Cheaters


“Majara,” intoned Zorian, finishing the spell with the word he wanted the spell to search for. He felt the spell reach out around him, scanning the books in the surrounding shelves for any mention of the word in question, and poured some more mana into the spell to expand its radius. His efforts to overcharge the spell almost unraveled it, forcing him to spend several seconds stabilizing the spell boundary, but in the end the mana flow snapped into its proper place and the spell finished its task as planned. Seven golden threads flickered into existence, seemingly growing out of his chest and connecting him to various books in this particular section of the library.

Zorian smiled. The spell was one of the book divinations Ibery had taught him, one that sought out books containing a specified word or string of words. It was a somewhat fragile spell, failing if the number of positive matches exceeded a certain number – the exact number depending on the caster’s skill. It was mostly used to search for quotes or really exotic terms.

Exotic terms like, say, the dead language of Majara. Zenomir hadn’t been kidding when he had told Zorian that he wouldn’t be able to find any books about it – there were no books specifically about the Majara language, and very few books even mentioned it. Up until now, he had only found 13 other books that contained the word, and most of them only in the form of a throwaway comment or two. It was possible that the knowledge he sought existed somewhere in the library, only in a format that was invisible to the divinations he was using – Ibery had only taught him the very basics of ‘library magic’, as she called it, so his searches were painfully crude in the grand scheme of things – but if that was the case, there was little he could do about it.

He glanced down at the threads growing out of his chest and waved his hand through them, watching it pass through them without effect. He never got tired of doing that. Well, he probably would, in time, but the novelty hadn’t worn off yet. The threads were an illusion, existing only in the privacy of his own mind. Every divination spell needed a medium through which it could present information to the caster, since it was impossible for human minds to process the raw output of a divination spell. A self-imposed illusion like the threads he was currently looking at was actually fairly advanced as divination mediums go, or so Ibery had claimed when he had tried to tell her he got the spell working within 30 minutes of being shown how to do it. He had a distinct impression she thought he was lying. He didn’t really understand what was supposed to be so difficult about it, to be honest – the threads were a purely mental construct that didn’t even require much in the way of shaping skills… just visualization. It seemed pretty simple to him. Natural even.

He shook his head and followed after one of the golden threads till he reached a book it was attached to. It was a huge, intimidating, 400-page book about the history of Miasina, and Zorian had absolutely no intention of poring over it until he reached the tiny part that actually interested him, so he cast another divination Ibery had taught him. This one highlighted every mention of the chosen word (in this case ‘Majara’) in shining green, so he simply flipped through the book till he caught a flash of green.

“Zorian? What are you doing here?”

Zorian immediately snapped the book shut and stuffed it back on the shelf. While he wasn’t doing anything forbidden, he really didn’t want to explain to Ibery what Majara was, and why he was searching the library for any mention of it.

The retort he planned to use died on his lips when he finally turned to get a good look on his visitor. Ibery was a mess. Her eyes and nose were red, as if she had been crying recently, and there was an ugly purple splotch covering her right cheek and neck. It didn’t look like a bruise, not exactly, more like…

Oh hell no.

“Ibery…” he started hesitantly. “You wouldn’t happen to go into the same class as my brother, would you?”

She flinched back and looked away. He sighed heavily. Just great.

“How did you know?” she asked after a second of silence.

“Brother dearest came to me earlier today,” said Zorian. “Said he pushed a girl into a purple creeper patch and wanted me to make ‘an anti-rash potion’. I wasn’t in the mood so I kind of blew him off.”

That was a lie, actually. He had discovered, during the last three reverts, that Fortov was either unable or unwilling to track him down if he failed to return to his room after class. That was actually the main reason why he spent the entire day in the library instead of inside his room. Still, due to his rather unique situation he knew what would have happened had he been present.

“Oh,” she said quietly. “That…. That’s alright.”

“No,” disagreed Zorian. “No, it’s not. If I had known he was talking about you, I would have helped him out. Well… helped you out. He can go die in a fire as far as I’m concerned.” He paused for a moment, considering things. “You know, there is no reason why I can’t do it now. I’ll just have to stop by my room to pick up the ingredients and-”

“You don’t have to do that,” Ibery quickly interrupted. “It’s… not that important.”

Zorian took in her appearance one more time. Yup, she had definitely been crying before coming here. Besides, her choice of words was conspicuous – she said that he didn’t have to do it, not that he shouldn’t, and that it wasn’t that important, not that it wasn’t.

“It’s not really a problem,” he assured her. “The main reason I refused in the first place is because it was Fortov who asked, not because it was so difficult to do. Just tell me where to find you when I’m done.”

“Um, I’d like to come with you, if it’s not a problem,” she said hesitantly. “I’d like to see how the cure is made. Just in case.”

Zorian paused. That was… potentially problematic. After all, the alchemical workshop would be closed down this late in the evening, and he would have to employ some, uh, unorthodox methods of gaining access. But what the hell, it wasn’t like she would remember this in the next restart.

Thus they set off towards Zorian’s apartment. Of course, having Ibery looking over his shoulder wasn’t enough, so when he had finally reached his room he found another familiar person waiting for him. Specifically, Zach.

He wasn’t terribly surprised to see Zach waiting for him, to be honest. The boy had been getting steadily more nervous during their practice sessions as the summer festival approached, no doubt unnerved by the impeding invasion. Not that he ever told Zorian about the invasion – Zach was stubbornly tight- lipped about that, regardless of how much Zorian tried to goad him into blurting out something. Over the last few days, his fellow time traveler had questioned him about his plans for the summer festival several times, not-so- subtly implying that staying inside his room would be a bad idea. As Zorian still remembered quite vividly how one of the ‘flares’ flattened his entire apartment building when the invasion started, he was inclined to agree with Zach on that one. Unfortunately, Zach seemed to have trouble believing that Zorian was in agreement with him on that point. No doubt he came specifically to make sure (again) that Zorian was going to attend the dance. Zorian wondered, for god knows what time, just what happened between Zach and his previous incarnations to produce this kind of impression. Had he really been that stubborn before the time loop?

He walked up to Zach, who was sitting on the floor next to his door, completely oblivious to his surroundings while he concentrated on something on his palm. No, now that he got closer he could see it was actually something above his palm. A pencil, lazily spinning in the air above Zach’s palm. Apparently Zach knew the pen spinning exercise too, and was currently practicing it while he waited. Zorian had a strong urge to throw a marble at Zach’s forehead and demand that he start over, but decided against it.

Mostly because he didn’t have any marbles on his person at the moment.

“Hello Zach,” Zorian said, startling Zach out of his reverie. “Are you waiting for me?”

“Yeah,” confirmed Zach. He opened his mouth to say something else but then noticed Ibery trailing behind Zorian and snapped his mouth shut. “Err, am I interrupting something?”

“No, not really,” Zorian sighed. “I just came to grab some alchemical supplies and then I’ll go make something for miss Ambercomb here. What did you want with me?”

“Eh, it can wait a while,” Zach said dismissively. “What are you making? Maybe I can help – I’m pretty good at alchemy.”

“Is there anything you’re not good at?” asked Zorian with a snort.

“You’d be surprised,” mumbled Zach.

Ibery watched their interaction in silence, but Zach was a fairly sociable person, so by the time Zorian returned from his room with a box of supplies the two of them were engaged in lively conversation. Mostly about Ibery’s current condition.

“Man, I didn’t know your brother is such a jerk, Zorian,” Zach remarked. “No wonder you turned out to be such a… uh…”

He trailed off when Zorian raised his eyebrow at him, daring him to finish that sentence. Ibery’s reaction was more vocal.

“He’s not a jerk!” she protested. “He didn’t mean for this to happen.”

“He should have fixed it, though,” Zach insisted. “Intentionally or not, it was his fault. He shouldn’t have dumped his responsibility on his little brother like this.”

“Nobody forced Zorian to do anything,” Ibery said. “He’s doing this out of his own free will. Right, Zorian?”

“Right,” agreed Zorian. “I’m doing this because I want to.”

He actually agreed with Zach, but chose not to say so. If he had learned anything about Ibery from spending an entire revert around her it was that she had a massive crush on Fortov. No good could come from bad mouthing him in front of her. Besides, if he was to be honest with himself, Zorian had to admit he was incapable of being objective about Fortov. There was too much bad blood between the two of them.

Thankfully, the two of them quickly agreed to disagree on the topic and a comfortable silence descended on the group. Well, it was comfortable for Zorian – apparently Zach didn’t agree.

“Hey Zorian,” Zach said. “Why are we going towards the academy proper?”

“So I can access the alchemical workshop, of course,” said Zorian. He knew what Zach was getting at, of course, but he was still hoping to get away without revealing one of his most closely guarded tricks.

No such luck.

“But all the workshops are closed this late in the evening,” remarked Zach.

“Ah!” Ibery exclaimed. “He’s right! They closed down two hours ago!”

“It won’t be a problem,” Zorian assured them. “So long as we clean up after ourselves, no one will know we were there.”

“But the door is locked,” pointed out Zach.

Zorian sighed. “Not to magic, it isn’t.”

“You know unlocking spells?” asked Zach in a surprised tone.

Zorian understood his surprise – unlocking spells were restricted magic, due to their obvious abuse potential. Unless you possessed a special license, even knowing how to cast them was a crime. Not a particularly serious crime, but a crime nonetheless.

Perhaps it was good, then, that Zorian didn’t know a single unlocking spell.

“No, I don’t,” said Zorian. “But it’s just a simple mechanical lock. I’ll just manipulate the tumblers telekinetically. Piece of cake.”

They gave him a blank look. Like most people, they had no idea how locks actually worked, and how easy it was to bypass most of them. Zorian, due to his somewhat colorful childhood, did. In fact, he could pick your average lock without using magic at all – it was just a lot slower than his little magic trick and required him to carry around a set of lock picks.

He stopped in front of the door leading into the alchemical workshop and tried the handle. Like Zach said, it was locked. Shrugging, Zorian placed his palm over the keyhole and closed his eyes. He could feel Zach and Ibery cluster around him to get a better look at what he was doing, and did his best to block them out. He needed total concentration for this.

He had developed this particular trick back in his second year, after he got bored of refining the standard shaping exercises they were given. It involved flooding the locking mechanism with his mana, using the resulting mana field as a sort of ‘touch sight’ to get a feel for the lock, and then carefully moving the tumblers into proper position so he could neutralize the lock. It took him months of stubborn practice, but by now he was good enough at it to unlock most doors in 30 seconds or less.

Even warded ones. He didn’t say this to Zach and Ibery, but the door he was trying to open was actually warded. Anything even remotely important in the academy was, including most of the doors. However, as Zorian quickly discovered when he experimented with the newly-developed skill, low-level wards were very specific – they countered a handful of common unlocking spells, and nothing else. Zorian’s little trick was not a structured spell, and thus didn’t trip these rudimentary wards at all.

The door clicked and Zorian tried the door handle again. This time the door opened without resistance.

“Wow,” said Zach as they all filed into the workshop. “You can open a lock just by pressing your hand against it for a few seconds!”

Zorian gave him a sour look. “It’s a lot more complicated than that – that’s just the visible part.”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that for a second,” Zach said.

Still, while Zach seemed very impressed with Zorian’s achievement, Ibery remained strangely quiet and kept giving him funny looks. This was why he hated telling people about his lock-picking prowess – most immediately assumed he was some kind of a thief. Well, that and he didn’t want the academy authorities to find out about his achievement. They would no doubt change their warding scheme and then he wouldn’t be able to do what he just did.

Fortunately, Ibery wasn’t as condemning as some people Zorian met in his life, and got over her suspicions quickly once he started to prepare the salve. Strangely enough, Zach didn’t know how to make one, even though it was a fairly simply thing to make and Zach had demonstrated some mightily impressive alchemical work in class. He didn’t appear all that interested in learning, either – apparently the anti-rash salve was too mundane for his tastes, and he was only interesting in things like strength potions and wound closing elixirs. That sounded like trying to build a house without bothering to set up proper foundations, but it wasn’t Zorian who was a decade old time traveler. Yet.

“Aren’t those purple creeper leaves?” Ibery asked, pointing at the small pile Zorian had placed on a wet piece of cloth.

“Yes,” confirmed Zorian, wrapping the leaves into the cloth. “They’re the main ingredient, though they have to be crushed first. Alchemical manuals usually claim you have to reduce the leaves into powder but it’s not really necessary to go that far. You just have to use more leaves otherwise, but it’s not like purple creepers are in short supply…”

An hour later, the salve was done and Zach was kind enough to conjure some kind of illusionary mirror so Ibery could apply the salve on herself right then and there. Kind and sneaky, because while Ibery was busy with applying the salve on herself, Zach dragged Zorian away in the corner so he could talk to him in private.

“So?” Zorian prompted. “What is it?”

Zach reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring, which he promptly handed to Zorian. It was a featureless band of gold that reacted strangely when Zorian channeled some mana into it.

“It’s a spell formula,” Zach said.

“Magic missile?” guessed Zorian.

“That, plus shield and flamethrower,” Zach said. “Now you can use all three in actual combat.”

Zorian looked at the ring with newfound respect. There was only so much one could cram into a spell formula, and it was mostly dependant on the size of the item used as a base. Turning something as small as a ring into a spell formula for three different spells was a pretty impressive feat, even if they were relatively low-level ones.

“Must have been pretty expensive,” Zorian remarked.

“Made it myself, actually,” Zach said with a grin.

“Still, that’s a pretty valuable thing to give away to someone you’ve met less than a month ago,” said Zorian. “Why do I get the feeling I’ll be needing this in the near future?”

Zach’s smile disappeared and he suddenly became more subdued. “Maybe. I’m just making sure, you know. You never know when an angry troll might get a jump on you or something.”

“How… oddly specific,” noted Zorian. “You know, you’ve been getting steadily more nervous as the summer festival approaches. And you seem oddly interested in making sure I attend the dance.”

“You will, right?” Zach prompted.

“Yes, yes, I told you I will half a dozen times already,” huffed Zorian. “What’s so important about the dance, anyway? What’s going to happen there, oh great traveler from the future?”

“You have to see it to believe it,” Zach sighed. “It’s possibly even more implausible than time travel being real.”

“That bad?” asked Zorian, privately agreeing that an invasion of that scale was something he would have had trouble believing in if he had not lived through it.

“Just… try to survive, okay?” Zach sighed. Before Zorian could say anything else, Zach suddenly donned a mask of fake cheerfulness and spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard by Ibery. “Wow, Zorian, I’m sure glad we’ve had this talk but I should really get going now! Have to be well rested for tomorrow! Bye Zorian! Bye Ibery! I’ll see you both at the dance!”

And then he left. Zorian shook his head at the other boy’s exit and walked up to Ibery, who was now free of purple rash that once covered her face and neck.

“Well, I guess we should go too,” Zorian said. “The academy normally doesn’t have anyone patrolling after dark, but that idiot’s shouting may have alerted someone to our presence.”

“Oh. Um, right.”

Zorian watched Ibery as they filed out of the workshop and he used his magic trick to re-lock the door again. She seemed strangely subdued for someone who got what they wanted.

“What’s wrong?” he finally asked after a while.

“Err, nothing’s wrong,” she said. “Why do you ask?”

“You don’t seem very happy to be cured,” he noted.

“I am!” she protested. “It’s just…”

“Yes?” he prompted.

“I don’t have anyone to go to the dance with,” she said. “The boy I was hoping to go with already has someone by now.”

If her unnamed boy was Fortov (probably, considering her obvious crush on him), then yes, he most certainly did. In fact, he probably had one weeks in advance, so there was never much chance of her going with him in the first place, but he didn’t feel the need to crush her dreams like that.

“Then you’ll just have to do the same thing I will and go to the dance all by yourself, won’t you?” concluded Zorian.

She suddenly stopped and gave him an appraising glance.

“You don’t have anyone to go with, either?” she asked.

Zorian closed his eyes and swore in his head. He really walked into this one, didn’t he?

- break -

Zorian was nervous. Ever since his very first restart, he had been studiously avoiding the city on the day of the festival, not willing to get caught up in the invasion again. Being present within city limits could easily result in his grisly death, after all, and back then he wasn’t sure whether his current restart would be his last. That wasn’t an option anymore, unless he wanted to clue in Zach that there was something wrong with him (he didn’t).

Bottom line was, he was stuck attending the dance, with the unexpected addition of Ibery as his date for the evening. He wasn’t exactly happy with that, actually. He didn’t really have much of a plan for the evening, except to wait and see what will happen, but Ibery’s presence at his side would no doubt limit him. Not to mention that he still remembered his disastrous evening with Akoja, and had very little desire to live through a repeat performance, consequences-erasing time loop or not.

Speaking of his evening with Akoja, Zorian had to admit one thing about Ibery: she was a lot more reasonable and considerate than Akoja was. She didn’t drag him out of his room 2 hours before the event, or make him wait smack in the middle of the huge throng of people gathered at the entrance, or drag him off to chat with a bunch of people who only cared about him being Daimen’s and Fortov’s brother… She was also more interested in scanning the crowd for any trace of Fortov than paying attention to him, but that way okay – he was under no illusion that she had asked him out because she was actually interested in him. After a while he decided to have mercy on her and informed her that Fortov was already inside, preparing for tonight’s performance along with the other members of the academy music club.

Naturally, Zach’s entrance was in the boy’s usual flamboyant style. He had caught everyone attention when he had shown up with not one, but two dates for the evening (Zorian didn’t recognize either girl), and then further wooed people by demonstrating some very impressive – and attention-grabbing – dancing. Apparently Zach had learned more than magic during these restarts. Zorian clapped with the others when Zach finally finished showing off, and considered the merits of sinking some time into a non-magical skill. Not dancing, though. Or any other ‘high society’ skill, for that matter – honing those beyond the elementary level he had already grasped would require him to construct a mask so thorough he wasn’t sure he’d be able to take if off afterwards. The benefits weren’t worth selling his soul over, even metaphorically.

“This is a lot fancier than I thought it would be,” Ibery noted, fingering the lacy tablecloth in front of her.

“It’s obviously more than just a school dance,” agreed Zorian. “I’m guessing the Academy was organizing some kind of event for foreign dignitaries this year and then decided to simply merge it with the school dance for whatever reason.”

“I guess,” Ibery said. “They did invest a lot into making everything look good this year, and I doubt they did it for our sake.” Ibery looked at the far end of the table, where Zach was entertaining a small crowd around him, his two escorts nowhere to be seen. After a few seconds of this observation she turned to Zorian and stared at him strangely.

“What?” Zorian said, a little unnerved by her stare.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you…” she began hesitantly. “What is it between you and Zach? I mean, I know you’re friends with him, but how did that come about? You seem very different from one another.”

“It’s a recent thing,” said Zorian. “And it was mostly Zach’s doing, to be honest. All I did was escort him home after he got sick in class one day, and he decided we were best friends after that. I sort of went along with the flow.”

“So you don’t know about… um…”

“His sudden growth in skill?” guessed Zorian. He was actually surprised she hadn’t questioned him about that sooner. Almost everyone else did. Of course, she would get the same shameless lie that he fed to everyone who questioned him about it. “I have no idea how that happened, but I can tell you it’s real and not some kind of a trick like many people have been suggesting. He has been tutoring me in combat magic for a while now, and he really knows his stuff.”

“Yeah, I heard you were doing that,” Ibery said, causing Zorian to frown. Being associated with Zach has made people disturbingly interested in his activities, no matter how mundane or irrelevant they may be. Having people scrutinize his every action like they have been doing for this past month was a novel experience. Novel and unwelcome. “Kyron has been kind of impressed with your growth, you know?”

Yeah… at least until he found out that Zach was involved, at which point it simply became one more thing that made Zach such a mystery, rather than a product of Zorian’s own talent. Obviously Zach had some kind of secret teaching technique on top of everything else. Obviously.

But it’s not like he was still bitter or anything!

“Impressed, right,” said Zorian sourly. “So what do you think is behind Zach’s amazingness?”

“Err, well… it’s kind of silly,” Ibery said.

Zorian gestured for her to go on. He always loved to hear the explanation people thought up to explain the mystery that was Zach. Much of the speculation wasn’t serious, so much as attempts to think up the most imaginative (or the funniest) solution to the problem, so he doubted Ibery’s explanation was any sillier than some of the stuff he had been hearing all month long. His personal favorite was that Zach performed an ancient ritual where you eat another person’s brain in order to get their knowledge.

“Time dilation,” Ibery said after a brief moment of hesitation.

Zorian blinked. Oh Ibery… So close, and yet so far away…

“I don’t think any hasting spell is that effective, to be honest,” said Zorian. “Zach isn’t just a little better than he was – I’d personally put him around 3rd circle at least. I actually don’t think he has any reason to attend the classes anymore, except that he finds it amusing to do so and flaunt his knowledge to everybody.”

“I kind of noticed that,” Ibery said, glancing momentarily to the small group of people surrounding Zach. “But I wasn’t thinking of hasting magic. Do you know what the Black Rooms are?” Zorian shook his head in negative. “There are rumors that powerful nations like ours have special training facilities that use extreme levels of time dilation. You go inside the facility, spend a couple of months, or even years inside, and when you get out only a day or two have passed outside.”

Zorian’s eyebrows rose at the description. If one of the major powers had something like that, why weren’t the effects more keenly felt? None of the Successor States were shy about using their power, and would have surely used such a tool to churn out trained mages on a mass scale by now.

“It’s just a rumor,” Ibery quickly added. “Something between a conspiracy theory and an urban legend. I only know about it because one of my friends loves those kinds of things and she keeps insisting there is one such facility in the tunnels beneath the city. Supposedly they consume massive amounts of mana, so they must be located at mana wells.”

“And the Hole is the biggest mana well there is,” Zorian noted. “What’s the explanation for such secrecy surrounding them? You’d think they’d be using it pretty intensively.”

“They can’t,” Ibery said. “Or at least that’s how the story goes. They have some kind of limitations that severely limit their use. Exactly how countries pick who gets to use the Black Rooms is where the ‘conspiracy theory’ part comes in. The more conventional theories suggest they’re simply fancy facilities for training Black Ops super-agents. The wilder ones are… well, wild.”

“It’s a neat theory,” Zorian hummed speculatively. Far closer to reality than anything else he’d heard, though he’d never say that aloud, even as a joke. If she could take such a farfetched rumor seriously, there was a good chance she might actually believe him upon hearing the truth, and that would be very awkward at the moment. Maybe he should try to convince her in one of the next restarts? Something to think about, at least. “But if Zach had spent years in one of those Black Rooms, why hasn’t he visibly aged? And why exactly would they let Zach use one of those?”

“Well, he didn’t have to literally spend years,” Ibery said. “It’s not that anything he’s done is that advanced. A couple of months of intense tutoring could probably produce the effects we’re looking at. And even if he spent years, there are potions that can halt your aging for a year or two. They actually work better on young people.”

Zorian resisted the urge to frown as he realized something. As much as Zach liked to show off, he never really went wild with his abilities for all to see. If Zach had showed the sort of magic he did during the invasion, neither Ibery nor anyone else would be dismissing Zach’s prowess as ‘not advanced’ so easily. Then again, perhaps that was the whole point. Extremely skilled Zach was surprising, maybe even shocking to those who knew him before the change. Instant archmage Zach would be probably alarming in the extreme and inspire a matching attitude in people around him.

Perhaps Zach’s behavior was a lot more calculated than he thought it was?

“As for why him?” Ibery continued. “Well, he’s a Noveda. They were quite influential before their eventual fall, and I don’t just mean in the sense of being rich. They had their fingers everywhere. I could easily see some of that old influence surviving to this very day. Zach is the last of his line, and the fate of his House rests upon his shoulders. Perhaps this was simply a desperate maneuver by Zach’s guardians, trying to turn Zach into a worthy successor capable of returning Noveda to their former glory.”

The ground shook, followed by a deafening explosion less than a second later. Windows rattled, but didn’t break. An uneasy silence descended upon the dance hall, only broken by the periodic rumble of more distant explosions.

“What… what was that?” Ibery asked fearfully.

She wasn’t the only one asking that kind of questions. Agitated murmurs started traveling through the gathered crowd, steadily growing in volume and alarm. The ever-present pressure Zorian always felt from being inside crowds intensified and… changed. What was usually just an annoyance pushing on the edges of his consciousness suddenly became a suffocating blanket of fear. He struggled not to faint as foreign feelings invaded his mind. What the hell was happening to him? He didn’t remember anything about an attack like this from his previous experience of the invasion.

A minute ticked away. Then ten. Zorian could practically feel the anxiety and agitation of the crowd steadily rising. The last (and first) time he had lived through the invasion he was standing on the roof when that first barrage descended to earth, and was momentarily incapacitated as a result. At least, that’s what he had thought. Apparently he had been knocked out for quite a bit longer than he realized, because by his reckoning Ilsa and Kyron should have been rushing to the roof to see what was happening by now. He could see them arguing about something in a nearby corner, and neither made the slightest move towards the roof.

“Zorian?” Ibery tried for either the fifth or sixth time, Zorian wasn’t sure. “Are you sure you’re alright? Maybe I should go find someone-”

“I’m fine,” Zorian said, somehow managing to shove the oppressive feelings aside for the moment. The explosions had finally stopped but that hadn’t led to people calming down. If anything, now that the situation had calmed down somewhat, they wanted answers, and they wanted them now. They were getting restless. Thankfully, the academy staff seemed to realize this as well. “Look, Ilsa is trying to say something.”

“Please remain calm!” Ilsa said from the music stage, using the same magic that carried music evenly across the dance hall to make herself heard by everyone present. “Me and my colleague will go to the roof now and open communications with the city authorities to find out what is going on. Please don’t go anywhere until we return.”

Well… that didn’t do much to calm people down. If anything, they got even more unruly than they were before Ilsa’s speech, and some outright ignored her warnings and left the dance hall the moment she went up the stairs and out of sight. He couldn’t judge them too harshly, since in another timeline he had done the exact same thing. On the positive side, the oppressive feeling lifted and reverted back to the familiar headache-inducing pressure. He breathed a giant sigh of relief.

“Hello Zorian,” greeted Zach, approaching Zorian. Of course he’d come to talk to him now… “Quite a commotion, huh? And I see you talked miss Ambercomb to be your date for the evening! Congratulations! I never knew you liked older girls.”

“I’m only a year older than him,” Ibery protested. She glanced briefly at Zorian to see if he would point out that it was her who asked him out, and relaxed when she realized he wouldn’t. Zorian had to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. “And how come you’re here all by yourself? Why don’t you introduce us to your date_s_?”

If Ibery thought to fluster Zach by pointing out the plural nature of his partners for the evening, she was going to be sorely disappointed. And indeed, Zach only smiled at her, completely unaffected by the jab.

“They decided to leave home early,” Zach shrugged. “Probably for the best, considering what happened.”

“What did happen, though?” asked Zorian. He didn’t expect to get a straight answer out of Zach, of course, but it was worth a try.

“I guess we’ll find out soon,” said Zach, pointing to the bottom of the stairs leading to the roof, where Ilsa was talking to a bunch of students. After a couple of seconds Zorian realized that that Akoja was among them, and recognized several other faces as well.

“Who is she talking to?” asked Ibery.

“Class representatives, I think,” Zorian said. “At least, the ones I recognize are all class representatives for their groups.”

It was so frustratingly slow. Maybe Zorian was expecting a little too much from a mere educational institution, but their response to the invasion was pretty underwhelming. At the very least he had expected them to start evacuating people to the shelters by now, or organize some kind of a defense force, or… well, anything really. He was getting an impression that Ilsa and Kyron didn’t even realize the severity of the situation yet.

Finally Ilsa seemed to finish with her instructions and the crowd of class representatives dispersed into the crowd. It only took Zorian a minute to realize what they were doing – each one was gathering their own classmates into a single group. He bid Ibery goodbye and left towards his own group together with Zach.

Once everyone was present, Akoja told them what the plan was. The academy was going to use their limited teleportation capabilities to get foreign dignitaries and other important people out of the city, and the students were going to descend into the tunnels beneath the city to reach the shelters on foot - with no teachers present to guide and defend them, because they had other duties currently and class representatives had to know the evacuation routes to get the job anyway.

Zorian looked at Zach to gauge his reaction and saw that the boy’s expression was grim and focused.

“All right,” Zach mumbled. “Show time.”

Zorian had a bad feeling about this.

- break -

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Zach who raised the alarm – it was Raynie, of all people. How exactly she detected the winter wolves 5 minutes before they showed up he had no idea, but notice them she did and she immediately raised the alarm. A lot of students didn’t believe her, but most weren’t willing to risk it. The entire procession of students started to move faster towards the small cylindrical building that marked the staircase leading down into the shelters.

They never made it there before the winter wolves reached them.

Zorian wasn’t a soldier, and would never call himself an expert on tactics, but what the throng of students did upon sighting the horde of winter wolves coming after them still struck him as monumentally stupid. They scattered. The ones closest to the dungeon entrance rushed towards it, but the others immediately sought the closest shelter. He could hear Zach’s frantic shouting, telling people not to separate from the main group but it was in vain.

Cursing, Zorian snatched Akoja by the wrist before she could bolt towards the nearby apartment building and wordlessly pointed towards the dungeon entrance. For a moment he thought about explaining his reasoning in more detail, but he knew he didn’t have enough time for that. He let go of her and started running, hoping she would have the presence of mind to follow.

Thankfully, she did follow him, as did several other students that witnessed the silent exchange and realized the importance of it. As they ran, more people joined them, seeking safety in numbers.

Around him, chaos reigned. The winter wolves were pouring in by the hundreds, and unlike the fleeing students they were frighteningly well coordinated. Small groups of 3 to 4 wolves detached themselves periodically from the main body to intercept lone targets before rejoining the horde, using their superior numbers to flank and outmaneuver their opponents. Their white fur and the surprising silence with which they moved made them seem like an army of ghosts risen from the underworld to punish the living. Screams. Shouting. Flashes of light and canine howls of pain too – not every student was helpless. Up ahead Zach was defending the entrance to the tunnels viciously, sending swarm after swarm of force projectiles that hit far harder than your run of the mill magic missile, felling scores of winter wolves with each volley. A number of people reached the safety of a nearby building and promptly barricaded themselves inside, ignoring the pleas of those outside to let them in.

Just as Zorian though they would make it to the entrance without incident, his luck ran out. A large group of 30 or so winter wolves noticed them and moved to intercept. The group halted immediately, unsure what to do as the pack continued to get closer. They had to go through it to reach the shelters, but fighting the wolves was suicide. Zach was busy incinerating a group of war trolls that finally made their appearance and wouldn’t be able to help for a while.

“I told you I should have brought my sword,” one of the boys groused. “But noooo, it’s not suitable for a school dance you said. You’re too paranoid for your own good, you said.”

“Oh shut up,” a female voice snapped back.

Zorian resisted the urge to fire off a couple of missiles at the approaching winter wolves. Even shaped as piercers, they weren’t guaranteed to kill in one shot something as resilient as a winter wolf, and he still tended to fail quite often when he tried to weave a homing function in them, so there was no guarantee he would even hit anything. He had to use his mana intelligently.

Not everyone thought so, however. A number of people had a spell formula hidden on them in the form of a ring or a necklace, much like he did, and they threw missile after magic missile into the advancing wolves. Only one girl was capable of casting a proper homing bolt, so most of them missed, and when they did hit they were just smashers so they didn’t kill any of them. They did, however, slow the pack down and force it to cluster together, since the girl that could fire homing bolts targeted any wolf that tried to detach from the pack to flank them. And that gave him an idea.

The moment the pack got close enough, Zorian fired an overpowered flamethrower straight into the their front lines. Clustered together as they were, most of them were caught in the blast. The winter wolves, notoriously weak to fire, howled in fear and agony. That’s when someone else fired another flamethrower into their ranks, this one much bigger and hotter than Zorian’s, and the winter wolves promptly turned and fled. The ones that still lived, that is.

Zorian turned to see who cast the other flamethrower and was surprised to see Briam there, staring smugly at the charred corpses in front of him. He was holding his fire drake in his arms like a living weapon, and the little lizard was licking its chops like he wanted to eat its kills.

So much for his theory that the drake was too young to breathe fire.

After a moment of shock at the sudden reversal, they all scrambled into the building housing the dungeon entrance and immediately descended into the tunnels below. Zorian was immediately intercepted by a worried Ibery, who seemed extremely relieved that he was alive. Even though he knew her death wouldn’t be permanent, he had to admit he was glad she survived as well.

Though, now that he could sit down and think about it a little, it wasn’t that unusual she survived. She was a fourth year student, and they were at the front of the procession for some reason. That was very unfortunate, because fourth year students were, presumably, much more capable of defending themselves than third year ones… and they were the ones who reached the safety of the shelters first, leaving their younger compatriots to fend for themselves.

“I didn’t know you had any fire spells,” Briam noted from his left, stroking his familiar affectionately. “I guess that’s one of the things Zach has been teaching you this past month, huh?”

“Yeah,” Zorian admitted. He gave the fire lizard a dubious look, and the reptile stared back at him challengingly. “Did you really bring your familiar to the school dance?”

“Oh, no way,” Briam laughed. “I’m not that attached to him. No, I used a recall spell to summon him to my side when the winter wolves started pouring in.”

“Isn’t summoning pretty mana intensive, though?” Zorian asked.

“Not if you’re summoning your familiar,” Briam said. “We’re bound together, he and I. Connected through the soul. It’s a lot easier and a lot less taxing to cast certain spells where they concern him.”

“Huh,” Zorian hummed.

An hour went by, with little to show for it. Zorian listened to stories of people around him, trying to put some sense into what had transpired and thinking what he could change in the next restart to make this evacuation thing less of a fiasco. His thoughts were interrupted when a group of teachers finally stumbled into the shelters.

There were six of them and they looked tired and frightened, much like the students who had gathered around them for explanations and assurances. The only one among them that inspired confidence in Zorian was Kyron, who remained as stoic as always. He was no longer bare-chested, opting to wear full body armor that sort of resembled the chitinous shell of a saint bug, and had a plethora of spell rods hanging off his belt in addition to the combat staff he was firmly gripping in one hand.

Kyron had bad news – the attack on the academy was just one piece in an all- out invasion targeting the entire city. Zorian already knew this, of course, but everyone else was suitably shocked. The invasion was well prepared, and most of the defenders have been overpowered right at the start. The city was about to fall. Once that happened, the shelters would become just a giant death trap. They would have to go outside and fight their way out of the city before the invaders could secure everything of critical importance and turn their attention to them.

People were taking it pretty badly.

“Why don’t you just teleport us out!?” someone called. “You’re supposed to be able to do that!”

“Academy ward control has been subverted,” Kyron said calmly. “The invaders have turned our own teleportation wards against us. We can’t teleport in or out.”

Zorian groaned. The enemy had control of the wards? How on earth did they do that? The academy wasn’t just some random house with a generic warding scheme – it’s supposed to be too secure and sophisticated for that!

The questions continued for a minute or so before Kyron got enough of it and started to bark out orders. They needed to get moving.

Zorian was paying attention to something else though. The student next to him had been acting strangely ever since Kyron and his cohort entered the shelters. Zorian could practically feel the boy’s eagerness and anticipation. For what, he couldn’t say, but he had a feeling it was nothing good.

That is why, when the boy threw a vial full of sickly green liquid on the floor and smashed it with his foot, Zorian held his breath and fired a smasher straight into the boy’s chest. Foul smelling green smoke erupted from the broken vial, and the shelters erupted into chaos.

Zorian couldn’t see anything through the no doubt poisonous smoke, but the sounds of fighting were unmistakable. He stumbled through the smoke, trying to find an end to it and failing. He could tell from the hacking students around him that breathing in would be a bad idea. Thank god it didn’t also irritate the eyes or he’d never be able to cast a shield in time to stop a magic missile from smashing into his face. A circular plane of force flickered into existence in front of him, soaking the hit. The shield wavered for a second but held.

And then Zorian heard Kyron shout a series of words, and all the smoke around him rushed towards the source of Kyron’s voice, as if caught in some sort of vacuum. Zorian had just enough time to see Kyron holding his left hand in the air, a smoky green ball compacting itself above it, before he was forced to erect a shield again.

At least he could breathe now. Thank the gods for small favors.

Before the attackers – who had probably teleported in under the cover of smoke, because Zorian would remember a bunch of middle-aged men in brown robes if they had been present when he got into the shelters – could regain initiative, Kyron snapped one of his hands and a shining whip flashed through the air. The invaders promptly fell apart, the upper half of their bodies sliding off the lower half like they were never attached to one another at all.

Zorian stared at Kyron in shock. He knew the retired battle-mage was capable, but seeing it was something else. The man had assessed the situation within moments and solved it with a total of two spells. He wondered what would have happened during the initial evacuation if Kyron had been leading the students. He couldn’t help but think that Kyron would have found a way to repel the initial winter wolf rush without losing anyone. Certainly the students would be more inclined to listen to Kyron than their class representatives – the man had a certain aura of command around him.

“How… the hell… are you… still standing?” wheezed Zach not far from him. Apparently he had breathed in some of the smoke, and was affected just like everyone else. Even decades old time travelers could be brought down by some tricks, it seemed.

Zorian was about to answer when the ground exploded next to him, showering him with stone fragments and knocking him on his back. He heard Kyron chanting something, but it was too late for him – the giant brown worm that emerged from the ground was far faster than it should have been and Zorian was in too much pain to move. He saw a huge toothy maw closing around him, and then he knew only blackness.

His last thoughts were that it wasn’t fair. Just how many contingencies did these people have? These invaders were freaking cheaters!

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