Chapter 002

Life's Little Problems

Although the academy loved saying they were an elite institution thanks to the excellent quality of its teaching staff, the truth was that the main reason for their supremacy was their library. Through contributions of its alumni, generous budget allocations by a number of former headmasters, quirks of local criminal law, and sheer historical accident, the academy had built a library without equal. You could find anything you wanted, regardless of whether the topic was magical or not – there was a whole section reserved for steamy romance novels, for instance. The library was so massive it had actually expanded into the tunnels beneath the city. Many of the lower levels were only accessible to guild mages, so it was only now that Zorian was allowed to browse their contents. Fortunately, the library was open during the weekend, so the very first thing Zorian did when he woke up was descend into these depths to see what he'd been missing these past two years and maybe fill out his spellbook a bit.

He was pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of spells and training manuals available to a first circle mage. There were more books and spells than he could master in a lifetime. Most of the spells were either highly situational or minor variations of each other, so he didn't feel the need to obsessively learn all of them, but he could already see this place would keep him busy all year round. A lot of them looked surprisingly easy and harmless, and he couldn't help but wonder why they were kept on the restricted level instead of being available to everyone. He could have used these during his second year.

He was right in the middle of trying to find the rain barrier the academy incorporated into its ward scheme when he realized he had skipped breakfast and was getting awfully hungry, and that it was past noon. Reluctantly, he checked out a couple of books to pore over in depth in the safety of his room and went to get something to eat.

There was no kitchen in his room, sadly, but the academy had a pretty good cafeteria available to students – the food they offered was cheap yet surprisingly edible. Still, it was something of a poor man's option, and most of the richer kids ate in one of the many restaurants in the vicinity of the academy. That's why Zorian was a bit shocked when he entered the cafeteria and realized that changes to the academy weren't only in exterior appearances – the cafeteria was positively sparkling, and all the tables and chairs were brand new. It was weird to see the place so… clean.

Shaking his head, he quickly loaded a couple of plates on his tray, idly noting the cooks were a lot less stingy with the meat and other expensive parts of the dish all of a sudden, and then started scanning the eating students for familiar faces. Clearly something was happening here, and he hated being left outside the loop.

"Zorian! Over here!"

How fortunate. Zorian immediately set off towards the chubby boy gesturing for him to come over. Zorian had learned over the years that his exuberant classmate was firmly plugged into the academy gossip network, and knew pretty much everything and everyone. If anyone would know what was going on, it would be Benisek.

"Hello Ben," Zorian said. "I'm surprised to see you in Cyoria so soon. Don't you usually come with the last train?"

"I should be asking you that!" Benisek half-shouted. Zorian never understood why the boy had to be so loud all the time. "I came here so early but you're already here!"

"You came back two days before classes start, Ben," Zorian said, resisting the urge to roll his eyes at him. Only Benisek would think that coming a couple of days early is some great feat worth mentioning. "That's not all that early. And I just got back yesterday."

"So did I," Benisek said. "Damn. If you had contacted me, we could have arranged to travel together or something. You must have been bored out of your mind here, all alone for a whole day."

"Something like that," agreed Zorian, smiling politely.

"So are you excited?" Benisek asked, suddenly changing the topic.

"About what?" Zorian asked. Funny, hadn't Kirielle asked him the exact same question?

"The start of a new year! We're third years now, that's when the real fun starts."

Zorian blinked. To his knowledge, Benisek was one of those people who weren't terribly concerned about their success in the arcane arts. He already had a guaranteed post in his family business, and was here simply to obtain the prestige of being a licensed mage. Zorian had half expected him to drop out immediately following certification, yet here he was, just as excited as Zorian to finally start delving into the real mysteries of magic. Now he felt pretty bad about writing him off so quickly. He really shouldn't be so presumptuous…

"Oh, that. Of course I'm excited. Though I must admit I never knew you actually cared about your education."

"What are you talking about?" asked Benisek, eying him suspiciously. "The girls, man, I'm talking about the girls. The younger ones love upperclassmen like us! The new batch of first years will be all over us."

Zorian groaned. He should have known.

"Anyway," said Zorian, recovering quickly, "since I know you're always gossiping around-"

"Informing myself about the current state of things," Benisek cut in, his voice assuming a mock-lecturing quality.

"Right. What's with the academy being all sparkly and clean all of a sudden?"

Benisek blinked. "You didn't know? Oh man, people have been talking about this for months! Just which rock do you live under, Zorian?"

"Cirin is a glorified village in the middle of nowhere… as you very well know," Zorian said. "Now spill."

"It's the summer festival," Benisek said. "The whole city is getting ready for it, not just the academy."

"But there's a summer festival every year," Zorian said, confused.

"Yeah, but this year is special."

"Special?" Zorian asked. "How?"

"I don't know, some astrological bullshit," Benisek whined, waving his hand dismissively. "Why does it matter? It's an excuse to have an even bigger party than usual. Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, I say."

"Astro-" began Zorian with a quirked eyebrow when something occurred to him. "Wait, you mean planar alignment?"

"Yeah, that," Benisek agreed. "What's that anyway?"

"Do you have a couple of hours?"

"On second thought, I don't want to know," Benisek quickly backpedaled, chuckling nervously.

Zorian snorted. So easy to scare. The truth was that Zorian knew very little about planar alignments, and probably couldn't speak about them longer than 30 seconds. It was a pretty obscure topic. Zorian strongly suspected that Benisek was right, and that it was being used simply as an excuse to have a bigger party.

"So what did you do over the summer?" Benisek asked.

Zorian groaned. "Ben, you sound like my elementary school literature teacher. 'Now, children, for your homework you will write a short essay about what you did during the summer holidays.'"

"I'm just being polite," Benisek said defensively. "No need to snap at me because you wasted your summer away."

"Oh, and you spent it productively?" Zorian challenged.

"Well, not voluntarily," Benisek admitted sheepishly. "Father decided it was time I start learning the family craft, so I spent all summer helping him and acting as his assistant."

"Oh."

"Yeah," Benisek agreed, clacking his tongue. "He also made me choose estate management as one of my electives. I hear it's a really tough class too."

"Hm. Can't say my summer was particularly stressful. I spent most of my time reading fiction and avoiding my family," admitted Zorian. "Mother tried to dump my little sister on me this year, but I managed to talk her out of it."

"I feel for you," Benisek said with a shudder. "I've got two younger sisters and I think I'd die if they came to live with me here. They're both utter nightmares! Anyway, what did you take for your electives?"

"Engineering, Mineral Alchemy, and Advanced Mathematics."

"Eh!?" Benisek blanched. "Man, you're really taking this seriously, aren't you? I guess you're gunning for a spot in one of the spell forges, huh?"

"Yeah," Zorian said.

"Why?" Benisek asked incredulously. "Designing magic items… that's a tough, demanding job. Surely your parents could find you a spot in their business?"

Zorian gave him a strained smile. Yes, no doubt his parents already had a spot all planned out for him.

"I'd rather starve out in the streets," Zorian told him honestly.

Benisek raised an eyebrow at him, but then simply shook his head sadly. "I think you're crazy, personally. Who did you choose as your mentor?"

"I didn't get to choose," Zorian scoffed. "There was only one left by the time it was my turn to do so. I'm mentored under Xvim."

Benisek actually dropped his spoon at this, staring at him in shock. "Xvim!? But that guy's a nightmare!"

"I know," Zorian said, releasing a long-suffering sigh.

"God, I'd probably transfer if I got assigned to that asshole," Benisek said. "You're a lot braver a man than I, that's for sure."

"So who did you choose?" Zorian asked curiously.

"Carabiera Aope," Benisek said, immediately brightening.

"Please don't tell me you chose your mentor based on appearance?" begged Zorian.

"Well, not just based on appearance," Benisek said defensively. "They say she's pretty tolerant…"

"You don't want to do any extra work," Zorian surmised.

"This whole thing is like a vacation to me," Benisek admitted sheepishly. "I get to postpone employment for two years and have some fun in the meantime. You're only young once, you know?"

Zorian shrugged. Personally he found learning about magic and gathering knowledge in general to be fun all by itself, but he knew all too well that very few people shared this opinion with him.

"I suppose," Zorian said noncommittally. "So is there anything else that everyone knows that I should be familiar with?"

He spent another hour or so conversing with Benisek, touching upon a variety of topics. It was particularly interesting to hear which of their classmates would be joining them this year and which ones wouldn't. Zorian had thought the certification exam was a bit on the easy side, but apparently he was mistaken, since roughly a quarter of their classmates would not be joining them. He did notice that most of the failed students were civilian-born ones, but this wasn't terribly unusual – mage-born students had parental support when learning magic, and a reputation to live up to. He was pleasantly surprised that one particular asshole wouldn't be joining them this year – apparently Veyers Boranova lost his temper on his disciplinary hearing and got himself expelled from the academy. He wouldn't be missed. Honestly, that boy was a menace and it was a disgrace they hadn't expelled him sooner. Fortunately, it seemed there were some things that just couldn't be overlooked, even if you were an heir of Noble House Boranova.

He left when Benisek started discussing pros and cons of various girls in their class, not willing to get dragged into such a discussion, and went back to his room to get some reading done. He hadn't even opened the first book properly when he was interrupted by a knock on the door. Very few people cared to track him down to his room, so he actually had a pretty good idea of who it was before he even opened the door.

"Hi, Roach!"

Zorian stared at the grinning girl in front of him, contemplating whether to take offense at the insulting nickname before shooing her inside. In the past, while he was still crushing on her, the nickname had kind of hurt… now it was just slightly annoying. Taiven promptly ran inside and jumped on his bed like a little kid. Really, what had he ever seen in her? Beside a beautiful older girl who was fairly nice to him and had a propensity to wear form-fitting clothes, that is.

"I thought you graduated," he said.

"I did," she answered, taking one of the spellbooks he borrowed from the library into her lap to leaf through it. Seeing how she had already taken over his bed, he sat down on the chair in front of his work desk. "But you know how it goes – there's always too many young mages, never enough masters willing to take them under their wing. I'm working as a class assistant for Nirthak. Hey, if you took nonmagical combat you're going to see me all the time!"

"Yeah, right," Zorian snorted. "Nirthak blacklisted me in advance, just in case I get any ideas."

"Really!?"

"Yeah. Not that I would ever sign up for a class like that anyway," Zorian said. Except maybe to watch Taiven all sweaty and puffed up in that tight outfit she always wore whenever she trained.

"Pity," she said, seemingly engrossed in his book. "You really should put on some muscle one of these days. Girls like boys who exercise."

"I don't care what girls like," Zorian snapped crankily. She was starting to sound like his mother. "Why are you here anyway?"

"Oh calm down, it was just a thought," she said with a dramatic sigh. "Boys and their fragile little egos."

"Taiven, I like you, but you're really treading on thin ice here," Zorian warned.

"I came here to ask if you would join me and a couple of others on a job tomorrow," she said, throwing the book aside and finally getting to the point of her visit.

"A job?" Zorian asked suspiciously.

"Yeah. Well, more like a mission. You know those job postings people tack onto the big board inside the administrative building?"

Zorian nodded. Whenever a mage in the city wanted something done for cheap, he posted a 'job offer' there for interested students. The payout was generally miserable, but students had to collect 'points' by doing these, so everyone had to do a number of them. Most people didn't start doing these before their fourth year, unless they really needed the money, and Zorian fully intended to follow this tradition.

"There is a pretty nice one there," Taiven said. "It's actually just a simple find and retrieve in the tunnels below the city that-"

"A sewer run!?" asked Zorian incredulously, cutting her off. "You want me to go on a sewer run?"

"It's good experience!" Taiven protested.

"No," said Zorian, crossing his arms. "No way."

"Oh come on, Roach, I'm begging you!" Taiven whined. "We can't apply until we find a fourth member of the team! Would it kill you to make this tiny sacrifice for your old friend?"

"It very well might!" Zorian said.

"You'll have three other people to protect you!" she assured. "We've been there hundreds of times and nothing really dangerous ever happens down there – the rumors are mostly exaggerated."

Zorian snorted and looked away. Even if they really did keep him safe, it was still a trek through smelly, disease-ridden tunnels with three people he didn't really know, and who probably resented having to bring him along for the sake of a formality.

Besides, he still hadn't forgiven her for that fake date she invited him on. She may not have known he was crushing on her at the time, but it was still a pretty insensitive thing she did that evening.

Also, he might feel a little more inclined to help if she stopped calling him 'Roach'. It was not nearly as cute as she thought it was.

"Okay, how about a bet?" she tried.

"No," Zorian promptly refused.

She let out an affronted cry. "You didn't even hear me out!"

"You want to fight," Zorian said. "You always want to fight."

"So?" she pouted. "You chickening out? You're admitting you'd lose to a girl?"

"Absolutely," Zorian deadpanned. Both of Taiven's parents were martial arts practitioners, and they had taught her how to fight since she could walk. Zorian wouldn't last five seconds against her in hand-to-hand combat.

Hell, he doubted anyone in school would do much better.

Taiven waved her hands in the air in a frustrated gesture and promptly collapsed on his bed, and for a moment Zorian actually thought she was accepting defeat. Then she sat up and folded her legs under her until she was sitting in a lotus position. The smile on her face was giving Zorian a bad feeling.

"So," she began cheerfully. "How have you been?"

Zorian sighed. This was not how he intended to spend his weekend.

- break -

Two days later, Zorian was well settled into his new room and it was Monday morning. Rising early was pure torture after he had gotten into the habit of sleeping in, but he managed. He had many flaws, but a lack of self-discipline wasn't one of them.

He had managed to fend off Taiven after three hours of verbal wrangling, though he was in no mood for anything after that and put off reading for another day after her visit. In the end he spent the entire weekend lazing around, actually somewhat impatient for the classes to start.

The first class of the day was Essential Invocations, and Zorian wasn't quite sure what it was supposed to teach. Most of the other classes on his schedule had a clear subject of study visible from the very name of the subject, but 'invocation' was a general term. Invocations were what most people thought about when someone said 'magic' – a few arcane words and strange gestures and poof! Magic effect. It was actually more involved than that – a lot more involved – but that was the visible part, so that's what people focused on. Clearly the academy felt the class was important, because they had a period scheduled for it every day of the week.

As he approached the classroom, he noticed a familiar person standing in front of the door with a clipboard in her hands. This, at least, was a familiar sight. Akoja Stroze had been the class representative for his group since their first year, and she took her position very seriously. She gave him a harsh look when she noticed him, and Zorian wondered what he had done to annoy her now.

"You're late," she stated when he got close enough.

Zorian raised an eyebrow at this. "The class doesn't start for at least 10 more minutes. How can I be late?"

"Students are supposed to be in the classroom and ready for class 15 minutes before the class starts," she stated.

Zorian rolled his eyes. This was ridiculous, even for Akoja. "Am I the last person to arrive?"

"No," she conceded after a short silence.

Zorian walked past her and entered the classroom.

You could always tell when you walked into a gathering of mages – their appearance and fashion sense gave them away unerringly, especially in Cyoria where mages from all over the world sent their children. Many of his classmates came from established magical families, if not outright Houses, and many mage lineages produced children with noticeable peculiarities, either because of bloodlines passed down from parents or because of secret enhancement rituals they subjected themselves to… things like having green hair, or always giving birth to soul-bonded twins, or having tattoo-like markings on their cheeks and forehead. And these were real examples exhibited by his classmates.

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, he went towards the front of the classroom, throwing polite greetings to those few classmates he knew a little better than the rest. No one really tried to talk to him – though there was no bad blood between him and anyone in the class, he was not particularly close to any of them either.

He was just about to sit down when frantic hissing interrupted him. He glanced to his left, watching his classmate whisper soothingly to the orange-red lizard in his lap. The animal was staring at him intently with its bright yellow eyes, nervously tasting the air with its tongue, but didn't hiss again when Zorian carefully lowered himself into the chair.

"Sorry about that," the boy said. "He's still a little uneasy around strangers."

"Don't worry about it," Zorian said, waving the apology away. He didn't know Briam all that well, but he did know his family bred fire drakes for a living, so it wasn't that unusual for him to have one. "I see your family has given you a fire drake of your own. Familiar?"

Briam nodded happily, scratching the lizard's head absent-mindedly and causing the creature to close its eyes in contentment. "I bonded with him over the summer holidays," he said. "Familiar bond is a little strange at first, but I think I'm getting the hang of it. At least I've managed to talk him out of breathing fire at people without permission, else I would have to put a fire-suppressant collar on him, and he hates that thing."

"The school won't bother you about bringing it to class?" Zorian asked curiously.

"Him," Briam corrected. "And no, they won't. You can bring a familiar to class if you've reported them to the academy and can get them to behave. And, of course, as long as they're reasonably sized."

"I hear fire drakes can get pretty big," Zorian remarked speculatively.

"They do," Briam agreed. "That's why I wasn't allowed to have one till now. In a few years he'll get way too big to follow me into the classroom, but by that time I'll already be finished with my education and back at the ranch."

Satisfied the creature wouldn't try to take a bite out of him during class, Zorian let his attention wander elsewhere. He mostly spent his time studying the girls as covertly as possible. He blamed Benisek for this, since he usually wasn't in the habit of ogling his classmates. No matter how cute some of them were…

"Hot, isn't she?"

Zorian jumped in surprise at the voice behind him and cursed himself for being caught so unawares.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he said quickly, turning as calmly as possible in his seat to face Zach. The cheery, smiling face of his classmate told him he wasn't fooling anyone.

"Don't be so flustered," Zach told him happily. "I don't think there's a single boy in class who doesn't occasionally daydream about our resident red-headed goddess."

Zorian snorted. Actually, he wasn't looking at Raynie at all, but at the girl she was talking to. Not that he was going to correct Zach about that. Or anything, really – Zorian had mixed feelings about Zach. On the one hand the raven-haired boy was charming, confident, handsome, and popular – and thus reminded him uncomfortably of his brothers – but on the other hand he was never mean or inconsiderate to Zorian, and would often chat with him when everyone else was content to ignore him. As a result, Zorian was never quite sure how to act around him.

Besides, Zorian never discussed his tastes in women with other boys. The academy rumor mill breathed rumors about who liked who, and Zorian knew all too well how even relatively innocuous rumors could make your life miserable for years to come.

"From your wistful tone, I'm guessing she's still immune to your charm," Zorian said, trying to shift the focus of the conversation away from him.

"She's tricky," Zach agreed. "But I've got all the time in the world."

Zorian raised an eyebrow at that, not sure what the other boy was implying. All the time in the world?

Thankfully, he was saved from further conversation when the door noisily opened and the teacher entered the classroom. Zorian was honestly surprised to see Ilsa walk into class with the huge green book that all teachers carried, though he really shouldn't have been – he already knew Ilsa was a teacher at the academy, so there was nothing unusual about her teaching this class. She gave him a smile before setting the book down on her desk and clapping her hands together to silence those students who were too engrossed in their own conversations to notice the teacher in the room.

"Settle down everyone, the class has started," Ilsa said, accepting the list of present students from Akoja, who remained standing beside Ilsa at attention, like a soldier in front of a superior officer.

"Welcome, students, to your first class of the new school year. I am Ilsa Zileti and I will be your teacher for this class. You are third year students now, meaning you have passed your certification and joined us in our… illustrious magi community. You have proven yourself to be intelligent, driven, and capable of bending mana – the lifeblood of magic – to your will. But your journey is just beginning. As all of you have noticed, and many of you have complained about, you have only been taught a handful of spells so far, and all of them are mere cantrips. You'll be pleased to know this injustice ends now."

A cheer erupted from the students, and Ilsa allowed them to go wild for a second before gesturing them to be silent again. She certainly had a flair for theatrics.

Much like the students, really – that cheer certainly wasn't because they were honestly unable to contain their excitement.

"But what exactly are spells?" she asked. "Can anyone tell me?"

"Oh great," Zorian mumbled. "A review session."

Hesitant mumbling erupted in the classroom until Ilsa pointed to one particular girl, who repeated her answer of 'structured magic'.

"Indeed, spells are structured magic. To cast a spell is to invoke a particular mana construct. A construct that is, by its very nature, limited in what it can do. This is why structured spells are also called 'bounded spells'. The shaping exercises you have been doing for the past two years – the ones that you all think are a useless chore – are unstructured magic. In theory, unstructured magic can do anything. Invocations are simply a tool to make your life easier. A crutch, some would say. To cast a bounded spell is to sacrifice flexibility and force mana into a rigid construct that can only be modified in minor ways. So why does everyone prefer invocations?"

She waited for a few moments before continuing. "In an ideal world, you would learn how to perform all your magic in an unstructured manner, bending it to your will as you please. But this is not an ideal world. Unstructured magic is slow and hard to learn, and time is precious. And besides, invocations are good enough for most purposes. They can do amazing things. Many of the things you can accomplish with invocations have never been reproduced using unstructured magic. Others…"

She took out a pen from her pocket and placed it on the table before casting what Zorian recognized as a simple 'torch' spell. The pen erupted in soft light that illuminated the room. Well, at least now he knew why the curtains were closed in the classroom – it was hard to effectively demonstrate light spells in broad daylight. The spell was nothing new to Zorian, though, since they were taught how to cast it last year.

"The 'torch' invocation is one of the simplest spells, and one that you should already know by now. It is comparable to the light-emitting shaping exercise that you should also know by now."

Ilsa then launched into an explanation about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the 'torch' spell compared to the shaping exercise, and how it related to structured vs. unstructured magic in general. For the most part, it was nothing that Zorian hadn't known from books and lectures already, and Zorian amused himself by drawing various magical creatures in the margins of his notebook while she talked. From the corner of his eye he could see Akoja and a number of other people furiously writing everything down, even though this was just a review session and they almost certainly had all of this already written in their last year's notebooks. He didn't know whether to be impressed with their dedication or disgusted by their single-mindedness. He did notice, however, that some of the students had animated their pens to copy down the entire lecture while they listened. Zorian personally preferred to write notes himself, but he could see how such a spell would be useful, so he quickly jotted down a reminder to find the spell they used to do that.

Ilsa then began discussing dispelling – another topic they had covered exhaustively during the previous year, and also one of the key areas they had to be proficient in to pass the certification process. To be fair, it was a complex and vital topic. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to effectively dispelling a structured spell, and without knowing how to dispel your own spells, experimenting with structured magic could be disastrous. Still, one would think the academy would assume they knew it by now and move on.

Somewhere along the line Ilsa decided to spice up her explanation with examples and performed some kind of summoning spell that resulted in several stacks of ceramic bowls popping into existence on her table. She told Akoja to distribute the bowls to everyone, and then had them use the 'levitate object' spell to make the bowls hover over their tables. Compared to levitating that little girl's bicycle out of the river, this was insultingly easy.

"I see you've all managed to levitate your bowls," Ilsa said. "Very good. Now I want you to cast the de-illuminator spell on it."

Zorian raised his eyebrows at this. What would that achieve?

"Go on," Ilsa urged. "Don't tell me you have already forgotten how to cast it?"

Zorian quickly made a couple of gestures and whispered a short chant while concentrating on the bowl. The item in question wobbled for a second before finally dropping out of the air like any normal heavier-than-air item. A plethora of clattering sounds informed him that this wasn't an isolated occurrence. He glanced towards Ilsa for an explanation.

"As you can see, the 'levitate object' spell can be dispelled by the 'de-illuminator' spell. An interesting development, don't you agree? What does a spell designed to snuff out sources of magical light have to do with hovering objects? The truth, my young students, is that 'de-illuminator' is simply a specialized form of a general-purpose disruptor spell, which breaks down the structure of a spell in order to make it go away. While not designed with 'levitate object' in mind, it is still capable of affecting it if you supply it with enough power."

"Why didn't you tell us to just dispel it normally, then?" one of the girls asked.

"A topic for another time," Ilsa said without missing a beat. "For now, I want you to take notice of what happened when you dispelled the spell on the bowl – it dropped like a rock, and if it had not been magically strengthened, it would have probably shattered upon impacting the table. This is the main problem inherent in all disruptor spells. Disruptor spells are the simplest form of dispelling, and virtually every spell can be disrupted if you put enough power into the disruptor, but sometimes disrupting the spell can have worse consequences than letting it run its course. This is especially true for higher-order spells, which almost always react explosively to disruption because of the vast amount of mana that goes into their casting. Not to mention that 'enough power' can be far more than any mage can provide. Place your bowls on the table and put a few torn pages from your notebook into it."

Zorian was somewhat surprised by Ilsa's sudden request, but did as she said. He always found tearing paper to be somewhat cathartic, so he filled the bowl with a bit more paper than necessary, and then waited for further instructions.

"I want you all to cast the 'ignite' spell on the paper, followed immediately by the de-illuminator on the resulting fire to dispel it," Ilsa said.

Zorian sighed. This time he had caught on to what she was doing, and knew the flames would not be dispelled by the de-illuminator, but he did as she said anyway. The flames didn't even flicker, and the fire died out on its own when it ran out of fuel.

"I see all of you can cast the ignite spell perfectly," Ilsa said. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised – heating things is something that is very easy to do with magic. That and explosions. None of you managed to dispel the flames, though. Why do you suppose that is?"

Zorian snorted, listening to several other students trying to guess the answer. 'Guess' being the operative word, because they seemed to be throwing random answers around in hopes of making something stick. Normally he never volunteered for anything in class – he disliked the attention – but he was getting tired of the guessing game and Ilsa didn't seem willing to supply the answer herself until someone figured it out.

"Because there's nothing to dispel," he called out. "It's just a regular fire, started by magic but not fueled by it."

"Correct," Ilsa said. "This is another weakness of disruptor spells. They break down mana constructs, but any fundamentally non-magical effects caused by the spell are unaffected. With that in mind, let us return to our immediate problem…"

Two hours later, Zorian filed out of the classroom with his fellow classmates, actually a bit disappointed. He learned precious little during the lecture, and Ilsa said she would spend an entire month rounding out their basics before moving on to more advanced stuff. Then she gave them an essay on the topic of dispelling. It was shaping up to be a relatively boring class, since Zorian had a pretty good grasp of the basics, and they had essential invocations five times a week – that is to say, every day. Joy.

The rest of the day was uneventful, since the remaining four classes were purely introductory, outlining what material would be covered for each class and other such details. Essential alchemy and operation of magical items looked promising, but the other two classes were just more of the same thing they'd had for the past two years. Zorian wasn't sure why the academy felt that they needed to continue learning about the history of magic and magical law into the third year of their education, unless they were deliberately trying to annoy everyone. This was especially true because their history teacher, an old man by the name of Zenomir Olgai, was very enthusiastic about his subject and gave them an assignment to read a 200-page history book by the end of the week.

It was a poor way to start the week in Zorian's opinion.

- break -

The next day opened with combat magic, which was taught in a training hall instead of a classical classroom. Their teacher was an ex-battlemage named Kyron. It only took one look at him for Zorian to realize this was not going to be your average class.

The man standing in front of them was of average height, but he looked as if he was chiseled out of stone – bald, grim-faced, and very, very muscular. He had a rather prominent nose and he was completely shirtless, proudly displaying his rather developed chest muscles. He carried a combat staff in one hand and the ever-present green teacher's book in the other. Had someone described the man to Zorian, he would have thought it funny, but there was nothing funny about facing this person in the flesh.

"Combat magic isn't really a category of spells as such," Kyron said in a loud, commanding voice, more like a general talking to recruits than a teacher talking to students. It was probably the quietest class Zorian had ever been in – even chatterboxes like Neolu and Jade were silent. "More like a way of casting magic. To use spells in combat, you need to cast them fast, and you need to overcome your opponent's defenses. This means they inevitably require a lot of power and that you shape the spell in an instant... which means that classical invocations like you learn them in other classes are useless!" He slammed his staff into the floor for emphasis, and his words reverberated throughout the training hall. Zorian could swear the man was empowering his voice with magic somehow. "Chanting a spell takes several seconds, if not longer, and most of your opponents will kill you before you finish. Especially today, in the aftermath of the Splinter Wars, when every fool is armed with a gun and educated in ways to effectively combat mages."

Kyron waved his hand in the air and the air behind him shimmered, revealing a transparent phantasm of a minotaur over him. The creature looked quite angry, but it was clearly an illusion.

"A lot of combat spells used by mages of old relied on people being awed by magic, or unfamiliar with its limitations. Today, every child that went through elementary school knows better than to be scared away by an obvious illusion like this one, much less a professional soldier or a criminal. Most of the spells and tactics you will find in the library are hopelessly obsolete."

Kyron stopped and rubbed his chin in thought. "Also, it is somewhat hard to focus on spellcasting when someone is actively trying to kill you," he remarked offhandedly. He shook his head. "As a consequence of all this, nobody casts combat spells as classical invocations anymore. Instead, people use spell formulas, like the one imprinted on my staff, to cast specific spells quicker and easier. I won't even be teaching you how to cast combat spells without these items, since teaching you how to use classical invocations effectively in battle would take years. If you're really curious, you can always browse the library for the right chants and gestures and practice on your own."

Then he handed them each a rod of magic missile and had them practice firing the spell at the clay dolls on the other end of the training hall, until their mana ran out. While he was waiting for the girl in front of him to run out of mana, Zorian studied the spell rod in his hand. It was a perfectly straight piece of wood that fit well into Zorian's hand and could be grasped at each of the two ends without any change in effect – that being a bolt of force emerging from the tip of the rod pointing away from the caster.

When it was finally his turn, he realized that casting with the aid of a spell formula was almost insultingly easy. He didn't even have to think about it much, just point the rod in the desired direction and channel mana through it – the spell formula in the rod did almost everything by itself. The real problem was that 'magic missile' took a lot more mana than any other spell that Zorian had encountered, and he had burned through his mana reserves in only eight shots.

Drained of mana and a little disappointed in how quickly he ran out, Zorian observed Zach as he fired magic missile after magic missile with lazy confidence. Zorian couldn't help but feel a bit envious of the boy – the amount of mana Zach had to have used by now was easily three or four times bigger than his maximum. And Zach didn't appear to be slowing down at all, either.

"Well, I'm going to let you all go, even though the class isn't officially over yet," Kyron said. "You're all out of mana, with the exception of mister Noveda here, and combat magic is all about practice. As parting words, I must caution you to use your newly acquired combat magic with restraint and responsibility. Otherwise, I will personally hunt you down."

If it were any other professor saying this, Zorian would have laughed, but Kyron might just be crazy enough to do it.

Then it was time for spell formula class, which was the very branch of magic that was used to build the focusing aids they used in their combat magic class. Their teacher, a young woman with gravity-defying orange hair that stood up like the flame of a candle, reminded Zorian of Zenomir Olgai with her enthusiasm for the subject. Zorian actually liked spell formulas, but not quite as much as Nora Boole thought was appropriate. Her 'recommended reading' included 12 different books and she immediately announced that she would be organizing bonus lectures each week for those interested in learning more. Then she gave them 'a short test' (it had 60 questions) to check how much they remembered from their last two years. She then wrapped up the class by telling them to read the first three chapters from one of the books on her recommended reading list for the next class (which was tomorrow).

After that, the rest of the day was like a relaxation period in comparison.

- break -

Zorian knocked on the door in front of him, nervously fidgeting in place. The first week of school was rather uneventful, aside from finding out that advanced mathematics was also taught by Nora Boole, and she was similarly enthusiastic about that subject as well, giving them another preliminary test and more 'recommended' reading. Still, it was now Friday, and it was time to meet his mentor.

"Come in," a voice sounded from the room, and Zorian swore he could feel the impatience in the voice already, like the man felt Zorian was wasting his time before he even saw him. He opened the door and came face to face with Xvim Chao, the notorious mentor from hell. Zorian could tell straight from his facial expression that Xvim didn't think much of him.

"Zorian Kazinski? Sit down please," Xvim ordered, not even bothering to wait for an answer. Zorian barely caught the pen the man threw at him the moment he sat down.

"Show me your basic three," his mentor ordered, referring the shaping exercises they were taught in their second year.

He had heard about this part. No one had ever mastered the basic three enough to impress Xvim. Sure enough, Zorian had barely begun levitating the pen when he was interrupted.

"Slow," Xvim pronounced. "It took you a full second of concentration to snap into a proper mindset. You must be faster. Start over."

Start over. Start over. Start over. He kept saying that, again and again, until Zorian realized it had been a whole hour since they had started with this. He had completely lost track of time in his attempt to focus on the exercise instead of his growing desire to ram the pen into Xvim's eye socket.

"Start over."

The pen immediately rose into the air, before Xvim was even done talking. Really, how could he possibly get any faster than this with the exercise?

He lost focus when a marble collided with his forehead, disrupting his concentration.

"You lost focus," Xvim admonished.

"You threw a marble at me!" protested Zorian, unable to quite accept that Xvim had really done something so childish. "What did you expect would happen!?"

"I expected you to maintain focus on the exercise anyway," Xvim said. "Had you truly mastered the exercise, such a minor disturbance would not have impeded you. It seems I have once again been regretfully proven right: the inadequacy of current academy curricula has stunted the growth of another promising student. It seems we have to start with the very basics of mana shaping. We will go through each of the basic three until you can do them flawlessly."

"Professor, I had those exercises mastered a year ago," Zorian protested. He was not wasting his time with the basic three. He had already spent too much time refining those in his opinion.

"You have not," Xvim said, sounding as if he was affronted Zorian would even suggest such a thing. "Being able to perform the exercise reliably is not the same as mastering it. Besides, doing this will teach you patience and how to control your temper, which is clearly something you are having trouble with. Those are important skills for a mage to have."

Zorian's lips pressed themselves into a thin line. The man was intentionally pissing him off, Zorian was sure of it. Apparently the rumors were right and these sessions were going to be one giant exercise in frustration.

"Let us start with the levitation exercise," Xvim said, oblivious to Zorian's musings. "Start over."

He was starting to hate those two words.