Chapter 23:


The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

“I honestly don’t see what the big deal is,” Rorthi said as they climbed the stairs to the third floor. “We’re perfectly safe as long as we stay inside. The council will eventually reclaim control of the settlement.”

Ashtin ignored her and focused on helping Dr. Shreburn up the stairs. The relative calm of the guild had caused her to relax, leaving her with an adrenaline crash on top of the pain and blood loss. Without asking, she had put her right arm around Ashtin and was using him to help support her weight. Not being the most muscular, it took all of Ashtin’s strength to remain standing. He had no idea how they were going to make it to the fifth floor after this.

“This is why I hate mages,” Wincent grunted. “You don’t care about anyone but yourselves.”

“Look… who’s…” Dr. Shreburn wheezed.

“I say we just end her right here,” Wincent continued. “We end all three of the suspects. It’s the only way to be sure.”

“I’m a suspect?” Rorthi gasped. “What do you suspect me of?”

“You’re one of three local mages capable of remote hypnosis,” Ashtin said. “That’s the only reason you’re a suspect.”

“But I would never do that,” Rorthi insisted. “I only use hypnosis for therapeutic purposes.”

“Then you can prove your innocence by assisting us,” Ashtin said.

“But I’ll be watching you,” Wincent added.

“Hold,” Ashtin said, glancing down at his tablet, “our next target is headed this way.”

“I can’t handle two at once,” Wincent said. “Choose, do we trust this one, or do I kill her now?”

“You can kill her if the next one attacks,” Ashtin said. “I’ll hold them off to give you time.”

“Hey,” Rorthi shouted. “Don’t kill me, I didn’t do anything.”

“Not here… to kill,” Dr. Shreburn muttered.

“Naive,” Wincent grunted. “Do you know how many have already died? How many will die if we fail? Even if we have to slay hundreds of innocent mages to find the source of all this, it will be worth it, but the risk of leaving a guilty mage alive is not.”

“I know that,” Ashtin said, “but I need to capture them alive if at all possible, at least one of them.”

They had nearly reached the third-floor landing when the door swung open and a tall mage with wide shoulders emerged. The tablet confirmed he was the second target.

“Historian mage,” he said, “turn back. This is a trap.”

“One that I’m already caught in,” Ashtin replied. “Surrender, Tussev Itermata.”

“I yield, historian mage,” Tussev said, “but it will do you no good. All of us combined cannot stand up to Darmy.”

“That’s why I bought a spellbreaker,” Ashtin said.

“She looks like she needs medical attention,” Tussev observed.

“This Darmy,” Wincent cut in, “are you claiming that he’s responsible for the chaos in the streets, and you knew about it, but did nothing?”

“None of us can leave,” Tussev explained, “but Darmy doesn’t hurt mages unless they oppose him, so we resigned ourselves to waiting it out.”

“Is this true?” Wincent asked Rorthi.

“Possibly,” Rorthi answered. “I mean, the part about being stuck in here is true, but I don’t pay much attention to the other mages, so I couldn’t tell you who was responsible.”

“With a spellbreaker’s help, we might be able to escape,” Tussev said. “We could warn the council.”

“Escape the building, possibly,” Ashtin allowed, “but not the city. I will confront Darmy, and you will assist me.”

“Very well,” Tussev sighed. “The sooner we get this over with, the better. May I carry you, Ms. Spellbreaker?”

“Dr. Spellbreaker,” Dr. Shreburn corrected him, “but yes, please.”

Tussev knelt down and lifted Dr. Shreburn into his arms. He knew better than to attempt to cast a spell making Dr. Shreburn lighter, so instead, he augmented his own already considerable physique. They had ascended only a few steps when Tussev shuddered and had to readjust his weight. Dr. Shreburn’s anti-magical energy was wearing away at the spell. He recast the spell to the best of his ability as they climbed the stairs, and Ashtin was impressed that he appeared to be able to cast spells just by thinking of them. He didn’t do anything with his body to assist the casting.

Looking back down at the tablet, Ashtin kept his focus on the circle labeled “Darmy Longmaz.” It remained in a room on the fourth floor until they had nearly arrived on the landing, then it disappeared. He frantically scanned the tablet, sweeping up and down through the floors until, a moment later, it reappeared on the fifth floor. Too much time had passed between his disappearance and his reappearance for him to have teleported directly between the floors, but not enough time for him to teleport elsewhere and back.

“Hurry,” Ashtin urged. “He’s on the fifth floor now.”

“Is Fanmizer with him?” Wincent asked.

“I don’t know,” Ashtin said as he neared the landing between floors. He had sped up and was slightly ahead of the rest of the group.

“He’s probably armed, you know,” Wincent warned.

“The guard colonel?” Tuzzev guessed. “I haven’t seen him in a while, but he usually patrols the fourth floor.”

“Then we could be walking into a trap,” Wincent said. “Fanmizer shoots us from behind while we’re facing Darmy.”

“Then we grab Darmy before Fanmizer has the chance,” Ashtin said, now taking the steps two at a time.

Once again, Ashtin’s impatience was getting the better of him. He knew that Darmy was close, and that if he could nullify Darmy’s magic, the council could start to take control of the situation. Their slow pace was undoubtedly getting people killed, including, possibly, his own mother. The others took another half minute to reach him. When they were all together again, he used the little magical energy he had recovered to cast a shield around his head and then pulled open the door and stepped into the fifth floor.

From just a glance, Ashtin could tell this was a high-security floor. It made sense. It was about halfway up the building, not too close to either the top or the bottom. Historian mages freely traversed these high-security floors, but other mages were kept out unless escorted by a counselor. Troublingly, however—or perhaps luckily—there were no guards to be found.

After checking the tablet again to make sure Darmy hadn’t moved, Ashtin set off towards his location. It was a straight shot down the hallway, so the others could follow at their own pace. To protect himself from hypnosis, he pulled his knife from its holster and stabbed his left forearm with the tip, twisting it as he walked.

Just as he was about to reach the door, it opened outward. Ashtin ran forward, grabbed the door’s handle, and pivoted himself around the door’s edge to attempt to block Darmy from escaping, but there was nobody near the doorway. In fact, Ashtin had to poke his head into the room to spot its occupants.

The room was large, and the logo of the Council of Humankind was carved into the floor. The gynoid receptionist stood motionless next to the far wall, and next to her stood Darmy Longmaz, only it wasn’t the Darmy Longmaz from the personnel file. He was shorter and slimmer, and had a pair of cat ears atop his head.

He looked exactly like Ashtin, but as he turned his body, Ashtin could see that he had a working tail. It had glossy black fur and swished around as if it had a mind of its own. It was everything Ashtin wanted in a tail.

“Welcome, Ashtin Blackford,” he smiled. “I’m honored you came all this way for a visit.”

“T—tail,” Ashtin stammered.

“Oh, do you like it?” Darmy asked. “I hoped you would. After our previous encounter, I did some digging, and I know now that threatening you is meaningless, but I can offer you things the council cannot… and things the council would deny you.”

Ashtin opened his mouth to tell Darmy that he would not betray the council, but his eyes once again fixated on the movement of Darmy’s tail, and he replied, “In exchange for what?”

“The friendship of a historian mage,” Darmy answered. “I’ve turned many mages to my cause, but none would be as useful as you. The council has become guarded in their communications. They know I’m listening in, but you know things that could help me. If friendship is too much to ask, how about we trade knowledge?”

Coming back to his senses, Ashtin shook his head. No matter how much he wanted a tail, he wouldn’t betray the council for one. But… What if he could learn how to grow a tail without betraying the council? He could be the hero that saved the settlement and grow the tail of his dreams.

“Let’s talk,” Ashtin said, walking forward toward the center of the room.