Soul Web


Zorian stomped into his room, closing the door behind him with way more force than necessary. He should have known he wouldn’t find out anything about soul bonds that he hadn’t already known, but it was still annoying to come back empty-handed after spending an entire day in the library.

The books all repeated the same warnings he received back in his first year: soul bonds were a dangerous and poorly understood branch of magic, capable of causing some pretty horrifying side-effects if used recklessly. Every once in a while some ill-informed couple decide that soul-bonding themselves together would be the most romantic thing ever, only for everything to end up in tears and lawsuits a few months later when complications surface. The main issue was that one of the participants usually started to mentally and spiritually dominate the other, making them more like themselves in mind and soul, not to mention disturbingly obedient and deferential. This was a good thing when binding animals as familiars, since it was almost always the animal that got dominated by the human, and animals actually tended to benefit from such domination by developing higher intelligence and better control over their magical abilities (if they had any). Sentient beings usually had issues with someone magically subverting their entire personality and worldview, however. At least until the soul bond finished, turning them into a servile clone, that is.

Zorian ran a trembling hand through his hair and started to clean his glasses with the hem of his shirt to calm himself down. He really, really hoped he was wrong and that there was no soul bond between him and Zach. Zach had 6 times larger mana reserves than Zorian’s theoretical maximum, was naturally more outgoing and confident, and – thanks to being in the time loop far longer than Zorian – was probably decades older than him too. No points for guessing who’d be the dominant one between the two of them!

The worst thing about it was that he couldn’t even go to someone for help. He was pretty sure the soul bond, or whatever it was, was responsible for him looping around along with Zach. If he asked someone for help, they’d insist on severing the bond (an understandable sentiment and something he’d eagerly agree to in normal circumstances), which would cause him to lose everything he had gained inside the time loop, memories included, once Zach started over at the end of the month.

Yeah, he was totally screwed.

He took a couple of deep breaths and put his glasses back on. Maybe he was looking at things too fatalistically. Considering the sheer size of disparity between him and Zach, he should have experienced some pretty massive personality shifts by now, and he didn’t notice anything of the sort. He certainly wasn’t feeling submissive towards anyone, least of all Zach. Obviously things weren’t as bad as they seemed. He could very well be overreacting and overlooking some other, perfectly reasonable explanation for the unscheduled restart…

Someone was knocking. Who could possibly-

Oh. Right. Taiven.

He sighed heavily. Just what he needed right now. The knocking turned into banging, prompting him to finally open the door.

“Hi Roach!”

“Hi Taiven,” Zorian said in a slightly suffering tone. “How nice of you to visit me. Do you want to come in?”

Taiven promptly did what she always did once he let her inside – she jumped on his bed and made herself comfortable. Zorian shrugged and went after her. Best to get it over with quickly.

“Didn’t you graduate?” he asked. “You said you were going to go into exploration after you graduate, what happened to that?”

She gave him a sour look. “It’s not that simple. No expedition is going to take a complete beginner like me with them. I need an established explorer to take me as an apprentice. I’m working on it.”

“Funny, I heard you’re working as a class assistant to Nirthak,” Zorian remarked. “Isn’t that going to interfere with searching for another master?”

“Well, sort of,” she admitted. “But I’m not literally searching for another job at this point. I’m actually trying to build up my reputation and get people to notice me by doing missions and such. In fact, that’s what I came to talk to you about – I’d like you to join me and a couple of others on a job tomorrow.”

“Sounds suspicious,” Zorian said. “What could a measly third year help you with?”

“Um, fill out our numbers?” Taiven answered. “We can’t take the job until there are 4 or more of us, and we’re one short of that.”

“Well, why does the job require four people?” asked Zorian, knowing from previous restarts that this was the fastest avenue to shut down Taiven’s excuses. “Surely the employer didn’t put that there just to be mean to groups like yours.”

“It’s supposedly dangerous,” Taiven huffed, folding her arms across her chest. “The old man is overreacting. The spiders aren’t even that big from what he told us.”

“Spiders?” prodded Zorian.

“Yeah,” Taiven said hesitantly, apparently realizing she probably shouldn’t have mentioned that. “Spiders. You know, hairy eight-legged-”

“Taiven,” Zorian warned.

“Oh come on Roach, I’m begging you!” Taiven whined. “I swear its not as dangerous as it sounds! We’ve been in the tunnels hundreds of times and it wasn’t that dangerous at all! We can protect you easily!”

“Hundreds of times?” asked Zorian dubiously.

“Well, a dozen times at least,” she relented.

Zorian was just about to tell her no, like he usually did at this point, but then he stopped himself. He probably wouldn’t be able to do anything remotely productive for at least a week, what with the possibility of a soul bond between him and Zach weighting heavily on his mind and all. A nice distracting stroll through the sewers might be just what the doctor ordered, so to speak.

“Sure,” he said.

“Really!?” she squealed.

“Yes, really,” confirmed Zorian. “Just tell me where to meet you tomorrow before I change my mind.”

A few minutes later Taiven left, thanking him profusely and kissing him on the cheek ‘for being a friend’ before running off to… wherever she had been going, he supposed. He didn’t ask, being too shocked by her kiss, innocuous as it may have been. He was a bit angry at himself for being so affected by a silly kiss on the cheek, but he supposed he shouldn’t be too hard on his subconsciousness. She was his former crush, after all.

He decided he had enough of everything for the day and drank one of the sleeping potions he kept in his stash. Hopefully things would seem clearer after a good night’s rest.

- break -

The next morning he woke up a bit more level-headed than he had been after his visit to the library, and things didn’t seem as hopeless as they had the day before. He had been jumping to conclusions, and needed more information. He was tempted to skip classes for the day to have another go at the library, but he suspected that he lacked both the research skills and the access level to properly tackle a restricted topic like soul bonds. And besides, there was someone in his class he absolutely had to talk to – Briam, the guy with a fire drake familiar. Surely someone who is already soul-bonded to another, even if it was to a magical animal instead of another human, could tell him more about those blasted things.

“I see your family has given you a fire drake of your own,” he said conversationally, sitting down beside Briam and ignoring the threatening hissing of the fire drake. For some reason, the ill-tempered beast never saw fit to attack him in previous restarts, so he didn’t think it would start now. “Is he your familiar already?”

“Yes,” Briam confirmed, clearly pleased with that. “I bonded with him just this summer actually. A bit strange, at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it.”

“Strange?” asked Zorian. “How so?”

“Well, it’s mostly the bond being there, you know?” Briam said.

“So the bond can be felt?” Zorian said speculatively, trying not to let his excitement show. He didn’t feel anything. “Is that normal? Can everyone who is soul-bonded feel their bond?”

“No, not everyone,” Briam chuckled. “Only a tiny minority can, and nobody is sure why. I can, though. I guess I’m lucky that way.”

Zorian suppressed a scowl. He had been hoping that him not being able to sense any bonds meant there was none, but apparently that was no proof. Damn.

“You know,” Zorian tried, “I’ve always had an… academic interest in familiars and soul bonds…”

Thankfully, Briam didn’t find Zorian’s interest in any way suspicious and was happy to indulge Zorian’s curiosity. What Briam told him was interesting, to say the least. According to Briam, the soul bond spell was actually a ritual of some sort, one that took at least 10 minutes to properly cast, and usually more. Not something you cast as a regular invocation. Also, even the most oblivious of participants tended to feel something after a few weeks, after the bond had properly anchored itself to the participants.

There were a lot of things Zorian had experienced so far in the time loop that could qualify as signs of a developing soul bond, but it was hard to say how much of that was simply a consequence of the crazy situation he had found himself in. The effects were just too weak compared to what Briam told him should happen. His mana reserves were slightly larger than they had been at the start of the time loop, for instance, but the increase was nothing special. It could just as easily be a consequence of his regular combat magic practice instead of being caused by the soul bond trying to twist his soul to be more in line with Zach’s. The spell that the lich cast on them definitely wasn’t a ritual either… but then again, it was a lich. Who knew what kind of magic a creature like that had at its disposal?

All in all, it would appear he was lucky – the link between him and Zach was either very weak or of a different type. Or perhaps it was only half-formed? According to Briam, the bond required physical proximity and a lot of personal interaction between participants to fully mature. It was why he carried his fire drake everywhere he went at this point in time. Considering he only interacted with Zach in one of the restarts so far, and that the boy spent virtually all of the restarts away from Cyoria, the bond may have never gotten the chance to solidify. If so, he must never allow it to fully form – he would avoid contact with the other time traveler from now on until he could figure out more about what was happening.

Which, admittedly, could take a while. Hopefully his idea of avoiding Zach as much as possible would keep him from being overwhelmed by the bond in the meantime. He really ought to make a learning plan for himself. So far, he had been learning things rather haphazardly. There was no hurry, as far as he knew, and he didn’t know where to begin anyway. Also, he had wanted to grow a little as a mage before breaking out of the time loop, since he would never get an opportunity like this again. That kind of disorganized approach was no longer appropriate, however – he wanted the soul bond broken as soon as possible, and that meant finding a way out of the time loop as quickly as possible.

But that would have to wait for another time, because he had a meeting with Taiven and her friends scheduled for the evening. Why did he agree to this again? Oh yes, Taiven picked a really inconvenient moment and he had a momentary bout of insanity. He should have at least gotten some favor out of her for doing this. Oh well, live and learn.

Taiven had chosen an annoyingly distant meeting place, so Zorian had a long trek across in front of him. Apparently there was a meeting spot for chess players in one of Cyoria’s parks, and one of Taiven’s friends was a regular visitor. He never actually visited that particular park, but the path towards it was somewhat familiar and he couldn’t figure out why.

He realized why it was familiar a few minutes later when he stumbled on small bridge just inside the park. This was where he had met that crying little girl whose bicycle fell into the stream, back before he was aware of the time loop. Come to think of it, he never visited this place after that, did he? There just wasn’t any reason to, since he knew in advance there were obstacles blocking his path if he went this way. He peered curiously at the section of the creek beneath he bridge, trying to see if the bike was still there. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t. Yesterday’s heavy rain had swelled the creek into a raging torrent, and the bicycle was, no doubt, picked up by the currents and swept along.

The little girl wasn’t there this time, of course, but that didn’t mean he was alone on the bridge. There was a small-ish cat, probably a very young one, looking forlornly at the raging waters of the stream. Zorian didn’t generally stress himself about the plight of animals, but when the cat turned to look at him and their eyes met, he was assaulted by an intense feeling of sadness and loss. Unnerved by the experience, he picked up his pace, hurriedly leaving the strange cat behind him.

Finally, after nearly 30 minutes of wandering the park, he found the meeting place. Taiven should really learn how to give proper direction one of these days. It was a rather peaceful place, though populated almost entirely by old people. As in, really old people. Taiven’s group of teenagers stuck out like a sore thumb, but none of the old geezers surrounding them seemed to mind so Zorian decided not to let it bother him and cautiously approached.

Taiven’s other friends were a pair of gruff, muscular boys that looked more at home in the boxing ring than in a mage school. One of them was currently frowning at the chess board in front of him, contemplating his next move, while Taiven and the other boy sat on each side of him. Taiven was clearly impatient and bored out of her skull, at one point actually trying to snatch a figurine from the board to pass the time with, only to get foiled by the players. The other boy was more relaxed, lazily observing everything around him like a guard dog. It was this other boy who noticed him and pointed him out to the other two.

“Roach!” Taiven waved. “Thank the gods, I was starting to fear you’d never show up!”

“I wasn’t late,” Zorian protested.

“Well you sure developed a habit of cutting it close since the last time we saw each other,” she accused. “But anyway. Roach, I’d like you to meet my two minions, Grunt and Mumble. Grunt, Mumble, this is my good friend Roach.”

Zorian rolled his eyes. At least it’s not just him who gets a stupid nickname.

“Damn it, I told you not to introduce us like that!” One of the boys protested. It was more out of force of habit than because he honestly expected Taiven to change, if Zorian was reading things correctly. He sighed and turned towards Zorian. “Hi kid. I’m Urik, and the guy playing chess is Oran. Thanks for helping us out like this. We’ll make sure nothing happens to you, so don’t worry about anything.”

The chess player grunted, possibly in agreement. That must be Grunt, then.

“I’m Zorian,” he spoke back. The guy never told him their last names, so why should he tell them his?

“Right!” said Taiven enthusiastically. “Introductions are over, so let’s get going, shall we?”

“Not until I finish this round,” the chess player said flatly.

Taiven’s shoulders slumped in defeat. “I hate that game,” Taiven whined. “Find yourself a seat Roach. This could take a while.”

Zorian clacked his tongue in annoyance. For once Zorian empathized with Taiven’s impatience. He wasn’t a big fan of chess either.

- break -

The Dungeon was an extremely dangerous place. Also known as the Underworld, the Labyrinth, and a million other names, it was a staggeringly extensive network of caves and tunnels that ran beneath the surface of the world. At first glance, the place seemed like every mage’s dream come true – ambient mana levels increased the deeper one descended into the endless depths of the Dungeon cave system, and the lower levels were practically swimming with useful minerals with fantastic magical properties. Unfortunately, mages were just one of the many creatures that thrived in such an environment. Monsters of all sorts lived in the tunnels, and the deeper one went the stronger and more alien they became. Even the greatest of archmages had to take care not to go too deep when exploring the Dungeon, lest they come face to face with something they had no hope of defeating.

Cyoria, like many other cities, took advantage of the Dungeon beneath it when the city was being built. The topmost portion of the Dungeon was cleared of anything aggressive or particularly dangerous and then systematically walled off from the deeper levels. These tunnels were then modified into shelters, storage spaces, flood-control systems… and the city sewer system. Human settlements had used the Dungeon as a sewer for so long that several species of oozes and other monsters adapted specifically to take advantage of this unique ecological niche, and humans often transplanted them from one city to the next when they built new settlements. Of course, the separation of this topmost layer from the deeper parts of the Dungeon was never 100% effective – especially since many Dungeon denizens were very capable diggers. Regular maintaince was required to keep the whole thing functioning properly.

Cyoria’s Dungeon boundary was widely known to have more holes than a sponge. It was a fairly young city, and the local Dungeon was particularly extensive. It grew too big, too fast, and a proper separation between layers was never finalized. That was probably why the invaders managed to smuggle an entire army of monsters into the city by having them pour straight out of the tunnels – though how exactly the invaders mapped out the Deep Dungeon well enough to find a route big enough for an army to pass through is anyone’s guess. Just one more example how ridiculously well prepared the enemy was, Zorian supposed.

Despite the obvious danger, Zorian wasn’t too worried about following Taiven into the tunnels. Cyoria’s underground wasn’t the safest place in the world, but it was by no means a certain death sentence either. And he doubted the invaders were currently in there, since a giant army of monsters living just beneath the city was absolutely impossible to hide, regardless of how good the invasion organizers were – they would have to navigate their route on the day of the invasion to avoid detection. He would feel better if he had a focusing item for his combat magic, of course, but that was beyond his reach at this point. Nora’s tutoring aside, he still wasn’t good enough with spell formulas to make one from scratch, and he couldn’t buy one without a permit.

Unfortunately, their employer didn’t seem to share Zorian’s confidence.

“This is the fourth member you found?” the old man demanded incredulously. “Did he even graduate yet?”

Zorian looked at the scowling man waving towards him in a dismissive manner and promptly decided he could understand Taiven’s irritation with the guy. If the guy was so worried about their ability to deliver results, why didn’t he hire an actual professional to recover his damn watch? Oh, that’s right – he didn’t want to pay a professional’s wage! Frankly, Taiven and her group were probably the best he could hope to get, considering where he looked for help.

The job itself was simple enough – the old man lost a pocket watch in the tunnels while fleeing from a duo of giant spiders, and now they had to get it back. The old man tried to retrieve it, but when he came back to the spot where he had dropped it, it was no longer there. Personally, Zorian was sure it was eaten by an ooze or some other metal-eating scavenger living in the tunnels, but the old man insisted it was still intact and in the spiders’ possession. How he knew that was anyone’s guess. What would a bunch of spiders, giant or otherwise, do with a watch? Were they like magpies, collecting shiny items just because?

“Nope,” Zorian said, completely unrepentant. “I’m a third year.”

“A third year!” the man squawked. “And you think you can survive down there? Do you even know any combat magic?”

“Sure do,” confirmed Zorian immediately. “Magic missile, shield and flamethrower.”

“That’s all?”

“You get what you pay for,” Zorian shrugged.

“Look, what’s your problem?” Taiven interrupted. “Its four of us versus two large-ish spiders. I alone would be enough for that!”

“Just because I only encountered two doesn’t mean there isn’t more of them,” the man grunted. “I don’t want you to stumble on a whole hive of those things and get slaughtered. Those things are fast. And stealthy – I didn’t even notice them until they were right on top of me. I’m lucky to be alive, talking to you four.”

“Well there’s four pair of eyes among us,” Taiven reasoned. “We’ll watch each other’s backs, so good luck on them sneaking up on us. I don’t suppose you’ll finally tell us what’s so important about that watch you lost?”

“It’s none of your business,” the man shot back. “It’s not valuable or anything, I just have sentimental reasons for wanting it back.” He shook his head. “I suppose the kid is right. I got what I could, considering the reward I’m offering. Just… don’t get careless. I don’t want the lives of a bunch of children weighting on my soul when I finally die.”

A few minutes and a whole lot of pointless bickering later, Taiven finally led them all towards the nearby Dungeon entrance. There were guards stationed there but Taiven had a permit to go in and could bring people with her, so they were free to pass. That was reassuring at least – it meant someone in the permit office considered Taiven capable enough to keep relative non-combatants like himself safe down there. Apparently she hadn’t been talking completely out of her ass when she had said she could protect him.

The tunnels themselves were a lot less sinister than Zorian imagined, or at least this particular section was – smooth stone walls and nothing more threatening than rats wondering around. The stone covering the corridors reflected light pretty well, so the four floating lanterns they had hovering above them (Taiven insisted they all cast one and space them away from each other, so they wouldn’t be immediately plunged into darkness on the off chance they encountered something that could dispel them) illuminated the tunnels quite nicely. Unfortunately, there was no sign of either the missing watch or the giant spiders. Taiven seemed to think it would be easy to track down the spiders with a simple ‘locate creature’ spell, and was stumped when the spell – and all other divinations she tried, for that matter – came out empty.

As it turned out, Taiven and her two friends were more than a little specialized in combat magic, and didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about tracking down either the watch or the spiders once their rudimentary divination attempts failed. Eventually they settled on just wandering around, hoping they’d stumble on the spider’s lair, occasionally repeating the divinations with no effect. After about 2 hours of that, Zorian was ready to call it quits. He was just about to suggest they give up and come back tomorrow, when he suddenly felt very, very sleepy.

Being a mage required a great deal of mental discipline – shaping mana correctly required focus and ability to visualize the desired result with crystal clarity. As such, all mages were, to an extent, resistant to mind magic and other effects targeting the mind. It was the only reason why Zorian was still awake and desperately fighting the sleep spell, instead of collapsing on the ground in deep slumber. In front of him he saw Taiven and one of her friends sway on the spot as they tried to resist the spell as well, while the other boy already laid sprawled on the floor.

He struggled with the spell for a second or two, and then the sleep effect just… withdrew. Before he could do anything, he was forced on his knees by a stream of memories and images that bored themselves directly into his mind.

Confusion. A memory of him staring at a particularly baffling spell formula problem, tapping his pen against the table in frustration. An image of two floating balls of water connected by a collection of ever-shifting streams of water flowing from one orb to another. An alien memory of a war troll tearing through delicate white walls that seemed to be made solely out of cobwebs. A question.

[Are you-] the voice boomed in his mind, before collapsing into another psychedelic collection of images and alien memories. The deluge lessened for a moment, as if waiting for a response. Then it started again. Frustration. [I thought-] Brotherhood. Webs stretching across lightless chasms, orbs of light trapped within them. [-don’t understand me, do you?] Sadness. Pity. More frustration. Resignation.

The flow of images abruptly stopped assaulting his mind. Zorian clutched his head to lessen the raging headache pulsing inside his head and looked around. Taiven and her two friends were unconscious, but appeared to be unharmed. There was no trace of their attacker anywhere. He tried to wake them up, but they wouldn’t budge.

Deciding the best idea would be to get back to the surface before something decided to finish them off, Zorian promptly cast the floating disc spell and piled his three unconscious teammates on top of it before making a beeline towards the dungeon entrance.

He just hoped his head would stop killing him by tomorrow.

- break -

Zorian woke up very confused. A part of him was wondering what he was doing in a hospital of all things, while another part was surprised he hadn’t woken up back in Cirin with Kirielle wishing him a good morning, just like every time he started over. A few seconds later his mind cleared up and he remembered what had happened yesterday. He didn’t start over because he hadn’t died in the tunnels – he just had his mind scrambled. This was actually far more worrying than merely dying, since any damage to his mind carried over across restarts, but it would seem he didn’t suffer any permanent damage.

He vaguely remembered the doctor concluding the same when he was brought in yesterday, before shoving him into this room and telling him to sleep it off. Some doctor. He didn’t need a hospital for that. He wondered how Taiven and her two friends were fairing – they had been still completely comatose when he had stumbled out of the Dungeon entrance and the guards had rushed them all to the nearest hospital.

“Finally awake I see,” Ilsa’s said from the doorway. “Do you feel up to talking or should I come back later?”

“Miss Zileti?” Zorian asked. “What are you doing here?”

“As our student, the Academy is obliged to represent you in legal matters,” Ilsa said, approaching his bed. “This qualifies. How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Zorian shrugged. He didn’t even have a headache anymore. “I might as well go home once you finish questioning me.”

“Questioning you?” Ilsa asked. “It sounds almost sinister, the way you say it. Why would I be questioning you?”

“Err, well…” Zorian fumbled. “The police tend to be hard-asses towards witnesses in my experience. Just in case they’re hiding something and all that.”

For a moment Zorian thought she would ask him where he got that kind of experience with the police, but she instead just shook her head and chuckled.

“Well I’m not the police,” Ilsa said. “Though I did come to ask you what happened. Your friends don’t remember anything substantial, having been hit with that sleep spell right at the start of the attack.”

“Are they alright?” Zorian asked.

“Yes,” Ilsa confirmed. “They woke up yesterday with no ill effects. Your injuries were far more serious, medically speaking.” She gave him a wry smile. “I think it was their pride that was hurt the most. A third year resisted a spell they could not and saved their lives. Cyoria’s Dungeon boundary is infamously… porous. If it weren’t for you, they probably would have been dead by morning.”

Zorian looked away uncomfortably. Is that why Taiven had never contacted him after that initial invitation to go with her at the start of each restart? He thought she was being callous.

How did he resist that sleep spell, though, if Taiven and her two friends didn’t? And what happened afterwards… it hurt, and it was unpleasant, but he had a feeling it wasn’t an attack. His attacker could have finished him off at any particular time but chose not to. The words, the images… it was as if something was trying to talk to him but didn’t know how to communicate with humans properly.

Considering the amount of webs in the alien memories he had been bombarded with, it was probably the spiders. He never heard of any sentient spiders with access to mind magic, though.

“I’m not really sure what happened,” Zorian finally said. “After the sleep spell failed, I was immediately bombarded by a barrage of images that almost made me black out. It was very painful and disorienting. After it stopped I tried to get my bearings to respond to further attacks, but after a minute or so I realized none were coming and decided to hightail out of there. I have no idea why the attackers stopped.”

“Hmm,” Ilsa hummed. “There are lots of possibilities. Maybe, instead of walking into a deliberate ambush, you simply stumbled upon someone who didn’t want to be seen and they moved to incapacitate you so they could slip away unnoticed. Maybe someone left a spell trap in that section of the tunnels for whatever reason and you set off the trigger. Maybe you resisting two spells in a row intimidated them into leaving. We may never know, I guess.”

Yes, all valid possibilities. It certainly wasn’t giant sentient telepathic spiders, no sir!

“Oh and Zorian?” Ilsa continued. “You’re forbidden from going down in the tunnels until further notice. I get that you wanted to help a friend, but it was still a foolish thing to do.”

“Err, yes professor,” Zorian agreed. “Understood.”

10 minutes after Ilsa left the nurse came to tell him he could go home.

- break -

“This is boring!” Taiven complained.

Zorian cracked one of his eyes open so he could glare at her.

“You said you wanted to make it up to me,” he reminded.

“But I meant teaching you some kickass spells, not…” she scowled at the bowl full of marbles in front of her. ”…throwing marbles over your shoulders. Shouldn’t I at least aim a couple at your forehead? I bet you’d be a lot more motivated to get it right that way.”

“If you do that, I’m going to track you down to your room and suffocate you in your sleep,” Zorian threatened heatedly. The whole reason he was having her do this was so that he could be practice this stupid trick without suffering through Xvim’s methods.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a few seconds he felt the mana-charged marble pass in the vicinity of his face but couldn’t pinpoint over which shoulder it flew.

“Left,” he tried.

“No, right,” Taiven. “Now you’re just guessing, aren’t you? Just give it a rest for today, you’re not going to get anywhere once you get frustrated.”

“No, I just need a couple of minutes to calm down,” Zorian sighed. Taiven groaned in response and he opened both eyes so he could properly glare at her. “Why are you being so difficult about this, anyway? You know I can’t ask anyone else to do this for me, right? I don’t know anyone else who can aim their throws precisely enough, and none of them could keep charging marbles for more than half an hour without depleting their reserves.”

“I know, I know,” Taiven sighed. “And I’m glad you asked me for help. It’s the least I could do after… well, you know. But you’re not taking advantage of me properly!”

Zorian raised an eyebrow.

“Err, that came out wrong,” Taiven chuckled nervously. “What I meant was: I can do much more than this. My accurate marble throwing skills aren’t my only gift. I know I must seem pretty pathetic for getting knocked out by a single spell but come on!”

“I never thought of you as pathetic because of that, Taiven,” Zorian sighed. “But alright. What can the great Taiven do for me?”

“Teach you how to fight, of course!” she grinned.

“The magical way, I hope,” Zorian remarked warningly.

“You should never underestimate the usefulness of a fist to the face, even in a magical duel,” Taiven grunted. “But yes, I meant the magical way. Were you telling the truth when you told the old guy who hired us you can cast magic missile, shield and flamethrower?”

“Of course,” Zorian said.

“Well, let’s see them,” Taiven said, waving towards a due of dummies on the other side of the room.

“Err, won’t your parents mind if I wreck their training dummies?” Zorian asked.

She rolled her eyes. “The whole reason I told you to come to my place was so we could train here. The whole room is warded, and those dummies especially. You won’t even scratch them, trust me.”

Shrugging, Zorian quickly cast a magic missile, shaping it into a piercer and waving a homing function into it so it would hit the head of the dummy. The bolt of force sped across the room and struck the dummy square in the forehead. The faceless wooden head of the dummy bent backwards with the force of the blow in a manner that would snap a real human’s neck in several places, but then promptly snapped back to its default position as if nothing was wrong.

“A decent magic missile,” Taiven praised. “I like that you can cast one without a spell focus – I thought that would be the first thing I would have to teach you.”

Her hands blurred in a dizzying display of skill, the chant spoken so softly he barely even heard it. A veritable swarm of magic missiles erupted from her hands, speeding towards the dummy with a lot more speed than Zorian’s piercer had and impacting it with enough force to lift it off its feet and smash it into the wall behind it. Though they were simply smashers, Zorian knew they were a lot more dangerous than the piercer he had produced, even individually.

She didn’t appear the slightest bit strained by the effort to produce the display.

“So was there any purpose for doing that, other than rubbing in how far beyond me you are?” Zorian inquired. “Firing that many magic missiles, even sequentially, would drain my reserves dry on the spot. I don’t think I’ll be repeating your feat any time soon.”

“Err, really?” Taiven asked. “I guess I kind of assumed your mana reserves are huge, like your brothers’. How many magic missiles can you cast in one sitting?”

“11,” Zorian said, pointedly ignoring her first remark. “It started out as 8, but I increased it somewhat.”

“Eight!?” Taiven gaped. “But that’s… practically below average!”

Zorian knew nothing good would come out of blowing up at her. It was Taiven. She didn’t really think before speaking, and if you were bothered by that you had no business interacting with her.

“Does that mean you admit defeat and we should get back to the marbles?” he asked with deceptive cheer.

“No!” she shrieked. “No, I was… I was just surprised, that’s all. I sort of wanted to teach you how to cast multiple magic missiles with one casting, but I suppose it wouldn’t do you much good with such tiny mana reserves. You should make your every spell count instead of going for quantity. Show me your shield and flamethrower while I think of something.”

After trying to burn a dummy to a crisp and failing, Zorian cast a quick shield, thinking just its existence would be enough of a proof for Taiven. Apparently not, as she immediately whipped out a spell rod out of her belt and fired a smallish purple projectile at the shield. Zorian’s eyes widened at the unexpected attack, but the attack splashed harmlessly against the semi- transparent plane of force and dissipated into a puff of purple smoke that soon disappeared without a trace entirely.

“What the hell was that!?” Zorian demanded.

“I was just checking if the shield can hold,” Taiven told him. “The spell is harmless, just a simple coloring bolt that carries some force to it.”

Zorian wanted to tell her his shield held against an hostile mage that was actually trying to kill him, but he couldn’t really do that. He settled on giving her an annoyed look.

Eventually, Taiven admitted she couldn’t think of anything at the moment and reluctantly started throwing marbles over his shoulders again. She made it clear to him, however, that she would enlist help from her parents in the coming days, and that this way of training was a onetime thing. Zorian managed to negotiate at least an hour of marble throwing each session, in addition to whatever crazy scheme she would come up with eventually.

Truthfully, combat magic was only a side interest at the moment. He was starting to realize he couldn’t keep blundering blindly through this. As much as he had wanted to advance his magical studies before finding the exit, he couldn’t simply ignore the danger posed by the possibility of a soul bond – the longer he stayed inside, the bigger the chance of the bond activating in full force and devouring his will and personality. The mental assault he recently went through simply highlighted that the time loop had its own dangers, and that it was irresponsible to take them lightly.

A rough plan was forming in his head. He needed to find out everything he could about the time loop – how it came to be, how it functioned exactly, and how he could get out of it. Also, what was the nature of his connection to Zach? And what was the deal with the invasion – it seemed too conveniently timed to be a coincidence, so what was its connection with the time loop? Finding answers to those questions would require skills in divination, information gathering, and infiltration, so that’s where the bulk of his efforts should focus on. He still intended to learn other things too, of course, but these three things were a must and a priority.

He would have to finish his semi-apprenticeship in the library and learn all the tricks of that trade he could within the constrains of the time loop. The Academy library was an incredible resource to have, and he was sure he would have to use it extensively if he was to find answers to the questions that were plaguing him. So far his attempts to use it had not yielded much in the way of results, but that was probably a consequence of insufficient authorization and lack of research skill on his part than an actual void of information on the topics in question. He needed to know how to bypass the protections on the secure sections of the library, and how to search them efficiently once he got through, and Kirithishli and Ibery were his best shot in getting there. He would apply for the job in the library first thing tomorrow morning.

And, though it was too late for that in this particular restart, he should impress Ilsa again and choose divination as his interest this time. If Ilsa’s choice was even half-way as motivated as Nora Boole was, he would have a particularly easy avenue on learning that otherwise tricky subject.

And then, as he was climbing the stairs inside his apartment building, everything went black and he woke up via Kiri jumping on him and wishing him good morning. Apparently Zach died again. Only a few days into the restart this time, too. Hopefully Zach would get the hang of whatever he was attempting very soon, because being wrenched without warning into another restart could get old really fast.

He would soon learn he should really stop tempting fate with such thoughts.

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