Chapter 011

Limiters

"Why is your test longer than mine?" Benisek whispered to him hurriedly. "Did I lose a page or something?"

"You didn't," Zorian whispered back. "Nora is just testing me because… well, it doesn't matter. I'll tell you later."

Zorian sighed and continued pondering the advanced spell formula questions in front of him. As if the original 60 question test hadn't been enough! Worse, Nora took a page out of Ilsa's book and decided to test him on knowledge that he technically shouldn't even have, because the additional questions had nothing to do with second year curriculum. Thankfully, he had actually read all 12 of her 'recommended' books over the course of several previous restarts, so he wasn't completely stumped while looking at the piece of paper in front of him.

Still, the additional questions were encouraging, since they suggested Nora was taking him a lot more seriously than she usually did when he asked for some advanced instructions out of her. In the handful of restarts he had tried, the results were underwhelming – while enthusiastic about her subject, Nora Boole never seemed to believe he was as advanced as he claimed. All of his teachers were like that, as far as he could tell from his initial attempts, with Kyron being the biggest exception. Though now that he thought about it, that probably had more to do with the ease with which his proficiency with the magic missile spell could be demonstrated, rather than Kyron's inclination to believe his claims. In any case, the sheer speed with which things were happening gave him hope – it was only yesterday that he and Ilsa had talked in her office, and already Nora was testing him. That was absurdly fast, since teachers liked to take their time about things like this. Zorian had expected the entire process to take a week, at least. Apparently he had left an even bigger impression on Ilsa than he thought he had.

Good. It was nice to have a confirmation that he was actually going somewhere, rather than just wasting his time.

A few minutes later his peace was once again broken by Benisek. He gritted his teeth as the boy started to pester him for answers. Zorian had always found Benisek to be somewhat annoying, despite him being Zorian's best friend (or at least the closest thing to it), but Zorian found himself steadily losing his patience with the boy as restart after restart went by. It wasn't really fair to Benisek – the chubby boy was behaving no worse than his usual fare – but the time loop made Benisek's antics annoyingly repetitive. He quickly scribbled answers to a handful of questions on a piece of paper and thrust it at Benisek. Benisek looked like he would say something to him in his not-whisper (Benisek whispered far too loudly for it to be called a real whisper), but Zorian silenced him with a quick glare.

As annoying as Benisek might be, Zorian wasn't ready to give up on him just yet. Whether that resolve would hold throughout the entire time loop remained to be seen, however.

"All right, time's up. Pencils down, everyone," Nora said, earning her a wave of protests from the student body. "Except for mister Kazinski, that is. He can keep working on that special second test I gave him."

Zorian cursed internally as all eyes momentarily shifted towards him. She just had to tell that in front of the whole class, didn't she? He made a note to himself to watch what he said in front of Nora, since discretion obviously wasn't her strong suit.

Akoja hurriedly collected all the tests, lingering slightly longer near his desk so she could see what his 'special' test was all about. After that, the class continued as normal. It was the exact same thing he had already listened to countless times before in the previous restarts, so he did his best to block it out and continue solving the test. Even with his massively unfair advantage, the test was rather hard. Spell formula in general involved a lot of mathematics and geometry, as the very name of the discipline hinted at, and that automatically made it hard for a lot of people… him included.

Eventually the class came to an end, and Nora asked him to stay behind while everyone else filed out of the classroom. She immediately started to look over his tests when the last of his classmates left, and Zorian watched her intently for a reaction.

Unlike Xvim, or even Ilsa, Nora Boole was a very expressive woman. By the time she had reached the end of the first test, he could see she was pleasantly surprised. She damn well should be, considering it was 100% correct. When she started inspecting the second test, though, her face quickly morphed into first shock, and then barely restrained glee. Evidently she liked what she saw. Finally she set the test aside and met his eyes, giving him a penetrating gaze that actually caused Zorian to flinch a little. She reminded him of Zach and Kirithishli, because she seemed to radiate a similar sort of… vibrancy, for the lack of a better word. It was always a bit uncomfortable being around people like that, especially when they were focused solely on him like Nora currently was.

"Well…" she began. "I didn't expect that. Do you know why I gave you the second test?"

"Uh, no," said Zorian. "To scare me off?"

"Exactly!" Nora exclaimed. "Exactly!"

Zorian blinked, unable to believe she actually admitted that to his face.

"Spell formula require bravery! They require passion!" continued Nora animatedly. Funny. Everyone else said they required patience and meticulousness. "They require determination! Anyone who is scared off by this little thing here," she waved the second test in front of his face, "will surely give up when we delve into the truly difficult parts of the discipline. I had to make sure you wouldn't bail out on me somewhere along the line."

Zorian was starting to feel a little unnerved by Nora's outburst. Was he signing up for spell formula tutoring or cult membership?

"Of course, I didn't actually expect you to solve any of the questions correctly," Nora said. "I just wanted to see if you'd leave it completely blank. Not that I'm complaining, far from it! Let's see…"

She went back to her desk and pulled out a stack of papers out of a drawer. She frowned as she leafed through them, apparently unhappy about their contents, before finally setting them aside with a sigh. After an entire minute of silence, she glanced towards him and shook her head, as if suddenly remembering he was still there.

"Tell me, what are spell formulas?" she asked him. "And I don't want to hear a textbook definition. I want to hear it in your words."

Zorian opened his mouth for a moment and then quickly snapped it shut as he considered what to say.

"Come on," Nora encouraged. "Bravery, remember? Besides, I just want to know your opinion. There is no right answer."

Hah. There might be no right answer, but Zorian knew from experience that there was always a wrong answer. Always. But he supposed that, in this particular instance, silence was the wrongest answer of them all.

"It's the practice of using geometric shapes and various sigils to modify spells, usually in order to strengthen wards or amplify spellcasting," said Zorian.

"Really? How do they do that?" asked Nora in mock curiosity.

"Err… they limit mana flow along pre-determined pathways?" tried Zorian.

"Yes!" agreed Nora. "They limit, that's exactly what they do! I can't tell you how many mages think they're some kind of inherent amplifier or something. Drives me crazy, I tell you. Of course, most modern crafters use special materials that are inherent amplifiers, but that's something else entirely. Anyway, you know the point behind structured spellcasting, right?"

"The narrower the effect of the spell is, the more mana efficient it becomes. Structured magic creates a spell boundary to forcibly narrow down effect space into something manageable for a human spellcaster."

"And spell formulas are the exact same thing, only with more pronounced benefits and drawbacks," said Nora. "Since mages can take their time when crafting the spell formula, they limit the mana flow much more tightly than your typical invocation. This means bigger potential benefits, but also makes the spell even more inflexible. And, of course, the tighter spell boundary means there is less margin for errors, so designing a working spell formula is a lot harder than designing a working invocation."

Zorian waited patiently until she was finished, not really sure why she was telling him these things – this was all basic theory that he had heard and read a thousand times – but unwilling to interrupt. Unfortunately, it appeared he would have to wait to hear what the point of her little questioning was, because Nora suddenly looked at the clock hanging by the door and blanched when she realized how much time had passed.

"Sorry mister Kazinski, I guess I got carried away. You better go to the next class before I get you in trouble," Nora said apologetically. Zorian shrugged – he had intended to skip the next class one way or another, but it probably wouldn't impress her much if he told her that. "I'll need a few days to set up schedule, so I'll tell you the details via Ilsa. We'll have a blast working together, I can already tell."

He was just about to leave when she suddenly started talking again.

"Oh! I almost forgot. Go see Ilsa sometimes today – she has something she wants to talk to you about. Something about you returning a favor you owe her for setting this up…"

Now why did that sound kind of ominous?

- break -

Cyoria's main train station was always busy. There was a sort of hurried feeling suffusing the entire area that Zorian found either annoying or invigorating, depending on his current mood. When he was disembarking from the train, it served as a metaphorical bucket of cold water to wake him up from the long sleepy journey, and he welcomed it. When he was simply standing on platform number 6, waiting for the train to arrive, it was oppressive and unwelcome, and he desperately wished he knew how to suppress it. Especially since the damned train was 2 hours late!

In order to amuse himself and pass the time, he had taken to harassing the numerous pigeons and sparrows milling around the place. Not physically, of course – that would be not only childish, but would also cause people to stare at him – he was instead pushing his mana at them, trying to control them mentally. Of course, simply pushing mana at something and wishing for it to happen wasn't enough to do real magic, but it did seem to agitate them a lot. Typically, whatever bird he was concentrating on became increasingly erratic as seconds went by before fleeing away from the area after a minute or so.

Finally, finally, the shrill whistle of the incoming train broke him out of his concentration, and the local wildlife was spared further indignation. Zorian scanned the crowd of people disembarking from the train, searching for his target. He was technically supposed to hold a sign and wait, but he was confident he could spot the guy without problem. It's not like there'd be many white-haired teenagers on the train platform, after all.

It actually wasn't as bad as he thought it would be, this favor Ilsa had asked of him. Admittedly, helping a transfer student carry his luggage and showing him around the city would waste an entire day… but on the bright side, he was excused from attending today's classes! Besides, it would give him a legitimate excuse to approach Kael, the transfer student in question – the morlock boy was a bit unapproachable even at the best of days, and Zorian had been thinking of trying to befriend him. He really ought to find some friends beside Benisek, and Kael seemed like someone he could get along well with. If he turned out to be wrong… well, it's not like the morlock would remember any awkwardness between them once the time loop reset itself again, would he?

Finally he spotted Kael disembarking and moved towards him to help him with his luggage. It wasn't just an empty gesture of good will on Zorian's part, either – Kael was clearly having problems with his burden, probably because he could only use one arm to manipulate the heavy bags. The other hand was currently supporting a little girl that clung to Kael's side like a barnacle, observing everything around her with childlike intensity.

Kael was momentarily surprised when Zorian wordlessly started helping him, but quickly went along with it. The little girl clutching his side was now staring at Zorian with undisguised curiosity, and Zorian wondered who she was. Was this his little sister? Her vivid blue eyes certainly reminded him of Kael, since the morlock had eyes of the exact same shade, but her hair was jet black, and she didn't look very much like a morlock to Zorian. And in any case, surely the boy wouldn't bring a child this young with him? Zorian kept expecting her mother to step out of the train and take the little girl out of Kael's hands, but somehow that never happened.

Finally the last of the bags was standing on the floor and Kael finally turned towards him.

"Thank you," the boy said politely. For all his aloofness, Kael was never actually rude. "I'm Kael Tverinov. I'm not normally this inept, but it's hard to handle the luggage with one hand. Kana has been rather clingy today, and I didn't have the heart to pry her off. The move was too stressful for her, I'm afraid."

"It's no problem," Zorian said. "I'm here to help, after all – that's what Ilsa sent me here for. I'm Zorian Kazinski, one of your classmates. Ilsa Zileti sent me here to help you with your luggage and show you around the city."

Kael gave him a startled look, clutching the little girl attached to his hip like Zorian was about to snatch her away.

"What?" Zorian asked, surprised at the alarm in the boy's posture. "Was it something I said? I didn't mean to offend."

Kael gave him a long, suspicious look, before finally reaching a decision of some sort.

"You didn't do anything, mister Kazinski, and it is I who should apologize," Kael said finally. "Allow me to introduce myself again: I am Kael Tverinov, and this is my daughter, Kana."

Zorian stared at the morlock for a moment, before glancing at his… daughter. Kana gave him a shy wave, but otherwise remained silent. She was very young, probably around 3 years of age, but Kael wasn't much older than Zorian. That would mean Kael was 13 or so at the time she was born. Huh. Talk about being a young parent.

"I see," he said finally. And he really did, too. Kael probably got enough grief from people around him over being a morlock without adding this sort of fuel to the fire. If Zorian was in his place, he would have done everything he could to keep this sort of thing from his classmates as well. "If you're afraid I'll go around telling all our classmates about you having a daughter, you don't have to worry – I understand the need for discretion in matters like this."

Kael breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

"Don't mention it," Zorian said, waving him off. Considering the child's mother wasn't here with them, there was probably a very stressful story in there somewhere. He would have to be a total jackass to set the academy rumor mill on the poor guy by telling them about this. He was a little curious as to how the boy intended to watch over his daughter while attending the academy, but supposed he had already arranged for a nanny of some sort for the child. "I'll just cast a quick spell to carry your luggage and then we'll be off."

Zorian quickly cast the 'floating disc' spell, and a ghostly horizontal circle flickered into existence in front of them. It was a very useful spell that they were supposed to learn in Ilsa's class somewhere in the middle of the third year, but Zorian had been proactive enough to track it down in one of the restarts. It was similar to the 'shield' spell in mechanics, but this particular force construct was mobile and optimized for supporting weight as opposed to absorbing blows. It dutifully floated after them as they started walking out of the train station.

"Interesting," Kael said. "I must admit that, when Ilsa told me my education is severely lacking in many areas, I thought she was exaggerating. Is this what an average third-year student is like?"

"Well, no," said Zorian. "I'm actually way beyond what a third-year student should be. Though I'm hardly unique in my skill…"

Kael hummed thoughtfully.

"Why would your education be lacking, anyway?" asked Zorian.

Kael remained silent for a few seconds, and Zorian was just about to conclude the morlock wasn't interested in talking when the boy finally decided to answer.

"My education was… unconventional," said Kael. "I was a sort of unofficial apprentice to a village mage. One that wasn't a member of the guild. Her skills were somewhat specialized, so much of my proficiency with magic is a product of my own personal efforts. In other words, I'm largely self-taught."

Zorian's respect for the other boy rose a few notches after hearing this. Magic was hard enough to learn with proper instruction. For a young boy to go at it all by himself and get far enough to join a third-year class… though if he's such a genius…

"I hope I'm not being too nosy, but-"

"But why am I going into Cyoria, now?" guessed Kael. "I got a pretty good offer from the academy, and it wasn't like I had anyone stopping me from leaving. My parents died when I was young, and my teacher… she got sick during the Weeping. As did my wife. Kana is the only family I have left."

Zorian flinched. "Oh gods, I didn't mean-"

Kael shook his head. "Don't worry about it, mister Kazinski. If I was to fall apart every time someone broached that topic, I would have to become a hermit and avoid people completely. It is natural to be curious about these things."

Zorian still felt pretty terrible. He had pretty much assumed Kael had gotten some girl pregnant and later had to take responsibility for the child. But no, the guy had been married and everything. A bit shocking to marry and have children so young in this day and age, but hardly unheard of. He studied Kael out of the corner of his eyes in the resulting silence. The boy looked very delicate, with pale, willowy physique and gentle facial lines. Coupled with his shoulder-length white hair, it gave him a rather… feminine appearance. Nonetheless, the boy clearly had no shortage of inner strength if he could move on after losing so many people to the horrible sickness. Back in Cirin, there was a woman who had lost a husband and both sons to the bloody tears fever, and never managed to move past that. She had actually blamed the entire Kazinski family for her tragedy, claiming they had used their 'magic powers' to curse her loved ones because of some petty disagreement. Zorian would be the first person to admit he and his family were no angels, but that was just absurd. And kind of sad.

"There is no need to pity me, mister Kazinski," said Kael, breaking him out of his thoughts.

"Oh, I don't pity you," Zorian said. "I think you're very inspiring, actually. You're a single parent who somehow managed to find the time to teach himself magic to such a degree that a world-renowned institution like the academy in Cyoria acknowledged your potential. They gave you a scholarship, didn't they?"

Kael nodded. "I wouldn't be able to attend otherwise."

"They rarely give out scholarships, you know?" Zorian said. "About 5 to 6 of them each year. You must be pretty amazing to have caught their attention like that."

"It's mostly my medical expertise," Kael sighed. "I made a vow to myself after… well, you know. I swore to myself I would become the best healer of the age and make sure a tragedy such as the Weeping can never happen again."

Uh… wow. Zorian didn't know what to say to something like that.

"I made quite a lot progress on that front, if you permit me to be a little immodest here." Kael said. "But… well, it's complicated. We can talk later, if you're still interested. Me and Kana are rather tired from the journey and I'd like to retire for the day. Kana especially."

Zorian suddenly noticed Kana was starting to doze off on Kael's shoulder. She had been so quiet throughout his entire interaction with Kael that he had almost forgotten she's there. If only Kirielle could be that docile.

"Yes, sorry about that," Zorian apologized. "I got carried away, I guess. I'll have to give you a tour of the city some other time, then."

They spent the rest of the walk in comfortable silence.

- break -

"You were absent yesterday."

Zorian gave Akoja an annoyed look. She wasn't going to give him grief over that, was she?

"I was excused," he noted.

"I know," Akoja said. "I was just wondering where you were."

Zorian was about to tell her it wasn't her damn business where he went in his free time, but then he reconsidered. He was getting strange vibes off Akoja, almost as if she was… concerned about him. Very strange. Normally he would write it off as just another weird thing Akoja did from time to time – the girl seemed to have logic all of her own sometimes, one that not even her obsession with rules could explain – but his recent conversation with Kael stopped him. Was he too dismissive of other people? Up until yesterday, Kael was simply 'that morlock transfer student' to Zorian… It brought back memories of his conversations with Zach, and the other boy's remarks about Zorian's behavior in previous restarts, before he became aware of the time loop.

"I was doing a favor for Ilsa," Zorian said. "Showing our newest transfer student around the city and such."

"Oh," Akoja said, glancing at Kael for a moment. The white-haired boy was sitting several rows behind Zorian, silent and aloof as always. He gave virtually no indication that he knew Zorian was in the classroom, but Zorian could feel the morlock's eyes on him from time to time. "Who is he anyway?"

"Kael Tverinov," Zorian answered.

"I didn't mean his name," Akoja huffed, realizing, after a few seconds of silence, that he wasn't going to say anything else.

"Not sure what else to tell you," Zorian shrugged. "He sounded like a good person to me."

"He looks kind of arrogant," Akoja remarked. "And girly."

"Well how judgmental of you," Zorian remarked with a frown. "You come off as a bit arrogant yourself, you know?"

Well, so much for being nice to Akoja! She stomped off soon after that, shooting him a nasty glare.

Resolving to be more understanding towards people was hard.

- break -

It took Nora Boole only 2 days to organize their first lesson, and the moment Zorian stepped into the classroom Nora had reserved for them he realized Nora was taking this very seriously. It was a professional-looking workshop, the sort that students normally couldn't access without special permission from the teachers. Nora beckoned him forward, positively radiating excitement and enthusiasm. Suddenly he remembered why he had been pensive about getting instruction from her. Considering the amount of homework and additional reading Nora assigned as a matter of course during her classes, Zorian dreaded finding out what she considered an appropriate workload for an actually talented student.

"Ah, you're too quiet!" she complained. "Courage, Zorian, courage!"

"Right," agreed Zorian half-heartedly.

"We'll make a proper crafter out of you yet, just you see!" huffed Nora. "But first, let me just wrap up our discussion from last time. I was a little long-winded, but what I had been trying to build up to was that spell formula are… support magic. Magic affecting other magic. By itself, even the most elegant spell formula is merely a theoretical exercise. You need to actually cast the spells and anchor them to the spell formula before it's of any use. I note this because Ilsa seemed to think your skill in invocations would do you no good in my subject, which annoyed me because it revealed a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the discipline. Which is very disappointing, coming from her, since she is… well, you know…"

"A teacher," finished Zorian.

"Yeah," Nora agreed, a little awkwardly. Teachers rarely spoke ill of one another, in Zorian's experience, so it was no wonder why she was uncomfortable criticizing Ilsa in front of a student. They did have to work with one another on a regular basis, after all, and undermining other teacher's authority like that could get ugly very quickly. Fortunately, only Zorian was present in this case, and he didn't intend to make trouble for her. She seemed to realize it too, after a moment, because she smiled and continued as if nothing had happened. "Anyway, I guess we should get you started on the beginner's cube."

As it turned out, the beginner's cube was a perfectly cubical block of grey stone, each side roughly 10 centimeters long. The one Zorian was given was completely blank and smooth, but Nora showed him a couple of finished ones as a demonstration. They did things like heat up, shed light, or float in the air when activated, or when certain conditions were met. Basically, each finished cube was a crude magic item that used a couple of simple spells and a whole lot of spell formula to produce a neat little toy. They were a standard training tool, according to Nora.

Zorian wanted one the moment he had laid his eyes on them. Giving such a blatantly magical toy to Kirielle would probably keep her out of his hair for hours. It would be his secret weapon against her! Besides, a small floating cube would make a much more challenging target for his magic missile practice than the boulders and tree trunks he usually practiced on. Especially if he could somehow get it to dodge…

He wouldn't have to wait long to acquire one, as it turned out – crafting one was the idea behind today's lesson. And not just any beginner's cube, either. Zorian had expected Nora to give him something easy for a start, but apparently she had something a little more… ambitious… in mind.

"But those ones are too easy for you," Nora concluded. "No, I have something much more fun for you to work on. Here."

She handed him another cube, though this one was positively covered with spell formula. Zorian noted with rising dread that he couldn't make heads or tails with it. Hell, many of the sections looked like mere placeholders instead of working spell formula, being little more than stylized pictograms. Wait…

"As you may have noticed, I compressed the spell formula somewhat," Nora said. "Partially it's because there wasn't enough space on the cube to represent it fully in its raw form, and partially to stop you from simply copying the entire thing line by line on the blank one I gave you earlier."

"Isn't that the whole point?" Zorian asked. "For me to study a working example to see how its done, that is?"

"Absolutely. But I'm afraid blindly copying the spell formula from one cube to another won't teach you what I want you to learn. If I thought you needed to practice memorization and precision, I'd have you copy a dozen or so easy ones to start with, but I'm sure you're already beyond that. No one spends as much time on spell formula theory as you have without trying out some practical examples."

"Err, I never encountered anything like those cubes in the texts I read," said Zorian. "But yes, I have been using spell formulas from time to time. Mostly to establish an alarm perimeter around my bed during my second year – I had a really nosy roommate – and also to make some free lamps and heating plates."

Invocations didn't last long. Even if a mage poured more mana into them than absolutely necessary – and there was only so much you could overpower a spell before it shattered from the strain – they inevitably degraded after a couple of hours at most. The spell boundary degraded with time and eventually fell apart, regardless of whether the spell had enough mana left or not. As a consequence, if Zorian wanted his alarm spell to last throughout the entire night, or his makeshift lamp not to wink out every hour or so, he had to stabilize the spell boundary somehow. Spell formulas were the easiest and most reliable way to do that, so long as someone already crafted a stabilization formula for that particular spell and made it available to the public.

"It's not very surprising you never encountered beginner's cubes in your reading," Nora said. "They're mostly used for theoretical exercises. Not very useful. Most mages don't really care how spell formulas work – only that they do. They memorize the well-documented formulas and some quick-and-dirty methods of modifying existing ones, and then they only have to know when to apply which one. Then they say spell formulas are dry and boring. Hah! If only they knew the true mysteries of the Art, the hidden beauty of numbers and geometry…"

Zorian listened stoically as Nora mumbled to herself about 'unimaginative rabble' and 'sleeping in the bed they made for themselves' for a while. After a while she took a deep breath and plastered a pleasant smile on her face before turning her attention to him again.

There was no sane teacher in this school, it seemed. Zorian wondered whether it was the stress of teaching itself that was producing these kind of effects, or if you simply had to be crazy to accept a teaching position here.

"But I digress," Nora said cheerfully. "I guess I should stop wasting our time and tell you what I want you to do. Here, let me demonstrate…"

- break -

The cube Nora wanted Zorian to recreate was quite complicated. At its core, it was a glorified lamp using a simple 'torch' spell as its base. It could be activated and deactivated verbally, by saying one of the several command words, and it had to be able to tell when someone was referring to it specifically, as opposed to using the command word in some other context. It had three different brightness settings. It conserved mana by not shedding light from any side that was covered by something – the side resting on the floor didn't shine, for example, and wrapping it in a blanket would cause it to turn itself off. Each individual side could be turned on and off by tapping on it twice in quick succession. It could be keyed in to a specific person, taking orders from him or her alone.

Nora had told him not to worry if he couldn't duplicate it exactly – she only wanted to see how far he'd get on his own by the next time they met. That was good, because this assignment was far more complex than anything spell formula related he had done up until now. Their next session was on Monday, so he had an entire weekend to work with, but he doubted he could fully rise to the challenge.

He had mixed feelings about Nora's teaching methods. On one hand, she was taking him seriously, and that was good. On the other hand, she seemed to think that throwing a person overboard was a perfectly valid way of teaching people how to swim, metaphorically speaking.

"Come in."

Zorian sighed before stepping into Xvim's office. What a wonderful way to end a week. For all her faults, he infinitely preferred Nora's way of teaching compared to that of Xvim.

"Zorian Kazinski? Sit down, please," Xvim ordered, not even bothering to wait for an answer. Zorian caught the pen the man had thrown at him with practiced ease, and then promptly caused it to float off the palm of his hand, gently spinning in the air. Woops. He hadn't meant to do that. Oh well, let's see what the man will say about that.

"Make it glow," Xvim barked out without skipping a beat, completely unfazed by Zorian's skill.

Zorian wasn't even surprised anymore. The pen promptly snapped back to his hand and erupted in soft ghostly glow. He cycled through various colors without prompting from Xvim, occasionally changing the intensity of the light just to prove he could.

Xvim arched his eyebrow at him. "I didn't say you could stop levitating the pen."

Zorian's lips twitched in an aborted smile. If Xvim thought he would stump him with that, he was very much mistaken – combining two different shaping exercises was an obvious thing to do, and Zorian had already tried it. Moments later, the pen was spinning in the air in front of him, glowing.

Xvim tapped his finger on the desk thoughtfully. Was it possible? Had he really managed to give the man pause? The world was coming to an end! Zorian watched in anticipation, wondering what the crazy man would think up next.

"I suppose there is no point in testing your ability to burn things. That was always the easiest exercise of the three," Xvim mused. As a point of fact, Zorian was a bit deficient in the burning exercise… at least compared to the other two. Not that he was going to tell that to Xvim, of course. "Your essentials are… adequate. Almost decent, though not quite. Your attitude could use some work, but I suppose you at least have more tact than most of the unfortunates that haunt these halls. Plus, miss Zileti has appealed to me on your behalf, asking me to be 'not such a hardass' towards you. As such, as much as I'd like to shake up your woefully shaky foundations, I'm going to reluctantly move on to something slightly more advanced."

To Zorian's great confusion, Xvim handed him a strip of cloth. What was he supposed to do what that?

"Err…"

"It's a blindfold," Xvim explained. "You put it over your eyes so you can't see."

"And… why do I need a blindfold again?" Zorian asked.

"We're going to train your ability to sense mana," said Xvim. "You're going to put the blindfold on, and then I'm going to throw these mana-charged marbles at you."

Zorian stared at the man incredulously. Had he really heard him right?

"I'm either going to throw them over your left shoulder, over your right shoulder, or straight at your head. If you get hit by a marble, you lose a point. If you move when you don't have to, you lose a point. Otherwise you receive a point. We'll stop when you accrue 10 points or our time runs out."

Yes, he really had heard him right. Thank you so much for your help Ilsa, thank you so much!

- break -

The next two weeks were busy, but routine. He directed most of his efforts towards mastering spell formulas, largely because Nora was very willing to indulge him – the harder he tried in their lessons, the more enthusiastic she became about teaching him. She even suggested they meet on Sundays for additional instruction, apparently not having any private obligations to distract her. He had learned much, but Nora set a grueling pace, and he was glad the restart was fast approaching. He doubted he could last much more than a month of Nora's teaching.

Interestingly, he seemed to be attracting attention from the teachers and students alike in this particular restart. Maybe it was him impressing Ilsa as much as he did, maybe it was the way he quietly went with the insane workload Nora gave him, or maybe Xvim said something nice about him to the other teachers. Well, probably not that last part, since he had made little progress in mastering Xvim's current 'exercise'. In any case, he was getting a lot of attention for his efforts, which was rather curious. Most of the time, no matter how hard he tried in class, everyone was pretty flat about it. He thought about trying to turn to leverage all that attention into something useful, but he was too exhausted by his studies to plot properly. Some other restart perhaps.

The attention had the unfortunate side-effect of wrecking any chance he had of befriending Kael. Associating with Zorian would surely bring great scrutiny on the morlock, something the boy was understandably concerned about, so Zorian wasn't surprised the other boy never sought him out. Frankly, he wasn't sure he could befriend the boy even in normal circumstances – the morlock had a daughter waiting for him at home, and thus probably wouldn't want to spend his time after class socializing with friends.

Akoja was extremely pleased with him, though. Zorian couldn't really understand why, but she was.

And then it happened. Suddenly, without any warning, there was a wrenching sensation and everything went black. He woke up, as usual, with Kirielle lying on top of him, looking smug.

There were two possibilities that Zorian could think of to explain this occurrence. The first one was that something or someone had killed him so fast he was dead before he realized it. He was skeptical of this, as he had done nothing to warrant an assassination, and he couldn't think of any natural force that could kill so suddenly and thoroughly. He hadn't even felt any pain before he died.

The second possibility was much more likely, and also much more worrying. While he was minding his business, learning spell formulas in Cyoria, Zach was off somewhere in the world, doing insanely dangerous things. Zach died. When he did, his soul was dragged into the past to start over… and it dragged Zorian's soul back with it.

Which would make Zorian soul-bonded to Zach.

Damn it.