Wheel of Fortune

In the tunnels beneath Cyoria, Zorian sat cross-legged with his eyes closed, trying to sense the minds of nearby aranea with his own. That was the task he had been given by the matriarch as his first lesson, and it reminded him uncomfortably of Xvim’s mana sensing exercise.

It wasn’t going too well. That was another thing it shared with Xvim’s bullshit lessons.

[It has only been 3 days,] the disembodied voice of the matriarch admonished him. [You’ve barely even started. Don’t be impatient.]

“There’s got to be a better way of learning this,” Zorian complained. This kind of trial and error method was something he could have done without her help. As far as he could see, the only way the matriarch was really helping at the moment was by being an experienced practitioner ready to step in if something went wrong. Which, now that he thought about it, was quite valuable when messing around with something like mind magic. Or any magic, for that matter.

[That, and there is also the little fact that it’s easier to sense and contact Open minds than those of… non-psychics,] the matriarch remarked, fumbling a little towards the end. [I somehow doubt you would find many Open individuals to practice on back on the surface. Fewer still would be willing to let you connect to them. Anyway. I realize that these initial stages are tedious and boring, but they are necessary. And if I have not explained things satisfactorily, I apologize, but I do not know how to do it any better. This ability is not something I learnt, it is something I do. Aranea learn how to do this as very young children, much like human children learn how to walk and talk. Can you explain to someone who has been paralyzed all their life how to move their legs?]

Zorian frowned. So he wasn’t even able to master telepathic baby skills? Wonderful. Just wonderful. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, he tried to consider the task in front of him and how to solve it. Yes, yes, the matriarch insisted he should just keep trying until he eventually succeeded by sheer weight of effort, but he was a mage damn it! Mages did things smarter, not harder.

Being psychic meant being a natural mind mage. For all that the matriarch kept bringing in her weird aranea spirituality into it, that’s what it all boiled down to. A psychic could read thoughts and emotions, trawl through people’s memories, hijack their senses and motor control, communicate with them telepathically and gods know what else, but all of it was mind related. Even the matriarch admitted that aranea used modified human magic for things like her speech spell and the rest of their non-mentalist magical arsenal.

Divinations were the key, he felt. If psychic powers were mind-based, why did they also enhance divinations?

[Not all divinations,] the matriarch remarked from the sidelines, apparently following his train of thought. [Only the ones that put information directly into your mind. The Gift helps you interpret the results of such spells more easily, and since most high-level divinations pour at least a part of the information straight into your mind… well, you can imagine how useful that can be.]

Suddenly, something clicked in Zorian’s mind. According to the books he read about the mind arts in the academy library, spells that were meant to read people’s thoughts were not terribly difficult in principle. The problem was that the result was totally incomprehensible to most users, unless they spent years training themselves how to interpret the results. Spells that aimed to establish telepathic communication also suffered this problem, though to a lesser extent – so long as the people in question spoke the same language, they could at least exchange verbal communication in such a fashion. In other words, human mind spells were remarkably like a divination that tried to simply dump its output into the mind of the caster… which wasn’t something most mages were equipped to handle.

Taking it all together, it seemed obvious to Zorian that one of the defining powers of a psychic was their ability to make sense of information entering the mind directly – whether it was other people’s thoughts or something more exotic like divination results. The immediately interesting part was that it was a passive skill. Using it wasn’t something he had to specifically activate, it was a state of being, so if he wanted to sense the minds of nearby aranea perhaps he should stop trying to push his power out towards his surroundings and concentrate inward. He took a deep breath, visualized the results as motes of light around him and then just… opened his mind.

Blazing suns erupted all around him, including a couple in places where he hadn’t expected there would be any aranea to begin with. Apparently the matriarch brought more guards with her than she had openly displayed to him.

[Your first success,] the matriarch remarked, her telepathic probe breaking his concentration and causing the entire vision to burst like a dream. [Well done. Things should go a lot faster from now on. I’d congratulate you on your fast progress, but I have to be honest and admit I have no idea how fast humans usually progress in this.]

“Perhaps things would have gone faster if you had actually told me I was doing things wrong,” Zorian said with annoyance. “Why didn’t you tell me I was supposed to concentrate inward instead of outward?”

[I did; it’s not my fault if you dismissed it as pointless aranean superstition,] the matriarch said airily. [And I actually didn’t know that the problem lay there in particular. I suppose my tendency to respond to your thoughts makes you think I can understand them in totality, yes? The truth is less impressive, I’m afraid. Telepaths like you and me labor under many of the same limitations that plague human mind magic, it’s just that we advance much faster in the field and don’t need a structured spell to use our abilities. Unless you structure your thoughts into actual speech, the most I get from you from my surface scans is a very fuzzy image of your current emotional state and your general intentions. This is doubly true because you’re human and I’m an aranea, two radically different species that don’t even share the same general body plan, much less mentality.]

“Huh, so language and species do matter to a psychic,” Zorian remarked. “I was wondering about that.”

[It’s usually not a big problem, since most creatures tend to think in words when they engage in conscious thought,] the matriarch said. [So long as two creatures speak the same language, they can freely engage in telepathic conversation, no matter how different their underlying thoughts. If they don’t share a language… well, admittedly, not all is lost. Psychics can potentially communicate with completely alien minds. It involves structuring your thoughts into general concepts that are hopefully broad enough to be understood by the recipient but not so broad as to be meaningless. Unfortunately, this method is very crude and tends to be both painful and disorienting to the target. I believe you experienced it already when you met one of the less human-savvy araneas in one of the previous restarts.]

“So it’s not just because you’re more powerful that you speak with me so easily?” asked Zorian.

[No. I took the time to learn human language, mentality and culture. As did a number of other aranea that occasionally interact with humans. However, our web is extensive enough that most aranea can remain largely ignorant of human ways while they go on about their business, which is why most of my guards are silent around you. Trust me, they aren’t usually this withdrawn, but if they tried to talk to you they’d just give you a headache.]

“Does that mean that mental attacks are easier than communication?” Zorian asked curiously. “I mean, if botched telepathic communication is practically a mental assault to begin with, it shouldn’t take much to simply fry a creature’s brain and be done with it.”

[It’s called a ‘mind blast’, and it’s the simplest telepathic attack there is,] the matriarch said. [It’s also the simplest one to defend against. You should really stop worrying about me attacking you. Aren’t the explosives you constantly carry in your pocket enough to reassure you?]

“They help,” Zorian said. “But in this particular case I wasn’t alluding to the possibility of hostilities between us. I was just curious.”

[Well good. Anyway, we should get back to developing your mind sense before we get too off-track,] the matriarch said. [You made your first successful stab at it, but it is far too shaky to be useable at the moment. You need to be able to sense minds around you instantly, without having to sit still with your eyes closed and preferably while doing something else entirely.]

Zorian sighed. He was definitely getting flashbacks to Xvim on this.

- break -

The rest of the month was fairly unremarkable and mostly spent on honing the mind sense and trying to sense the intensity of magic sources through a mana cloud. Though the matriarch refused to teach him anything until he got his mind sense (relatively) mastered, he already noticed her lessons gave him some rudimentary control over his empathy – enough that he could keep it shut with enough concentration, but not enough to focus it on specific people or otherwise refine it. That alone made the lessons useful, since it should make social events infinitely more bearable for him.

And speaking of social events, Zach had been increasingly pushy about bringing him to his summer festival party. After the boy kept bugging him a few times, Zorian relented. Yes, it would bring him uncomfortably close to the other time traveler for the evening, but he was curious about how his empathy suppression would fare in a live situation and also how Zach’s mansion looked from the inside. Besides, he was trying to get to know his classmates better, and this was a good opportunity to chat up some of them without looking completely out of character.

“Is it really okay for me to come with you?” Taiven asked as she walked beside him.

“For the last time Taiven, yes. Zach made it clear that the more people we invite along with us the better,” Zorian said. Not surprising if you knew what Zach was trying to achieve. “Look, if you don’t want to come-”

“Oh no, I totally do. It’s not every day you get a chance to attend a party at the Noveda mansion. It’s just that I find it a bit strange, that’s all. I’m kind of surprised you agreed to come, though – isn’t this sort of thing an anathema to you?”

“It’s either this or attending the official dance organized by the academy,” Zorian said. “My only real choice is to pick my poison.”

“Ah, I see,” Taiven nodded. “I guess that in that case this does appear to be a better option.”

Zorian glanced at Taiven from the corner of his eye, feeling slightly guilty. The truth was that his main reason for inviting her along was to personally see how she would fare against the invaders. He knew she was a lot better than him at combat magic, but probably not all that much better, and he wanted a comparison point that wasn’t as ridiculous as Zach or an experienced battlemage like Kyron.

Then again, this was Taiven - she probably ended up fighting the invaders in every restart anyway, just not where he could see her. At least this time she would have the advantage of fighting alongside a combatant of Zach’s caliber.

They barely knocked on the door before Zach came along and ushered them inside. He probably knew they were coming the moment they stepped through the outer gate, now that Zorian thought about it – it would make sense to have some kind of detection field woven into the ward scheme that protected this place.

“I’m glad you decided to come,” Zach told him as he led them towards the dining hall, where the party was apparently supposed to take place. “Considering how you behaved towards me lately, I half-expected you to ignore your promise to come and stay in your room.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zorian said curtly. For one thing, Zach hadn’t even bothered him all that much in this particular restart. Was the other time traveler trying to bait him into unmasking himself or had he simply spent so much time in this time loop that he was having trouble sorting events according to which time loop they happened in?

“Uh, what’s going on here?” Taiven asked, looking between them uncertainly. “Is there something I should know or…”

Zach glanced towards her before turning towards Zorian and giving him a thumbs up. “New girl, huh? Man, you have a new one every time I see you. I wouldn’t have pegged you as that kind of guy.”

“What?” asked Zorian and Taiven simultaneously.

Zorian was honestly baffled for a moment, but then realized what Zach was mixing up his restarts again. Akoja, Ibery and Taiven: Zach had seen him with all three of them in various restarts. But that… that was totally different! None of them were even interested in him!

“Zorian is a man-whore?” Taiven asked in a worryingly calm voice.

“I am not!” Zorian denied hotly before focusing his anger at an amused-looking Zach. “And you! Stop spreading stupid rumors about me! I know for a fact you’ve never seen me with a girl until this evening! And you wonder why I’ve been avoiding you this whole month…”

Zach winced. “Sorry, sorry, I was just messing with you. Don’t worry, I’m sure your girlfriend won’t leave you over a couple of stupid remarks by yours truly. Or if she does, she was never worth bothering with in the first place.”

“Oh really?” Taiven said. “You don’t think he’d be devastated to lose a girlfriend as powerful, smart and sexy as-”

“Taiven, don’t you start too,” sighed Zorian. “Zach, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s just a friend.”

“Who happens to be female,” Zach said, wiggling his eyebrows.

“Yes,” Zorian said, gnashing his teeth in irritation.

“Ah well, at least you already have a girl to dance with for the evening,” said Zach lightly.

Zorian kind of doubted that. Taiven was a very attractive girl, with a nice athletic figure and the face of an angel, and she liked men who were similarly gifted in the appearance department. Chances were high that Taiven would find someone else to dance with once they hit the crowd. Zach maybe, if the way she was checking out his backside was any indication.

“You know, this place is pretty empty,” Taiven whispered to Zorian as they walked. “I know he’s the last of his House and all, but I can’t even see any servants milling around the place.”

“Most of the servants were dismissed from service by my guardian while I was still a small child,” Zach said. It did not surprise Zorian that he’d heard her – Taiven was very poor at whispering. “Since my parents died while I was still a baby, he had free reign to do what he felt was necessary to keep House Noveda standing until I was old enough to take over. As part of that, most of the maintenance staff and other contractors were found to be unnecessary and fired.”

“And you don’t agree with his actions?” Zorian guessed. He could definitely detect an undercurrent of hostility when Zach talked about his guardian, which fit in with the fact that he regularly brutalized the man at the beginning of a lot of restarts.

Zach gave him a curious look before sighing.

“Let’s just say he and I have our disagreements and leave it at that,” Zach said.

“You know, I never did find out what happened to your family,” Taiven said. “How come you ended up being the last of your House?”

Zorian punched Taiven in the shoulder for asking such a question of their host, and punctuated it with a firm glare when she shot him a scandalized look. He wasn’t sure what she was scandalized about, though – did she really not realize how inappropriate her question was, or was she just surprised it was him hitting her for once instead of the usual Taiven-on-Zorian violence?

“Oh leave her alone, she’s just being upfront about her curiosity,” said Zach. Somehow he knew what had transpired, even though he had his back turned to them when it happened. “I kind of like her attitude, to be honest.”

“Figures,” Zorian grunted. Now that he thought about it, Taiven and Zach both had the same devil-may-care attitude about things, so maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to have them meet each other…

And with that, Zach launched into a protracted explanation of the Noveda House’s downfall… most of which Zorian completely ignored in favor of studying various paintings and portraits along the way. Truth be told, Zorian had already tracked down all information about Zach and House Noveda that he could get his hands on, so very little of what Zach was saying was new to him.

While tragic, Zach’s story was by no means unique, and could be boiled down to two main causes: Splinter Wars and the Weeping.

The Old Alliance was a complicated construct, a patchwork empire made out of a multitude of bickering, semi-independent states that only sometimes listened to orders coming from Eldemar, but for all its faults it was quite successful at suppressing outright warfare between its member states. Armed conflict was rare and highly limited in scale, especially since the Alliance had no major outside enemies to defend against. Thus, when the Old Alliance shattered and its component states started mobilizing their forces for war, it was the first time in nearly a century that actual war would be waged in the region. And it would be a bucket of cold water straight into the face of every battlemage in Altazia, for it would be the first time ever that firearms were used in warfare on a mass scale.

Firearms were known to Altazia for centuries at this point, but they were not held in very high regard by the generals and decision makers of Eldemar and other powerful countries. Initial attempts to make use of them had shown them to be unwieldy and almost as dangerous to the user as they were to the target. Artillery mages were a lot more mobile and effective than any cannon, and the less said about hand-held firearms the better. Still, enough people remained interested in them that the technology never died and gradually improved as time went by. However, even after naval powers started arming their ships with cannons, even when a couple of mercenary groups began using rifles successfully, handheld firearms were still ultimately seen as a dead end. There was nothing that riflemen could do that a properly trained archer couldn’t do better, and bows and arrows were a lot easier to enhance with magic than rifles and their ammunition. The one advantage rifles had over alternatives was that they required almost no training before they could be used effectively, and countries of the Old Alliance had no use for barely trained conscripts.

Until the Splinter Wars, that is. With the dissolution of the Old Alliance, every state suddenly scrambled to arm itself for the coming conflict, and having a passable army immediately was more important than having a proper one a decade from now. Smaller countries, inherently unable to compete with the likes of Eldemar when it came to magical might, particularly invested heavily into firearms as an alternative to combat magic. Eldemar, being one of the few countries with a fully functional traditional army, felt no need to play around with these ‘commoners’ toys’.

No one really expected firearms to be as devastatingly effective as they ended up being. Even the countries that made heavy use of them expected them to do little except stall the advance of classical armies and perhaps motivate them to look elsewhere for easier prey. Instead, massed rifleman armies absolutely savaged traditional ones, catching established powers completely off-guard. Instead of larger powers gobbling up every minor power and city-state around them and then duking it out among themselves (the outcome everyone had been expecting), the larger powers ended up weakening themselves instead, often splintering into their component parts as their internal enemies smelled weakness. Although nations eventually adapted their forces and battle doctrines to firearms technology, the damage had been done, and every subsequent Splinter War only made Altazia’s political fragmentation worse.

This was especially true because the Splinter Wars caused immense casualties to the mage Houses that were the intellectual and political elite of Altazia’s nations. The reason was simple – being a battlemage was a highly prestigious occupation and many Houses used their military involvement as a way to gather influence and reputation, which they then used as leverage in furthering their political and mercantile interests. With the advent of the Splinter Wars, the demand for battlemages only increased, causing many more mages to enlist in the various armies in search for glory and wealth. This backfired spectacularly as casualties began to mount. Unfamiliar with the strengths and limitations of firearms, and often outright dismissive of them, many mages fell prey to snipers, artillery strikes and massed rifle fire. Many noble houses were thoroughly crippled by the losses they sustained, House Noveda being one of them.

House Noveda had been fundamentally a military house, even if they were active in a lot of other fields as well. According to Zach, House leadership considered military service to build character, and every male member was expected to serve at least a few years in their youth. Quite a lot of female members enlisted as well. Very closely connected to the Eldemar royal family and very traditionalist in attitude, the Noveda supported Eldemar’s military ambitions whole-heartedly, conscripting every available battle-ready member into the war effort. All this meant that when Eldemar began the Splinter Wars by launching a massive, multi-pronged assault on its smaller neighbors, House Noveda members were right there at the forefront of the offensive.

And they paid dearly for it.

Still, while House Noveda was heavily diminished in the immediate aftermath of the Splinter War, they were not yet done for. Given a few more decades, the House could have recovered somewhat and reclaimed its former glory and political influence. Sadly, that’s when the Weeping came and ruined everything.

Nobody knew where the Weeping came from. It simply started to spread among the soldiers one day, a deadly, incurable disease that struck down everyone who contracted it, heedless of age, health or even magic. Once a person contracted it, their death was all but certain – they would first collapse into fever and delirium, then become blind, and then start to leak blood out of their eyes before finally expiring. Regular healers were useless, no magic could cure it, and even the church and its lost mysteries of the gods failed to halt its spread. In the end, nobody could do anything except wait for the disease to burn itself out, which it eventually did. As mysteriously as it appeared, the Weeping disappeared after blazing across the entire continent.

The exact number of deaths from the Weeping was still debated, but most writers agreed that somewhere between 8 and 10 percent of Altazia’s population perished in the epidemic. Some groups suffered more, while others were completely unscathed, seemingly without rhyme or reason. Zorian’s family was completely untouched, for instance – both of his parents and all of his siblings survived the epidemic completely unscathed, which made them all very, very lucky. Conversely, Zach lost absolutely everyone to the Weeping. The few Noveda that survived the Splinter Wars all contracted the sickness and died, leaving a hollowed-out shell of a House whose only surviving member was a small child, too young to even care for himself.

“…which is how the whole sad story ends,” finished Zach. “If nothing else, the Weeping finally put an end to the Splinter Wars. But that’s enough of such depressing topics. We’re here!”

Indeed they were, and boy was Zorian happy for his rudimentary control over his empathy – Zach’s chosen meeting hall was a lot smaller than the academy dancing hall and the mood was a lot more informal and unrestrained, making crowds denser and rowdier. This would have been pure hell in his normal state.

Just as he was contemplating the best way to go mingle with the other students (hopefully giving him an opportunity to dig for personal information while they chatted), the choice was taken from him. Taiven also wanted to mingle, though her reasons were almost certainly more benign than his own, and she decided that the best way to do that was to have Zorian introduce her. Convenient.

After talking to a couple of people he was reasonably familiar with and knew he could talk to, mostly Kael and Benisek, Zorian moved onto people that seemed like they wouldn’t mind getting interrupted. Of course, in a group of this size, it was silly to expect it would only be them approaching others.

“Alright, who else do you know here?” Taiven asked.

“Well, that tall, green-haired girl having a heated argument with those two guys is Kopriva Reid.”

“Wait, she’s that Reid?” Taiven asked. “One of those gangsters goes to the same class as you do?”

“Why Taiven, are you suggesting that House Reid has something to do with organized crime?” Zorian asked with a small smile. “That’s quite a serious accusation, you know. Nothing was ever proven, after all.”

“Whatever. The bottom point is that I’m not going anywhere near the gangster princess. Anyone else?”

Zorian scanned the crowd again. To be honest, he always found Kopriva to be a pleasant enough person to talk to, at least in the small number of times they actually interacted. She was a bit blunt and had a habit of swearing like a sailor when things didn’t go her way, but she never did anything… well, gangster-y. A small group of girls glancing his way suddenly caught his eye.

“See that group of five girls over there?” he said to Taiven. “That would be Jade, Neolu, Maya, Kiana and Elsie.”

“They look… giggly,” said Taiven with a sour expression. “Pass.”

“Oh it’s too late for that,” said Zorian. “See how they’re glancing in our direction? They’ve already noticed us and are debating how best to approach and interrogate us.”

“Zorian, don’t tempt fate,” Taiven warned him.

“It’s not tempting fate, it’s knowing your enemy. They just saw one of their classmates walking around with a girl they know nothing about – there is no way those 5 would let that go without investigating,” said Zorian, even as the group of girls he spoke of shared a nod and marched over in their direction. “See, what did I tell you? They’re already coming this way.”

Taiven gave him a quiet groan, but then quickly schooled her face into a pleasant façade as the girls approached. Zorian understood her perfectly – he wasn’t particularly looking forward to the upcoming conversation, but he knew it was coming the moment he had entered the room so he was prepared for it. And, while he didn’t really think any of those 5 was the third time traveler, he had promised to himself he wouldn’t skip over any candidates without giving them at least a cursory scrutiny.

This was going to be a long evening.

- break -

True to his prediction, once the introductions were done and the actual dancing had started, Taiven found herself some tall, handsome older student and left him to find someone else on his own. Whatever, he didn’t like dancing anyway. He promptly used his expert skills at avoiding attention to retreat to the periphery of the dancing throng, seeking some out of the way corner where no one would bother him. He quickly noticed he wasn’t the only one who had that idea. Tinami Aope seemed to have already found one such corner and was… looking pretty awkward, actually. Ho-hum. Somehow he doubted she really wanted to be left alone, with a face like that.

“Hello, Tinami,” he greeted, causing her to jerk in shock at being addressed.

“Um…” she fumbled. “Zorian, right?”

“That’s me,” confirmed Zorian. “Care for a dance?”

“Oh. Oh! But didn’t you already come with a girlfriend? Won’t she mind?” Tinami asked.

Zorian pointed towards the spot where Taiven was dancing with her partner. “Also, Taiven is just a friend, not a girlfriend.”

“Ah,” she said, fidgeting uncomfortably. Zorian wordlessly offered his hand to her. “Um, okay then…” she said, grabbing Zorian’s offered hand with surprising forcefulness and dutifully following him onto the dance floor.

In the next 30 minutes, Zorian tried to engage Tinami in conversation with only mild success, and he suspected it was only because of these highly specific circumstances she was willing to open up even a little to him. She really was a very shy girl, and he somehow doubted she was secretly the third time traveler pretending. Her awkwardness seemed quite real, and surely a time traveler as old as Zach would have grown out of that by now?

“So as a hobby, you raise… spiders?” asked Zorian curiously.

“Tarantulas,” she corrected insistently. “But, um, I kind of like spiders of all sorts. I know it’s weird, but…”

“Nonsense,” countered Zorian good-naturally. What could possibly be weird about a shy, delicate-looking girl breeding big, hairy arachnids the size of a human hand? “Spiders are really quite amazing creatures. Though I prefer jumping spiders myself – those two giant eyes at the front somehow make them more human-like and relatable for me.”

Tinami gave him an incredulous look before frowning. “You’re making fun of me,” she accused.

“Nope,” Zorian countered with an easy smile. “In fact, there is a particularly large colony of jumping spiders that I visit on a regular basis. It’s amazing what you can learn by observing the natural world.”

Tinami narrowed her eyes at him and launched into a series of increasingly esoteric questions about spiders. Since Zorian had spent a great deal of time investigating various spider species as part of his research into aranea, he actually knew how to answer most of her questions. He then tried to turn the tables on her by asking her about magical varieties of larger, more monstrous varieties of spiders, gambling that her interest mainly extended to the smaller, ‘cuddlier’ breeds. He gambled wrong. Not only did she know more about spider monsters than he did, she also knew a great deal about monster species that only looked like a spider (such as various kinds of spider demons), and about monsters with spider-derived traits.

He wondered what would happen if he introduced her to the aranea, and decided he would definitely do so in one of the restarts. It was bound to be amusing, if nothing else.

“I see it didn’t take you long to find a new girl once your lovely date for the evening left you,” Zach said behind him, causing him to jerk in surprise. He glared at the boy in response, wondering why he didn’t sense him coming – he usually always… oh, right, he’d shut off his mind for the evening so the combined feelings of the throng wouldn’t overwhelm him. The fact he managed to keep it closed with no conscious effort while being absorbed into his conversation with Tinami was an encouraging sign for his developing mental abilities.

“Why are you here, Zach?” Zorian sighed.

“I’m the host,” Zach said. “It’s my job to check up on the guests and see if they’re having any issues with the service and what not. Though in this case I just wondered if you wanted to see the fireworks or not.”

Oh yes, Zorian definitely wanted to see the fireworks and immediately said so. Thus, he and Tinami joined a sizeable group of people to the garden where they would have an unobstructed view of the sky. Zorian paid more attention to Zach than to the sky, though. If the matriarch’s plan went along as planned, Zach was bound to have an interesting reaction.

Zorian had shied away from acting against the invaders, and not just because he was too weak to contribute much. The fact was that trying to sabotage the invasion was bound to get the attention of the third time traveler leading it, and Zorian didn’t want to advertise his existence. So instead, he limited himself to gathering information about the invaders and waiting until he was strong enough to survive hostile attention. The aranea had no intention of doing the same, however – the invasion forces seemed to spend most of the month leading up to the invasion wiping out the aranea as a coherent force, and the matriarch had no intention of sitting on critical information for the sake of deception. Fortunately, there was no way for the invasion leaders to connect the aranea to Zorian, and the matriarch agreed with him that he shouldn’t get involved, arguing that he was far too useful as a scout and memory carrier to risk revealing himself recklessly.

So three days ago, he and the matriarch sat down to discuss a plan of action. Zorian had observed the progress of the invasion from various points in the city during the last few restarts, and he was convinced that the best and easiest way of derailing the invasion was to prevent the initial artillery barrage that preceded the invasion proper. This was especially true because he knew exactly where they were firing from – triangulating the location of their firing positions was absolutely trivial when you were tracking a brightly shining projectile moving relatively slowly across the sky. Unfortunately, he never managed to get close to one of those firing points to see what kind of defenses they had, since he was killed both times he attempted the feat. The matriarch agreed that assaulting those positions before they could fire was likely to be the best way to strike a critical blow to the invaders, and the plan was put in motion.

The fireworks started… and not a single artillery spell accompanied them. The look of increasing bafflement on Zach’s face was priceless.

“What’s wrong, Zach?” Zorian asked innocently. “You act like you’ve never seen fireworks before.”

“Err, no, I mean I did, it’s just… never mind,” Zach sighed.

Zorian shrugged and turned to Tinami, offering her a hand. “What do you think of going back inside for another dance?”

“Um, yes!” she agreed enthusiastically. “Let’s!”

Slowly, the people got tired of exploding lights in the sky and streamed back inside, leaving a frowning Zach staring alone at the sky.

- break -

Zorian’s good mood was short lived. While the invaders were indeed hard-hit by the lack of their initial bombardment, the invasion wasn’t called off, and they appeared to have made Zach’s mansion one of their primary targets, probably because that’s where Zach was and they were specifically targeting him. Perhaps if the students had witnessed the artillery spells hitting the city, Zach could have used that to assume control and organize some kind of proper defense, but as it was the attack caught them all completely unprepared. Not even Zach, with all his mighty magic, could stop the flood of invaders gaining entry into the mansion, after which several groups of students were isolated from the main group containing Zach. Zorian was in one of those.

He, Tinami, Taiven, Briam and four other students he didn’t know had ended up barricading themselves in one of few untouched rooms in the mansion, desperately trying to keep the invading forces at bay. The four unknown students were almost entirely useless, but the other three were worth their weight in gold. Briam had summoned his trusty fire drake to his side the moment he realized they were under attack, Taiven knew how to cast some kind of incredibly destructive fire vortex that actually made the invaders reluctant to continue their attack for 10 whole minutes, and Tinami… well, she was clearly no stranger to fighting and behaved completely differently in a combat situation than she did in normal interaction. She didn’t know any fire spells, but she did know how to fire some kind of purple beams that caused even the biggest of war trolls to collapse on the ground screaming. The beams did no obvious damage, so he assumed they were simply pain spells, but that was useful enough on its own – Tinami didn’t spam those beams mindlessly, instead concentrating on causing pileups, breaking up charges and interrupting enemy spellcasters.

“Zorian, I really hope you’ll be done soon, because this position is rapidly becoming untenable,” Taiven shouted.

Zorian ignored her, carefully inscribing the last set of explosive runes on the walls of the corridor behind them. You didn’t rush this sort of task, unless you fancied blowing yourself up before the enemies even got to you. A minute later he finished the set and rose to his feet, his knees cracking painfully from the long period he spent crouching.

“Done!” he shouted. “Everyone retreat through the corridor!”

Just as Briam, Taiven and Tinami covered him while he set up the explosive runes, he now focused on covering them while they fled deeper into the mansion. Technically one of the unknown boys helped him in this endeavor, but he wasn’t very good at it – his only offensive spell was magic missile and he was firing them at the war trolls charging on them (who could soak such hits easily and keep going) instead of at the robed mages supporting them (who were a lot more vulnerable and had to concentrate on spellcasting). Zorian, aware that he doesn’t have the mana reserves to tank the entire enemy assault force, decided to take out the mages out of the equation first. Thus, he raised the spell rod he smuggled into the mansion and fired a weak disintegration beam towards them. He didn’t aim at the mages themselves – that wouldn’t have done much – but at the floor in front of them, which had no spell resistance to protect it. The beam gauged a jagged line in the floor sending billowing, irritating clouds of dust in the air. That should at least mess up their aiming.

He then turned his attention to the rapidly approaching war trolls. There were very few tricks he could do to stop a war troll charge, and none of them could be done on a moment’s notice. Thus, he decided to simply sacrifice a good portion of his mana reserves and hit them with an overpowered flamethrower.

It didn’t kill them – Zorian’s flamethrower wasn’t strong enough, and these particular war trolls seemed to be particularly tough ones, brought to deal with them after Taiven cast that flaming vortex spell – but it broke their charge, and Zorian used that momentary reprieve to conjure another cloud of dust with his spell rod and fled down the corridor after the rest of the students. The other boy had broken his position and ran ages ago, the useless coward, so he really hoped their confusion would last long enough for him to gain some distance. He wasn’t fast enough to outrun a war troll.

A furious screech erupted around him, and he could suddenly hear one of the war trolls rapidly gaining on him. Damn it, he hated dying.

A sinister purple beam suddenly cut through the air next to his head, hitting the war troll behind him. The monster screeched again, this time in pain, and collapsed to the floor. Zorian gauged another line in the floor with his spell rod, cloaking the corridor in more dust, and then he was inside their newest sanctuary.

“Thanks,” he said, breathing heavily.

“Um, you’re welcome,” Tinami said, fiddling with the silver amulet she was wearing and watching the dust cloud covering the corridor for any sign of movement. The amulet seemed to be the spell formula she was using to cast the purple beams.

“Here they come,” Briam said.

“Remember the plan,” Taiven said. “Let them all advance into the corridor before triggering the explosive runes.”

“What if they notice the trap?” one of the unknown girls asked.

“Then at least they’ll be hesitant to push forward so insistently,” Taiven said.

They didn’t bother closing the door – that would just result in them being pelted by wooden splinters and shrapnel when the mages forcibly broke down the door. They had lost two students before they learned that lesson.

Sure enough, there was a barrage of concussive beams and battering rams preceding the war troll charge. After Briam and Taiven repelled the initial charge with a fairly anemic defense, the mages moved into the corridor to provide support, sensing that victory was near. That’s when Zorian released a mana pulse towards the nearest cluster of explosive runes and the entire corridor collapsed in a deafening explosion. A huge plume of dust and gravel rushed into the tiny room they currently occupied, but Taiven was ready and immediately created a large-ish bubble of clear air to stop them from choking to death.

“Well,” Taiven coughed, having been too slow to shield them all from all of the dust that was obscuring the room. “That should stop the attacks for a while. Still, we have a bit of a problem. This room is a dead end. The only exit is this corridor and the window to the outside.”

“The outside is swarming with enemies,” Zorian said.

“We don’t have much choice, though, don’t we?” Briam asked rhetorically. “We can’t stay here.”

“How are we going to get down?” one of the unknown girls asked. “We’re on the second floor, we can’t just jump out of the window.”

“Hmm… alright, how many of you know how to cast the floating disc spell?” asked Taiven raising her own hand.

Zorian was the only one who raised his own hand to match.

“Ugh. Fine, that will have to do, I suppose. Okay Zorian, I’m going to go first and get these four dead-weights down and you follow after me with those two.”

“Hey!” one of the dead-weights complained.

“Sorry, but I call it like I see it,” Taiven said pitilessly. “Let’s go, before even more of these assholes converge on our position to see what the explosion was all about.”

And so Zorian created a large floating disc of force outside the window and jumped on it, closely followed by Briam and Tinami. At first it seemed like everything would go flawlessly – there were no enemies waiting for them at the bottom, Taiven had successfully touched down, and his disk was not giving any indication of failing under the combined weight of people standing on it. Then a flock of iron beaks suddenly appeared from around the corner and Zorian swore angrily.

There was really nothing he could do to deal with a flock of iron beaks, and Briam and Tinami weren’t much better. There was about 50 of them, so even if he could snipe a couple off the sky it wouldn’t mean a thing. Tinami probably couldn’t make that pain beam of hers home in on a target, and iron beaks were very agile flyers. As for Briam, his attack options seemed to be strictly limited to his fire drake, and there was no reason for the flock to approach close enough to be caught in its fire breath when they could just rain their iron feathers on them from distance.

He fired off a homing piercer anyway, and noticed out of the corner of his eye that Taiven had launched a small swarm of 7 homing magic missiles. Eight iron beaks fell, but it was a drop in the bucket, and then it was the iron beaks’ turn. The air in front of them blurred, and a cloud of glittering feathers was launched at them.

Faced with the choice of trying to tank several hundred magical iron feathers and trying to survive a fairly dangerous fall, Zorian knew which one he wanted to chance. He immediately dismissed the floating disc and all three of them promptly plunged towards the ground.

This would probably be the end of this particular restart – knowing his luck, he was going to break his neck when he hit the ground – but on the bright side he managed to evade the deadly feathers! As he tumbled through the air, his eyes briefly met with those of Briam’s fire drake, and he couldn’t help but think it was glaring at him. It was hard to tell when that thing was angry, though, since it always looked pretty pissed off to Zorian.

Suddenly, just before they were about to hit the ground, their fall was suddenly halted and they touched down on the ground as gently as a feather. Before Zorian could ask what happened, a huge swarm of flaming missiles erupted from somewhere behind him, annihilating the entire iron beak flock.

“You know, Zorian,” Zach said behind him, “sometimes I wonder if you have a death wish. How do you get yourself into these kind of situations? You’re almost as bad as me!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” mumbled Zorian, climbing to his feet and helping Briam and Tinami rise as well. Strangely enough, they didn’t seem angry at him for what he’d done. Shaken by the experience, but not angry. Maybe they didn’t know he dismissed the disk on purpose?

“Well then, I’m glad to see another group of survivors, but we should really get going,” Zach said. “It’s not safe staying out in the open like this. Come, I know a place where we’ll be reasonably safe.”

Zorian looked around him. A surprising amount of students had survived the attack and were dutifully following after Zach. Actually, they probably survived precisely because they were following after Zach. In any case, Zorian and his group decided there was no harm in joining the group – it’s not like they had a better idea anyway.

They didn’t get far before the attackers returned in force. Zorian heard Zach swearing something about bad luck and scoffed. This was no bad luck – the attackers were clearly tracking his movements and targeting him directly. Did Zach even take any precautions to make sure it took something more than a couple of easy divinations to track him down? Knowing Zach, probably not.

But Zorian had other things to worry about, because while Zach was occupied with another flock of iron beaks, a giant brown worm erupted from the ground and started wreaking havoc right in the middle of the student throng. Zorian had only met those things four times so far in the various restarts, and he already hated them – they could move through earth almost as if it was water, and their hide was utterly impervious to physical force. They weren’t particularly vulnerable to fire, either. Zorian watched impotently as the worm single-handedly shattered student formations, sending them scattering in panic so they could be picked off one by one by the winter wolves circling the throng.

Tinami apparently didn’t want to just watch. She fired one of her purple beams at the worm and finally achieved some results. Namely, she got the worm to scream out in pain before immediately swinging its toothy maw in her direction, its murderous attention now firmly focused on her. Uh oh.

With a roar that promised revenge, the worm dived back into the ground. Zorian immediately closed his eyes and tried to block out the sounds of battle, focusing on his mind sense, trying to track its movements. It wasn’t too hard – even if the worm wasn’t psychic, it was the only mind that was below ground, and thus easy to pick out from all the rest. He opened his mind, keeping track of the worm’s mind as it swam underground. Tinami seemed rooted to the spot, aware that she couldn’t separate too far from the group lest she be picked off like the rest of the students that made that mistake… and therefore couldn’t really escape the worm.

Just before the worm was about to surface, Zorian wrenched Tinami to the side and dropped an explosive cube where she was just a fraction of a second before. The worm erupted from the spot only a moment afterwards, its toothy maw snapping shut around the clump of earth… as well as the explosive cube. Even as it swung its head in their direction, Zorian activated the cube and the worm shuddered and started screeching and thrashing like mad before violently vomiting some of its pulped innards. Tinami was hit by its tail as it thrashed around and was thrown to the outer periphery of the battlefield, where she lay unmoving. Zorian quickly ran up to her and was relieved to see she was still breathing and had no obvious wounds. He shifted his attention back towards the worm, hoping that it had finally died while he had not been paying attention to it.

The worm swayed in the air as if drunk, and for one sweet moment Zorian thought he’d won… but then the worm swung its toothy maw straight towards him and roared out a challenge. This time it didn’t bother to dive into the ground, stretching out to an impressive length far faster than a creature of such size should be able to.

He didn’t die. The worm stopped a hair’s breadth away from his face, straining against some invisible bonds before suddenly turning to the side and biting down on the winter wolf that had been trying to sneak up on him while he was distracted.

[I was just in time, I see,] the voice of the matriarch spoke into his mind, and then she physically appeared, jumping out of the shadow of a nearby tree like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“Thanks,” Zorian said. “But I’m not sure why you’re here. I thought we agreed there should be as little contact as possible between us during the invasion.”

[I decided that updating your memory packet with the information we found out today is more important.]

Zorian sighed and glanced around. Everyone was too busy fighting for their life to pay much attention to them, and it wasn’t like the aranea was easy to spot in the gloom of the night.

“Make it quick,” Zorian said, and the matriarch immediately set to work. Anything that tried to sneak up to them was dealt with by the giant worm, which was apparently still under the matriarch’s control.

And then, after five minutes, she was gone again, and Zorian picked up Tinami and tried to rejoin Zach again, but he had barely made five steps before a jagged red beam filled his vision, plunging his world into darkness.

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