Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.
“No, it’s not,” Zorian interrupted. “How could it possibly be a good morning? I got killed again! Eaten by a giant worm this time. And waking up like this is really starting to get on my nerves! Couldn’t the time loop have started a day later or something?”
He stared at his little sister expectantly. She stared back at him, confused out of her mind and probably a little frightened.
“Um, what?” she asked hesitantly.
Zorian wordlessly flipped her over the edge of the bed. She fell to the floor with a thud and an indignant yelp, and Zorian quickly jumped to his feet to better respond to any violence she might decide to retaliate with. Having learned his lesson during previous restarts, he immediately set out towards the bathroom before she could get her bearings.
She realized what he was doing quickly, but by then he had already locked the door behind him. Her screams of outrage were music for his ears, especially since they eventually caused mother to come after her and give her a scolding.
Maybe it was a good morning, after all.
* * *
Trains… Zorian hadn’t really liked them to start with, but he was starting to develop an intense dislike of them ever since he was caught in this time loop thing. Travelling via train on a regular basis was almost as annoying as Kirielle jumping on him at the start of every restart. He had toyed with the idea of killing time by striking a conversation with Ibery, so she’d be familiar with him when he got a job at the library, but scrapped the notion after a while. Mostly because he decided not to apply for the job in this restart. Working at the library like he had been doing was fairly time consuming, and he had a much more promising project to work on – mastering all the shaping exercises in Ilsa’s book so he could woo her into taking him as her apprentice. Library magic was useful, but getting rid of Xvim would be absolutely priceless.
He wouldn’t be present in Cyoria when the invasion came either. Not in this restart, nor in any near future one. Even if he had to reveal his secret to Zach because of it, he’d take the first train out of town on the eve of the summer festival. He knew that the smart, responsible thing to do would be to stay in the city and note what was happening – how the invasion was progressing and what could be done to stop it. He knew it, but… it was too much for him. And not just because getting himself involved in that mess seemed to invariably lead to his death, either. The emotional rollercoaster of the ‘evacuation’ was very hard on his nerves, but that was just a symptom of the real problem. He struggled with his thoughts for a moment, trying to identify the root of the problem. Every reason he could think of felt… not right.
And then it clicked. It was the helplessness. Every time his thoughts strayed towards the topic of the invasion, he couldn’t shake the notion that the forces arrayed against him were vastly beyond his ability to handle, and that the only reason he survived as long as he had was through sheer dumb luck. It occurred to him that the manner of his most recent death could easily be an allegory for this entire invasion. So you repelled a murderous pack of winter wolves and reached safety, helped foil a traitorous ambush, and now you think the worst is over? No, stupid, a giant worm suddenly jumps out of the ground and bites your head off! How were you supposed to fight something like that? How was he supposed to fight something like that?
Maybe he shouldn’t. A lot of things about the invasion seemed… implausible. About as implausible as Zach becoming a super-prodigy over the span of a single summer, Zorian learning all 15 shaping exercises in Ilsa’s book within the span of a month, or time travel being real. What if his theory of there being a third time traveler was correct, and that someone was the mastermind behind the invasion? It would explain a lot. Then again, it would also pose a lot of questions on its own… like why hadn’t this hostile time traveler dealt with Zach already? The lich had already proved it was very much possible to hurt people like Zach and Zorian, and was working for the invading forces already.
Regardless, he intended to involve himself again with the invasion only after he acquired some serious magic, or after he calmed down somewhat and felt emotionally capable of facing the situation. Whichever came first. It’s not like he could study the invasion in any great detail if he kept dying at the very start of it, anyway.
Eventually the train arrived in Cyoria, and Zorian began his long trek towards the academy. He wasn’t in a hurry this time, because he had finally found a spell to protect himself from rain in the last restart and was eager to try it. Well, he had actually found several protective spells meant to deal with rain and other adverse weather, but only one was within his ability to actually cast. That was okay, though, since the ‘rain barrier’ spell was the one best suited for his purposes anyway – it offered the most complete protection, at the cost of being horribly draining to maintain. He could see why the mana drain would be a serious problem for people who wanted to use the spell extensively, but Zorian only needed it to last for an hour or two in an exceptionally mana-rich area of Cyoria.
Also, being encased in an invisible sphere that repelled water was just plain more impressive than the more subtle, sophisticated wards. The barrier actually worked on water in general, not just rain drops, so he didn’t even have to worry about stepping into puddles and soaking his footwear. Seeing water on the road part before him like in front of some kind of celestial emissary was mightily amusing. Also a bit of an ego boost, which is something he sorely needed after being so thoroughly outmatched during the invasion of the previous restart.
He’d probably never use the spell after getting out of the time loop, since an umbrella was good enough for most occasions and didn’t consume any mana, but finding a store that sold them along his usual route from the train station had proved surprisingly difficult. Which, now that he thought about it, suggested that he probably would use the spell from time to time, since he doubted this would be the only time in his life he’d find himself without an easily acquired umbrella.
He shook his head. He really shouldn’t be fantasizing about what he’d do after getting out of the time loop, since it didn’t appear that would happen any time soon. He had to concentrate on the present… and boy did that sound weird, considering his situation. Like what was he going to do with Zach? He was sorely tempted to just admit everything to the boy and have them try to figure out this mess together – surely two heads are better than one? Impulsive he may be, but Zach couldn’t have gotten as far as he did without having a good head on his shoulders. He didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that idea, though – he strongly suspected there was more to Zach than it appeared, and he hated to charge in without knowing what he was getting himself into.
He decided to see how Zach interacted with him in this restart before deciding.
* * *
“Zorian! Over here!”
Zorian glanced towards the happy-looking Benisek waving at him like a lunatic and wondered what he should do. He didn’t really want to talk to him. Benisek might be his closest friend among the student body, but he was also rather irritating at times, and it’s not like he could tell Zorian something he didn’t already know at this point. In the end he sighed in defeat and trudged over to the grinning boy. Time loop or no, it felt wrong to blatantly snub someone so visibly happy to see him, especially since he shared so much history with Benisek.
He did find it interesting that Benisek was present in the cafeteria at this time, since that wasn’t his usual behavior in the restarts Zorian experienced so far. These kind of unexplained divergences happened all the time, which was to be expected – there were at least two time travelers wandering around the time loop, changing things both inconsequential and crucial – but it was surprising to see a change this soon into the time loop. It had only been a day since he arrived in Cyoria. Usually it took at least a week until everything went off the rails, and even then a lot of things repeated themselves. Most teachers followed some kind of a fixed teaching plan, for example, and rarely deviated from it. As far as he knew, Fortov always came looking for him for help with the purple creeper salve, even though his accident with Ibery only happened near the very end of the time loop. Which, now that he thought about it, suggested the accident wasn’t so accidental after all. Kind of suspicious for an accident to be so insensitive to changes…
“You just got to Cyoria, didn’t you?” Benisek prompted excitedly the moment Zorian sat down beside him.
Zorian nodded hesitantly. Benisek was only ever this excited when talking about a particularly hot girl or when he got a hold of particularly juicy gossip material. Hopefully it was the latter, because there was no way Zorian would be staying otherwise.
“You’re so not going to believe this!” Benisek said excitedly. “You know Zach? You know, Zach Noveda, last scion of the Noble House Noveda? He went to class with us these last two years.”
Of course it’s Zach. He really should have known.
“Of course I know him,” Zorian said. “He is… very memorable.”
“He is?” blinked Benisek. He shook his head. “I mean, of course he is. I kind of didn’t expect you to know, though, since he’s kind of a failure as a mage and you never interacted with him much.”
Zorian shrugged. Truth be told, it was very rare for him to forget someone’s name, regardless of how often he had interacted with them or how long it had been since he last saw them. Even before the time loop, Zorian would have instantly known who Benisek was referring to.
“Anyway,” Benisek continued, “Zach escaped from his family mansion yesterday.”
“Err, what?” asked Zorian incredulously. “What do you mean ‘escaped’? Why would he need to escape from his own mansion?”
“Well that’s the question, isn’t it?” Benisek said. “Apparently he had an argument with his guardian that eventually descended into a full-blown magical duel. A duel which, get this, Zach won! Half of the mansion was trashed, and Zach fled into the city and has yet to be found. They’re searching for him everywhere!”
“Um, wow,” Zorian said, honestly at a loss for words. What the hell was that about?
“You said it,” Benisek agreed. “I’m not sure I believe the official story, though. I mean, there’s no way Zach could have taken on his guardian in a magical duel! Tesen Zveri is a 7th circle mage or something, and Zach barely passed his own certification! Then again, something sure demolished Noveda mansion…”
“How do you know this?” asked Zorian.
“It’s all over the newspapers,” said Benisek. “Besides, everyone is talking about it. I can’t believe one of our classmates would be involved in something like that. What do you think, Zorian?”
“Ben… I honestly don’t know what to think about that,” said Zorian.
And he really meant it. He didn’t doubt for a second that Zach could beat the stuffing out of his guardian, 7th circle or not – the man was a politician, as far as Zorian knew, not a battlemage – but why would he want to do that?
“I suppose he won’t be coming to class this time, then,” mused Zorian out loud. Then again, he would not have put it past Zach to just walk into class one of these days as if nothing was wrong.
“I doubt it,” Benisek laughed.
“Did he kill anyone?” asked Zorian. Benisek shook his head in the negative. “So basically he didn’t do anything that serious. What’s the worst that can happen to him if he simply turns himself in?”
“Well, Tesen must not be too happy with him now, and he’s too influential to brush off, even for someone like Zach,” said Benisek. “Attacking one of the Elders of Eldemar is actually a fairly serious crime, and Tesen could really ruin Zach’s day if he was inclined to pursue satisfaction. Not that I think he would, since that would just draw even more attention to what happened. This whole thing is a giant political scandal for him. I’m guessing Zach will come back after a month or so, after he cools off a bit, and Tesen will ‘magnanimously’ forgive him everything.”
Zorian was silent. Zach had told him that it was rare for him to spend a restart in Cyoria, and even rarer for him to attend classes. In light of that, it had been foolish of him to expect Zach to be around in this restart. Zach may have found Zorian interesting in the previous restart, but probably not that interesting. Still, this was more than a little strange. If he had wanted to leave and do his own thing, couldn’t he have just walked out of his mansion one day and kept going? Who would have stopped him? His guardian? Why would Tesen do that? The man was clearly very hands-off in his dealings with his charge, as evidenced by Zach’s frequent absences from school during the last two years, as well as Zach’s abysmal performance prior to the time loop.
There was no obvious answer, and Zorian didn’t feel like trying to track down Zach. He probably couldn’t find him, even if he tried, and he had more attainable goals to pursue.
Like getting out of Xvim’s merciless clutches. What could be more important than that?
* * *
The rest of the restart was pleasantly uneventful. There was no Zach, since the boy never showed up in school and couldn’t be found by anyone. After a week or so, the newspapers stopped covering the story because there were no new developments to justify the articles, and the rumors making rounds across the student body died down soon after. For his part, Zorian threw himself completely into mastering the exercises in Ilsa’s book. He neglected virtually everything else, often skipping classes when he thought he could get away with it. Akoja was furious, since he was apparently ruining the attendance record of the class, and got Ilsa to corner him one day about it. Fortunately, Zorian’s ability to get top grades on every exam, despite his spotty attendance, blunted the impact of Akoja’s criticism, and Zorian managed to convince Ilsa he was working on a personal project that was taking most of his time… not skipping classes for the heck of it as Akoja claimed. He assured her the project would be finished within a month, and that he would resume attending classes regularly after the summer festival. She made him promise that he would show her what he was working on when he was done, and he enthusiastically agreed with her.
His single minded focus gave results quickly – he mastered both vertical and fixed position levitation by the end of the restart. He didn’t bother showing these advanced skills to Xvim, who was still having him work on the pen-spinning exercise, since he doubted he’d get a worthwhile reaction. Nothing seemed to please that guy.
He hadn’t been present in the city when the invasion came, of course. Without Zach’s ring, he was even more useless in combat than he was in the last restart, so it was doubtful he could have lasted for very long in the midst of it all. He did make sure to practice with combat invocations he learned from Zach each day, hoping to hone them into the same reflexive state that Zach displayed. That would take years of practice, of course, but that just meant he’d better start as soon as possible. He also didn’t just leave via train like he usually did – he traveled by foot to one of the hills overlooking the city and observed the city from there.
Watching the invasion unfold from such a high vantage point was not only a lot easier on Zorian’s nerves than being in the thick of it – it was also rather informative. It was interesting to see how the invasion played out in broad terms. It seemed to have several stages, the first of which was, of course, the disguised artillery magic barrage. The explosive flares mostly targeted three crucial areas – the city hall, the local military base, and one cluster of buildings that Zorian didn’t recognize. The academy didn’t appear to be a primary target, possibly because the invaders wanted it reasonably intact. Aside from the initial blast, the impact zones seemed to spawn scores of fire elementals that had to be dealt with. Fortunately, a lot of buildings in Cyoria were at least moderately warded against fire, because Zorian didn’t doubt for a second that the entire city would’ve been aflame within minutes otherwise. Once the fire elementals had a few minutes to make a nuisance of themselves, monsters poured out of the sewers, and after they rampaged across the city a bit, the spellcasters finally arrived.
The battle was still raging when the clock finally hit two past midnight and everything went suddenly black.
All things considered, the army of monsters was the least destructive part of the invasion – if he could somehow prevent the initial barrage from crippling the city defense right from the start, or take out a lot of the attacking mages that followed in the monster’s wake… well, it was worth a shot when he finally got some skills under his belt.
The next three restarts were essentially the same, right down to Zach dueling his guardian and escaping into the night. Apparently that wasn’t just a one-time thing, but a rather routine occurrence. The exact details varied, but every time he roughed Tesen up before setting off god knows where. Unfortunately, Zorian couldn’t find out anything substantial about Tesen – the man was a high ranking politician, and thus not exactly approachable, and nothing in publicly available sources explained Zach’s apparent hostility towards the man.
His work with Ilsa’s book progressed steadily, but he was frankly getting a bit sick of it. There was only so much of incessant shaping practice he could stand before he lost all enthusiasm. Besides, Ilsa said most students go through them at a rate of 6 per year, and he was already more effective than that – something that he attributed to his unusual focus in the matter. How many people could afford to focus all their energies on shaping exercises? There were so many things vying for the typical student’s attention that shaping exercises no doubt ended up near the bottom of their priorities.
That was why he was currently in Ilsa’s office, trying to see if he could get something out of her without mastering quite the entire book.
“What can I do for you, mister Kazinski?” Ilsa asked.
“Well, I’m a bit concerned about the program you outlined in your first class,” said Zorian. “I’m not sure I’ll get anything out of it, since I already have a solid grasp on all the topics you mentioned.”
Ilsa raised an eyebrow at him. Hey, it worked on Kyron, why wouldn’t it work on Ilsa too?
“I see,” she said after a second of silence. “Would you mind if I gave you a couple of quick tests to confirm that?”
Confident he could deal with anything she tested him with, he agreed. Ilsa proceeded to rummage through her drawers and took out 2 different tests. One was an exact copy of the same test Ilsa gave to the whole class just before the summer festival, and Zorian proceeded to fill it out in 10 minutes flat by sheer memory. The other was unfairly hard, because it covered advanced topics that didn’t turn up in class at all. Zorian only managed to fill out a quarter of the questions before time was up, and he was fairly sure not all of his answers were correct.
Ilsa skimmed through them quickly and then nodded to herself.
“Your theoretical knowledge is pretty spotty,” Ilsa said with a theatrical sigh, and Zorian had to stop himself from scowling. That was such bullshit! She gave him that second test just to make sure he failed! “Here… I’ll give you a list of additional reading to study in your free time.”
Two minutes later Zorian found himself practically pushed out of the door, a piece of paper with hastily scribbled writing in his hand. He glared at the list of book titles, very much tempted to incinerate it on the spot. He was supposed to start on the variations of the flame producing exercise, anyway. But he didn’t. He would not be defeated that easily! If he could survive Xvim’s mentoring methods this long, he could definitely read a couple of theoretical manuals. He would be back. She could be sure of that.
* * *
“Good morning, brother! Morning, morning, MORNING!!!”
“Good morning, Kiri,” said Zorian pleasantly. “Thank you for waking me up.”
Kirielle stared at him for a couple of seconds and then huffed in disappointment at his lack of reaction and got off of him all on her own. Well damn – he should have tried that ages ago.
“You’re no fun,” she accused.
Zorian simply nodded in agreement.
“Mom wants to talk to you,” Kirielle said. “Could you show me some magic before you go, though? Pleeeeease?”
Well… why not? He quickly cast the ‘floating lantern’ spell, causing an orb of light to spring into existence above his palm. He had the orb fly around the room while he repeated the spell two more times, producing a different colored orb each time.
The books Ilsa had told him to read were mostly boring crap, but they did tell him something rather interesting. All those variations he had been practicing had more uses than just improving his shaping skills, apparently – they also allowed him to adjust certain spells more to his liking. The same variation of the light emitting exercise that allowed him to produce colored light also enabled him to change the color of the glowing orb produced by the floating lantern spell. Mastering a whole bunch of light-related exercises would apparently also make light-based invocations more powerful and less mana intensive, and the same principle applied to other groups of spells as well… such as fire-related exercises improving invocations based around fire and heat, and levitation-based ones improving spells relying on telekinetic forces. He was a lot less annoyed at having to go through all those shaping exercises when he found that out. Hell, if they were that useful, he’d probably see if he could find more of them when he ran out of the ones in Ilsa’s book.
“More! More!” Kiri demanded.
Distracting Kiri with a few more orbs, Zorian quietly slipped out of the room and went to the bathroom before Kiri could realize what was happening. Why was she always so intent on getting there first anyway? That was horribly petty, even for Kirielle. He’d have to ask her in one of the restarts.
Unfortunately, he sort of forgot he filled his entire room with multi-colored orbs of light by the time Ilsa came around to visit, so he thought nothing about inviting her into his room. He hastily swept his hand in front of him, casing them all to wink out of existence, but it was too late – Isla had already seen them and was looking at him curiously.
“That’s not really a second year spell,” Ilsa remarked, her eyes boring into his own.
“Daimen can be a pretty good teacher when he wants to be,” said Zorian with a cheeky smile, shamelessly relying on Daimen’s fame to deflect any concerns. Teaching first circle spells like that one to uncertified mages was illegal, but if Zorian ever learned something in his life, it was that Daimen can get away with anything.
“And you know how to produce something other than white light,” Ilsa noted. “Impressive. I guess this should be easy for you, then.”
She handed him a very familiar scroll, and Zorian was just about to flood it with mana to break the seal when he realized something was wrong. Ilsa was studying him like a hawk, expectant and alert. She had never shown this much interest in his scroll-opening before, so what made this one special? He stared at the scroll for a couple of seconds, unable to see any difference from the scroll he was used to. Even the symbols on the seal were the same. Wait...
A few moments later he remembered where he saw the symbols inscribed on the seal and promptly felt like banging his head against the wall or something. How… why… those sneaky little…
He had been doing it wrong! All this time he had been simply pouring mana into the seal to break it, when instead he had to channel mana into it in very specific ways so he could peel it off intact! It said so, right at the god damn seal! It required more mana control than simply flooding the seal with mana, but it was nothing he hadn’t already been capable of, even before the time loop. All this time he had thought the symbols on the seal were purely ornamental in nature, but no, they were instructions. Instructions written in a somewhat obscure form, but still. How could he have missed that?
He directed his mana to flow along the sides of the seal, causing it to pop off without resistance.
“Well done,” Ilsa said with a smile. “Not many students have such a firm grasp on their magic at this stage. I see someone is continuing in Daimen’s footsteps.”
Zorian smiled back politely. He mustn’t scowl, he mustn’t scowl…
“Unfortunately, I’m in a bit of a hurry so we’ll have to continue this conversation later,” Ilsa said. “Visit me in my office when you get to Cyoria. Now about your electives…”
* * *
Ilsa stared at him. He stared back. She glanced towards the two completely filled out tests on her desk and then returned her gaze towards him, this time with a speculative look. Zorian remained silent.
It actually felt good to baffle someone like this, Zorian decided. Apparently Ilsa wasn’t as cold-blooded about improbable skills as Xvim was.
“I must admit, I didn’t quite expect this level of knowledge and shaping skill when I told you to come and see me,” Ilsa said thoughtfully. “That second exam I gave you is the one I give to students at the end of their third year, and you only got 2 of the questions wrong. On top of that, you know 10 different variations of the basic three, which is astronomical for a 3rd year student.”
She tapped her pen against the table, lost in thought.
“You may be a bit too advanced for what I intend to teach your group this year,” Ilsa finally admitted. “My class is mostly there to make sure the students don’t have any obvious holes in their shaping skills and theoretical knowledge, and to teach them a few miscellaneous spells that are of general utility to most mages. You’re way beyond that. What am I going to do with you?”
“Transfer me away from Xvim so you could teach such a promising student?” Zorian tried.
She laughed at him.
“Sorry,” she said. “You’re good, but not that good. Besides… you should have it easier than most of Xvim’s vi- err, charges. What with your amazing shaping skills and all.”
“You’d be surprised how little difference that makes to him,” Zorian sighed.
“Oh come on, mister Kazinski, you didn’t even have a single session with him,” Ilsa chided. “I’m sure that whatever rumors you heard were greatly exaggerated.“
“Right,” said Zorian, unable to keep himself from rolling his eyes. “Can you at least give me a written permit to skip your lectures? You said yourself I have nothing to learn there, anyway.”
That wasn’t quite what Zorian was after, but he supposed it was better than nothing. It would give him a bunch of free periods throughout the week, which wasn’t terribly useful while he was inside the time loop (where he could just skip classes if he needed more free time) but would come in handy when and if he got out of it. And besides, a written permit would cut down on Akoja’s whining, if nothing else.
“No,” Ilsa said. “I need you in class, if only to motivate the rest of your classmates to try harder. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re not bored during class.”
Crap. Maybe he shouldn’t have asked her that…
“In the meantime, I’m going to do you a favor,” Ilsa continued. “While I am personally too busy to teach you, I will see if I can find a teacher willing to give you some private instruction. Do you have an area of magic you’re particularly interested in? Personally, I would recommend you look into either divination or alteration, but it’s your choice.”
“Spell formulas,” Zorian said firmly.
“Oh? Ambitious,” noted Ilsa. “It’s a hard subject. Not something your shaping skills can help you with, either.”
“I’m certain,” Zorian confirmed. Spell formulas had fascinated him ever since he started to learn magic, so there was no way he was wasting this kind of opportunity.
“Very well,” Ilsa shrugged. “I don’t foresee any problems, in that case. I’m sure miss Boole will be ecstatic to have such a talented and determined student.”
‘Miss Boole’? As in, Nora Boole, the orange-haired maniac that expected them to read 12 books within a week and gave them 60-question ‘progress tests’ every other lecture? Zorian resisted the urge to sigh. Why couldn’t he have a normal mentor for once?