The idea that Tesen Zveri had been stealing from Zach was not entirely surprising to Zorian. For one thing, he’d known for quite a while that Zach and Tesen did not get along, what with Zach occasionally thrashing the man at the beginning of the restart for no apparent reason. For another, Zach had explicitly told Zorian in one of the restarts that he did not approve of how Tesen had been managing his properties. It did not take some great genius to see that this was more than just a simple difference in opinion. Theft was one of several explanations that Zorian had considered as a possible explanation, but he could never quite figure out why Tesen would risk his reputation for what was surely just pocket change to someone of his stature.
As it turned out, Zorian had been thinking too small. Tesen wasn’t siphoning some money off the Novedas’ accounts here and there – he just plain went after everything they had. Surprisingly brazen. What kind of forces stood behind Tesen that would allow him to be so shameless about abusing the trust he was given? What kind of machinations and political maneuvering had compelled the royal family to assign such a hostile caretaker to the last surviving member of a House that had been so loyal to them in the past?
All in all, when Zorian had asked Tinami to tell him more about Zach’s caretaker and his looting of House Noveda’s properties, he’d expected quite a story. Something lengthy, complex and dramatic. What he got instead was a rather underwhelming tale of simple greed and corruption.
The appointment of Tesen Zveri to the position of Zach’s caretaker was completely devoid of controversy at the time the decision was made. Tesen Zveri was the patriarch of Noble House Zveri, who had been close allies of House Noveda, and his reputation had been quite good at the time. Thus, when Tesen nominated himself for the position of Zach’s caretaker, few people had any objections. He was a high-ranking nobleman, a powerful mage and an ally of the House that he was supposed to care for – who could really contest his appointment?
Unfortunately, Tesen’s greed turned out to be stronger than his sense of obligation or respect for his deceased allies. From the moment he had acquired the rights to manage the Novedas’ property, Tesen wasted no time in abusing them as much as possible. Most of their property ended up being sold to members of House Zveri at laughably low prices, and the profits made from those sales largely went to Tesen himself in the form of exorbitant ‘caretaker fees’ that he paid himself for doing such a fine job at managing things.
“And nobody protested about that?” Zorian asked incredulously. “The Crown? I heard House Noveda were big allies of the royal family. Or one of the Novedas’ many vassal families and contractors, they must have had some power and they surely couldn’t have liked what Tesen was doing. Or hell, other Noble Houses – at least some of them must have felt sympathetic to Zach’s cause.”
“House Noveda was indeed a close ally of the Crown,” Tinami confirmed. “But so is House Zveri. And unlike Noble House Noveda, Noble House Zveri survived the upheavals largely intact. For the Crown to go after Tesen would have meant alienating one of their major remaining allies at a time where they could ill afford to do so. I suspect the Crown was unpleasantly surprised by Tesen’s behavior, but decided to look the other way out of practicality.”
She paused for a second, frowning slightly as she considered things.
“Plus, I hear Tesen generously donated some of the artifacts and funds from the Novedas’ treasury to the Crown,” she eventually continued. “Actually, he was rather generous about spreading the Novedas’ wealth around in general. I imagine that’s how he quieted most of the criticism.”
“I see,” Zorian hummed thoughtfully. “They have their slice of the pie, so now they’re no longer inclined to protest too much. Still, if Tesen had been as blatant about things as you said, you’d think that somebody would have tried to do something. Some people just don’t care about money. Or at least not enough to let something like this go unchallenged.”
“Ah, well, I make it sound really obvious but it’s really not,” Tinami said. “The truth is that Tesen was always going to end up selling off a lot of Noveda properties and halting many of their activities, even if he had been acting in good faith… the problem was more about who he sold things to and at what prices. He was supposed to slim down Noble House Noveda to a strong, manageable core. Instead, he used virtually all of their wealth to enrich his family and further his political career, leaving only a tiny sliver to Zach. But that’s not something that is immediately obvious to casual inspection. You would have to launch an investigation into the matter to prove anything, and that would give Tesen plenty of time to mobilize his connections and shut you down before you get anywhere…”
Well, if it actually took some digging to realize what Tesen had done, then that would certainly help explain some things. Such as why none of their other classmates seemed to know about Zach’s situation. Most of them were terrible gossips, so if Zach’s situation was widely known, Zorian would have known about it too by now.
Though really, considering how readily Tinami was telling him all this, he wondered how it was possible that she’d never told this to the rest of their class.
He decided to just ask her about it.
“Well, if we were having this talk a year ago or so, I wouldn’t have told you all this,” Tinami told him. “Back then we had Zach in our class, and I wouldn’t have wanted to say anything before talking to Zach about it. But now Zach is no longer in our class, so it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Ah, yes – since Zach fled Cyoria at the beginning of the restart, just like he always did in recent restarts, it made sense to assume he had given up on the academy. His poor showing during their first two years of education probably made the theory even more plausible than it would otherwise be…
He wondered whether Zach had known what Tesen had done to his inheritance before the time loop. He had a hunch the answer was no, since nothing about Zach’s pre-loop attitude indicated that he was in any way concerned about his future or angry at his guardian, but he could be wrong. Maybe Zach was a very good actor.
“How much do you think Zach knows about all of this?” Zorian asked Tinami.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I only tried to sound him out once, and… uh, I guess I was too oblique because he thought I was hitting on him.”
Zorian couldn’t help it. He laughed.
“It’s not funny!” she protested.
After several more minutes of questions and answers, Zorian found out that Tinami couldn’t really give him any details about Zach’s situation. She knew about the situation in general terms, but the specifics were understandably hard to come by. The conversation did, however, give Zorian an idea – what if Zach wasn’t the only one that had happened to?
“Oh yes, that sort of thing is not exactly a rare occurrence,” Tinami said when he shared the notion with her. “A lot of weakened Houses and smaller families ended up being dismembered like that in the aftermath of the Splinter Wars and the Weeping. Most countries had too many things on their plate to go after every shady thing that was happening, especially if the people doing the dismembering were closely aligned with the government or some other powerful faction. In fact, compared to the fates of some other heirs, Zach is fairly lucky. Some of them were quite literally looted of everything they had. Once their ‘caretakers’ were done with their properties, they were basically thrown out on the streets with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The Novedas are still a Noble House though, so Tesen couldn’t really go that far. He needed to have some smokescreen in case someone started throwing accusations. So Zach still has his mansion and can live off a healthy trust fund, and Tesen can point to that if somebody tries to charge him with anything.”
Interesting. Zorian highly doubted that Zach wanted to see Cyoria burned to the ground just because the city’s leadership was complicit in the looting of his House – the other boy seemed too good natured for that – but he could totally imagine some of the other, less fortunate and thus less forgiving individuals wanting to strike back at the people who had profited at their expense. No matter who’d get caught in the crossfire. Could Red Robe be one of the people in that position? That would help explain why the other time traveler seemed to want Cyoria destroyed so badly…
Well, he had no way to confirm that, so that would remain just an idle thought for now. Though, once he opened the matriarch’s memory packet, he should probably try to track down those kinds of people living in Cyoria and check up on them. Just in case.
His talk with Tinami did not last long after that. They both had things they needed to be doing, and he was getting the impression that Tinami was starting to get a little suspicious of Zorian’s fixation on the topic. Surprisingly, she wanted to meet with him again… or maybe not so surprisingly, since she implied she wanted to ask a favor of him. After agreeing to another meeting, Zorian said goodbye to the girl and went back home.
The moment he arrived back at the house, he realized he had stepped into pandemonium.
* * *
After coming back to Imaya’s place, he found that Kopriva had dropped by and brought the alchemical ingredients Kael had asked for. Normally that would be excellent news, but it turned out that her timing had been somewhat… unfortunate.
She wasn’t the only person to have dropped by at Imaya’s house that day. Rea and Nochka had also decided to come over, Nochka so she could play with Kirielle, and Rea so she could have a drink and chat with Imaya. Then, Taiven arrived as well, wanting to discuss something with Kael. Thus, when Kopriva had come over to deliver the package, Kael was locked in his basement with Taiven and Imaya was busy talking to Rea. The job of letting Kopriva into the house fell to the three remaining inhabitants of the house – Kirielle, Nochka and Kana.
Kopriva had already met Kirielle, but not Kana. Kael didn’t want their classmates to know he had a daughter, so he had kept her out of sight the last time Kopriva had come over. But Kael wasn’t there, and Kirielle couldn’t keep a secret if her life depended on it, so when Kopriva asked Kirielle to introduce her friends, she thought nothing of revealing Kana’s true identity.
At that point the rest of the household got involved, with Kael freaking out and trying to convince Kopriva to keep Kana’s existence a secret, Kirielle repeatedly trying to apologize to Kael, Kopriva being visibly amused, and Imaya trying to run damage control. Amusingly, it turned out that Taiven hadn’t known Kana was Kael’s daughter either – she just sort of assumed she was Imaya’s daughter, despite her having the same sort of vivid blue eyes that her father had, and never sought confirmation about it from anyone.
Sadly, everyone was too caught up in the drama to pay attention to the packet of alchemical ingredients that Kopriva had brought over… well, everyone except Nochka. She decided that this mysterious packet was very interesting and worthy of examination. Unfortunately, either Kopriva had failed to secure the ingredients properly or Nochka had examined the package too enthusiastically, because she managed to breathe in a bit of hallucinogenic dust from the package and started losing control over her form. Her eyes became slitted like a cat, she grew a tail and claws and started hissing at people who tried to examine her to see what was wrong.
That started the second round of drama, with Rea being upset that her daughter was basically outed as a shifter and that Kopriva had left ‘dangerous substances’ within reach of children, Kopriva trying to defend herself, Kirielle assuring Rea that it’s okay because she already knew her friend can ‘turn into a kitty’, Rea being angry at Nochka for being so indiscreet, and poor Imaya playing peacemaker for the second time that day.
At this point Zorian had come back from his talk with Tinami and was told what happened in his absence.
“I was only gone for a couple of hours,” Zorian complained. “Damn, you people work fast.”
He was immediately faced with a plethora of unamused looks.
“Okay, look,” he said placatingly. “I think you’re all making mountains out of molehills here. First of all, I’m pretty sure Kopriva has no intentions of spreading rumors about Kana amongst the student body…” Mostly because he’d read her mind to make sure. “…and I don’t think anybody here really minds Rea and Nochka being shifters, either.”
“What makes you think I’m a shifter as well? She could have inherited it from her father for all you know,” Rea protested, folding her hands over her chest.
Zorian ignored her remark.
“Really, the only semi-serious issue was that Nochka ended up drugged,” said Zorian.
“I swear I secured the package properly,” Kopriva mumbled.
“Nochka probably punctured something with her claws,” Rea admitted with a sigh. “She likes to use her claws to remove wrappings and such.”
“Nevertheless, the package was here because of me… and Kael, but that’s beside the point. The point is, I feel somewhat responsible for what happened. What do you think would be an appropriate compensation for this?”
“Oh, there is no need-“ began Rea, only to get cut off by her own daughter.
“I want a doll,” Nochka slurred. The effects of the alchemical dust she breathed had faded, but were still far from gone. “Like the one Kiri has. She said you made it.”
“I made a doll for Kiri?” Zorian asked, before he realized what Nochka was referring to. “Oh wait, you mean Kosjenka. That’s technically not a doll, but whatever. Assuming your mother agrees, I don’t see the problem with that.”
“Is this ‘doll’ going to explode if treated roughly?” Rea asked suspiciously.
Not an unreasonable fear. Some magical items held a substantial amount of mana inside of them and could thus easily detonate if handled roughly. In this particular case, though, that would never happen. He didn’t trust Kirielle around explosives any more than Rea trusted Nochka around the same.
“No, it will just stop being animated,” Zorian said. “The golem is powered by ambient mana and made mostly out of wood, so there is nothing in there that could explode if it breaks.”
“Then no, I have no objections,” Rea shrugged. “Though really, this is quite unnecessary. Nochka is just milking this for all it’s worth and I wouldn’t blame you at all for simply telling her off.”
“Mom!” Nochka whined. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”
Zorian was distracted from the spectacle by a burst of emotion coming from Kana. The little girl was fidgeting like crazy in Kael’s lap, clearly waging some internal war with herself. Though she was as silent as ever, Zorian could feel through his empathy that her attention was squarely on him. She wanted to… tell him something?
“Let me guess, you want a doll too?” Zorian said, taking a wild guess at what was bothering her.
Kana nodded so fast her head looked like it was going to fall off.
A round of laughter from everyone present followed that exchange.
“Alright, alright,” Zorian sighed. “I get it. Two new golem-dolls coming up. I’ll be busy in the near future, but they should be done over the weekend.”
Now that he thought about it a little bit, this sort of development wasn’t that surprising. Kirielle had been making both girls jealous of her new toys for a whole week now, so it made sense that they’d want one of their own if they thought they could get away with it. They were probably just too polite to ask for one in previous restarts, or simply couldn’t think of a good way to ask.
“Damn it, now I’m getting a little jealous,” Kopriva groused. “Why don’t I get a doll too?”
“You’re too old to play with dolls,” Zorian told her, rolling his eyes.
“You can play with Kosjenka when you visit,” Kirielle offered.
“Aww,” Kopriva grinned, ruffling Kirielle’s hair. “You’re a sweet kid. It’s hard to believe you’re related to someone like Zorian.”
“Brother is really great,” Kirielle protested, pushing Kopriva’s hand away from her hair so she could straighten it back into place. “He’s like a hedgehog. He gets nice once you get past his prickliness.”
Ugh. And they were just getting started, too. After completely defusing a tense situation and promising to make expensive toys for a couple of little girls? Truly no good deed goes unpunished.
* * *
Friday came, and with it Zorian’s next meeting with Xvim. This time, however, Xvim didn’t want to hold their session inside his office – instead, he led Zorian to a restricted training ground he had reserved for the day. They would be doing ‘serious magic’, Xvim claimed, so his office was no longer sufficient for their purposes.
“I have talked to some astronomers since we last met,” Xvim began, unlocking the door of the training ground and shooing him inside. “I have nothing conclusive yet, but the results thus far are not encouraging. There have been no significant deviations among the celestial bodies. Additionally, the planets in particular are being closely watched because of the upcoming planetary alignment. It is unlikely they are illusionary – the affected area likely includes the entire solar system.”
“Provided it is, in fact, limited by area,” Zorian pointed out.
“Yes,” Xvim agreed easily. “That is true. However, while my forays into astronomy have met with rather disappointing results, I’ve found something interesting while researching time magic. Tell me, have you ever heard of Black Rooms?”
“What, the ones that let you spend several years inside while only a day passes outside? Those actually exist?” Zorian asked incredulously.
“No, those ones are definitely fake,” Xvim said, shaking his head. “But ones that can stretch a day into a month do. And the interesting thing is how they achieve that kind of extreme time dilation effect. Time magic has sharp limits in how effective it can get – even the most powerful hasting effects can only speed up time four to five times before they hit a wall. At that point, no matter how powerful and skillful the mage is, the boundary between two temporal flows starts to unravel.”
“So how can Black Rooms speed up time by a factor of thirty, then?” Zorian frowned.
“By isolating them from the rest of the world,” Xvim said. “That’s why they’re called Black Rooms. They have to completely enclose the area and seal it off. This greatly lessens the stress of the temporal boundary, but it also makes it impossible to interact with people outside while the Black Room is working. Once the time dilation is engaged, nothing goes in or out until the effect is broken. Material supplies, magical communication… nothing goes through. Even contact with the spiritual planes is blocked.”
Zorian frowned. “I see. So there is precedence for powerful time magic to require an enclosed area to function properly. But from what I understand, the principles behind the Black Rooms would require the affected area to be literally enclosed in a physical box.”
“The time loop is clearly a more advanced piece of magic than the Black Rooms, so it’s likely it uses a more subtle method of sealing off the area of effect,” Xvim responded.
“I suppose,” Zorian said, acknowledging the possibility. “I’m curious, though – how come Black Rooms are such a mystery? I only knew of them as rumors up until this point. Surely Eldemar would not hesitate to use them openly if they’re so effective?”
“In addition to needing tremendous amounts of mana, Black Rooms are very difficult to use properly,” Xvim said. “Due to the way they’re cut off from the outside, one has to plan each use very carefully – if the organizers failed to account for something critical, the whole operation is essentially ruined, and a lot of time and mana has been wasted. Black Rooms cannot be turned off and on at will, and the mana cost of an operation has to be paid in full at the start. I understand there is a lot of controversy surrounding the Black Rooms, with many people disputing their actual usefulness and claiming they’re a huge waste of money. Some of the more spectacular failures associated with them do not help their reputation.”
“Oh?” Zorian asked, intrigued.
“Initially, Black Rooms could not prematurely terminate the time dilation field once it was turned on,” said Xvim. “Once the Black Room was on, whoever was inside was stuck until the spell wore off.”
Zorian winced. Yeah, that had been bound to end poorly.
“At least one group died of thirst after an administrative mix-up caused the organizers to stockpile too little water into the area before activation. Another group almost died of starvation after some form of insect snuck into the food supply and managed to ruin most of it before the infestation was detected. Even if everything was done properly, you are still essentially imprisoning several people in a small, cramped space where they have no privacy and little to entertain themselves with. Fights were common, with several experiments culminating in a bloodbath. In one memorable case, the entire group managed to mutually kill each other off – there were literally no survivors once the Black Room finally opened.”
“What about sending individuals?” Zorian asked.
“Most people can’t handle total isolation for long,” Xvim shook his head. “Besides, it costs exactly the same to run a Black Room for one person as it does for several of them, and the more people you send in, the more work can get done.”
After that, Xvim asked Zorian to demonstrate some of his flashier magic – mostly combat magic and landscape alterations, but also teleportation, which actually worked unimpeded within the training ground, unlike in most of Cyoria. It made sense, considering Xvim had told him during their last meeting that he intended to teach him dimensionalism.
After a while, his mentor decided he’d seen enough and motioned him to stop.
“You seem to have no specialty that I can see,” Xvim said.
“Well, I guess my specialty are spell formulas,” said Zorian. “But that is not exactly something I can demonstrate quickly and at whim.”
“Just as well,” Xvim said. “I know comparatively little about spell formulas and would be ill-equipped to evaluate your skill in the field.”
Wait, Xvim actually didn’t have expertise in something related to magic? Some of Zorian’s amusement and surprise at the notion must have shown on his face because Xvim actually decided to provide an explanation.
“I understand why so many mages are fascinated with spell formula, but I always found them to be somewhat distasteful myself,” Xvim said. “They are a crutch, most of the time. With a proper mastery of a spell, you wouldn’t need them.”
“Right,” Zorian scowled. He understood why someone obsessed with perfection in mana shaping would have low regard for magical aids that sidestepped the need for that, but there was more to spell formula than making spell rods and such…
“I’m not criticizing you, mister Kazinski,” Xvim said. “Just explaining my lack of interest in the discipline. You can go far if you really master your specialty. But enough of that – when I said you don’t seem to have any specialty, I meant in regards to mana shaping fields. You seem to be a generalist when it comes to those, yes?”
“I seek out whatever magic is relevant to me at the moment,” said Zorian. “But yes, in general I try to master a little bit of everything. As far as I can tell, the main reason people specialize is time constraints. I’m not quite immune to that, but I’m pretty sure I can get good at several fields instead of just one.”
“The path of an archmage,” Xvim nodded. “I approve. For someone in your situation, aiming for anything less would have been a waste. I’m glad I don’t have to convince you of that, at least.”
Huh. Did Xvim just praise him for something? In any case, this reminded him of something he had been wondering for quite a while…
“Are you an archmage?” Zorian asked Xvim.
“An archmage is not an official rank that someone assigns to a person,” Xvim said. “It is simply a term for a mage who has mastered several fields of magic to such an extent that they could outdo a typical specialist mage when it comes to those fields. I suppose the term could be applied to me, but it would be shockingly arrogant of me to claim it on my own. One is only ever a real archmage when other people start referring to you as such, and not many people use that term to describe me. Then again, not many people know about me in the first place, and I prefer it that way…”
So that would be a yes, basically. Surprising that a person like that would be willing to work as a teacher at the academy – people like Xvim were incredibly rare and in high demand. Then again, Xvim did say he liked being an unknown, so perhaps a relatively quiet job like this one was just what he wanted.
“Do you have a specialty?” Zorian asked. He figured that since Xvim was in a relatively good mood at the moment, he might as well milk it for all it’s worth and try to find out more about the man.
“Defense against magical attacks of all sorts,” Xvim said. “I actually teach an advanced class on the topic in your fourth year of education. Of course, if one aims to defend against something, they must first get to know it. And thus, I have become familiar with many a type of magic. But let’s get back to you, shall we? I have to say, for one aiming to become an archmage, your way of going about it is somewhat… suboptimal.”
“How so?” Zorian frowned.
“For instance, your way of choosing which mana shaping exercises to practice,” Xvim said. “While practicing a wide selection of different exercises like you’ve been doing is certainly useful, it is not really the best avenue of approach for a generalist mage. You would have been better served by focusing on raw mana manipulation and sensing. Such basic shaping exercises are time consuming and give no short-term benefits, but the cumulative effect of their mastery decreases the learning time of every spell and improves spellcasting in general.”
“I haven’t really heard about such shaping exercises,” Zorian said, feeling a little lost.
“It’s not something a specialist mage would care much for,” Xvim said. “And most people who write books are specialists. Your age works against you here – most people don’t start dabbling in those exercises until they’re much older, no matter how talented they are, so the people you spoke to probably didn’t think you’d be interested in those. Young mages like you have plenty of low-hanging fruit with much faster payoff to amuse themselves with.”
“Right. So what are we talking here exactly?” Zorian asked. “I’m drawing a blank as to what sort of ‘raw mana manipulation’ I could be doing as an exercise.”
“Well, one major deficiency I noticed in your skills is that you don’t seem to perceive mana around you to any appreciable extent,” Xvim said. “And I’m guessing your ability to perceive your personal mana flow is hardly any better than that of the rest of your classmates. For someone of biological age, that would be entirely adequate, if rather disappointing. In your case, it really is inexcusable.”
Zorian was tempted to ask whether it was inexcusable by Xvim’s standards or the more sane standards of the rest of the world. But he didn’t. This was absolutely fascinating and he had largely gone numb to Xvim’s barbs by now.
“From everything I’ve read, mana sensing is a rather advanced skill that even long-time mages struggle with.”
“Yes, but you seem to be rather bad at it, even accounting for that,” Xvim noted. “I’m guessing this is a consequence of spending so many years in Cyoria, which is awash in ambient mana. It’s good for training, certainly, but it instills a certain amount of… wastefulness in young mages.”
Zorian didn’t need empathy to notice the distaste on Xvim’s face when he said that.
“On top of that, it is very difficult to practice perception exercises in a place like this,” Xvim continued. “The ambient mana suffuses everything, dulling your senses. It would be far better to practice mana sensing somewhere outside the city to start with. This training ground is specially warded to keep the majority of the ambient mana out of it – did you notice that?”
“No,” Zorian admitted with a frown. Though now that Xvim mentioned it…
“This is what I meant when I said your ability to sense mana is deficient,” Xvim said. “You should have noticed it right away, the moment you stepped into the training ground. But no matter, that’s why I’m here – to help you overcome your many flaws and become the best you can be. In any case, while the exercises I’m about to teach you would be normally rather hard to practice outside of this training ground, you are capable of teleportation. I suggest you simply teleport into the countryside outside of the city when you want to work on your ability to sense mana. Now pay close attention to what I’m about to do…”
* * *
At the end of the session, Zorian was honestly feeling a little overwhelmed by Xvim’s program. While the man was less of an asshole in this restart, he was still a very demanding teacher who pulled no punches when he seriously taught people. He had ended up showing Zorian more than twenty exercises aimed at improving his ability to sense mana, both inside and outside of him, and he expected Zorian to work on them for several hours every single day. On top of that, Xvim also showed him several exotic teleportation variants that Zorian was also expected to learn by their next meeting and gave him a deceptively simple shaping exercise related to dimensionalism.
The exercise involved taking a random rock and trying to form a so-called ‘dimensional boundary’ around it. Apparently, the formation of such a boundary was the first step in just about every piece of magic dealing with time and space – the teleportation spells he loved using so much formed a boundary like that around him every time he used them, and would fail instantly if something prevented the spell from creating it. Like a ward, for instance. Getting better at shaping the boundary could easily improve just about every dimensionalism spell he cared to cast in the future.
The problem was that the dimensional boundary was completely invisible to normal senses, making the exercise really hard to practice. How do you create and shape something you can’t see and can only vaguely feel via crude feedback your personal mana gives you? He didn’t think he could get the hang of that exercise any time soon.
Of course, if his ability to sense mana – especially his personal mana – was on a higher level, the exercise would have instantly gotten a lot easier. Zorian was pretty sure Xvim had only given him that exercise to drive the point home how important mana sensing was and how much his lack of skill there was holding him back. Ugh.
Days went by quickly. Kael was still working on the Sudomir problem, but Zorian had plenty of things to hold his time, so he left his morlock friend in peace. His attacks on aranea webs were restarted, though this time he was less ambitious and picked a bunch of minor webs instead of a relative juggernaut like the Burning Apex. Accordingly, his attacks went a lot better and his aranea memory reading skills got lots and lots of practice. Since he was already rooting through the memories of defeated araneas, he decided to kill two birds with one stone by searching their minds for interesting mind magic skills. He found nothing really revolutionary, but every minor trick and variation of a known technique he learned from his fallen foes added up to something in the end.
He met with Tinami again, like he agreed to. Like she hinted at in their last meeting, she wanted to ask him for a favor – specifically, she wanted him to give her his family tree. A weird request, but apparently she was collecting that information from all of her classmates for a ‘personal project’. His cynical side insisted that this was a code name for ‘secret Aope information gathering operation’, but who knew really. Maybe she was just really interested in people’s lineages in addition to spiders. In any case, Zorian saw no reason not to humor her and promptly cobbled up something for her in his notebook. The execution was a bit lacking, unfortunately, since his knowledge of his family tree was a bit sketchy. Especially on his mother’s side, since she hated talking about her witch mother and anything related to her.
Tinami didn’t care about how sketchy it was, though. If anything, she seemed to be even more excited about it when she found out Zorian had a witch among his ancestors. Considering the origin of Noble House Aope, he probably shouldn’t be surprised about that.
Despite the incident with Kopriva’s alchemical supplies, Rea kept coming to Imaya’s home and bringing Nochka along with her. If anything, Rea’s friendship with Imaya seemed to have only become firmer in the wake of revelations about her shifter nature. Meanwhile, Nochka and Kana were proud owners of their own toy golems – Nochka had asked for her golem to be given a feminine form like Kosjenka’s, and named it Rutvica, while Kana was a bit of a surprise in that she wanted her toy golem to look male. And have white hair. Zorian had no idea what she called it, but Kirielle and Nochka seemed to have decided its name was Jaglenac amongst each other.
In other news, Kana seemed to have realized that Zorian had some method of understanding her thoughts, because these days, whenever she wanted to have her desires known, she simply dragged him off from whatever he was doing so he could interpret for her.
And here he’d thought she was a little angel. Turns out he just hadn’t had anything she’d wanted up until now.
Finally, as the end of the restart began to approach, Kael finally decided he’d run out of options. He asked Zorian to teleport him in the vicinity of Iasku Mansion so he could try to analyze the soul trap. He didn’t think that would accomplish much, but there was little else he could think of.
Zorian agreed, and decided to take Taiven along with them. Mostly because he intended to try to analyze the soul trap himself, from the perspective of a spell formula specialist rather than a soul mage, and he needed someone to defend them against the iron beaks and winter wolves patrolling the wilderness around the place. Taiven had no objections, and even relished the chance to fight something, so they were off.
They only stayed a short while, and Zorian had to break off his analysis to help Taiven defeat the flock of iron beaks that had started to harass them, but it was enough for Kael to decide the whole thing was beyond him.
Kael was very quiet and subdued after that.
The next day he’d made an excuse to drag Zorian out of the house and asked him to teleport them to the north of Knyazov Dveri so he could visit his wife’s grave.
“We’re here,” said Kael, pointing at the small abandoned cottage just ahead of them.
“Finally,” Zorian mumbled, breathing heavily. He felt sorry for Kael, he really did, but when Kael said the place was ‘not far from the main road’, he didn’t quite think the morlock boy meant this. An hour-long trek, uphill, along a bumpy, narrow forest path was not what Zorian would describe as ‘not far’. Also, how the hell was Kael not affected in the slightest by the journey? The boy didn’t look all that fit to him…
Once they reached the cottage, Zorian took a minute to catch some breath and looked around. Kael immediately went to the back of the building to tend to the two simple, earthen graves that stood there.
“Pretty isolated place,” Zorian noted, wandering over to help Kael get rid of the grass and weeds that had completely overrun the place. “No offense, but why did you end up burying your wife here, of all places?”
“I didn’t have much choice back then,” Kael said. “There was only one village in the vicinity, and they’re very backwards, superstitious folk. They’d never let a witch and her daughter get buried in their cemetery along with their own dead. And even if I could make them accept it somehow, they’d just vandalize it the moment I wasn’t looking.”
“Disgusting,” Zorian frowned.
“It’s fine,” Kael said, shaking his head sadly. “This was their home. It somehow feels appropriate for them to be buried here.”
“So this other grave…?” began Zorian.
“Fria,” said Kael. “My mother-in-law, and also my teacher. She died just before Namira did.”
Namira, Zorian learned, was the name of Kael’s deceased wife. The crude gravestones (that Kael had presumably made for them) said their last name was Tverinov. Apparently Kael had assumed their family name when he married Namira. That was pretty interesting – it was not unheard of for a husband to take on his wife’s name, but it did not happen very often. Usually only civilians who somehow managed to marry into one of the Houses did that.
Then again, maybe it was a witch thing. He knew that one of the reasons his mother and grandmother did not get along was that mother decided to take father’s family name instead of the other way around. Considering that mother’s choice seemed very conventional in the grand scheme of things, his grandmother’s objections had always seemed strange to him.
They both stood there in silence for a while, not saying anything. Finally, after several minutes of comfortable silence, Kael spoke.
“I’m sorry,” Kael said suddenly.
“For what?” Zorian asked curiously.
“I wasted your time,” Kael sighed.
“What?” Zorian asked incredulously. “You just wanted to visit your wife’s grave, there is nothing wrong with that.”
“No, I’m talking about Sudomir and his soul trap,” Kael said. “I kept stalling for over two weeks and I have nothing to show for it. I should have given up long ago, but…”
“Ah,” said Zorian. He’d kind of figured out that wasn’t going anywhere after the first week or so. “That. It’s fine, really. Are you sure there is nothing new you can tell me?”
“Nothing,” Kael said, shaking his head. He then reached out into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small notebook. He handed it to Zorian. “Here. I wrote down everything relevant I could think of into that notebook. Keep in mind that this is literally just me making wild speculations, though – I have no way to know if anything I wrote there has any basis in reality. “
“Right,” said Zorian pocketing it for the moment. There would be time to read it later. “Still, even if it’s just speculation, it’s clearly not nothing.”
“I guess,” Kael said. “But I still feel pretty useless.”
“Why?” Zorian asked curiously. He had known for a while that Kael was frustrated by his inability to offer help against Sudomir, but he never really understood why Kael felt so deeply about that.
“I don’t know,” admitted Kael. “Maybe it reminds me of how Fria and Namira contracted the Weeping, and I could do nothing except helplessly watch as they wasted away. Or maybe I’m overthinking things. I heard it’s a bad idea to psychoanalyze oneself.”
Zorian couldn’t help but wince visibly. Kael didn’t often refer to his personal tragedy, so sometimes it was hard for Zorian to keep in mind how traumatic these deaths must have been for his morlock friend. He had never lost anyone he personally cared about to the Weeping, but he’d heard that those who fell to the disease suffered horribly before the end.
It was at times like this that Zorian really understood how the specter of that epidemic still hung over many people’s lives. It had only been a handful of years since the Weeping, after all, and many people were still mourning their dead.
“I hope you don’t think less of me for asking this,” said Zorian. “But how did you end up as a married father at thirteen, anyway?”
Kael burst into laughter.
“What?” he asked, greatly amused. “All these restarts and you never thought to ask me this before?”
“Well, I never seem to find a good opening to-“ Zorian fumbled, caught off guard by the rapid change in Kael’s demeanor.
“Sometimes, Zorian, you’re just too considerate,” Kael said, shaking his head with a final chuckle. “I’d have asked by the end of the third restart for sure if I was in your place. And by the way, you’re off by two years. I was actually fifteen when I got Kana.”
Zorian gave him a strange look.
“I’m older than I look,” Kael explained. “I’m two years older than the rest of our class, but Ilsa said that doesn’t really matter.”
Huh. He’d never have guessed Kael was two years older than him.
“Anyway,” Kael said. “There is not much to say. My mother died in childbirth and my father resorted to alcoholism soon afterwards, so I learned to stay away from the house most of the time. The village children didn’t want to associate with a morlock, so I ended up wandering the wilderness a lot, looking for things to sell for extra cash. One day I stumbled upon Namira in the forest and she led me to this place to meet her mother. Eventually Fria found out about my situation and offered to take me in. I agreed, of course.”
“What, you weren’t scared away by rumors of witches making potions out of children’s blood?” Zorian asked jokingly.
“Well, the rumors also said morlocks like me ate people, so I didn’t put much stock in them,” Kael said. “Anyway, I soon found out that Fria’s motives weren’t entirely motivated by compassion. She wanted an heir, and Namira did not have much talent for magic.”
“I thought witch magic was heavy on the potions and very light on anything that would require actual shaping skills?” asked Zorian.
“It is,” confirmed Kael. “And Namira was still horrid for it. She didn’t have the instincts or the mentality for it. Since Fria really didn’t want her secrets to die with her, she needed to teach her magic to someone from outside the family. And she chose me, because… well…”
“Namira fancied you?” Zorian guessed.
“Yes,” Kael sighed. “She actually made it an official condition for teaching – if I wanted her magic, I had to marry her daughter. But really, I’d have agreed to marry Namira even if she didn’t provide any incentive for me to do so.”
Kael spend the next half an hour telling Zorian small, inconsequential stories about his life in the cottage next to them. It seemed to help his mood immensely. Finally, he took a deep breath and signaled to Zorian that they should go back to Imaya’s place before the inhabitants got worried.
“I have made no mention of Sudomir’s soul trap in my research journals,” Kael said suddenly, just as they were about to leave. “If I ever ask you about him or the disappearing soul mages in the area, just lie to me. Say you have no idea what is happening or something. It’s not like I can do anything about it and it makes it completely impossible for me to focus on my work. I felt horrible these past few weeks, and I failed to get anything done on the alchemical side of things.”
Zorian stared at him for a second before nodding in agreement.
“Consider it done.”