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Chapter 041
Myriad Clashing Motives

The start of the newest loop differed little from the previous one – he got on the train to Cyoria with Kirielle in tow, entertained her with feats of magic as well as disguised (and more than a little embellished) accounts of his own adventures to stave off boredom, and even talked with Ibery for a bit. Just for a bit, though – she wasn’t terribly interested in him this time, since he’d finished telling stories to Kirielle by the time they stopped at Korsa, and didn’t demonstrate any amazing spellcasting skills while she was in the compartment.

“Here we are,” said Zorian, stepping off the train and helping Kirielle finagle her luggage through the train wagon door. It was kind of cute how she insisted she would carry her luggage on her own, but he knew from previous restarts that this resolution wouldn’t last very long. Well, whatever, he’d let her live in denial for now. “Welcome to Cyoria, dearest sister.”

“I’m your only sister,” she shot back, curious eyes looking around the massive train station she found herself in.

“You know I’m telling the truth, then,” Zorian said blandly.

Kirielle ignored him in favor of studying the colorful storefronts, the huge clock hanging from the train station ceiling, and the flowing masses of people milling around the place. Truth be told, she handled the sight a lot better than Zorian had when he disembarked in Cyoria for the first time ever.

“Big,” she concluded eventually.

“Cyoria is a big city and an important transport hub,” said Zorian simply. “They get lots of traffic.”

“Do you mind if we look around for a bit?” Kirielle asked.

“You mean browse some stores for interesting trinkets?” Zorian guessed. She pouted at him. “Sure, we can do that. I’m only buying you one souvenir, though, and nothing too ridiculous.”

“What qualifies as ‘too ridiculous’?” she asked, eyeing the storefronts speculatively.

“Use your common sense,” Zorian deadpanned. Like hell was he getting into a definition game with her.

“And if I’m not sure about something?” she prompted.

“Ask,” he immediately fired back.

He could probably buy anything she set her eyes on, especially considering he was about to get a massive cash infusion in a few days, but he didn’t think it a good idea to encourage her excesses like that. Kirielle had never been very keen on restraint to begin with and he shuddered to think what would happen if he decided to pander to her whims too much.

For the next hour and a half, Zorian simply followed Kirielle around as she flitted from one store to another like a drunken butterfly, following no pattern he could discern. Then again, he didn’t really invest much thought into figuring it out – he mostly spent his time practicing his mind sense, trying to process the information he was getting about the crowds around them. Large, closely-packed crowds like the ones at Cyoria’s main train station still tended to ruin his mind sense, reducing the feedback into an incomprehensible, blurry blob of emotions and strange signals. He was getting better at picking specific minds out of that background fog, though. He practiced the procedure by constantly keeping track of Kirielle’s mind, turning her into a sort of a telepathic anchor, and then trying to pick out the minds of random people from the crowd to get a better feel for them. It was slow, annoying work, but he was getting sick of having his empathy and mind sense effectively shut down every time he encountered a crowd.

She picked a snow globe in the end. Admittedly, it was a very nice snow globe – the little house and the trees inside it were incredibly detailed and well done, almost as if someone had literally shrunk a house and its immediate environs and placed them in a glass sphere. Clearly some fairly sophisticated magic had been used to produce the thing, even if the end product was completely non-magical to his senses, and the globe was priced accordingly… but it was better than Zorian had feared so he bought it without complaint. Idly, he wondered if his alteration skills were good enough to produce a globe like that…

With Kirielle’s trinket-hunting done, they set off towards the main plaza and its fountain, just like they had in the previous restart. Unlike the previous restart, Zorian took them through the park right from the start – there was really no need for them to meet the cranium rat swarm. Quite the contrary, it was an unnecessary and unacceptable risk, as Kirielle’s mind was completely unshielded and there was always a possibility that the rats could figure something important or attention-grabbing from Kirielle’s stray thoughts.

As it turned out, that had been a pretty important change. Having never seen the cranium rats, Kirielle obviously couldn’t tell Rea about them, so the topic simply never came up. And apparently he greatly underestimated how much he’d disturbed Rea in their previous first meeting, because keeping quiet about the terrifying mind-reading powers of the rats made Rea a lot less on guard around him this time around… as well as much more insistent about them staying for a while. Hmph.

He let Rea and Kirielle ‘convince him’ to delay their departure. As far as he could tell, this was the best moment to find something out from Rea’s mind, before she had time to grow suspicious of him, and he had every intention of using it to the hilt.

“A student of Cyoria’s Royal Academy? Pretty prestigious place to study at for a boy hailing from a small rural town, if you don’t mind me saying,” Rea remarked. “Not that there is anything wrong with being from a small rural town – we’re from one ourselves, after all – but doesn’t Cyoria’s Royal Academy accept only the, ah…”

“Only the very talented or the very well-connected?” guessed Zorian. It was what most people who weren’t personally involved with the institution thought, after all. Seeing Rea nod in agreement, he continued. “Not really. The admission process is a combination of how well you do on the entrance exams, whether you receive a recommendation from a member of the academy staff or someone else suitably famous, and whether denying you admission would offend someone particularly powerful and influential. Basically, so long as you can pay the admission fee and do well enough in the entrance exams, you are guaranteed to get in.”

“Is that how you got in?” Rea asked curiously.

“I was in the top 50 based on exam results,” said Zorian proudly. He was 48th, but he wasn’t going to mention that.

“Brother is plenty talented,” Kirielle said suddenly. “But, um, they probably also accepted him because of our brother Daimen. At least that’s what mother said happened.”

“What?” asked Zorian flatly.

“Umm…” Kirielle stammered. “Please don’t be mad because mother told me not to tell you this because you would get mad at me but mother said you and Fortov were only accepted so easily because Daimen got so big and successful...”

“Daimen had nothing to do with it,” Zorian said, grinding his teeth in annoyance. “I achieved good enough results that my admission had never been in question! Mother is, like usual, ascribing everything good in the world to Daimen and lumping me with that lout Fortov in order to-“

“I believe you, mister Kazinski,” Rea interrupted him. “Calm down. There is no reason to jump down your little sister’s throat like that.”

“Right, sorry,” Zorian said, with a little bit more bitterness than he intended.

There was a short, awkward silence for a few seconds. Great. Real smooth there, Zorian.

Damn it, why did he let this get under his skin like that?

“So, I’m assuming your brother is that Daimen Kazinski?” Rea asked finally. “The famous one?”

“Yes,” Zorian sighed. “The famous one.”

“Wait, your other brother is famous?” Nochka asked Kirielle innocently. “What for?”

“Things,” Kirielle shrugged uncomfortably, saying nothing else on the topic. Probably trying not to upset him further by continuing the discussion.

“Daimen is an ‘adventuring archeologist’,” Zorian said, doing his best to suppress his annoyance with the whole thing. “He leads expeditions to dangerous areas in search of lost artifacts and ruins. Or even rare plants and magical creatures, even though that should technically be outside the purview of archeology. He has been very successful in this, so he gets a lot of attention from people.”

There. It was an incomplete explanation, yes, but not really misleading or anything. Hopefully it would suffice.

“I haven’t heard anything about him for more than a year now,” Rea remarked.

“He’s in Koth,” Zorian said. “Apparently he found something very important in the jungle, but he’s been very secretive about it. I’m sure you’ll hear all about it when he finally deigns to unveil it to the world.”

Thankfully, the topic of conversation shifted away from Daimen at that point. Zorian decided to take advantage of the somewhat personal nature of Rea’s questions to ask about their personal details. Her story was functionally identical to what she told him in the previous restart, but her surface thoughts were far easier to read this time, what with her not being primed to defend her secrets from a swarm of thought-sharing, mind-reading rats.

Her surface thoughts told him an interesting story. For one thing, Sauh was not a cat shifter. Only Rea and Nochka were. Rea had been a criminal, but then she met Sauh and decided to leave that life behind to be with him. How… romantic. Except that neither Rea’s former associates not the rest of the townsfolk were willing to let Rea forget what her past was, so the family packed up their things and left to somewhere where nobody knew who they were and where they could start anew. Where Nochka could grow up without her mother’s past sabotaging her at every turn.

Damn, he was really starting to get mad about what the Cult of Dragon Below had in store for them… he didn’t think he could just coldly watch as Nochka’s parents are murdered and she herself kidnapped. Though, thinking about it now, it wasn’t such a problem in this particular restart – his memory reading was nowhere near good enough yet to get much out of high-ranking cultists, even if he could track them down by following Nochka’s movements. And who said he was even capable of preventing her kidnapping in the first place? It wasn’t like he had a fool-proof plan to stop it, after all – if the kidnapping proceeded under some different schedule than the one in the previous restart, he’d basically have to monitor the Sashal family day and night to intercept it.

He decided to put his original plan on hold for now and see how things developed. Who knows, maybe the last restart was a fluke and kidnapping Nochka wasn’t something the cultists routinely did in every loop. He would have to put some kind of tracker on her just in case, though…

By the time they were done talking, the rain had already started falling outside. Rea tried to argue that they should wait for a while until it lessened, but Zorian knew that wasn’t happening for quite a while and refused. He enveloped himself and Kirielle in a weather shield to block the rain and bid the Sashal family goodbye.

He considered it a proof of his growing skill and mana reserves that his shield held strong for the entire length of their journey, letting them arrive at Imaya’s place completely dry and unwinded.

* * *

The next few days were fairly routine – he went to Knyazov Dveri to get himself plenty of crystalized mana, sold said crystals in various stores in Cyoria for large amounts of cash, accepted Taiven’s offer of joining her team in running monster-killing missions and tested whether his stored notebooks had survived the restart (they had).

With the start of classes on Monday, however, Zorian decided to go out of his comfort zone a little and initiate contact with one of his classmates. Specifically, Raynie. He was currently investigating shifters, after all, and she was supposed to be a wolf shifter herself. Maybe she knew some crucial information? It didn’t hurt to ask.

There was one big, obvious problem with his idea, however – Raynie got a lot of love confessions and date invitations from her many love-stricken fans, and would probably assume his attempt to talk to her was just more of the same. And she was not interested in love and dating, she made that very clear over the years. How could he ensure his attempt to talk to her wouldn’t be misunderstood?

He agonized for an entire day over which method of approach he should use, before deciding he was being stupid. So what if she got the wrong idea when he asked to talk to her? Though she categorically rejected every man who tried to court her, her rejections had always been polite and non-violent to his knowledge… except for that one time she punched a guy in the face, but everyone who was there agreed that guy got a little grabbier than was proper. Bottom line was, he could just approach her directly before class and ask for a talk, and the worst that could happen was that she could tell him to get lost without hearing him out. Hardly the end of the world, and with the time loop in place he would have a chance to try again in the next restart with a different approach.

The worst didn’t happen, though. When Zorian asked to talk to her after class, Raynie simply gave a little sigh and spared a lingering glance at the ceiling, as if asking the gods what she had done to deserve this, before agreeing to his request.

The class came and went, and the classroom gradually emptied of people until only Zorian, Raynie and Kiana were left. Why was Kiana there? Hell if Zorian knew, but her presence was clearly not unintended by Raynie so he opted not to say anything. Did Kiana know about her friend being a shifter? If not, then broaching the topic in front of her was probably not something Raynie would appreciate.

How annoying.

“Sorry about this,” Raynie said. “I know you probably wanted this to be private, but Kiana insisted on staying behind too, and, well…”

She shrugged helplessly. She sounded honestly apologetic about it, and if he were incapable of sensing people’s emotions, he would have probably believed her too. He gave Kiana a glance, and she quickly straightened her posture and fixed a small scowl on her face. Probably trying to look intimidating or something. Her real emotions were a mix of boredom and impatience, though – she probably considered the entire thing a massive chore.

Zorian almost cracked a smile at the whole setup. The funny thing was that if he was going to ask anyone out, it would probably be Kiana, not Raynie. He’d kind of had his eyes on her before he’d gotten stuck in this whole time loop business, in an idle, daydreaming sort of way. If he remembered correctly, Zach caught him staring at her once, in that fateful first restart. A part of him wanted to ask Kiana out right now, just to see how the two of them would react to such a development.

But no, that would only be amusing for a short while and he would have to live with all the created drama for the rest of the month. Besides, his reasons for liking Kiana were extremely shallow and based entirely around her looks – he felt she was just as beautiful as Raynie, and preferred her black hair to Raynie’s red. That was it, really. For all he knew, her personality could be absolutely atrocious.

“If you’re okay with her presence, then so am I,” Zorian said. “That said, do you mind if I erect a privacy bubble around us? Neolu and company are hanging by the door, trying to eavesdrop, and I think we’d all be happier if they did not hear this.”

“Ugh,” Raynie grunted, rising from her seat and marching off towards the door. “There is no need for that. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Through his mind sense, Zorian could feel the four mental signatures of their eavesdroppers flee before Raynie’s approach. They were already halfway down the corridor by the time she opened the door, and in less than a minute Raynie was back in her seat.

“Well then,” she began, “now that the spy brigade is gone, we can finally get this over with. What did you want to talk to me about, Mister Kazinski?”

“Does Kiana know about shifters?” Zorian asked.

Evidently she did, if her shocked reaction was any indication.

“What?” Raynie stammered. “How do you know about that?”

“I asked a scholar named Vani to tell me about shifters and-“

“Vani from Knyazov Dveri?” Raynie asked, interrupting him. “Aren’t you supposed to be from Cirin?”

“I am,” Zorian confirmed. “That doesn’t mean I am forbidden from visiting Knyazov Dveri on occasion. I have friends there.”

“Of course you have,” Raynie sighed. “Look… Zorian. I kept this a secret for a reason.”

Zorian nodded in agreement. “That’s why I asked whether Kiana knows.”

“I know,” Kiana piped in, crossing her arms in front of her. “And I’ll be charitable and assume you’ll keep it a secret, just as I have, despite being friends with that blabbermouth Benisek. So what exactly do you want from Raynie anyway?”

“I made acquaintances with a couple of cat shifters, and I wanted to hear an opinion of another shifter about some things related to that,” said Zorian. “I figured I’d ask Raynie first and see if she was willing to answer some questions.”

There was a brief silence as both girls digested this.

“I… uh… this is way too heavy of a topic for a free period,” Raynie decided. “Our next class is about to start soon.”

“Well, yes,” agreed Zorian. “It doesn’t have to be now. I just want to know if you’re even willing to help me out.”

“I might as well,” Raynie said dismissively. “My main concern about shifter-talk had always been about not wanting people to know I was one to begin with, and the cat is apparently already out of the bag. Besides, if you’re hanging out with the likes of cat shifters, you’re going to need some advice. No offense to your new acquaintances, but cat shifters tend to be unsavory characters.”

“I did hear some rumors about that,” Zorian admitted. “So how is this going to work, then?”

“I don’t know,” Raynie admitted. “I’m going to have to think about it. You’ve ambushed me out of nowhere with this. I’ll get back to you when I figure out a time and place.”

“Don’t contact us, we’ll contact you,” Kiana summarized.

And then they were out of time and ended the meeting in favor of rushing to the next class. Over all, Zorian was pleased with the outcome… even if the looks and whispers of his classmates signified they had noticed the interaction and that the resulting fallout had yet to be determined.

* * *

Raynie didn’t seem to be in a hurry to organize a meeting with him after their talk, but Zorian didn’t hold it against her. It was nothing urgent, and he had plenty of things to busy himself with in the meantime.

Currently, that meant combing the aranea settlement for any hints regarding where they kept their treasury. He wasn’t having much luck yet, but then again he didn’t expect to be lucky so soon – it would be a pretty terrible secret treasury if all it took was a single day of dedicated searching to track it down.

Zorian wandered the tunnels of the settlement, his mind sense straining in an attempt to detect some surviving aranea hiding somewhere. He didn’t find any. The aranean settlement was a silent tomb, unmoving corpses of giant spiders scattered throughout its expanse and undisturbed by scavengers due to the wards the aranea had placed on it. Occasionally his mind sense detected a mental signature, but it inevitably turned out to be some dungeon denizen trying to sneak past the wards of the settlement or one of the few surviving male aranea.

Not that the latter were wholly useless – though sub-sapient, they were still representative of what the aranea were like, and didn’t have the mental defenses that female aranea did. Zorian made sure to capture each one he encountered so he could read their minds for information about the location of the treasury – more out of desire to practice his memory reading on something related to aranea than out of any real hope that they knew something.

Though he had to say the males were a lot smarter than Zorian had thought they would be, considering what he’d been told by the female aranea – they were actually closer to animals such as ravens and pigs than something dumb like a horse or a dog. Three of them even worked together in order to ambush him, and Zorian only narrowly avoided getting bitten by the one of them.

The aranea were only weakly venomous, according to what he’d been told by them, but he would still rather not tempt fate like that.

“Damn,” Zorian swore. Nothing, not even a clue as to where he should look next. “That’s it, I’m done with this for today. Kael, you done with your examination yet?”

Kael shifted his attention from the curled, motionless corpse of some unfortunate aranea towards him, his mind slowly switching gears from his focused work state into something capable of holding a conversation.

“Hmm? Oh, that,” Kael mumbled. “Yes, I checked them over for soul magic ages ago. I can find no traces of any soul magic being performed on them. None whatsoever, and it’s honestly freaking me out. If you hadn’t told me what really happened, I’d have assumed these bodies to be very sophisticated meat puppets devoid of souls to begin with, not sapient creatures whose souls have somehow been removed. I’ve just finished a more comprehensive medical scan, however, and there is no way these bodies are meat puppets. I’m baffled. This doesn’t look like the aftermath of any soul spell I know of.”

Damn. He had really been hoping Kael would be able to find something.

“You really can’t tell me anything else?” Zorian urged. “Anything?”

“No. Well, maybe,” Kael said, hesitating. Zorian urged him to continue. “While my medical scans show these spiders indeed died on the first day of the restart, they died somewhere after two in the morning.”

“Ah, I see where you’re going with that,” Zorian said after a brief pause. “That implies that the time loop starts almost six hours before I wake up.”

“Yes,” Kael agreed. “I’m not sure how useful that is to you, but it’s interesting.”

“Very,” Zorian agreed. “Especially if I can somehow force myself to wake up at the start of the time loop as opposed to when I usually do.”

Kael nodded and before suddenly checking on his pocket watch. “Ah, I didn’t even realize so much time has passed. I promised Kana I would take her to the park today, do you think we could-“

“Yes,” Zorian preemptively agreed. “That’s why I interrupted you in the first place. I’ve had enough of this place for one day. Just gather your things and I’ll recall us back to the basement.”

Five minutes later Kael and Zorian were teleported back to Imaya’s basement – or rather, the large stone that served as an anchor for Zorian’s recall spell. The recall spell was quickly becoming one of Zorian’s favorites, due to its ability to cut through many forms of magical interference and anti-teleportation wards. It would be even better if maintaining a recall link with each anchor stone didn’t incur a running mana cost, but you can’t have everything, he supposed. He bid goodbye to Kael, who had his own duties to attend to, and went out to seek out Kirielle.

He found her in the kitchen, telling stories to Imaya and playing with the miniature golem he’d made for her. Amusingly, no one in the house seemed to realize just how much money and skill it took to create that thing – it was just a fancy magical doll to them, and they barely gave it a second’s thought. To Zorian, though, that little golem was very special for one simple reason: he had created the blueprint for it in the previous restart.

Although Zorian had spent a lot of time in the restarts messing with spell formula and magic item creation, the truth was that he had been somewhat reluctant to truly sink a lot of his time into the field because he had to effectively recreate his designs purely from memory with every restart. While that was good in a sense, as it forced him to re-evaluate and refine his designs each time instead of relying on tried-and-true designs, the fact of the matter was that it slowed things down to a crawl whenever he was forced to recreate everything from scratch over and over again. He had effectively been limited to fairly simple projects, but now that he could actually transfer notebooks across restarts, he was freed of these limitations and could truly start advancing in the field.

He greeted Imaya, announcing his return, and then turned to his little sister.

“Hello, Kiri,” he greeted. “Are you ready for your magic lesson?”

“Yes!” she agreed enthusiastically.

“So does that mean you read the first three chapters of that book I gave you?” Zorian asked.

“Err, yeah,” she agreed, much less enthusiastically than before. “I, uh, may have skipped a few parts.”

Zorian gave her a knowing look. He had a feeling that if he quizzed her on what she read, he would find she skipped far more than ‘a few parts’.

“Alright,” he said, putting a small black cube on the table in front of them. “This here is the mana absorption cube. Its function is very simple – it will absorb any mana you let out, after which the carved lines you see on its surface will begin to glow. It sounds useless, but beginner mages like yourself have trouble sensing their own mana flow, and thus cannot really determine whether their efforts are achieving any results. This will help keep you on target. Later, when you start extruding mana out of your body reliably, we can move onto purposely feeding mana into the cube in order to build greater control…”

Kirielle took the cube carefully into her hands, as if afraid it was going to bite her, and started tracing the lines carved into its surface with her fingers.

“Did you also learn using one of those things?” she asked. “I thought that was done using those one of those glass balls you brought home after your second year?”

“I did, but I discovered those things aren’t really the best tool for the job,” Zorian said. “They’re mass produced, with an eye for price instead of maximum effectiveness. That cube you’re holding in your hand is a bit better than that.”

“Oh,” she said, giving him a surprised look. “Was it… expensive?”

Well, technically Zorian had produced that cube on his own, but the materials he used weren’t exactly cheap…

“Yes, but don’t worry about it,” he said dismissively. “I don’t mind spending money on this, so long as you actually take your lessons seriously. And Kirielle?”

“Yeah?” she asked curiously.

“You really need to actually read those three chapters for our next lesson, and I’d appreciate if you didn’t lie to me like that in the future,” he said.

At least she had the decency to blush in response.

* * *

The first week of the restart was a pretty big success in Zorian’s eyes. True, he never did manage to find the aranean treasury, but everything else was going along nicely.

Red Robe had once again neglected to give any information to the invaders, so they were stumbling around just as badly as they had in the previous restart. This was the second time in a row that he had done that, and that was taking into account just the restarts that Zorian knew about – it had probably started way earlier than this. Did Red Robe completely give up on supporting the invasion after their confrontation? That was more than a little strange, considering how dedicated he’d been about helping them out before. Maybe he supported the invasion primarily as a way to keep Zach busy with something and mask the aftershocks of his own actions? If so, the fact that he revealed himself to Zach would kind of make such trickery pointless…

Regardless of the reason, Red Robe’s absence made things very convenient for Zorian. The moment he realized Red Robe was once again ignoring the invaders, he immediately launched a series of raids on the known invaders and their cultist allies. He found nothing new yet, but every memory dive he did made him one step closer to opening the matriarch’s memory packet so he considered himself successful there regardless. He also scouted a couple of the emergency resource caches that he’d found in the last restart, and even looted a particularly badly defended one. That particular cache held nothing except a large quantity of unlabeled potion bottles, which was slightly disappointing. He handed them off to Kael to see if he could figure out what they were and find a use for them. He’d feel bad about taking advantage of the morlock boy so much, except that Kael actually seemed enthusiastic about all the work Zorian was sending his way, so Zorian figured it was okay.

His monster hunts with Taiven were more successful this time around as well, since he had knowledge of where the monster nests and main migration routes were from his previous restarts. Taiven was ecstatic at their results, though Zorian had noticed her giving him some strange looks when she thought he wasn’t paying attention. Did she somehow realize how improbable his claim of divining the locations of the monsters was? Well, no matter – since she never actually confronted him about it, he decided to continue using his foreknowledge to improve results of the hunts and deal with the fallout when (and if) it came.

His quest for getting himself a better library pass was also going along nicely, even though it was still in the beginning stages. The method he chose was extremely simple: he hung around the library entrance during its busiest hours and covertly scanned the minds of everyone who entered and left, looking for people with higher passes who weren’t regular visitors of the library. After all, while the academy was stingy about giving higher authorizations to its students, actual holders of higher authorizations weren’t exactly rare. Plenty of mages had them, and few of them were using them with any degree of regularity. If he chose his target correctly, they would never even realize their library pass had gone missing. And hopefully, the library would also never realize the holder of the card was not the same person whose name was printed on it.

The crowning achievement of this week, however, was the session with Xvim he was currently attending. Xvim was usually extremely punctual about their sessions, ending them at exactly their mandated time – no more, no less. Today, however, Zorian had been so good about meeting his ridiculous demands that Xvim decided to quietly extend their session beyond their allotted time. Zorian said nothing, simply continuing his endless repetition of the tasks Xvim gave him, but internally he was smiling. Even if Xvim retained his stony facade, the fact he decided to break off from his usual routine told Zorian that he was definitely making progress in unnerving his annoying mentor.

Unfortunately, as much as he’d like to see how long Xvim intended to keep him here if he did not complain, Zorian had other obligations to fulfill today.

“A training session with someone else, you say,” Xvim asked curiously. “And what, pray tell, is this training session about, to trump the meeting with your mentor in importance?”

“It’s something Professor Zileti arranged for me,” Zorian said, invoking the authority of another teacher. “I’m meeting another student so we can practice our mind magic together.”

Xvim stared at him for a second. If Zorian had expected some kind of shock at his admission, or a request at confirmation that, yes, he indeed meant ‘mind magic’… he was disappointed. Xvim just stared at him for a bit, tapped his finger on the table once, and then reached some kind of decision.

“Why have you not notified me of this sooner?” he asked.

“I meant no offense, sir,” Zorian assured him smoothly. “It’s just that this was our first meeting, and you immediately had me start with shaping exercises when I entered the room. I felt it would be imprudent to interrupt your lesson for such an ultimately irrelevant detail.”

“Hmph. And you say you’re practicing with another student? The blind teaching the blind…” Xvim said, shaking his head in disapproval. He then made a dismissive gesture with his hand, shooing him away. “Well, then. Go. I’m not going to keep you from your duties.”

“Thank you, sir,” Zorian said, rising from his seat. “I am to see you on next Friday, then?”

“No, come see me on Monday after classes,” Xvim said. “I need to see this mind magic of yours in action before I can plan for our next session.”

Huh. Now this he did not expect. Was Xvim implying he could help him develop his mind magic somehow? He did have a very good mental shield, admittedly, but Zorian was still skeptical that the man could help him in that regard. And he was also more than a little baffled that Xvim was even willing to help with that, even if it did turn out that he was some kind of mind magic expert… he thought the man was all about the shaping exercises and other basics?

Deciding he was going to have to wait till Monday to see what Xvim had in mind, Zorian left the man’s office and went off to meet Tinami for their mind magic practice.

Well, he technically did not know he was meeting Tinami in particular, but considering that the setup was largely the same as it was the last time around (he told Ilsa about his mind magic and requested a practice partner), he didn’t think the identity of the other student was that much of a mystery. And indeed, when he arrived at the assigned classroom, he found Tinami already there, waiting for him.

“You are the other mind mage?” Tinami asked incredulously.

[Yes,] he answered telepathically, causing her to flinch in shock. She narrowed her eyes at him in response.

“You’re late,” she complained.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “Xvim unexpectedly decided to extend our tutoring session beyond bounds. I only managed to get out of it a few minutes ago.”

“You chose Xvim as your mentor?” Tinami asked. “Why?”

“I live in Cirin,” Zorian explained. “That’s pretty far from Cyoria. By the time Ilsa managed to get to me, all the other mentors had filled their quotas and Xvim was the only one left.”

“Is he as bad as they say?” she asked.

“He had me do shaping exercises for two hours straight today.”

“Ouch. Okay, I guess that justifies being a few minutes late,” she admitted. “We should probably reschedule our future meetings, just in case this keeps happening.”

“Probably,” Zorian agreed. Not even he knew what Xvim would choose to do next, and he had lived through this month many, many times by now. “Anything important I should know before we start?”

Just like the last time they did this, Tinami was largely interested in practicing her telepathy and ability to read surface thoughts. She was rather bad at it by Zorian’s standards, but she improved rapidly under his direction. As for himself, he mostly practiced tapping into other people’s senses with her. He could access the senses of other humans quite easily at this point, but trying to actually function while getting two sets of sensory inputs was a massive challenge. Especially if he and Tinami were looking in completely different directions and such.

Truthfully, there was very little that practicing with Tinami could offer him that he could not also do with Kirielle, Kael or some random stranger… but this way he got to talk to one of his classmates, which was one of his resolutions for this restart. It didn’t hurt that cooperating with Tinami could be potentially quite useful, considering who her family was. Also quite dangerous, since they were known to dabble in mind magic and necromancy, but he was willing to take that chance. It was too bad he was essentially starting from scratch with her, though – the last time he’d done this with Tinami, he had introduced her to the aranea and they’d overshadowed him in her eyes by quite a margin. Because of that, they’d interacted very little outside their practice sessions. Then again, considering he had simply viewed her as a mind magic practice dummy back then and never even tried to get to know her, he had no right to complain. Now, though, there was no convenient nearby aranea to introduce her to, even if he wanted to… he would have to catch her attention in some other way.

“Okay, I’ve just got to ask – where on earth did you learn how to perform mind magic so well?” Tinami asked. “I’ve been learning these things for years, under some very good tutors, and you’re just effortlessly one-upping me in every application of it I can think of. How come?”

“It’s a secret,” Zorian said bluntly. “Ask me later when we get to know each other better.”

She quirked her eyebrow at him. “When, huh?”

“When, if, whatever suits your fancy. The point is that we don’t know each other well enough for me to reveal something that personal to you.”

“That’s fair enough,” she sighed, leaning back in her chair. “It’s really annoying, though. I know I’m not exactly a genius in the field but-“

There was a knock on the door. Zorian and Tinami both looked at each other and shrugged, mystified about who could be knocking on an empty classroom door at this time of day.

“I’ll go check,” Zorian said, rising from his seat. Chances were that it was someone looking for one of them, and knowing his luck that meant they were looking for him.

He opened the door, only to find Kiana standing behind it.

“Um, hi?” Zorian said uncertainly.

“Hi,” Kiana said, sticking her head inside the classroom quickly in order to see if they were alone. She did a double-take when she saw Tinami and gave him an incredulous look.

“It’s private,” Zorian said crankily, preempting any sort of question. He stepped out of the classroom and closed the door behind him so they could have some semblance of privacy while they talked.

“I didn’t say anything,” she said, raising her hands in front of her defensively. “I just came to tell you that Raynie has finally decided to meet with you again. It’s at ten in the morning tomorrow, at this address.” She pushed a folded piece of paper into his hands. “I shouldn’t have to tell you this, but don’t spread this around, okay?”

“Like I’d feed the rumor mill like that,” Zorian scoffed, rolling his eyes. “Will you be there too, standing guard again?”

“No, but the owner of that restaurant is a friend of Raynie so don’t get any funny ideas,” she said. “Oh, that reminds me – Raynie wants you to know that this is definitely not a date. Even though it’s a private meeting in a restaurant between two teenagers…”

She smiled mischievously at him.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to be on your friend’s side?” he complained.

“I was just joking,” she sighed. “Gods, you’re just as humorless as she is. Heavens help us if you two really do end up getting together in the end… see you around, Zorian.”

And then she just turned and left without even waiting for his response. She… wasn’t really how he’d imagined her to be. Shaking his head, he stuffed the paper with the address in his pocket and went back to the classroom.

“Sorry for the interruption,” he told Tinami. “It was a small personal matter I had to- why are you looking at me like that?”

“No way,” she mumbled. “I heard you were going after Raynie, but to think you got her to agree to it… how ever did you do that? I thought that was impossible!”

“I don’t have a date with Raynie, Tinami,” Zorian calmly assured her. “You are jumping to conclusions.”

“Unless… of course!” she exclaimed. “Of course a mind reader could figure out her weak spot!”

“Hey!” he protested. “Now that’s just insulting. I would never violate the privacy of her thoughts like that!”

“Why not?” Tinami asked curiously. “I would, in your place.”

“Are… are you sure you want to admit so readily to something like that?” Zorian asked incredulously.

“Please. I don’t believe for one second you are being perfectly moral and responsible with your mind magic,” Tinami accused. “You’re far too good at it to have developed your powers the legal way.”

“This topic is over as far as I’m concerned,” Zorian stated. “Why don’t we go back to practicing mind magic? You know, the thing we’re supposed to be doing?”

“I have to ask though, what is it that you people see in that girl?” Tinami asked, completely ignoring him. “What does she have that I don’t? Is it the red hair? It’s the red hair, isn’t it?”

Zorian let his face fall into his hands. And it had been shaping up to be such a nice day, too.

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