Chapter 005

Start Over

Zorian's eyes abruptly shot open as sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

"Good morning, brother!" an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. "Morning, morning, MORNING!"

Zorian stared at Kirielle in shock, trying to understand what happened. The last thing he remembered was the lich casting that spell at him and Zach, and then blackness. His eyes darted left and right, taking in his surroundings and confirming his suspicions – he was in his room, back in Cirin. That didn't make any sense, though. He was pleased that he survived the whole experience, but at the very least he expected to wake up in the hospital or something. And Kirielle shouldn't be this casual with him after he went through so harrowing an experience – not even she was this inconsiderate. Besides, this entire scene was… eerily familiar.

"Kiri?"

"Um, yes?"

"What day is it?" Zorian asked, already dreading the answer.

"Thursday."

He scowled. "I meant date, Kiri."

"First of Chariot. You're going to the academy today. Don't tell me you forgot," Kirielle prodded. Literally – she accompanied her words with a well-placed jab at his flank, sticking her bony little index finger in between his ribs. Zorian slapped her hand away, hissing in pain.

"I did not forget!" Zorian snapped. "I just…"

He stopped there. What was he supposed to tell her? Frankly, he had no idea what was going on himself!

"You know what?" he said after a moment of silence. "Nevermind that, I think it's high time you got off of me."

Before Kirielle could answer, Zorian unceremoniously flipped her over the edge of the bed before jumping up himself.

He snatched his glasses from the set of drawers next to his bed and his eyes swept through his room with more attention to detail this time, seeking anything out of place, anything that might unmask this as a giant (if rather tasteless) prank. While his memory wasn't flawless, he had a habit of arranging his belongings in very specific ways to detect nosy family members rummaging through his belongings. He found nothing massively out of place, so unless his mysterious re-enactor knew his system inside and out (unlikely) or Kiri finally decided she'd respect the sanctity of his room while he was away (hell would sooner freeze over), this really was his room like he left it when he went to Cyoria.

Was it all a dream, then? It seemed altogether too real for a dream. His dreams had always been vague, nonsensical, and prone to evaporate out of his memory soon after he woke up. These felt exactly like his normal memories – no talking birds, floating pyramids, three-eyed wolves and other surreal scenes his dreams usually contained. And there was so much of it, too – surely a whole month worth of experiences is too much for a mere dream?

"Mom wants to talk to you," Kirielle told him from the floor, apparently not in any great hurry to get up. "But hey, can you show me some magic before you get down? Please? Pretty please?"

Zorian frowned. Magic, huh? Come to think of it, he learned quite a bit of magic. Surely if this was all a particularly elaborate dream all the magic he learned there would be completely bogus, right?

He made a couple of sweeping gestures and words before cupping his hands in front of him. A floating orb of light promptly materialized above his palms.

Huh. Not just an elaborate dream, then.

"That's amazing!" Kirielle gushed, poking the orb with her finger only to have it pass straight through it. Not surprising, really, since it was just light. She withdrew her finger and curiously stared at it, as if expecting to find it changed somehow. Zorian mentally directed the orb to fly around the room and circle Kirielle a few times. Yep, he definitely knew the spell – he retained not just the memory of the casting procedure, but also the fine control he developed with repeated practice with it. You don't get things like that from a mere vision, even a prophetic one.

"More! More!" demanded Kirielle.

"Oh come on, Kiri," sighed Zorian. He really wasn't in the mood for her antics at the moment. "I indulged you, didn't I? Go find something else to amuse yourself now."

She pouted at him, but he was thoroughly immune to such things by now. Then she frowned for a moment and suddenly straightened as if remembering something.

Wait…

"No!" Zorian shouted, but he was already too late. Kiri already ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. "Damn it, Kiri, why now? Why not before I woke up?"

"Sucks to be you," she answered.

Zorian leaned forward until his forehead collided with the door. "I had forewarning and I still fell for it."

He frowned. Forewarning, indeed. Whatever his 'future memories' were, they seemed to be fairly reliable. Was Cyoria really going to get invaded during the summer festival, then? What should he do about that? What could he do about that? He shook his head and marched back to his room. He would not even contemplate that sort of question until he found out more about what had happened to him. He locked the door so he would have some privacy and sat on his bed. He needed to think.

Okay. So he lived through a whole month of school before… something happened… and then he woke up in his room back in Cirin, as if the entire month never happened. Even with magic factored in, that was preposterous. Time travel was impossible. He didn't have any books in his room that discussed the topic at any appreciable length, but all of the passages that dealt with time travel agreed that it couldn't be done. Even dimensional magic could only warp time, speeding it up or slowing it. It was one of the few things mages agreed was beyond the ability of magic to accomplish.

So how, then, was he living through it?

He was just in the process of consulting the books in his room for any type of magic that could 'fake' time travel in some way when a knock on his door interrupted his thoughts, and he suddenly realized he was still in his pajamas and that mother wanted to talk to him quite a while ago. He quickly changed and opened the door, only to find himself under the scrutiny of two women, only one of which was his mother.

He almost greeted Ilsa by name, but he caught himself in time.

"A teacher from the academy has come to talk to you," his mother said, her disapproving stare telling him she was going to give him an earful once Ilsa leaves.

"Greetings," Ilsa said. "I am Ilsa Zileti, from Cyoria's Royal Academy of Magical Arts. I was hoping to speak to you about some matter before you leave. It won't take long."

"Of course," said Zorian. "Um, where do you…"

"Your room shall suffice," Ilsa said.

"I'll bring you something to drink," his mother said, excusing herself.

Zorian watched Ilsa as she unpacked various papers and placed them on his desk (what was she doing with those, anyway?), trying to decide how to proceed with this. If his future memories were valid, she should be handing him the scroll right about…

Yeah, there it is. Knowing what's going to happen in advance is weird.

For the sake of appearances Zorian gave the scroll a cursory examination before channeling mana into it. It was exactly how he remembered it – the calligraphy, the flowery official-sounding phrases, the elaborate crest at the bottom of the document – and Zorian felt a wave of dread wash over him. What the hell had he gotten himself involved in? He had no idea what was happening to him, but it was big. Very big.

He had the urge to tell Ilsa about his predicament and seek her advice, but he restrained himself. It sounded like the most sensible thing to do – surely a fully trained mage like her was far more qualified for tackling this than he was – but what could he possibly tell her? That he was remembering things that hadn't happened yet? Yeah, that would go over well. Besides, considering the nature of his future memories, he could easily see himself arrested if a conspiracy to invade Cyoria was really discovered thanks to his warnings. After all, it's far more likely his shocking knowledge comes from being a defector of the conspiracy than him being some kind of weird time traveler. An image of a couple of government agents torturing him for information briefly flittered through his mind and he shuddered.

No, best to keep all this to himself for now.

So for the next 10 minutes, Zorian basically reenacted his memories of his initial interaction with Ilsa, not seeing the point in choosing differently this time – all of his choices were made for reasons that were currently every bit as valid as they were in his future memories. He didn't argue with Ilsa about Xvim this time around, though, since he already knew arguing over that topic was pointless, and he didn't request a bathroom break, since he already knew what electives he wished to take. Ilsa seemed completely indifferent to his strange decisiveness, apparently just as eager as he was to get this whole thing out of the way. Then again, why would she be surprised at his decisiveness? She had no future memories to compare this entire encounter to, unlike him. Hell, she didn't even know him up until now.

Zorian sighed and shook his head. They really did feel just like normal memories, and it was hard to ignore them. This is going to be a one long month.

"Are you alright Mr. Kazinski?"

Zorian glanced at Ilsa curiously, trying to divine why she asked him that. She glanced towards his hands – only for a moment, but Zorian caught it. His hands were shaking. He balled them into fists and took a deep breath.

"I'm fine," he said. A second or so of uncomfortable silence ensued, Ilsa apparently unwilling to continue with her closing speech while she continued to study him. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," Ilsa said. "That's why I'm here."

"What do you think about time travel?"

She was clearly taken aback by the question – it was probably the last thing she expected him to ask, or at least close to the bottom of the list. She composed herself very quickly though.

"Time travel is impossible," Ilsa said firmly. "Time can only be dilated or compressed. Never skipped or reversed.''

"Why?" asked Zorian, honestly curious. He had never actually seen an explanation for the impossibility of time travel, though that might be because he wasn't terribly interested in the topic up until now.

Ilsa sighed. "I admit I'm not particularly knowledgeable about the details, but our best theories indicate that going against temporal currents in utterly impossible. As in 'draw a square circle' impossible, not 'leap over the ocean' impossible. The river of time flows only in one direction. Beyond that, innumerable attempts have been made in recorded past, all ending in failure." She gave him a sharp look. "I sincerely hope you won't waste your talents on such a fool's quest."

"I was just curious," Zorian said defensively. "I was just reading a chapter discussing limitations of magic and wondered why the author was so certain time travel is impossible."

"Well now you know," Ilsa said, getting up. "Now if that's all, I really should be going. I'll be happy to answer any further question on Monday after class. Have a nice day."

Zorian watched her leave and shut the door behind her before collapsing back on his bed. Definitely a long month.

- break -

For once the train ride didn't put Zorian to sleep. He had subtly prodded mother with some sensitive topics when she tried to scold him and he was pretty sure this wasn't some kind of elaborate illusion, unless the illusionist was aware of some very closely kept family secrets. And he seemed far too lucid for this to be some kind of induced hallucination. As far as he could tell at the moment, he really did travel back in time. He had spent most of the train ride writing down everything of importance he could think of in one of his notebooks. He didn't really think the memories were going to fade any time soon, but it helped him organize his thoughts and notice details he might have otherwise missed. He noted that he forgot to retrieve his books from under the Kiri's bed in all the confusion, but decided it didn't matter. If the classes were anything like they were the last time around, he wouldn't need them for the duration of the first month.

It was that last spell the lich performed on him and Zach, Zorian was sure of it. The trouble was, Zorian had no idea what the spell was. Even the words were unfamiliar. Standard incantations used Ikosian words as their base, and Zorian knew enough of Ikosian to get a general feel of a spell just by listening to what the caster's chanting, but the lich used a different language for his incantation. Fortunately, Zorian had a really good memory and remembered most of the chant, so he wrote it down in his trusty notebook in phonetic form. He was pretty sure he wouldn't find the spell itself anywhere within his clearance level, as the spell was probably highly restricted and kept out of reach of first circle mages like him, but he would see about identifying the language and finding a proper dictionary in the academy library.

The other clue to this whole thing was Zach himself. The boy was capable of fighting a lich – a freaking lich! – for several minutes before succumbing to it. Even though the lich had been toying with him, it was still pretty impressive. Zorian would put Zach on par with a 3rd circle mage, and probably more. What the hell was that guy doing with academy students then? Something was definitely strange about Zach, though Zorian had no intention of confronting the guy directly until he found out more about what's going on. For all he knew, it could be one of those 'you know about us, so now we have to kill you' sort of things. He would have to thread carefully around the Noveda heir.

Zorian slammed the notebook shut and ran his hand through his hair. No matter how he looked at it, this whole situation seemed utterly crazy. Did he really have memories from the future or was he simply going insane? Both possibilities were terrifying. He was in no way qualified to tackle something like this on his own, but he didn't know how to get other people to help him without being carted off either to a madhouse or an interrogation chamber.

He resolved to think about it later. As in, tomorrow later. This whole thing was simply too weird, and he needed to sleep on it before he decides anything.

"Excuse me, is this seat free?"

Zorian glanced at the speaker, recognizing her after a second of recollection. The nameless green turtleneck girl that joined him in his compartment when they took a stop at Korsa. Of course, the last time she didn't bother to ask for permission before taking a seat. What changed? Ah, it didn't matter – what did matter is that last time she was soon followed by four other girls. Very loud, very obnoxious girls. No way he'd be spending the rest of the train ride listening to their banter… again.

"Yeah," he nodded. "In fact, I was just leaving. We're stopping at Korsa, right? Good day, miss."

And then he quickly grabbed his luggage and went to search for another compartment, abandoning the girl to her fate.

Maybe these future memories are good for something, after all.

- break -

Bam!

"Roach!"

Bam! Bam! Bam!

"Roach, open the trice damned door! I know you're in here!"

Zorian rolled over in his bed and groaned. What the hell was Taiven doing here this early? No wait… He snatched the clock from his dresser and brought it in front of his face… she wasn't early, he just slept past noon. Huh. He distinctly remembered going straight to the academy from the train station and falling asleep minutes after reaching his room, yet he still overslept like this. Apparently dying and then awakening in the past is tiresome business.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

"I'm coming, I'm coming!" shouted Zorian. "Stop banging on my door, already!"

Naturally, she just kept banging on it with more enthusiasm. Zorian rushed to make himself presentable and stomped towards the door. Wrenching the door open, he gave Taiven a withering look…

…which she promptly ignored.

"Finally!" she said. "What the hell took you so long!?"

"I was sleeping," Zorian growled.

"Really?"

"Yes," ground out.

"But-"

"I was tired," Zorian snapped. "Very tired. And what the hell are you waiting for? Get inside."

She rushed inside and Zorian took a moment of collect himself before he confronted her. In his future memories, she never visited him once after he refused to go along with her mission to the sewers, which spoke volumes about her true feelings about this 'friendship' of theirs. Then again, he hardly even thought about her himself until now, so he probably shouldn't judge. In any case, he was even less inclined to join her on this mission now than he was in his future memories – he actually had more pressing matters to attend to this time, in addition to general apprehensiveness that was still as valid now as it was then. Accordingly, he felt a lot less reluctance in simply blowing her off, and it only took him an hour to convince her to leave him alone.

That done, he immediately set out for the library, making a short detour to a nearby bakery for a quick bite to tide him over. Once in the library he started searching for books on the topic of time travel and trying to identify the language the lich used in his spell.

To call it disappointing would be calling it mildly. For one thing, there were no books on time travel. The topic was not considered a serious field of study, what with it being impossible and all. What little was written about it was scattered across innumerable volumes, hidden in unmarked sections and paragraphs of otherwise unrelated books. Piecing together these scattered mentions was an absolute chore, and not all that rewarding either – none of it was useful in solving the mystery of his future memories. Finding the language the lich used in his spell was even more frustrating, since he failed to even identify the language, much less translate the chant.

He spent the entire weekend fruitlessly sifting through library texts, finally abandoning that avenue of research when it became obvious it wasn't producing any results. Plus the library workers were starting to give him weird looks at his choice of literature and he didn't want to create any unfortunate rumors. Hopefully he would be able to trick Zach into revealing what the hell was going on when the school started.

- break -

"You're late."

Zorian stared at Akoja's stern face in quiet contemplation. He was glad he wouldn't have to deal with any drama because of his disastrous evening with her – almost as glad as he was about the fact that he wasn't dead – but he couldn't help but wonder what her outburst had been about. She didn't really look like she had a crush on him, so why did his comment hit her so heavily?

"What?" she asked, and Zorian realized he had been staring at her a little too long. Oops.

"Ako, why are you telling me this when more than half the class isn't even here yet?" he asked.

"Because there is at least a chance you will listen, unlike them," Akoja admitted. "Also, someone like you should be an example to other students, not descend to their level."

"Someone like me?" inquired Zorian.

"Just get inside," she snapped irritably.

He sighed and went inside. It was probably for the best to leave things be – he had other problems to deal with, and she was far too rule-bound for his tastes anyway.

He didn't know what he was expecting to happen when he walked into the class. Everyone to stop what they were doing and stare at him, maybe? At least then he would have a reason for feeling so unnerved at attending his first class of the year for the second time. But of course they did no such thing. It wasn't a second time for them, and there was nothing visibly irregular about him for them to take notice. He quashed his unease and sat down in the back of the class, discreetly scanning new arrivals for signs of Zach. He was sure the other boy was connected to this somehow, and the mysterious boy appeared to be Zorian's best chance at understanding what was happening to him.

There was a brief commotion when Briam's fire drake familiar hissed up a storm and started chasing Briam's terrified neighbor across the classroom before Briam calmed it down. Apparently the magical reptile liked the unfortunate boy even less than it did Zorian. In any case, Ilsa came in soon after and started the class.

Zach never showed up.

Zorian spent the entire class in a daze, shocked at this turn of events. Where the hell was Zach? Everything happened almost exactly as it did in his future memories so far, with Zach's absence being the first major deviation. This firmly cemented Zach as somehow connected to this madness, but it also put the boy out of Zorian's reach for the moment.

The lecture was even more annoying now than it was the first time he listened to it, since from his perspective he went through these review sessions less than a moth ago. Apparently Ilsa worked off some kind of a script, because the lecture was virtually identical to the one from his memory, the only difference being that Zach wasn't there to compete with Akoja for answering Ilsa's questions to the class.

Funny how things seem clearer in retrospect. Zach was acting strange right from the start, in that very first lecture, but Zorian thought nothing of it. Sure, Zach volunteering to answer teacher's questions was out of character for the boy, but not completely implausible. It was just a review session anyway, and they had to know these things to pass the certification. It took two weeks before people really began to take notice the extent of Zach's sudden improvement.

So many questions, so few answers. He could only hope that Zach would show up soon.

- break -

Zach didn't come to class that day, or the next, or the day after that. By Friday, Zorian was pretty sure the other boy wouldn't be showing up at all. According to Benisek, Zach simply disappeared from his family mansion on the very same day that Zorian took train to Cyoria, and nobody had seen a hint of him ever since. Zorian didn't think he could cook up anything the investigators hired by the boy's guardian hadn't thought of doing, and he didn't want to attract attention to himself by asking around, so he reluctantly put the mystery of Zach aside for the moment.

His schoolwork was going well, at least. Thanks to his foreknowledge, he aced Nore Boole's surprise tests and didn't really have to study for any subject – a small refresher was sufficient to coast him through pretty much anything. Once his warding class really gets going that's probably going to change, but for now he had all the free time he wanted to deliberate on what he should do about the rapidly approaching summer festival and the accompanying assault.

Sadly, with Zach absent, Zorian had hit dead ends in all the clues he had, and was now at loss how to proceed.

"Come in."

Zorian open the door to Xvim's office and defiantly met the man's gaze. He was pretty confident in the accuracy of his 'future' memories by now, Zach's mysterious absence aside, so he knew this was going to be another exercise in frustration. He was tempted to boycott the meetings, but he suspected it was his stoic perseverance in the face of the man's antagonism that eventually convinced Ilsa to take him under her wing. And besides, he felt that would be doing Xvim a favor if he quit – Zorian had a distinct feeling that the man was trying to get him to quit the last time around – and he was far too spiteful to do that. He sat down without prompting, a little disappointed that the man hadn't remarked upon his intentionally rude gesture.

"Zorian Kazinski?" Xvim asked. Zorian nodded and expertly snatched the pen that the man had throw at him out of the air, having expected it this time.

"Show me your basic three," the man ordered, not in the least bit surprised at the feat of coordination.

Instantly, without even an extra deep breath, Zorian opened his palm, the pen practically jumping out of his palm and into the air.

"Make it spin," Xvim said.

Zorian's eyes widened. What happened to 'start over'? His current attempt wasn't any worse than what he displayed during their last session before that fateful dance, and Xvim's only response that night had been 'start over', just like any other time. What changed now?

"Are you having problems with hearing?" Xvim asked. "Make it spin!"

Zorian blinked, finally realizing he should be focusing on the current session instead of his memories. "What? What do you mean 'make it spin'? That's not part of the basic three…"

Xvim sighed dramatically and slowly took another pen and levitated it over his own palm. Instead of just hanging in the air like Zorian's, however, Xvim's pen was spinning like a fan.

"I… have no idea how to do that," Zorian admitted. "We weren't taught how to do that in classes."

"Yes, it is criminal how badly the classes are failing our students," Xvim said. "Such a simple variation of a levitation exercise should not be beyond the grasp of a certified mage. No matter, we shall correct this deficiency before we move on to other matters."

Zorian sighed. Great. No wonder no one ever mastered the basic three to Xvim's liking if the man keeps redefining what 'mastered' means. There were probably hundreds of 'small variations' of each of the basic three, enough to spend decades learning them all, so little wonder no one could exhaust them all in two measly years. Especially considering Xvim's standards for labeling the skill 'mastered'.

"Go on," Xvim urged. "Start."

Zorian focused intensely on the pen hanging above his palm, trying to figure out how to do that. It should be relatively simple. He just had to affix a stabilization point in the middle of the pen and put pressure on the ends, right? At least, that's the first think that popped into his head. He had just managed to get the pen to move a bit when he felt a familiar object impact into his forehead.

Zorian glared at Xvim, cursing himself for forgetting about the man's damnable marbles. Xvim glanced at the pen that was still hovering over Zorian's palm.

"You didn't lose focus," Xvim remarked. "Good."

"You threw a marble at me," Zorian accused.

"I was hurrying you up," Xvim said, unrepentant. "You're too slow. You must be faster. Faster, faster, faster! Start over."

Zorian sighed and returned to his task. Yup, definitely an exercise in frustration.

- break -

Between his unfamiliarity with the exercise and Xvim's constant interruptions, Zorian only managed to get the pen to wobble by the end of the session, which was… a little humiliating, actually. His above average shaping skills were one of the few things that set him aside from his fellow mages, and he felt he should have done much better, despite Xvim's repeated sabotage attempts. Fortunately, a book describing the exercise in detail was easy to find in the academy library, so he would hopefully master it by next week. Well, not master it – not in the sense that Xvim wanted him to – but he at least wanted to know what he was doing before he tackled his next session with Xvim.

Of course, normally he wouldn't be willing to pour that much effort into a lousy shaping exercise, but he needed a distraction. At the beginning, the entire time travel situation was so patently ridiculous that he found it easy to remain calm and collected. Some part of him kept expecting that the whole thing was a double dream or something, and that he would wake up one day and not remember a thing. That part was becoming panicked and agitated now that it became obvious that the situation he faced was real. What the hell was he supposed to do? Zach's mysterious absence weighted heavily upon him, inflaming his paranoia and making him reluctant to tell anyone about the invasion. Zorian was not a fundamentally selfless person and didn't want to save people only to screw himself over in the end. Whatever his future memories really were, they were in essence his second chance at life – he was pretty sure he died at the end of his future memories – and he had no intention to squander it. He did consider it his ethical duty to warn people of the danger threatening the city, but there had to be a way to do it without destroying his life or reputation.

The simplest idea would be to warn as many people as possible (thus ensuring that at least some of them take the warnings seriously) and do so face-to-face, since written communications can be ignored in a way that is not really possible in personal interactions. Unfortunately that would almost certainly paint him as a madman until he's eventually vindicated by the actual assault. If there is an assault, that is – what if the conspirators decide to lay low upon having their plans unmasked and the invasion doesn't happen? What if nobody takes him seriously until it's too late and then decide to turn him into a scapegoat in order to shift responsibility away from themselves? What if one of the people he tries to warn is part of the conspiracy and has him killed before he can tell anyone else? What if, what if… way too many what ifs. And he had a sneaking suspicion that one of those what ifs was responsible for Zach's disappearance.

As a result of these musings, the idea of staying anonymous appealed to him the more and more with each passing day. The problem was that sending a message to a bunch of people without having it traced back to you was not at all simple when magic got involved. Divinations weren't all powerful, but Zorian had only academic understanding of their limitations, and his precautions probably wouldn't hold against a motivated search by a skilled diviner.

Zorian sighed and started outlining a tentative plan into his notebook, completely ignoring their history teacher's enthusiastic lecture. He had to figure out who to contact, what to put into the letters, and how to ensure they couldn't be traced back to him. He somehow doubted the government would allow authors to publish instructions on how to evade detection from law enforcement, but he would still check the library to see what they have on the topic. He was so caught up in his self-appointed task he barely noticed when the class ended, furiously scribbling away while everyone else packed and filed out of the classroom. He definitely didn't notice Benisek peering over his shoulder.

"What are you doing?"

Zorian slammed his notebook shut in a reflexive maneuver as soon as Benisek started talking and gave the other boy a nasty glare.

"It's impolite to look over other people's shoulders," Zorian remarked.

"Jumpy, aren't we?" smiled Benisek, loudly dragging a chair from the nearby table so he could sit on the other side of Zorian's table. "Relax, I didn't see anything."

"Not for the lack of trying," remarked Zorian. Benisek only grinned wider. "What do you want, anyway?"

"Just wanted to talk for a bit," Benisek shrugged. "You're been really withdrawn this year. You've got this frustrated look on your face all the time, and you're always busy even though it's the start of the school year. Wanted to know what was bothering you, you know?"

Zorian sighed. "This isn't something you can help me with, Ben…"

Benisek made a strangled noise, apparently outraged by his remark. "What do you mean I can't help you!? I'll have you know I'm an expert on girl trouble."

Now it was Zorian's turn to make a strangled noise. "Girl trouble!?"

"Oh come on," Benisek laughed. "Constantly distracted? Spacing out in the middle of the class? Making plans for sending anonymous letters? It's obvious, man! Who's the lucky girl?"

"There is no 'lucky girl'," Zorian growled. "And I thought you didn't see anything?"

"Listen, I don't think sending anonymous letters is a good idea," Benisek said, completely ignoring his remarks. "That's so… first year, you know? You should just walk up to her and tell her how you feel."

"I don't have time for this," Zorian sighed, getting up from his seat.

"Hey, come on…" protested Benisek, trailing after him. "Man, you're one touchy guy, did anybody tell you that? I was just…"

Zorian ignored him. He really didn't need this right now.

- break -

In retrospect, Zorian should have known that simply ignoring Benisek wasn't such a good idea. It only took 2 days for most of the class to 'know' that Zorian has a crush on someone, and their loud speculation was annoying as hell. Not to mention distracting. Still, his displeasure at the rumors evaporated when Neolu approached him one day and gave him a short list of 'books he might find useful'. He had half a mind to set the list on fire, especially since the list was decorated with dozens of little hearts, but in the end his natural curiosity won over and he went to the library to check them out. He figured that at the very least he'd get a good laugh out of them.

He got more than a good laugh, though – instead of silly love advice like he expected, the books Neolu recommended were all about making sure your letters, gifts, and such couldn't be traced back to you with divinations and other magic. Apparently if you call such advice Forbidden Love: Mysteries of Scarlet Letters Revealed and phrase it as relationship advice you can get straight past the usual censorship such topics would normally be subjected to.

Of course, he had no idea how reliable the advice in those books really was, and the librarian looked at him funny when he checked out books like that, but he was still pleased to have found them. If this whole thing worked out in the end he'd have to do something nice for Neolu.

So as the summer festival approached, Zorian prepared and plotted. He bought a whole stack of generic paper sheets, pens, and envelopes in one of the stores that looked too poor and disorganized to track their costumers purchases. He worded the letters carefully to avoid revealing any personal details. He made sure not to touch the paper with his bare hands at any point, and that none of his sweat, hair, or blood ended up in the envelope. He deliberately wrote in a blocky, formal script that looked nothing like his normal handwriting. He destroyed the pens, the excess paper and envelops he didn't use in the end.

And then, a week before the festival, he put the letters in different public postal boxes all over Cyoria and waited.

It was… nerve-wracking, to say the least. Nothing happened, though – no one came to confront him about the letters, which was good, but also nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. Did no one believe him? Did he mess up somehow and the letters ended up not reaching their intended recipients? Are they being so subtle in their reaction that no disturbance is being made? The wait was killing him.

Finally, he had enough. On the evening before the dance he decided he'd done everything he could and took the first train out of the city. His letters may or may not have worked, but this way he'll be alright regardless. If anyone asked (though he doubted they would), he'll use his trusty 'alchemical accident' excuse. He messed up a potion and breathed in some hallucinogenic fumes, only coming to his senses when he was already outside of Cyoria. Yes, that's exactly what happened.

As the train sped away from Cyoria in the dead of a night, Zorian suppressed his unease and feelings of guilt for doing so little to warn anyone of the approaching attack. What else could he have done? Nothing, that's what. Nothing at all.

After a while he fell into uneasy sleep, the rhythmic thumping of the train his lullaby, visions of falling stars and skeletons wreathed in green light haunting his dreams.

- break -

Zorian's eyes abruptly shot open as sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.

"Good morning, brother!" an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. "Morning, morning, MORNING!"

Zorian gaped at his little sister incredulously, his mouth opening and closing periodically. What, again?

"Oh you've got to be kidding me!" Zorian growled, and Kirielle quickly got off of him and scooted away fearfully. Apparently she thought his ire was directed at her. "Not you Kiri, I… I just had a nightmare, that's all."

He couldn't believe it, it happened again!? What the hell? He was glad it happened last time, since it meant he wasn't… you know, dead. But now? Now it was just freaky. Why was this happening to him?

Oh, and while he was lamenting his fate internally, Kirielle barricaded herself in the bathroom again. God damn it all!