the chain his mother now held was so impressive.
When creating magical matter, its strength was proportional to how tightly the magical energy was packed, and how closely bonded. Anti-magical energy could destroy the chains by slipping into the gaps between magical particles, pushing them apart, and then disrupting their bonds. Ashtin’s chain had gaps so small that it was difficult to force anti-magic energy into them. This was because the mage’s mental state affected how tightly the particles would bond. By focusing on a closely-held belief, the magic bonds would tighten. The stronger the caster’s convictions, the tighter the bonds.
“Um,” Ashtin said, looking nervously at his feet. “It’s a secret.”
“Ashtin, this is important,” His mother said, placing a hand on his right shoulder. “I won’t let anything bad happen to you, no matter your answer, but I need you to tell me the truth. Was it a desire to protect the other boy?”
“No,” Ashtin said, squirming. “Not exactly. Normally, I’d say I was thinking about how much I love you, mom, but that would be a lie. I… the other boy made fun of me for talking like a counselor. He was angry at the council. Because of that—I tried not to—but I saw him as an enemy of the council, so when I made the chain, I was thinking about how important the council was, how I would do anything to defend it. I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” his mother said.
“But, but,” Ashtin stammered. “I used the council to justify violence, and I wasn’t thinking of you at all.”
“Ashtin, I’m your mother, not your goddess. I don’t expect you to keep me in your thoughts at all times. Your devotion to the council is admirable. You did everything you could to avoid violence, and no permanent harm came to the other boys. Sometimes, violence is the right answer, especially when it comes to defending the council or yourself. But,” she said, gently placing her hand on his left bicep, “you can’t defend anything with your arm like this.”
“I know,” Ashtin said, looking down again. “The counselors said today was a setback, but prior to that, I was making progress.”
“You no longer have the luxury of time,” his mother said, tightening her grip slightly on his left arm. “You are already mature for your age, but you will need to grow up quickly, and you can’t afford another setback.”
“That’s not what the counselors said,” Ashtin pointed out.
“It is what they will tell you tomorrow,” his mother informed him. She held the chain in front of his face. “Because of this, you’ve been made a historian mage candidate. If you fail, you may not have a future. Do you understand?”
“It means they’ll make me disappear, right?”
“It’s a possibility,” his mother confirmed.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” Ashtin said, “but… Can I keep my name?”
“It is not a strict requirement to change your name,” his mother answered, “merely a tradition. However, that tradition exists to help historian mages break their ties with their lives up until that point. If you refuse to change your name, you will be asked to demonstrate your commitment in some other way.”
“What if I only changed my last name?” Ashtin offered. “It’s the only thing I have left that daddy gave me. I just think it will be hard for me to respond to a new name. I will forget it, and I won’t answer when spoken to. That could be seen as a flaw.”
“It could,” his mother agreed. “Very well, I will negotiate on your behalf.
“And can I still like cute things?” Ashtin blurted out.
“As long as you can overcome your weaknesses,” she said, pointing to his left arm. “To help you with that, I have decided that we should try some positive reinforcement, but I need to know how to reward you. Tell me, what do you want more than anything else? Toys? Candy?”
“Nothing,” Ashtin nearly shouted. “Learning to use my magic is more fun than any toy, and I prefer your cooking to any other food. You and the counselors take great care of me. There’s nothing that I could possibly want. I don’t understand how that other boy could have been so unhappy.”
“Because he is a child,” his mother explained, “and children have difficulty handling their own emotions. We can provide for their basic needs, but we can only assist them with their psychological needs, despite all the resources and attention we devote to them. You, too, are a child, so there must be something you want, something that could make your life better.”
“There is,” Ashtin hesitated, “but it’s impossible. I already gave up on it.”
“Tell me,” his mother insisted.
“I… I want you to love me,” Ashtin said quietly, “but you’re a gynoid, so…”
“I cannot love you,” she finished for him, “but I do care for you. I could show you more affection, but that typically embarrasses boys your age.”
“Not me,” Ashtin said. “I love you, mom. I want you to hug me and pat my head and kiss my cheek and read me bedtime stories and…”
“I understand,” his mother interrupted. “Whenever you use your arm normally, I will reward you with affection. Let’s try it right now.”
Ashtin tried to relax his left arm, to allow it to hang normally by his side, but he pulled it back, remembering the pain of its regrowth. “Can we try tomorrow?” he asked.
“No,” his mother insisted. “What’s the matter? Do you not feel safe here with me?”
“I only feel safe with you, mom,” Ashtin said. “I know you only want what is best for me, no matter how scary it is, but I also remember the pain. I never want to feel pain like that again.”
“But you were OK with the pain when the other boy hit you?”
“That was different,” Ashtin explained. “It didn’t hurt nearly as much. Nothing he could do to me would hurt like the accident.”
“I see,” she said, “your concept of pain was greatly affected. Everything else seems trivial by comparison. In a way, you see yourself as impervious, except for your arm, because you remember the pain too vividly. We must change your relationship with pain. Either you must lose your sense of invincibility, or we must extend it to your left arm.”
“How will we do that?” Ashtin asked.
“If you were hit with this chain on your right arm, how much do you think it would hurt?”
“It would sting,” Ashtin said, “but just for a little bit.”
“I do not wish to hurt you,” his mother said, “but if I told you it was for your own good, would you let me test that? I will reward you afterwards.”
Without hesitation, Ashtin rolled up his right sleeve and held his arm out. “Of course,” he said. “I trust you mom.” The gynoid raised her arm then swung it down, whipping Ashtin’s right arm with the chain. He flinched, and his arm began to swell, but a moment later, the swelling reversed. “It hurt a bit more than I expected, but it wasn’t bad,” Ashtin reported.
“You did good,” his mother said, ruffling his hair with her free hand and then sliding it down to his cheek. He grabbed her hand with his and held it to his cheek, letting out a sigh of contentment. At that moment, it didn’t matter to him that she was incapable of love. In fact, it made him treasure the experience even more. She had decided, of her own free will, that it was in her best interest to indulge him. She chose to show him affection, uninfluenced by the emotions that encouraged mothers to love their children. After leaving her hand there for half a minute, she pulled it away. “Was that what you wanted?” she asked.
“It was nice,” Ashtin smiled, “but what I really want is a kiss.” He turned his cheek towards her.
“A kiss is a bigger reward,” his mother told him. “Now that we know how your right arm responds to pain, we need to show you that it’s no different than your left arm. If you want to earn that kiss, hold it out for me.”
She raised the chain once more, but this time, Ashtin hesitated. He remembered how warm her hand had felt on her cheek, how it had relaxed his soul. A kiss from mom would be even better, but his left arm was precious to him. Was it more precious to him than mom though? No, without mom, he would have nothing, he would be nothing. In the days following the accident, he’d had suicidal thoughts, but it was mom’s promise that kept him going. What would have become of him without her? He imagined a series of failed suicide attempts, culminating with him attempting to drawn himself at the bottom of a lake, in constant pain as he gasped for air but would not die. He didn’t actually know how long he could survive drowning. Perhaps the lack of oxygen would cut off his connection to his magical energy, but he imagined the worst.
Closing his eyes, he rolled up his left sleeve and shakily held out his arm.