Lighting the Fuse


On the surface, getting saddled with Novelty seemed like a recipe for endless frustration and annoyance – she was an impatient, impulsive chatterbox that seemed to have no concept of personal space, always hovering uncomfortably near him and poking him with her front legs. Zorian was not afraid of spiders, but that kind of close physical contact was just too much.

Basically, she was a spider version of Kirielle. And he only tolerated Kirielle’s antics as much as he did because she was his little sister.

Despite this, Zorian was actually glad to have met her. Her personality certainly left a lot to be desired, and he often had to keep her focused on their lessons instead of going off on weird tangents about various topics, but she was still a wealth of information on both psionics and aranea. And unlike the matriarch, whose every explanation sounded like a thinly-veiled manipulation attempt to Zorian, Novelty didn’t have a single deceptive bone in her body. Most of the time she said what she meant, and it was painfully obvious when she tried to shift the subject or fudged the truth. It was a refreshing change of pace from his previous interactions with the aranea.

Novelty remained blissfully unaware of his thoughts, too engrossed in her inspection of Zorian’s alchemy equipment. That was another difference between Novelty and the matriarch – Novelty couldn’t read his surface thoughts unless he structured his thoughts very slowly and clearly aimed them at her. It made him much more relaxed about her presence than he would have otherwise been.

[Humans build so many strange things,] Novelty declared after inspecting the glass vials by sight and touch. Zorian didn’t know whether aranea were usually this fond of touching things and Novelty was simply unrestrained in her interactions with him or if the spider in front of him was simply a physical sort of girl, but Novelty certainly liked to touch the things she was studying. Annoyingly, this included him as well as random inanimate objects, but at least she seemed to have finally got the idea he didn’t like her climbing into his lap by now. [How did you even make this? It’s the same kind of transparent rock you use for those ‘window’ things, but I have no idea how you managed to carve it out in this kind of shape. And it’s so smooth, too… I know those branching upper limbs of yours are better at manipulating things than our legs, but this is crazy. You know, the aranea once tried to keep human thralls to create things for us, but it was a huge hassle and it turned out it’s much easier to just trade with humans for what we need. You humans don’t seem to fare too well underground, and kidnapping humans always seemed to anger the rest of the human communities a lot, even when they weren’t of the same clan or anything. And… uh, that was a really long time ago and we totally don’t do stuff like that anymore and you should forget everything I said about that, okay?]

“Uh-huh,” said Zorian dubiously before deciding not to pursue the issue. “For what it’s worth, the transparent rock is called glass, and it’s not really carved. It’s made from sand, which is heated until it turns molten and therefore malleable and then shaped by sticking long tubes into the resulting molten mass and blowing air into it.”

Novelty turned around to focus all of her eyes on him. [How, in the name of grandmother’s shriveled egg-sack, did it occur to one of you to do that? Do humans have some sort of magical stone sense or something?]

“Err, no,” said Zorian patiently. Explaining stuff like this to Novelty was annoying, but it made her much more willing to share things with him in turn, so he would labor on. “Humans have always been mucking around with tools of various sorts. We’re pretty fragile in our natural forms, so building things is a matter of survival. We use crude tools to fashion better tools, and then those better tools to fashion more precise tools, and so on. I don’t really know how glassblowing came into existence, but it didn’t just magically pop into someone’s head all out of a sudden…”

[I don’t really think you can be considered fragile,] Novelty said dubiously. [You wield incredible magic, and you pretty much conquered the surface world with it.]

“Not all humans wield magic,” said Zorian. “Only a small number of people are mages, and the number was even smaller the more you go back in time.”

[Most of your ‘tools’ sound a lot like magic to me, to be honest,] Novelty said. [You take rocks and stuff and perform complicated rituals on them to turn them into these wondrous creations that no amount of web-weaving can duplicate. It’s the part that fascinates me most about you humans – this weird building magic of yours. I was kind of hoping I could learn some of your secrets while I teach you, but it looks like that will be pretty difficult because, you know,] she waved her front legs in the air for emphasis, [I haven’t got these ‘hands’ you humans use for everything. Not that I’m giving up or anything! I’m definitely going to figure something out!]

“Well, you already told me you are learning to be a mage, so you could always resort to actual magic,” said Zorian. “Fabrication spells are a thing, after all. Granted, you’d have to understand the properties of materials you’re working with and the engineering principles of the things you’re trying to create, but if you’re serious about being a crafter that’s pretty much a must anyway.”

[I’ll be honest and admit I have no idea what you just said,] Novelty said after a brief silence. [But I’m guessing you were trying to be encouraging so thanks!]

“Right,” Zorian sighed. “We’re gone on a tangent again. Let’s focus on the lessons again.”

[But those lessons are so boring!] Novelty complained. [You already know most of this stuff; it’s just a matter of practicing, and you can’t do that here, anyway. You are practicing, right?]

“Sure am,” Zorian agreed. “I spend most of my classes trying to sense my classmates and other students in the building. Not like I get anything else useful out of classes these days. It’s going pretty well, but I still have to concentrate pretty heavily to achieve any kind of range. I’ve also tried sensing their emotions, but that is still pretty hit and miss. Are you sure no one is going to detect me doing that? Because I’m going to land in pretty hot water if somebody detects me messing with people’s minds.”

[I keep telling you, no one is going to detect anything without invading your mind first,] Novelty assured him. [I totally went and asked other aranea about that, since you keep asking about it, and they confirmed it. Basically, sensing minds and basic empathy doesn’t involve any delving into other people’s minds. I know you don’t believe in the Great Web and all, but imagine a kind of mental plane that permeates everything. Minds create ripples on this mental plane, like stones thrown into a pool of stagnant water, and those who are Open can use these ripples to locate other minds around them and divine some basic facts about them. Stuff like species and their general mood.]

“Huh. That does make sense,” Zorian said. “So sensing minds and empathy are really two aspects of a single ability – that being an ability to perceive this mental plane of yours and interpret the ‘ripples’ propagating through it? Do you know if mental shielding spells have an effect on this?”

[Oh, definitively,] confirmed Novelty. [The basic shielding spells that mages like to use will pretty much ruin your ability to use empathy on them. Too much interference. Detecting them, on the other hand, becomes even easier. Any mind-affecting spells make a mind more ‘noisy’ to a psychic, even defensive ones. Especially defensive ones, now that I think of it. Well, except for that one infamous spell called ‘Mind Blank’ that actually causes a mind to disconnect from the Great Web, making a person completely undetectable to mind sensing and utterly immune to mind-affecting magic. Pretty terrifying stuff, that.]

Zorian knew of the spell she was talking about. Mind Blank was well known as a kind of ‘ultimate defense’ against mind magic, but the spell was infamous for causing psychological problems if miscast or used too extensively. A number of mages paranoid about people invading their minds had gone insane after leaving it permanently on, giving it a somewhat poor reputation among mages. There were other, less drastic protections that were sufficient in most cases.

“That’s strange,” Zorian said innocently. “The matriarch told me that no flimsy human magic could shield me against her if she was determined to get me, but here you’re telling me there is a spell I could learn to make myself completely immune from psychic powers.”

[Ah, well, you see…] Novelty fumbled. [She was actually right because, because those are totally different things, yes? A shield is one thing – we can totally batter it down or bypass it. If you take yourself off the Great Web, though, it’s like you aren’t there at all! You first need to sense a mind to connect to it, and if you can’t connect to it-]

“I get it,” Zorian interrupted. “No telepathic link, no aranean mind magic. And you can’t connect to something you can’t sense telepathically. Hmm, clearly the creator of Mind Blank knew a thing or two about psychic powers – it sounds like the spell is designed specifically to defeat them.”

[The idea isn’t that revolutionary,] Novelty grumbled. [A sufficiently skilled psychic can disconnect from the Great Web with some effort. It’s called ‘going dark’. It’s a pretty shady skill, though, mostly used by assassins, thieves and saboteurs. Anyway, the problem isn’t just the Mind Blank – it’s the fact that any mage powerful enough to cast it is also powerful enough to take on the entire aranean Web all on their lonesome. We have ways of dealing with people like that, but I totally can’t tell you because the others would have me dismembered if I said anything about it – since, you know, secret defenses and stuff.”

“Right,” Zorian said. He had no intention of creating problems at home for Novelty, so he wouldn’t pursue that topic further. Their super-secret defense plans probably boiled down to ‘collapse the entire tunnel on top of them’, anyway. “So Mind Blank is a psychic skill translated into a spell. Not that surprising, I guess – mages love taking abilities of magical creatures and turning them into spells for their own use.”

[Really?] Novelty asked. [But I thought human magic is so good that there is nothing you can learn from others. The matriarch is always talking about how amazing your magic is and how no one can match it…]

“No, that’s completely wrong,” Zorian said. “Mages of Ikosian tradition – which is virtually every mage you’re going to encounter – are pretty much all about taking other people’s magic and making it your own. The entire system of structured magic is specifically designed to be expanded upon as needed. It’s true that we rarely find something worth learning among other magical traditions these days, but that’s mostly because we already stole and traded for everything that was worth taking.”

[That’s… not quite the story I was told,] Novelty admitted.

“Don’t feel too bad – most humans also think our entire magical tradition sprung fully-formed in the early days of the Ikosian Empire,” Zorian said. “But back to our conversation about mental defenses. You said an aranea could batter down or bypass defensive magic other than Mind Blank. Does that include you personally?”

[Of course! Who do you take me for?] Novelty protested. [If I couldn’t fight telepathically, I’d have been devoured while still at the hatchery!]

Zorian blinked. “What, seriously? As in, actually get eaten or…?”

[Err, no, not literally eaten. We haven’t let the hatchlings eat each other ever since… err, actually, let’s not talk about that. It was just a figure of speech, that’s the important bit. Anyway!] Novelty hastened to change the subject. [I don’t know how it works among humans, but newborn aranea are confined to the hatchery during the first few months of their existence. There are usually a lot of us, and we’re all cooped up in this tiny boring room with nothing to do but pester the caretakers for stories and picking fights amongst each other, and the caretakers don’t like it when the hatchlings fight physically with each other. They are a lot more lenient about… experimenting… with our psychic powers, though. A bit of telepathic roughhousing is to be expected, so you pretty quickly learn the basics of defending your mind.]

Zorian tried to imagine the scenario Novelty just described and abandoned that train of thought with a shudder. He made a mental note to avoid being near aranean hatcheries at all costs, just in case the issue ever popped up in the future.

“That’s… interesting… but not quite what I was asking. I asked about countering defenses, not defending yourself,” he said finally.

[You can’t win a fight by only defending,] Novelty scoffed. [I don’t really understand this weird divide between mental attacks and defenses you insist on. Striking back is a crucial part of any worthwhile defense. Even a weak counter-attack forces your opponent to spend some time and focus on their defenses and weakens their own attack.]

“I guess I keep forgetting that psychic powers aren’t discrete spells, but more of a manifold manifestation of a single holistic ability,” Zorian admitted. “Still, retaliation doesn’t have to be mental – if I could stop your mental attacks long enough, I could just punch you or cast a spell on you to make you stop. Considering I know nothing about telepathic combat, that’s probably the smartest option for me anyway. And that brings me to my proposition – I want to see how my magical defenses fare against your capabilities. I’m going to cast a few mind shields and you’re going to do your best to take them apart. What do you say?”

[Honored matriarch gave me strict instructions about when I can progress with your lessons,] Novelty said hesitantly.

No doubt accompanied by strict instruction about what she wasn’t allowed to teach him at all. Zorian was under no illusion that the aranea intended to teach him anything but a small fraction of their psychic skills. While the aranea seemed to worship their ability in some sense, and sought to encourage its spread among humanity, they clearly regarded most of it as a personal secret. Hell, some of the things the matriarch told him heavily implied they kept some things secret even from each other, never mind from outsiders. Not to mention it would be rather foolish of the matriarch to teach Zorian how to do some things, since he could promptly use those skills against her interests. For instance, he was quite sure that Novelty got strongly worded instructions not to tell him anything about memory manipulation, since that would allow him to mess around with the matriarch’s memory packet and potentially feed her forged information.

Still, Zorian was fine with that. He already got more out of the aranea than he thought he would have, and in case he ever got greedy for more than the matriarch was willing to provide? Well, there were more aranea than the ones beneath Cyoria, and Novelty made it clear they didn’t really talk to each other much. If he traded for a single secret with ten different groups, he could easily amass far more knowledge than any one group would be comfortable with him having… for additional irony, he might even trade them a secret he got from one of the other groups he traded with. It was a classical trick that Ikosians used when dealing with tribal groups, and the time loop only made it easier.

But if he ever wanted to do such a thing, he needed to have some way of defending his mind. He got the impression that aranean tribes outside of Cyoria weren’t nearly as friendly as the matriarch and her tribe, and mind effects transferred across restarts. The matriarch promised to teach him ‘the basics of telepathic combat’, which he translated as ‘inadequate to threaten us, but good enough to ward off cranium rats and random mind mages’, so he needed to know how human mind magic fared against your average aranea.

“We aren’t ‘progressing my lessons’, because you’re not going to teach me anything,” Zorian insisted. “It’s just an experiment. I want to see how my spells fare against you.”

[Alright, I’m totally game, then!] Novelty agreed, suddenly enthusiastic. [But, uh, you’re not allowed to attack me physically in response, okay?]

“That would kind of defeat the purpose of the experiment,” agreed Zorian.

[Right. So are we assuming I’m attacking from an ambush or that I’m pressed for time?] Novelty asked.

“The difference being?”

[Well, if I was attacking from an ambush, I would try to simply bypass your shield entirely through superior skill. It’s very effective when it works, but slow to set up, so it doesn’t work if the target isn’t either too busy with something to deal with me or unaware of the attempt. On the other hand, if time is of essence I’d just batter down the shields with brute force. It’s faster but more mana expensive. Oh, and it’s kind of hard to judge the exact amount of force needed to break through a defense without also damaging the mind it was defending so, uh… let’s just assume I’m attacking from ambush, okay?]

“Yes, let’s,” Zorian deadpanned.

The next hour was as frustrating as it was instructive. Novelty took the whole thing as a game, improving as time went on, despite Zorian’s futile attempts to refine his defenses through repeated castings and spell combinations. It was rather embarrassing to see the over-excitable, scatterbrained aranea go through his spells like they didn’t exist in 30 seconds flat. Granted, those 30 seconds would be enough for him to incinerate her in real life, but that presumed he was in position to do so, and that might be an unwarranted assumption. What if she was hidden from him? What if she was behind some kind of wards? What if she wasn’t the only attacker?

But a little embarrassment was worth it. He now knew that his best defense against aranea (and other psychics, he supposed) was actually the basic mind shield spell. Other, more sophisticated spells couldn’t seem to cope against Novelty’s telepathic attacks.

[Most of the spells you used were really easy to trick and bypass with a few feints and a bit of careful timing,] Novelty explained. [They were all based on simple defense patterns and always reacted the same to my attacks. That magic shell you used to surround your mind with, though… it’s such a crude thing, but I have to admit it gave me trouble. No patterns or anything fancy, just a solid, unyielding mental barrier. I don’t think I’d be able to bypass it at all if you hadn’t kept messing up the spell every time you cast it.]

“I was messing it up?” asked Zorian in surprise.

[Yeah. The shell had these minute imperfections in it that I used to slip past it. I don’t think those were supposed to be there,] Novelty said.

Hmm, minute imperfections, she said? Sounded like a normal result of a usual spell boundary. Very few mages could cast a spell flawlessly, and they rarely needed to – minute imperfections rarely mattered unless you were dealing with very special circumstances.

Apparently this was one of those special circumstances. Zorian suppressed a sigh – he could already hear the ghostly voice of Xvim in his head lecturing him about the failures of today’s mages and the need to practice until you could do the spells right instead of good enough.

In retrospect, he was just asking for trouble with that line of thought.

- break -

When Zorian arrived at his weekly session with Xvim, he fully expected to get an hour of his usual crap from Xvim… which in this particular restart meant taking a bundle of thin sticks and trying to incinerate one of the sticks without singeing the rest of them or burning his hand in the process. Admittedly, Xvim was staring at him pretty hard when he came in, but Xvim did a lot of really weird things during their sessions.

Zorian hadn’t even taken a seat before Xvim decided to speak to him.

“I have heard you have been casting fireballs,” Xvim said. “Is that true?”

Zorian forcibly stopped himself from scowling at the man. Him making a comment like that was never a good sign – Xvim was never impressed with anything Zorian did, so no doubt he found something objectionable in his combat practice with Taiven. How the hell did the man even find out about that?

Xvim’s face told him nothing, and Zorian had already tried to use his rudimentary empathy on him to no avail, trying to see what made the annoying man tick. Xvim had an incredible control over his emotions, and virtually nothing fazed him or truly set him off.

“I can cast the spell, yes,” Zorian said carefully, as if talking slower would help him evade whatever minefield Xvim set up for him with his question. “Admittedly only at minimum power, but-”

“So that’s a no, then,” Xvim deadpanned. He stared at him, as if challenging Zorian to contradict him. Fortunately, Zorian was far too wise to get worked up over Xvim’s proclamations at this point, so they simply stared at each other silence for a few moments. Eventually, Xvim broke the stare-down with an overdramatic sigh. “Mages these days, always rushing into things half-baked. I expected better from you. There is nothing wrong with being interested in combat magic, but immediately going for the flashiest, highest rated spell in your reach is unwise. A half-powered fireball is no fireball at all. You should have concentrated on building a solid base until you could do it properly.”

“Well,” Zorian said calmly, “why not show me how it’s done, then?”

In response, Xvim wordlessly drew a stack of cards from his drawer and threw them at him. Zorian instinctively caught them before they could collide with his head, too used to his antics to be surprised at the move.

“Cards?” he asked, turning them over in his hands. They looked like regular playing cards, except their faces were replaced with squares, lines, circles and other geometrical shapes.

“Cards,” Xvim confirmed. “Specifically, cards made out of mana absorbing material. The seemingly ornamental sigils on the corners expel any mana the cards gather, radiating it away into the surroundings. It takes a lot of mana to affect them in any way.”

“And I’ll be affecting them?” Zorian guessed.

“You’ll try, I’m sure,” Xvim said airily, pointedly rearranging the pens on his table instead of looking at Zorian. “They’re very hard to affect for mages of such meager skills as yours are. To make the story short, you’ll be trying to burn the shapes painted on the cards – and only the shapes. You may begin when you feel ready.”

Zorian stared at the cards for a moment. He suspected he knew what the point of this exercise was - he had to use a lot of mana, and he had to use it instantly or the corner glyphs would simply radiate his mana away. That was pretty much the basic challenge of all combat magic: shape a lot of mana quickly without messing up the spell boundary too much.

So he took a deep breath, picked a card that looked easiest to him (it was just a circle in the middle, how hard could that be?) and poured a sizeable chunk of mana into his first attempt.

Other than the corner glyphs glowing a little, nothing happened.

Damn it. This just might be a little harder than he thought it would be.

- break -

After failing to affect the cards a few times and then overdoing it and burning down a few cards to cinders, singing his fingers in the process, Zorian finally managed to burn some blurry shapes that were clearly inspired by what was drawn on them instead of being an irregular hole burned through the center of the card. Predictably, Xvim has some very disparaging things to say about that.

Eventually, Zorian ran out of mana and had to stop. What kind of shaping exercise was so mana intensive you can actually run out as you practice? The Xvim kind, apparently. Instead of simply sending him away, though, Xvim then proceeded to lecture him about the proper way of gathering ambient mana. Apparently there was a way to assimilate ambient mana faster if you sat completely still and focused on doing absolutely nothing else. So not very useful, all things considered, but probably crucial if he intended to complete Xvim’s newest exercise in any sort of reasonable time-frame.

Then, as a parting remark, Xvim casually remarked that they were going to continue their lesson tomorrow. That tomorrow wasn’t even a school day didn’t bother Xvim in the slightest.

“Good,” Xvim concluded. “We have a whole day, then. We will need the time from what I saw today.”

It wasn’t an isolated occurrence. From that day on, Xvim insisted on practice sessions every single day, monopolizing every bit of free time Zorian had. Why did Xvim suddenly decide to do that, when he usually never interacted with him outside their assigned meeting times? Hell if Zorian knew. It was certainly annoying, though.

The aranea, on the other hand, had their own frustrations. Trying to track down the ward-breaker that hired Taiven’s group to recover the watch turned out to be fairly easy, but getting access to him was anything but. In addition to being good at breaking and analyzing wards, the man was also good at building them, and he was a very capable mage to boot. The aranea lost two of their members trying to corner him and eventually gave up on him for that particular restart, focusing on other leads for the moment.

They still did their best to counter the invaders during the summer festival, of course.

The next two restarts were much the same – the aranea gathered information about the invaders, sometimes asking Zorian to speak for them if they had to interact with someone openly, and started a limited assassination campaign among the cultists and other invasion collaborators that they managed to identify. Zorian learned combat magic, aranea mind arts, and tried to survive Xvim’s lessons without punching the man in the face. Their efforts were steadily bearing fruit, with the invasion going more and more haywire with each subsequent restart, and the matriarch hoped their mysterious third time traveler was going to show up soon.

The biggest surprise, to Zorian, was that Novelty actually remembered their interactions in previous restarts. Apparently the matriarch wasn’t monopolizing the memory transfer like Zorian thought she would, and was instead giving him memories of 6 different araneas in that memory packet of hers. Novelty, being something of Zorian’s personal trainer by now, was deemed important enough to be included in that elite company, something the young spider was very smug about.

Now, though, Zorian was feeling it was time for a change of pace. Two restarts full of Xvim were enough for him, and Taiven had taught him most of what she knew about combat magic anyway.

He knocked on the door to Ilsa’s office and waited for her to invite him in.

- break -

“Good morning, mister Kazinski,” Ilsa said with a hint of amusement. “I haven’t been expecting you until Friday. I suppose you’ve heard some stories about your mentor, then?”

“No, I already know what kind of person Xvim is. It’s not why I’m here,” Zorian said. “No, I’m here because I want to learn how to teleport.”

Ilsa blinked in surprise. “That’s… quite ambitious. Leaving aside the question as to why I should spend my time teaching you that, what makes you think you’re even capable of casting such a spell? Even the simplest of teleport spells are very difficult.”

“A fair question,” Zorian admitted. “How about a demonstration?”

“By all means,” Ilsa laughed, motioning him to go ahead. Zorian didn’t need empathy to see she didn’t think he was capable of impressing her.

Well then – challenge accepted.

Every difficult shaping exercise, every complicated spell he learned over the past two years in the time loop – he showcased all of them. Every written test or theoretical question she fielded against him he countered with a perfect answer – sometimes because he honestly knew the topic, and sometimes because she tended to ask the same questions each time he tried to impress her. And then, when she was still reeling from the realization that he was skilled enough to graduate from the academy right at that moment if he wanted, he pulled out several magic objects from his backpack and started explaining his spell formula experiments to her. While not an official spell formula teacher, Zorian knew from previous restarts that she had very good knowledge of the field, and could appreciate the difficulty of feats he was showing her.

“I’m surprised you haven’t applied for a transfer to a tier 1 group with these kinds of skills,” Ilsa remarked when he was finally done.

Ah yes, the tier 1 groups – the academy’s answer to students too advanced for the normal curriculum. Sadly, the prestige of belonging to one of those groups meant that many people did everything in their power to place their child into one of them, and that meant the actual lessons couldn’t be that much more advanced from normal ones, else all the people who bought or otherwise arranged for their presence there couldn’t keep up. Zorian had heard all sorts of things about those groups, good or bad, but the general picture seemed to be of a bunch of social climbers looking down on everyone else. Nothing that Zorian wanted to be a part of.

“I believe I can get more things done through independent study,” Zorian said. “If I truly thought my classes had nothing to offer me I would just test out.”

“Don’t be too hasty,” Ilsa warned. “I’m sure you can find the academy resources useful for another year or so. You aren’t that advanced.”

The academy didn’t like it when people tested out. They publically prided themselves on being able to help even adult mages, never mind gifted children. Graduating early implied that the student had nothing left to learn from the academy, and was considered a bit of a slap to the face on behalf of the student. You didn’t get any money back for finishing early, either.

All in all, Zorian didn’t really intend to test out – that wouldn’t get him anything except create bad blood between him and the academy. Still, he always found that sprinkling some light threats into negotiations helped the other side take him more seriously.

Ilsa continued to think in silence for a while, rhythmically tapping her pencil on top of a folder full of written tests that Zorian had speedily filled out earlier in the meeting. Zorian didn’t interrupt her, although he considered the long silence a bad sign. In all likelihood this attempt was a waste and he would have to try another approach in the next resta-

“Alright, here is my offer,” Ilsa said suddenly. “I will transfer your mentorship from Xvim to myself. I will give you instruction in advanced aspects of illusionism, alteration, animation and conjuration. If you impress me with your dedication, I will then include lesser dimensionalism spells in that list, and if you prove yourself adept at those… then I will teach you the basic teleport spell.”

Zorian blinked. What? That was way more than he asked for! Not that he was complaining, but…

“That sounded better than I hoped for,” Zorian said. “What’s the catch?”

“Well first of all I’m expecting you to be my personal assistant,” Ilsa said. “I’ve been trying to get one for the past two years, but the headmaster refuses to pay for their salary and finding a skilled person willing to work for free is surprisingly difficult. Anyway, you’ll mostly be dealing with the large amount of tests and homework I get every single day, and I may also ask you to take over some of my teaching duties to first year classes. Or any other random task I think of that I consider below me, really.”

Annoying, but a fair price for what she was offering. In fact, this whole thing sounded remarkably like-

“And you’ll officially become my apprentice,” Ilsa continued. “If I am going to teach you advanced magic and trust you with my work, I want to have some kind of legal hold over you.”

…like that. Normally Zorian would be very leery of signing an apprentice contract with someone he barely knew, considering their main purpose was to screw the apprentice over if they went against their agreement with their mentor, but this contract was only going to last until the end of the restart so what the hell.

“Oh, and you’ll be taking over the position of class representative for your group,” Ilsa suddenly said.

Zorian winced. Not only was that a thankless, horrible job, it was also already taken.

“Akoja is going to be devastated,” Zorian mumbled. He felt kind of bad at stealing her position, especially since he didn’t actually want it in the first place, but there was no way he was missing this chance.

Ilsa laughed. “Zorian, the reason I’m giving you the position is that Akoja doesn’t want it anymore. She says she hates the position – that everyone shuns her because of it and that I should give it to someone else. Unfortunately, I haven’t received any offers to switch with her. Not from anyone I trust, anyway.” She gave Zorian a knowing look. “You were one of the people she recommended for the position, but I didn’t even bother asking you about it. Everything I heard about you suggested you wouldn’t accept the position.”

“And you were absolutely right,” Zorian agreed, still in a little shock. Akoja didn’t want to be the class representative? But the girl lived for that stuff! And anyway, if she didn’t want to do it then why did she perform it with such dedication? If Zorian was stuck in a job he hated, he would do as little as possible, or even mess up deliberately so Ilsa would feel pressured to replace him as soon as possible. Why couldn’t Akoja do the same? “The only reason I’m accepting this now is because your offer is so good.”

“So we have a deal, then?” Ilsa asked for confirmation.

“Yes, but I have a question and a demand,” said Zorian. “First, why do you want to teach me those particular subjects? And second, I want to learn the teleport spell before the summer festival.”

“I somehow doubt you’ll manage to master the prerequisites for the teleportation spell in little less than a month,” Ilsa said. “But in the highly theoretical case you actually do so, I have no problem fulfilling your demand. Why are you so dead-set about that spell?”

“It’s a bit of a dream of mine to be able to do that,” Zorian shrugged. “In my mind, teleportation has always been one of the ur-examples of what a proper mage can do, should be capable of.”

“Interesting. Out of curiosity, what are the rest of the things a proper mage can do?” asked Ilsa.

“Make a force field, create a magic item, produce a fireball, repair broken objects and turn invisible,” Zorian said. “I can already do the first four, and the fifth one is illegal without special permits.”

He was already working on acquiring an invisibility spell anyway, but she didn’t have to know that.

Ilsa gave him a knowing look and Zorian would have been afraid she was reading his thoughts if he weren’t sure he could detect any casual intrusion into his own mind.

“To answer your first question, I chose those disciplines because they’re my own specialty,” Ilsa said. “It’s is only proper for an apprentice to learn his master’s specialty, is it not?”

“Sure,” Zorian agreed. “I’m not sure what all of those things have in common though. Aren’t specialties supposed to be more focused?”

“Well, when I was a young mage, I too had a bit of a dream,” Ilsa said. “Specifically, I wanted to master true conjuration.”

Zorian blinked. “As in, creation of real matter out of thin air? Isn’t that a myth?”

“That’s the current Academy stance, yes,” Ilsa agreed. “Pre-Cataclysm sources claimed that powerful mages could manage the feat, but all the spells to do so have been lost and no one has been able to recreate them in modern times. Many mages think they never existed and the old records are making things up or describing something other than actual matter creation. Anyway, as a young mage, it had been my dream to recreate those spells, so I studied anything I thought could be a path towards that goal. Modern conjuration basically involves making solid illusions, so it was somewhat natural to start with illusionism and then progress to conjuration. And then, since true conjuration involves working with real matter, I moved onto alteration spells dealing with fabrication of items.”

“And… did you have any success?” asked Zorian curiously.

“Depends on your definition of success,” Ilsa shrugged. “My ultimate goal was to design a spell that would summon material from somewhere else, without the caster having to know exactly where the materials are coming from. That was how I imagined ancient Ikosians could ‘fake’ matter creation. I sort of succeeded, but the spell I made only works in a specially prepared room and the mana cost of the spell varies wildly from casting to casting, depending on what I’m trying to conjure. And there was that embarrassing incident with the gold creation part of the experiment swiping these ancient coins from a nearby museum…”

She shook her head. “A story for another time. I have to get to class soon, anyway. I’ll prepare an apprentice contract for you to sign tomorrow so be sure to drop by when you get the time.”

- break -

The next five restarts were both hectic and boring. Hectic in that there was always something that needed to be done, and boring in the sense that little of it was truly novel. He steadily improved his various skills, the aranea were getting highly adept at countering the invaders in various ways, and Zach seemed to have finally accepted that something highly unusual was going on in the background, and it wasn’t caused by him.

There was little chance of Zach identifying Zorian as the cause of the changes, since the sheer magnitude of them tended to drown out everything Zorian personally did. The aranea always started each restart very aggressively, giving anonymous tips to the Cyoria’s police department, assassinating a few people, and even spreading a few rumors around. The result was that by the time Zorian entered his first class, the changes had already propagated throughout the whole city, academy teachers and students included. Zach didn’t appear to suspect Zorian as the ultimate cause, or any other classmate for that matter.

Zorian was starting to agree with Zach on that regard – whoever the third time traveler was, he certainly wasn’t in their class. Zorian had, through various excuses, talked to all of them – it helped that he spent the past five restarts as the new class representative, so he had plenty of excuses for such – using his slowly improving empathy to see whether they reacted with shock or surprise when he dropped some of the more suggestive sentences that would only make sense to a time-looping person. He found nothing to implicate any of them.

All in all, things were going pretty well in Zorian’s opinion. The last restart was especially good as far as Zorian was concerned – he had finally managed to learn the teleport spell from Ilsa, Zach was actually starting to get smart about countering the invaders instead of simply trying to take them all on through his combat skills, and the last invasion attempt failed to conquer the main academy building or the student shelters because the aranea somehow managed to influence academy leadership into adjusting their warding scheme.

But the matriarch was getting impatient. Something was making her more and more nervous with each passing restart, and she refused to tell him what, giving flimsy excuses every time he asked. She seemed to be focusing most of her energies on some kind of personal project, which she described as ‘information gathering’ and ‘following a hunch’, and whatever results she was getting were clearly disturbing her. Zorian strongly suspected she had discovered some kind of vital information about the nature of the time loop, and she refused to share it with him for whatever reason. He was honestly kind of bitter about that. What could possibly be more disturbing than what they already knew about the phenomenon?

Regardless, the matriarch was insistent that the third time traveler had to be found, and the sooner the better. Once Zorian confirmed that they weren’t in his class, she became convinced they, like Zach, weren’t even present in the city most of the time. In all likelihood they simply gave critical information to the invaders at the start of the restart and then went to do their own thing. If they wanted to get their attention, the invasion would probably have to be a spectacular flop.

Accordingly, the matriarch laid out her plan for the next restart, one that would definitely be impossible to ignore…

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