Chapter 25:

And Also With You

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

As Ashtin neared 14 years of age, counselors started pulling him aside for impromptu interviews. They weren’t counseling sessions, but Ashtin could tell they weren’t normal conversations either. The final interview was conducted by R. Soffy, and although Ashtin didn’t realize it, her recommendation would influence whether or not he would be allowed to become a historian mage.

“Hey Ash,” she said, tapping him on the shoulder. “Got a minute?” He had been reading alone in a study room, and Soffy locked the door behind her.

“Soffy? You’re not at the front desk? Is that OK?”

“Even I get to take breaks,” Soffy reassured him, pulling up a chair and leaning back in it.

“Well, what can I do for you?” Ashtin asked, putting his tablet on the table and turning to face her. He was genuinely pleased to get the opportunity to speak with her.

“Seen any good anime recently?” Soffy asked. It was an icebreaker question to get Ashtin to relax.

M*hou Sh*ujo N*ko T*ruto,” Ashtin answered. “I enjoyed it, but it doesn't lend itself to intellectual discussion.”

“Oh, you watch mahou shoujo?” Soffy exclaimed, raising an eyebrow. “Most mages don’t enjoy stories involving magic.”

“I get that,” Ashtin nodded. “There are times when I just want a complete escape from reality, but I don’t think that’s healthy. I do my best to appreciate what anime has to offer without using it as a means of escape.”

Soffy knew he wasn't being completely honest, not with her, and not with himself, but this wasn't a counseling session, and she didn't want to turn it into one. “What exactly do you think anime has to offer?” she followed up.

“Cuteness and cats, well sometimes. Even when it’s not cute, it’s art, though it’s also commercial, so it’s not purely art. Hmm… I guess it’s entertainment, and I just happen to enjoy it more than other forms of entertainment. But no matter how much time I devote to it, I never wish I was in an anime world, or the world was more like an anime, or anything like that. If you think through the implications of any fictional world, there’s lots of aspects that make for great entertainment, but would be horrifying to live through.”

“Coming from you, that means something,” Soffy commented. “So you get your fill of escapism by pretending to be a cat or something?”

“That would be even worse,” Ashtin scoffed. “Cats are cute and I love them. I want the council to make cats on this planet, but they’re not intelligent. I could never be a cat.”

“Some might prefer to live a blissful life of ignorance,” Soffy pointed out.

“Not me,” Ashtin said. “Without intelligence, there’s no meaning, and suffering without meaning is just too sad. That’s the real reason I’m thankful for the council. Without the council, intelligent life would have died out centuries ago. Instead, it spread to the stars.”

Soffy knew Ashtin well enough to interpret his babbling. He was espousing a personal philosophy that people could find their own reasons to live. It wasn’t that there was some deeper meaning to life, or that everyone would find their own reasons. Many people certainly lived meaningless lives, but cats didn’t even have the concept of meaning.

In a universe without intelligent life, there would be no meaning, and Ashtin didn’t want that.

There were holes in Ashtin’s reasoning, but his outlook on life was similar to the gynoids’, and Soffy was uninterested in debating the differences, so she instead asked, “It’s got nothing to do with your mother?”

“Not nothing,” Ashtin smiled, “but even if I didn’t have her, I would support the council with all my being. I know that no organization lasts forever, but if the council falls…”

“Just because no organization has ever lasted forever, that doesn’t mean the council will suffer the same fate,” Soffy said. It was an unusually serious statement from the whimsical gynoid, and that worried Ashtin.

“What’s this really about?”

“You’re a fun kid, Ash, but I don’t know if I can trust you.”

“You can trust me,” Ashtin insisted. “I passed every test the council has ever put me through.”

“Except poor Mr. Meddit,” Soffy said. “We wanted you to report him to the nearest gynoid, but instead you tied him up on your own initiative.”

“I thought he was dangerous,” Ashtin protested. “If I didn’t act, he could hurt people.”

“If he had been dangerous, you could have been one of the people he hurt. Your impulsive behavior makes you unpredictable, and that’s why I have trouble trusting you.”

“I can try to work on that,” Ashtin said, hanging his head, “but I would always make the same choice. Organizations fail because of small chips and cracks worn into them over the years. My safety is not worth even a single attack against the council, not a single scratch.”

“Ash,” Soffy said, putting her hand on his right shoulder, “the council is not so weak that we need you to protect us like that. We’ve dealt with threats much greater than what Mr. Meddit represented, and we will deal with threats much larger than you can deal with alone. Next time, come to us first.”

“But I wasn’t alone,” Ashtin mumbled. “The council’s always watching. The council is always with me.”

Despite that proclamation, the council had not been with Ashtin when he entered the underground tunnels. Although he had tracking devices sewn into his robes and implanted under his skin, their transmissions were blocked by the magical surface of the tunnel. For three whole days, the council had lost track of him. Basttias had tirelessly searched the building in which he was last seen before finding the entrance to the tunnels.

At the time Ashtin emerged from the tunnels, the council was finishing its preparations for an assault on Settlement 266. Their goal was the elimination of all biological humans who had become accustomed to taking and holding areas through violence. Such militarism threatened to destabilize the entire planet.

They were not blind to the optics of gynoids brutally and efficiently hunting down biological humans. They were doing everything in their power to control the flow of information from the city, and they hoped that most of the combatants would surrender themselves so they could be disposed of discretely, but the council always planned for the worst-case scenario, which is why when they noticed Ashtin’s tracking signals, they delayed their plans.

They knew Ashtin always took the shortest path to eliminate a threat, whether or not it was a good idea to act alone. This was why they had sent him to Settlement 266. Yes, they expected him to get attacked, and hoped to gain intelligence from that, but they primarily hoped that by tracking Ashtin’s movements, they would find the culprits more quickly.

As soon as they realized he was heading towards the mages' guild, they assembled a strike force composed of their most powerful historian mages, gynoids wearing magic-resistant armor, and local spellbreakers.

The anti-magical armor would not be as useful as a spellbreaker. It consisted of a bright-red helmet and vest, and was made of inorganic materials that reacted poorly with magical energy. Since it was heavy, they couldn’t cover themselves head-to-toe with it, but they hoped it would be enough to prevent them from becoming controlled by whoever was casting mass hypnosis on the citizens of the city.

Since it had been thrown together so quickly, the strike force had only a few spellbreakers among its ranks. Most of them had been pulled from their homes without being told what was happening and transported in armored vehicles to the city center. The gynoids with magical-resistant armor were already en route to the city, and the historian mages were able to teleport in, disguised and unnoticed.

The group guarding the first floor of the mages' guild were taken completely by surprise. They noticed the gynoids and spellbreakers approaching, but before they could fire, the historian mages hidden in their ranks attacked with magical lightning and then teleported away to avoid any reprisal spells from above. They quickly rejoined the strike force, standing side by side with the spellbreakers to prevent hypnosis.

At this time, Col. Fanmizer had been killed, and Darmy’s deception had been discovered. Darmy’s first instinct was to go to the fifth floor himself to deal with Ashtin’s group. He was certainly powerful enough to kill everyone in the building, and his pride screamed at him not to retreat. That was the main reason he had not fled once he learned Ahstin's group was approaching the mages' guild. The thought of turning a historian mage to his cause was merely a bonus. Now, however, with the council closing in, he knew that the safest course of action was to flee, disguise himself, and build up power in a new city.

There was an entrance to the underground tunnel system in the basement of the mages' guild building. He had built it himself after learning of the existence of the tunnels.

Forcing open the elevator door, Darmy floated slowly down the shaft. When he arrived in the basement, he could hear the footsteps of the strike force descending the stairs behind him. Although he had tried to be silent, they had somehow detected his movement.

He ran as quickly as he could towards the tunnel entrance, hoping to hide himself before the strike force found him, but just as he arrived, the trap door in the floor opened and Basttias emerged.

Darmy readied a spell to attack Basttias, but he stopped when a familiar voice entered his mind.

Basttias is my pawn now. He is here to help you.

“Run!” Darmy whispered to Basttias. “The council is right behind me.”

Thrusting one hand down at the floor. Basttias unleashed a powerful magical pulse that collapsed the tunnel behind him. At the same time, he grabbed Darmy by the throat.

“And right in front of you,” Basttias growled. “He’s over here,” he yelled, drawing the attention of the strike force.

Why? Darmy screamed into his mind. Why did you betray me? I did everything you asked.

But the dangerous mage did not answer. Darmy knew not what he had done to displease his unseen benefactor, but he wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Looking Basttias directly in the eyes, he attempted to hypnotize the historian mage, but Basttias just smiled. Furious, Darmy punched and kicked at Basttias, who summoned shields to block his blows. The shields quickly melted under Darmy’s palms, and Basttias was forced to release him, lest his face meet the same fate.

Before Darmy could launch another attack, he was grabbed from behind by two spellbreakers and wrestled to the ground. Unable to free himself, he let out a wail of despair and went limp.