Chapter 026

The temple was just as imposing as it had been the last time Zorian had visited it – the same guardian angels glaring down at him, the same deserted feel to the building and the same creation story carved into the heavy wooden doors. This time he studied the carvings on the door with more interest than he had done the last time, however, since some of the images were rather interesting in light of things he had discovered after his first visit. Specifically, some of the bottom carvings depicted monsters that sprang up from the World Dragon’s flaking heart and these monsters were clearly primordials. They had the whole ‘impossible patchwork creature’ look that seemed to be the primordial’s one defining feature, and they matched the descriptions of well-known primordials he had read about in the books.

The unholy cross between scorpion, dragonfly and a centipede was clearly Hynth, the Locust Lord, whose bronze carapace was impervious to just about everything but divinely-forged weaponry and whose four pincers could tear steel like paper. The ability to release clouds of biting, devouring insects from pores on his body that devastated the countryside for kilometers around the thing, all while the primordial tackled anyone strong enough to stop them completed the image of a living natural disaster. The cluster of wings hanging above Hynth was probably Ghatess, who was allegedly a ball made out of multicolored bird wings – and only bird wings – and created storms and tornadoes wherever it went, funneling matter into the center of its sphere where it seemed to just disappear without a trace. The boar/crocodile/porcupine thing was Ushkechko, a beast made out of indestructible black glass that poisoned anyone who so much as scratched themselves on one of its numerous bladed protrusions and could fire said protrusions like arrows at opponents. The slug-like entity covered in eyes and mouths was-

“Can I help you with something, young man?”

Zorian wrenched himself from his scrutiny of the door to look at Batak. The last time he had been here he had asked to speak with Kylae, but this time the man in front of him would suffice. He might even be preferable, considering Kylae was supposed to be a master diviner. He gave the man a nervous smile and spoke.

“I… wanted to have a talk with you, if it’s not too much of a problem.”

“Of course!” the man said happily, quickly ushering Zorian inside. Zorian recalled from last time that the temple didn’t receive many visitors. It must be a pretty lonely existence to serve as custodian of this place. Before long they were both seated in front of a small table in the kitchen-like room that Batak used to receive visitors, a prepared tea pot steaming in front of them.

“So… What did you want to talk to me about?” Batak said after some small talk, raising his cup to his mouth and taking a long sip.

“I wanted to ask about primordials,” Zorian said.

Batak promptly choked on his tea and spent the next few seconds coughing.

“Why *cough* would you want to know about them?” Batak asked incredulously.

“I’m… not sure I should tell you. I don’t want any trouble.”

Batak gave him a curious, impassive look, but Zorian sensed a note of worry in his mind.

“Well, I’m not sure whether you know or not but there is a rumor spreading around that some people are going to try to disrupt the summer festival,” Zorian began.

“I’ve heard about that, yes,” Batak sighed.

“Well, a few days ago I went with some friends into the upper levels of the Dungeon to do a job for a client. A simple find and retrieve job, but we ended up running into an underground base full of war trolls and nearly died in the process. The police are keeping it very hush at the moment but I understand their investigation revealed it wasn’t the only base down there. Somebody had spent months preparing a beachhead for this attack and they have a lot of assets to burn…”

After more than an hour of explanations and clarifications, Batak seemed to accept that the attack was something a lot more serious than he had thought and (more importantly) that it was just a distraction for an attempt at primordial summoning. Thankfully, everything Zorian was telling him was totally true so whatever method of truth detection the man was using returned his explanations as genuine. The fact that Kylae had a prediction blackout around that time probably did a lot to legitimize the claim in the priest’s eyes, since the successful summoning of a primordial could be the reason for her divinations failing. Which was actually why Zorian came to this temple in particular, rather than, say, the main temple of the city.

“I’ll notify the church hierarchy, they should be able to spare a squad or two of investigators to check it out,” Batak said. “Especially if they have solid proof rather than just an anonymous tip. Do you have anything in writing, perhaps?”

“Here,” Zorian said, retrieving a stack of documents and notebooks from his bag and handing them over to Batak. “This is everything I have about the invasion. I tried to be as thorough and methodical as possible. I’d really prefer if my name was not mentioned anywhere, though.”

Batak eyed the stack speculatively. “I cannot guarantee that. If your name comes up during the investigation-“

“It won’t,” Zorian interrupted.

“Well, then I don’t foresee any problems,” Batak shrugged. “A bit odd of you to have so much information on this group if you’re not a defector from their ranks.”

Zorian said nothing.

“Alright,” Batak said, perking up and shaking his head slightly as if to clear it. “Are you still interested in hearing about the primordials or was that just a ploy to get my attention?”

“I’m still interested, yeah,” Zorian said. “I’m really curious why they felt the need to organize all this just to summon one.”

“To be fair, I don’t think knowing more about the primordials will satiate your curiosity in that regard,” Batak said. “Anyone who wants to summon one of these things is clearly insane. But no matter – tell me, what do you know about the primordials in the first place?”

“They’re some kind of powerful spirit hailing from ancient times,” Zorian tried. “Like fey or elementals, only older, weirder and far more dangerous.”

Batak sighed. “I knew you were going to say that. In the future, when you’re interested in some aspect of the spiritual world, please consult religious texts first before delving into mage-written works. I know the church can be a little biased about a lot of things, but we really do know our stuff when it comes to the spirits and everything related to them. Ever since the gods fell silent, spirits are the only thing we have left, so we have done some extensive work on them. And we don’t hide it much either.”

Zorian nodded sheepishly. It never even occurred to him to look at religious texts on the topic. He blamed his town priest back in Cirin, who was a bigoted old hypocrite that kept making problems for Zorian whenever they crossed paths and consequently soured the Church as a whole for him.

Batak drummed his fingers on the table for a few seconds, gathering his thoughts.

“Alright. First, let me tell you something about actual spirits. I’m sorry if this is already familiar to you, but I need to get it out there to explain why primordials absolutely cannot be spirits.”

Zorian motioned for him to continue.

“Spirits are, from a practical standpoint, divided into two main groups: outsider spirits and native ones. Outsiders spend most of their time in their own spiritual worlds and can only ever enter ours if summoned by someone from this side. Demons and angels are the most famous of outsider spirits, though lumping all demons into a single group is mostly done by humans for human convenience – there is no demonic equivalent to the angelic hierarchy and two demons are as likely to fight each other as they are to cooperate on a common goal. Native spirits are a multitude of spirits that exist on the material plane by default – you already mentioned elementals and fey, which are the two most common types of native spirits. It is likely that native spirits were once outsider spirits that gradually adapted to life on the material world, as they share the key feature that all spirits have. Namely, that they don’t really have bodies the way humans and animals do: they are disembodied souls that need some type of vessel to contain them and allow them to interact with the world around them.”

“So spirits are soul entities,” Zorian mused. “Like liches or body snatchers.”

“Yes, very much like that,” Batak agreed. “In fact, some spirits are very much body snatchers and prefer inhabiting bodies of humans and animals. And it’s likely that the process of transformation into a lich has been developed by studying spirits and the way they interact with their vessels. Anyway, primordials. Primordials have bodies. Actual, flesh and blood bodies. Most people, even mages, assume they’re spirits because of their strange forms and great resistance to damage, but they really have more in common with dragons and other magical creatures than with spiritual entities. Spirits tend to be weird because their bodies are usually just ectoplasmic shells, which they can twist into whatever unnatural form they feel like taking. Primordials are creatures of the material world, just like you and me.”

“But wait,” Zorian said. “If primordials are not spirits, but some kind of strange magical creature, how are the attackers planning to summon one?” asked Zorian.

“They don’t,” Batak said. “I didn’t want to interrupt you while you were talking, but you almost certainly misunderstood something there. Primordials can’t be summoned, since they’re down here with us already. Bound, forced into sleep and locked away, but still with us. What they can be is set loose.”

Zorian felt a shiver run down his spine. The primordial wouldn’t disappear, he realized. The Ibasan invaders thought they were summoning a fancy demon to go romp over their enemies, but that thing was never going back to its home plane on its own. It didn’t have one.

“Why were they sealed away?” Zorian asked. “Why not just kill them?”

“Primordials don’t die the way most things do,” Batak said. “They are a remnant, a relic of the age when the world was still fresh and the World Dragon had only just been bound at the center of our world. They are her original children, the purest expression of her rage and hate, and they have found ways to strike out at humanity and the gods even in their death. They spawn smaller, weaker primordials in their death throes, and often inflict corrupting effects on the area in which they died. Even the gods found the aftermath of one of them dying to be difficult to deal with, so they eventually just contained the lot of them and trapped them in far corners of the earth.”

“And the attackers believe one of them is in Cyoria,” Zorian stated.

“Apparently,” Batak said. “I wouldn’t know personally – no one has ever seen one of these prisons within living memory and written records are deliberately vague about their locations. Still, Cyoria had effectively been ‘a far corner of the world’ up until relatively recently, historically speaking, so I suppose it’s possible. Strange that no one had ever found any indication of it in all this time, though, considering how many mages delve into the depths of the Hole on a regular basis…”

“I see,” Zorian said. He excused himself soon afterwards. While interesting, this truthfully didn’t change much and his task had already been done.

* * *

Zorian was feeling pretty pleased with himself for organizing this little event. While setting up Kirielle for a meeting with Novelty was done purely for amusement and sheer curiosity at how Kirielle would react to Novelty’s antics, introducing Tinami to Novelty was… well okay, it was also mostly done for the sake of his curiosity and amusement. But that didn’t mean he didn’t take advantage of it to gain something from little miss ‘forbidden magics’ Aope. Like, say, getting her to teach him the invisibility spell. He knew, just knew that Tinami had been taught how to cast that spell, restricted magic or not, and he was totally right! So now he had finally completed his ‘list of spells every proper mage should be able to cast’, and all it took was promising to do something he had intended to do for free, anyway.

And the cherry on top? Novelty loved him for promising to bring her two new humans to meet. He didn’t need to make it up to her in any way, because she thought he was doing her a favor!

Yes, Zorian was feeling very pleased with himself. Now all he had to do was wait with Kirielle until their two guests showed up and then stand back and watch the fireworks. Novelty would come first and meet with Kirielle to start with, since that meeting was bound to be shorter and more casual, and would then remain to greet Tinami when his classmate eventually showed up at Imaya’s place. There shouldn’t be any problems, but just in case there were problems and they somehow degenerated beyond his ability to handle, Zorian had arranged for a for a bit of insurance…

“So aranea are about the size of a dog?” Kirielle asked.

“A big dog,” Zorian said. “But Novelty’s not scary at all, and I’m sure you’ll get along splendidly. She reminds me of you, actually.”

“A giant spider reminds you of me?” Kirielle asked him, sounding surprisingly threatening for a 9-year-old.

“You’ll find out why soon enough,” Zorian said, more amused than anything. “She’s coming over as we speak.”

He had been devoting only half of his attention to his conversation with Kirielle, trying to train himself to pay attention to his mind sense and talk at the same time, and had thus immediately noticed Novelty when she came in range, despite the fact that she had tried to dim her mental presence to surprise him. He immediately launched a telepathic attack on her and she promptly dropped her attempt at stealth in favor of a short mental wrangle that resulted in Zorian being quickly booted out of her mind. Despite his poor showing, Zorian was pleased. He had been doing such ‘greetings’ for a few days, ever since he realized that Novelty didn’t consider such telepathic ‘play-fights’ hostile, and compared to his initial results, this was absolutely amazing.

It was kind of amusing how Novelty refused to actually teach him telepathic combat due to the matriarch’s orders, but had no problems helping him practice in such a fashion. In fact, after his first few attempts, she sometimes even initiated such impromptu telepathic combat herself, or tried to stalk and surprise him like she did today. He supposed she didn’t think of it as teaching – it was just a game as far as she was concerned. She would be rather cross with him if she ever caught him thinking it, but she really was still a child in many respects.

[That was barely any better than yesterday,] Novelty complained, apparently not sharing his optimistic self-assessment. [This is why I think we should have gone with my idea for teaching you. It would have been a million times faster than our lessons so far.]

[You are not locking me in one of your hatcheries,] Zorian told her.

[But you’d have left a master of telepathic combat within a week!] Novelty protested. [Well, master by human standards, anyway.]

[No,] Zorian responded. He suddenly became aware that Kirielle was tugging on his shirt. “What is it, Kiri?”

“You drifted off,” she said.

“I was just talking to Novelty,” he said. She looked at him oddly. “Telepathically, I mean.”

“Oh,” Kirielle said, her eyes widening in realization. “I’m so jealous you can do that. I wish I could talk to people without being overheard. It would have been so helpful around mom.”

“Don’t I know it,” Zorian sighed. “So many things would have been easier if I could have done that earlier. Though maybe it was a blessing in disguise – a lot of people back in Cirin would have freaked out if they started hearing voices in their head and mind magic abuse is punished very harshly by the mage guild. Anyway, let’s go introduce you to Novelty.”

To her credit, Novelty hadn’t immediately rushed in towards Kirielle and started to crawl all over her. To Kirielle’s credit, she didn’t immediately scream in fear and try to hide behind him upon seeing a huge black spider hop into the room. Instead, the two of them faced each other square on, standing a good deal of distance from each other, and carefully scrutinized one another.

[A mini human!] yelled Novelty telepathically, breaking the stand-off. [Great Web, she’s so much smaller than you! Can she even talk yet?]

“W-What!?” Kirielle protested. “Of course I can talk! I even learned how to read and count last year! What do you think I am, a baby!?”

[Oh, you can talk, that’s excellent! Excellent! I actually was afraid you were a baby,] Novelty admitted, skittering left and right to take in Kirielle from different angles. [Not that there is anything wrong with being a baby, but I got assigned as a babysitter for soooo long and it gets soooo boring after a while you know? They’re all so needy and grabby and they never know anything interesting…]

“Um, yeah,” Kirielle said. She shot Zorian a suspicious look, but he was maintaining his impassive facade through superhuman will. His lips only twitched into a smirk once she returned her attention back to Novelty. “I guess I can understand that. But I’m definitely not a baby anymore! I’m nine years old, and that’s a lot!”

[Wow, that is a lot!] agreed Novelty. [You’re only a year younger than me! How come your brother is so much bigger than you, then?]

“He’s… older than me?” Kirielle tried. “Wait, if you’re ten, aren’t you just a kid like me?”

[No way!] Novelty protested. [I went through the maturation ceremony last year, so I’m totally an adult of the tribe and no one can say otherwise!]

Zorian watched as Novelty and Kirielle went through a clash of cultures in miniature, gradually coming to an understanding of sorts. They both complained about not being taken seriously by people around them (it was a mystery as to why; no, really) and exchanged some information about their respective species. Zorian actually learned a few new things about the aranea that he had never really thought to ask about. Apparently aranea had a lot shorter lifespan than humans did, with 55 years being considered positively ancient. He knew they could spin webs from before, but apparently the webs weren’t at all involved with hunting prey and were instead used exclusively as construction material to make walls, bridges, etc. He had also thought they were fully subterranean in nature, with only Cyoria’s colony interacting with the surface so heavily, but it turned out they all preferred to hunt on the surface and only used the Dungeon to build their settlements in.

Eventually, Novelty decided to try her luck and approached Kirielle, which resulted in his brave little sister immediately backpedaling and cutting the meeting short. Not that Zorian was very surprised by this turn of events at all – if anything, this went a lot better than he thought it would. Hell, Kirielle even indicated she might not be averse to the idea of another meeting in the future.

[Aww,] Novelty wilted, drooping pitifully over the couch she was currently occupying. [I scared her away.]

“She did say you could meet her again in a few days,” Zorian pointed out.

[But I wanted to talk some more,] Novelty telepathically pouted.

“Just give her some time to digest the whole thing. And don’t try to hug her next time.”

[But humans love hugs! I totally read so in one of your books!] Novelty protested.

Zorian thought about explaining to her that that wasn’t universally true among humans – his parents were never really big on physical contact, with any of their children, really, and Zorian didn’t remember the last time he was hugged by anyone other than Kirielle. Not that he was particularly crazy for hugs himself, mind you. He decided against it.

“I’m afraid that aranea just don’t have what it takes to give a proper hug,” Zorian nodded sagely. “Sad but true.”

[Do we really look so ugly to you humans?]

“Scary,” Zorian corrected. “The word you’re looking for is ‘scary’. You probably shouldn’t have spent so much time lovingly describing how your fangs can easily punch through bone and hardened leather or how you kill your prey by driving said fangs into your victim’s neck and severing the spine.”

[But cats do the same thing, and cats are cute! You explained so yourself!]

“And then you butted in to note that cats are ‘yummy’, thus completely invalidating my attempt to make you seem less threatening,” Zorian noted.

Novelty sent him an unintelligible telepathic message accompanied by a note of annoyance. Zorian just shrugged and went back to his book while they waited for Tinami to show up.

* * *

“Oh. My. Goddess,” Tinami said, staring at Novelty like she was the best thing ever. “She’s beautiful!”

[Well yes, I don’t want to sound arrogant but I have been told I’m quite a looker,] Novelty preened, standing a little straighter and trying to look more dignified.

“And she really does talk telepathically, just like the stories say!” Tinami exclaimed. She turned towards Zorian. “Wherever did you meet one of them? How did you befriend her? Can I touch her? Do you think she’d teach me her ways if I ask? Do you-“

“I don’t think I’m capable of pulling off the ‘yes, yes, no, yes’ routine so one question at a time, please,” Zorian said. “Also, most of those questions you should be asking Novelty here instead of me.”

“Oh! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful and ignore you,” Tinami said, turning back to Novelty. “I was just excited and it felt natural to talk to the guy who brought me here. To be honest, I was half-convinced this was his idea of a prank and already had a little curse prepared-”

“Hey!” Zorian protested. “That’s totally illegal!”

“-but I guess it won’t be necessary now, and that’s probably for the best,” Tinami continued blithely, like she was not interrupted at all. She took a deep breath. “I’m Tinami Aope, by the way.”

30 minutes later, Zorian found himself unceremoniously booted out of the room so they could have some privacy. Ungrateful scum, the both of them. He considered spying on them with a scrying spell but considering their conversation mostly consisted of Tinami fawning over Novelty and the young aranea feeling very smug about the attention, he really wasn’t losing much. He remained close by for another half an hour, in case of possible problems springing about, but after a while it became obvious he wasn’t needed (nor much wanted) and entered the room to tell them he was going for a walk.

The moment he was far enough from Tinami that he could no longer feel her on the very edge of his mind sense he found a quiet corner and shrouded it in some basic anti-divination wards.

“You can come out now,” he said to no one in particular. The matriarch promptly stepped out of the nearby shadowed corner, fading into visibility. The trick was somehow less impressive now that he could duplicate the feat and become invisible himself. “So?”

[She is neither a time traveler nor is she connected to the invasion in any way,] the matriarch said. [And as far as she knows, neither is her family.]

Zorian nodded. He had expected that – the Aope were part of Eldemar’s ruling elite and tied far too tightly into its power-structure to participate in a wild stunt like this invasion, and Tinami was too genuine to his senses to be constantly pretending - but it was nice to have a confirmation. “You had no problems with her mental defenses?”

[She had them, but they were of the wrong sort, much like the ‘advanced’ ones you demonstrated to Novelty,] the matriarch said. [I’m certain she hadn’t noticed my intrusion, and I’ve done nothing except look so there should be no traces left for anyone to find.]

“There is no way for her to have fooled you?” Zorian asked. “I’ve read plenty of stories where people are pretending to be dominated by a spell cast by the villain, and then surprise him by a stab in the back once they let their guard down.”

[Must be a human mind magic thing. I can’t see that sort of thing happening to a psychic. Well, unless the target has constructed a fake mind on top of their real one and fooled the attacker into thinking it was the target’s actual mind. But that almost never happens. Constructing a fake mind that is actually convincing is really, really hard.]

Zorian blinked. He hadn’t even known that constructing ‘fake minds’ was possible.

“Well, sorry I bothered you with this, I guess,” Zorian said.

[Nonsense, it was a reasonable suspicion and I actually found a number of useful details by trawling through her mind. Not only is her family not at all friendly towards the invaders, they are likely to be quite annoyed about their plans. Cyoria is their powerbase and they don’t want it ruined. And since Novelty is back there, charming the young Aope heir, we will have an easy way to get in contact with the Head of House. Getting such a prominent Noble House on our side will guarantee that the evidence of an invasion plot is taken seriously. Have you spoken to the priest?]

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “He said the church would send someone to look into it.”

[Yet another proof of our legitimacy,] the matriarch stated with satisfaction.

“Hopefully I won’t get pulled in for questioning,” Zorian said. “I don’t think my half-truths and understatements could stand up to professional investigators.”

[My web is trying to divert any ongoing investigations away from you, so it shouldn’t be much of a problem,] the matriarch said. [We’ve already ambushed and killed three different investigation groups by the Cult of the Dragon Below, and we’ve been subtly redirecting official Cyorian investigations towards us.]

“You?” asked Zorian in surprise.

[It has been decided to turn this restart into something of a testing run,] the matriarch explained. [As I’ve told you before, my web’s goal is to eventually reveal ourselves to the city at large and join the population as rightful citizens. While full disclosure would be too disruptive for what we’re currently trying to achieve in this restart, we’ve decided to reveal ourselves to a number of prominent people in Cyoria during this restart – both to coordinate the response to the invasion better and to sound out their reaction.]

“And?” asked Zorian, honestly curious.

[It’s a mixed reaction, and the fact we’re bringing news of an impending invasion doesn’t help calm people down. We’ve overheard several ‘secret’ meetings that discussed how to deal with us in a hostile manner, thankfully with the conclusion that they should wait until after the summer festival before doing anything, but also a couple of meetings that discuss how to profit from our presence.]

“Which you have no problems with,” Zorian surmised.

[Nobody wants to kill the goose that laid golden eggs,] the matriarch said. [No offense to your kind, but I trust your greed more than I trust your compassion. I talked to Zach about that issue you wanted to talk about, by the way. You were right. He doesn’t remember any restarts being cut short for any reason whatsoever – you dying doesn’t seem to reset the time loop.]

“I knew it,” Zorian said. “Even Zach would have realized something was wrong if he kept restarting every time I was killed before he was. This is more proof that Zach is the anchor of the loop.”

Zorian had at one point toyed with the idea that there was an actual mind behind the time loop – a god that decided to break the Silence, perhaps, or some kind of very powerful spirit. However, there were a lot of little ways in which the situation matched better with the idea of the time loop being a spell of some sort and none was so clear as the way the spell was treating time traveler detection. Clearly, on some level, the spell knew it was Zach who was the anchor of the time loop and that everyone else was a tagalong. However, at the same time, it could get easily confused (via a little soul blending) into including multiple people into the awareness of the loop. That sounded more like a dumb spell function trying to reconcile incompatible directives with each other than a willful, intelligent mind making a judgment call.

The trouble was, a spell implied a human caster. And a human caster shouldn’t be able to roll back time once, much less repeatedly.

[If we managed to provoke the third time traveler into revealing themselves, most of the questions about the time loop should be answered easily enough,] the matriarch noted. [I suspect they know what the time loop is and how it functions.]

“Yeah,” agreed Zorian. “Let’s hope so.”

* * *

Days passed. When Zorian was not attending to one of his numerous obligations (he’d never try to do so many things at once in the future!) he alternated between creating the various traps and items needed for the ambush of the third time traveler and helping the aranea root out the cranium rats from the city.

Picking the ambush site and preparing it had fallen mostly on Zorian’s shoulders in the end. The aranea knew how to make traps and ambushes, of course, but most of them were based around lethal force or mind magic assaults. Considering that the third time traveler almost certainly knew how to counter aranean mind magic and that they wanted him alive, little of it was useful for their purposes. Thus it fell to Zorian to design something that would contain and disable their target, or at least distract them until the aranea could strip them of their mental defenses and do their thing. Kael contributed by helping Zorian make a mixture of powerful alchemical sedatives for disabling purposes and the matriarch served as his assistant since she was the most capable aranea when it came to structured magic and knew a lot about the local mana flow of the settlement. She would also be the one to lead the execution of the actual ambush with her fellow aranea, so she had to be extremely familiar with how the trap was going to work.

In the end, Zorian decided upon a three-part trap, set in the middle of the aranea settlement. The first part was a fairly exotic effect on the floor that turned stone temporarily liquid. The effect would only activate for a moment, immediately shutting off and turning the stone back into a normal solid state once the target sunk to their knees into the rock floor. As far as Zorian could tell, there was no easy way for a mage to get themselves out of the rock once the effect ended. The spell couldn’t be dispelled any more than the ashes of a fireball-destroyed book could be dispelled back into a pristine state, and trying to blast the rock off was liable to blow the caster’s legs along with it. The only convenient way of getting out was to phase or teleport out, which is why the second part of the trap was a dimensional lock that would shut down most dimensional shenanigans. Finally, the last part involved dousing the combat area with smoke infused with the powerful sedatives Zorian made with Kael’s help.

It was a bit simple, but Zorian had read that the best plans are always simple. Just in case, though, he had built backup traps in several other aranean caverns. These were a lot less sophisticated ones, though, and boiled down to ‘explosions’. A whole lot of explosions.

Aside from that, Zorian had made a great deal of combat equipment for the aranea participating in the ambush: shielding discs that they could strap on to their body to shrug off some of the weaker attack spells, stone cubes and alchemical vials that produced a variety of effects when set off, and some equipment for himself and a handful of mercenary mages that the matriarch discreetly hired as additional muscle during the ambush. Of course, in an ideal scenario Zorian wouldn’t have to fight anyone at all and the equipment he made for himself would be a useless waste of time… but really, what are the chances of an ideal scenario? Things had been going a little too well for him as it was.

As for the hunt for the cranium rats, that had actually been his own idea, and he had been pleased that he had thought of something the aranea, with all their connections and psychic might, hadn’t. The basic idea was to capture one of the rats and then use that specimen as a connection for divining the location of the rest of the rats. Not quite a novel idea to the aranea, but they thought heavily in terms of mind magic and tried to follow the telepathic links connecting the captured rat to the rest of the hive mind – something that quickly failed, since the main collective promptly cut the connection with any captured rats. Zorian, on the other hand, used good old locator spells – divinations meant to find and keep track of all sorts of things, so long as the caster had something connected with what you’re trying to find. A cranium rat, even if disconnected from the collective, was sufficient for those divinations to work. Zorian ended up following the connections until he located the main bodies of the cranium rat swarms (there had been 4 of them, as it turned out) and then, with a handful of aranea acting as support and psychic powers suppressant, herded them into tight formations that could be wiped out with a single fireball spell. By the end of the month, the cranium rats had been effectively wiped out.

When he was finished torching the fourth rat swarm, one of the aranea assigned as his body guard during the operation told him she finally understood why humans were supposed to be so scary and dangerous.

Zorian wasn’t the only one who was busy. Kirielle persisted in trying to learn magic, more stubbornly and diligently than Zorian had ever seen her. She was doing very well for a complete beginner, but the sad fact was that she was closer to him in talent than, say, Daimen or some other child prodigy. Novelty had become something of an unofficial liaison between the aranea and House Aope, and was as a consequence subjected to a crash course in diplomacy and proper conduct by the matriarch – something she constantly complained about to Zorian whenever they met. Tinami, for her part, was much more interested in her lessons with Zorian once she found out some details about what being psychic means, and appeared to be working on some kind of personal project that consumed most of her free time. Zorian suspected, from the snippets of thoughts that briefly bubbled into her consciousness during their lessons, that she was trying to somehow artificially make herself psychic. Which struck him as crazy dangerous, since it meant messing with your own mind and all, but that was House Aope for you. Kael was also pursuing some kind of personal project that he refused to elaborate to Zorian – though it apparently had something to do with spell formula because he kept borrowing Zorian’s books on the topic. Zorian left him to his work – Kael had been incredibly helpful throughout the month, taking it upon himself to help Zorian as much as he could for some reason. Zorian didn’t think it was just generosity and hadn’t forgotten just how fascinated with the time loop the other boy was last time, so he wondered when the other boy would approach him about what he really wanted from Zorian.

Apparently, the answer was ‘just before the summer festival’.

“Hello Zorian,” Kael said. “Are you doing something?”

“Not really. I’m just waiting for Akoja to show up so that I can go to the dance,” Zorian said. “There is no point in starting anything since she’s bound to show up absurdly early. What is it?”

Ah, Akoja. He still wasn’t sure why he had asked her to be his date for the evening. Probably because she gave every indication she wanted him to and he didn’t want to make her sad for no reason. Not that she had actually come out and said it, though – hell, she even chickened out on the meeting she had arranged with him and made it look like she wanted some school advice instead of… well, whatever it was she had really wanted to talk about. Hopefully she would be a little less pushy this time around and the evening wouldn’t end in as big of a catastrophe as it had the last time they went out for the evening.

“I have… a gift and a request,” Kael said. Zorian mentally translated it as ‘a bribe and a demand’. “First, I have been thinking about your stories of previous restarts and couldn’t help but notice the presence of a powerful lich on the side of the invaders. Those are… very hard to deal with, especially with classical magics.”

“But not with soul magic?” surmised Zorian.

“Well, sort of. It’s not easy, even with soul magic, but there are some tricks you could pull on a lich if you knew how to mess with souls. The thing you need to remember is that a lich’s soul is automatically pulled back into their phylactery when their physical form is destroyed. This is because destroying their body severs the link between their soul and their body… obviously, since there is no body to speak of anymore. Still, if you could sever the link between the soul and the body – something that is a lot easier to do with creatures whose soul is artificially connected to the body through magic – then their souls would immediately be wrenched back to their phylactery, even if their body is technically intact.”

“They’d be effectively banished,” Zorian concluded. “It wouldn’t kill them, but…”

“The process of possessing a new body is not that fast for a lich – they need a whole day at the minimum, and that’s assuming they already have a new body ready to go. Banishing the lich back to its phylactery is as good as killing it, at least for your needs.”

“You’re telling me you can teach me a spell to do that?” asked Zorian excitedly.

“Well no,” said Kael, promptly popping Zorian’s bubble. “And it would be of dubious value even if I could. The spell requires you to touch the target.”

Zorian winced. “Yeah, I don’t see myself getting within touching range of the lich.”

“So I got you this, instead,” Kael said, handing him a small silver disc, reminiscent of a particularly large silver coin. Closer scrutiny, however, quickly made it clear it was some kind of a spell tool, being covered in spell formula instead of typical imagery common to currency.

“I don’t have to touch the lich!” Zorian realized after thinking about the ‘coin’ for a few moments. “I just have to make sure the coin touches him!”

“Yes,” Kael said. “I noticed your fighting style seems to be based around items, so I’ve imbued the spell into that disc… it should work but I make no guarantees so use it at your own risk. I tried to make it as small and non-threatening as possible, but…”

“But there is no way to be sure the lich will let it touch him,” Zorian finished for him. “Trying to keep a strange item thrown by your enemy from touching you is common sense. I don’t suppose that hitting the target’s shields is sufficient, is it?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Yeah, that’s what I was afraid of. Thanks anyway. What about your… request?”

“Well… the truth is I want a favor in exchange for helping you. I know you’re almost certainly going to make further use of me in future restarts, and I have no problems with it… except I want to get something out of it too.”

“I’m not sure what I can do for you that won’t be rendered hollow by the restart, but okay,” shrugged Zorian. “What is your wish, oh great Kael?”

“I want the same thing you’re already doing – to use the time loop to improve my skills,” said Kael. “In case of magics that require shaping skills and the like, this is clearly next to impossible without being brought into the time loop, but there is a magical discipline that is far less dependent on shaping skills. One that I happen to be quite good in.”

“Alchemy,” said Zorian.

“Exactly. Now, practicing alchemy on my level involves a lot of experimentation – testing the effects of your brews, improving them and designing original concoctions. These things take a lot of funds and a lot of time, but once you have a recipe for a potion…”

“You want me to help you design finished potion recipes and then give you the result in subsequent restarts, thus allowing you to refine your recipes further and then take those results and-“

“Exactly!” Kael said. “And then, when the time loop ends, you’re going to give me the fruits of this labor and I will have saved myself months, possibly years of my work! It will require you to delve more deeply into the intricacies of alchemy than you did currently, but I don’t see that as being a big problem for you – you’re clearly going to need it if you intend to rely on items so much.”

As it turned out, Kael had spent most of the month running various experiments and promptly brought him a notebook with the results. There was a lot of text there, but Kael explained he only really needed him to memorize the last two pages, which listed which avenues of research were dead ends and outlined a partially finished recipe for some kind of anti-fever potion. Kael explained that giving him those results in the following restarts wouldn’t just help Kael improve his craft, but would also allow Zorian to convince the other boy he was really a time traveler far faster than would otherwise be possible. And would also make Kael more willing to help, sooner (wink, wink, nudge, nudge, do you get it yet?). Not seeing the harm, Zorian spent the rest of the wait memorizing the results and then leafing through the rest of Kael’s research notebook. It wasn’t every day that a mage got to scrutinize another mage’s research methodology, after all, and Zorian could use some pointers for the future.

“Zorian, your girlfriend is here!” Kirielle called, trying to sound teasing but just ending up mocking and annoying in the process.

“Coming,” said Zorian, closing the notebook and going out to greet Akoja, who was trying not to look too awkward in front of Imaya and Kirielle. And failing miserably, as she seemed completely at a loss how to deal with his sister’s light-hearted teasing and Imaya’s advice on what to do if Zorian got too grabby during the evening (‘kick him in the crotch’ seemed to be the gist of it). After a few minutes, he decided to have mercy on her and drag her away from those two so they could be on their way.

It was time to get this show on the road.

* * *

The evening had been going splendidly. Akoja was still rather frustrating, but with the date not being a mission from Ilsa this time around she wasn’t nearly as insistent on dragging him along to pointless introductions and the like and instead settled for criticizing him every 5 minutes and in general being far too self-conscious and high-strung for what was ostensibly a casual dance. As for the invaders, they were doing incredibly poorly. Zorian kept monitoring the situation through the telepathic relays he had left with the aranea and it was obvious that the whole invasion had unraveled at the seams. While the city didn’t believe the invasion was of the scale described by the aranea and vastly understaffed their response forces (though as far as Zorian understood the city’s reaction was considered a huge overreaction by a large portion of the leadership), they were prepared to respond to some kind of invasion… and the attackers were a mere shell of their usual strength, due to the lack of forward bases and a whole lot of assassinated leadership. There was no initial bombardment because the artillery mages had been ambushed before they could do their thing, the academy had opted to change their warding scheme so the attackers couldn’t just teleport wherever they wanted to go, and their invasion routes were being actively contested by defending forces that continually swelled as the city realized the scope of the invasion and drew on all the combat assets available to it.

So saying that Zorian was surprised when the door to the dancing hall was suddenly and violently blown into bits, showering the unfortunate guests who stood too close to the entrance with a rain of splinters and concussive force, would be a vast understatement. A few moments later, before the dust had a chance to settle and screams died down, three people strode into the hall.

At the center of the three-man formation was the lich. It was just like Zorian remembered it: an imposing skeletal figure, its bones black and vaguely metallic-looking, wearing a crown and a suit of metal armor. In its skeletal hands it held a scepter, completing the royal-like appearance. To the left of the lich strode forth a woman clad in black clothing reminiscent of a military uniform –simple pants, a plain jacket with some kind of crest sewn in on it (it was too far for Zorian to see clearly, but it seemed to feature a skull as a prominent motif; who the hell actually puts a damn skull on their crest?), and heavy leather boots. All very bland and utilitarian, if somewhat sinister-looking due to its black color. She strode purposefully forward, gripping a sword strapped to her belt, her expression stony and severe, and Zorian couldn’t help but notice that her pale skin and coal-black hair (currently tied into a tight pony tail) made her seem somewhat vampire-like.

…she was a vampire, wasn’t she? Gods, every time he thought the Ibasan force couldn’t possibly look any more sinister they pulled something out of their closet to show him that they totally could.

The final part of the triumvirate was a person in a blood red robe which covered him from head to toe. His face was invisible behind a patch of darkness that seemed to fill every open portion of the robe, obscuring the wearer’s features. Unlike the lich and the vampire girl, who did their best to look dignified and imposing, Red Robe (which is how Zorian promptly named him in his head) walked carefully and scanned the shocked crowd with interest, his cowled head swinging left and right in search of something. Or someone, as it turned out: the moment his eyes locked onto Zach he immediately stopped and spoke.

“Him,” Red Robe intoned, his voice magically distorted and resonant, pointing his staff at Zach.

As if to punctuate the statement, a small stream of war trolls and (brown) robed mages suddenly poured into the dance hall through the broken door, and everyone snapped out of their daze and realized they were under attack.

All chaos broke loose.

* * *

The plan Zorian and the aranea matriarch had made assumed that the third time traveler would attack Zach, overpower him and then pull the information about the aranea out of his mind. Zorian was not sure about a lot of these steps, but a big one was the idea that Zach could lose against the third time traveler so easily. For all his flaws, the other time traveler seemed to be a capable combatant.

It did not take long for Zorian to understand that Red Robe was the third time traveler, and the way he intended to beat Zach was immediately obvious – by not coming alone. Zach seemed to have problems tackling the lich on its own, and with Red Robe and the vampire girl joining the undead mage the outcome was never in question.

Admittedly, Zach was in a room full of mages who also fought against the three attackers, but the other forces they had brought with them served their purpose as distractions and tied down most of them. Kyron tried to help, as did a couple of others, but they just weren’t on the level of their opponents.

But they certainly tried. Kyron summoned some kind of glowing whip of force that severed the arm of the vampire girl at the shoulder and then used the same whip to fling her sword (which was clearly magical, burning with strange purple fire that ate through forcefields) out of her reach. It was this that finally confirmed his suspicions that she was some kind of undead, as her severed stump didn’t bleed at all and the sudden loss of an arm only seemed to inconvenience her – she promptly pulled out a knife with the other arm and returned to attacking people again. Red Robe was actually bloodied by one of the students when they managed to overpower his aegis with a coordinated barrage of magic missiles, but sadly enough that stunt just about wiped them all out and he was sufficiently well after it ceased to take them down in response. As for the lich, he was utterly unfair – nothing seemed to scratch those bones of his in the slightest. Zach actually managed to blow his shiny armor to bits with some kind of black bolts and even knocked the thing’s crown off its skull, but nothing ever made a mark on the bones. What the hell was that thing made of?

Zorian reluctantly didn’t involve himself. The plan didn’t call for it, and quite frankly he was likely to end up dead if he tried. He did help put down a couple of war trolls and disposable mages that ventured too close to his position, but other than that he just watched uneasily as Zach was slowly taken apart by his three opponents.

But things never go as planned. Eventually Kyron finally got tired of the one-armed vampire girl butting in on his fight with the lich and blasted her away. She landed next to Akoja.

He had gotten separated from Akoja earlier in the attack and decided not to go after her, since she was clearly terrified and would want him to stay away from any danger while he personally didn’t intend to completely stand on the sidelines while people died. Now, however, the vampire girl suddenly decided to go after Akoja instead of rushing back into her original fight. Why? Hell if Zorian knew – maybe she wanted a hostage? In any case, Zorian immediately threw a low-yield explosive cube under her feet to halt her in her tracks and then poured most of his mana into an incineration beam aimed straight at her chest.

Beam spells weren’t Zorian’s ideal form of combat magic: they dealt a lot of damage, but they were also very mana intensive and it was easy to waste most of the beam’s power on the surroundings if you couldn’t keep the beam constantly on target. And in a room packed this tightly with panicky civilians, ‘surroundings’ often meant ‘innocent bystanders’. Zorian knew that he needed to kill the vampire girl quickly, however, as she was extremely fast and her blades could cut through force fields with ease, meaning he’d get his throat slit the moment she got close to him, so he had to use the most damaging spell in his repertoire. Thankfully, she was sufficiently dazed by the explosion that Zorian didn’t have any problems keeping the beam on target and he knew from watching her fight against Zach and Kyron that she was vulnerable enough to fire.

He kept the beam on her for full five seconds, reducing her to a little more than a heavily charred skeleton and a pile of ash.

Akoja seemed to be in shock, both at the sudden lunge towards her by a crazed undead woman and the brutal method of her destruction. The other students around him were watching him with a mixture of fear and awe, and Red Robe continued his fight against Zach without reacting. The lich, though…

Oh crap, the lich was staring at him.

Indeed, the lich took one look at the smoking corpse of the vampire girl and then locked its hollow eye sockets with Zorian, its gaze seeming to look right through him. Kyron used the moment of distraction to launch another one of those glowing whip-things that severed the arm of the vampire girl like it was paper, but instead of moving out of the way the lich simply snatched the whip out of the air with one of its skeletal hands, its finger bones closing around the thread of severing light with no ill effects that Zorian could see, and pulled. Kyron let the whip dissipate almost immediately, but not enough to maintain balance. The lich promptly fired an angry red beam of jagged light and drew a line between Kyron and Zach. They both went down in a spray of blood.

“Watch it!” Red Robe yelled. “That could have killed him! I told you I need him alive!”

“I grow tired of this,” the lich responded. “He is alive enough for your purposes, and this way he’ll struggle less. And you should watch your tone, little whelp – you’re not in charge here and I could kill you whenever I want without anyone batting an eye. Enough of your ‘information’ has turned out to be incorrect that your value is being questioned.”

“I told you, we have a leak,” Red Robe said. “That’s why I need Zach intact.”

“You don’t need him intact to rip the information from his mind,” the lich said. “Do your thing and be quick. There are already reinforcements from the city on the way here.”

Red Robe seemed to want to say something, but the lich had already returned to scrutinizing Zorian some more and eventually simply bent down to Zach’s motionless form and started casting some complicated spell before placing a hand on Zach’s head.

Zach’s motionless form suddenly blurred into action, as Zach revealed himself to have just been pretending to be unconscious and tried to punch Red Robe in the face. Sadly, while Zach wasn’t totally unconscious he wasn’t in top form either, and Red Robe deflected the attack before slamming Zach’s head into the floor several times until he went limp and then repeating the spell.

The lich chuckled hollowly. “Now who’s being too rough? You could’ve cracked his skull with that stunt, you know? Living beings are such fragile things…”

“The aranea?” Red Robe said after a while. “I can’t believe it, I’d never have thought those thrice-damned bugs would be… no matter, I have to go. Time to go tie some loose ends.”

“The aranea were never part of the-“ began the lich, but Red Robe already teleported away. “Hmph. I am killing that fool when I meet him later. He’s more trouble than he’s worth.”

He turned back to Zorian after a few moments, and people around him edged away from him.

“I hated her, you know?” the lich said conversationally, pointing at the smoking remains of the vampire girl. “She thought she was so much better than little old Quatach-Ichl. I was a relic, she said, while she was the next generation of undead or some bilge like that. Now look at her, killed by a precocious student with a simple fire spell. Still, while I find the situation amusing, I can’t exactly let you get away with it, you know? She was kind of important, much as it rankles me, and I can’t just go back home and say ‘Remember that Zoltan House heir you told me to take care of? I kind of lost her, oops’. The head of house will at the very least want your head for this, if not your soul.”

Crap, crap, crap. So he ended up killing some kind of House heir now? On the other hand, it was nice to have a confirmation that the lich was Quatach-Ichl. Quatach-Ichl was male, wasn’t he? He could stop referring to the lich as an ‘it’ now. Now if only he could get out of this with his soul intact…

“I don’t suppose you would accept a bribe to pretend you couldn’t catch me?” asked Zorian with as much calm as he could muster, taking out the silver disc Kael gave him and flinging it towards the lich.

Thankfully, amazingly, the lich reacted just as Zorian expected him to: he extended his hand and snatched the coin out of the air. Zorian had figured the lich would do that instead of knocking it aside with a shield or something, as he seemed to consider himself invulnerable – not an unwarranted assumption considering those weird bones of his. In any case, the moment the lich’s skeletal hand closed around the silver disc he froze in place for a moment before collapsing to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

“What?” one of the students behind him asked. “What happened? What the hell did you do to him?”

Zorian ignored him. Instead he rushed towards Kyron and Zach and started examining their injuries. A few seconds later he was pulled away by a girl who looked a few years older than him and who claimed to be a trained medical professional so he let her do her thing.

Instead he pulled a telepathic relay out of his pocket and closed his eyes in order to contact the aranea and see what was happening on their front.

* * *

It had started so well. The red robed intruder, presumably the third time traveler, walked blithely into the trap, his confidence buoyed by the familiar layout of aranean defenses near the entrance, as well as several victories against the sentries that the matriarch had purposely sacrificed in order to lull the enemy into a false sense of security. The moment he was near the center of the room, the floor turned to liquid and he sank into it before it froze solid again.

The aranea and the human mercenaries the matriarch had hired for the evening attacked immediately, dousing the area in sedatives and disabling spells.

But something was wrong, the sedatives didn’t seem to have any effect on the robed man and many spells also failed to have any effect. Even stricken immobile, the man somehow managed to defend himself effectively, exploiting any openings to fire off strange purple beams that slew anyone they hit instantly. They were slow to cast and only targeted single opponents, so their losses were light, but it was still frustrating. Finally, one of the purple beams hit one of the human mercenaries and his companions lost their nerve, responding with a barrage of glowing lances that tore straight through the robed man’s shield and impacted his chest.

For a moment, the matriarch was afraid that they had killed the man, making all her preparations and plotting meaningless… but the reality turned out to be far worse than that. Instead of erupting into a shower of blood and gore, the robed man simply… turned into smoke.

The opponent they had been fighting hadn’t been the third time traveler in person. It had been merely an ectoplasmic shell infused with some of his skill and magic. A simulacrum, meant to test the waters and distract them.

A cone of purple light washed over the room, instantly slaying all of the human mercenaries and scores of her loyal aranea. Damnation – their opponent had taken advantage of the distraction their simulacrum had provided and set up an ambush of his own. She turned to sound a retreat to-

* * *

Zorian jolted awake from his trance as his connection to the matriarch had been violently severed at the end. Watching the events unfold from her perspective had been strange and mildly unpleasant, and Zorian would have to talk to the matriarch later about doing stuff like that without asking for permission, but considering the sudden end of the transmission? The matriarch was probably dead. And the rest of the aranea would probably soon be as well.

They failed. All that preparation and they had still failed. Damn it.

“Zorian?” a raspy voice from the floor near him broke him out of his thoughts. It was Zach, who was apparently conscious again, a heavy bandage wrapped around his head. “You with us again? You kind of drifted off for a while.”

“Yeah,” Zorian breathed out. “I’m… fine.”

“They say you killed the lich,” Zach said, pointing weakly towards a pile of black bones some distance away from them. A couple of braver students were clustered around the fallen body of the lich, whispering and pointing. “How the hell did you manage to do that?”

“I severed the connection between his soul and his physical vessel, thereby causing it to snap back into his phylactery. He’s not really dead, just banished.”

“Oh,” Zach said. “Still, that’s… I never managed to do anything even close to that. How… how is it that you knew how to do that? You… are you…”

“I need to go,” said Zorian, rising to his feet.

“Hey wait!” Zach said, trying to rise up before wincing in pain and giving up on that idea. “You can’t just ignore me and go- Zorian! Zorian!”

Zorian ignored Zach, as well as Akoja’s questions about where he was going. He just continued towards the exit, mentally plotting the path to the nearest sewer entrance. Nobody moved to stop him.

“Zorian, you ass! I swear I’m going to punch you in the face the next time I see you!” Zach shouted behind him.

“Sorry, Zach,” Zorian whispered to himself. “But this takes precedence.”

* * *

By the time Zorian had arrived to the aranean settlement, the whole place was dead, and Red Robe had moved on somewhere. Probably to hunt down any fleeing aranea that had scattered into the city – Zorian knew that a number of aranea were above ground at the time the ambush had been taking place. Whatever the reason, Zorian thanked his good fortune and started examining the place for additional clues about what had happened and for any surviving male aranea.

The fight had been fierce, but Zorian couldn’t help but notice that most of the damage to the settlement had been inflicted by the aranea themselves, as they futilely tried to halt Red Robe’s advance through the use of the spell cubes he had gifted them and their own traps. Red Robe killed incredibly cleanly, leaving no mark of damage on the bodies of the fallen – it was those strange purple spells obviously, but why was he taking such pains to kill all the aranea so bloodlessly when he could just chuck a fireball and fry the lot of them?

He was thorough, though. Zorian didn’t know whether the man was unaware that the aranea males were not intelligent or simply didn’t care, but quite a lot of males ran afoul of his desire to kill as many aranea as possible. This thoroughness was another strange thing – the man hadn’t seemed hysterical or furious back in the dance hall, so why was he so insistent on getting every last aranea before the time loop was done? He even wiped out the children’s crèche, for gods’ sake! Yes, obviously killing them all would ensure that he got any time travelers amongst them for sure, but still – they would all be back in the next restart anyway.

Disturbing. Even though the emotional impact of seeing an entire settlement butchered down to the last child was blunted somewhat by their obvious non-human anatomy, Zorian was still sickened and disturbed by the cold-hearted brutality of the third time traveler.

Well. Maybe the matriarch’s message from beyond the grave would provide some answers. With the help of his divination compass and his mind sense, he slowly tracked down the surviving males one by one and extracted the pieces of the message they held.

There were two parts of the message, Zorian soon realized. The first was a simple narration – a voice message left to him by the matriarch explaining her actions. The second was a detailed map of Cyoria’s underworld, with several locations marked as important. Both messages were incomplete, due to the thoroughness with which Red Robes hunted down the aranea, and the matriarch seemed to prioritize the map as more important, since several males had redundant copies of some of the sections of the map.

As the time loop inexorably inched towards its end, Zorian took stock of what he had managed to piece together.

[Missing] …mean things went awry. I know you think I had it coming by rushing into this but… [Missing] …simple: the time loop is degrading. I can’t tell how long it will be before… [Missing] …can leave at any time. Thus, stopping him was… [Missing] …can only ever be one winner in this game. I am truly… [Missing] …hope it won’t be necessary, but just in case I put in a map to… [Missing] …whole other continent. I didn’t think it was possible, even with the help of… [Missing]

That was it. The map was also full of holes, although Zorian noted he still currently had what was an incredibly accurate map of Cyoria’s underworld by commercially-available standards.

Before he could really consider the message at length, the loop ended and everything went dark.

* * *

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 m-!” Kirielle began, only to get cut off as Zorian immediately shot upright into a sitting position, sweeping Kirielle into a crushing hug. The suddenness of the motion shocked Kirielle into a few seconds of silence as Zorian took several deep breaths to calm himself down.

“What’s wrong?” Kirielle asked, wriggling inside his grip but not really trying to break free of his hold. Zorian promptly let her go and tried to think of a good answer. He failed to think of any.

“N-Nothing,” he exhaled. “It’s just a nightmare. I’m sorry for worrying you.”

And it really was a nightmare. All their manipulation and preparations, all his combat practice, all the tricks he had thought of, and they still lost. They lost miserably. The aranea… they had been hunted down like stray dogs and massacred. Why? What could the third time traveler hope to accomplish with such pointless brutality? And the message the matriarch had left him didn’t explain much of anything, either.

“Like I was really worried,” she huffed, giving him a sharp poke and jumping away from him. “Mother wants to talk to you so you better hurry down.”

“Right,” Zorian said, getting up and making a motion towards the door. Predictably, Kirielle sped away to occupy the bathroom, and Zorian immediately locked the door to his room once she was gone and started pacing around like a caged tiger.

He needed to warn the aranea, and he needed to warn them as soon as possible. He wasn’t going to bring Kirielle with him this time and the moment the train disembarked in Cyoria he was… no, no, no. That was too slow. Far too slow. Considering Red Robe’s actions in the previous restart, and the fact that he ‘knew’ they were time travelers now, Zorian wouldn’t put it past him to butcher them all at the start of the restart this time.

The aranea needed to be warned right now, not by the end of the day. He would have to teleport directly to Cyoria. He mentally apologized to his mother and Kirielle, since they were going to have a fit when they realized he had gone missing from his locked room, and started casting.

He couldn’t teleport straight to the Aranean settlement. The araneas had actually warded most of their settlement against teleportation, and in any case the aranea lived deep underground. Teleporting underground was a bad idea – between the sheer amount of rock in the way and the magical interference created by heightened levels of ambient mana (which only got worse on a mana well like Cyoria), there was a good chance he’d end up killing himself. As much of in a hurry as Zorian was, killing himself in a teleportation accident was even worse than being late, and he had no mana to waste either. Teleporting to Cyoria’s teleport beacon was going to be hard enough on its own for a mage of his meager capabilities in the field.

Teleportation had a reputation of being dangerous among most mages. This was because, at its core, the classical teleportation spell wasn’t a pure dimensionalism spell – it had a substantial divination component that divined the exact coordinates of the location the caster was trying to reach, and if the caster set up the divination wrong… well, all sorts of weird and unpleasant things could happen. Then there was the fact that some people really didn’t like people teleporting into their home and territory and set up wards that didn’t just cause teleportation to fail, but to fail catastrophically. Such wards were illegal, but used by a certain type of people anyway.

Other than that, though, teleportation was a fairly safe and convenient method of transportation. So long as your destination wasn’t behind wards. Or underground. Or somewhere you’ve never set foot in. Yeah.

Ah, whatever, the point was that it could get him to Cyoria in mere moments. Cyoria thankfully had a teleport beacon in the city that funneled travelers into a central location and simultaneously made teleportation easier (and less mana intensive) for the mage doing the teleporting. That meant that Zorian wasn’t going to spend most of his mana on the teleport, which was a very good thing.

His world shifted unpleasantly – he still wasn’t good enough with the spell to produce a smooth transition like Ilsa could manage – and suddenly he was at Cyoria’s teleport redirection point. He promptly ran into the city proper and went about preparing himself. As tempting as it was to immediately descend into the Dungeon and seek out the aranea, he had to think of his own safety first. The aranea could be saved in some other restart, but if he got captured by the third time traveler, all would be lost. He had to wait half an hour or so until his mana reserves regenerated enough that he would feel safe descending into the Dungeon, so he set off in search of a store to buy some equipment at, as there wasn’t enough time to make his own.

Well, finding a magical store in Cyoria wasn’t too difficult. Unfortunately, their selection of spell rods legally available to someone like him had been very underwhelming. He bought a shielding bracelet and a rod of magic missiles, but everything else required permits he didn’t have.

“I hate to sound like a crazed killer or something, but don’t you have something… more lethal in your selection?” asked Zorian impatiently.

“Well sure, but I can’t really sell them to you without getting into trouble, can I?” the merchant said with a radiant smile, not at all disturbed by his question. “The mage guild keeps a close eye on the sale of spell rods and such, and I don’t really want to get into trouble for a handful of coins. Sorry.”

He then gave him a shrewd look. “But you know, if it’s lethality you’re worried about, may I suggest a somewhat… unorthodox choice?”

He reached beneath the counter and withdrew a plain wooden box, placing it on the counter. With great fanfare, he opened the box and showed its contents to Zorian.

Zorian stared at the contents for a few seconds, thinking it over. It was unorthodox yes, but…

“I’ll take it,” he said.

The man gave him a knowing smile and started to write up a bill.

* * *

He knew something was wrong the moment he approached the aranean settlement without being intercepted by the sentries. He should have been intercepted by now, especially since he had been deliberately inflating his telepathic presence to be as noticeable as possible. But no one came to confront him, and no one answered his vocal greetings. It was unnerving, and as Zorian got nearer and nearer to the Aranea settlement, an undercurrent of dread began to seep into his mind.

Was he too late? But he came here as fast as reasonably possible!

He finally encountered one of the aranea after a few minutes, followed by another one 30 seconds later. Dead, both of them. There was no sign of physical damage Zorian could see, either on the dead aranea or the environment, and he could detect no magical residue to indicate heavy spellwork. It looked eerily like the aftermath of Red Robe’s attack in the previous restart. He promptly stopped to cast 3 different protective spells on himself: non-detection to stop simple divination, invisibility to hide from sight, and a spell to increase his natural spell resistance. He didn’t know what those purple spells were, but they looked like direct effect spells rather than simple projection attacks, so spell resistance should work against them. Finally, he took out a cheap scarf he had bought back on the surface for this very purpose and wrapped it around his head to hide his identity. He was currently invisible, yes, but that was going to get disrupted the moment he cast a spell and it wasn’t something to rely on.

Then he proceeded more carefully into the settlement proper.

It was a graveyard. Everywhere he looked there were dead aranea, silent and motionless, legs curved inward and glassy black eyes staring at nothing in particular. The terrifying thing was that there was absolutely no sign of struggle anywhere he looked – no spell damage, lingering mana concentrations or groups of corpses piled together as they attempted to delay the attacker at some chokepoint. In fact, most of the aranea seemed to have simply dropped dead in the middle of some mundane activity, such as feeding on a rat corpse or making some kind of sculpture out of webbing.

After thirty minutes of trying to piece together what happened, Zorian was tempted to conclude that the third time traveler enacted some kind of wide-scale area of effect ritual that duplicated the effect of those purple beams of his and killed every aranea in the settlement in a single moment, before they even realized what was happening. The problem was not every aranea had died. Some of the males had survived whatever spell wiped out all of the females and roughly half of the males. And them being simply outside of the settlement when the spell took effect didn’t sound relevant, since the forward guards he passed earlier on the way to the settlement had also been dead and they were pretty far from the settlement proper.

After capturing several males and delving into their minds, he was starting to notice something. All of the males he captured felt… familiar to him. He had delved into their minds before, in the previous restart when he was retrieving the matriarch’s message from them.

No. It couldn’t be! The aranea weren’t time travelers so why would-

A sizzling sound accompanied by a flash of light heralded the opening of a magical portal somewhere behind him, and he immediately whirled around to confront the newcomer. Hopefully it would be Zach and-

Of course it was the third time traveler.

For two whole seconds, the two mages stood in silence, staring at each other in surprise. The third time traveler was in the exact same getup he had used in the previous restart – a blood red cloak that covered every inch of his body and wreathed in some kind of protective spell that left his face as an empty, featureless patch of darkness beneath the hood. Zorian was technically invisible and the other mage shouldn’t be able to see him, but he knew from the way the other mage was looking straight at him that the spell was not having any effect on the other mage.

The moment was broken when the Red Robe whipped out a spell rod in a fast, practiced motion and fired a swarm of 5 magic missiles at Zorian. Caught off guard, Zorian could do little except soak the hit with his shielding bracelet. Thankfully the shield held, but he knew he wasn’t going to win any fights with a guy that bested Zach. He managed to set off a disintegration spell at the floor of the cave between them, throwing clouds of dust into the air and allowing him to disengage from battle.

He ran.

* * *

He didn’t get far.

“You are shielding yourself from divinations,” Red Robe said in his distorted voice. “Good. At least you’re smarter than that fool Zach. Can you believe that even after all these decades in the time loop he still hasn’t learned how to hide himself from the most childish of locator spells? You, on the other hand, have been in the time loop for, what? Three, four years? And you already know how to shield yourself from my soul perception.”

Zorian said nothing, trying to sink further into the crack he was hiding in and wracking his brains for a way to lose the man. It was fortunate that Kael had taught him how to shield himself from soul sight, because Red Robes was apparently a motherfucking necromancer!

He was just fortunate he figured out how the man was seeing him, or else he’d be already dead by now.

“They’re permanently dead, if you’re wondering,” Red Robe continued. He didn’t seem to be able to pinpoint him with his soul protection active, but he clearly could tell he was around. And he was slowly getting closer to Zorian. “When I killed them in the last restart, I didn’t just kill their bodies. No matter how many times the time loop repeats itself, the aranea will always start the time loop dead, their bodies present but their souls forever gone. Soul magic is so fascinating, isn’t it?”

Even though he had been suspecting it, Zorian still felt his heart drop at the admission. The aranea… were dead permanently? That’s… He felt a storm of outrage and guilt building up in him and ruthlessly crushed it. Now was not the time. There would be time for breakdowns and self-recriminations later, but now he had to make sure that there would be a later.

“But I’m not as violent and unreasonable as I might first appear, you know?” Red Robe said conversationally. “If you tell me the names of other people the aranea have brought into the time loop, I promise I will leave you alone. I might even teach you a thing or two.”

Zorian blinked. Is that why Red Robe hadn’t flooded the whole room in fire to flush him out? Because he thought there might be more time travelers beside him? Huh. In retrospect, that seemed like a reasonable conclusion: the matriarch did claim such to Zach, after all.

Suddenly Red Robe surged forward and snatched him by the shirt. Before Zorian could do much, the other mage slammed him into the rough wall of the aranea cavern several times, causing Zorian to see spots and hover on the edge of unconsciousness. He tried to break free, but he was never particularly gifted in the physical areas and Red Robe’s strength was utterly superhuman and completely out of proportion with his size and build.

“How many others have the aranea brought into the time loop?” Red Robe asked menacingly, dropping all pretenses of politeness and friendliness.

Someone else might have been tempted to try and lie, but Zorian knew it was best to stay quiet. A statement could be divined for hidden meanings and veracity. You could not divine the meaning of silence.

“Oh fine, have it your way,” Red Robe said with a dramatic sigh. “I guess I’ll just have to rip it out of your mind like I did with Zach. Regardless of what those arrogant bugs told you, the aranea aren’t the only ones capable of mind magic.”

Zorian felt the other mage trying to connect with his mind, but he immediately realized the attempt was incredibly crude and simplistic. Zorian was better and he knew it. Not willing to let this mistake on the part of his opponent go to waste, he promptly clamped down on the connection and blew Red Robe’s telepathic attack to bits before counter-invading his mind. Knowing he had no experience with subtle attacks, he simply proceeded to blast the Red Robe’s mind with an undirected telepathic scream. Red Robe flinched back and tried to terminate the connection. When that failed, he reached for his spell rod, but Zorian caused his hand to spasm and it promptly slipped between his fingers and clattered to the floor of the cave.

After several seconds Zorian realized that, while the other mage was no match for him when it came to telepathic combat, he wasn’t defenseless either. He couldn’t overpower Red Robe mentally, and the moment his concentration dropped the other mage was going to sever the connection and beat him to a pulp in the physical world. He tried to commandeer the Red Robe’s limb to release its grip on him so he could flee but the hand remained resolutely wrapped around his neck.

Well fine then. Zorian reached to his belt and retrieved the revolver he had bought from the merchant, emptying the entire wheel into Red Robe at point blank range.

He lost concentration as the gun fired, the bang surprising him with its volume, but as the first two bullets impacted Red Robe’s chest he immediately released Zorian in favor of erecting a hasty shield around himself. The last four bullets splashed uselessly against the plane of force the other mage had managed to raise in front of him, but the damage was already done, as the first two bullets had already struck true, tearing through whatever protections the other mage had on his robe and drawing blood.

Zorian took advantage of the aftermath to flee, hoping that Red Robe’s fresh wounds would inhibit his pursuits. The lack of footsteps following him told him he was correct.

A disintegration beam narrowly missing his head also told him that his opponent wasn’t out of the fight yet.

“You shot me!” the Red Robe’s voice yelled hysterically behind him. “What kind of mage uses a gun!?”

Zorian didn’t grace this with a response and instead opted to keep running. The idea of simply activating his bombs (the only item he bothered to make before coming down here) and killing himself was tempting, but he realized that would be a horrible idea. His opponent was a necromancer – suicide wasn’t going to protect him from Red Robe, not in any way that mattered. It wasn’t like the time loop was going to reset itself when he died – it only did that for Zach.

No, he had to find a way to kill himself in such a way that Red Robe could not recover his body afterwards. After wracking his brains for a second, he accessed the map of the underworld the matriarch had left for him and searched for something… there! That tunnel led to a long vertical shaft that ended in a giant underground lake marked as ‘dangerous’. That probably meant there was something living there, ready to eat anyone who ventured into the waters. His body would likely be eaten long before Red Robe could recover it. He sped off towards his destination.

He narrowly avoided the next two spells, Red Robes constantly on his toes, not nearly as crippled by his wounds as he should have been. He shot him in the chest, for gods’ sake! Twice! What the hell did he do to himself to get that kind of resilience? Some kind of forbidden ritual, maybe?

Red Robe seemed to finally lose patience with him and flooded the entire corridor in a vortex of crackling blue lightning that immediately caused Zorian’s muscles to lock up and washed all his thoughts in a sea of pain. He was too late, though, because Zorian had already stepped over the edge of the hole leading into the vertical shaft and inertia caused him to promptly tip over and fall in.

Zorian tumbled through the air, for some reason thinking it was funny he was doing his damnedest to kill himself while the third time traveler was trying to stop him. He had the presence of mind to activate the explosives in his pocket just before he hit the surface of the water and his world ended in light and pain.

End of Arc 1


Support "Mother of Learning"

About the author



Log in to comment
Log In

Log in to comment
Log In