Any Second Now


Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”

Zorian growled as he roughly pushed Kirielle away from him. Fifth time! This was the fifth time the restart terminated after only a handful of days! How many times would Zach need to die before realizing he should back off for a while and try again later? Honestly, Zorian would have reconsidered his approach after the second attempt…

He snatched his glasses from his bed post and stomped off towards the bathroom before Kirielle could gather her wits. The short, irregular restarts were ruining every plan he cared to make, not to mention disrupting his concentration. He really couldn’t do anything substantial while this was going on, other than browsing the library for helpful texts and hoping Zach would quit killing himself on a regular basis. What the hell was the boy trying to do anyway?

He shouldn’t get so worked up over it, though – after all, how much longer could this possibly go on for? 10, 15 restarts?

Yeah. Yeah, that sounded about right…

- break -

“Hi Roach!”

Zorian wordlessly gestured for Taiven to come inside before slowly closing the door and shuffling after her. He could feel her impatience at his sluggish pace, but he paid it no heed. He was deliberately stalling, trying to decide what to do.

He fully intended to have a chat with the weird telepathic spiders that inhabited the sewers, but it would be lunacy to go there at this point. There was no guarantee they would be as friendly as they were the last time, and their mind magic made them dangerous even within a time loop. He needed a way to protect his mind before venturing into Cyoria’s underworld, and so far he had only found one ward that protected the caster’s mind in the academy archives. Unfortunately, that particular ward blocked everything related to the mind, mind-based communication spells included. He needed something more selective than that.

But just because he was unwilling to descend into the Dungeon didn’t mean he was content to let Taiven get herself killed by going there either. He wasn’t sure why he cared, exactly – pragmatically speaking, he shouldn’t be bothered, since everything would be reset in a couple of days and she’d be fine again. Still, he was bothered, and since he was forced to have this conversation repeatedly every few days, he could as well find a way to talk her out of going.

He didn’t think for a moment it was going to be easy. Taiven was possibly even more stubborn than Zach.

“So Taiven, how is life treating you?” he began.

“Eh, so so,” she sighed. “I am trying to secure an apprenticeship but it’s not going all that well. You know how it goes. I got Nirthak to take me as his class assistant this year, so there is that. You wouldn’t happen to have taken non-magical combat as one of your electives?”

“Nope,” Zorian answered cheerfully.

“Figures,” Taiven rolled her eyes. “You really should have, you know? Girls-”

“…love boys who exercise, yes, yes,” Nodded Zorian sagely. “Why are you here, Taiven? You tracked me down here even though I only moved in yesterday and never told anyone which room here is mine. I suppose you used a divination to find me?”

“Uh, yeah,” Taiven confirmed. “Pretty easy thing to do, really.”

“Aren’t these rooms supposed to have some sort of basic warding scheme placed on them?” Zorian inquired.

“I’m pretty sure it’s just rudimentary stuff like fire prevention and basic detection fields to warn the staff about fighting in the hallway and attempted demon summonings and what not,” Taiven shrugged. “Anyway, I’m here to ask you to join me and a couple of others on a job tomorrow.”

Zorian said nothing, patiently listening as she said her sales pitch. It was actually on Monday, not tomorrow – Taiven’s definition of ‘tomorrow’ differed greatly from the standard definition – but other than that, she was actually fairly honest in her explanation of the situation. She even mentioned that there was a small chance they might encounter something very nasty in there, but empathized that she and her friends were totally capable of confronting anything they may find there. Right.

“Anything?” Asked Zorian suspiciously. “You know, I happen to have read up on magical spider breeds, and they can be pretty powerful. A single grey hunter has been known to wipe out entire hunting parties of mages, and they’re no larger than a human at their biggest. Phase spiders can literally jump on you out of nowhere and drag you off into their own private pocket dimension. Some of the breeds are even sentient and have mind magic at their disposal.”

The last one was a joke in more ways than one. Dungeon ecology was a giant mystery, even to mages that specialized in it, and information about monsters that made their home there was very scarce. As such, it was probably not surprising that he could find nothing on sentient telepathic spiders in the academy library, even after conscripting Ibery and Kirithishli on the effort.

Was it just him, or was the academy library a lot less useful than he had imagined it to be? Every time he tried to find something there he got disappointed. Then again, the things he was trying to find information on lately tended to be obscure, borderline illegal or both.

“Oh please,” Taiven snorted dismissively. “Don’t be so paranoid. As if something like that could be right below Cyoria. We won’t be delving into the Dungeon’s depths, for Gods’ sake.”

“I don’t think you should go at all,” Zorian insisted. “I’m getting a really bad feeling about this.”

Taiven rolled her eyes, an undercurrent of annoyance in her voice. “Funny. I never took you for a superstitious guy.”

“Time changes people,” Zorian said solemnly, smiling at his private joke before straightening his features into serious expression. “But seriously: I’m getting a really bad feeling about this. Is this really worth getting yourself killed over?”

Apparently this was a wrong approach to take, as Taiven’s temper flared immediately. He supposed she perceived his comment as an insult towards her skills as a mage. Before he could apologize and rephrase his argument she was already shouting at him.

“I’m not going to die!” Taiven shouted irritably. “Gods, you sound just like my father! I’m not a little girl and I don’t need to be protected! If you didn’t want to come you should have just said so instead of lecturing me!” She stomped off angrily, muttering to herself about conceited brats and wasted time.

Zorian winced as Taiven slammed the door behind her. He wasn’t sure why she had reacted so strongly to his words, but apparently pointing out the potential danger of the job was ineffective and only pissed her off.

Oh well, he didn’t expect to succeed on the first try anyway.

- break -

“Hi Roach!”

“It is a good thing you came, Taiven,” Zorian said with a grave expression. “Come in, we have much to talk about.”

Taiven raised an eyebrow at his behavior before shrugging and sauntering inside. Zorian tried to project a serious, ominous presence about himself, but it seemed to amuse her more than anything.

“So… I gather you wanted to see me then?” she asked. “I guess you’re lucky I decided to drop by, then?”

“Not quite,” Zorian said. “I knew you would come today, just as I know you’re here to conscript me into joining you for a sewer run.”

“It’s not a-” Taiven began, only to get interrupted by Zorian before she could gather steam.

“A sewer run,” Zorian repeated. “Retrieving a pocket watch guarded by some very dangerous spiders from the top layer of the Dungeon under the city.”

“Who told you that?” asked Taiven after several seconds of bewildered pause. “How could they possibly know? I told nobody where I’m going or why I’m visiting you.”

“Nobody told me,” Zorian said. “I had a vision about this meeting… and about what will happen should you descend into the tunnels.”

Well, it was true in a way…

“A vision?” Taiven said incredulously, disbelievingly.

Zorian nodded gravely. “I have never told you this before, but I have prophetic powers. I receive visions of the future from time to time, seeing glimpses of important events that will affect me personally in the days ahead.”

It wasn’t completely implausible – people like that did exist in the world, though their powers were quite a bit more limited than what he had at his disposal thanks to the time loop. From what he understood, their visions were less of a detailed recording of the future and more of a general outline of some upcoming event. The future was always changing, always uncertain, and trying to get a clear image of it was like trying to grasp a fistful of sand – the more you squeeze, the more things slip past your fingers.

Unfortunately, while being prophetic was not impossible, Taiven clearly wasn’t buying his claim.

“Oh really?” Taiven said challengingly, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “And what did this ‘vision’ of yours tell you about the job?”

“That it will be the death of you,” said Zorian bluntly. “And me as well, should I choose to follow you down there. Please Taiven, I know it sounds ridiculous, but I’m serious about this. The visions are rarely as clear as they were this time around. I won’t go down into the sewers and you shouldn’t either.”

As seconds ticked past in silence, Zorian began to think she would actually listen to him. This impression was destroyed when she suddenly started laughing.

“Oh Roach, you almost had me there!” she wheezed, breaking into uncontrollable chuckles after every couple of words. “Visions from the future… Roach, you have the funniest jokes. You know, I missed that quirky sense of humor of yours. Remember… remember that one time you pretended you were asking me out?”

How Zorian stopped himself from physically recoiling at that he would never know. She just had to mention that, didn’t she? He forcefully pushed away the memories of that particular evening, determined not to dwell on it.

“Yeah,” said Zorian emotionlessly. “What a funny guy I am.”

Why was he trying to save her again?

“So…” she said, finally getting her giggles under control. “How did you know I was coming?”

- break -

“Hi R-” Taiven began, only to stop when she saw his vacant, hollow expression. “Whoa, Roach, what the hell happened to you?”

Zorian kept staring off into space for a few more moments before shaking his head, as if to clear his thoughts a little.

“Sorry,” he said in a subdued voice, motioning her to get inside. “I just had an extremely vivid nightmare tonight and I didn’t get much sleep.”

“Oh?” Taiven said, collapsing on his bed like usual. “What about?”

Zorian gave her a long look. “Actually, you were in it.”

Taiven stopped fooling around and gave him a shocked look. “Me!? Why the hell would I be in your nightmare? You’d think a beautiful girl like me would automatically make for a pleasant dream! Now I got to know what it was about.”

“I was walking through the sewers with you and some other two guys I never met,” began Zorian in a haunted tone, “when we were suddenly set upon by a swarm of giant spiders. There… there were so many of them… They just swarmed over us and started biting and…”

He took a couple of deep breaths, pretending to be on the verge of hyperventilating, before finally calming down.

“I’m sorry, it’s just… it was so real, you know?” he said, giving Taiven the most vacant stare he had. After a few moments he looked down on his trembling hands and balled them up into fists in a very visible motion. “I’m sorry, it’s just… it was so real, you know? The feeling of their fangs sinking into my skin, the poison coursing through my veins like liquid fire… they didn’t even kill us in the end, they just wrapped us in spider silk and dragged our paralyzed bodies off to their lairs to feed upon later. Such a horrid, vivid vision – I don’t think I’ll ever look at a spider in the same light again.”

Taiven shifted nervously where she sat, looking extremely uncomfortable and vaguely ill.

“But it was just a nightmare,” Zorian said in forced cheer. “To what do I owe this visit, anyway? Is there something you wanted to talk to me about?”

“N-No!” Taiven blurted out, a nervous laugh escaping her lips. “I just… I just stopped by to have a chat with one of my friends, that’s all! How has life been treating you anyway? Aside from the whole… nightmare… thingy…”

She found an excuse to leave in a matter of minutes. He would later find out she went into the sewers anyway and never came back.

- break -

“Spiders?” asked Zorian, doing his best to appear alarmed. “Taiven, don’t you listen to rumors from time to time?”

“Umm… I’ve been pretty busy lately,” Taiven chuckled awkwardly. “Why, what do the rumors say?”

“That there are some mind magic using spiders prowling the city sewers,” Zorian said. “Word is the city is trying to root them out, but the creatures are evading them thus far. They’ve been trying to suppress the information, since it would make them look incompetent and all that.”

“Wow, good thing I talked to you then,” Taiven said. “I never would have thought to put a mind ward on myself before going down otherwise.”

“You’re still going down there!?” Zorian asked incredulously. “What makes you think this mind ward of yours is enough?”

“Mind magic is a subtle thing,” Taiven said. “It uses tiny amounts of mana in very sophisticated ways, which makes it easy to counter with brute force. So long as you know in advance you’re going to face a mind mage, it’s easy to make yourself effectively immune. Trust me, now that I know what to expect from those crawlies, I won’t fall for their tricks.”

Zorian opened his mouth to protest, but then reconsidered. Was Taiven right? Maybe he was looking at things from the wrong perspective. He was trying to get Taiven to survive, which didn’t necessarily mean stopping her from going into the sewers.

“I guess,” he finally conceded. “But I won’t be going with you.”

“Oh come on!” Taiven protested. “I can totally keep you safe!”

“Nope,” Zorian insisted. “Not happening. Find someone else to go with you.”

“How about-”

“No fighting,” Zorian interrupted. “Look, there is no way to talk me into going along with this. Do tell me how the whole thing turns out afterwards, though. I don’t want to have to check to see if you survived.”

She actually did visit him a few days later, telling him the sewer run was a failure as far as finding the watch went, but that nothing attacked them either.

Huh. Maybe Benisek was onto something when he spoke so highly about the power of rumors and gossip.

- break -

Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him.

“Good morning Kiri!” yelled Zorian back, engulfing the shocked Kirielle into a hug. “Oh what a wonderful, wonderful day this is! Thank you for waking me up, Kiri, I really appreciate it! I don’t how what I would do without my wonderful little sister.”

Kiri wriggled uncomfortably in his grasp, not used to receiving such a gesture from him and unsure how to react.

“Who are you and what did you do to my brother!?” she finally demanded.

He just hugged her tighter.

- break -

“Something I can do for you, sonny?” asked Kyron. “The class has been dismissed, in case you haven’t noticed.”

“Yes, I’ve noticed,” Zorian confirmed. “I just wanted your advice about something, if you can spare the time.”

Kyron impatiently gestured him to get to the point.

“I was wondering if you knew any means of countering mind magic,” Zorian said.

“Well, there is your basic mind shield spell,” Kyron said carefully. “Most mages agree that’s all you need as far as mind magic protection goes.”

“Yes, but that spell is a bit… crude,” Zorian said. “I’m looking for something more flexible than that.”

“Crude, yes,” Kyron agreed, suddenly becoming more interested in the conversation. “Often useless, too. A simple dispel is enough to strip the protection off the target, and a proper mind mage will ensnare your mind before you even realize you’re being targeted.”

“Then why do most mages think it suffices?” asked Zorian.

“You know why most mind magic is restricted or forbidden?” Kyron asked. It was a rhetorical question, apparently, because Kyron immediately launched into an explanation. “It’s because it most commonly used to target civilians and other mostly defenseless targets. Most mind mages are petty criminals that use their powers on the weak-willed, and cannot be called a master of anything, let alone mind magic. It’s rare for mages to encounter mind mages that know how to use their powers properly. Still, even a moderately talented mind mage can easily ruin your life, to say nothing of magical creatures with mind-affecting powers on their disposal. There are methods of dealing with mind magic without resorting to warding spells, but most find it easier to practice mind shield until its completely reflexive and they can cast it on a moment’s notice. Or just carry a spell formula for the spell on their person at all times.”

“And these other methods are?” Zorian prodded after he realized Kyron wouldn’t say anything more.

Kyron gave him a nasty smile. “I’m glad you asked, sonny. See, not too long ago, the combat magic class had a much more demanding curriculum, including what was called ‘resistance training’. Basically, the combat magic instructor would repeatedly cast various mind spells at students while they tried to fight off the effects. It was quite effective at making students innately resistant to common mind-affecting spells like sleep, paralyze, and dominate. Unfortunately there were a lot of complaints from students who reacted particularly badly to it, and after a number of scandals where teachers and student assistants were discovered to have been using the training exercise as an excuse to punish students outside of proper channels, the practice was discontinued. An overreaction in my opinion, but I was overruled.”

Zorian stood in silence for a moment, trying to digest this information. Was that really the best way to deal with mind magic? He got what the idea behind it was – it worked on the same principle that shaping exercises and reflexive magic did, burning the defense procedures into his soul the same way repetitive movements burned certain reactions into muscle memory. It just sounded so… mindless. And probably very painful.

That’s when he noticed Kyron was giving him a very predatorial look.

“How about it, sonny?” Kyron asked. “You think you have what it takes to go through it? I been wanting to revive the practice for some time now, to be honest. I promise I’ll go easy on you.”

He lied. The very first spell he cast on Zorian was the ‘Nightmare Vision’ spell. Whatever the spiders had to say, it better be worth it.

- break -

Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”

Zorian took a deep breath and focused on the image of what he wanted to achieve until it was so real he felt he could almost touch it. Billowing streams of mana erupted from his hands, invisible to the naked eye but easily felt by his senses – a mage could always feel his own mana, especially while in the process of shaping it. In little more than a second, everything was ready and he set the effect loose on the little pest lying on top of him.

Nothing happened.

Zorian opened his eyes and let out a long frustrated hiss. This was no structured spell he had been attempting, but pure unstructured magic – specifically, he had been trying to levitate Kirielle off of him by using the basic levitation exercise. He knew such an attempt would be much harder to accomplish than levitating a simple pen over his palm, but nothing?

“That tickled,” Kirielle said. “Were you trying to do something?”

Zorian narrowed his eyes at her. Okay, that? That was a challenge.

- break -

“What can I do for you, mister Kazinski?” Ilsa asked. “Normally I’d assume you are here to complain about Xvim, but you haven’t even had a single session with him yet.”

Zorian smiled brightly. That was the one bright spot in this series of short restarts – they always happened before Friday, so he didn’t have to deal with Xvim while they lasted.

“Actually, I’m here to ask for advice on a personal project,” Zorian said. “Do you know a training regimen that will allow me to lift a person telekinetically without casting a structured spell?”

Ilsa blinked in surprise. “As in, using pure shaping skill? Why would you ever have a need for that?”

“I sort of ran out of shaping exercises after mastering everything in Empatin’s ‘Expanded Basics’,” said Zorian. “It seemed like an interesting project.”

“All 15 of them?” Ilsa asked incredulously.

Instead of answering, Zorian decided to demonstrate. He picked up a particularly large and heavy book from Ilsa’s table and made it spin in the air above his palm. Spinning a book like that was actually much harder than spinning a pen, because a book was a lot heavier than a pen and had a tendency to snap open unless a mage used magic to force the covers shut while it was being levitated. That particular trick was something he was taught by Ibery, of all people – she claimed that being able to keep a book shut while levitating it was a must-have for some of the spells she intended to teach him. Unfortunately, it took a couple of weeks for Ibery to warm up to him and decide to teach him seriously, and he didn’t have that in these short restarts.

He made the book glow ominous red after a while. Using pure shaping skills to spin a book in the air while keeping it shut and making it glow with colored light was pretty impressive showing from a third year, and should be ample evidence of his skills.

Ilsa took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair, obviously impressed.

“Well…” she said. “Your shaping skills certainly aren’t lacking. Still, hovering a person without a spell is… not really something there is a manual on. Nobody does it, as far as I know. If they have a need for on-the-spot levitation, they just carry an appropriate focus on their person at all times. Rings, usually, since they’re small and unobtrusive. I really would recommend you focus on something else if you want to hone your shaping skills further. The number of shaping exercises in existence is virtually endless, and the academy library has quite a collection of them. Stone crumbling and north finding exercises are extremely useful, for instance, but they’re typically not taught to most students due to time constraints.”

“Stone crumbling and north finding?” asked Zorian.

“Stone crumbling consists of placing a pebble on your palm and then causing it to disintegrate into dust. That’s a flawless result, however, and most people are satisfied if they can get it to fall apart into sand-like grains. It’s a useful exercise for those who plan to heavily focus on alternation spells, since the first step when restructuring matter is nearly always to break apart the existing state. North finding is an exercise for diviners, involving the use of a dummy compass to locate magnetic north. Those of sufficient skill don’t even need the compass – they simply feel where the north is at all times.”

“Those do sound useful,” agreed Zorian. “I’ll definitely try to learn those. Still, are you sure you can’t help me with my people levitating problem?”

Ilsa gave him an annoyed look. “You’re still not ready to give up on that? Why are so many talented students so intent on wasting their time on useless pranks?”

Zorian was about to object but then realized she was right. He was essentially trying to prank Kirielle. Ilsa reached out and snatched the book out of the air, causing Zorian to blink in surprise. He was still levitating it? After a second of introspection he realized that yes, he kept the book in the air throughout the entire exchange. He stopped spinning it and it no longer glowed, but apparently levitating an object over his palm was so easy for him now that he barely even registered doing it. Huh.

His pondering was cut off when Ilsa threw the book on the table where it hit the wood with a deafening boom. She smirked at his surprise and gestured him to pay attention.

“Like I said, there is no manual for this,” she said. “And I never tried something so foolish, either. So keep in mind that this is all pure speculation on my part, alright?”

Zorian nodded eagerly.

“The first thing I would do if I were in your place would be to stop relying on hands to levitate things,” Ilsa said. “Focusing the magic through your hands makes the process way easier, yes, but only for a certain category of tasks. In a very real way, levitating an object over your palm isn’t ‘true’ non-structured magic – the palm provides a reference point for the effect, which both guides it and limits it. If you mastered everything in Empatin’s book, you are familiar with fixed position levitation?”

Zorian took a pen from a box full of the next to him and made it float above his palm. After a second, he moved his hand left and right, but the pen remained hovering in the exact same spot in the air he left it in, stubbornly refusing to follow the movements of his hand.

“A flawless demonstration,” Ilsa praised. “But let me ask you this: does it not appear to you that fixed position levitation achieves its goal in a kind of convoluted, roundabout way? Why do you need an advanced shaping exercise to achieve something a simple levitate object spell can do as a matter of routine?”

Before he could answer, Ilsa reached out and twisted his palm sideways. The pen instantly fell to the table.

“Because using your hand as a reference point limits what you can do with the mana you’re shaping,” Ilsa said, leaning back. “Even though the pen appeared independent of your hand, it was only an illusion. A pretty baffling one too. Why would you bother? You basically put a limiter on the mana flow – making it dependent on the position of your palm – and then tried to subvert that very same limiter to decouple it from your palm.”

The book Ilsa threw on the table to catch his attention suddenly rose into the air. Ilsa didn’t make a single movement, but he knew she was responsible.

Not the least because she was grinning at him.

“Look,” she said. “No hands. Of course, this is just about the limit of what I can do without using any sort of gesture to help me out with the shaping. It a hard skill to learn, but you probably won’t need it in its pure form simply for the sake of this ‘project’ of yours. You just need to reduce the degree to which your shaping depends of your hands and make it more flexible. Twisting your hand sideways shouldn’t have caused the pen to plummet down like a rock.”

“You just surprised me,” Zorian huffed indignantly. “I don’t usually lose control of my mana that easily.”

“I stand by my words,” Ilsa said with good-natured smile. “You are very impressive for a student, or even a regular mage, but you have a long way to go if you want to join the ranks of the truly great. But anyway, if and when you get some progress on that, you should try levitating some living being smaller than a human. Much smaller. Try insects for a start, then progress on mice and so on. All in all, it should only take you.. oh, about 4 years or so.”

If she thought he would be discouraged by that, she was sorely mistaken. Not only did he have his doubts about the accuracy of her predicted timetable, he really didn’t have anything better to do at the moment.

“I guess I better get started then,” was all he said.

- break -

Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”

Zorian stared blankly at the ceiling above him, at a loss for words. That prediction he had made? He lost track of how many restarts had passed in the mean time, but the number was way bigger than 15. And nothing had changed since then – rare was a restart that lasted more than 3 days, and none of them went on for more than 5. Whatever Zach was doing, it was lethally hard and Zach was too much of a stubborn ass to give up any time soon.

“Zorian? Are you alright? Come on, I didn’t hit you that hard. Up, up.”

Zorian ignored Kirielle who was currently pinching his side with ever increasing vigor, staring at the ceiling while suppressing so much as a twitch. The pain was negligible compared to a couple of particularly nasty pain spells Kyron used on him during one of their ‘resistance training’ sessions. Thankfully, Kyron never used any of them more than once per restart. Kirielle slapped him a few times and then pretended she was going to punch him in the face. When he didn’t react to that, her fist stopped just before it would impact with his face.

“Umm… Zorian?” Kirielle said, actually sounding somewhat concerned. “Seriously, are you okay?”

Slowly, mechanically, Zorian turned his head to meet Kirielle’s eyes, keeping his expression as blank as possible. After a few seconds of silent staring he slowly opened his mouth… and screamed at her. She recoiled at the sudden outburst and let out a girlish scream of her own as her retreat caused her to tumble off the bed.

He watched for a few moments as Kirielle began to turn red from rage, and then he could no longer restrain himself. He started laughing.

He kept laughing even as Kirielle’s little fists started to rain down blows on him.

- break -

Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

“Good m-”

With an inarticulate yell, Zorian flipped Kirielle on her back and mercilessly started tickling her. Her shrieks reverberated through the entire house until mother came up to his room and made him stop.

- break -

“Good morning, brother! Morning, morning, MORNING!”

A short silence ensued, broken only by the rustling of Zorian’s blankets as Kirielle shifted impatiently on top of them.

“Kiri,” he finally said. “I think I’m starting to hate you.”

He was exaggerating, of course, but gods was this becoming annoying as hell. Amusingly, Kirielle actually appeared concerned by his proclamation.

“I’m sorry!” she said, hurriedly wriggling herself off the bed. “I was just-”

“Woah, woah, woah,” interrupted Zorian, fixing Kirielle with a mock glare. “My little sister apologizing? That doesn’t happen. Who are you and what did you do to Kirielle?”

Kirielle’s appeared dumbfounded for a moment, but her expression quickly grew stormy as she realized what he was implying.

“Jerk!” She huffed, childishly stomping her foot for emphasis. “I do too apologize! When I’m wrong!”

“When you’re backed into a corner,” corrected Zorian. “You must want some pretty big favor out of me if you’re this desperate to remain in my good graces. What’s the story?”

He really did want to know, too. She gave no indication she wanted something from him all those times he had been through this, yet it must be pretty important to her if she was willing to apologize to get it. That didn’t make much sense – Kirielle wasn’t really a shy girl, and had no problems with making her wishes known in the past. For a moment he was tempted to conclude he misinterpreted the situation but then Kirielle looked away and started mumbling something intelligibly.

“What was that?” he prodded.

“Mother wants to talk to you,” Kirielle said, still avoiding his eyes.

“Yeah, well, mother can wait,” said Zorian. “I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what you want from me.”

She pouted at him for a moment before taking a big breath in preparation.

“Please take me with you to Cyoria!” She said, folding her hands in front of her in a pleading gesture. “I’ve always wanted to go there and I don’t want to go to Koth with mother and…”

Zorian tuned her out, shocked at the revelation. How could he have been so blind? He knew there was something strange about the ease with which he could convince mother not to take Kirielle with him, but he didn’t want to question a favorable outcome and so ignored it. Of course it was easy… she didn’t want him to take her either! It was Kirielle who wanted to go. Mother was just making a token attempt so she could tell Kirielle she tried and failed. No wonder Kirielle always seemed so sullen on the way to the train station.

“Zorian? Please?”

He shook his head to clear his thoughts and smiled at Kirielle, who was looking at him with baited breath and hope in her eyes. Now how could he say no to that? That it would ruin mother’s schemes was simply a bonus.

“Of course I’ll take you with me,” he said.

“Really!?”

“So long as you behave y-”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Kirielle yelled happily, jumping around in excitement. He could never understand this boundless energy she had. He was never that exuberant, even as a child. “I knew you’d say yes! Mother said you’d refuse for sure.”

Zorian looked away in embarrassment.

“Right,” he said lamely. “Shows what she knows. Shall I assume then that you already have mother’s permission for this plan?”

“Yeah,” Kirielle confirmed. “She said she was fine with it so long as you agree.”

Oh that diabolical woman… saying no but making him take the blame for it. Looking back at it, the plan was almost magnificent in execution – she even gave him a lecture on proper attire and family honor to put him into foul mood before springing the question.

With a sigh he put on his glasses and got out of bed. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

A second later his brain caught up with what he said and he froze. Looking back at Kirielle, he was surprised to see she wasn’t trying to race him to his destination and was instead looking at him in confusion.

“What?” she asked.

“Nothing,” Zorian said, before walking out of the room. He supposed the only reason she did that in your average restart was to make him confront mother as soon as possible. A poor move, since it only made him more annoyed at her, but she was only a kid and probably didn’t think things through all that well.

It was going to be an interesting restart.

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