Return to Cyoria
Zorian’s previous experiences with riding the train to Cyoria alongside Kirielle hadn’t been very encouraging. She always started excited and curious, staring intently at the passing landscape and commenting on anything that caught her interest, but that didn’t last very long. There just wasn’t all that much to see on the route to Cyoria, so she quickly got bored of looking through the compartment window and turned to the only other source of entertainment left to her – him. And he was hard-pressed to entertain her throughout the entire ride.
That was back when he had been unwilling to use his rising shaping skills to do magic on the train, though. This time he decided he simply didn’t care about the risk of discovery. He could find no detection ward on the compartment they were in, and even if they did catch him in the act somehow, they would probably just slap him with a small fine and a lecture. It would be annoying, but better than listening to Kirielle whine about being bored for several hours. Plus, this way he got to practice his spellcasting while inhibited by a shaping disruption ward – something he had already been planning to try.
That was how Zorian found himself levitating a sphere of water in front of him, a ring of pens and erasers orbiting around it in a diffuse, slowly revolving ring. It was hard, despite the seeming triviality of it all. This wasn’t just him stacking a bunch of easy beginner spells to get a neat effect – he was performing an act of unstructured magic, treating the whole thing like a very complicated shaping exercise. Between the complexity of the floating construct and the disruption ward throwing off his shaping skills, he was really struggling to maintain control over the sphere and its satellites. He was pretty sure this was his absolute limit in terms of mana shaping skills so he should probably-
“Make a frog!” Kirielle challenged.
Zorian gave Kirielle an annoyed look. She grinned at him, confident that she had won their little game. That she had finally found his limit. He did not deliberately set out to make the complex thing floating in front of him, after all – it had started out as a much smaller sphere with a mere two pens circling around it, and Zorian had fully intended for it to stay that way until Kirielle started challenging him to make it more difficult. After he emptied the entire contents of his water bottle and used up all of the pens and erasers they both had in their possessions, he was certain she would have had to concede his victory…
He broke eye contact with her and focused on the floating construct in front of him. Trying to shape the floating water into anything other than the sphere it was now would be insanely hard. Telekinetically controlling water was far, far harder than doing the same with solid objects, and he would be hard pressed to sculpt it into complex shapes even if he was outside of a disruption ward and had no ring of small objects to serve as an additional distraction.
But he’d be damned if he was just going to roll over and admit defeat to his little sister just because of that. Over the next fifteen minutes, he slowly shaped the blob of water into a sculpture of a frog, as detailed and convincing as he could manage it… in other words, not very. He did have a burst of inspiration half-way through, though, and decided to depict the frog monster he saved the Yellow Cavern Guardians from in the previous restart instead of a normal one. Unfortunately, Kirielle didn’t think much of his efforts.
“That’s a pretty weird frog,” she declared.
“It’s a yellow cavern devil frog,” said Zorian, shamelessly making things up. He had no idea how that monster was called, or if it even had an official name to begin with. “Huge, vicious things with a penchant for eating little girls.”
“That’s stupid. You’re just making things up,” she accused. “Just admit you lost.”
“Bah, you asked for a frog and I made one. It’s not my fault you are not knowledgeable enough in the diverse and fascinating world of magical amphibians. Let me put this away and then I’ll tell you about Sumrak the mage and the story of how he saved a secret society of mages from one of the aforementioned devil frogs…”
Before Kirielle could complain too much, Zorian hurriedly set about dismantling the construct in front of him before his rapidly degrading control unraveled completely, letting the pens and erasers float down on the empty seat beside him and pouring the water back into its bottle. That done, he launched into a somewhat modified account of his battle against the frog monster.
Well okay, heavily modified. In Zorian’s story, the Yellow Cavern Guardians were a group of reclusive human mages that lived in the far north, practicing ‘spider magic’, and the adventurer Sumrak confronted the frog monster head on with his awesome magical might instead of resorting to traps and subterfuge. It made for a more impressive story that way. Kirielle seemed skeptical of the story at first, but when Zorian started using detailed illusions to demonstrate the events he was talking about, her suspiciousness melted away and she paid rapt attention to the story.
Zorian didn’t know whether to be amused or outraged that she was so entranced by the illusions. They were… well, not quite easy, but nothing special either. The floating ball of water and school supplies he had made earlier on her prompting had taken much more skill and effort to create. He was tempted to chalk it up to her ignorance of what a true display of magical expertise looked like, but he suspected that even if she knew how to judge the difficulty properly, she still likely wouldn’t have cared. He had noticed during previous restarts that she loved illusionism the most out of the magical disciplines he had shown her. Maybe it appealed to her inner artist?
The train announcer declared that they were arriving to Korsa, forcing Zorian to cut the story short just before Sumrak succeeded in fighting his way through the devil frog’s innumerable spawn and confronted the monster in the cavernous home to which it had cravenly fled when it lost its last bout with the adventuring mage…
…and of course Kirielle was having none of that. She was fine with waiting while people were streaming into the train and looking into compartments to find a seat, but with everyone now settled down and the train moving again, she demanded he continue with the story. The problem was that Ibery had decided to join them in the compartment in the meantime, and Zorian felt just a tiny bit apprehensive about showcasing his abilities in front of her. An apprehension that Kirielle didn’t empathize with in the slightest.
“You can’t stop now, not when the story is so near the ending,” she complained.
“Well, so long as I refrain from using my, err, visual aids…” tried Zorian.
“Nooo!” Kirielle pleaded. “That was the best part of the story!”
Zorian threw a significant glance towards Ibery, hoping that Kirielle would take the message. She did, sort of, though she didn’t react to the information the way he hoped she would.
“Oh come on, the nice lady won’t snitch on you for doing magic in the train,” Kirielle declared out loud. She then turned towards the startled Ibery and gave her the most soulful puppy-eyes look she could muster. “You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“Umm…” Ibery mumbled, fidgeting uncomfortably in her seat. “What? I though the train had countermeasures to stop spellcasting?”
“It does?” asked Kirielle, surprised.
“It does,” Zorian confirmed. No point in playing dumb now. “They just disrupt spellcasting though, not make it impossible. You can work around it if you’re good enough.”
“And… you’re that good?” Ibery asked uncertainly.
Zorian shrugged, offering no other response. To Kirielle’s delight, he then proceeded to finish the story he had been telling, pretty illusions included. He noticed that Ibery had set aside her book to listen as well.
She also tried to discreetly cast a few simple spells when she thought he wasn’t looking, and then frowned when she failed to overcome the disruption ward. She was probably just curious about the level of skill needed to overcome the ward. He thought about scanning her surface thoughts to find out what she was thinking, but decided not to after giving it some thought. The risk of getting caught in the act was minimal, since Mind Like Fire had taught him how to stealthily test for presence of mental defenses, but getting into the habit of casually invading the minds of everyone around him struck him as a bad idea. He left Ibery to her experiment and focused back to Kirielle and the story he was telling.
Once he was done with the story, Ibery promptly struck up a conversation with the two of them. She admitted that she didn’t care much about the story itself, especially since she only caught the tail end of it, but she was very impressed by his ability to overcome the train’s wards. Especially once she learned he was only starting his third year at the academy.
Eventually they arrived to Cyoria, however, and went their separate ways. Before they said their goodbyes, however, Ibery nervously told him to drop by the library sometime in the next week in order to discuss… something. Well, whatever – he had intended to raid the library for more spells in this restart anyway, he might as well see what she wanted from him while he was at it.
“I think she likes you,” Kirielle said when they were alone.
“Nah, she’s head over heels for Fortov,” said Zorian.
“What?” Kirielle asked, baffled. “Her and Fortov? No way!”
“Well I didn’t say they’re together,” Zorian clarified. “Just that she has a crush on him.”
“How do you know that?” Kirielle asked suspiciously.
“Ancient magical secrets?” tried Zorian. Kirielle gave him a deadpan look. “Fine, fine… I’ll tell you later, when we arrive at our new lodgings. It’s not something we should discuss out in the open.”
Even as he conversed with his little sister, Zorian paid attention to what his mind sense was telling him while they moved through the crowds. Even if he was being targeted by someone shielded from mental detection, the absence of a mind in someone would be a huge red flag on its own. He detected no hostile intentions directed at either of them, though, and none of the suspicious people he encountered were invisible to his mind sense. After ten minutes, he breathed a sigh of relief – his fears of walking into a trap with his little sister in tow appeared to have been unfounded.
Hmm, he knew it would rain later on, but he could ward against the rain easily enough… perhaps a little sightseeing around the city to quench Kirielle’s curiosity a little?
“Hey,” Zorian said, attracting Kirielle’s attention. “Do you want to visit the main plaza of the city? They have a pretty nice fountain there that I like to watch sometimes…”
She said yes, of course. He needn’t have even asked.
* * *
It had been more than four years since Zorian had started looping, and a lot of things had happened in that period. Keeping track of it all was a major challenge, despite his mage training and his own excellent memory. Being absent from Cyoria for nearly a year and a half in order to escape Red Robe’s scrutiny certainly didn’t help in this regard, and many of the minor details and specifics of how a ‘normal’ restart was supposed to go had faded from his mind during his long absence.
It should not be very surprising, then, that he’d totally forgotten what happened the last time he tried to reach the fountain at the beginning of a restart – after all, he hadn’t tried it since that very first, fateful restart that got him included into the time loop.
Thus, when the two of them finally stumbled upon the swarm of cranium rats blocking their path, Zorian was caught just as off-guard by it as he was the previous time. He wasn’t as defenseless as he was back then, though, and he nearly burned them all to a crisp before he stopped himself. He was pretty sure that him killing the swarm would put him on the invaders’ radar, and therefore on Red Robe’s radar as well, so the smartest move would be to simply retreat like he did back in his first restart.
He felt the swarm testing his mental defenses and responded by strengthening his defenses and striking back. The attacks stopped, but his counterattack did very little to the collective mind of the swarm – the group mind was thoroughly unshielded, probably because any mental shell would interfere with its internal telepathic network, but his counterattack merely knocked out a couple of individual rats instead of doing any significant damage. He wondered-
He felt a spike of terror from Kirielle as she finally realized what she was looking at, and realized he really shouldn’t be playing around with these things – he was probably immune to anything they may dish out but she wasn’t. He fired off a weak flamethrower at the closest part of the swarm to make them back off a little and then immediately turned around, grabbed Kirielle and fled. The rats didn’t follow, much like how they didn’t follow him the first time he encountered them. They probably didn’t want to attract attention any more than he did, though that did raise the question of what the hell they were doing blocking off one of Cyoria’s major roads in broad daylight. Something to look into eventually…
While they ran, he idly marveled about how fortunate it was that he’d never replicated that first meeting with the cranium rats before he had met the aranea – they would have undoubtedly read his mind, and there was a good chance they would have found out about the time loop from his thoughts. Even if they dismissed the time travel stuff as delusion, they would have definitely been interested in him knowing about the invasion…
“Um, can we still go see the fountain?” Kirielle asked once they had retreated sufficiently and she’d had a chance to catch her breath and calm down.
“Yeah, I know an alternative route,” said Zorian, pointing towards a nearby park.
Wait, hadn’t he tried that in the first restart and encountered some kind of problem? He was pretty sure he had. What kind of- oh! The bicycle girl. He had totally forgotten about her. Oh well, that wasn’t really a problem – he would just get her bicycle out of the water really quickly and they would be on their way.
Kirielle got unusually quiet when they encountered the little crying girl and hung back while he talked to her. He got the girl’s bike out of the creek with trivial ease, simply placing his hand over the bridge and wiling the bike to rise into his grasp – it took more time to calm the girl down a little and get her to tell him what she was upset about than it did to actually retrieve it. He used a couple of spells to dry the bike off and clean all the grime that had accumulated on it, simply because he could and saw no reason not to. He suspected the bike was cleaner now than it was before it had fallen into the creek.
“There,” said Zorian proudly. “Your bike is clean, intact and out of the creek. You can stop crying now, okay?”
“Okay,” she sniffed, rubbing her eyes. “Um. Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Zorian said. “Well, we should get going now, so take care. I think it’s going to rain soon, so you should probably head home as well.”
“Come on brother, don’t be mean. We can’t just leave her here,” protested Kirielle suddenly. “We should get her home ourselves, just to be sure.”
“He’s not mean,” the other little girl protested, suddenly snapping out of her daze. “And I can find my way home just fine. I’m not stupid.”
Oh, he liked this kid. It wasn’t often that someone defended him in preference to Kirielle.
“Well. I’m glad that someone is not automatically assuming the worst of me,” said Zorian, giving a sideways glance towards Kirielle. She rolled her eyes at him. “I am sure that Kirielle didn’t mean anything like that, though – she was just worried for you, since you still looked pretty upset.”
“I was just… I only got the bike yesterday and mother told me to be careful with it because they couldn’t afford a new one and I…”
“Hey, hey, it’s alright,” said Zorian quickly, interrupting her story. She looked like she was going to cry again. “You got it back. All’s well that ends well. But maybe we really should accompany you home, at least until you calm down a little.”
“Yeah!” Kirielle piped in. “We can talk on the way and get to know each other. I just moved in here and it would be nice to have a friend my age. What’s your name anyway? I’m Kirielle and this guy here that got your bike out of the river is my brother Zorian.”
“Nochka,” she said. “But, um, I don’t want to make you late.”
“We were just going to see the fountain, nothing really important,” Kirielle waved her off. “We can do that any time. Come on, show us where you live.”
The walk to Nochka’s house was a short one – she lived pretty close to the park, which was the reason her parents had let her go there all alone. Still pretty strange for parents to be so hands off about their child’s whereabouts, but Zorian’s parents were the same with him so he didn’t pry. He didn’t say much of anything really, but that was okay because Kirielle talked plenty enough for both of them. Nochka herself was shy and nervous, constantly watching her surroundings and jumping at every unusual sound, but she did warm up to Kirielle by the time they had reached her house. She was eight, a year younger than Kirielle, and was also fairly new to Cyoria. Her family had arrived into the city a couple of months ago, and she didn’t have any friends her age either. Great. He was pretty sure he knew where this was going…
Zorian once again tried to disengage from the whole situation once they got Nochka to her destination, but failed – Nochka’s mother saw them arriving and insisted they come inside, and he didn’t want to be impolite. He figured the woman had every right to be curious about a couple of strangers walking around with her daughter in tow, so they should at least allay her fears a little before leaving. Nochka hurriedly gave her an account of the situation the moment they were inside; though in her story the bike didn’t end up in the creek, but was instead stuck in a rope trap that happened to be in the park for… some reason. Nochka kind of glossed over that part and moved onto Zorian helping her get it down from the tree.
Yeah, Nochka was a terrible liar. Based on the way her mother was looking at her when she finished her story, Zorian was betting that she would be getting the real story out of Nochka the moment Zorian and Kirielle left the house.
Nochka’s mother, who Zorian learned was named Rea, was honestly a little scary to Zorian. She didn’t look frightening – she had the same jet black hair and dark brown eyes that Nochka did, and the stature and dress of an average housewife – but it took only five minutes for Zorian to decide there was more to her. Her movements were all fluid and precise, she never stuttered or wavered when she spoke, her gaze was frighteningly intense, and she gave off an air of absolute confidence and composure. Frankly, if he had been alone he would have left the place in a hurry, but Kirielle didn’t seem nearly as intimidated by the woman and insisted on telling her new friend stories. Such as the one of how they stumbled upon her in the first place.
“Ah yes, the strange brain rats,” Rea said when Kirielle told them about their encounter with the cranium rats. “I’ve seen a few hanging around the house, but never in such numbers. Disgusting things.”
Zorian frowned. Why were the cranium rats hanging around their house?
“You should be careful,” he told her. “They’re called cranium rats and they can read your mind, possibly even memories if left unmolested long enough.”
“Hmm… good thing I kill them when I find them, then,” Rea said.
“Yes, but don’t think that makes you totally safe,” Zorian said. “They’re a telepathic hive mind, so killing one rat will not erase the information it has gathered on you. What one cranium rat knows, they all know. I really think you should report this to the city authorities and have them hunt the swarm down, but it’s your choice in the end.”
“I see,” Rea said after staring at him for a few seconds. “I’ll talk to my husband about your advice and we’ll see what we can do. I must say, you are surprisingly well informed for a fifteen-year-old, mister Kazinski.”
“Brother is really smart,” said Kirielle.
Oh hush, you flatterer.
“Right - thank you for your hospitality, Mrs. Sashal, but our landlord is expecting us and we really should get going,” Zorian said, rising from his seat and motioning for Kirielle to do the same. From what Rea had said earlier, her husband was going to come home from work soon, and he’d rather not get stuck in another round of explanations.
“The rain is rather heavy, though,” Rea said, glancing through the window next to her. “You should at least wait for the weather to get better before you go.”
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem like it’ll happen for quite some time,” said Zorian. “But that’s okay, because I can just teleport myself and Kirielle close to our destination and shield us from the rain for the short while we’ll be caught in it.”
“Can Kirielle come over to play with me some time?” asked Nochka.
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” said Zorian. Yes, he was pretty sure Kirielle would be angry if he said no. Though he really didn’t want Kirielle in an area infested with cranium rats…
Zorian and Kirielle said their goodbyes and left in the direction of Imaya’s house.
* * *
The next day, Zorian woke up early and told Imaya he was going to the library, though in truth he did no such thing. Instead, he teleported himself to Knyazov Dveri, where he proceeded to gather crystalized mana. By now he had mapped large portions of the local underworld, and as such couldn’t actually pick up every piece of crystalized mana within a single day. He would need another two or three days to clean the place up properly. Oh, and he was also hitting the limits of his memory, it seemed – he had outright forgotten about some of the minor resource locations, and it took him a while to track down others. Annoying.
He wondered what his previous self would say if he knew that in the future he would have so much wealth within reach that he would literally forget about some of it. Probably something rude.
He had only been back at Imaya’s place for half an hour or so before Taiven came to speak with him.
“Let me guess, you want me to go into the sewers with you to recover a watch from a bunch of giant spiders,” Zorian ‘guessed’.
“What? No, I decided not to bother with that job since more lucrative ones have popped up lately,” said Taiven. She gave him a strange look. “How the hell do you know about that, anyway? I told maybe two people I was even interested in that job.”
Uh, right. The circumstances in Cyoria had changed greatly since the last time he’d been in the city – the mercenaries he hired to confront Red Robe had been soul-killed along with the aranea, and monsters were starting to well up from the Dungeon with no aranea to keep them in check. Nothing could nor should be taken for granted – he had to keep that in mind.
Rather than try to trick her with some poor excuse, he decided to simply ignore her question and ask his own.
“If you’re not here for that, why are you here, Taiven? You don’t exactly have a habit of visiting me for the hell of it…”
Taiven protested that she totally did visit him for the hell of it, and vehemently denied that she had come to ask him for a favor. It was an opportunity, she insisted – an opportunity to earn big money and fame, if only he would cooperate with her.
Well. If nothing else, her new scheme was a lot more tempting than her old one.
Long story short, the monster incursions he read about in the newspapers had started way earlier than Zorian had expected they would. There were a couple of bad ones on the very first day of the restart – a young couple had been heavily injured when a huge abyssal centipede crawled out of the sewers in the middle of a crowded street and a restaurant had to be evacuated when a huge yellow ooze broke into the wine cellar and started consuming everything in sight. Things got worse overnight, and there were a number of fatalities while Zorian had been busy picking up crystalized mana in Knyazov Dveri, causing the city to enact some emergency measures. One of these was issuing large bounties on confirmed monster kills and encouraging various dungeon delvers and mercenary groups to go as deep into Cyoria’s dungeon as they dared, and cull the monster population before they could reach the surface.
As far as Taiven was concerned, this was exactly what she had been waiting for. Already frustrated with the lack of chances to prove her worth, she was eager to take advantage of this new development to make a name for herself by aggressively pursuing bounties and putting down as many dungeon denizens as she could find.
The problem was that her group was too small for her ambitions. Three people do not make a proper hunting party.
“I’m surprised you came to me with this,” said Zorian. “This sounds like it requires decent combat skills, and I am only a third year. Surely some of your peers would have been better for this?”
“Well, the thing is, I’m not the only one recruiting… and many of the other recruiters are a lot more prestigious and well-known than little old me. It should get easier once I start getting results, but that could be too late and I can’t afford to be too picky right now.”
“Can’t afford to be picky, huh?” said Zorian flatly. Before the time loop, that phrase right there would have caused him to refuse her offer out of spite. He hated being thought of as second best, never mind a last resort. But years in the time loop had tempered his ego, and he could admit to himself that Taiven’s judgement was spot on – considering the information she had on him.
“Okay, bad choice of words,” admitted Taiven. “But as you said yourself, you’re only a third year. How good are you at combat magic? Do you think you could pull your own weight in a team as you are now?”
Hmm, how much should he reveal here? Taiven could be shockingly oblivious about some things, but she would definitely not ignore him being way stronger than he had any right being. And she was one of the few people who knew his pre-time loop self well enough to make such a judgement call with a fair amount of certainty.
And for that matter, did he even want to join Taiven’s group? It sounded like a huge time sink, and he had so many other things vying for his attention… maybe it would be better if he were to pretend he was too weak and inexperienced to help her?
Oh to hell with it – he’d give it a chance this time. If nothing else, it would give him a ready-made excuse for a lot of things he intended to do in this restart.
“Absolutely. I have been in the Dungeon before,” he admitted. “I have a decent repertoire of combat spells and I’m confident that I won’t freeze on the first sign of danger. The biggest problem is my mana reserves – at maximum, I can only cast about 20 magic missiles in a row. And that’s after I increased my reserves through constant use – I’m pretty average in terms of mana reserves magnitude.”
Taiven stared at him for a few seconds, incredulous. “You’ve been in the Dungeon before?” she finally asked. “I’m surprised you got permission for that. The Academy sure didn’t want to give me one before I was well into my fourth year.”
“I didn’t say anything about asking permission,” said Zorian.
“What, like you’ve never done anything like that?” challenged Zorian.
“Well, maybe once or twice,” Taiven admitted. “But it doesn’t sound like this was an occasional occurrence for you. Getting your mana reserves that high must have involved some pretty intense practice, considering where you started from. That sounds pretty dangerous.”
“Sometimes a man has to take chances,” Zorian quoted in Taiven’s voice. “I do believe you’re the one who told me that, Taiven.”
“I was talking about romance and you know it,” she protested. “Why couldn’t you take my advice about that instead?”
‘I did take your advice,’ thought Zorian sourly to himself. ‘I got laughed in my face for my trouble.’
“Why are you lecturing me about this? You should be overjoyed your desperate ploy had worked,” he said instead. “Do you want me in your damn team or not?”
“I do, I do!” Taiven quickly assured him. She pulled out a sheet of paper from her bag and set it down on the table in front of him. “I guess you’re right, this isn’t really important right now. Why don’t you just fill out this membership form and I’ll give you a rundown of what I had planned for tomorrow…”
* * *
Over the next couple of days Zorian went on regular forays into Cyoria’s underworld with Taiven, Urik and Oran. He quickly realized that his combat skills weren’t really the most valuable thing he brought to the whole operation – the combined might of Taiven and her two old teammates was usually enough to destroy any threat they encountered, with Zorian only called to fight when one of those three ended up low on mana and needed to rest for a while. No, the biggest benefits he brought to the table were a detailed map of a huge chunk of Cyoria’s underworld (courtesy of the matriarch’s last message) and a decent proficiency in divination that allowed him to scout the areas in front of them and track down any specific target they were pursuing. Without him there to direct the rest of the group, they would have probably spent most of their time wandering aimlessly in search of something to fight. Those three were dangerously overspecialized for direct combat in Zorian’s opinion.
While down in the Dungeon, he took the opportunity to scout the invaders’ underground bases that he was aware of, trying to see how they were dealing with this kind of increased activity and scrutiny of Cyoria’s underworld. Taiven’s group was far from the only one that had tried to cash in on the bounties the city was offering, and more groups were expected to get involved soon. What he found was that the invaders had retreated somewhat, abandoning several of their more exposed bases completely and leaving only token forces in many others. That was bound to have a very negative impact on the execution of the invasion…
When he wasn’t hunting down dungeon denizens with Taiven, he was tending to the multitude of his other plans and obligations. He finished harvesting crystalized mana under Knyazov Dveri and had started to slowly sell his huge stockpile off to various stores, both in Cyoria and outside. He took Kirielle to see Nochka and stayed around to watch out for any cranium rats in the area (but thankfully didn’t detect any). He ended up meeting Nochka’s father this time – a tall, jovial, bearded, muscular fellow named Sauh who loved to laugh and talk and was completely unlike his wife, yet still terrifying in his own way. Zorian was half-convinced that the workshop Sauh insisted on showing him, the one full of hammers and other heavy, dangerous-looking tools, was the man’s way of threatening him bodily harm should he hurt his daughter in any way. He also visited the library to see what Ibery wanted from him. To his surprise, he found out that Ibery was interested in getting magical instruction from him. She had been looking to hire someone for additional tutoring outside of the academy, but found most tutors out of her price range, and was hoping a third year like him might be amenable to a spell exchange or something else of that nature. Though the offer was kind of interesting, he had too many things on his plate as it was – so he told her he’d get back to her after the summer festival, if she was still interested. Perhaps in some future restart where he refused Taiven’s recruitment pitch.
And, of course, he still had to attend classes. That was a chore, though not quite as big of a one as he had been expecting. His long absence from Cyoria had made him forget many of the details of how classes were supposed to go, and caused him to view others in a completely new perspective. The constant monster incursions into the city had also had an effect on the academy. Jade was gone from the class, pulled out of the academy by her family for safety concerns. Zach was gone too, of course, and since nobody (except Zorian) knew the real reason for his absence, most people assumed he had been similarly pulled out for safety reasons and sent out of Cyoria. Kyron announced during their first lessons that he was running additional combat practice lessons during evenings and Ilsa openly encouraged anyone with significant combat ability to join one of the groups culling the monsters, offering special benefits and exceptions to anyone who did so and achieved results. She pointed out Zorian, Briam, Tinami, Naim and Estin as examples of people in the class who had already done that, thoroughly surprising Zorian – he never would have guessed so many people in his class had decided they’re good enough to get themselves involved in that. Two days later, Kopriva would join that list, while Maya and Iroro were ordered home by their parents until the situation calmed down.
With such large changes in class composition and teacher behavior, Zorian’s school experience was relatively novel compared to what he remembered of his pre-exile Cyoria days. He was sure it would all get boring and repetitive again after another restart or two, but for now it was bearable.
* * *
A few more days passed. The number and severity of monster excursions gradually dropped off, and the city stopped behaving like a kicked over anthill and settled into some semblance of normality. There was still a lot of tension in the air, forays into the Dungeon went on still, but things were finally calming down. As such, Zorian started investigating various invaders, cultists and other people related to the invasion that he still remembered from his time with the Cyorian aranea, tracking their movements and activities but launching no attacks for the moment. The furor over the dead mercenaries and monster incursions caused so many changes to the preparations of the invasion that his memories were of limited use, and he didn’t want to move until he was reasonably sure he knew when and where to strike.
It was peculiar, though… even accounting for massive divergences due to Red Robe’s removal of aranea, the invaders were still strangely ineffective. Less informed. Before, they seemed to know how to bypass certain wards or evade notice of Cyoria’s law enforcement – knowledge that they largely lacked in the current restart. He was starting to suspect that Red Robe had a habit of handing over a lot of crucial information to the invaders in previous restarts, even ones where he didn’t appear to pay much attention to them afterwards… but that in this one restart he’d chosen not to bother with that at all.
The arrival of Kael at Imaya’s place reminded Zorian of their deal to help Kael develop his alchemy in exchange for help with soul magic and other stuff. Unfortunately, there was a problem: Zorian had largely forgotten what the contents of Kael’s notebook were over the many, many restarts he had been absent from Cyoria. Somehow Kael managed to figure out a few things from the disjointed parts of his notes that Zorian still remembered, which helped convince him that Zorian was telling the truth, but he was essentially starting from scratch.
Zorian knew he had to find a solution to the forgetting problem if that deal was ever going to work. Without constant reinforcement in every restart, he would forget again, and the amount of information he had to memorize was only going to increase with each restart, making the task harder. And that wasn’t just the issue with Kael’s potion recipes, either – he had been having trouble remembering the layout of Knyazov Dveri resource deposits, some of the minor details of previous restarts (such as his meeting with Nochka) had completely slipped from his memory, and he had a feeling that remembering the vast amount of information about invaders in Cyoria he was currently gathering was going to be a major issue in the future.
He needed a better way to remember things, and he needed it soon. He would have to set aside the upcoming weekend to see if he could figure something out.
He knocked on Xvim’s door and dutifully waited for the man to invite him in.
“Come in,” Xvim called out from inside, and Zorian quickly entered the man’s office and sat down when instructed to do so.
“Show me your basic three,” Xvim ordered.
Zorian did so – silently, efficiently and without complaint. He had decided before coming here that he would try and see how long it would take for Xvim to get unnerved by him meeting all of his demands without any issue or complaint. It was a long term project, of course – he didn’t really think he could baffle the infuriating man in this particular restart – but he was determined to see it through. He would practice whatever stupid exercise Xvim threw at him every single day, restart after restart, until he got them right. Until he got them all right, if he was forced to. The man had to run out of shaping exercises at some point, right?
Xvim threw a marble at him. Zorian moved his head lightly to the left, moving out of the marble’s flight path without ever meeting the man’s eyes. Another two marbles flew at him, but the result was exactly the same.
“Close your eyes,” Xvim ordered.
Zorian did. He still dodged every marble Xvim threw at him, a cloud of diffuse mana scattered around him as a detection field. Xvim did not react, unfazed by his improbable skill, but neither did Zorian.
“You can open your eyes again. Here’s a box of marbles,” said Xvim, reaching beneath his desk to pick up a large bowl full of hated spheres of glass. They came in a wide variety of sizes, and Zorian was silently thankful that Xvim only ever threw the small ones at him – some of the big ones looked like they could knock a man unconscious if they connected. “Levitate as many as you can. Hurry up, we haven’t got all day!”
Zorian levitated every single marble in the bowl, but alas – he was too slow. Or at least Xvim thought so, anyway. He made Zorian lift and lower the entire mass of marbles over and over again, wasting an entire hour. Zorian said nothing though, doing his best to meet Xvim’s unreasonable demands.
“Levitating them like that in a giant disorganized lump is unsightly. Make it a proper sphere. A ring now. A pyramid. That doesn’t look like a pyramid to me – do you need to have your glasses checked, mister Kazinski? Yes, better. But slow – you must be faster. Much faster. Start over from the sphere again. Again. Again.”
Zorian made the mass of marbles flow from one shape to another as fast as he could, but eventually a disaster struck – he lost control of the exercise and the entire mass went crashing down onto the table. Zorian winced as the marbles bounced off the table, making a huge racket and scattering all over Xvim’s office, his mask of cool detachment breaking for a moment.
Several seconds passed in the aftermath as Zorian and Xvim stared at each other impassively.
“Well?” asked Xvim curiously. “What are you waiting for, mister Kazinski? Hurry up and gather the marbles into the bowl so we can continue where we left off.”
“Yes, sir,” said Zorian, unable to keep a note of sourness out of his voice. “I’ll be right on it.”
It was official: he really hated marbles.