Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a 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!!!”

Panic. Zorian’s awakened mind felt nothing but pure, all-consuming terror. After all of his efforts, all the sacrifices he and people around him had made, it was all for naught. He was back where it all began, in his room in Cirin, about to start his third year at the academy…

…then the moment passed, and the nightmare dissolved.

The room around him was wrong. This wasn’t his room back in Cirin. He was in Cyoria, in the room he shared with Kirielle, at Imaya’s place.

And the little devil was currently still sprawled across his stomach, kicking her legs up in the air and giving him a mischievous, expectant look. His panicked reaction didn’t seem to worry her. If anything, she seemed quite pleased with herself for managing to scare him so thoroughly.


“Kirielle… why?” Zorian asked, resisting the urge to sigh.

“What do you mean?” she asked innocently. “I always wake you up like this?”

“Not with those exact words you don’t,” Zorian groused. “He put you up to this, didn’t he?”

“Zach said it was going to be funnier this way,” Kirielle admitted, propping her chin with her hands. She gave him a toothy smile.

Zorian flipped her over the edge of the bed in response, causing her to fall to the floor with a silent thud.

The little imp had expected the reaction, and made no sound in response, simply scrambling to her feet immediately afterwards.


“It’s been a month already,” Zorian grumbled. “Just when is he planning to stop with this petty revenge crap?”

It wasn’t like Zorian had wanted to deceive him like that. He’d done that to save Zach’s life, for heaven’s sake!

Well. At least he hadn’t gotten another punch in the face for that…

He chased Kirielle out of the room and got dressed, idly listening to the sounds of the house and its tenants as he did. Imaya’s place was very busy these days, nothing like the quiet household Zorian had gotten used to during the time loop. The academy dorms had suffered heavy damage during the invasion, both in the initial artillery bombardment and the fighting that had followed afterwards, which meant that a lot of students were suddenly homeless and in dire need of alternate accommodations. Since Imaya’s house had survived the invasion mostly intact, it was soon filled to capacity and even slightly beyond. Zorian didn’t really like it, but the situation was what it was, and there was nothing he could do to change it.

At least Kirielle had plenty of people to talk to these days.

After composing himself a little, he left the room and entered the kitchen, where a dozen or so people had already gathered, some of them still eating breakfast, and some of them pondering a stack of textbooks and papers arranged around them.

Most of the people gathered here were his classmates. Akoja, Raynie, Kiana, Kopriva, Kael, Naim, Edwin, and Estin were all gathered around the small table that was far too small to really accommodate them all. They immediately stopped what they were doing and turned to look at him as he entered, calling out greetings. Ilsa, who was sitting at a relatively prominent place at the table, was flipping through a stack of papers on her clipboard, and simply gave him a curt nod, before returning to her task. Nochka, Kirielle, and Kana were on the floor, playing with dolls and getting into everyone’s way from time to time. Zorian had no idea why they felt the need to play their games here, instead of somewhere more private, but nobody else was shooing them away, so he wouldn’t do it either.

As for Imaya, the landlord of this place, she was working around the kitchen while humming a happy tune to herself, looking like she was having the time of her life, despite the current overcrowded state of her home. Zorian knew she was getting paid for this, but he still couldn’t quite understand her good mood. Some people were just weird.

After a few seconds of looking around, Zorian suddenly realized there were no free chairs left anymore.

“This is what happens when you wake up late,” Kopriva helpfully explained to him.

“There should be some free chairs in the next room,” Imaya added, stirring the contents of some giant pot, not even bothering to turn around and look at him.

“You should probably grab a nightstand or a wooden board or something, just so you have a surface to write on,” Edwin told him. “The table is a little crowded right now.”

Resisting a sigh, Zorian went about securing himself a chair and then carving out a place for himself at the table. This took a considerable amount of pushing and arguing, but eventually he managed to squeeze himself between Kael and Naim. Imaya immediately plopped down a plate of food in front of him and immediately walked away, not giving Zorian a chance to tell her he wasn’t hungry.

“You really need to learn how to be more assertive in life,” Naim advised from his left.

Zorian raised his eyebrow at him.

“Weren’t you the one who just tried to chase me away from your side of the table?” Zorian asked.

“Well, yeah, you need to be more assertive towards others, not me,” Naim responded, laughing slightly.

“Whatever. Where is Zach?” Zorian asked.

“Your friend already left,” Ilsa said, glancing up from her clipboard for a moment. “He said he had a court meeting scheduled soon, and couldn’t wait for you to wake up.”

“He said you already know how to contact him,” Kael added.

Zorian nodded slowly, giving the food in front of him a tentative bite. After their victory over Jornak and the invasion, Zach had wasted no time in filing a lawsuit against his caretaker. Zorian had advised him back then to wait a little for the circumstances to calm down a little, but Zach would have none of it. This decision had both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, the spotlight was still firmly focused on the failed invasion of the city, meaning Tesen was free to try and shut the whole thing down without too much outcry from the public. On the other hand, this was probably the worst time for Tesen to be accused of something like this, considering the royals were looking for someone to publically make an example out of, due to the debacle that had happened and all.

Zorian mostly stayed out of the whole thing. He trusted Zach to know what he was doing. He claimed he didn’t need any help with this, and he had clearly been prepared for this a long time.

“Aren’t you worried, at least a little?” Akoja said, frowning. “I mean, Tesen is a powerful man, and he surely knows you and Zach are friends. What if he decides to get back at him by going after you?”

Zorian smiled slightly. He found it interesting how pretty much none of their classmates thought Zach was lying about his accusations. He had expected that at least some of them would have thought Zach was making things up, but even Akoja, who definitely wasn’t a fan of Zach, absolutely believed him when he publically stated Tesen had robbed him of his family legacy.

“I’m not worried,” Zorian said. “This is the worst time to try and attack people in Cyoria. The whole city is crawling with soldiers and investigators. Tesen would have to be mad to go after me right now.”

This was not entirely true, of course. Tesen had already tried to send people to scout Imaya’s house and see if they could ambush him when he left the place, but these people had simply vanished into thin air before their mission was done.

After that, Zach’s caretaker hadn’t bothered sending anyone else.

“Indeed,” Ilsa said. “Plus, I had the academy secure this house with additional wards, since we are effectively using it as a makeshift classroom. Anyone trying to infiltrate the place is in for an unpleasant surprise. And with that, I propose we start our usual lesson now. As you can imagine, an alteration expert like me is in high demand during this time of reconstruction, so I can only spare so much time here.”

Everyone immediately gave their assent for the idea, some more enthusiastically than others, after which Ilsa started giving short demonstrations to the gathered students. Even Kirielle, Nochka, and Kana paid close attention when Ilsa was casting spells, not having many opportunities to witness magic spells like this in their daily lives.

The academy was temporarily closed. It had been closed for a month now, ever since the failed invasion. Not only had many sections of the academy been damaged in the attack, but most of the teachers had been recruited by the city to help deal with the aftermath as well. The place was scheduled to reopen in a week or so, if only to stop angry parents from demanding the money they had paid for attendance fees back, but for now, the student body was told to simply wait.

A large number of students did just that, treating the whole thing as a sort of vacation, but not everyone was willing to simply waste a whole month or more when they had already paid to learn how to do magic. These students self-organized into study groups and continued their education on their own.

Zorian was one of the people leading the charge on such things, at least when it came to his own class. He knew there were at least a handful of people in there that were serious about becoming a proper mage, and finding a study group that was not just an excuse to play cards every other night or some egoist’s attempt to gather underlings was bound to be hard. This sort of initiative was admittedly not something Zorian was used to, and he had been absent from classes for most of the previous month, so his announcement that he was starting a study group had definitely raised some eyebrows. However, the fact that he had managed to talk Ilsa and some of the other teachers into occasionally giving demonstrations and lectures – something few others could boast about – made others more willing to trust him.

The fact Akoja had decided to give up on her own study group in favor of choosing his own probably helped too. Akoja was well known for her serious attitude and work ethic – if she was willing to join Zorian’s group, he probably wasn’t just messing around.

He even got quite a few requests from older students and students from other classes about joining the group, though Zorian had to refuse most of them due to time constraints. He didn’t want to spend most of his time teaching people and managing groups. It just wasn’t something he was seriously interested in.

“I don’t understand what I’m doing wrong with this spell,” Kael complained.

Zorian glanced at the morlock and at the open book where the spell was detailed.

“You’re not doing anything wrong,” Zorian told him. “You’re casting the spell perfectly. Your shaping skills simply aren’t good enough to pull it off. I can show you some more shaping exercises if you want.”

“Great,” Kael mumbled. “More shaping exercises. You really remind me of that Xvim guy you occasionally bring here to teach us.”

“That guy is his mentor, so it kind of makes sense,” Kopriva said. “Based on what I heard about the guy, you kind of have to go all the way with your shaping skills if you’re assigned to him.”

“As if Zorian is suffering here,” Edwin grumbled. He was, like Zorian, one of the people who had been assigned to Xvim against his will, and still hadn’t gotten over it. Probably because he really only cared about magic if it could help him with golem making, and shaping skills weren’t high on the list of requisites for that. “He’s probably the only guy in the history of our academy that likes the guy and what he’s teaching.”

“You’d be surprised to know how many people speak highly of Mr. Chao’s teaching skills,” Ilsa remarked with a teasing smile. “Though most people don’t appreciate his genius, there are always one or two students that have what it takes to thrive under his tutelage. He didn’t keep his job at the academy all these years for nothing, you know?”

“We understand he’s good at what he does, but does he really have to be so mean about it?” Kiana said, pouting. “The last time he was here he said my shaping skills are ‘completely inadequate’. I’m pretty sure my shaping skills are average at worst.”

“Actually, they’re very much above average now, and it’s almost entirely due to Xvim pushing you further and further every time he comes here,” Zorian pointed out.

“Teacher’s pet,” Kiana accused him with a huff.

He was pretty sure Kiana was coming here only because Raynie was too, not because she was honestly so dedicated to improving her magic skills… but to her credit, she really did try to keep up with the rest of the group, unwilling to be left behind. Thus, whenever Xvim criticized her and pushed her to try for more, she reluctantly did her best to rise to the challenge.

She didn’t appreciate it right now, but Zorian was sure she would eventually understand that Xvim was doing her a huge favor. Most people had to pay a fortune to get personal instructions from an archmage.

After a while, Ilsa excused herself and left. The group continued interacting and helping each other for a while after that, but eventually people started leaving and the group was becoming smaller. The table, so crowded and busy earlier in the morning, started to clear up and fall silent.

In the end, the only ones left sitting there were Zorian and Raynie. Zorian had originally wanted to leave as well, but he could see from the glances Raynie was sending him and the emotions radiating off of her that she wanted to talk to him, so he remained patient and stayed in his seat.

The invasion had been thwarted. Panaxeth remained sealed. There was no more urgent danger constantly occupying his attention. He could finally waste an hour or two of his life and not feel bad about it in the back of his head.

“I just realized it’s been a whole month, and I never thanked you for helping me find my little brother,” Raynie eventually said, her tone hesitant.

Zorian didn’t know what to say to that. Since she hadn’t mentioned any of this in all this time, he kind of figured she wanted to pretend the whole thing never happened.

“Sorry,” she said, fiddling with her hands awkwardly. “I know this is very late and-”

“I don’t hold it against you,” Zorian assured her. “I didn’t do much, really. I just put you in contact with the right people. You did the rest, by organizing the other shifters into a rescue mission.”

“You already heard about that?” she asked, surprised. Then she shook her head. “Wait, of course you heard about that, what am I even saying? After what I’ve seen that evening, it would be a bigger surprise if you didn’t know anything about what happened.”

“I hear you rescued your brother successfully,” Zorian remarked.

“The cat shifters and pigeon shifters rescued my brother successfully,” she corrected him. “I just helped the police contact them and talk them into helping me. Then I just stood by the side and waited to see if they would succeed. Though yes, the newspapers have been crediting me for the whole thing. The city police insisted I should be the public face of the whole operation. I don’t really understand it.”

What was there to understand? She was a beautiful teenage girl with an emotional story of trying to save her little brother. The police probably didn’t want to release details about what was really going on before Eldemar’s forces finished their investigation, and this was a nice way of distracting the public. Plus, it was a story with a happy ending, and Eldemar really loved pushing those to the forefront right now.

He didn’t say that out loud, of course.

“I’m pretty sure talking those two groups of shifters into cooperating wasn’t easy at all, so don’t put yourself down so much,” Zorian told her. “That aside, I get the feeling you’re not really mentioning this because you’re bothered by the newspaper exposure. What’s got you so depressed?”

“I’m not depressed, it’s just… my family has invited me to come back home,” she admitted with a sigh.

“Ah,” Zorian nodded. He paused for a second, considering. “Is this a problem? You were instrumental in saving your younger brother, no? They should give you a hero’s welcome.”

“They might,” she admitted. “Or maybe they’ll accuse me of overstepping my boundaries when I promised our tribe’s help in exchange for help in the rescue mission. I really don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there, and it scares me.”

Zorian was silent.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you this,” she admitted after a while. “It’s not like I expect you to help. You’ve done more than enough already. I guess I just wanted to complain to someone other than Kiana for a change. She’s getting a little annoyed with me lately, I think. She thinks being praised in the newspapers is great, and that I’m being a baby.”

“The newspapers are using you as a distraction and would turn on you in a second if it suited their purposes, so it’s good you’re not letting it get to your head,” Zorian remarked. “Still, I don’t think you need to worry. I bet your family also doesn’t know what’s going to happen when you get there. They probably just want to see where they stand with you, since you surprised them so badly.”

Further conversation was interrupted by a large buzzing sound from a stone disk tied around Zorian’s waist. Zorian glanced at it, somewhat annoyed. It was a communication device House Aope had given him so they could contact him, though Zorian hardly thought it deserved to be called a device. It was just a stone that vibrated when told to by a second stone the Aope were in possession of, and did nothing else. Rather than convey useful information, the stone disk merely told him that House Aope representatives wanted to see him as soon as possible. He badly wanted to make real communication stones for this kind of use – something small and discreet and capable of facilitating actual two-way telepathy between holders – but doing that would be extremely suspicious and attention grabbing.

“I’m going to have to cut this meeting short,” he told Raynie.

“The aranea?” Raynie guessed.

Zorian nodded.

“I still can’t believe that’s what you’ve been doing this past month you’ve been absent from classes,” Raynie said. “Learning mind magic from giant underground spiders…”

“There was no other way,” Zorian said. “My empathy was running out of control and they were the first ones to realize what was happening, and stepped up to help me. I’m really grateful for their help.”

Sadly, although Zach and Zorian had been successful in keeping their involvement in the invasion itself a secret, there was no way to keep Zorian’s involvement with the aranea a secret. This was because the Cyorian web had no way of hiding itself from Eldemar’s authorities in the wake of the invasion, and asked Zorian to help them broker some kind of agreement with the city authorities. A hard task, and one that had given Zorian many headaches during this past month, but thankfully they had the support of Noble House Aope in this endeavor. It would have probably been an impossible task, otherwise. Zorian might be a master mind mage, but there was no way he could compel the entire royal bureaucracy to acknowledge a group of scary telepathic spiders as an ally against their will. Nor would he want to be that forceful, even if it were within his power.

Sadly, this also meant that knowledge of Zorian’s innate mind magic was gradually becoming more common. People thought he was a complete beginner at mind magic, yes, but he had already noticed mages starting to raise their mental shields when he was around, and his empathy told him some people were scared of him on sight.

He dreaded to think what would happen if the full extent of his abilities became known.

“Well,” said Raynie. “Don’t let me keep you from your duties. I should really get going as well.”

“I guess I won’t be seeing you in our group meetings, then?” Zorian guessed.

“Yes, that was the other thing I wanted to tell you. I knew I was forgetting something,” Raynie said. “I’ll be travelling home tomorrow, and I will probably stay there until the academy reopens.”

“We’ll see each other in class, then,” Zorian said.

“Hopefully,” she agreed.

The two of them then each left their own way, and the kitchen was once again empty and quiet.

But not for long. Things were always lively at Imaya’s place these days.

- break -

Though it was awful to even think so, Akoja had to say that this invasion business was the best thing that had happened to her in quite a while.

She always felt guilty whenever the thought occurred to her. So many people had died, lost their homes, or lost their jobs when their workshops got destroyed, she should really feel sorry for them. And she did! She really did! But it was also an undeniable fact that the immediate aftermath had breathed new purpose into her life, giving her both the clarity about what she wanted in life and opportunities for advancements that she would have otherwise missed.

In the month leading up to the attack of the city, she was lost, and more than a little bitter. She was putting so much work into her studies, into being a class representative and a model student, yet she felt it was all for naught. Two years of hard work had not given her any special position or advanced opportunities, it only made other students resent her and look down on her. Sometimes, when she sat alone in her dorm room, she couldn’t help but wonder if she was just wasting her time…

Then the attack happened, and it was terrifying. She had only seen a fraction of the fighting, but what she had seen made her feel like a powerless ant, completely at the mercy of greater forces that could sweep her up without really trying. When the dust had settled and Akoja looked at the shattered remains of her old dorm, all of her belongings destroyed, she did not feel anger or despair at the money she had lost or the time and effort she would have to spend to replace it all. Instead, she felt a fire ignite within her, urging her to throw herself into her studies and make sure this kind of thing couldn’t happen ever again. When war came for her again, she wanted to be ready.

And war was definitely coming. Everyone knew it. Akoja wasn’t the most avid follower of news, but she had read enough newspaper articles and listened to enough rumors to know that Eldemar was definitely going to launch a punitive expedition at Ulquaan Ibasa in the coming months. Even though it risked leaving Eldemar vulnerable to opportunistic attacks by Falkrinea and Sulamnon, pride wouldn’t allow Eldemar to swallow its anger and let this go. The only thing people were unsure of was how big the retaliation would really be, and how far Eldemar was willing to go to avenge Cyoria.

In any case, if Akoja had been on her own, perhaps her newfound drive would have eventually petered out in the coming weeks, and she would have once again begun questioning herself. A lot of people were fleeing the city these days, especially students like her and workers who otherwise lived elsewhere and only came to Cyoria to make money. A couple of other girls from Korsa she occasionally talked to had already transferred themselves to other academies elsewhere in the kingdom, their parents having been spooked by the attack and fearful another one would follow in the wake of the first. It was, after all, still unclear how Ulquaan Ibasa had been able to strike so deep into Eldemar territory, so who was to say it couldn’t happen again?

Akoja’s parents had also wanted to transfer her elsewhere, but she had refused. Cyoria may be dangerous, but she had to stay.

Because Zorian was here.

It wasn’t just because she had a crush on him, either. She talked to people, and it was obvious that the study group he had organized was the best one currently out there. He had teachers and even outside mages occasionally coming to provide lessons, which only one other study group had managed to do, and he himself was clearly very skilled for his age. He had an uncanny ability to notice the problems people were having, and how to fix them. Akoja had compared her progress during this past month with two other girls that had paid considerable money in order to be allowed in one of the ‘better’ study groups, and was shocked to realize she was handily beating them. The comparison wasn’t even close.

She didn’t know what to think about that. One of the things she really liked about Zorian was that he was like her – a regular guy from a commoner family that tried really hard and was serious about his studies. She had always been jealous of big name students who came from noble families, or had secret magic and bloodlines that gave them an edge over the competition, so it was refreshing to see someone she could empathize with. Even though he could be a little unfriendly and tactless, she understood. She herself was often described as bitchy and joyless, so they had common ground there.

But this new Zorian made her question if she really knew the guy. He was more skilled and well-connected than she imagined him to be, and apparently even had innate mind magic ability to draw upon. So unfair. Why didn’t she have a famous older brother and a secret bloodline? How was a normal girl like her even supposed to compete with that?

But, she eventually decided, it didn’t matter. Maybe her reasons for liking him were kind of misguided, but she still liked him regardless. And he was helping her get better. So she had to stay in the city.

It would have been better if she hadn’t stated it quite like that in the letter she had sent to her parents, though, because now they wanted to meet him. She knew her father – he was definitely going to come over to Cyoria and confront Zorian on his own if she didn’t manage to defuse the situation. Hopefully her last letter had reached them in time…

Still, that was thankfully a concern for another day. Today, she was simply going shopping around the city with Kopriva and Kael. All of her possessions had gotten destroyed in the invasion, after all, and she still hadn’t had the chance to fully replenish them. Kopriva was in a similar position to her, while Kael had apparently never had much stuff to begin with, as he had previously tended to constantly move around with Kana before coming to Cyoria, meaning until recently he owned very few things.

Neither Kopriva nor Kael was someone that Akoja would have wanted to associate with before the attack. Kopriva came from a family of criminals, and Kael was a morlock. Neither were people that a lady in good standing such as her would want to be seen with. However, strange times made for strange bedfellows. She had gotten to know these two over the past month, and they were alright, she supposed.

“Wait, so Zach bought you an entire lab?” Kopriva asked incredulously, looking at Kael.

“Well, a damaged, recently abandoned building that can be repurposed into a lab. But yes,” Kael nodded happily. “Now I can finally stop scaring Miss Kuroshka with the experiments I do in her basement.”

“Honestly, you were scaring me and the other tenants as well,” Kopriva told him. “Alchemy experiments shouldn’t be done right below where other people are sleeping, even if the place is warded. Still, I’m surprised Zach was willing to shell out that kind of money for you. Even if it’s been damaged in the attack, a building in Cyoria is still bound to be expensive as hell.”

“A lot of people are selling property in Cyoria these days,” Kael noted. “Prices have dropped considerably.”

“I’m pretty sure it was Zorian who talked Zach into spending money on this,” Akoja said, sighing internally.

She didn’t like Zach. His recent reveal that his caretaker was stealing from him made Akoja feel sorry for him a little… but only a little. He was the embodiment of everything she was jealous of when it came to Eldemar’s mage elite, except he didn’t even try to make something of himself, content to live the life of a clown and a wastrel. She hoped Zorian, as his new friend, would help him clean up his act, but she wasn’t holding her breath.

“Probably,” Kael agreed. “I was surprised when people told me they only became friends over the summer holidays. They seem like they have been friends their whole lives.”

“Yeah, I first thought Zorian was just taking advantage of Zach to get at his money, but these days I kind of doubt it,” Kopriva said. “He has a serious source of cash of his own, I can tell.”

“From what?” Akoja asked curiously. How could a teenager like Zorian have ‘serious money’ unless someone gifted it to him?

“Sales,” Kopriva said. “I don’t know what he’s selling, but it must be pretty rare and profitable because people have been asking about him a lot, trying to get in contact with him.”

“You mean… in your circles?” Akoja asked worriedly.

“Yes, in ‘my circles’,” Kopriva laughed at her. “I’m sorry, but your crush isn’t as clean as you imagine him to be.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Akoja told her quickly. “We’re just colleagues.”

“Yeah, sure,” Kopriva rolled her eyes at her.

“So, I hate to interrupt your conversation,” Kael suddenly said, “but have any of you recently found a book… or a collection of notes, maybe… in your room?”

“What kind of book?” Akoja asked curiously. What was the boy even talking about?

“A book you’ve definitely never bought, and notebooks you’ve definitely never written,” Kael said. “Just… sitting there on your night stand, full of magical secrets that seem almost as if they were specifically tailored to you, and you alone…”

There was a second of silence as the two girls processed this statement.

“That seriously happened?” Kopriva asked incredulously. “You found a book and some notebooks in your room-”

“My locked room,” Kael clarified. “My locked and warded room that Ilsa later confirmed hadn’t been broken into.”

“-and they contained a gift of magic specifically tailored for you?” Kopriva finished. “You damn morlock bastard, first you have a rich guy buy you your very own alchemy lab, and now this? How are you so damn lucky!?”

“The most disturbing thing,” Kael said hesitantly, ignoring Kopriva’s outburst, “is that some of the passages use the exact same wording, codes, and symbols that I do. This happens over and over again, to the point I don’t think anyone can reasonably fake it.”

“What are you saying?” Akoja asked, not really understanding.

“It’s my writing style,” Kael said. “I have several years’ worth of alchemical and medical research, seemingly made by my hand, but no memory of writing any of it. And I don’t know what to think about that.”

The two girls stayed silent. Their first instinct was to deny the idea as completely absurd.

But these were mad times they were living in, and nothing was too absurd to fully dismiss. So they just stayed silent and filed the topic in the back of their heads, put aside but not forgotten, and went about their shopping in peace.

- break -

Elayer Inid was the special investigator sent by the crown of Eldemar to find out what exactly had happened in Cyoria on the day of the attack, and he was not happy. Not happy at all.

It wasn’t just about a foreign power having the ability to strike deep into Eldemar’s territory at their leisure. It wasn’t just about the rampant betrayal among Eldemar’s highest ranks that had allowed this attack to progress as far as it had.

It was about the fact that someone had stopped the invasion and saved the city, and it wasn’t anyone that Elayer recognized.

Regular people often talked about mysterious organizations and enigmatic hermits moving about in the shadows of polite society, but the truth was that organizations that held real power and powerful individuals didn’t spring out of nowhere. It took a lot of resources and connections to raise a top tier mage, and even more to build an organization around one. By the time these rising powers were able and willing to exert their will and influence on the world around them, people like Elayer will have already noticed them and learned who they were. When mysterious events like the one that had happened a month ago in Cyoria occurred, investigators were often unsure who exactly was behind them, especially if the perpetrators had been thorough and erased all the evidence. However, they always had an idea who could have done it, even if they had no proof or couldn’t narrow down all the possibilities to one actor.

At the moment, though, Elayer had plenty of evidence. He had witness testimonials, magical recordings, field reports from soldiers and mages that had been present when the attack took place, and even material evidence.

And all of it was telling him that this couldn’t have been done by anyone he knew about. Even more disturbingly, even after he had consulted with some of his foreign sources, he was no closer to finding a likely candidate. No one had any idea who could have done this. It was as if these ‘saviors’ had materialized straight out of thin air, and vanished just as suddenly afterwards.

Elayer stood in front of the wreckage of a large golem, hands folded behind his back. To his left, two researchers shuffled uncomfortably in place, hesitating to speak.

“Well?” he asked them impatiently. “Have you identified the maker of this thing?”

“None of the known golem makers produced this, Mister Inid,” one of the researcher said after fumbling with his clothes a little and clearing his throat. “Although the animation core has been shattered beyond recovery, enough of it survived that we have been able to make some startling discoveries. We are very sure the established golem makers would never make such a thing.”

“Hmm? Why is that?” Elayer asked, suddenly curious. Honestly, he thought the golem wreckage would bring him no answers, so this was a pleasant surprise.

“The spell formulas inscribed on the animation core are completely unprotected,” the other researcher said. “No codes, no misdirection, no attempts to shroud the method of creation at all. Usually artificers spend almost as much time trying to hide how they made something as they do making designs for it. Golem makers especially so. But there is no evidence of that here - whoever made this thing cared only about pure efficiency.”

“Are you saying we could potentially replicate this thing?” Elayer asked.

Now wouldn’t that be something… he had heard reports about how good these golems were, and it was apparently something on a whole different level from your typical combat golem. If they could duplicate one of these, then this would be a huge gain.

When Elayer saw the two researchers share a knowing look with each other, however, he knew it wouldn’t be that simple.

“The issue is that the animation core has been totally shattered, and some parts of the spell formula inscribed on it are missing. Even after we compared it with the remains of other golem wrecks we have recovered from the city, we are still missing about 10% of the design.”

Just 10%?

“And you can’t fill in the blanks?” Elayer asked curiously.

“Heavens no,” the first researcher said, bursting into laughter. “The design for this thing is one of the most complex things I’ve ever seen in my life. Everything slots together perfectly, and even the slightest mistake would make everything collapse on itself. And considering how expensive the materials for the construction of this kind of core are, experimentation would be hellishly expensive. Never mind 10%, even a 1% gap would make this design completely unviable. Unless we managed to find an intact golem, the only thing this is useful for is for serving as inspiration.”

“Alright,” Elayer said, turning away from the wreckage and walking off. The two researchers quickly followed after him. “What is this about some mysterious books that I’m hearing about?”

“Ah, you mean the mysterious gifts some people have been getting?” The second researcher asked. Elayer nodded. “We have only managed to recover a handful of them from the people they were given to. Rumors of us confiscating them have spread among people fast, as has the fact they are of no danger to the recipient, so people no longer report them to us. But from the few we have in our hands, they seem to be full of novel magic specifically tailored for the recipient.”

“If I may make a suggestion, it might be prudent to return the books we’ve confiscated to the people they were given to,” the first researcher said. “We’ve already copied the contents, and it might motivate people to let us take a look at the stuff they’re currently hiding if they see they’re eventually going to get it back.”

“I’ll think about it,” Elayer said, not thinking much of it. He didn’t like the idea of someone handing over magical secrets to people like that, not at all. Plus, he had suspicions their mysterious ‘saviors’ were behind this as well. Those ‘gifts’ were evidence and he was keeping them, at least so long as his investigation lasted.

Infuriatingly, said investigation was encountering a lot of unexpected obstacles. The Triumvirate Church had clearly been heavily involved in the battle – there was a giant angel battling a dragon mage in the skies of Cyoria, for heaven’s sake! – but they refused to let him interrogate the priesthood involved, and the crown was reluctant to offend them. The church had been spectacularly successful recently, providing valuable help and information on necromancer hideouts, demon summoner bases, and some of the more awful criminal groups. Elayer had no idea how they had gotten so much critical information about Eldemar’s criminal underbelly, but they had, and this unfortunately meant they currently had an upper hand over him and his investigation.

At the same time, Elayer was having trouble keeping the funds and manpower for the investigation going. Eldemar’s attention had been stretched very thin lately. They had an invasion of Ulquaan Ibasa to organize, complicated heavily by the fact the Ibasans had somehow managed to take over Fort Oroklo without Eldemar realizing it. They were throwing a lot of money and manpower at Cyoria in order to get the city up and running again in order to make a show of strength and lift up morale, and these efforts often clashed greatly with Elayer’s own investigation into what had transpired there. Sulamnon, Falkrinea, and even many smaller countries were stirring, trying to see just how badly the kingdom had been hurt and whether they could fish in troubled waters while Eldemar’s forces were distracted elsewhere. And finally, there was that permanent gate that linked Eldemar with the jungles of Koth, which had everyone and their mother excited about the incredible opportunities this presented. The gate was clearly related to the Ibasan invasion somehow, but Elayer and his men were not allowed to examine it closely for fear that they would destroy the precious, irreplaceable, intercontinental gate with their tampering.

Bah. And then his superiors complain he has no results. Of course he had no results! Just what did they expect when they constantly keep taking his money and resources, and don’t let him touch things or question people?

But Elayer was patient. His foes may have won this round, but he knew what to look for now, and everyone slipped up sooner or later. It may take a year, or even a decade, but they were bound to make a mistake.

And when they did, Elayer would be there, and he would be ready.

- break -

Daimen Kazinski was having a stressful, but very exciting month. From the day he had woken up in an unknown room in Cyoria with an entire month of his life missing from his memory, it had been a non-stop wild ride of crazy reveals and maddening complications. It was annoying, but truth be told, he kind of enjoyed it. A safe, boring life had never been something he coveted. He somewhat resented his little brother for wiping away a month of his life to save his friend, but he understood. He would have done the same in his place, probably.

At the very least, Daimen could safely say he had profited handsomely from this whole time loop business. Not only had Zorian gifted him a veritable treasure of research and notes he had apparently made for himself during this ‘time loop’, but he also indirectly allowed the Taramatula to seize the permanent gate linking Koth to Eldemar.

A permanent intercontinental gate… the sheer possibilities of that thing were breathtaking to consider. Eldemar’s forces quickly moved to secure their side of the gate, but they didn’t try to push through it to monopolize the whole thing. It would be too easy for the Taramatula to simply destroy their side of gate back in Koth, and thus ruin this whole thing for everyone. Thus, the Kingdom of Eldemar and the Taramatula now found themselves in possession of a permanent dimensional link between continents. Both sides were positively salivating at the potential profits and other benefits involved, and since Daimen was closely connected to both of said parties, it was often up to him to act as a bridge and negotiator between these two sides.

And then there was Zorian… his little brother, the time traveler. Well, it wasn’t real time travel, but it may as well be, from Daimen’s point of view. He had beheld a doomed future, and then he had traveled back to their own world to stop it, and save as many people as possible in the process.

And in order to pull it off, he’d had to kill the original Zorian, and steal his body for his own uses.

Daimen would have liked to say he was conflicted about this information. Zorian was right: in a very real sense, his little brother had been murdered and replaced by an imposter. He should have been outraged. He should have been deeply disturbed by the implications, just like Zorian himself clearly was.

But he wasn’t. Maybe it was because the whole situation was so utterly ridiculous and it was hard to really know what to feel. Maybe it was because, by Zorian’s own admission, the original Zorian hated him something fierce. Or perhaps it was because he damn well knew that if he had been in Zorian’s position, he would have murdered his own original without a shred of hesitation and thought nothing of it. All he knew was that he’d simply told Zorian that everything would be fine, and that he shouldn’t worry about it. He had only done what he had to.

Maybe it was just Daimen imagining things, but he thought he’d seen a small flash of gratitude in his brother’s eyes when he said that. He hadn’t expected the big bad time traveler to actually care about his opinion that much. Interesting.

Now, here they were – every Kazinski sibling gathered together. Daimen, Zorian, Kirielle, and Fortov were all standing next to one another at Cyoria’s train station, waiting for the next train to arrive.

Their parents were coming to Cyoria.

It was kind of funny, actually. If his parents had arrived to Koth as planned, they could have been here way earlier. Daimen would have arranged for them to step through the brand new interdimensional gate linking Koth to Eldemar, and they would have been home before you knew it. Alas, they’d actually heard about the attack on Cyoria when they had almost reached their destination, and decided to immediately switch ships and turn back. As a consequence, they had spent almost an entire month in transit before they were able to return to Eldemar.

Sighing inwardly, Daimen noticed that no one except him looked actually excited about that fact. Zorian looked bored and disinterested, clearly intending to just get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Fortov seemed nervous and unsure how to behave. His other younger brother had been acting strangely ever since Daimen had evacuated him from Cyoria along with Kirielle, and Daimen had no idea what was going on in his head at the moment, but he clearly wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. As for Kirielle, she was playing around with the fancy snow globe Zorian had bought for her while they had been waiting for the train to arrive, but Daimen could see she was extremely nervous under this disinterested facade.

He should have brought Orissa with him, he lamented. He had originally left her behind because he didn’t want to provoke his parents in this particular meeting, since they were bound to be extremely distraught already, but now he wondered if her presence would have been a positive thing instead.

It was too late for such regrets, however. The train soon entered the station and began to disembark; it wasn’t long before Daimen spotted their parents.

They weren’t carrying much in the way of luggage. Daimen winced internally. It made sense, since they must have dropped off most of their stuff when they had stopped by in Cirin. Still, the fact they were carrying practically nothing meant they expected this to be a very short visit. This… was probably going to get unpleasant.

Not long after Daimen had spotted their parents, they also spotted him. The two groups quickly made their way towards one another.

“For heaven’s sake, what are you children still doing in this city?” Mother complained the moment they were within earshot.

“Mother-” Daimen tried futilely.

“The whole city was under siege until recently. The academy is closed. Why aren’t you all back in Cirin already?” she continued. Father was totally silent, simply studying each of them in turn. Once he saw that all of them were unharmed, he seemed to relax a little. Most wouldn’t be able to tell, but Daimen was the closest to Father out of all the Kazinski siblings, and could read his little tics pretty well by this point. “Never mind, I’ll help you pack your bags and we’ll be home by tomorrow.”

“What? No we won’t,” Zorian simply told her in a bored tone of voice.

“Zorian, please let me handle this,” Daimen urged in a low tone of voice.

Father gave Zorian a penetrating look for his statement, a gesture that would usually instantly put Zorian on the defensive, but of course, this time traveler Zorian was not bothered by it in the slightest. Zorian didn’t talk about family all that much, but Daimen got the notion that Zorian had barely interacted with Mother and Father during the time loop. The two were practically strangers to him, and it showed in his attitude towards them.

That, more than the fact he’d had to kill his original self to be here, greatly disturbed Daimen.

“You seem to have grown some spine in the short time you’ve been here,” Father remarked, still staring intently at Zorian. He didn’t say whether this was good or bad, but Daimen knew he thought it was both. He liked when his sons had a firm, decisive attitude, but he also didn’t tolerate disrespect towards himself and Mother.

“Zorian is just dedicated to his studies,” Daimen hurriedly explained, shooting Zorian a quick look to shut him up. “Just because the academy is closed doesn’t mean we’re all doing nothing. Zorian is organizing a study group for his class so they can continue studying on their own in private. He even got some of the teachers to help him out.”

“But Kirielle-” Mother tried.

“I like it here!” Kirielle immediately exclaimed. “I have friends here and everything!”

“It’s dangerous here,” Mother said firmly. She glanced around the group for a second. “I really regret not taking her with us this time, but what’s done is done. What I don’t understand is how you could all let her stay here under the circumstances. She must be terrified after what happened here!”

“But I’m not!” Kirielle protested.

“Quiet,” Mother barked at her.

Kirielle immediately shrank back.

Out of the corner of his eye, Daimen could see Zorian’s mood immediately worsen. Out of all of them here, Kirielle was the one Zorian cared about the most. Daimen was pretty sure his little brother would be willing to make an enemy out of his whole family for Kirielle’s sake, which was more than a little disturbing. Kirielle was a cute kid, but she could be a massive brat sometimes.

“Anyway, if Zorian is as busy as you say, what about Fortov?” Mother continued. “He could have taken Kirielle back to Cirin just fine, yes?”

“Yes, he’s already a failed student wasting his time and our money here,” Father agreed. “Why not have him be useful for a change?”

“You!” Fortov protested, visibly outraged.

“Am I wrong?” Father challenged.

“Why even send me back here if that’s what you think about me!?” Fortov protested.

“Please, Father,” Daimen urged. “Look, I know Fortov had some issues with his studies lately…”

Father scoffed. Mother sighed. Fortov looked furious, and very bitter.

“…but I have been giving him some help lately, and I’m sure he’ll turn the situation around,” Daimen said.

He had promised to take care of Fortov back in the time loop, apparently. Although Daimen didn’t remember it, he had to admit Fortov needed his help. Certainly Zorian made it clear he didn’t want to do anything with the guy. Apparently, despite having lived in the same city for years, Zorian had never bothered to interact with his brother and figure out how to help him.

For all his newfound maturity, this new Zorian still had clear traces of his old self.

He sure could nurse a grudge, for instance.

“And for how long will that last?” Father challenged. “You’ll be back in Koth soon, I imagine, and then he’ll be back on his own. I doubt one month will make that much difference.”

“Actually, I’m going to be around much more often than I usually am,” Daimen said. “Haven’t you wondered how I got here before you?”

Father and Mother looked at each other.

“Well… I thought maybe you used the teleport network…” tried Mother.

Daimen shook his head with a slight smile.

“Mother, Father… I want to show you something. We can go and meet my fiancée and her family now, if you’re willing. It’s what you were travelling to Koth for, after all.”

“What? They came here with you?” Mother asked incredulously. Daimen understood her disbelief. A single individual like him could conceivably cross large distances on a whim, but a small group of people was a much bigger challenge.

“You’ll see,” Daimen said with a grin. “Things are going to change a lot in the future, I think. Who knows, maybe even your family business might profit out of this.”

Thankfully, this was sufficiently interesting that it distracted Mother and Father from further questioning. He knew that sooner or later, Mother would realize that Zorian had already started teaching Kirielle magic behind her back and that her beloved daughter had been literally attacked by assassins during the invasion – if nothing else because Kirielle was sure to blurt it out at some point – and that once she did, there would be hell to pay. For now, though, the crisis had been aver-

“Zorian! Hey! Zorian!”

Daimen looked at the person calling out to his brother and saw a chubby boy with a happy smile on his face hurrying over. An older, well-dressed man with a mustache followed behind him at a more sedate pace. Probably the boy’s father.

The funny thing about this was that the boy clearly acted like he was Zorian’s friend, but Daimen himself had never seen Zorian interact with him at all. That was interesting to say the least.

“Hey Zorian! I see you already got back, too!” the boy said once he got closer.

“I never left, Ben,” Zorian said politely.

Oh, so they did know each other. By this point the boy’s father also arrived, though he stayed silent behind the boy. He simply gave a small nod and quiet greeting to the gathered Kazinskis before waiting for his son to calm down.

“You never left? Man, you work too hard,” the chubby boy said. “I heard you got roped into being an ambassador for some giant spiders. You got to introduce me to them someday, man. Sounds like one hell of an experience.”

There was a long silence as all the Kazinski siblings looked incredibly uncomfortable.

“What?” the boy said, realizing he made some kind of mistake. “What did I say?”

“Giant… spiders?” Mother repeated.

Daimen couldn’t help it. He sighed audibly this time.

So much for averting disaster.

- break -

As he walked through the streets of the city and observed the reconstruction efforts around him, Zorian couldn’t help but feel satisfied with how things had been going lately. There were a few complications here and there, but the city was slowly beginning to recover, and neither Zach nor Zorian had been implicated in what had happened. The thanks for that partially went to Alanic, due to him running interference on their behalf in exchange for helping him clean up Eldemar of various threats, as well as Eldemar having its hands full with all kinds of problems these days, but mostly it was because they were currently complete unknowns to most people, so nobody even suspected they could have been involved. Zorian sincerely hoped that by the time they were forced to reveal some of their real skills, too much time will have passed, and people would not connect the dots linking them to the events that had taken place during the invasion.

Sadly, his quiet enjoyment of the city was marred by the fact people kept giving him curious and occasionally fearful glances as he passed them, the crowds parting in front of him like he was diseased.

Well, they probably weren’t doing that because of him, specifically. Rather, it was because of the giant telepathic spider strutting around the city beside him. Spear of Resolve seemed completely unperturbed by the reception, however, and gave no indication this sort of behavior bothered her. If anything, she seemed immensely pleased with herself that she could walk through the city of Cyoria in broad daylight without being immediately attacked, or met with screams and calls for help. This was already a victory for her and her web.

The aranea hadn’t been entirely accepted by the city authorities yet. Legally, they were still considered monsters that had no rights, and there was a portion of Eldemarian leadership that really wanted to just wipe them out or drive them out of the city. However, the aranea had quietly gathered a considerable amount of support in the city over the years, so there was also no shortage of people willing to argue on their behalf. More importantly, even the critics that considered them dangerous telepathic parasites had to admit they were instrumental in preventing the various threats from the lower reaches of the dungeon from menacing the city. Considering the amount of destruction and suffering Cyoria had suffered recently, the last thing it needed was to go through a monster invasion too because some general couldn’t tolerate the aranea living beneath the city.

The opinion of regular citizens was, from what Zorian could understand, somewhat mixed. The aranea were said to have helped fight the invaders, which won them some good will, but they were also monsters, spiders, and mind mages. None of those three sounded good to the average citizen. Accordingly, when people saw Spear of Resolve walking down the street like she always belonged there, their reactions were… mixed, to say the least.

Thankfully both Zorian and Tinami were accompanying her on this stroll to make sure no incident occurred. Zorian was certain that Spear of Resolve was resourceful enough to evade any real conflict with frightened citizens, but it was best not to risk things.

“So how are the negotiations going?” Zorian asked Spear of Resolve, not bothering to use telepathy for Tinami’s sake. The Aope had managed to secure a magic exchange with the aranea, and Tinami was a part of that, but she wasn’t psychic, and her advancement was slow. She wasn’t good enough for casual telepathy yet.

“Somewhat disappointingly,” Spear of Resolve admitted, using sound magic to speak out loud as well. “We have managed to block any initiative to have us driven out of our homes, but it’s unlikely we will get legal recognition any time soon.”

“That was always a little naïve of you to expect,” Tinami told her. The Aope usually preferred to employ older and more experienced people for these kinds of meetings, but Tinami was the designated heir of the House, and she was throwing her weight around to get personally involved in something that very much interested her. “You’re still too much of an unknown for people to trust you, regardless of your help with the invasion.”

“Oh, I know that,” Spear of Resolve assured her. “I didn’t expect a better outcome, so much as hope for it. I have already made the necessary preparations. The colony can retreat from Cyoria on a moment’s notice, if it becomes necessary.”

“Where would you go, though?” Tinami asked. “I can’t imagine there are that many places suitable for your kind.”

“We would simply assault one of the smaller webs around the area and steal their home for ourselves,” Spear of Resolve said blandly. “The aranean world is a rather brutal place, I’m afraid.”

“Oh,” Tinami lamely responded.

“I heard your academy is about to reopen soon,” Spear of Resolve said, turning slightly towards Zorian before resuming her walk.

“So I’m told,” Zorian said. He spotted Taiven and her team in the distance, trailing after a large group of other mages, and gave her a small wave. She waved back, but didn’t linger or try to talk to him, simply following after her group so she wouldn’t slow them down. She looked happy, though. In the wake of the invasion, there was an urgent demand for combat mages, so she had plenty of job offers and opportunities to prove herself. “If it doesn’t start again soon, the parents that didn’t get frightened by the attack will start pulling their children out of the academy out of concern they’re not getting taught anything.”

He looked at Tinami, somewhat curious as to how she was handling that. She had never expressed any desire to join their study group, or any study group for that matter. Was she so focused on this aranean business that she had no problems putting her education on hold for a month, or did she have some kind of alternate arrangements?

“My family has arranged private instruction for me,” Tinami admitted, somehow guessing his thoughts. “I mean no offense to your study group and your efforts, but this seemed a better idea.”

She was probably right. As good as he was, he wasn’t really a teacher and he had a whole group to deal with anyway. Tinami probably would get far better results out of private instructors. It kind of made him wonder why her family had even sent her to the academy in the first place, if they could just hire a bunch of private instructors for her. Was it too expensive? Did they just want her to socialize with people? Hmm…

“I have a favor to ask of you, then,” Spear of Resolve told Zorian. “I’ve made some arrangements with the academy to let Novelty attend a few of your classes as an observer. I’d like you to keep an eye on her and stop her from getting herself into more trouble than she can handle.”

“Hmm? Why would you do that?” Zorian frowned. “I know she wants to learn human magic, but do you have any idea how mundane and repetitive our classes are? She’ll be bored out of her skull in three days, maximum. It would be better to just have her come to me for instruction. I did promise I would teach her, after all.”

“No offense Zorian, but you’re just a beginner mage still,” Tinami said frowning. “You’re not really qualified to teach a member of a completely different species how to do magic. That kind of thing is best left for actual experts.”

“Uh, yeah, I meant I would teach her later,” Zorian fumbled slightly. “Years later, when I mature into a mage who is qualified to help her. That’s what I meant.”

Tinami gave him a really strange look.

“It’s a good thing for Novelty to receive a much-needed reality-check from time to time, so I’m not really concerned about her being bored out of her mind there,” Spear of Resolve said, ignoring their interaction. “Besides, I didn’t mean for this to become a regular thing. I just want to have the students see an aranea walking around and interact with them a bit. It’s a publicity stunt more than anything.”

“Oh, so this is kind of like what we’re doing right now,” Tinami said. After all, it wasn’t like they had to have this conversation in the middle of a street where random people could see them. They could have just as easily met in a private room inside the Noveda Estate, or even inside one of the many Aope properties, but Spear of Resolve insisted they had to do this this way.

“Yes, exactly,” Spear of Resolve said.

“I have to ask… why Novelty?” Tinami asked suddenly. “Not that I dislike her or anything, but I get the notion that you’re pushing her pretty hard, and I can’t figure out why. She is not exactly someone I would pick for an ambassador if I had to choose. Surely you have aranea that are more… solemn than her.”

“Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty is more suited for the role than you might think,” Spear of Resolve said after a short pause. “You have to understand that the number of aranea living beneath Cyoria is… not that great. We must hunt to survive, so we can’t support large populations. Of the people I do have, many have no interest in learning how to interact with humans, or even downright look down on them.”

“Ah. The flickermind thing,” Tinami said, sniffing disdainfully.

“Yes, that. The point is that I really don’t have all that much to work with, and Novelty is one of the few aranea who is downright enthusiastic about going out into the city and meeting humans face-to-face. Besides, while her antics might not be exactly professional, I’ve noticed they put many humans at ease better than a solemn, respectful approach. They often perceive her as a harmless clown, or an innocent little girl, which never fails to amuse me. She’s an adult aranea specializing in interactions with humans. She’s far more dangerous to a human than your average, less excitable aranea.”

“Oh. I didn’t think of it like that,” Tinami admitted.

What Spear of Resolve didn’t say, but what Zorian strongly suspected, was that she was pushing Novelty partly because she knew Zorian liked her. It was clear to him that the Cyorian web was determined to build a closer relationship with him and keep him as close to them as possible, so it made sense to have Novelty talk to him.

After a few more circles around the center of the city, the three of them separated and went about their own business. Zorian never went home, however, instead choosing to continue wandering the city, lost in his own thoughts.