Chapter 055-B

Predator

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.

He reacted instantly, his body twisting and moving on its own with supernatural fluidity and precision. The heavy object that fell on him was bounced back into the air with a surprised squeal while Zorian simultaneously rolled off the bed. He landed on his feet and smoothly righted himself into a standing position, looking down at the intruder with a stony expression.

"Um," Kirielle fumbled, sprawled on his bed in an awkward position and probably trying to comprehend what just happened. "Good morning, brother?"

"Good morning, Kiri," Zorian told her politely. He wasn't actually angry at her for waking him up like that. His reaction was simply instinctive.

He then continued to stare at her silently.

"Um," Kirielle said, uncomfortably. "Mom said to wake you up."

"That is good," Zorian told her. "As you can see, I am very awake."

He continued to stare.

Kirielle stared back at him for a second before righting herself into a sitting position on the edge of the bed. She gave him a big grin as she started swinging her legs back and forth.

"So…" she began excitedly, "are you excited?"

"About what? Going back to the academy?" Zorian asked her blandly."

"Yeah!"

"Of course I am," Zorian confirmed. "Do you want to come with me to Cyoria?"

Kirielle's legs froze mid swing and her eyes widened slightly. She stared at him uncertainly for a full second.

He stared back at her, silent and still, not elaborating anything.

"R-Really?" she asked, hope and disbelief radiating off of her. "Why would-"

"Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Yes or no?" Zorian prompted.

He knew his current approach was extremely crude and uncharacteristic for him, but he was no longer the same person he once was and he preferred to tackle problems head-on if he could help it. And he knew that Kirielle would ultimately not look too deeply into his reasons, due to plenty of previous experience.

"Yes! Definitely yes!" Kirielle said loudly. Then she frowned. "I'm just… how did you even know? Did you eavesdrop on me and Mother or something?"

"You of all people have no right to judge others for eavesdropping," Zorian told her. Let her draw her own conclusions from his misleading words.

"What? What do you mean-"

He turned around and left the room to use the bathroom before she could finish her response.

- break -

Zorian stared at the bowl of porridge in front of him, an unhappy frown on his face. It was already cold, and porridge hadn't been something he liked very much even before the restart, but that wasn't why he was hesitating. Ever since his change, he found his tastes in food to be vastly different than they had been in the past.

He didn't like dead food like this. He longed for something living. Something he could personally kill and fink his teeth into. Something vibrant in life and magic, that glowed to his new senses and made him hungry…

"Zorian…" his mother asked slowly, studying his face intently, "is there something wrong with the porridge I made you?"

If this was old Zorian, he would have sighed here, probably. A big, dramatic sigh. He used to be very fond of those. Alas, his new instincts were to stand completely still and silent most of the time. He knew it tended to disturb people, but it was hard to resist.

"There is nothing wrong," Zorian eventually told her after a second of silence. Eating fresh prey raw was not healthy for human beings anyway, regardless of his new cravings. "I'm just not feeling hungry at the moment."

He should count himself lucky that humans didn't register as prey.

Not innately magical enough.

"Kirielle tells me that you offered to take her with you to Cyoria," Mother remarked.

"I did," Zorian confirmed. He pushed the porridge bowl to the side, ignoring the slight frown on Mother's face as he did so. "She wants to go, I want to take her. Simple to resolve."

"She can be quite the handful, you know?" Mother remarked.

"Mom!" Kirielle protested from the other room. She had been 'stealthily' eavesdropping on the entire conversation all this time, of course.

Zorian didn't say anything. He simply turned his head and gave mother a long, blank look.

Mother waited for a few seconds, apparently expecting him to say something, before raising her eyebrows at him.

"Zorian, are you alright? You're acting quite strangely today," Mother told him. She sounded genuinely worried.

"I am fine," Zorian said. He just hadn't thought her comment merited a response. "Just lost in thought."

She sighed. "You really need stop daydreaming so much and come down to earth a little. Especially since you'll be taking care of your little sister from now on, too. When I was your age I…"

He tuned her out, pretending to listen in silence until he felt Ilsa arrive not far from their home.

And he really did feel her. Even though she teleported some distance from the house itself, her magical entrance was like a miniature beacon of magic to his senses. His new senses were incredibly sharp and discerning, and Zorian had enough experience with different types of magic to immediately recognize a teleportation even when it occurred in his general vicinity.

It never occurred to him until now, but why was Ilsa even able to teleport to Cirin so easily? And not far from their house, too. That meant she had been here before in the past, didn't it?

Probably Daimen related.

"Zorian, are you even listening to me?" Mother suddenly demanded.

"Someone is coming," Zorian simply coming.

"What do you-"

There was a knock on the door.

"See?" Zorian told her. "It's probably someone from the Academy. I'll go open the door."

He knew he was acting very suspiciously, but he didn't care. He had done this several times before, and he knew it would all work out in the end.

- break -

Zorian walked the streets of Cyoria with Kirielle skipping happily beside him. Rain was pouring, but thanks to a transparent barrier of force Zorian had erected around them, they were mostly dry. 'Mostly', because Kirielle insisted on periodically testing the barrier by sticking her hands and feet outside it, spraying water onto Zorian in the process. Sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes very clearly intentionally.

He didn't react either way. It was just water. It couldn't hurt him in any way. Even most bullets couldn't hurt him now, nevermind some rain.

"Zorian, are you sure you're alright?" Kirielle suddenly asked him. "You've been quiet and weird all day. What are you worried about? Are you secretly doing badly at your school?"

"I don't think it's possible for me to keep something like that a secret from Father and Mother, considering what's going on with Fortov," said Zorian shaking his head. "When they went to talk to the Academy about our older brother's failures, they would have surely inquired about me as well, don't you think?"

"Oh yeah," she agreed. "But then, what's up?"

"I'm just thinking," he told her. "I have lots of things on my mind right now."

"Like what?" Kirielle challenged.

Like being trapped in a steadily decaying copy of the real world? Struggling to stay sane in an endlessly repeating existence? Trying to come to terms with his new instincts and urges and wondering how much of him was really Zorian at this point?

But no, he shouldn't say that. Despite his newfound fondness for bluntness and direct approach, he didn't want to hurt Kirielle. Unlike many other people she would likely accept the truth of the situation if he insisted it was true, but what would that accomplish? She couldn't help him, and would only worry needlessly.

His other self had no special fondness for the concept of siblings, but he was still Zorian, and Zorian cared for his little sister.

He small part of him wondered for how long that would stay true. But surely… surely there was a limit to how much he could change? Yes, there was a wide gulf between what Zorian was before and after the transformation, but wasn't the same true of Zorian before and after the time loop? His changes made sense.

No matter what, he was still a person, and not a mindless beast.

"I'm just wondering what to do with myself once I graduate," Zorian told her vaguely. "I thought I wanted to be a magic item crafter when I was done with the academy, but that doesn't look that appealing anymore. So I am a bit lost."

It wasn't even a lie. Zorian was a bit lost about what to do with himself once he got out of the time loop. But then again, this was true for the old Zorian as well. So it wasn't like the transformation changed much in this regard.

Kirielle didn't seem to think much about his answer, but she didn't press him. They kept walking towards Imaya's place, rain pouring onto his protective rain dome.

The city glowed to his senses, a riot of colors and sensations. Not literally, of course. Rather, his composite magical sense was picking up signals from various ward schemes used by building around them, weaving them into an illusory web of sensations that his mind automatically overlayed on top of what his eyes were telling him. Cyoria was rather unique in this regard, since every second house seemed to have at least rudimentary warding scheme protecting the place – a luxury most places couldn't afford.

Zorian liked magic. He always did, but his other half amplified this fondness several-fold. A place this awash in magic, crisscrossed by complex magical signatures like this, was instinctually and viscerally pleasing. A good place to set up a home. A good hunting ground.

His thoughts suddenly turned, as they often did these days, to food. Something living and struggling. A worthy hunt he could sink his fangs into and drink deeply from until he had his fill…

Maybe he should have eaten that porridge before leaving Cirin, despite his distaste. He really was getting kind of hungry here.

- break -

After he and Kirielle settled down a little at Imaya's place, he left the house to seek out Zach. His fellow time traveler was not all that eager to hang out with him these days – not that Zorian blamed him much – but they still had a common enemy and goal to work towards.

He found Zach drinking alcohol in some outdoor bar on the outskirts of Cyoria. He wordlessly approached Zach and sat down at the same table.

He then silently stared at the other boy, not moving or even twitching, waiting for Zach to reach. He knew the other boy noticed him long before he approached.

Zach gave him a strange, pitying look before downing his entire mug in one gulp and smacking his lips a few times. He then twiddled his thumbs for a few seconds.

Zorian just continued staring until Zach lost his patience.

"Are you really just going to stare at me like that until I say something?" Zach soon snapped. "Gods, Zorian. I really wish I had stopped you when you set up that shifter ritual. What the hell were we thinking?"

"I'm sorry this bothers you so much, Zach. But I don't want to go back to the way I used to be," Zorian told him, not a hint of anger or annoyance in his voice. "There are some issues, but I'm better like this."

"There are some issues, he says," Zach muttered. "Not that you could turn back the clock and undue the ritual, even if you wanted to."

"True," Zorian agreed. He and his other self were one now – two halves of the same soul. He wasn't a giant salamander, that he could be sliced into two halves and have one or both halves still live.

"Why did you even go for it?" Zach asked. Pleaded, maybe? He looked tired. "Looking back at it, it's so unlike you. You're a paranoid jerk, and you always overthink everything. It's the most annoying, and most praiseworthy part of you. You… you must have known."

Zorian was quiet for a moment, and this time it wasn't because he thought no response was necessary.

"Fear," Zorian eventually told him. "The task in front of us seemed so monumental. So much larger than either of us, but especially me. All I have is a mild talent for mind magic, and in the end I couldn't even fix the matriarch's memory package before it unraveled and disappeared from my mind. How could we ever do this, and how could I meaningfully contribute? I needed to be better. And now I am."

"Damn it Zorian… I..." Zach began, before falling silent.

"Don't be like that," Zorian told him. "I'm not dying, not suffering. In fact, I feel better than ever. Old Zorian worried too much. Me? I know we will eventually escape this time loop thing. My skin turns spells and bullets alike, and my eyes see layers of reality I was previously blind to. I am mighty and I will win. Really, I just wish my tastes in food are not so out of line with what my body can handle."

"No eating people," Zach warned.

"You keep telling me this, but I tell you, humans are bad eating," Zorian told him.

Aranea, however, were a different story. They were just magical enough that his instincts saw them as a 'maybe'. It was really complicating his relations to the telepathic arachnids. It was hard to talk to a psychic and hide that you find them potentially delicious.

He wondered what would happen if he showed up in an aranean colony in his alternate form and tried to talk to them. They'd probably flee in terror when they realized what they were dealing with, but it could be an amusing thing to try regardless.

"Anyway, I don't want to discuss this further," Zorian told him. "Let's do something fun instead of discussing heavy topics like this. Let's go attack some invaders and cultists."

"Hmm. Okay," Zach nodded, rising to his feet. He smiled at him uncertainly. "This, at least, is something I really like about the new you. You have a spirit for adventure that you just didn't have before."

Zorian smiled back at him. A genuine smile, which were a rarity for him after his transformation. Finally, a hunt…

Strangely, his smile seem to disturb Zach. Really, some people you could never make happy.

- break -

In the tunnels below Cyoria, an Ibasan patrol was having a bad time. They were used to fighting off a aranea assassins, or an occasional group of dungeon denizens, but they were a big group accompanied by war trolls and other dominated monsters, and the dungeon wasn't that dangerous on their patrol route. Thus, when they were suddenly attacked by a pair of disguised human attackers, they struggled to respond effectively.

But even if their response was chaotic and disorganized, they did respond nonetheless.

Zorian studied the group in front of him for notable weak spots, casually side-stepping the wild sword swings of the war troll next to him. The war troll was large and intimidating, screaming unintelligible war cries as he swung a sword almost as tall as Zorian, but it was all useless. Zorian didn't even have to erect any defenses – the war troll was too slow, his movements trivial to predict.

And so were most enemy projectiles. Three spells were flying at him – two force spears glowing with red light and a fast-moving stone sphere – but he didn't try to shield himself, teleport away, or negate the attacks. Instead, he simply twisted his body and jumped from side to side, expertly weaving through the spell fire without the need to expend much in the way of mana.

Using his shifter transformation did take some mana, but much like his innate mind magic, it was very efficient and cost almost nothing unless he transformed fully.

The war troll seemed incensed by Zorian's casual dismissal of its attacks. It threw its heavy sword aside and hurled itself forward in an attempt to tackle him. However, this maneuver was just as predictable to Zorian's senses as its earlier sword swings. The war troll spread its arms wide, covering the entire width of the dungeon corridor with its bulk, but Zorian simply jumped upward. It was seemingly just a hop, but he shot up all the way to the ceiling, easily getting out of the way of the tackle.

He flipped himself in the air to land feet-first when he hit the rock, and then immediately bounced back down with the speed and force of a cannon ball. He landed feet first on the war trolls head, and the beast immediately went limp. The troll wasn't dead, Zorian knew – it was extremely hard to kill a troll through blunt physical trauma - but it was unconscious, and that was good enough for him. He immediately hurled himself forward, seemingly charging towards the Ibasan group.

A hail of spell fire answered him, and he dealt with it the same way he dealt with projectiles before now. By dodging them. Some of the spells had a homing function in them, but they were still unable to keep up with him. He bounced off the walls, twisted his body in the last moment with supernatural speed and flexibility, and threw small rocks into the path of projectiles to trigger them prematurely. At one point he even maneuvered himself in such a way to make two spells collide into one another mid-flight.

Nothing could touch him, and it took barely any mana to maintain this state too.

Of course, an expert mage or a coordinated group would still be able to hit him, even with his supernatural dodging skills. This group was neither, but they would get lucky eventually, provided they didn't run out of mana. Thus, Zorian decided to start stalling.

He launched a single spell at the enemy group – a powerful force lance directed at one of the Ibasans in charge of erecting shields for the whole group. The attack seemed woefully inadequate to take down the group's defenses, but Zorian's magical sense allowed him to analyze magical constructs at considerable distance and he could tell this particular mage made shields with some very glaring flaws. The force lance was aimed perfectly at one of the weak spots in the man's shield, and punched through it seemingly without resistance. It then continued on towards one of the defenders, hitting him in the shoulder and incapacitating him.

Zorian deliberately didn't aim for the shielder. He wanted that guy to keep making his flawed defenses that Zorian could easily exploit. If he took down him, the group might assign someone actually good to make shields for them.

His plans of methodically taking down the group were suddenly interrupted by two events. First, Zach decided things were taking too long and launched a powerful attack on the group from the other side of the corridor. And secondly, someone teleported behind Zorian from the group.

The teleport was clearly meant to catch him off-guard, and was even accompanied by a renewed projectile barrage by the main group to distract him and cover for the maneuver, but Zorian's sense couldn't be fooled. The teleport was like a beacon in the night, and the only reason he didn't immediately turn around and kill the ambushers is that someone in the main Ibasan group took out a rifle and aimed it at him.

Strange. Ibasans usually disdained the use of firearms.

Zorian quickly placed his arms over his heads to protect his eyes – the one place where getting hit by a bullet might actually be a problem – even as his body still instinctively dodged everything else thrown at him. The rifleman wasn't that good at aiming, however, and the bullets he fired hit Zorian in the chest and legs. They promptly bounced off his iron-like skin, doing nothing but sting a little. However, the bullets were still very annoying, because unlike spells they didn't register on his magic sense and were thus far more unpredictable and harder to keep track of.

No more playing around. He quickly erected a spherical shield around himself to protect him while he transformed and then reached out into his soul and initiated a full transformation.

The glowing white shield only lasted for two second under the hail of attacks, but it was enough. When it broke, a grey shadow jumped out of dissipating sphere and charged at the main group of Ibasan invaders, completely ignoring the trio of mages that teleported behind him earlier.

In his grey hunter form, Zorian's magical senses were even more amplified, and he could clearly sense hidden bombs the three teleporting mages were carrying. They were a trap. A suicide mission designed to take him out of the fight if he took the bait.

The giant grey spider charged straight through spellfire, letting the minor spells break upon its furry, chitinous carapace with no effect while dodging the heavy attacks by bouncing off the tunnels walls in a dizzying display od acrobatics.

Before the invaders could really process what they were seeing, Zorian was already upon them. All shields shattered at his touch – a combination of brute physical force of his spider form and an ability to perceive minute (and not so minute) flaws in the spell boundaries of their defenses.

He didn't kill them. The goal was to capture people for questioning, not indiscriminately kill people. Thankfully, his grey hunter form was absolutely great for capturing mages relatively painlessly. He just had to bite them and inject his magic disrupting poison, and they were largely neutralized as a magical threat. He proceeded to do just that as he broke through the Ibasan defenses – simply biting everything in sight as the group started panicking and breaking formation.

He really needed to figure out some way to deliver the poison at a distance. Biting people as a giant spider was satisfying and all, but trying to get into melee range was a dangerous things to do in a magical fight. Some kind of dart, maybe? He wasn't sure how long his poison would persist outside of his spider form, however…

In any case, this fight was over. He was still learning how to use his alternate form effectively, but overall he was very pleased with results shown so far.

- break -

In his room at Imaya's place, Zorian was tinkering with a large ward stone design while Kirielle drew various things on the floor beside him. One would think his new grey hunter half would not have any feelings towards crafting and creation, or would even disdain it. Humans often imagined wild beasts as being disdainful of civilization, living free and unbound lives in the untamed wilderness… but the grey hunter inside him recognized the idea of a home and found the idea of defending it with various creations very appealing. Perhaps grey hunters normally modified their lairs somehow, either by shaping the surrounding stone to their liking or by using their webs to create tripwires and other defenses? He had to admit he was never actually reckless enough to go an attack a grey hunter in its own home, so he had no idea what they looked like.

In any case, his new magical senses were less of a boon in something like designing a wardstone or a golem core than they were in breaking magical defenses, but still helped in being able to perceive the flow of energies so clearly. It saved time, which was an oddly important thing for someone in his situation.

He looked at Kirielle, lying on her stomach and kicking her feet in the air while she drew a pair of sparrows fighting each other over something. Once again, he was surprised by the level of detail in her drawings. The scene was very lifelike.

His little sister had been remarkably tolerant of his weird and sometimes off-putting behavior this past month. He should probably say something nice to her for a change.

"Kiri?" he called.

"Yeah?" she responded, not even turning her head to look at him.

"If I'm ever starving," he told her, "I will eat you last."

- break -

Here's my impression of a very popular idea of Zorian becoming a grey hunter shifter. While this chapter only touches upon the multitude of issues and possibility such a transformation would cause in Zorian, it's hopefully still interesting. And I certainly had fun writing it. :)

Also, the e-book of Arc 2 of Mother of Learning is now available for purchase! I cannot put up any links here on Fictionpress, but I'm sure you can find it on your own easily enough. I have faith in you!

The audiobook is also available for purchase. Same as the above regarding links.