Stars Fell


“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Zorian grumbled, stomping towards the door. Really, what’s with all the frantic knocking? Who exactly was so desperate to come into his room? He wrenched the door open and found himself staring at Akoja’s disapproving face. “Ako? What are you doing here?”

“I should be asking you that,” she said. “Why are you still at home? The dance is-”

“Two hours away,” Zorian interrupted. “I can get to the dance hall in 10 minutes.”

“Honestly Zorian, why do you always have to wait for the last possible moment to do something? Don’t you realize what bad example you’re making?”

“Time is precious,” Zorian said. “And I will repeat my question: what are you doing here? I don’t think its your usual habit to seek people out when they’re not early enough for your tastes.”

“Miss Zileti told me to get you,” Akoja admitted.

Zorian blinked. It seems Ilsa wanted to make sure he didn’t ‘forget’. Hah. While the idea _had _occurred to him, he knew that would never fly.

“She also said you couldn’t find a date, so that will be me for the evening,” Akoja continued in a more subdued tone, suddenly finding the doorframe interesting enough to look at.

Zorian scowled. How does ‘I refuse to bring a date’ become ‘couldn’t find a date’? It seemed that Ilsa, like his mother, had a tendency to ‘translate’ his words into whatever is more convenient to her purposes. The two of them would get along quite well, Zorian suspected.

“Anyway, get dressed so we can go already,” she said, suddenly regaining her confidence. “You might be alright with cutting things close but I’m not.”

Zorian stared at her for a full second, trying to decide what to do. He was half-tempted to slam the door in her face and refuse to participate in this farce, but he supposed it wasn’t Akoja’s fault she got roped into this. In all likelihood she had more pleasant plans for the evening than accompanying a surly boy who loathes the experience. He shooed her into the room and went into the bathroom to get dressed.

He really had to marvel Ilsa’s manipulation skills, though – if it was just him going to this thing, he would have came dressed in casual clothes, spent the absolute minimum of time there before leaving and avoided people like a plague throughout the entire evening. Now? He didn’t want to ruin Akoja’s evening, which meant he would have to make at least a token effort. Yes, Ilsa and his mother would get along like two peas in a pod…

The walk to the dance hall was a quiet one. Zorian refused to strike up a conversation, despite sensing that Akoja found the silence awkward. The silence suited him just fine, and he knew he would be comfortable with very few things this evening. He would enjoy the peace while it lasted.

Which wasn’t long – like he said, the hall the academy set aside for this event was about 10 minutes away from his residence building. The moment they approached it they were greeted with the sight of a large gathering in front of the entrance, full of excited students engaged in animated discussions.

Zorian paled a little at the sight of the dense throng – he was getting a headache just by looking at them.

Sadly, no matter how much he pleaded with Akoja, she refused to let them wait on the outskirts of the gathering until the start of the dance. As revenge, Zorian ‘accidentally’ managed to get separated from Akoja when they were ushered inside and got himself lost in the crowd. He chuckled to himself, wondering how long it would take Akoja to find him again. He’d be shocked if it was less than half an hour, since he was quite adept at avoiding notice of a particular person at a party without drawing attention from the other party goers.

For a supposedly simple school dance, the entire event was surprisingly lavish. The tables were overflowing with food, much of it so exotic that Zorian couldn’t identify it, and the hall was decorated with high-quality paintings and animated carvings that moved in pre-programmed manner. Hell, even the tablecloths were full of complicated lace and so soft they had to have been made of something monstrously expensive. Many of his fellow students were openly gaping at their surroundings and even Zorian, who had been at these kinds of events many times before was a little shocked. Then he shrugged and did his best to blend into the crowd so Akoja couldn’t find him.

He meandered through the tables overflowing in food, occasionally sampling one of the dishes when he saw something interesting, observing the other people and studiously avoiding notice from anyone who might be inclined to strike up a conversation with him. He could see why Ilsa was so determined to make everything about the dance run smoothly – the sheer expense of the thing aside, it wasn’t just the students that were present. There were also representatives from various guilds, Houses, societies, and organizations. And not just from the Alliance, but also from abroad, even other continents – he could see at least one man in the distinctive light blue Abnasia military uniform, A small delegation from Hsan, and a dark-skinned woman in a garb so colorful Zorian doubted anyone failed to notice her by now. He idly wondered what this dance was really about, since these people wouldn’t be here for a simple school dance, before deciding he didn’t really care. People like this lived in their own world, and had different standards of ‘important’ from mere mortals like him.

An hour later the first dance was about to start and Zorian made his way to Akoja. She was fuming, and didn’t appear to believe him when he claimed he had honestly gotten lost and couldn’t find her until now, but she managed to restrain herself from blowing up at him. He led her to the dance floor and didn’t retaliate when she ‘accidentally’ stepped on his toes a couple of times.

“People were asking for you,” she said finally, having tired of abusing his toes for the moment.

“Well I was around,” Zorian said with a small smirk. “All they had to do was look for me.”

“No reason why you can’t seek them out now, though,” Akoja remarked.

“But Ako, we’re dancing. There is no way I’d leave a beautiful girl like you for anything. I’ve left you unattended for too long as it is,” Zorian said, not a trace of mocking in his voice. It was a practiced skill.

She glared at him, but Zorian could see she liked the compliment.

Sadly, it didn’t stop her from dragging him off to meet one group of people after another soon afterwards. Zorian hated being put on display like that, but he suspected Akoja was under orders from Ilsa, so he didn’t snap at her. He was surprised his stalling had worked for long enough as it did, really. Zorian found himself memorizing various faces, names, and titles, despite not caring much. It was instinctive to him by now, and he did it even when he didn’t mean to – the legacy of his family’s failed attempt to turn him into a party animal.

“Kazinski? Oh, are you by chance related to-”

“Daimen and Fortov Kazinski, yes,” Zorian said, doing his best to hide the annoyance out of his voice.

“Oh my, how fortunate,” she said. “I must say your brother isn’t half bad with the violin.” She gestured towards the stage, where the academy music club – of which Fortov was a member – was playing a slow, relatively quiet song. Though officially just one members of the orchestra like any other, Fortov was clearly the most prominent musician there, attracting glances and comments with his very presence. “What instrument do you play?”

“None,” Zorian deadpanned. His family had tried to teach him how to play an instrument, since it was a fashionable thing to learn among the rich (and those pretending to be such), but were thwarted by the fact that Zorian was almost entirely tone-deaf. He had no ability to play music at all. Truth be told, he wasn’t particularly interested in it either, though he could certainly feign interest when doing so was polite. It was one of his mother’s bigger disappointments that he had no talent in this area, since Daimen and Fortov were both relatively decent at music, Daimen at playing the piano and Fortov at playing the violin. They weren’t prodigies by any means, but they were skilled enough to impress the kind of people that frequented events like this. “I don’t have much of an ear for music, unlike my brothers. Personally, I’m more interested in how the orchestra fills the entire hall evenly with sound, with everyone hearing them at the right volume, regardless of how close or how far they’re sitting in relation to the stage.”

Sadly, neither the woman nor anyone else gathered around them could answer that question – apparently nobody else even noticed it until he mentioned it. In fact, Zorian got a distinct notion that people felt it was an irrelevant detail and that he was weird for even mentioning it. Bah – no appreciation for magic from these people. Why were they attending a dance at the mage academy, again?

Thankfully, Akoja decided to have mercy on him at this point and led them to a nearby table to get something substantive to eat. A couple of other students from their class joined them and a casual conversation settled in around them. Zorian didn’t contribute much, since he found the conversation to be mostly aimless drivel that was of no interest to him. He still nodded and chuckled at appropriate times, of course, brushing off an occasional comment about him being ‘too quiet’ and needing to ‘lighten up’.

He was just about to dig into the piece of cake in front of him when Akoja nudged him with her knee. He glanced at her in an unvoiced question.

“Wrong fork,” she mumbled.

Zorian looked down at the fork in his hand and realized he was supposed to use the tiny fork reserved for deserts. He shrugged and stabbed the cake with the giant fork in his hand anyway.

“I know,” he mumbled back.

That seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

“Zorian,” she burst out, her voice carrying a pleading note in it. “Why are you being so difficult? It’s just one night. I know I’m not what you wanted for your date…”

“It’s not that,” Zorian interrupted her. “It’s not like I wanted a date, anyway. I was going to come alone to this thing.”

She stared at him in shock. She seemed emotionally crushed, and Zorian didn’t understand why.

“Y-You’d rather go alone than with m-me?” she asked.

Aw crap.

All this time he thought Akoja was roped into this to keep an eye on him, but what if she had wanted to go with him? That…

She fled before he could figure out something to say.

He swore under his breath and buried his face into his hands. This is why he hated these kind of events.

- break -

An hour later he was pretty sure Akoja was no longer in the dance hall and that she wasn’t going to come back. He didn’t really want to chase her through the streets in the middle of the night, so he refrained from following her outside. Besides, what was he supposed to say to her? He wouldn’t know where to even start. He thought about going home himself, but in the end he simply climbed up unto the roof of the dance hall and observed the stars. He wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight, anyway.

To keep his mind occupied, he silently named all the stars and constellations he could see. Due to his interest in the topic as a child and the Astronomy class they had in their first year at the Academy, he knew quite a bit, so it was a full hour before he ran out of things to name and describe.

Monday was going to be awkward. Zorian had no doubt their little drama was overheard and would be the topic of conversation for several week to come. Considering that Akoja was a bit of a teacher’s pet in most of the subjects, the teachers could very well decide to make his life more difficult in the days to come as well.

Damn it all.

It was the sound of firework that broke him out of his thoughts. It was midnight apparently, and the festival had officially started. Zorian relaxed a little as he watched various fireworks blossom against the night sky, each exploding in its own unique way. It was beautiful. Most of them dissolved into quickly fading motes of light after the initial explosion, but a couple of them remained whole and consistently bright, more like flares than firework. They arced through the sky before dipping down and falling back to earth like falling stars. He frowned. Weird. Shouldn’t they be exploding by now?

The flare falling closest to him slammed into the nearby academy residence building and detonated. The explosion was so loud and so bright that Zorian was momentarily blinded and deafened, stumbling back and collapsing on his knees as the entire building shook beneath his feet.

Blinking spots out of his vision, his ears still ringing from the sound of the explosion, Zorian scrambled back to his feet. He stared at the spot where the stricken residence building once stood. Virtually the entire building had been leveled to the ground, everything flammable in the vicinity of the impact site was burning, and strange flaming shapes were emerging from the epicenter of destruction.

Wait a minute… that’s his residence building!

He collapsed on his knees again as implications of this hit him. If he had opted to stay in his room like he originally planned to he’d have been dead right now. It was a sobering thought. But what the hell was happening here!? That was no firework, that’s for sure! It looked and sounded more like a high level artillery spell.

It was hard to tell whether it was simply a consequence of his hearing being damaged, but he noticed the faint sounds of celebration had stopped. Looking over the city he noticed that what happened to the residence building wasn’t an isolated occurrence – wherever one of the flares hit, it left devastation in it’s wake. He only had a few seconds to ponder this before he noticed another batch of flares start ascending into the sky from the distance. This particular barrage was not masked by the fireworks, so it was pretty obvious that they were artillery spells. They were under attack.

As the flares started dropping back to earth, Zorian began to panic. What the hell was he supposed to do!? Running away would be pointless since he didn’t know what the flares were targeted at, and he could very well be running straight into the area of effect if he runs blindly. Wait a minute, why does he have to do anything? There is a bunch of capable mages in the building, and he should just notify them and have them handle it. He rushed down into the dance hall.

He had barely stepped on to the stairway when he ran into Ilsa and Kyron.

“Zorian! What are you doing here?” Ilsa demanded.

“Err, I just went out for some fresh air,” Zorian fumbled. “But that’s not important right now!”

“I agree,” Kyron said. “Kid, what was that blast? Don’t tell me this is something you did?”

“Hardly,” Zorian said. “Some kind of flares are falling all over the city, destroying everything when they hit. Looks like some kind of powerful artillery spell.”

Ilsa and Kyron shared a look between each other before turning back to him.

“Go join Akoja and the others in the dance hall,” Ilsa told. “Well see what is happening and teleport everyone into the shelters if necessary.”

The both pushed past him and rushed to the roof, leaving Zorian to stumble into the dance hall in a daze. Akoja… Akoja wasn’t in the dance hall. She left. Because of him. She was out there, maybe even already dead…

He shook his head and banished such thoughts out of his mind. He took out his divination compass and quickly cast a divination spell to locate her. He wasn’t sure if it was going to work, since the spell he used could only find people you were ‘familiar with’ – in other words, friends and family. Thankfully, it seemed that being classmates with her was enough of a connection for the spell to work.

He took a deep breath to steel his nerves. He was liable to get himself killed, but… well, it was kind of his fault. He didn’t think he could live with himself if Akoja ended up dead because of him.

Like an intangible ghost, he weaved between agitated students and foreign dignitaries, ignored and unhindered, until he was near the exit. He slipped out of the building and then broke into the run in the direction indicated by the needle in his divination compass.

- break -

Trolls were pretty nasty creatures. There were several subspecies, but all of them were large 3-meter tall humanoids with tough leathery skin and supernatural regenerative abilities so strong they were able to reattach severed limbs simply by holding them to the matching stump for a few moments. The most numerous and famous subspecies was the forest troll, which had vivid green skin and roamed throughout the great forested expanse in the north. As Zorian watched a troupe of trolls strut through the streets, smashing windows and howling unintelligibly, he reflected that it was fortunate the acrid smoke wafting from the nearby burning buildings masked his scent. His textbooks all said a forest troll’s sense of smell was frighteningly good.

Normally he would have wondered what such a large gathering of forest trolls was doing in the middle of a human city, relatively far away from their native lands, but the blades and maces they were holding told him all he needed to know. Those were weapons too advanced to have been produced by the trolls themselves, who were highly primitive and lacked such high metal working skills. They were war trolls. Somebody armed these creatures and set them loose on the city.

Once they were gone, Zorian relaxed a little and tried to figure out what to do. He was such an idiot. Why oh why did he have to run off without getting some help from the teachers first? Then again, he assumed the flares were the only danger, in which case getting to Akoja wouldn’t be an issue, assuming a stray flare didn’t get him. Instead he found the city overrun with monsters. This wasn’t some kind of a terrorist attack like he assumed, it was a full- blown invasion! Sadly, the option to return to the dance hall was closed to him – a lot of the invading forces were converging towards the academy, cutting off his retreat path. With that in mind, Zorian set out towards Akoja. He kept himself in the shadows, knowing the invaders would quickly notice anyone caught in the open, such as that boy standing… over… there…

Is that Zach?

“Over here!” Zach shouted, waving his hand in the air. “I’m over here you stupid animals! Come and get me!”

Zorian gaped at the reckless stupidity of what he was witnessing. What the hell was that idiot doing!? No matter how talented a student he was, there was no way Zach could stand up to the sort of monstrosities that were stalking the city at the moment. But it was too late to do anything – attracted by Zach’s shouting, the trolls came running back, giving a single collective battle cry before charging at the boy foolish enough to attract their attention. Zorian could tell from Zach’s posture that he intended to fight the trolls, which he thought was pretty crazy – what could he do against a creature that regenerates from virtually any wound done to it? Only fire and acid could do permanent harm, and they didn’t-

Zach grasped his staff firmly in his hand and outstretched his other hand in the direction of the charging trolls – a roaring fireball erupted from his hand and exploded right in the middle of the troll formation. When the flames cleared, only charred corpses remained of the beasts.

Zorian was shocked. A proper fireball like that was a 3rd circle spell, and required a sizable amount of mana to cast, much more than any academy student had. Even Daimen could not have cast that spell when he was Zach’s age. Yet not only had Zach successfully done it, but he didn’t even appear drained from the action. Indeed, when a flock of iron beaks attacked soon after, raining their deadly feathers at the boy, Zach simply erected an aegis – a freaking aegis! – around himself and peppered the birds with tiny fireballs that homed in on their targets like magic missiles made out of fire. Zorian was so transfixed by the sight of his classmate effortlessly fighting off hordes of monsters single handedly that he almost failed to notice one of the winter wolves attacking Zach had stealthily broken off from the main pack and was sneaking up on him. Almost. Thankfully, some primal instinct alerted him to the danger and he threw himself aside just in time to sidestep the creature’s deadly pounce.

Zorian cursed himself as he watched the winter wolf reorient itself with startling ease for something so large, ready for another pounce. He really should known that among all those attackers Zach attracted at least some of them would wound up targeting him as well. He should have used Zach’s fighting as a distraction and fled while he had the chance. Now it was too late - Zorian knew he was not fast enough to outrun a winter wolf, and he had no combat spells to defend himself with. Or rather, no spell rods and such. If he survived the evening, he would definitely learn a few combat invocations, obsolete as they may be. It was a big if, though.

A shining bolt of force slammed into the winter wolf’s head, causing it to explode in a gory mess of blood and bone fragments. Zorian didn’t know whether to be disgusted that he got showered by some of the bloody mess, or relived he would live for a little while longer. He also noted that the effects of the bolt were a bit strong for a regular magic missile and supposed this was just another example of Zach’s baffling proficiency with combat magic.

“Zorian? What the hell are you doing here?”

Zorian looked at Zach speculatively, noticing a trail of corpses the other boy left behind him but focusing more on the staff he held in his right hand and the belt full of spell rods. For all his seeming recklessness, Zach certainly came here prepared. He was half tempted to ask the boy the very same question he asked of Zorian, but decided that would be needlessly antagonistic. Zach did just save his life, after all. He decided to go for honesty – maybe the other boy would be willing to help him got to Akoja, considering his awe- inspiring fighting skills.

“Searching for Akoja. She left the dance a while before the attack and it’s kind of my fault.”

Zach groaned. “Man, and I even went to the trouble of making sure you go the dance, too. It’s like you want to get killed or something!”

“You?” asked Zorian incredulously. “You’re the one that told Ilsa I’m not planning to go? All this time I’ve blamed Benisek! How did you even know about it?”

“You always stay in your room and get killed in the initial barrage if I don’t do something to stop it. And let me tell you, convincing you not to stay in your room without resorting to violence or getting Ilsa involved is a damn chore. You can really be such a stubborn ass when you want to be,” Zach said with a sigh.

Zorian stared at him, confused. The way Zach was talking, you’d think this kind of thing happens every day or something!

“But enough of that,” said Zach cheerfully. “Let’s just find Akoja before something eats her. You know the way?”

And so he did. They traveled through the burning streets of the city, leaving a trail of dead invaders behind them. Zach didn’t even try to avoid the monsters, simply plowing through them like an angry god out for vengeance. At one point they were even attacked by a horde of skeletons and an enemy mage, but Zach simply made the earth beneath their feet open up and swallow them. Zorian dutifully kept his mouth shut and never questioned Zach about his seemingly inexhaustible mana reserves or his knowledge of advanced magic that should be beyond his access level and proficiency, content to enjoy the benefits of Zach’s skill and talent. He would never have come this far without Zach’s help, and he was honestly grateful for the boy’s assistance. Zach could keep his secrets, whatever they were.

They eventually found Akoja barricaded in the upper floor of one of the houses. Apparently she was chased there by a pack of winter wolves and then refused to leave for fear that the creatures are lying in wait for her to come out. Smart, really. Smarter than what Zorian had done, that’s for sure. Fortunately there was no trace of winter wolves around the house at this point – not that Zach was likely to have had any trouble with them if they were present – so they moved to the slightly frustrating task of convincing Akoja it’s safe to unbarricade the door. Apparently her experience with the winter wolves had shaken her up pretty badly.

Zorian was certain she would blame him for causing her to leave the safety of the dance hall, so he was quite surprised when Akoja immediately latched onto him when she finally opened the door, hugging him and sobbing into his shoulder.

“I thought I was going to die!” she wailed. “There were these huge birds flinging iron feathers everywhere and the winter wolves and…”

Zorian opened his mouth in confusion, unsure how to deal with such an emotional outburst. He shot Zach a pleading look, but the boy merely grinned at him cheekily, apparently amused by the reaction.

“Ah, young love,” Zach nodded to himself knowingly. “But I’m afraid you’ll have to continue your heart-felt reunion back in the shelters.”

“Yes!” Akoja half-shouted immediately, raising her face out of Zorian’s shoulder. She totally ignored Zach’s jab about them being in love, though Zorian suspected it was because she hadn’t even heard that part. She was still clutching his torso with an iron grip, as if afraid he’d disappear if she let go. It was kind of painful but he refrained from telling her so. “The shelters! We’ll be safe there!”

Zach flinched back for a moment before catching himself. It was so quick Akoja didn’t appear to have noticed, but Zorian did. So the shelters weren’t safe either? But apparently they were still safer than where they were right now, because Zach appeared determined to go through with it.

“Great!” said Zach cheerily, clapping his hands in satisfaction. He took one of the spell rods out of his belt and handed it to Akoja. “You hold on too, Zorian.”

“What is that?” Zorian asked suspiciously. The rod had none of the markings that might identify what it’s for, which made Zorian a bit leery of it. Using unknown magical objects without identifying what they’re for was a big no-no if you wanted to remain healthy and alive into your old age.

“It’s a teleport rod,” Zach said. “It’s programmed to transport whomever is holding it to the shelters. I’ve set it to a 30 second delay, so hold it before you’re left behind.”

“But what about you?” Akoja asked. “You need to hold on too before it activates!”

“Ah, no,” Zach said, waving her off. “I still have unfinished business here.”

“Unfinished business!?” Akoja protested. “Zach, this isn’t a game! These things are going to kill you!”

“I’m perfectly capable-”

Zorian wasn’t sure what tipped him off, exactly – he just got a vogue feeling of dread and knew he had to react immediately, much like what happened with the winter wolf that tried to get a jump on him earlier. Wrenching himself free from Akoja’s grip with a sudden jerk, he pushed Zach out of the way of an incoming spell. An angry red ray surged through the air in front of them, passing right where Zach’s head was only a few moments ago and hit the wall behind them. The jagged beam of red light bit deep into the wall, gauging a deep trench in it and shrouding the area in a cloud of fine dust.

“Crap,” Zach said. “He found me. Quick, hold the rod before-”

Akoja winked out of existence as the rod teleported her away to safety.

“-it activates,” finished Zach in a long-suffering tone. “Damn it, Zorian, why didn’t you hold on!”

“You’d be dead, then!” Zorian protested. He wasn’t going to let a person who helped him so much tonight die from a stray spell if he could help it. Besides, whomever was casting that would surely fall to Zach’s magical might, just like the rest of the creatures and enemy mages they encountered so far. Just how bad could this enemy caster be, really?

A sudden gust of air blew the dust away and a gaunt humanoid figure stepped into view. Zorian actually gasped in surprise as he took in the appearance of the thing in front of them. It was a skeleton wreathed in sickly green light. Its bones were black with a strange metallic sheen, as if they were not bones at all, but rather a facsimile of a skeleton made out of some kind of black metal. Encased in gold-decorated armor, with a scepter held tightly in one of its skeletal hands and a crown full of purple gemstones, the creature looking like some long-dead king risen from the dead.

It was a lich. It was a trice-damned lich! Oh, they were so going to die…

The lich swept its empty eye sockets over them. As Zorian’s eyes met the black pits that used to be lich’s eyes, an uncomfortable feeling washed over him, like the lich was peering into his very soul. After less than a second, the lich lazily shifted its attention to Zach, apparently dismissing Zorian was something of no consequence.

“So…” the lich spoke, it’s voice resonant with power. “You’re the one that has been killing my minions.”

“Zorian, run away while I deal with this guy,” Zach said, clutching the staff in his hand.

Without waiting for a response, Zach launched a barrage of magic missile towards the lich, who retaliated with a trio of purple beams as it erected an aegis around itself with a single wave of it’s bony hand. Two of them were aimed at Zach, but sadly enough the lich saw fit to aim one towards Zorian’s retreating form. While it failed to hit Zorian directly, the beam’s impact with the nearby ground created a sizeable explosion that drove stone shrapnel into his legs. The pain was immense, and Zorian collapsed on the ground in an instant, unable to take a single step further.

Over the next five minutes, Zorian painfully dragged himself behind a nearby cart, hoping that it would shield him from at least some of the destructive power that was being thrown around in the battle. Zach was keeping the lich occupied enough that it didn’t send any more spells after Zorian after the initial beam, which was fortunate because Zorian was no longer in any state to evade them. He watched with growing unease as Zach and the lich exchanged various destructive spells that Zorian couldn’t even identify, realizing with rising dread that his prediction of their grisly death was well founded – no matter how good Zach was, he was not even in the same league as the lich. The thing was toying with the other boy, and was bound to tire of the game sooner or-

He winced as a spear-like red bolt punched straight through Zach’s aegis and impaled the boy through his flank. He suspected the hit was in a non-vital spot only because the lich wished to gloat a little more, and his suspicious were all but confirmed when the creature didn’t finish Zach off with anything destructive, opting instead to hurl Zach into the air with a single casual gesture. Zach collided with the wall Zorian was leaning on behind his cart, groaning in pain.

Apparently not in any sort of hurry, the lich slowly approached, unconcerned with Zach, who was shakily rising to his feet, a spell rod clenched tightly in his left hand while his right hand pressed against the bleeding wound on his flank.

“You put up quite a fight, child,” the lich said. “Impressive for someone who is supposed to be a mere academy student.”

“Not… impressive enough,” Zach gasped out, the spell rod dropping from his hand as he clutched the wound on his flank with both hands, apparently in great pain. “I guess… I’ll have to… try harder… next time.”

The lich chuckled. It was strange sound, hardly fitting on the creature like that. “Next time? Silly child, there will be no next time. There is no way I’m letting you live after this, surely you know that?”

“Bah,” Zach spat, straightening himself with a grimace. “Enough talking, just get it over with.”

“You seem surprisingly unconcerned considering you’re about to die,” the lich remarked conversationally.

“Ah, whatever, ” said Zack, rolling his eyes. “It’s not like I’ll be dead for good.”

Zorian looked at Zach incredulously, not really understanding what Zach was getting at. The lich seemed to understand, though.

“Aaah, I see,” the lich said. “You must be new to soul magic if you think this makes you invulnerable. I could just trap your soul in a soul jar, but I have a much better idea.”

The lich casually gestured towards Zorian, and he suddenly felt his entire body freeze up as it was encased in some alien force. Another wave and Zorian was hurled with great speed towards the shocked Zach, where he painfully slammed into the other boy. They both ended up on the ground in a tangle of limbs, and Zorian was relieved that at least the unknown force paralyzing him was gone.

“It doesn’t matter if your soul can be reincarnated elsewhere if someone mutilates if beyond recognition before it gets there,” the lich said. “After all, the soul may be immortal, but no one said it cannot be altered or added to.”

Dimly, Zorian could hear the lich chanting in some strange language that definitely wasn’t standard Ikosian used in traditional invocations, but any curiosity about this was washed away by a wave of pain and unidentifiable wrongness that suddenly slammed into him. He opened his mouth to scream but then his world suddenly erupted into bright light before suddenly going completely black.

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