Chapter 27:

Damage Control

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

As the spell ended, so too did its hold on Darmy. He tried to push Ashtin off of him, but as exhausted as Ashtin was, he clung to Darmy with all his strength. Darmy, being larger and stronger than Ashtin, eventually kicked him aside, but Ashtin had bought just enough time for those hit by Darmy’s freezing spell to begin to move again.

The gynoids quickly covered the room, pointing their rifles at Darmy, Wincent, and Dr. Shreburn. Darmy appeared not to notice them and attempted to run to the door, but the closest gynoid jabbed the butt of her rifle into his stomach, causing him to double over. A few other gynoids and spellbreakers ran over to restrain him.

The historian mage who was frozen early in the fight knelt down next to the unconscious historian mage and began casting healing spells on him. A gynoid knelt next to her to observe, and when satisfied that the injured historian mage was stable, gently smacked his cheek to wake him.

“Get up,” the gynoid ordered. “We still have an emergency on our hands. We subdued the target, but Jyter was pulled into a pocket dimension and may have been drained of her magic. Find and retrieve her if at all possible. Every second counts.”

Ashtin’s heart sank upon hearing this. Losing a historian mage always placed a large operational burden on the council. Even planning for a historian mage’s natural retirement required a lot of work to redistribute their duties. Given the situation, Ashtin didn’t regret sacrificing his magic to stop Darmy. If Darmy had escaped, who knows how many historian mages he might have killed? But it was nothing to celebrate, especially if a second historian mage was out of commission as well.

As the two historian mages teleported away, the spellbreakers broke the levitation spells holding Rorthi and Basttias aloft, catching them as they fell.

“What… just happened?” Rorthi asked as she was placed on her feet.

“A disaster,” the closest gynoid answered. “We lost one, possibly two historian mages. One of our foremost magic researchers appears to have been shot and has driven herself mad with forbidden knowledge. We will have to undertake a thorough investigation to determine who leaked highly-classified information to her.”

“That was my fault,” Basttias said. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the gynoid pointed her rifle at him.

“Are you telling me we have lost a third historian mage today, Basttias?”

“No,” Basttias said, his voice calm. “In an emergency situation, I believed Ashtin needed to know this information. He would have been told in a few months anyway. There was no way to teach him without Dr. Shreburn listening in. I will accept any punishment for my actions, but given the results, I do not believe I was mistaken.”

“We can discuss punishments later,” the gynoid informed him. “The spellbreakers will stay with us while we interrogate Darmy. I need you to escort everyone else to the second floor for interrogation. The rest of my team will meet you there. Take the colonel’s service weapon with you.”

Pushing himself to his feet, Ashtin slowly dragged himself towards the door, but was stopped by a gynoid.

“Not you, Ashtin,” she told him. “We still need a historian mage.”

“I am no longer a historian mage,” Ashtin said, a sad smile still plastered on his face.

“You know the most about what happened,” the gynoid said. “We need your help figuring out how to spin this.”

After retrieving Fanmizer’s pistol, Basttias knelt down to help Dr. Shreburn up. Her eyes were unfocused, as if she was looking at something far away. When Basttias put his arm around her, she focused her sight on him and gripped him as tightly as she could.

“Basttias,” she hissed, “do you know why mages go insane?”

“Quiet her,” a nearby gynoid commanded. “It is dangerous to listen to the ramblings of someone whose mind has been addled by magic.”

“I’m not mad,” Dr. Shreburn insisted. “I’m immune to the madness.” She laughed with glee, which didn’t help her argument. “Mages go mad because they become one with their magic. They no longer see themselves as merely human, and it causes them to lose perspective.”

“An interesting theory, doctor,” the gynoid said. “We should discuss it at length, after you receive medical treatment.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Dr. Shreburn nodded. “I just need to warn Basttias. He’s on the precipice. Don’t merge yourself with your magic. Don’t—”

Dr. Shreburn’s warnings grew fainter as Basttias, Dr. Shreburn, Rorthi, Wincent, and two gynoids left the room. Ashtin could still hear her ravings though his cat ears, but he did everything he could to shut them out.

“Ashtin,” a gynoid said, placing a hand on his shoulder, “are there any other mages we should be worried about?”

“I don’t know,” Ashtin shook his head. “Col. Fanmizer was in on it, but other than that, I don’t know. You should ask the mercenaries on the first floor. Someone gave them the order to guard this place.”

“There were no mercenaries,” the gynoid informed him. “Do you perhaps mean the criminal gang? We are still investigating how they got into the city. The members had no relation to each other, so someone must have been organizing them.”

“In that case,” Ashtin said, frowning, “you should interrogate the manager at the immigration office. He made a big deal about controlling who was allowed into the city.”

Inwardly, Ashtin cursed himself for another foolish mistake. Had he reported the immigration situation to the council, instead of assuming they were in control of it, perhaps they would have been able to put a stop to it on their own.

“Gen. Winmore was not in on it?” the gynoid confirmed.

“No, but it might be a good idea to pin the blame on him,” Ashtin advised. “Both he and Col. Fanmizer were popular amongst the rank and file. If we cast the general as the mastermind behind all this, it will be easier to turn public opinion against him, especially if we say he shot the colonel.”

“We certainly need someone to take the fall,” the gynoid agreed, “but why the general? Because he knows about Huxley?”

“He knows about a lot more than Huxley,” Ashtin said. “There were thousands of replica paperbacks in the underground tunnel system.”

“What underground tunnels?” the gynoid demanded.

“Ah, right,” Ashtin sighed. “He forced condemned mages to build him a system of tunnels beneath the city before executing them. It makes me sick to think about, but he probably falsified evidence against perfectly sane mages to build out parts of it. There’s miles and miles of tunnels down there.”

“How many people know about these tunnels?” asked the gynoid.

“Only Gen. Winmore knows for sure,” Ashtin said. “The entrances are protected with a magical barrier. Basttias broke one down, but most people can’t enter without an invitation.”

“We must revise our earlier assessment,” the gynoid said. “This is a major disaster. If we attempt to cover up the existence of the tunnels, there is a chance that someone could reveal their existence. It could cause a loss of trust just when we need to regain it.”

“Which is why we make the general the bad guy,” Ashtin suggested. “Dr. Shreburn knew about the tunnels. If the general won’t crack, she can name at least some names. We get them to testify against him. Once the public is horrified by his actions, we announce that he was the mastermind behind everything. He used the tunnels to sneak into the mages' guild and force Darmy to cooperate. The council learned of this and enlisted Col. Fanmizer’s help to bring him down, but he killed the colonel and Darmy.”

“This is a decent plan,” the gynoid said. “It absolves the council and the mages' guild of most of the responsibility, and partially redeems the City Guard. We will run focus groups to test that narrative, but we need to apprehend whoever gave Gen. Winmore classified material before they can establish a counter-narrative.”

“It was me,” Darmy cackled. He was hogtied face down, so his words were muffled as he spoke directly into the floor. “I gave him everything. I give everyone everything. I—”

Though he no longer had any magic, Ashtin attempted to cover all four of his ears to block out his possibly infectious ravings. He briefly thought he must look cute in this pose, with the bottoms of his palms pressed into his human ears and his fingers folding his cat ears against his head, but then he realized how haggard he must look with torn and bloody clothes.

“Are you alright?” the closet gynoid asked Ashtin as a spellbreaker forced an improvised gag into Darmy’s mouth. “Do you need counseling?”

“I do,” Ashtin nodded, “but first I need some rest. His body and mind were both exhausted from everything he had gone through, and with the council in control again, he just wanted to relax. Can… Can I go home now?”