Chapter 001

Good Morning Brother

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!"

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 obvious satisfaction, kicking her feet playfully in the air as she studied the giant world map Zorian had tacked to the wall next to his bed. Or rather, pretended to study – Zorian could see her watching him intently out of the corner of her eyes for a reaction.

This was what he got for not arcane-locking the door and setting up a basic alarm 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 her spot.

"Not like this, she didn't," Zorian grumbled, swallowing his irritation and patiently waiting till she dropped her guard. Predictably, Kirielle grew visibly agitated after only a few moments of this pretend disinterest. Just before she could blow up, Zorian quickly grasped her legs and chest and flipped her over the edge of the bed. She fell to the floor with a thud and an indignant yelp, and Zorian quickly jumped to his feet to better respond to any violence she might decide to retaliate with. He glanced down on her and sniffed disdainfully. "I'll be sure to remember this the next time I'm asked to wake you up."

"Fat chance of that," she retorted defiantly. "You always sleep longer than I do."

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

"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 monkey on 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 she meant, of course, but constantly asking obvious questions was the fastest way of frustrating his little sister into dropping a conversation he'd rather not have.

"Going back to academy!" she whined, clearly aware of what he was doing. He needed 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 as something of a playmate of hers, despite him doing his best not to encourage her, but usually she remained within certain unspoken boundaries. She was downright impossible this year, though, and Mother was wholly unsympathetic to his pleas to rein her in. All he did was read all day long, she said, so it wasn't as if he was doing anything important… Thankfully the summer break was 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 if remembering something, and quickly ran out of the room. Zorian's eyes widened when 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 slammed into his face. He pounded on the door in frustration. "Damn it, Kiri! You had all 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 his room to get dressed. She would be inside for ages, he was sure, if only to spite him.

Quickly changing out of his pajamas and putting on his glasses, Zorian took a moment to look around his room. He was pleased to note Kirielle hadn't rummaged through his stuff before waking him up. She had a very fuzzy notion of (other people's) privacy.

It didn't take Zorian long to pack – he had never really unpacked, to be honest, and would have gone back to Cyoria a week ago if he thought Mother would have allowed it. He was just packing his school supplies when he realized with irritation that some of his textbooks were missing. He could try a 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 times Zorian told her to keep her sticky little fingers away from them. Working on a hunch, he double-checked his writing supplies and, sure enough, found they had been greatly depleted.

It always happened – every time he came home, Kirielle would raid his school supplies. Putting aside the ethical problems inherent in breaking into your brother's room in order to steal his things, what on earth was she doing with all those pencils and erasers? This time he specifically bought extras with his sister in mind, but it still wasn't enough - he couldn't find a single eraser 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 her own was never really clear to Zorian. She was the youngest, and the only daughter, so Mother was always happy to spoil her - the dolls she talked Mother into buying her were five times more expensive than a couple of books and a stack of pencils.

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

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

Though his family thought he simply liked to sleep in, Zorian actually had a reason for being a late riser. It meant he could eat his food in peace, as everyone else had already had their breakfast by then. Few things annoyed him more than someone trying to strike up a conversation while he was eating, and that was precisely the time when the rest of his family was most talkative. Unfortunately, Mother wasn't willing to wait for him today, and immediately descended upon him when she saw him coming down. He didn't even finish his descent down the stairs and she had already found something about him she didn'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 the city. It seemed just fine to him.

"You can't go out looking like that," his mother said with a long-suffering sigh. "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 the pillars of this town. We're under scrutiny every time we leave the house. I know you don't care about such things, but appearances are important to a lot of people. You need to realize you're not an island, and you can't decide things as if you were alone in the world. You are a member of this family, and your actions inevitably reflect on our reputation. I will not let you embarrass me by looking like a common factory worker. Go back to your room and put on some proper attire."

Zorian restrained himself from rolling his eyes just long enough to turn his back on her. Maybe her guilt trip would have been more effective if this was the first time she tried it on him. Still, it wasn't worth the argument, so he changed into a pricier set of clothes. It was totally excessive, considering he'd be spending the whole day in the train, but his mother nodded approvingly when she saw him coming down the stairs. She had him turn and pose like a show animal for a while before pronouncing him 'fairly decent'. He went to the kitchen and, to his annoyance, Mother followed after him. No eating in peace today, it seemed.

Father was thankfully on one of his 'business trips', so he wouldn't have to deal with him today.

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

"I figured I'd prepare something for you today, and I know you've always liked porridge," she said. Zorian refrained from mentioning he hadn't liked it since he was about eight. "You slept longer than I thought you would, though. It's gone cold while I've waited for you."

Zorian rolled his eyes and cast a slightly modified 'heat water' spell on the porridge, which was instantly returned to a pleasant temperature.

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

"Mother," he interrupted her, "I just woke up via Kiri jumping on me, I haven't had a chance to go to the bathroom and now you're pestering me while I'm eating. Either get to the point or wait a couple of minutes while I finish breakfast."

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

Zorian rubbed his eyes, not saying anything, before surreptitiously pocketing an apple from the bowl on the table while his mother wasn't looking. There were a lot of annoying things Kirielle did again and again, but complaining about it to Mother was a waste of time. No one in this family was on his side.

"Oh, don't be like that," his mother said, noticing his less-than-pleased reaction. "She's just bored and playing with you. You take things way too seriously, just like your father."

"I am nothing like my father!" Zorian insisted, raising his voice and glaring at her. This was why he hated eating with other people. He returned to his breakfast with renewed vigor, eager to finish this as soon as possible.

"Of course you're not," Mother said airily, before suddenly switching the subject. "Actually, this reminds me of something. Your father and I are going to Koth to visit Daimen."

Zorian bit the spoon in his mouth to prevent himself from making a snide comment. It was always Daimen this, Daimen that. There were days when Zorian wondered why his parents had three other children when they were clearly so enamored of their eldest son. Really, going to another continent just to visit 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 six months, most of it spent traveling from one place to another. You and Fortov will be at the academy, of course, but I'm worried about Kirielle. She's only nine 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 your age."

"Times change. Besides, I spend most of the day at the academy," Zorian responded. "Why don't you ask Fortov to take care of her? He's a year older and he has his own apartment."

"Fortov is in his fourth year," his mother said sternly. "He's going to graduate 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 of how irresponsible Fortov can be at times. I don't think he's fit to raise a little girl."

"And whose fault is that?" Zorian grumbled quietly, loudly dropping his spoon and pushing the plate away from him. Maybe Fortov was irresponsible because he knew mother and father would simply dump his responsibilities onto Zorian if he just played dumb long enough, didn't that ever occur to her? Why did it always fall to him to deal with the little imp? Well, he wasn't going to get saddled with this! If Fortov was too good to take care of Kirielle, then so was Zorian!

Plus, the little tattletale would undoubtedly report everything he did back to Mother without a second thought. The best thing about attending a school so far from home was that he could do whatever he wanted with his family being none 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 could lecture 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. We wouldn'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't suggesting-"

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

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

"No you weren't!"

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

"I'll get it!" said Zorian quickly, knowing that Mother would demand that one of them open the door and that Kirielle wouldn't budge from her spot any time soon - she could be very stubborn when she wanted.

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

The woman gave him an appraising glance, adjusting her glasses. "Zorian Kazinski?"

"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 to discuss 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. "The Academy has a habit of sending a representative to third year students to discuss various matters of interest. I confess I should have visited you sooner, 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 had somewhere they could discuss school matters privately. Mother quickly decided she had to go to town market and took Kirielle with her, leaving him alone in the house with the mage, who promptly scattered various papers across the kitchen 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 mage tower, 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 few seconds 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't think he had the ability to open it. A test of some sort? He wasn't anyone terribly special, so this would have to be something pretty easy. What skill did every recently-minted mage possess that would…

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

"You don't really have to pick up your badge until you finish school," she said. "The badge is pretty expensive and nobody is really going to bother you about it unless you plan to open a shop or otherwise sell your magical expertise. If they do bother you for whatever reason, just refer them to the academy and we'll clear things up."

Zorian shrugged. While he did intend to break away from his family, he'd prefer to wait until graduation, and that was two years away. He motioned on for her to continue.

"Very well, then. The records say you lived in the academy housing for the past two years. I assume you intend to continue?"

Zorian nodded and she reached into one of her pockets and handed him a rather strange key. Zorian knew how locks in general worked, and could even pick simpler ones with enough time, but he couldn't figure out how this key was supposed to work – it had no 'teeth' to fit in with the tumblers inside the lock. On a hunch, he channeled some mana into it, and faint golden lines immediately lit across the surface of the metal. He looked at Ilsa in a silent question.

"Housing for third years works differently than you are used to," she told him. "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, so you'll be moving into a different building. The lock on your door is keyed to your mana, so you'll have to channel some of your personal mana into the key like you did just now before it will unlock."

"Ah," said Zorian. Idly he spun the key in his hand, wondering how exactly they got a hold of his mana signature. Something to research later, he supposed.

"Normally I would be explaining to you in detail what it means to be a third year student at Cyoria's magical academy, but I hear you have a train leaving soon, 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 year was given a mentor that they met with once a week, who was supposed to teach students in ways not possible in a standard class format, and otherwise help them reach their maximum potential. A choice of one's mentor could make or break one's magical career and Zorian knew he had to choose carefully. Fortunately, he had asked around among older students to find out which ones were good and which ones were bad, so he figured he would at least be able to get 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 I said, I was supposed to get to you sooner. Unfortunately, all but one of the mentors 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 was widely agreed upon as the worst mentor you could possibly get. It just had to be him, didn't it?

"It's not that bad," Ilsa assured him. "The rumors are mostly exaggerated, and mostly spread by students unwilling to do the kind of work Professor Xvim requires of his charges. I'm sure a talented, hard-working student such as yourself will have no problems with him."

Zorian snorted. "I don't suppose there is any chance to transfer to another mentor, is there?"

"Not really. We've had a really good pass rate last year, and all of the mentors are swamped with students as it is. Professor Xvim is the least burdened 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 all elective classes offered by the academy. It was long. Very long. You could sign up for practically anything, even things that weren't of strictly magical nature: things like advanced mathematics, classical literature, and architecture. It was to be expected, really, since Ikosian magical tradition had always been inextricably connected to other intellectual pursuits.

"You can choose up to five, but no less than three electives this year. It would be a lot more convenient for us if you did it now, so that we can finalize the schedules over the weekend before the classes start. Don't be too intimidated by the sheer size of the list. Even if you choose something that doesn't appeal to you, you can switch to a different elective during the first month of school."

Zorian frowned. There were a lot of electives and he wasn't quite sure which ones 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 we take 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 the bathroom."

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

- break -

Zorian trailed after his family in silence as they entered Cirin's train station, ignoring Fortov's exuberant greeting of some 'friends' of his. He scanned 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 his home town, as his parents loved reminding him. He felt his mother's gaze on him as he unsuccessfully searched for an empty bench, but refused to look back at her – she would take that as permission to initiate conversation, and he already 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 was late. He didn't mind waiting as such, but waiting in the crowds was pure torture. His family would never understand, but Zorian hated crowds. It wasn't any tangible thing, really – it was more like large gatherings of people projected some kind of presence that weighed down on him constantly. Most of the time it was annoying, though it did have its uses – his parents stopped taking him to church when they realized that dragging him into a small hall packed with people resulted in vertigo and fainting in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, the train station wasn't currently crowded enough to produce such intense effects, but Zorian knew prolonged exposure would take its toll. He hoped the train wouldn't take too long, because he didn't relish spending the rest of the day with a headache.

Fortov's loud laughter broke him out of such gloomy musings. His older brother didn'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 was surrounded with were clearly enthralled with him, and he stood out among them at first glance, despite having the same thin build that Zorian did. He just had that kind of presence around him. He was like Daimen in this way, only Daimen had actual skills to back up his charm.

He scoffed, shaking his head. Zorian didn't know for sure how Fortov had been accepted into a supposedly elite institution like Cyoria's magical academy, but he strongly suspected Father had greased a few palms to get Fortov in. It wasn't that Fortov was stupid, so much as lazy and completely unable to focus on 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 inadequacies under the metaphorical rug.

His father always joked that Fortov and Zorian each got a half of Daimen in them: 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 trains were steam-powered machines that billowed smoke wherever they went and consumed unholy amounts of coal to keep going, but this one was powered by the newer techno-magic engines that consumed crystallized mana instead. Cleaner, cheaper, and required less maintenance. Zorian could actually feel the mana radiating off the train as he approached, though his ability to sense magic was too underdeveloped to tell him any details. He had always wanted to look around the engine room of one of these things but could never figure out a good way to approach the train operators.

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

Five minutes later, the train gave another ear-splitting whistle and began its long 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 hated trains. The boredom, the heat, and the rhythmic thumping sounds all conspired to make him sleepy, but every time he finally drifted off to sleep he was rudely awoken by the station announcer. That this was the very purpose of that announcer – 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. In fact, it was completely identical to the previous five, down to the blue outline on the big white tablet saying 'Korsa'. Apparently the station builders were working off some kind of template these days. Looking at the station platform they were stopping at, he could see a large crowd of people waiting to get on the train. Korsa was a major trading hub, and a lot of newly minted merchant families lived here, sending their children to Cyoria's prestigious academy to become mages and mingle among children of other influential people. Zorian found himself wishing that none of his fellow students join him in his compartment, but he knew it was an idle dream – there were 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 his eyes again.

The first person to join him in his compartment was a chubby, glasses-wearing girl in a green turtleneck. She gave him a cursory glance and started reading a book in silence. Zorian would have been ecstatic with such an agreeable traveling companion, but soon enough a group of four other girls came in and took the remaining four seats for themselves. The newcomers were very loud and prone to giggling fits, and Zorian was sorely tempted to get up and find himself a new compartment to occupy. He spent the rest of the trip alternating between looking through the window at the endless fields they were passing and exchanging annoyed glances with the green-turtleneck girl, who seemed similarly irritated by the other girls' antics.

He knew they were getting close to Cyoria when he could see trees on the horizon. There was only one city on this route that was this close to the great northern forest, and the trains otherwise avoided getting close to so infamous a place. Zorian picked up his bag and went to stand by the exit. The idea was to be among the first to disembark, and thus avoid the usual crowding that always occurred once they got to Cyoria, but he was too late – there was already a crowd at the exit when he approached. He leaned on the nearby window and waited, listening to animated conversation between three first year students beside him, who were talking excitedly amongst themselves about how they were going to start learning magic and whatnot. Boy, were they going to be disappointed – the first year was all theory, meditation exercises, and learning 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 since early morning, Mother had given him a nasty lecture because he hadn't offered Ilsa something to drink while she was in the house, and he was in no mood for anything.

"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 to disrupt mana shaping. They had problems with people starting fires and vandalizing compartments."

"Oh," the girl said, clearly disappointed. She frowned, like trying to figure something 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 should know at least that much.

"Magic?" she tried lamely.

"Ugh," grunted Zorian. "The teachers would so fail you for that. No, it's not magic. It's what powers magic - the energy, the power, that a mage shapes into a magical effect. You'll learn more about it in lectures, I guess. Bottom point 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 things to 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 train station, and Zorian disembarked as fast as he could, pushing past the awed first-years staring at the sight before them.

Cyoria's train station was huge, a fact made obvious by the fact that it was enclosed, making it look more like a giant tunnel. Actually, the station as a whole was even larger, because there were four more 'tunnels' like this one, plus all the support facilities. There was nothing like it anywhere in the world, and virtually everyone was stupefied the first time they saw it. Zorian was too, when he first disembarked here. The feeling of disorientation was amplified by the sheer number of people that went through this terminal, whether they were passengers going in and out of Cyoria, workers inspecting the train and unloading luggage, newsboys shouting headlines, or homeless people begging for some change. As far as he knew, this massive flow of people never 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 had plenty of time, bought himself some bread from the nearby bakery and then set course for Cyoria's central plaza, intending to eat his newly acquired food while 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 cities in the world, which was at first glance strange, as Cyoria was dangerously close to monster-infested wilderness and wasn't in a favorable trade location. What really catapulted it to prominence was the massive circular hole on the west side of the city – probably the most obvious Dungeon entrance ever and the only Rank 9 mana well known to exist. The absolutely massive quantities of mana gushing out from the underworld had made the spot an irresistible magnet for mages. The presence of such a huge number of mages made Cyoria unlike any other city on the continent, both in the culture of the people living there and, more obviously, in the architecture of the city itself. A lot of things that would be too impractical to build elsewhere were routinely done here, and it made for an inspiring sight if you could find a good spot to watch the city from.

He froze in his tracks when he noticed a swarm of rats staring at him from the bottom of the stairway he was about to descend. Their behavior was strange enough, 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 step back, slowly retreating from the stairwell before turning around and fleeing in a full sprint. He wasn't sure what they were, but those were definitely not normal rats.

He supposed he shouldn't be so shocked, though – a place like Cyoria attracted more than mages – magical creatures of all breeds found such places just as irresistible. He was just glad the rats didn't pursue him, because he had nothing in the way of combat spells. The only spell he knew that could be used in a situation like this was the 'spook animals' spell, and he had no idea how effective that would have been against such clearly magical creatures.

Somewhat shaken but still determined to get to the fountain, he tried to circle the rat gathering by going through the nearby park, but luck just wasn't on his side today. He promptly ran into a little girl crying her eyes out on the bridge he had to cross, and it took him five minutes just to get her to calm down enough to find out what happened. He supposed he could have just 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 the creek running underneath the bridge. Zorian looked over the edge of the bridge and, sure enough, there was a children's bicycle half-submerged in the muddy waters.

"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?" Zorian said, eying the bicycle speculatively.

"You'll get dirty," she warned quietly. Zorian could tell from her tone of voice 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 to jerkily rise out of the water and into the air. The bike was a lot heavier than the objects he usually practiced with, and he had to levitate the bike a lot 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 the bridge.

"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 fly out of her hand the moment she let go.

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

It was a long way from the train station to the academy, since the station was on 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 drag around, 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 packed light in anticipation of this journey. He joined the procession of students that was still streaming from the train station in the direction of the academy, ignoring the occasional first year struggling with excessive baggage. He empathized with them because his asshole brothers didn't warn him to keep the luggage at a minimum either and he was like them the first time he arrived at 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 closer to academy grounds. He was drawing on the ambient mana suffusing the area around the Hole, replenishing the mana reserves he spent levitating that girl's bicycle. Mage academies are almost always built on top of mana wells for the express purpose of exploiting this effect – an area with such high ambient mana levels is a perfect place for inexperienced mages to practice their spellcasting. Anytime they run out of mana they can supplement their natural mana regeneration by replenishing their mana reserves from their very surroundings.

Zorian took out the apple he still carried in his pocket and levitated it over his palm. It wasn't really a spell, so much as raw mana manipulation – a mana shaping exercise that was supposed to help mages improve their ability to control and direct magical energies. It looked like such a simple thing, but it took Zorian two years before he mastered it fully. Sometimes he wondered if his family was right and he really was too focused on his studies. He knew for a fact that most of his classmates had much more tenuous control over their 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 fall down on his palm. He wished he had some kind of rain protection spell – the first drops of rain were already starting to fall. That, or an umbrella. Either would work just fine, except an umbrella didn't require several years of 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 watched raindrops splattering upon an invisible barrier in front of him. He extended his hand over the edge of the barrier, and it passed unimpeded. He withdrew his suddenly rather wet hand into the safety of the barrier and followed the boundary as far as his eyes could see. From what he could tell, the barrier encircled the entire academy compound (no small feat, as academy grounds were quite extensive) in a protective bubble that stopped the rain – and only rain - from penetrating it. Apparently the academy upgraded its wards again, because they didn't have this feature the last time it was raining.

Shrugging, he turned around and continued towards the administration building of the academy. It was too bad the barrier didn't also dry you out when you passed it, because he was soaking wet. Thankfully, his bag was waterproof, so his clothes and textbooks weren't in any danger of getting ruined. Slowing down to a leisurely stroll, he studied the collection of buildings that made up the academy. The wards weren't the only thing that was upgraded; the whole place looked… prettified, for a lack of a better term. Every building was freshly 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't worked 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 would find out sooner or later, if it was of any importance.

The administration building was, predictably, mostly empty of students. Most of them took shelter from the rain instead of pressing on like Zorian, and those that didn't often didn't live on academy grounds and thus had no reason to come here today. That was perfect as far as Zorian was concerned, as it meant he could be done here quickly.

'Quickly' turned out to be a relative term – it took two hours of wrangling with the girl working at the administration desk before he had taken care of all the necessary paperwork. He asked about his class schedule, but was told it wasn't finalized yet and that he would have to wait until Monday morning. Come to think of it, Ilsa had mentioned the same thing. Before he left, the girl gave him a book of rules with which third-year students were expected to familiarize themselves before sending him on his way. Zorian idly flipped through the rule book while he searched for room 115, before putting it into one of the more obscure compartments in his backpack, never to be looked at again.

Academy-provided housing was pretty terrible, and Zorian had had very unpleasant experiences with it, but it was free and apartment space was severely overpriced in Cyoria. Even children of nobles often lived on academy grounds 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 each morning and put him close to the biggest library in the city, so there were definitely good sides to it.

An hour later, he smiled to himself as he entered a fairly spacious room. He was even more pleased when he realized he had his own bathroom. With a shower stall, no less! It was a welcome change from having to share a cramped little room with an inconsiderate roommate and sharing a single communal bathroom with 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 clothes before collapsing on the bed with relief. He had two whole days before the classes started, so he decided to postpone unpacking until tomorrow. Instead he remained motionless on the bed, wondering for a moment why he couldn't hear the raindrops hitting the glass plane of the window next to his bed, before remembering 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 about 20 simple spells, but he had plans to rectify that this year. As a certified first circle mage, he had access to parts of the academy library he didn't before, and he planned on raiding them for spells contained within. Besides, this year's classes were supposed to be much more focused on practical spellcasting now that they'd proven themselves capable, so he should be learning plenty of interesting things in class too.

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