Chapter 24:

Betrayal, Disappointment, and Failure

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

After being placed in the historian mage candidate program, little immediately changed in Ashtin’s life. He studied the same subjects at the same facility, and occasionally, he was still bullied, but the spellbreakers were quicker to step in and protect him. What did change, however, was that the adults started trusting him with small secrets.

First, while Ashtin was within earshot, one of the spellbreakers complained to another about a scar on his bottom. Later, a counselor made sure he saw her enter a hidden room on the third floor. In both cases, they wanted to see if Ashtin could keep what he had learned a secret, but because he did not often interact with his peers, he had little opportunity or motivation to share the forbidden knowledge.

Finally, they decided to test the opposite: whether he would keep secrets from the council. One of his biological tutors, Mr. Meddit, left behind leaflets that mildly criticized the council. The counselors had hoped that he would immediately report the man, but as soon as Ashtin realized what the leaflets were, he ran from the room and captured him, binding him tightly in magical chains so that he couldn’t escape. It had caused quite a commotion, and even after the counselors explained it had been a test of his loyalty, he regarded Mr. Meddit with suspicion for years.

The council continued testing him in this manner for months, and eventually Ashtin caught on, but he pretended to be ignorant. The counselors quickly figured this out and asked him about it directly, and he immediately confessed. Thus, the tests were halted. Ashtin had demonstrated loyalty, honesty, and tact, but it remained to be seen whether he could keep the council’s secrets.

Unable to fully trust him, the council passively monitored him for more than two years. The delay was not problematic for the council. Children were rarely considered as candidates to become historian mages. Even if a child was trustworthy, that could change as they grew, and young children often had difficulty truly understanding historical details in their proper context. The biggest issue was usually politics. Even if they understood the differences between political systems, children had a simplistic perspective on human interactions that they couldn’t reconcile with real-world power dynamics.

When Ashtin turned twelve, the council decided to start teaching him restricted, but not especially dangerous, information about humanity’s past. This was how Ashtin first learned about cats—and how the council learned about his obsession with them, an obsession they feared might one day eclipse his loyalty.

Their fears were being realized as Ashtin walked slowly across the room towards Darmy. His sole focus should have been on the mission, but the possibility of learning to grow a tail was too enticing for Ashtin to ignore.

“I want some guarantees,” Ashtin said. “Don’t harm my mother.”

“She’s safe,” Darmy assured him, “for now, at least. I know you’re looking forward to showing her your brand new tail.”

“That won’t make her happy, Ashtin,” the gynoid receptionist blurted out, managing to briefly overpower Darmy’s control of her body. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she jerked backwards violently and began making choking sounds. Ashtin hadn’t seen Darmy move at all. Apparently, he could cast spells as freely as Tussev.

“Of course it won’t make her happy,” Darmy shouted at the gynoid. “She can’t feel happiness. That’s not the point. The point is Ashtin’s happiness. Isn’t that right, Ashtin? We can feel emotions, so our desires should take precedence.”

The gynoid continued to jerk about, looking directly at Ashtin as he crossed the room. The gurgling sounds quieted as Darmy exerted more force on her windpipe. If she needed to breathe, Ashtin would have been worried for her safety, but instead he was confused. Why had she pushed herself so hard just to say that, and why was she still trying to communicate with him? Just as Darmy took full control of her body, Ashtin realized it: He was about to cross into the middle of the council’s logo, and Darmy was standing in the perfect spot to channel his magical energy into the circle.

Ashtin tried to change course as subtly as possible, but it was impossible to not be obvious about it. The smile faded from Darmy’s face as he saw Ashtin avoid the center of the circle.

“Now that’s a surprise,” Darmy said. “The council must trust you more than I suspected.”

“They sent me here, didn’t they?” Ashtin responded. Having been caught, he ran quickly to the edge of the circle.

“You have no idea what the council really thinks of you,” Darmy snorted, summoning a stack of papers to his hand. He began to read aloud from the front page.

“No matter how loyal Ashtin may be at the moment, his impulsive nature and his tendency to obsess over arcane minutia remain a great risk. Further, despite years of training his critical thinking skills, he refuses to entertain any argument that the council does bad things. His loyalty is thus more a matter of faith than reasoned thinking. In the short run, he may be as loyal as mages who acknowledge the unfortunate actions we must take, but if his faith is shattered, as faith so often is, that could change.”

“Yet here I am,” Ashtin smiled, “a historian mage.”

“Only because they calculated that it would be beneficial to them to use you for a few years and then get rid of you at the first sign of trouble,” Darmy said. “And this is it. One of them saw you consider my offer. If you’re still harboring any foolish notions of trying to turn me in, you’ll suffer the same fate. You’re on my side now.”

Walking calmly up to Darmy, Ashtin held out his hand and Darmy handed him the report. He scanned it while keeping one eye on Darmy. Flipping to the last page, he found a listing of who voted for and against him becoming a historian mage. Although he had never participated in the selection process, he knew that candidates needed to get at least 90% of the vote, and he had just barely squeaked through with 91%. Notably, his mother had voted against him.

Ashtin’s chest tightened upon seeing that, and a wave of complicated emotions swept through him. He didn’t feel betrayed—he could never feel betrayed by his mother, no matter what she did to him—but she had never given him any indication that she opposed him becoming a historian mage. Once the decision had been made, she had devoted herself fully to it. In a way, he felt as if he had betrayed her. Perhaps the council had ordered her to encourage him against her best judgment. Maybe even the affection she showed him was forced onto her by the council.

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of footsteps entering the room. Dr. Shreburn was now being supported by both Tussev and Wincent. Apparently Tussev’s magic had collapsed completely. Rorthi walked in front of them. Wincent’s gun still trained on her back.

“Tussev, why did you bring them here?” Darmy questioned.

Inwardly, Ashtin was relieved that Darmy had spoken first. Although he looked enough like Ashtin to confuse Dr. Shreburn and Wincent, their voices were very different. Wincent might have been tempted to shoot both of them, just to be sure, and Ashtin didn’t know how well he would regenerate with his magic depleted.

“I thought that’s what you wanted,” Tussev replied. “I mean, why else let them into the building?”

“You’re not entirely wrong,” Darmy allowed, “but I don’t want the general or the spellbreaker. You should have led them to the colonel.”

“I’m sorry,” Tussev said, trembling in fear. “I didn’t know that’s what you wanted.”

“It was partially my fault for not communicating my intentions more clearly,” Darmy said, waving him off. “Just bring him here now.”

“My magic’s spent,” Tussev explained. “This spellbreaker, she’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, and she’s only half conscious.”

“Dig deeper,” Darmy commanded. “You do remember what I taught you, don’t you?”

“I—I would never forget,” Tussev stammered. He quickly pushed himself away from Dr. Shreburn, causing Wincent to stumble and fall under Dr. Shreburn’s weight.

The sudden jostling brought Dr. Shreburn to her senses, and she watched in fascination as Tussev attempted to force out more magic. His breathing was heavy, and sweat drops were forming on his forehead, but he was managing to gather a vast amount of magical energy around himself. Obviously in pain, he fell to one knee as he cast the teleportation spell to summon Col. Fanmizer to the middle of the room.

The colonel blinked in surprise from the unexpected teleportation. Had Darmy been a decent communicator, he would have found a way to warn Fanmizer of what was happening. Instead, Fanmizer momentarily froze as Wincent pushed his way out from under Dr. Shreburn and pointed his gun at the colonel.

“Wait,” Ashtin yelled, causing Wincent to hesitate. Tussev, back on his feet but his magic truly spent, tackled Wincent as he pulled the trigger. Wincent managed to fire off two shots, but his aim had been thrown off, and they passed through the wall without hitting anyone.

Col. Fanmizer ran forward to assist Tussev, and together, they wrestled the gun from Wincent’s grip.

With Ashtin’s cat ears still ringing from the shots, he didn’t hear Darmy give the order to kill Wincent, but he barely made out Fanmizer’s reply.

“Can’t you hypnotize him again?”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Darmy shouted.

“I’m not,” Fanmizer gulped. “It’s just that if he’s seen to hand the City Guard over to me, it’ll serve both our interests.”

“Oh, is that all you meant?” Darmy said. He placed a hand on his chin and appeared to lose himself in thought.

This gave Ashtin some time to reflect on the situation. The fact that Darmy had ordered Tussev to teleport the colonel meant that Darmy was probably incapable of teleportation himself. It didn’t matter how powerful of a mage you were. If your magical energy had the wrong shape, you could never cast a teleportation spell.

Darmy also didn’t seem to be all there. His behavior was erratic, first threatening Ashtin, then trying to lure him into a trap, and when that failed, proclaiming Ashtin had no choice but to be on his side. It was as if he had never considered the possibility that Ashtin might have approached him under a false truce.

The obvious explanation was that Darmy had gone mad exploring his own magic. It would explain how powerful he had become, and go a long way towards explaining the situation in Settlement 266. If the guard had, instead of executing a rogue mage, secretly partnered with him to sow chaos and take control of the city from the council, it would be difficult for the council to stop it.

Further, if Darmy had become used to talking to his own magic, it made sense that he would find communicating with humans cumbersome. Although he had managed to teach Tussev a technique to force out magical energy, Ashtin questioned whether he would have the patience to teach him how to grow a tail.

“OK,” Darmy said with a shrug. “Take him to the 4th floor and make sure he doesn’t escape. Kill the spellbreaker though.”

“Excuse me,” Rorthi interjected, raising her hand into the air. “Can I leave? I’d rather not see that.”

“Of course,” Darmy said with a smile. “Just go back to your office and continue pretending that everything’s normal. I’m sorry these people bothered you.”

“They pointed a gun at me,” Rorthi said, shivering. “I won’t feel safe again until I know it can’t hurt me. Please let me destroy it.”

“I see,” Darmy said, his smile turning to a frown. “Tussev, give her the general’s gun.”

“Is that a good idea?” Col. Fanmizer questioned.

“Of course it is,” Darmy assured him. “She’s harmless. You, on the other hand, should know better than to question a mage.”

“Of course, I—” Col. Fanmizer started to say, but his final words were drowned out by the sound of gunfire as Rorthi fired three shots. The first two impacted against the colonel's body armor, but the third entered his forehead, killing him.

As his body fell to the floor, Rorthi adjusted her aim and fired another three shots towards Darmy. The bullets, however, collided against magical shields that Darmy erected. Had he reacted a second quicker, he could have saved Col. Fanmizer, if he cared to.

Knowing the gun was now useless to her, but not wanting to drop it for Tussev to grab, Rorthi ran forward, pointing the gun at a downward angle away from her. As she reached the shields, she brought her right hand up and held it in front of her. A fiery orange blade, the length of a shortsword, formed in her hand and she used it to slice through the shields. Darmy cast more shields to replace them, but Rorthi steadily advanced, cutting through them.

Ashtin immediately recognized Rorthi’s motive. By killing Darmy, she was trying to prove to the council that she was more loyal than the historian mage they had sent. It wouldn’t sway the council to accept her into their ranks like she thought it would, but if she got him first, Ashtin would face uncomfortable scrutiny from the council. With his free hand, he fingered the knife in his pocket. Now that he was close enough to Darmy, one well-placed stab would be all it would take to prove that he was still loyal.

As he lunged towards Darmy, he realized something was wrong. Darmy wasn’t even attempting to use hypnosis to control Rorthi, nor was he retreating away from her. He hadn’t moved from the spot he had been standing in the entire time Ashtin had seen him in the room.

Ashtin’s knife, and his arm, passed completely though Darmy a second before Rorthi reached them. Darmy wasn’t here at all, Ashtin realized. He had rendered himself invisible to the fourth floor sensors and was projecting an illusion into the fifth. That’s why it had taken slightly longer than a teleportation for him to appear on the fifth floor. Ashtin should have realized that as soon as he learned that Darmy was incapable of teleportation.

Now it was too late. Even if he knew where Darmy was, he wouldn’t be able to drag Dr. Shreburn there quickly enough to prevent his escape.