Chapter 042
Sum of its Parts

Not far from the restaurant where he was supposed to meet Raynie, Zorian sat on a bench and waited. There was no sign of her yet, but that was in no way unusual – he had misjudged the amount of time it would take him to find the place, and was thus a little early. He didn’t let it bother him, choosing instead to pass the time by experimenting with his mind sense on the passing crowds, tapping into the eyes of pigeons flying overhead and practicing his shaping skills on the handful of pebbles he had taken to carrying around on his person at all times.

Honestly, shaping exercises were kind of relaxing when he didn’t have Xvim breathing down his neck and being a jerk. He should try finding one that was actually challenging – really challenging, but not Xvim’s patented you-haven’t-really-mastered-this bullshit – and setting aside some time to… hm?

He drew the pebbles currently floating in front of him back to his palm and pocketed them, before leaning over a nearby ornamental bush where his mind senses had detected an extremely faint mental signature. Despite knowing exactly where to look, it took him two whole seconds to spot the mantis camouflaged against the leaves. He stared at the bug for a while, before an idea occurred to him…

He pointed his palm towards the insect and concentrated, trying to telekinetically draw it towards him without crushing it like a… well, bug. Something that was greatly complicated by the mantis holding on for dear life to the twig it was standing on. He had hoped to surprise it with this sudden maneuver, but its reactions were surprisingly fast for something that had been moving so slowly and ponderously just a second ago. Nonetheless, Zorian wasn’t so easily deterred. Five minutes later, he had finally managed to detach the mantis from the twig without hurting it and was levitating it in front of him. The mantis twisted and flailed around in the air, clearly unhappy with its predicament, but Zorian had established too firm a hold on it for his telekinetic control to lapse just from that.

At least until the mantis decided it was finished with this annoyance, then suddenly unfurled its wings and flew off. Oh, right – mantises can fly if they need to… He totally forgot about that. Shrugging, he focused on his mind sense for a moment, checking if Raynie had arrived yet.

She had. She was still hidden by the nearby building from where he was standing, but her mental signature was unmistakable. He set off in the direction of the restaurant, and was soon back at the entrance, trying not to stare at the street corner he knew she was going to emerge from. When she did finally round the corner, however, she stopped in her tracks and just sort of stared at him in apprehension instead of coming over to meet him. Honestly, what was up with that? He already agreed with her that it wasn’t a date, so what was she apprehensive about? He ‘accidentally’ turned in her direction, pretended he’d just noticed her and gave her a little wave.

She stopped stalling and came over to greet him properly.

“Sorry if I’m cutting it a little close,” she said. “With most people I know, it’s a miracle if they’re only ten minutes late, so I’ve learned not to be too early to this sort of stuff. You didn’t wait long, did you?”

“It was a bit of a wait,” admitted Zorian. “But to be fair, I was rather early. Don’t worry about it, I found things to amuse myself with.”

“Oh?” she asked. “And what would that be, if you’re willing to share?”

“Nothing too interesting. I was just doing some shaping exercises,” said Zorian, retrieving the pebbles from his pocket and making them float in a rotating ring above his palm. “Silly, I know, but it passes the time.”

Raynie stared at the rotating ring of pebbles for a second before shaking her head, mumbling something unintelligible and motioning for him to follow her into the restaurant. He returned the pebbles to his pocket and hurried after her.

The moment he stepped inside the dining hall of the restaurant, he understood the reason behind the restaurant’s somewhat unusual name – ‘Fearsome Catfish’ indeed. Hanging from the ceiling of the dining room was a preserved body of a massive catfish, big enough to swallow a grown man whole. An… interesting choice of ornamentation for a restaurant. Raynie seemed both amused and pleased that the taxidermically preserved trophy gave him pause for a moment, although he only knew that because of his empathy – she neither reacted nor said anything to him as she led him to a nearby table where they took their seats.

He half-expected Raynie to order a plate full of meat, what with her being a wolf shifter and all… but she actually ordered a grilled trout and a plate of vegetables. Huh. He supposed he shouldn’t be so quick to assume… though speaking of assuming things, was he expected to pay for them both? His cynical side was saying yes, since her choice of meal was on the pricier side of things… but then again she was the daughter of a tribal chief. Maybe she had plenty of money and this was perfectly normal for her. Maybe she’d be offended that he’s trying to pay for her share of the food and think he’s trying to court her after all…

“It will take some time for the chefs to prepare the food,” Raynie said. “Why don’t you tell me about these cat shifters of yours while we wait?”

Zorian scanned the other tables in the dining hall for any eavesdroppers. They were by no means the only people in the restaurant, and Zorian kind of thought this was way too public of a location to be having this sort of conversation… but it was mostly Raynie’s secrets that were at stake here, so if she felt this was fine, then it was. None of the other diners were paying any attention to them, so at least there was that.

He told her as much as he could without bringing up the invasion or information about Rea’s background that he obviously shouldn’t know about. Even so, he sincerely hoped that Raynie wouldn’t want to speak with Rea after their talk, because he would almost certainly find himself in a bit of a hairy situation if that were to happen – he could scarcely explain how he came by some of his information without admitting he had spied upon the Sashal family in some fashion.

“I don’t think they intend to harm you in any way,” Raynie said once he was done. “They wouldn’t be willing to leave you alone with their daughter like that if they did, nor would they let her get attached to your little sister if they meant to make you into a target. Most cat shifters are dishonorable, but they don’t target their own neighbors, friends, contacts and the like. They never make trouble in their own territory.”

Well. Zorian had already known that the various shifter groups are by no means united, but it seemed they weren’t even on particularly good terms either. Or at least Raynie’s group didn’t seem to like cat shifters much.

“I’m guessing the cat and wolf shifters don’t get along, then?” surmised Zorian.

“We hardly ever interact with each other. Our relations are not bad because they’re mostly non-existent,” said Raynie. “I personally think they give the rest of the shifters a bad name, and I know I’m not the only one in my tribe with that opinion. You should watch yourself around your new friends. I know I just said earlier that they are not plotting against you, but that doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Cat shifters are rarely just cat shifters – they are the shifter group that has embraced Ikosian magical traditions the most. They especially like to dabble in illusionism, mind magic, scrying and… other shady disciplines. I wouldn’t put it past them to spy on you in some fashion.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Zorian nodded. “I’m curious, though – is that a general thing? Do different shifter groups usually avoid each other?”

“No, not at all,” Raynie said, shaking her head. “We try to maintain contact with other shifter groups, it’s just that cat shifters are… well, it’s a long story, and I can smell our meals coming. We’ll talk more after we’ve eaten.”

She was right – the food was indeed brought over to their table not long after that. And Raynie was either very hungry or an extremely fast eater, because she scarfed down her meal in half an hour flat and then kept giving Zorian impatient looks while he ate his own food at a much more sedate pace. Rude. He refused to hurry up just because of her.

“Alright,” said Zorian eventually, setting his plate aside to signal that he was done eating. “We were talking about shifter relations.”

“Yeah,” Raynie agreed. “Well, the first thing you need to keep in mind is that the current image of shifters as some sort of weird mages living on the fringes of normal society is something very… modern. Before the flood of Ikosian refugees came to the continent and conquered everything, shifters didn’t live on the fringes of anything – partly because the rest of the natives hated us and would have never allowed us to live near them, but also because we didn’t have to. We had our own tribes and territories to live in.”

“The other natives hated you so much?” Zorian asked.

“Oh yes,” Raynie confirmed. “Even today, the scattered remains of the original tribes that lived in the region – the people you collectively call Khusky – can’t stand the sight of us. Thankfully for us, they have managed to thoroughly marginalize themselves over the years and no longer have any say in how shifters are treated. That’s the good thing that came with the Ikosian conquest - the Ikosians didn’t find shifters nearly as threatening or inhuman as the Altazian natives did. As far as they were concerned, we were just your typical group of overspecialized native mages that they hoped to absorb into their society.”

“But?” Zorian prompted.

“But their attempts to absorb us never quite succeeded properly,” Raynie shrugged. “We speak Ikosian and follow the laws of the land, but most shifter groups have stubbornly clung onto every shred of autonomy and independence that we could. Wolf shifters were the most vocal and successful in that regard.”

“Ah, I see,” said Zorian, understanding. “And since the cat shifters decided to discard their autonomy in favor of assimilating more closely into the rest of the population, you don’t get along with each other.”

“Yes,” she sighed. “We’re not enemies, but they have completely rejected our politics and went their own separate ways. Both sides agree that they’ve got nothing to say to each other and avoid contact.”

Zorian hummed noncommittally. Somehow he doubted that the wolf shifters really didn’t consider cat shifters enemies. He’d buy the idea that the cat shifters really were apathetic over the issue, but the wolf shifters must be pretty bitter over the other side breaking ranks like that. They were just powerless to do anything about it.

“So how successful are cat shifters, then?” Zorian asked curiously.

“Very successful,” Raynie admitted. “Eldemar’s government loves to point them out to shifter tribes worried about what would happen to them if they gave up on their traditional rights. It’s why they are so reluctant to seriously crack down on them, despite their shady behavior. If the biggest success story of the shifter integration program comes under fire, it would likely cause all those other shifter tribes considering going down that path to back off and dig in harder.”

Right, totally not enemies.

“So if cat shifters were so very successful, doesn’t it make sense to copy them to some degree?” Zorian asked. “I mean, I can understand not wanting to be criminals, but what stops you getting yourself some classical mages among your ranks? I’d be willing to bet their decision to acquire Ikosian-style spellcasting had a lot to do with their success.”

“What do you think I’m here for?” Raynie asked him with a smile.

“Ah, well…” Zorian fumbled. “While you’re clearly training to be a classical mage, you are a rare exception from what I’m hearing, not the rule. Why is your tribe only sending someone to learn this now? Why not earlier?”

“There is a reason why the shifter group most successful in adopting Ikosian-style magic is also the group that cares the least for our traditional rights,” she said. “While the idea sounds simple in principle, in practice it amounts to opening a backdoor for the central government to influence the tribe. Members trained as mages have a tendency to make power-plays and bring the mage guild, and through them the central government into internal tribal disputes when they don’t get their way.”

“Ah,” nodded Zorian in understanding. “And the central government is all about abolishing autonomous groups like yours when given a chance.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Plus, the tribal elders are very traditional and often react badly if the new mage shows too many outside influences upon return. Many times the mage simply walked out of the tribe in disgust after a few years of clashing with them.”

“So what changed to make you come here?” asked Zorian. A flash of indecipherable, but decidedly negative emotion welled up in the girl in front of him. “Or is that too personal a question?”

“It’s… not really, no,” she said, scowling for a moment before schooling her features. She was annoyed at something, but she didn’t seem to blame him for it. “I guess there are two main reasons. Ever since the splintering of the Old Alliance, the centralization policies that characterized its twilight years have been somewhat discredited, lessening the pressure on shifter tribes to assimilate. This makes outsider-trained members less threatening to many in the tribe. On top of that, the recent colonization drive to the Sarokian Highlands has many shifter tribes wary, since their lands are directly in the path of settlers. If a group of mages decides to settle inside of our borders, it is not at all certain we could get them to leave without asking the central government for help.”

“Help for which they would demand concessions,” Zorian guessed.

“Well, they are actually obliged to help us in that regard for free,” Raynie said. “It’s their duty. But every time we fail to resolve problems ourselves, we weaken our authority and credibility. If we do it too much, our supposed autonomy will end up being only on paper. So it would be best if we had some of our own mages to handle things. Anyway, those two come together into a situation where the tribal leadership felt we had to acquire some mages of our own, and could afford the risk that comes with such attempts.”

Zorian nodded and spoke no more of the topic, even though he could tell there was more to it. It wasn’t as though Raynie had lied to him – he detected no intent to deceive from his empathy – but there was clearly some factor she didn’t want to discuss there. Something personal, he guessed. Something that made her angry and bitter at her tribe, which she otherwise spoke about with pride and reverence.

He had a feeling that her coming to Cyoria was something of an exile.

He asked her to give him a rundown of other shifter groups and she jumped at the chance to change the topic to something else.

Shifter politics were surprisingly complex. Aside from cat shifters, the raven and owl shifters had also fully abandoned their tribal roots in favor of assimilation into regular society – they were not quite as successful as cat shifters, but both were doing decently for themselves. The viper shifters had also tried to pursue that path, but theirs was not a successful story – they failed to integrate and were nearly wiped out when they launched a short-lived rebellion during the Splinter Wars. The wolf, deer and boar shifters provided the core of the autonomist faction, which sought to preserve their traditional tribal structure and their special privileges. The bear and fox shifters were aligned with the autonomists, but had been slowly wavering in their support over the years and had powerful assimilationist factions working inside of them.

Finally, there were three more shifter groups that stood out from the rest for a couple of reasons. First, there were the eagle shifters, who couldn’t accept being ruled by anyone, autonomy or not. They simply transformed and flew off in the direction of the Winter Mountains, where they somehow survived till modern times. How they dealt with such hostile, monster-infested environment nobody was quite sure, and they wanted nothing to do with the rest of humanity. Not even the other shifters. The second one were seal shifters, who got on the wrong side of Eldemar during the Necromancer’s War and were mostly killed off as a result. The survivors left for Ulquaan Ibasa along with other losing groups, and were never heard from again. Raynie suspected they wouldn’t want to talk to other shifters, even if they still survived in their new home. Finally, there were the pigeon shifters, who were never a tribe to begin with – they were a product of an eccentric mage that managed to get ahold of a shifter transformation ritual and was dedicated enough to create his own shifter clan with it. They were mocked and looked down upon by the other shifters, but Raynie admitted (after some prodding) that they were actually doing quite well for themselves. Being able to turn into a flying animal at will had its uses.

“I’m surprised there aren’t more attempts like that, to be honest,” Zorian said.

“There are,” Raynie said. “They just tend not to go anywhere. They start well, but then run into problems when the first generation shifters start having children. If not handled properly, shifter children tend to grow up somewhat… dysfunctional. Established shifter groups have centuries of tradition to draw on in this regard – new, experimental shifters are stuck with no guidance and must tread with utmost care for the first few generations. Something that a lot of new shifters have no patience for.”

The conversation drifted away from the topic of shifters after that, shifting to a discussion of the recent monster invasion of the city and how it affected them. Zorian largely deflected Raynie’s questions about what exactly he did in ‘his’ team whenever they went hunting, as he suspected Raynie would be a lot less willing to just accept Zorian’s implausibly high skills than Taiven was, and she didn’t push the issue too much. He was rather surprised how big of an effect the monster invasion had on her, though.

“Honestly, this whole monster crisis is making me very self-conscious,” Raynie revealed. “I was sent here to learn magic and become an asset to the tribe, and I thought I was doing fine in that regard… but now I know that many of my classmates are good enough to go after real dangers already and I’m… not. I thought I was among the top of the class, but it seems that’s true only academically. I don’t like it. I should have been among those of you going out there to fight those things.”

He had no idea how to respond to that, so he just kept silent. The conversation died down after that, and they went their separate ways. There was no mention of a second meeting, but she did mention he was welcome to ask her more questions if he thought of anything else. That was more of an approval than he’d expected to get, really.

And yes, she did indeed expect him to pay for both of them.

* * *

Zorian turned his new library pass in his hands, idly studying the identification glyphs etched on its surface. The name on the pass was not his, of course, since he’d brazenly broken into someone’s house and stolen it… but the chances he would get confronted over that were, surprisingly enough, negligible. As he quickly learned when he tried to use his new pass, the higher passes weren’t just a slip of inert paper like his old one was – they were small wooden panels imprinted with a magical identification array of glyphs. To use them, one just had to walk up to the doors leading to the restricted section of the library, and then insert the panel into the depression next to the door. If the pass authorization was high enough to access that particular section, the door would unlock and the visitor could walk inside. No interaction with the librarians was necessary, and nobody asked to see his pass when he tested it, even after he’d spent several hours in the mind magic section.

Honestly, he was feeling rather foolish at the moment. He expected the restricted sections to be guarded by some fiendish bit of security and identity checks around every corner, and instead he found a security system a child could break. If he knew it was this easy, he would have done this far earlier. As far as he could see, the only danger was that the man he’d stolen from might realize he’d been robbed… and Zorian really wasn’t worried about that. He had picked his target carefully, took nothing except the library pass from the house he’d broken into, and had done his best to leave no evidence of his entry. Even if the man suddenly started caring about the library pass he hadn’t used for months and noticed it was missing, Zorian really doubted he would conclude somebody stole it. Who the hell breaks into people’s houses in order to swipe their library passes?

All that said, Zorian suspected that if he tried the same trick to access some really deeply restricted section, he would be stopped cold by firmer security. He would have to acquire a top level pass at some point and test it out near the end of a restart.

Right now, though, he had to see just what Xvim had in store for him. He pocketed the library pass and approached… the door…

He frowned. What the hell was happening? This was where Xvim’s office was located, he was sure of it – had been here countless of times, and everything else was exactly where it should be. He just…

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting the mental shield snap shut over his thoughts. The compulsion to ignore the door to Xvim’s office melted away, and his eyes finally stopped skimming over it like it didn’t exist. No, now that he thought about it, it was more like he had dismissed it as irrelevant. As obviously not what he was looking for. If he’d been less sure of himself, who knows how long he would have looked for the door before figuring it out.

Opening his eyes and forcing down his annoyance at Xvim’s antics, he knocked on the door and then immediately entered without waiting for permission to do so. He found Xvim calmly staring at him, fingers steepled together.

“Pitiful,” Xvim declared. “That such a crude trap managed to snare you, even for a minute, shows how woefully unprepared you are for the dangers of mind magic.”

“Yes, sir,” agreed Zorian easily. He was too inured to Xvim’s attitude to really get worked up by it anymore. “That is why I professed a desire for a training partner to Miss Zileti.”

Xvim waved his hand through the air once, as if warding away a particularly annoying fly, wordlessly letting him know how little he thought of that idea.

“I understand, from talking to Ilsa, that you are a natural mind mage, yes?” Xvim asked. It was apparently a rhetorical question, because he didn’t wait for Zorian’s response before continuing. “It is commendable that you are trying to correct your deficiencies on your own initiative. Too many mages with such natural talents mistake their inborn advantage for actual mastery, wasting their potential and putting everyone around them at risk. Even themselves. Especially themselves.”

Wow, was that actual praise from Xvim?

“Sadly,” Xvim continued, “your attempt, much like the shaping skills you displayed at our session last Friday, falls embarrassingly short of achieving actually worthwhile results. It is up to me, as your mentor, to mould you into something resembling a competent and responsible spellcaster.”

Ugh. Never mind.

“I see,” he said, somewhat sourly. “Please forgive my impertinence, but I was not aware that you were an expert in mind magic. I thought you taught advanced shaping exercises for fourth-year students.”

“I also do private lessons for particularly talented first and second years,” Xvim said, a ghost of a grimace flickering over his face for a moment before he smoothed it into his usual impassiveness. Xvim probably didn’t think much of their ‘talent’. “And, more relevantly, I teach a fourth year elective dealing with defense against hostile magic. Obviously, this includes mind magic as well.”

“Ah,” said Zorian. That did a lot to explain Xvim’s constant mind shield. Still… “I feel I should point out that my innate ability grants me a very powerful and flexible mental shield.”

“Oh? How interesting,” Xvim said speculatively. “Tell me, is your ability purely defensive or can you reach out and touch other people’s minds too?”

“The second one,” Zorian admitted. “That’s why I asked Miss Zileti for help – I needed a willing target that would let me practice telepathy and mind reading on them.”

“In that case, you probably already know about the mental barrier I’m currently sporting,” Xvim stated.

“Well yes, but not because I tried to access your mind or anything,” Zorian lied. “It’s just that the base form of my talent is a passive form of empathy that tells me what other people are feeling, and I cannot sense anything from you. As far as I can tell, that only happens when they are shielding their mind somehow.”

“I am certain that is the only reason why you know of it, and that you have never even entertained the thought of getting revenge on your insufferable mentor by taking a quick peek at his mind,” Xvim said indulgently. “As it happens, though, I want you to try and invade my mind. Please do your best to get past my mental barrier and tell me how it compares to your own.”

Oh, this was absolutely perfect. A chance to attack Xvim and get away with it? How could he refuse? Still, as annoying as his mentor was, he didn’t really want to hospitalize the man, so he didn’t immediately launch the strongest mind spike he could form into his unprepared defenses. No, instead he first ran some light probing attacks to see if he could find any obvious imperfections (he couldn’t) and then launched a quick succession of weak attacks to gauge the strength of Xvim’s shield.

It was a very solid thing, comparable in strength to what Zorian and the aranea could create, which surprised him a great deal. On the other hand, that meant he didn’t really have to hold back. He powered up his strongest, most focused mind spike and slammed it directly into the mental barrier.

Though outwardly calm and composed, inwardly Zorian grinned in savage glee as he felt Xvim’s mental shield crack and buckle under his sudden onslaught…

…and then the moment passed, and Xvim’s mental barrier immediately snapped back into place, as perfect and unyielding as it was at the start.

Zorian’s eyes involuntarily widened in shock. N-No way… he repaired it!? How? He wasn’t a psychic, he was sure of it, and no spell he knew of could repair itself. Certainly not that quickly. Zorian couldn’t fix his mind shield that quickly. Hell, the aranea he practiced with couldn’t make their defenses snap back to an intact state that quickly.

He launched three more powerful attacks in quick succession with the exact same result: the attacks did damage to Xvim’s mental barrier, but it was repaired so quickly and thoroughly that a lesser attacker could have been fooled into thinking it had never been damaged at all.

He narrowed his eyes. No. No, he was not going to be foiled in this. Brute force wasn’t working, but he hadn’t been trained by the aranea for nothing – he had far more than that at his disposal. He started executing basic attack patterns taught to him by Mind Like Fire, treating Xvim like a fellow psychic instead of a mage using a structured spell, and slowly the limits of Xvim’s defenses revealed themselves to him. For one thing, Xvim did not seem to feel his probing attacks – anything not strong enough to crack his mental barrier was effectively undetectable to him. Secondly, his barrier was completely uniform – he never reinforced a spot he was attacking, even if he repeatedly targeted the same place over and over again.

When he next attacked, he did not use a powerful but momentary mind spike – he picked one part of Xvim’s mental shield and started crushing it. He didn’t let up, and slowly it began to crack under his mental pressure. No repair was possible – his attack was overwhelming the shield’s regeneration, widening the cracks and bringing it closer and closer to total collapse. He diverted a few tendrils of power from the main attack into the widening holes in Xvim’s defenses, causing the man to visibly flinch as telepathic forces seared his surface thoughts…

“Stop!” Xvim ordered, raising his hand into the air in a halting gesture.

Zorian immediately withdrew, letting Xvim recreate his mental defenses and regain his composure.

“Well,” his mentor said, massaging his sinuses. “An afternoon headache, just what I needed today. I suppose that will teach me to tempt my students. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating experience. Less classical mind magic, and more akin to something a memory moss, an azure sea hermit crab or a cranium rat swarm would employ.”

“That wasn’t a spell you were using to shield your mind, was it?” Zorian asked.

“No, it was not,” Xvim confirmed. “It was unstructured magic, much like your own abilities.”

“But how?” Zorian asked. “I can tell that you aren’t… well, a natural mind mage like me.”

“Mind magic shaping exercises,” Xvim said simply, as if that explained anything.

“There are shaping exercises for mind magic?” asked Zorian, surprised.

“There are shaping exercises for every field of magic,” Xvim said. “They are essential for building a proper foundation around which you can base your spells.”

Right, stupid question. What he should be asking was how doing shaping exercises allowed Xvim to do a reasonable impression of a full-blown psychic. He was a bit of a one-trick pony, but to be fair, it was a very nice trick.

“I was not aware that doing shaping exercises can give you unstructured magical abilities,” Zorian remarked.

“Really?” Xvim asked him curiously. “What did you think shaping exercises were, if not unstructured magical abilities? Do enough of related ones over the years, and they’re bound to build up to something greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of mind magic, the ability to defend against it is so universally coveted that countless training regimens for gaining mental defenses have been devised over the centuries. What I displayed is not a common skill by any means, but is not particularly rare either.”

Zorian frowned. Come to think of it, a fair number of people he’d encountered in the past had some form of mental defense that didn’t really feel like a structured spell. Alanic for instance, as well as Rea. Zach also had some sort of mental shield, according to Spear of Resolve – one she did not feel comfortable tampering with. He really should have suspected something like this earlier.

“Can you also use telepathy and mind reading in an unstructured manner, too?” he asked Xvim, acting on a hunch.

“Me, personally? No. I’ve never had an interest in anything other than defending myself,” Xvim said. “But if you’re asking whether it’s possible, the answer is yes… with caveats. It requires great dedication for rudimentary results – such an aspirant would never be able to duplicate the attack you just casually did, for instance, even after a lifetime of honing their skills.”

He knew it – it was just like soul sight. Getting a reduced version of the ability that affects only yourself was doable with a lot of work, but reaching out and applying it to someone else was all but impossible.

“So?” Xvim said impatiently, breaking his contemplation. “The comparison?”

“Err, right. Your shield seems to give you far less feedback than mine does, it’s too uniform in composition and your response to attack is very predictable and exploitable for someone who knows what they’re doing,” said Zorian, relishing the chance to make Xvim on the receiving end of criticism for a change. Xvim simply nodded, giving no indication that his pride was wounded by the barrage. “On the other hand, your shield has far fewer imperfections and you can repair it a lot faster than me.”

“Well then,” Xvim said, leaning back on his chair. “I guess we know what you’ll be practicing today, then, don’t we?”

“Alright,” said Zorian. He was fine with the idea, really. Improving his mental defenses was always welcome in his mind. “How is that going to work, though? I don’t think any classical mind spell can do much to me, barring surprise attacks like that trap you put on the door.”

“Surprises come in many forms, mister Kazinski,” Xvim said, reaching into his drawers and retrieving a spell rod, which he promptly pointed at Zorian’s face. “Allow me to demonstrate.”

Zorian hurriedly strengthened his mind shield, determined to weather the incoming mental attack Xvim was launching at him, but what hit him wasn’t a mind magic spell. It was some sort of dispelling wave, and his mental shield evaporated upon contact with it like a raindrop hitting a burning oven.

Then the knockout spell hit him.

He resisted. He may have been stripped of his mental shield and caught off-guard, but he was still an experienced mage and he went through Kyron’s ‘resistance training’ too – the relatively minor spell Xvim used could not subdue him. But the point was made, regardless.

“A proper mind mage,” Xvim said, “would have reconstructed his shield before the second spell had been even cast.”

Zorian sighed. Of course they would have.

“Start over?” he guessed.

“Start over,” Xvim confirmed.

In a scene that Zorian would rapidly begin to hate with every fiber of his being, Xvim once again pointed the spell rod at his face and blasted his mental shield into oblivion.

* * *

Following their Monday session, Xvim largely replaced their regular sessions with mind magic related ones, constantly pushing his defenses and giving him long lists of mind magic shaping exercises to try. Most of these exercises were absurdly easy for Zorian, teaching things he already had an instinctive grasp of, but searching the restricted section of the library with his brand new pass yielded some less intuitive ones that actually taught him something new.

He didn’t intend to duplicate the circumstances that led to Xvim’s new attitude in future restarts. While he’d definitely learned some stuff from Xvim when it came to mental combat, Xvim was ultimately an annoying teacher to learn from and nothing he wanted to teach Zorian absolutely required his help to work.

Besides, his meetings with Tinami weren’t really getting anywhere. He wasn’t really getting much from them himself, and Tinami basically turned his every attempt at interaction into an interrogation attempt, trying to figure out who had taught him to be as good as he was currently.

She also seemed to have blabbed about his meeting with Raynie, since everyone in class seemed to know about it when he came to the academy on Monday. Probably as revenge for refusing to answer her questions. In any case, that pretty much killed any sort of good will he may have had with Raynie – she accepted that he was not at fault when they talked later in the day, but she still didn’t want to be seen anywhere near him after that. It was probably Benisek loudly congratulating him in front of the whole class that really screwed him over when it came to that.

Why did he ever think that hanging around that guy was a good idea?

Oh well, live and learn. Seeing how his social endeavors were in tatters for the rest of the restart, he focused his energies on finding the aranean treasury, his personal experiments, and tracking down and interrogating the invaders. The latter two were doing just fine, but his quest for the aranean treasury stubbornly yielded no results. He resolved to take the Filigree Sages up on their offer to take them to the Cyorian settlement in exchange for their help with memory manipulation – maybe aranean explorers would be more successful than him, and more help with his memory reading skills was always welcome. He should also save the Yellow Cavern Guardians from their invader again, just in case they had something new to tell him now that he had some actual experience with mind reading under his belt.

His invasion-related activities steadily continued as weeks passed, yielding no revolutionary results or critical revelations, but his memory reading skills were getting pretty good and he had found some interesting targets that might actually know something interesting. Unfortunately, his constant attacks had made the invaders cautious and paranoid, and everyone important was always armed and under tight security – Zorian didn’t feel confident going after them under such conditions. He would go after them in a future restart, when they hadn’t had the forewarning that he was coming for them.

As the end of the restart approached, Zorian laid off the Cultists a little, limiting himself to raiding their caches and monitoring their activities. The caches held no crucial clue or amazing treasure, but one of them did have a whole lot of cash (which Zorian intended to put to good use in future restarts) and the potion collection he stole at the start of the restart looked promising. Kael claimed he would need another restart to finish going through them, but some of them were clearly advanced combat potions that produced clouds of acidic vapor upon breaking, doused everything in unquenchable fire and similar effects. That sounded quite compatible with Zorian’s fighting style, in all honesty.

And then, several days before the summer festival, his spying effort finally gave him the alert he had been waiting for: the leadership of the Cult of the Dragon Below issued an order to one of their low-ranking groups to kidnap Nochka. It wasn’t the same team as it was the last time, nor was the kidnapping scheduled to occur on the same date it had in the previous restart, but his efforts had caught the order anyway.

He ambushed them halfway to the Sashal family house, when they were still herding their giant centipedes through the sewers. His initial idea was to seize control of the centipedes and make them turn on their masters, making it look like they lost control of the beasts. Unfortunately, the mage controlling them knew what he was doing – the moment Zorian attempted to influence the minds of the monsters he clamped down on his control over the centipedes and shouted a warning to the rest of the group that they were under attack.

So Zorian used his backup plan and chucked one of the combat potions he recovered from their cache into their midst. The centipede controller, as well as three of his centipede minions, died on the spot, frozen solid when the bottle broke and the glittering blue liquid made contact with the air. Alas, that revealed his hiding spot, forcing him to shield himself from a barrage of offensive spells the three surviving cultists had started peppering him with.

Fortunately, with no more controller mage to contest his control, the last centipede was child’s play to commandeer. Before his three attackers had realized what was happening, the centipede’s poisonous pincers bit down on the leg of one of them, and they had to defend themselves from a danger in their own midst.

They never stood a chance from that point on, though they had managed to kill the centipede before Zorian finished them off. His task done, he left the scene, wondering what the Cult of the Dragon Below was going to do now that its plans had been foiled. Were they going to come after Nochka again, with more resources this time? Just how important was she to them, anyway?

He supposed he would find out soon.

* * *

To Zorian’s surprise, Nochka was never attacked after that. Instead, the cultists attacked another family the day after that – this time a rather prominent officer serving in Eldemar’s military who happened to be one of those pigeon shifters that Raynie didn’t think much of. The man and his wife were unharmed, but their eight-year-old son was kidnapped by their unknown assailants and no ransom demand had been issued.

Unlike the cultists’ attack on the Sashal family, this one garnered a great deal of attention from the newspapers and the authorities. After all, their new target wasn’t just some random nobody, but a member of Eldemar’s military… and they didn’t bother with some flimsy ‘monster attack’ setup this time, choosing instead to just barge in and kidnap a kid during the night. Quite a bit more attention grabbing.

So. Clearly the cultists needed a shifter, probably a shifter child, for some purpose. Primordial ‘summoning’, most likely. They needed one so badly they were willing to kick over an anthill just before the invasion, exposing it to a huge risk of discovery.

But it didn’t have to be Nochka, apparently.

“Hey, Zorian,” Kirielle called out, distracting him from his musings.

He looked towards her and found her trying to paint a face on the next generation wooden golem he had made for her. It had a whole bunch of minor improvements over the old one, but Zorian suspected Kirielle only really cared about one of them – the new version had long, brown ‘hair’ attached to its head, based on her request. Apparently she decided that it wasn’t lifelike enough for her.

“What?” he asked.

“Who are you taking out to the dance tomorrow?” she asked.

“It’s none of your business,” said Zorian. Ugh, he would have to make sure to be out of the house by tomorrow evening, just in case Ilsa sent someone after him again.

“Are you going out with the red-headed girl you’re dating?” she asked.

“N- Wait a minute, how do you even know about that!?” Zorian protested.

“Kael told me,” she said, biting the wooden end of her paintbrush for a minute before adding some fine touches on the golem’s new eyebrows.

Stupid Kael… he probably thought this was all so terribly amusing.

“I think you could use a girlfriend,” Kirielle said, before turning towards her new golem. “Don’t you agree, Kosjenka?”

Just as it had been made to do when presented with something that sounded like a question, the golem nodded its head gravely.

“See, even Kosjenka agre-“

“Kiri,” Zorian cut her off.


“Shut up.”


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