Chapter 025

The Unexpected

Zorian stared at the stone disc in his hand in silent contemplation. It was done. Zach finally knew he wasn't alone in the time loop. True, the other boy didn't know about Zorian being one of the time travelers – the matriarch had presented herself as the time traveler and made no mention of Zorian – but it was only a matter of time now. There was no way that Zorian could fool the other boy for more than a couple of restarts now that the idea of there being other time travelers was no longer totally ridiculous in Zach's mind. Assuming he even wanted to. After all, if this plan of theirs worked and the third time traveler was neutralized, there would be no reason not to introduce himself to Zach immediately afterwards.

[So,] Zorian said. [How did Zach react to your… introduction?]

[Confusion, surprise and outrage,] the matriarch responded. [He had pretty much figured out that there was someone else looping beside him – it was the only way to explain all the wide-scale changes that had been happening in the last handful of restarts. He was very confused about how they came to be and why they didn't come to talk to him, though, and was considering doing something eye catching to get our attention. The idea that the other time traveler is a giant talking spider caught him off guard but I don't think it will be a problem in the long term – he didn't seem to be arachnophobic or a human supremacist. Anyway, he was pretty angry when I told him there was a third time traveler and that he had been mind-wiped by them, so I cut our meeting short so he can cool off a little.]

[Understandable,] Zorian said. [I know that aranea consider memory editation to be business as usual, but humans tend to flip out over such things. Do you think he bought your story about you being the other time traveler?]

[Actually, I said there are several aranea time travelers. That I had a way to bring other people into the time loop. Technically true, and makes us look like a bigger threat.]

[Not sure if that was really necessary,] Zorian mused. [Or even wise. What we have planned already should be sufficient to annoy the third time traveler into confronting you. Making yourself look more dangerous that you already are is just going to make him more cautious and dangerous.]

[You're overthinking things,] the matriarch said. [We're trying to set a trap, not engage the enemy in battle. Given that our enemy hasn't responded to our provocations so far, I think that getting him to take the bait is a bigger priority than worrying what happens once he does. As you have yourself stated, and as Zach has learned so painfully over the course of this time loop, there is only so much a single mage can tackle on his own. However capable our opponent is, he's not walking off from a well-prepared ambush.]

[Right,] Zorian said dubiously. He was far less certain than she was about that plan, but it wasn't like he had a better idea. And besides, maybe having one of her plans blow up in her face would make her more forthcoming with information in the next restart. [So do we have Zach's support on this?]

[He will help, yes,] the matriarch confirmed. [I didn't really have to offer anything to make him cooperate. He even asked for a list of targets so he can help us soften up the invading forces before the actual invasion date. Very earnest and straightforward, that boy. Quite unlike you and your rampant paranoia, I might add.]

Zorian narrowed his eyes, gripping the stone disc in his hand a little tighter. Was that it? Was the matriarch trying to replace him with Zach? Someone more trusting and easier to manipulate?

Was Zorian going to be next on the chopping block once the threat of the third time traveler was gone?

That settled it – he was going to reveal himself to Zach sometime soon, regardless of how this ambush turned out. There was an advantage to anonymity, yes, but it was massively outweighed by the danger of allowing the aranean matriarch exclusive access to Zach. That could end up very badly for Zorian.

[You've been silent for a while,] the matriarch noted. [You do know I was just teasing you, right?]

[I was just thinking,] Zorian said, thinking about how glad he was they were communicating through the relays at the moment – it made it next to impossible for the matriarch to read his thoughts unless he specifically sent them to her. It wasn't really a safeguard he consciously installed, more like a consequence of their shoddy construction, but Zorian was pleased with the end result all the same. [What about the money? I'll be running out of savings soon, you know.]

[I'll be able to get you about 20.000 pieces by the end of the week. Will that be enough?]

[For the ingredients? Sure,] confirmed Zorian. [If we have to hire experts, though? I'm not so sure. Good experts are expensive, especially if you're hiring them on a tight schedule or expect them to be discreet. Hopefully Kael will agree to help us, or else I'll probably have to hire an alchemist.]

[I'll leave that to you,] the matriarch said. [You understand the problem far better than I do.]

There was a brief silence as both Zorian and the matriarch considered what to say next, if anything.

[Listen,] the matriarch suddenly said. [Did you know that the aranea sometimes scatter small memory packets into the minds of their males?]

Zorian blinked. What? What did that have to do with anything?

[No,] said Zorian hesitantly. [I can't say that I did.]

[Well they do,] the matriarch said. [It's a pretty good way to leave secret messages if you know what you're doing. If you break the message into sufficiently small chunks and embed it carefully enough into the targets, it's virtually impossible for anyone without a key to even find them, let alone piece them together into a coherent whole.]

[Why are you telling me this?] Zorian asked.

[Just in case,] the matriarch responded. [Aranea males are far smaller than female ones and very, very cowardly. They're frightened by fire and loud noises just like any other animal, and most divination spells designed to track aranea do not register them as the same type of creature. Most of the time when an aranean settlement is destroyed, a lot of males will survive the destruction. Leaving messages encoded in their minds is a good way to leave messages from beyond the grave.]

Zorian frowned. So the matriarch did acknowledge that the ambush could go wrong… but why would she leave a message for him in such a roundabout, complicated way?

[Why not just tell me?] he asked.

[It's probably nothing,] the matriarch said. [And you worry too much as it is. This is really just a precaution in case of worst outcome. Novelty will give you the key when you see each other next time.]

Before Zorian could continue the discussion, the matriarch cut the connection.

"Very mature," Zorian mumbled, throwing the disc on the bed beside him. Still, as annoying as the matriarch was right now, she had been nothing but helpful so far, so he would give her the benefit of doubt. Maybe she really did have good reasons for her secrecy.

Still, after this restart maybe he should start making his own precautions. Just in case.

- break -

At Cyoria's train station, Zorian waited. It would be a while until Kael and his daughter arrived, and in the meantime Zorian amused himself by messing with the pigeons milling about on the platforms.

Animal minds were paradoxically both harder and easier to affect with psychic powers than human minds. Harder because simpler minds were harder to sense and pin-point, easier because their thoughts were easier to discern and subvert once a psychic finally managed to connect to them.

The pigeons weren't that hard to sense – not if he had a direct line of sight on one and could devote all his attention on the task – so there was little the birds could do to defend themselves against Zorian's experimentation. He simply sat on his bench and systematically targeted pigeon after pigeon, practicing his skills. Sometimes he simply tried to make sense of their rudimentary minds without alerting them to his intrusion, other times he tried to flat out hijack their senses or puppeteer their body. Neither task was going terribly well, but it was something to pass the time with and he did have some success. After the 50th pigeon or so, he could distinguish a pigeon that was hungry, sick or in pain from those that weren't. He could make a pigeon stumble or freeze up for a second, or frighten them until they fled as far away from him as possible.

Actually, that last one was extremely easy. Considering the effect was almost identical to the 'Spook Animal' cantrip he had learned back in their second year, he shouldn't have been surprised. Though that did give him an idea… mind spells that affected animals weren't restricted as heavily as spells that targeted humans. Hell, some of them were freely available in the academy library! It might be a good idea to try some in one of the future restarts and compare the results with what he could achieve with psychic powers.

For now though, he concentrated on another idea – rather than flat out puppeteer the pigeon, he was trying to simply dampen its fear and influence it into approaching him on its own. It was a lot harder than scaring the bird away. The pigeons were already inclined to bolt at the slightest provocation, so it didn't take much to send them running, but having them approach a strange man with no food that kept staring at them went against their instincts.

It took him over twenty tries, but he gradually learned how to steer the pigeons towards him. Finally, on his 24th attempt, he found a pigeon fearless enough to play along with his game. It slowly meandered close and then briefly took flight in order to land on the same bench Zorian was occupying.

It cooed and stared at him, and when Zorian reached out with his hand and scooped it up it did not resist in the slightest.

Success! Zorian reached into his pocket and offered the docile pigeon in his hand some bread. It was only proper to reward such a cooperative experiment subject.

And his achievement was just in time too, since Kael's train was arriving at the station. He put the pigeon down at the bench and left to help Kael disembark.

"Kael Tverinov? I'm Zorian Kazinski, one of your classmates. Miss Zileti sent me to help you settle down and show you around the city. Don't worry about your daughter, I know the value of being discreet."

Kael gave him a searching look before nodding. "I appreciate the help, mister Kazinski. As well as your silence. Lead the way, if you will."

"It's no problem at all," Zorian said, creating a floating disc of force and loading the other boy's luggage on the platform. "We live at the same place, after all."

"We do?" Kael asked curiously.

"Well yes. Or at least we will if you have rented a room at the place Miss Zileti had recommended to you. She recommended the same place to me when I told her I'm bringing my little sister with me this year and sought alternatives to academy housing."

"Your little sister?" asked Kael, shifting Kana in his hands. The little girl studied everything around them with her bright blue eyes but remained resolutely quiet. "How come you brought her with you, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Our parents went on a trip to Koth and someone has to take care of her. And, well, that someone has always been me in cases like this. I don't mind all that much really, and the owner of the place seems to be good with kids."

"Well that's a relief," Kael said. "To be honest I had great reservations about coming here, and I was kind of worried Miss Zileti overstated her friend's fondness for children in order to get me on board with the enrollment."

"I don't think you have a lot to worry about. Imaya, the owner of the place, seems honest and friendly enough. And I'm an empath, so I can usually tell."

Kael gave him a sharp, questioning look.

"Too sudden?" Zorian asked. "Sorry, but I wanted to get it out of the way first. I know some people can't stand the idea of someone knowing their private emotions, but I don't think I can keep it a secret from someone that I'm going to share a roof with on a permanent basis."

"If you aren't worried about living with a morlock, I don't think I have rights to complain about you being an empath," Kael said, shaking his head. He gave his daughter a sad look. "Truthfully, I am sort of jealous. Kana is so quiet most days, I sometimes wish I could peer into her head and see what she's thinking about."

Kana immediately wrapped her little hands around Kael's head and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. Kael snorted derisively and ruffled her hair, a smile dancing on his lips.

'Kana 1, Kael 0,' Zorian thought to himself. Quiet she might be, but Kana clearly knew how to deal with her father effectively.

A few moments later, when the moment had passed, the two boys resumed their conversation in a much less reserved fashion, the ice having been successfully broken.

- break -

Imaya's kitchen was crowded. Crowded and loud. Between Zorian and Kirielle, Kael and his daughter, visiting Ilsa and Taiven, and finally Imaya herself, the room was as full as it could comfortably be and there were constantly at least two simultaneous conversations going on at any particular moment. Strangely enough, Zorian felt comfortable being there. In the past, these kinds of gatherings had annoyed him terribly, and he would find some reason to excuse himself and leave as soon as possible. The difference, he realized, was that he was no longer in a gathering of strangers. This was the first time he actually felt he belonged in one of these things, instead of being a barely-tolerated intruder constantly scrutinized for weakness and misbehavior.

He still remained mostly quiet, of course. But it was a comfortable silence.

"…and then Grunt and Mumble hit it with polar beams and froze it solid," spoke Taiven animatedly. "I don't know whether that really killed it, but it put it out of the fight long enough for us to run for it. Most harrowing experience of my life, let me tell you. I'm really glad Zorian was there – if I had chosen any other third year student as filler, I don't think I'd have survived that encounter."

Zorian fidgeted in his seat, a little uncomfortable at the praise. If it weren't for him, Taiven wouldn't have encountered that troll in the first place, so he didn't feel like he had done her any favors.

"While it's indeed impressive that Zorian can contribute in such a fight, I'm going to have to insist you refrain from bringing him along to your dungeon delving in the future," Ilsa said with an amused smile. "He's my apprentice now, and it would look absolutely terrible on my record if I let my apprentice be killed by a rampaging troll or some other monsters immediately after signing the contract."

"Err, yeah…" Taiven fumbled. "Well, I have no intention of going down there for a while. I reported the incident to the police, but the cleanup will probably take months, and the place is too dangerous for me and my group at the moment."

"A wise decision," Ilsa nodded. She then shifted her attention to Zorian. "And the same principle holds for you. I don't want you taking such risks in the future. I will ignore the issue this once, since you were helping a friend and the situation escalated beyond anything that could reasonably be expected, but from now on consider all excursions into the Dungeon forbidden until further notice."

"Of course," Zorian immediately agreed, having no intention of actually honoring the restriction.

"And I want you to consult me before doing anything similarly dangerous in the future," Ilsa warned. "Is there anything else I should know about?"

"Not really," Zorian said. Ilsa gave him hard stare. Hmm, maybe he should throw her a bone to distract her with before she starts actually monitoring him. "Well, I'll be meeting my aranea tutor on a regular basis, but she's totally harmless. Wouldn't hurt a fly, despite being a giant spider."

"Ah yes, the spiders," Ilsa said with obvious distaste. "Don't worry, Imaya has already told me about your… condition. I wanted to speak to you about that, but I'll wait until we can meet in a more private setting."

Zorian nodded, appreciating Ilsa's discretion. Kael still didn't know about the full extent of his mental abilities and Zorian didn't believe this was the time to reveal them. He was kind of disappointed that Imaya had told Ilsa about his 'condition' without asking for his permission. It was by no means unexpected, but still disappointing.

"I'm curious," Kael said. "If your teacher wouldn't hurt a fly, what does she eat? I'm pretty sure all spiders are strict carnivores."

"Mostly rats and stray dogs," Zorian said.

"Rats?" Kirielle asked in disgust.

"I'm told rats can get pretty big in Cyoria," Zorian said.

"Ho boy, can they ever," Taiven confirmed. "I swear I once saw one of them stalking a cat instead of the other way around…"

"She's just telling fisherman's tales," Imaya quickly assured the disturbed-looking Kirielle. "I've lived here my whole life and have never seen anything like it."

"How do you know that stray humans aren't also on their diet?" asked Ilsa.

"According to Novelty, the idea is about as likely as a group of humans hunting an occasional dragon in order to put some meat on the table – that is to say, not very. There is almost always easier prey around," answered Zorian. "Not that aranea are harmless, far from it, but if they kill me it's not going to be because they want to eat me."

"Novelty?" Kael asked.

"That's the name of the aranea tutoring me," Zorian shrugged. "Well, technically her name is Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty, but that's unwieldy and she doesn't mind if I shorten it."

"That name sounds stupid," Kirielle said.

Zorian opened his mouth to tell her that 'Kirielle' was also a stupid name when he thought better of it. For one thing, it was best to reserve immature bickering with her when they were alone. For another he had just thought up a much more amusing and diabolical idea.

"Want to meet her?" Zorian asked.

"What?" Kirielle asked.

"Novelty. Want to meet her?"

Kirielle stayed silent, mulling it over. "I don't know. I don't like spiders. They're disgusting."

"Well okay," Zorian shrugged. "I just figured you'd jump at the chance to meet with a member of a reclusive race of magical creatures that very few humans can boast speaking to. Once in a lifetime opportunity and all that. But I guess I understand-"

"Umm, well…" Kirielle fumbled. "Actually, I changed my mind. She's not going to try to touch me, is she?"

Of course she was going to try and touch her. Novelty wanted to touch everything. By her own admission she once stuck one of her legs into an open flame in order to see what would happen.

"I'm sure she'll keep her distance if you ask politely," Zorian told her.

How he kept a straight face after telling her that he'd never know. Sometimes he surprised even himself.

The conversation continued for a while after that, but eventually began to peter out. Ilsa and Taiven excused themselves and left, while Kirielle amused herself with trying to teach Kana how to draw. Of course, unlike Kirielle, Kana was a typical child with age-appropriate (that is to say, appalling) drawing aptitude, but neither Kirielle nor Kana seemed discouraged by that. Zorian excused himself and went to his room to see if he could get some work done before Kirielle came looking for him.

It was not to be, though – barely a minute after he had sat on his bed Kael showed up and knocked on the doorframe to get his attention.

"Am I interrupting something?" he asked.

"No, I was just considering what to do with myself. Did you need something?" asked Zorian.

"Sort of," said Kael. "I just came to tell you that you don't have to dance around the issue of your mind magic any more. I already figured out you're not just an empath."

"Kirielle told you, didn't she?" Zorian sighed.

"Not so much told me as gave me enough clues to figure it out. She's a chatty kid. But there is no need to be angry at her, it's not like I'm going to turn on you just because you're learning how to read people's thoughts."

"Thanks," Zorian said. "Although quite frankly, it would be kind of hypocritical of you to shun me for dabbling in forbidden magics, mister junior necromancer."

Kael immediately flinched back in shock and gave him a wide-eyed look. "W-What!? There is no way…"

Zorian gestured him to quiet down and Kael immediately shut up and peered down the corridor to make sure no one had been listening. Zorian knew they hadn't been, he could feel that all of the other residents were still back in the kitchen. His scrutiny done, Kael quickly stepped into the room and closed the door, leaning heavily on it.

"How?" he asked. He sounded more panicked than menacing at the moment, but Zorian knew that could change at any moment if he didn't get a satisfactory answer.

"Do you know the 'arcane lock' spell?" Zorian asked.

"I… yes," Kael said, still sounding rather dazed.

"Lock the door, then, and I'll make sure we're safe from any stray divinations," Zorian said, and immediately started casting a temporary divination ward at the room. It wasn't anything fancy, but it would ward off simple scrying attempts and hopefully notify him if anything more complex targeted them. Not that he really thought they would need it, but it was good practice and you could never be careful enough.

5 minutes later the room was as secure as Zorian could make it on such quick notice and Kael looked increasingly impatient. Zorian decided to get on with it. He opened his mouth and began to speak.

"Let me tell you a story of lost time and a month that refuses to end…"

- break -

Unpaid teenage labor was an age-old tradition among mages. While the ancient apprentice system had largely been replaced with specialized magical academies, and the quality of young mages had improved drastically as a consequence, there were some things that simply couldn't be learned in the classroom. For things like that, a mage needed a mentor – someone to show them the tricks of the trade, teach them unique skills and spells they had developed and did not share lightly with others, or just plain connect them with the right people. Said mentors usually had plenty of work they considered beneath them, ideally of a sort that took advantage of their student's magical ability and prepared them for their future vocation.

Ideally.

As Zorian trudged towards his classroom, half an hour before any of his fellow classmates, he reflected on the fact that life was rarely ideal. In practice, a lot of work given to apprentices consisted of chores that their mentor thought beneath them or various busywork. The duties of the class representative, for instance, were largely one giant waste of time. In the previous restarts, this fact didn't bother him all that much – the job was fairly easy so long as you don't take it as seriously as Akoja did – but this time he had so many things vying for his attention that he resented this additional duty being piled up on top of it all. Maybe he shouldn't have talked Ilsa into taking him as her apprentice this restart but, well, what's done is done.

He yawned. He supposed he was just cranky today since he had gotten very little sleep last night. His conversation with Kael literally took hours since the other boy wanted to know absolutely everything and kept asking for details. While Zorian didn't begrudge the other boy for wanting answers and considered the time well spent, he kind of planned to use that time to read through the research assignments he had collected from his classmates on behalf of Ilsa. Assignments he had to give to Ilsa today, complete with corrections and grade recommendations. He had thought his knowledge from previous restarts would make the task a child's game, but apparently something about their massive changes to this restart caused Ilsa to give out completely different topics for research and he had to actually read everything from scratch. He ended up spending most of the night dealing with those stupid things and then had to get up half an hour earlier than usual too because he was class representative to boot.

Peering into the classroom, he saw that Akoja was already inside. He rolled his eyes at her excessive punctuality and marked her down as present on his little attendance sheet. The blackboard was full of horrible drawings, love confessions and other garbage, but he knew better than to wipe it clean right now – a clean blackboard was utterly irresistible to some of the idiots in his class, and they would no doubt make a mess again by the time the teacher finally showed up. Who knew, maybe if he left it alone long enough Akoja would take care of it on her own initiative, as she is sometimes wont to do.

The first to arrive were, surprisingly since they weren't normally early birds, Aneka and Armie – the (in)famous Ashirai twins. The Ashirai family consistently produced soul-bonded twins as their descendants, and the two sisters he shared his class with were no different. Zorian had considered asking them for help back when he thought he was soul-bonded to Zach, or at least questioning them about the mechanics of soul bonds, but eventually decided it would be a bad idea. For one thing, mage families tended to jealously guard their family magics, and it was obvious that the Ashirai family was trying to become an official House with their own magical specialty centered around their soul bonds. Asking too closely about their family style could have ended up blowing up in his face spectacularly, and Zorian hadn't been willing to risk it, time loop or not. A second concern was that the twins were unreliable. Benisek-level unreliable. They were giggly little twits who took nothing seriously and wouldn't keep quiet even if he paid them.

No, it had definitely been smart of him to stay away from them.

Next to arrive was Kael, who apparently couldn't sleep very well after yesterday's revelations, and eventually decided to just come early. They didn't talk much before the morlock boy decided to retire to his seat, but Zorian could already see there would be more questioning in the near future. Lovely. He had forgotten how inquisitive and interested in the time loop Kael had been the last time he had been aware of it.

Briam, Naim and Edwin were marked down as present next. Briam gave him a wave as he passed by him, his other hand holding his fire drake familiar close to him, while Naim and Edwin were too absorbed into their conversation to take notice of him. Zorian didn't really mind, it wasn't like he knew either of them all that well. Naim was a first generation mage, much like Zorian and Akoja – a child of some soldier that rose to the rank of general in the wake of the disruptions caused by the Splinter Wars. Edwin had golem makers as his parents, and they clearly passed on their enthusiasm for the craft on Edwin – he was always tinkering with various mechanisms and making blueprints, even during lectures or other times during which he should have been concentrating on something else.

The next to come was Raynie – the red-headed mystery that transferred into their class in the previous year. She was reserved, polite, extremely attractive, a good student and absolutely refused to tell anyone about her family or origins. The only one who knew anything concrete about Raynie was Kiana, another of his female classmates, and she was resolute in her silence.

And so it went, student after student, until the list was complete and he could finally slip inside and try to rest for a bit before class started. He absent-mindedly erased the blackboard with a single alteration spell, causing the chalk to simply peel off the surface and fall to the floor, and sat down to wait.

- break -

"No, Ben, you cannot turn your assignment a week from now," Zorian growled. "The deadline was yesterday. I have to hand them over to Ilsa today. Don't you see the problem here?"

"Come on, Zorian, this is what friends are for," Benisek complained. "What good is having your best bud as the class rep if you can't ask him to cut you some slack?"

"You're not asking for a favor, you're asking for the moon," Zorian told him, giving him a flat stare. "I cannot help you in this regard."

"But I really, really can't get another demerit," Benisek said, giving him a hopeful smile.

"Tough," Zorian said. "I guess you should have thought about that before you decided to completely blow off another assignment from Ilsa. You already know she can't stand students boycotting her homework."

"She's completely ridiculous!" Benisek said. "What kind of teacher gives out 3 assignments during the first week of the year?"

"Umm," a new voice cut in. Zorian silently offered a prayer to whosoever was still listening on the spirit planes for the interruption. He was seriously ready to strangle Benisek to get him to shut up. This wasn't the first time he was suffering through this conversation, but he usually wasn't so tired when dealing with his… sort-of friend. He was honestly rethinking his connection with the boy at this point.

As it turned out, the interruption was by Neolu, though Kiana and Jade were also hanging behind her. All three were holding a sheet of paper.

"I know the deadline for the assignment was yesterday, but I was sort of wondering-"

"If you could turn it in now?" Zorian finished.

She nodded furiously and extended the paper towards him.

"No," Zorian deadpanned.

"Seriously?" Jade piped in. "You're going to make a big deal out of this?"

"Yes?" Zorian asked rhetorically.

"Why don't we just leave this here," Kiana said, placing her assignment on his desk, "and you can decide whether you want to bother with them when Benisek is done annoying you and you cool down a little."

"Hey!" Benisek protested.

"Sure," Zorian shrugged. "You do that."

Zorian patiently watched as the three of them left their assignments on his table and filed out of the classroom, waited until Benisek finally gave up on convincing him to… write Benisek's assignment for him, he supposed? And then he calmly fished out a pen from his backpack and wrote 'did not turn in assignment within the deadline' at the top of each sheet of paper before unceremoniously shoving them into his backpack along with the other assignments. There, let Ilsa decide what to do with them.

"Why are you still here, Ako?" Zorian sighed, turning to the last person remaining in the room. "Your assignment was flawless, if that's what's worrying you."

"I'm glad you decided to take the position from me," she said. "I don't think I could have gone through another year of it. When I accepted the position back in our first year, the teachers said it was a privilege. That there were benefits for the class representative. That it commands respect. But it was all a sham and by the time I realized that nobody was stupid enough to take the position from me."

"Hey…" protested Zorian lightly.

"I'm not saying you're stupid for taking it," she immediately clarified. "You accepted it because it was bundled along with the apprenticeship with Ilsa. You were far smarter about it than I had been."

"More like less naïve," Zorian said. She flinched at his remark; apparently he hit too close for comfort. "Why did you sink so much effort into it if you hated it? Why not just boycott the whole thing?"

"Because it would be wrong," she said vehemently. "You shouldn't shirk your responsibilities. And I had accepted the class representative duties as my responsibility."

Zorian gave her an incredulous look.

"What?" she challenged. Defiant. Daring him to tell her she was wrong.

"Nothing," Zorian said. He didn't want to argue with her. Ever since he had started to develop his empathy, he became increasingly sure she had a crush on him. A small one, but it was there. And while he didn't return her feelings at all, he also didn't want to hurt her emotionally. And he would have hurt her if he started talking to her honestly – they were two very different people, with different worldviews and ideals, for all that Akoja seemed to think they were alike.

"Listen, Ako," he said, rising from his seat. "I spent most of last night reading through the assignments and I'm not the best person to hold a philosophical discussion with right now. Can we table this for another day?"

"You shouldn't have procrastinated until the very last day," Akoja said. "That's almost as bad as what those three did."

"No it isn't," Zorian disagreed. He hefted his backpack in one arm and rose from his seat. "And it's impolite to preach like that. See you around, Ako."

"Wait!" she said. Zorian could suddenly feel a wave of nervousness emanating from her, and the fact she was wringing her hands under her desk and looking anywhere but in his direction completed the impression. "I… can we talk? Not now, but… I'd like your opinion with something."

Crap. This had never happened before in any of the restarts. What set her off? He really hoped this wasn't a love confession, he couldn't afford that kind of drama right now.

"Can it wait until next week?" he asked. "I will be really busy the next few days."

"Yes," she immediately agreed. "That's perfect. I need to gather my thoughts on the subject anyway. I'll… I'll tell you when I'm ready."

- break -

"You wanted to see me?" Zorian asked as he peered into Ilsa's office.

Ilsa gestured him to come inside, too busy sipping on her tea to give a verbal response. Zorian sank into the visitor's chair and promptly handed her all assignments he had collected from the students. She took a glance at them before setting them aside and taking another sip from her cup.

For a minute or so, she just kept silently scrutinizing him. Finally she put down her cup and sighed.

"I wanted to talk to you about your experimentation with mind magic," she said, drumming her fingers on the table. "I'm sure you're aware of the rather illegal nature of most mind-affecting magic, but since it's the product of an inborn ability rather than access to restricted spells and literature, some allowances can be made. The Empath Association goes to great pains to make a distinction between empathy and mind reading, and to claim one is just a logical extension of the other is… novel. And more than a little controversial. Nonetheless, my discreet inquiries into the subject have discovered there is indeed a known link between the two abilities so your story holds water."

"Technically, empathy and mind reading are indeed different. Empathy is a passive skill with no mental intrusion involved, while mind reading requires one to actively invade the mind of another," explained Zorian. "It's just that every empath is capable of mind reading with the right training."

"Oh? Interesting," said Ilsa. "I'm surprised more mages haven't stumbled upon the fact, then."

"I thought about that, actually," Zorian said. "The aranea are born with the ability. They speak to each other telepathically as their normal mode of communication, they have telepathic scuffles as kids, they use it hunt their prey, for just about anything. It's natural that they would refine and build upon the ability, exploiting it to its logical extreme. Human empaths, on the other hand, are rare and isolated, so most of them have to rediscover the wheel alone, so to speak. It doesn't help that few people are willing to let someone read their mind, so any 'training' is almost certainly illegal. So most people who discover their latent telepathic abilities are either going to keep mum about it or become outright criminals. There probably is a fair number of empaths who have discovered the fact, but they certainly aren't going to admit it to anyone."

"Excellent reasoning," Ilsa praised. "And actually, it is the issue of training partners in particular that I wanted to talk to you about. I understand your sister has already agreed to help you with your training, but I am given to understand that having a wide variety of targets to practice on would be preferable, yes?"

"Yes," agreed Zorian.

"Believe it or not, one of the students has issued a request for someone to help them train their mind magic expertise. Understandably, none of the teachers are eager to have a student mess around with their heads. But simply refusing it is… politically unfeasible."

"You want me to step in and take a teacher's place," Zorian surmised.

"It would benefit both of you," Ilsa said. "You both want a target to practice on, and you're both more qualified to help one another when it comes to mind magic than any of the teachers the academy has at its disposal."

"And if the other student protests this?" asked Zorian. "I mean, they may have wanted someone to practice on, but that doesn't mean they're willing to let someone else practice on them in turn."

"Then it wasn't a simple case of the academy refusing a request out of hand, now was it?" Ilsa said, giving him a conspiratorial grin. "But I very much doubt the student in question would make a fuss about that. What do you say?"

Zorian hummed thoughtfully. While there was a risk that the other side might find out about the time loop from his thoughts, he did possess some rudimentary mental defenses and was familiar with limitations of mind reading. So long as he didn't let the other student trawl through his long-term memories, he should be fine. And he was curious about this other student dabbling in mind magic.

"Alright, I'll give it a try. Who am I going to be working with?"

"One of your classmates. Tinami Aope," Ilsa said.

Zorian blinked. Tinami was… wait, of course it would be her. Aope were rumored to dabble in mind magic, among other things. Not all rumors were malicious nonsense. And it would explain why Ilsa knew about the request in the first place, come to think of it.

Besides, didn't he promise to himself to introduce her to the aranea at some point to see what would happen? Yeah, he was totally fine with this.

- break -

"Hello, Tinami," Zorian said, walking into the empty classroom Ilsa had reserved for their 'lessons'. "Am I interrupting anything?"

"Umm," she fidgeted. "I'm actually waiting to meet someone…"

"For mind magic practice, right?" he asked. Her eyes widened in response. "That would be me. I will be your partner today, if you would have me."

"Umm, ah, I was… I don't want to be rude but I was kind of hoping for an expert…"

Huh, so Ilsa didn't tell her who was going to teach her? Strange.

"I'm a natural mind mage," Zorian said. "I'm the closest thing the academy has to an expert on the topic. Why don't we try this and you can leave in a huff if I can't satisfy you, okay?"

She immediately flushed scarlet and looked away, her feelings cycling between embarrassment and outrage. Uh, maybe he should have worded that better…

"Bad choice of words, let's pretend I said something else," Zorian said quickly. "Anyway, I'm surprised you didn't know who would be teaching you. How much did Ilsa tell you about me?"

"Just that you need someone to practice on, too," Tinami said quietly. "I don't really mind. I have enough mental discipline to keep sensitive things from my surface thoughts most of the time."

"Likewise," Zorian said. "And I won't allow you to look into my memories."

"R-Right," she agreed. "I mostly just wanted to practice telepathy and mind reading. The spells are not hard to cast, but actually using them takes a lot of practice."

"Well, feel free to go first," offered Zorian.

Just for the occasion, Zorian had memorized portions of a biology book describing various forms of wild plants, and simply recited them in his head while Tinami tried to read his thoughts. Not only did this ensure he wouldn't reveal any sensitive details to Tinami, it actually made her job easier. It was a lot simpler to read someone's thoughts when they thought in concrete words and sentences, as opposed to a confusing stream of consciousness that composed the vast majority of people's thoughts. In fact, the matriarch explained to Zorian that it was simply not possible to read people like a book, unless they were literally reciting text in their heads like he was doing at the moment – there was always a large amount of guessing and extrapolation involved, and no mind reader could completely understand another sentient being.

But they could get pretty damn close.

"Why are your thoughts full of information on plants?" Tinami asked with a frown.

Apparently, Tinami didn't know that. Aope style of mind magic training was very crude, and boiled down to throwing a kid into the swimming pool and hoping they didn't drown. A bit disappointing, really. He eventually shifted to reciting sequences of numbers and imagining simple geometric shapes.

"I guess I owe you an apology for doubting you," Tinami said. "Your really do know your stuff. Do you want to try now?"

Zorian nodded and then focused on her, homing in on the glittering star he saw in front of him through his mind sense and connecting with her mind.

[Are you sure you're ready?]

She yelped and jumped in her seat. "W-What?"

[Telepathic communication,] he explained.

"But… you didn't cast a spell," she frowned.

[I don't have to. As I said, I'm a natural mind mage. I can sense all minds in my vicinity and I can connect to them if I want to. Right now I am talking to you telepathically, but if you're ready I will expand my awareness to your surface thoughts.]

She closed her eyes for a second but then frowned and opened them again.

"Wait," she said. "I don't understand. If you made a telepathic link between us, why can't I use it to talk to you telepathically?"

[I suppose that's how it works if you use a structured spell for it?]

"Well yes. I mean, there are various 'sending' spells that simply send a mental message to someone, but you need to cast them again and again every time you want to send something to the target. If you want a proper mental conversation with someone, you create a telepathic link between them and yourself. The main issue being that people often don't know how to filter their thoughts well and end up sending inappropriate things over the link."

[Hmm, I guess you could say I continually 'send' messages over the link I established between us. I don't know how to establish a two-way link yet, I'm afraid,] Zorian said contemplatively. The aranea never mentioned anything about two-way telepathic links, and in retrospect it was obvious why – a psychic could use an established link to reply telepathically regardless of who the maker of the link was. Every aranea was psychic, so why would they bother with two-way links? It was something he would have to figure out on his own, probably. [Anyway. Are you ready?]

"Yes," she nodded. "Feel free to start."

Unlike him, Tinami didn't resort to text or numbers, and instead did her best to imagine a random scene out of her life in as much detail as she could make it. The scenes were wholly unexceptional – one of Ilsa's lectures, an inconsequential conversation between Jade and Neolu as they talked next to Tinami, a walk down the street… it was all very visual, but still very challenging. His little sister was still much harder to read, ironically because she wasn't trying to hide anything from him – her disjointed, stream-of-consciousness succession of thoughts was next to impossible to figure out unless he engaged her in conversation and made her focus on one particular issue.

"Okay, I'm officially jealous," Tinami huffed. "I've been practicing this for three years with my mother and her friends, and I'm nowhere near this good."

"Don't feel too bad," Zorian said. "I have… an unfair advantage."

"So do I," Tinami said. "My family has been dabbling in mind magic for generations, and I have their advice. It's frustrating to realize just how much raw talent can mean in a field like this."

"Ah, it's not just raw talent," Zorian said. "I too have a teacher with generations of mind magic practice."

She raised her eyebrow at him. "There aren't very many of those," she remarked. "I'm pretty sure my mother would know if any of our rivals adopted a new student."

"Not many human ones you mean," Zorian smiled. "Your mother definitely wouldn't know, not unless she keeps tabs on the many colonies of telepathic spiders scattered throughout Altazia."

Tinami stared at him in silence for a few seconds, before leaning towards him excitedly.

"Telepathic spiders? You mean… you have actually met one of the legendary aranea?"

Legendary? Zorian almost scoffed, but he supposed that the spiders were very good at hiding themselves. While there were humans who knew about them, very few seemed to be willing to advertise their connections to the aranea colonies. Zorian didn't think it was because of intimidation on behalf of the aranea (or at least not just because of that) – in all likelihood the mages that were 'in the know' simply wanted to preserve their monopoly on the business with the aranea and didn't want rival mages butting in and demanding their piece of the pie.

"Her name is Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty," Zorian said. "Would you like to meet her?"