Good Morning Brother

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

“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top ofhim. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”

Zorian glared at his little sister, but she just smiled back at him cheekily,still sprawled across his stomach. She was humming to herself in obvioussatisfaction, kicking her feet playfully in the air as she studied the giantworld map Zorian had tacked to the wall next to his bed. Or rather, pretendedto study – Zorian could see her watching him intently out of the corner of hereyes for a reaction.

This was what he got for not arcane locking the door and setting up a basicalarm perimeter around his bed.

“Get off,” he told her in the calmest voice he could muster.

“Mom said to wake you up,” she said matter-of-factly, not budging from herspot.

“Not like this, she didn’t,” Zorian grumbled, swallowing his irritation andpatiently waiting till she dropped her guard enough. Predictably, Kiriellegrew visibly agitated after only a few moments of this pretend disinterest.Just before she was about to blow up, Zorian quickly grasped her legs andchest and flipped her over the edge of the bed. She fell to the floor with athud and an indignant yelp, and Zorian quickly jumped to his feet to betterrespond to any violence she might decide to retaliate with. He glanced down onher and sniffed disdainfully. “I’ll be sure to remember this the next time I’masked to wake you up.”

“Fat chance of that,” she retorted defiantly. “You always sleep longer than Ido.”

Zorian simply sighed in defeat. Damn the little imp, but she was right aboutthat.

“So…” she began excitedly, jumping to her feet, “are you excited?”

Zorian watched her for a moment as she bounced around his room like a monkeyon caffeine. Sometimes he wished he had some of that boundless energy of hers.But only some.

“About what?” Zorian asked innocently, feigning ignorance. He knew what shemeant, of course, but constantly asking obvious questions was the fastest wayof frustrating his little sister into dropping a conversation he’d rather nothave.

“Going back to academy!” she whined, clearly aware of what he was doing. Heneeded to learn some new tricks. “Learning magic. Can you show me some magic?”

Zorian let out a long-suffering sigh. Kirielle had always treated him assomething of a playmate of hers, despite him doing his best not to encourageher, but usually she remained within certain unspoken boundaries. She wasdownright impossible this year, though, and Mother was wholly unsympathetic tohis pleas to rein her in. All he did was read all day long, she said, so itwasn’t as if he was doing anything important… Thankfully the summer breakwas over and he could finally get away from them all.

“Kiri, I have to pack. Why don’t you go pester Fortov for a change?”

She scowled at him unhappily for a second and then perked up, as ifremembering something, and quickly ran out of the room. Zorian’s eyes widenedwhen he realized what she was up to a second too late.

“No!” he yelled as he ran after her, only to have the bathroom door slammedinto his face. He pounded on the door in frustration. “Damn it, Kiri! You hadall the time in the world to go to the bathroom before I woke up!”

“Sucks to be you,” was her only answer.

After hurling a few choice curses at the door, Zorian stomped off back to hisroom to get dressed. She would be inside for ages, he was sure, if only tospite him.

Quickly changing out of his pajamas and putting on his glasses, Zorian took amoment to look around his room. He was pleased to note Kirielle hadn’trummaged through his stuff before waking him up. She had a very fuzzy notionof (other people’s) privacy.

It didn’t take Zorian long to pack – he had never really unpacked, to behonest, and would have gone back to Cyoria a week ago if he thought Motherwould have allowed it. He was just packing his school supplies when herealized with irritation that some of his textbooks were missing. He could trya locator spell, but he was pretty sure he knew where they had ended up –Kirielle had a habit of taking them to her room, no matter how many timesZorian told her to keep her sticky little fingers away from them. Working on ahunch, he double-checked his writing supplies and, sure enough, found they hadbeen greatly depleted.

It always happened – every time he came home, Kirielle would raid his schoolsupplies. Putting aside the ethical problems inherent in breaking into yourbrother’s room in order to steal his things, what on earth was she doing withall those pencils and erasers? This time he specifically bought extras withhis sister in mind, but it still wasn’t enough - he couldn’t find a singleeraser in his drawer, and he bought a whole packet of them before coming home.Why Kirielle couldn’t simply ask Mother to buy her some books and pens of herown was never really clear to Zorian. She was the youngest, and the onlydaughter, so Mother was always happy to spoil her - the dolls she talkedMother into buying her were five times more expensive than a couple of booksand a stack of pencils.

In any case, while Zorian had no delusions about ever seeing his writingsupplies again, he really needed those textbooks. With that in mind, hemarched off to his sister’s room, ignoring the ‘Keep out!’ warning on thedoor, and quickly found his missing books in their usual location – cunninglyhidden under the bed, behind several conveniently placed stuffed animals.

His packing done, he went downstairs to eat something and see what Motherwanted from him.

Though his family thought he simply liked to sleep in, Zorian actually had areason for being a late riser. It meant he could eat his food in peace, aseveryone else had already had their breakfast by then. Few things annoyed himmore than someone trying to strike up a conversation while he was eating, andthat was precisely the time when the rest of his family was most talkative.Unfortunately, Mother wasn’t willing to wait for him today, and immediatelydescended upon him when she saw him coming down. He didn’t even finish hisdescent down the stairs and she had already found something about him shedidn’t like.

“You don’t really intend to go out looking like that, do you?” she asked.

“What’s wrong with this?” asked Zorian. He was wearing a plain brown outfit,little different from the ones other boys wore when they were going into thecity. It seemed just fine to him.

“You can’t go out looking like that,” his mother said with a long-sufferingsigh. “What do you think people will say when they see you wearing that?”

“Nothing?” Zorian tried.

“Zorian, don’t be so difficult,” she snapped at him. “Our family is one of thepillars of this town. We’re under scrutiny every time we leave the house. Iknow you don’t care about such things, but appearances are important to a lotof people. You need to realize you’re not an island, and you can’t decidethings as if you were alone in the world. You are a member of this family, andyour actions inevitably reflect on our reputation. I will not let youembarrass me by looking like a common factory worker. Go back to your room andput on some proper attire.”

Zorian restrained himself from rolling his eyes just long enough to turn hisback on her. Maybe her guilt trip would have been more effective if this wasthe first time she tried it on him. Still, it wasn’t worth the argument, so hechanged into a pricier set of clothes. It was totally excessive, consideringhe’d be spending the whole day in the train, but his mother nodded approvinglywhen she saw him coming down the stairs. She had him turn and pose like a showanimal for a while before pronouncing him ‘fairly decent’. He went to thekitchen and, to his annoyance, Mother followed after him. No eating in peacetoday, it seemed.

Father was thankfully on one of his ‘business trips’, so he wouldn’t have todeal with him today.

He entered the kitchen and frowned when he saw a bowl of porridge alreadywaiting for him on the table. Usually he made his own breakfast, and he likedit that way, but he knew his mother never accepted that. This was her idea ofa peace gesture, which meant she was going to ask something he wouldn’t likeout of him.

“I figured I’d prepare something for you today, and I know you’ve always likedporridge,” she said. Zorian refrained from mentioning he hadn’t liked it sincehe was about 8. “You slept longer than I thought you would, though. It’s gonecold while I’ve waited for you.”

Zorian rolled his eyes and cast a slightly modified ‘heat water’ spell at theporridge, which was instantly back at a pleasant temperature.

He ate his breakfast in silence while Mother talked to him at length about acrop-related dispute one of their suppliers was involved in, dancing aroundwhatever topic she wanted to breach. He effortlessly tuned out her out. It waspractically a survival skill for every child in the Kazinski family, as bothmother and father were prone to protracted lectures on every subjectimaginable, but doubly so for Zorian, who was the black sheep of the familyand thus subjected to such monologues more frequently than the rest.Thankfully, his mother thought nothing of his silence, because Zorian wasalways as silent as possible around his family – he had learned many years agothat this was the easiest way of getting along with them.

“Mother,” he interrupted her, “I just woke up via Kiri jumping on me, Ihaven’t had a chance to go to the bathroom and now you’re pestering me whileI’m eating. Either get to the point or wait a couple of minutes while I finishbreakfast.”

“She did it again?” his mother asked, amusement obvious in her voice.

Zorian rubbed his eyes, not saying anything, before surreptitiously pocketingan apple from the bowl on the table while his mother wasn’t looking. Therewere a lot of annoying things Kirielle did again and again, but complainingabout it to Mother was a waste of time. No one in this family was on hisside.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” his mother said, noticing his less-than-pleasedreaction. “She’s just bored and playing with you. You take things way tooseriously, just like your father.”

“I am nothing like my father!” Zorian half-yelled, glaring at her. This waswhy he hated eating with other people. He returned to his breakfast withrenewed vigor, eager to finish this as soon as possible.

“Of course you’re not,” Mother said airily, before suddenly switching thesubject. “Actually, this reminds me of something. Your father and I are goingto Koth to visit Daimen.”

Zorian bit the spoon in his mouth to prevent himself from making a snidecomment. It was always Daimen this, Daimen that. There were days when Zorianwondered why his parents made three other children when they were clearly soenamored with their eldest son. Really, going to another continent just tovisit him? What, were they going to die if they didn’t see him for a year?

“What’s that got to do with me?” Zorian asked.

“It will be an extended visit,” she said. “We’ll be there for about sixmonths, most of it spent traveling from one place to another. You and Fortovwill be at the academy, of course, but I’m worried about Kirielle. She’s onlynine and I don’t feel comfortable bringing her along with us.”

Zorian paled, finally catching on to what she wanted of him. Hell. No.

“Mother, I’m 15,” he protested.

“So?” she asked. “Your father and I were already married when we were yourage.”

“Times change. Besides, I spend most of the day at the academy,” Zorianresponded. “Why don’t you ask Fortov to take care of her? He’s a year olderand he has his own apartment.”

“Fortov is in his fourth year,” his mother said sternly. “He’s going tograduate this year so he has to focus on his grades.”

“You mean he said no,” Zorian concluded out loud.

“And besides…” she continued, ignoring his remark, “I’m sure you’re aware ofhow irresponsible Fortov can be at times. I don’t think he’s fit to raise alittle girl.”

“And whose fault is that?” Zorian grumbled quietly, loudly dropping his spoonand pushing the plate away from him. Maybe Fortov was irresponsible because heknew mother and father would simply dump his responsibilities onto Zorian ifhe just played dumb long enough, didn’t that ever occur to her? Why did italways fall to him to deal with the little imp? Well, he wasn’t going to getsaddled with this! If Fortov was too good to take care of Kirielle, then sowas Zorian!

Plus, the little tattletale would undoubtedly report everything he did back toMother without a second thought. The best thing about attending a school sofar from home was that he could do whatever he wanted with his family beingnone the wiser, and there was no way he was going to give that up. Really,this was just a transparent ploy by his mother to spy on him, so she couldlecture him some more about family pride and proper manners.

“I don’t think I’m fit for that either,” continued Zorian a little louder.“You said only a few minutes ago that I’m an embarrassment to the family. Wewouldn’t want to corrupt little Kiri with my uncaring attitude, now would we?”

“I didn’t-”

“No!” Zorian shouted.

“Oh, have it your way,” she huffed in resignation. “But really, I wasn’tsuggesting-”

“What are you talking about?” Kirielle called out from behind him.

“We were discussing what a rotten brat you are,” shot back Zorian immediately.

“No you weren’t!”

Zorian just rolled his eyes and rose from his seat, intending to go to thebathroom, only to find an irate little sister blocking his path. There was aknock at the door.

“I’ll get it!” said Zorian quickly, knowing that Mother would demand that oneof them open the door and that Kirielle wouldn’t budge from her spot any timesoon - she could be very stubborn when she wanted.

That was how Zorian found himself staring at a bespectacled woman dressed inexpensive-looking khaki-colored clothes and cradling a thick book in her arm.

The woman gave him an appraising glance, adjusting her glasses. “ZorianKazinski?”

“Uh, yeah?” he said, unsure how to react to this development.

“I am Ilsa Zileti, from Cyoria’s Royal Academy of Magical Arts. I’m here todiscuss the results of your certification.”

Color drained from Zorian’s face. They sent an actual mage to talk to him!?What did he do to warrant this!? Mother was going to skin him alive!

“You aren’t in trouble, Mister Kazinski,” she said, smiling in amusement. “TheAcademy has a habit of sending a representative to third year students todiscuss various matters of interest. I confess I should have visited yousooner, but I have been a tad busy this year. You have my apologies.”

Zorian stared at her for a few seconds.

“May I come in?”

“Huh? Oh!” said Zorian. “Forgive my manners, Miss Zileti. Come in, come in.”

“Thank you,” she accepted politely, stepping into the house.

After a quick introduction to his mother and sister, Ilsa asked him if he hadsomewhere they could discuss school matters privately. Mother quickly decidedshe had to go to town market and took Kirielle with her, leaving him alone inthe house with the mage, who promptly scattered various papers across thekitchen desk.

“So, Zorian,” she began. “You already know you passed the certification.”

“Yes, I got the written notice,” Zorian said. “Cirin doesn’t have a magetower, so I was going to pick up the badge when I got back to Cyoria.”

Ilsa simply handed him a sealed scroll. Zorian inspected the scroll for a fewseconds and then tried to break the seal so he could read it. Unfortunately,the seal was quite tough to break. Unnaturally so, even.

He frowned. Ilsa wouldn’t have given him the scroll like this if she didn’tthink he had the ability to open it. A test of some sort? He wasn’t anyoneterribly special, so this would have to be something pretty easy. What skilldid every recently-minted mage possess that would…

Oh. He almost rolled his eyes when he realized what this was all about. Hechanneled some mana into the seal and it promptly snapped itself in half,allowing Zorian to finally unroll the scroll. It was written in very neatcalligraphy and appeared to be some kind of proof of his identity as a firstcircle mage. He glanced back at Ilsa, who nodded approvingly, confirming toZorian that he had just passed a test of some sort.

“You don’t really have to pick up your badge until you finish school,” shesaid. “The badge is pretty expensive and nobody is really going to bother youabout it unless you plan to open a shop or otherwise sell your magicalexpertise. If they do bother you for whatever reason, just refer them to theacademy and we’ll clear things up.”

Zorian shrugged. While he did intend to break away from his family, he’dprefer to wait until graduation, and that was two years away. He motioned onfor her to continue.

“Very well, then. The records say you lived in the academy housing for thepast two years. I assume you intend to continue with that?”

Zorian nodded and she reached into one of her pockets and handed him a ratherstrange key. Zorian knew how locks in general worked, and could even picksimpler ones with enough time, but he couldn’t figure out how this key wassupposed to work – it had no ‘teeth’ to fit in with the tumblers inside thelock. On a hunch, he channeled some mana into it, and faint golden linesimmediately lit across the surface of the metal. He looked at Ilsa in a silentquestion.

“Housing for third years works differently than you are used to,” she toldhim. “As you’re likely aware, now that you are a certified first circle mage,the academy is authorized to teach you spells of the first circle and above.Since you’ll be handling sensitive material, greater security is required, soyou’ll be moving into a different building. The lock on your door is keyed toyour mana, so you’ll have to channel some of your personal mana into the keylike you did just now before it will unlock.”

“Ah,” said Zorian. Idly he spun the key in his hand, wondering how exactlythey got a hold of his mana signature. Something to research later, hesupposed.

“Normally I would be explaining to you in detail what it means to be a thirdyear student at Cyoria’s magical academy, but I hear you have a train leavingsoon, so why don’t we jump straight to the main reason I’m here. Your mentor,and electives. You can ask me anything you wish to know afterwards.”

Zorian perked up on this, especially the mention of ‘mentor’. Each third yearwas given a mentor that they met with once a week, who was supposed to teachstudents in ways not possible in a standard class format, and otherwise helpthem reach their maximum potential. A choice of one’s mentor could make orbreak one’s magical career and Zorian knew he had to choose carefully.Fortunately, he had asked around among older students to find out which oneswere good and which ones were bad, so he figured he would at least be able toget an above-average one.

“So which mentors can I choose from?” Zorian asked.

“Well, actually, I’m afraid you can’t,” Ilsa said apologetically. “Like Isaid, I was supposed to get to you sooner. Unfortunately, all but one of thementors have filled their quota of students at this point.”

Zorian had a bad feeling about this… “And this mentor is?”

“Xvim Chao.”

Zorian groaned, burying his face in his hands. Of all the teachers, Xvim waswidely agreed upon as the worst mentor you could possibly get. It just hadto be him, didn’t it?

“It’s not that bad,” Ilsa assured him. “The rumors are mostly exaggerated, andmostly spread by students unwilling to do the kind of work Professor Xvimrequires of his charges. I’m sure a talented, hard-working student such asyourself will have no problems with him.”

Zorian snorted. “I don’t suppose there is any chance to transfer to anothermentor, is there?”

“Not really. We’ve had a really good pass rate last year, and all of thementors are swamped with students as it is. Professor Xvim is the leastburdened of the available mentors.”

“My, I wonder why,” Zorian mumbled. “Alright, fine. What about electives?”

Ilsa handed him another scroll, this one unsealed, containing a list of allelective classes offered by the academy. It was long. Very long. You couldsign up for practically anything, even things that weren’t of strictly magicalnature: things like advanced mathematics, classical literature, andarchitecture. It was to be expected, really, since Ikosian magical traditionhad always been inextricably connected to other intellectual pursuits.

“You can choose up to five, but no less than three electives this year. Itwould be a lot more convenient for us if you did it now, so that we canfinalize the schedules over the weekend before the classes start. Don’t be toointimidated by the sheer size of the list. Even if you choose something thatdoesn’t appeal to you, you can switch to a different elective during the firstmonth of school.”

Zorian frowned. There were a lot of electives and he wasn’t quite sure whichones he wanted to take. He’d already gotten shafted in the mentor department,so he really couldn’t afford to screw up here. This would take a while.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way Miss Zileti, but would you mind if wetake a short break before we go any further with this?”

“Of course not,” she said. “Is something the matter?”

“Not at all,” assured Zorian. “It’s just that I really need to go to thebathroom.”

Probably not the best way to make a first impression. Kirielle was so going topay for putting him in this position.

- break -

Zorian trailed after his family in silence as they entered Cirin’s trainstation, ignoring Fortov’s exuberant greeting of some ‘friends’ of his. Hescanned the crowd on the train station for any familiar faces but,predictably, came out empty. He didn’t really know all that many people in hishome town, as his parents loved reminding him. He felt his mother’s gaze onhim as he unsuccessfully searched for an empty bench, but refused to look backat her – she would take that as permission to initiate conversation, and healready knew what she would say.

‘Why don’t you join Fortov and his friends, Zorian?’

Because they’re immature jackasses, just like Fortov, that’s why.

He sighed, looking at the empty train tracks with annoyance. The train waslate. He didn’t mind waiting as such, but waiting in the crowds was puretorture. His family would never understand, but Zorian hated crowds. It wasn’tany tangible thing, really – it was more like large gatherings of peopleprojected some kind of presence that weighed down on him constantly. Most ofthe time it was annoying, though it did have its uses – his parents stoppedtaking him to church when they realized that dragging him into a small hallpacked with people resulted in vertigo and fainting in a matter of minutes.Fortunately, the train station wasn’t currently crowded enough to produce suchintense effects, but Zorian knew prolonged exposure would take its toll. Hehoped the train wouldn’t take too long, because he didn’t relish spendingthe rest of the day with a headache.

Fortov’s loud laughter broke him out of such gloomy musings. His older brotherdidn’t have such problems, that’s for sure. Like always, he was cheerful,sociable, and had a smile that could light up the world. The people he wassurrounded with were clearly enthralled with him, and he stood out among themat first glance, despite having the same thin build that Zorian did. He justhad that kind of presence around him. He was like Daimen in this way, onlyDaimen had actual skills to back up his charm.

He scoffed, shaking his head. Zorian didn’t know for sure how Fortov had beenaccepted into a supposedly elite institution like Cyoria’s magical academy,but he strongly suspected Father had greased a few hands to get Fortov in. Itwasn’t that Fortov was stupid, so much as lazy and completely unable to focuson a task, no matter how critical. Not that most people knew that, of course –the boy was charming as hell, and very adept in sweeping his inadequaciesunder the metaphorical rug.

His father always joked that Fortov and Zorian each got a half of Daimen inthem: Fortov got his charm, and Zorian his competence.

Zorian had never liked his father’s sense of humor.

A whistle pierced the air, and the train entered the station with a high-pitched squeal of metal wheels braking against the tracks. The original trainswere steam-powered machines that billowed smoke wherever they went andconsumed unholy amounts of coal to keep going, but this one was powered by thenewer techno-magic engines that consumed crystallized mana instead. Cleaner,cheaper, and required less maintaince. Zorian could actually feel the manaradiating off the train as he approached, though his ability to sense magicwas too underdeveloped to tell him any details. He had always wanted to lookaround the engine room of one of these things but could never figure out agood way to approach the train operators.

But that was a thought for another time. He gave a brief goodbye to Mother andKirielle and entered the train to find himself a seat. He intentionally chosean empty compartment, something that was surprisingly easy to find.Apparently, despite the gathered crowd, few of them would be taking thisparticular train.

Five minutes later, the train gave another ear-splitting whistle and began itslong journey towards Cyoria.

- break -

There was a sharp crackling sound, following by the sound of a bell ringing.

“Now stopping in Korsa,” a disembodied voice echoed. A crackling sound again.“I repeat, now stopping in Korsa. Thank you.”

The speakers crackled one last time before turning silent.

Zorian released a long sigh of irritation and opened his eyes. He hatedtrains. The boredom, the heat, and the rhythmic thumping sounds all conspiredto make him sleepy, but every time he finally drifted off to sleep he wasrudely awoken by the station announcer. That this was the very purpose of thatannouncer – to wake up passengers who would sleep through their destination –was not lost on Zorian, but it was no less annoying because of it.

He looked through the window, only to see a train station like any other. Infact, it was completely identical to the previous five, down to the blueoutline on the big white tablet saying ‘Korsa’. Apparently the stationbuilders were working off some kind of template these days. Looking at thestation platform they were stopping at, he could see a large crowd of peoplewaiting to get on the train. Korsa was a major trading hub, and a lot of newlyminted merchant families lived here, sending their children to Cyoria’sprestigious academy to become mages and mingle among children of otherinfluential people. Zorian found himself wishing that none of his fellowstudents join him in his compartment, but he knew it was an idle dream – therewere too many of them and his compartment was completely empty aside from him.He did all he could to make himself comfortable in his seat and closed hiseyes again.

The first person to join him in his compartment was a chubby, glasses-wearinggirl in a green turtleneck. She gave him a cursory glance and started readinga book in silence. Zorian would have been ecstatic with such an agreeabletraveling companion, but soon enough a group of four other girls came in andtook the remaining four seats for themselves. The four newcomers were veryloud and prone to giggling fits, and Zorian was sorely tempted to get up andfind himself a new compartment to occupy. He spent the rest of the tripalternating between looking through the window at the endless fields they werepassing and exchanging annoyed glances with the green-turtleneck girl, whoseemed similarly irritated by the other girls’ antics.

He knew they were getting close to Cyoria when he could see trees on thehorizon. There was only one city on this route that was this close to thegreat northern forest, and the trains otherwise avoided getting close to soinfamous a place. Zorian picked up his bag and went to stand by the exit. Theidea was to be among the first to disembark, and thus avoid the usual crowdingthat always occurred once they got to Cyoria, but he was too late – there wasalready a crowd at the exit when he approached. He leaned on the nearby windowand waited, listening to animated conversation between three first yearstudents beside him, who were talking excitedly amongst themselves about howthey were going to start learning magic and whatnot. Boy, were they going tobe disappointed – the first year was all theory, meditation exercises, andlearning how to access your mana consistently.

“Hey, you! You’re one of the upperclassmen, aren’t you?”

Zorian looked at the girl talking to him and suppressed a groan of irritation.He so did not want to talk to these people. He had been in the train sinceearly morning, Mother had given him a nasty lecture because he hadn’t offeredIlsa something to drink while she was in the house, and he was in no mood foranything.

“I suppose you could describe me as such,” he said cautiously.

“Can you show us any magic?” she asked eagerly.

“No,” said Zorian flatly. He wasn’t even lying. “The train is warded todisrupt mana shaping. They had a problem with people starting fires andvandalizing compartments.”

“Oh,” the girl said, clearly disappointed. She frowned, like trying to figuresomething out. “Mana shaping?” she asked cautiously.

Zorian raised an eyebrow. “You don’t know what mana is?” She was first year,yes, but that was elementary. Anyone who went through elementary school shouldknow at least that much.

“Magic?” she tried lamely.

“Ugh,” grunted Zorian. “The teachers would so fail you for that. No, it’s notmagic. It’s what powers magic - the energy, the power, that a mage shapes intoa magical effect. You’ll learn more about it in lectures, I guess. Bottompoint is: no mana, no magic. And I can’t use any mana at the moment.”

This was misleading, but whatever. There was no way he was explaining thingsto some random stranger, especially since she should already know this stuff.

“Um, okay. Sorry to bother you then.”

With a lot of squealing and steam-letting, the train stopped at Cyoria’s trainstation, and Zorian disembarked as fast as he could, pushing past the awedfirst-years staring at the sight before them.

Cyoria’s train station was huge, a fact made obvious by the fact that it wasenclosed, making it look more like a giant tunnel. Actually, the station as awhole was even larger, because there were four more ‘tunnels’ like this one,plus all the support facilities. There was nothing like it anywhere in theworld, and virtually everyone was stupefied the first time they saw it. Zorianwas too, when he first disembarked here. The feeling of disorientation wasamplified by the sheer amount of people that went through this terminal,whether they were passengers going in and out of Cyoria, workers inspectingthe train and unloading luggage, newsboys shouting headlines, or homelesspeople begging for some change. As far as he knew, this massive flow of peoplenever really ceased, even at night, and this was a particularly busy day.

He looked at the giant clock hanging from the ceiling and, finding out he hadplenty of time, bought himself some bread from the nearby bakery and then setcourse for Cyoria’s central plaza, intending to eat his newly acquired foodwhile sitting on the edge of the fountain there. It was a nice place to relax.

Cyoria was a curious city. It was one of the most developed and largest citiesin the world, which was at first glance strange, as Cyoria was dangerouslyclose to monster-infested wilderness and wasn’t in a favorable trade location.What really catapulted its way to prominence was the massive circular hole onthe west side of the city – probably the most obvious Dungeon entrance everand the only Rank 9 mana well known to exist. The absolutely massivequantities of mana gushing out from the underworld had made the spot anirresistible magnet for mages. The presence of such a huge number of magesmade Cyoria unlike any other city on the continent, both in the culture of thepeople living there and, more obviously, in the architecture of the cityitself. A lot of things that would be too impractical to build elsewhere wereroutinely done here, and it made for an inspiring sight if you could find agood spot to watch the city from.

He froze in his tracks when he noticed a swarm of rats staring at him from thebottom of the stairway he was about to descend. Their behavior was strangeenough, but his heartbeat really sped up when he took notice of their heads.Was that… were their brains exposed!? He swallowed heavily and took a stepback, slowly retreating from the stairwell before turning around and fleeingin a full sprint. He wasn’t sure what they were, but those were definitelynot normal rats.

He supposed he shouldn’t be so shocked, though – a place like Cyoria attractedmore than mages – magical creatures of all breeds found such places just asirresistible. He was just glad the rats didn’t pursue him, because he hadnothing in the way of combat spells. The only spell he knew that could be usedin a situation like this was the ‘spook animals’ spell, and he had no idea howeffective that would have been against such clearly magical creatures.

Somewhat shaken but still determined to get to the fountain, he tried tocircle the rat gathering by going through the nearby park, but luck justwasn’t on his side today. He promptly walked in on a little girl crying hereyes out on a bridge he had to cross, and it took him five minutes just to gether to calm down enough to find out what happened. He supposed he could havejust pushed past her and left her there to cry, but not even he was that cold-hearted.

“T-the b-bike!” she blurted out finally, hiccupping heavily. “It f-fell in!”she wailed.

Zorian blinked, trying to interpret what she was trying to tell him.Apparently realizing she wasn’t making any sense, the girl pointed towards thecreek running underneath the bridge. Zorian looked over the edge of the bridgeand, sure enough, there was a children’s bicycle half-submerged in the muddywaters.

“Huh,” Zorian said. “Wonder how that happened?”

“It fell in!” the girl repeated, looking as if she was going to cry again.

“All right, all right, no need for waterworks, I’ll get it out okay?” Zoriansaid, eying the bicycle speculatively.

“You’ll get dirty,” she warned quietly. Zorian could tell from her tone ofvoice that she hoped he would get it out anyway.

“Don’t worry, I have no intention of wading through that mud,” Zorian said.“Watch.”

He made a few gestures and cast a ‘levitate object’ spell, causing the bike tojerkily rise out of the water and into the air. The bike was a lot heavierthan the objects he usually practiced with, and he had to levitate the bike alot higher than he was used to, but it was nothing outside his capabilities.He snatched the bike by its seat when it was close enough and placed it on thebridge.

“There,” Zorian said. “It’s all muddy and wet but I can’t help you there.Don’t know any cleaning spells.”

“O-Okay,” she nodded slowly, clutching her bicycle like it was going to flyout of her hand the moment she let go.

He bid her goodbye and left, deciding his relaxing time at the fountain justwasn’t meant to be. The weather seemed to be worsening pretty quickly too –dark clouds were brewing ominously across the horizon, heralding rain. Hedecided to simply join the diffuse line of students trudging towards theacademy and be done with it.

It was a long way from the train station to the academy, since the station wason the outskirts of the city and the academy was right next to the Hole.Depending on how physically fit you were, and how much luggage you had to dragaround, you could get there in an hour or two. Zorian wasn’t particularly fit,what with his skinny physique and shut-in ways, but he had purposely packedlight in anticipation of this journey. He joined the procession of studentsthat was still streaming from the train station in the direction of theacademy, ignoring the occasional first year struggling with excessive baggage.He empathized with them because his asshole brothers didn’t warn him to keepthe luggage at a minimum either and he was like them the first time he arrivedat the train station, but there was nothing he could do to help them.

The threat of rain and bad luck aside, he felt invigorated as he drew closerto academy grounds. He was drawing on the ambient mana suffusing the areaaround the Hole, replenishing the mana reserves he spent levitating thatgirl’s bicycle. Mage academies were almost always built on top of mana wellsfor the express purpose of exploiting this effect – an area with such highambient mana levels was a perfect place for inexperienced wizards to practicetheir spellcasting at, since anytime they ran out of mana they couldsupplement their natural mana regeneration by replenishing their mana reservesfrom their very surroundings.

Zorian took out the apple he still carried in his pocket and levitated it overhis palm. It wasn’t really a spell, so much as raw mana manipulation – a manashaping exercise that was supposed to help mages improve their ability tocontrol and direct magical energies. It looked like such a simple thing, butit took Zorian two years before he mastered it fully. Sometimes he wondered ifhis family was right and he really was too focused on his studies. He knewfor a fact that most of his classmates had a much more tenuous control overtheir magic, and it didn’t appear to be inhibiting them too much.

He dismissed the mana construct holding the apple in the air and let it falldown on his palm. He wished he had some kind of rain protection spell – thefirst drops of rain were already starting to fall. That, or an umbrella.Either would work just fine, except an umbrella didn’t require several yearsof training to use.

“Magic can be such a rip-off at times,” said Zorian gloomily.

He took a deep breath and started running.

- break -

“Huh. So there is a rain protection spell,” mumbled Zorian as he watchedraindrops splattering upon an invisible barrier in front of him. He extendedhis hand over the edge of the barrier, and it passed unimpeded. He retreatedhis suddenly rather wet hand back into the safety of the barrier and followedthe boundary as far as his eyes could follow. From what he could tell, thebarrier encircled the entire academy compound (no small feat, as academygrounds were quite extensive) in a protective bubble that stopped the rain –and only rain - from penetrating it. Apparently the academy upgraded itswards again, because they didn’t have this feature the last time it wasraining.

Shrugging, he turned around and continued towards the administration buildingof the academy. It was too bad the barrier didn’t also dry you out when youpassed it, because he was soaking wet. Thankfully, his bag was waterproof, sohis clothes and textbooks weren’t in any danger of getting ruined. Slowingdown to a leisurely stroll, he studied the collection of buildings that madeup the academy. The wards weren’t the only thing that was upgraded; the wholeplace looked… prettified, for a lack of a better term. Every building wasfreshly painted, the old brick road was replaced by a much more colorful one,the flower patches were in full bloom, and the small fountain that hadn’tworked for years was suddenly functional.

“Wonder what that’s all about,” he mumbled.

After a few minutes of contemplation, he decided he didn’t care much. He wouldfind out sooner or later, if it was of any importance.

The administration building was, predictably, mostly empty of students. Mostof them took shelter from the rain instead of pressing on like Zorian, andthose that didn’t often didn’t live on academy grounds and thus had no reasonto come here today. That was perfect as far as Zorian was concerned, as itmeant he could be done here quickly.

‘Quickly’ turned out to be a relative term – it took him two hours ofwrangling with the girl working at the administration desk before he took careof all the necessary paperwork. He asked about his class schedule, but wastold it wasn’t finalized yet and that he would have to wait until Mondaymorning. Come to think of it, Ilsa had mentioned the same thing. Before heleft, the girl gave him a book of rules that third-year students were expectedto familiarize themselves with before sending him on his way. Zorian idlyflipped through the rule book while he searched for room 115, before puttingit into one of the more obscure compartments in his backpack, never to belooked at again.

Academy-provided housing was pretty terrible, and Zorian had had veryunpleasant experiences with it, but it was free and apartment space wasseverely overpriced in Cyoria. Even children of nobles often lived at academygrounds rather than in their own apartments, so who was he to complain?Besides, living so close to the lecture hall cut down on the travel time eachmorning and put him close to the biggest library in the city, so there weredefinitely good sides to it.

An hour later, he smiled to himself as he entered a fairly spacious room. Hewas even more pleased when he realized he had his own bathroom. With a showerstall, no less! It was a welcome change from having to share a cramped littleroom with an inconsiderate roommate and sharing a single communal bathroomwith the whole floor. As far as furniture went, the room had a bed, a closet,a set of drawers, a work desk, and a chair. Everything Zorian needed, really.

Dropping his luggage on the floor, Zorian changed out of his wet clothesbefore collapsing on the bed with relief. He had two whole days before theclasses started, so he decided to postpone unpacking for tomorrow. Instead heremained motionless on the bed, wondering for a moment why he couldn’t hearthe raindrops hitting the glass plane of the window next to his bed, beforeremembering the rain barrier.

“I’ve got to learn how to cast that,” he mumbled.

His spell collection was extremely limited at the moment, consisting of about20 simple spells, but he had plans of rectifying that this year. As acertified first circle mage, he had access to parts of the academy library hedidn’t have before, and he planned on raiding them for spells they contained.Besides, this year’s classes were supposed to be much more focused onpractical spellcasting now that they’d proven themselves capable, so he shouldbe learning plenty of interesting things in class too.

Tired from the long journey, Zorian closed his eyes, intending to take a shortnap. He wouldn’t wake up until tomorrow morning.

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