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!!!”
Relief immediately flooded his mind, closely followed by despair. He did it – he kept his soul safe from the third time traveler and survived the encounter entirely unscathed. But his allies…
“Zorian? Are you alright?”
Zorian stared at his sister for several long seconds, a million thoughts racing through his mind. She looked uncomfortable with his blank stare and silence, but Zorian couldn’t really bring himself to care at the moment. His mind was still stuck on his desperate escape from Red Robe. On the fact that he almost got captured by a mass murdering psychotic necromancer with an untold amount of time looping experience. On the fact that said necromancer now knew there were other human time travelers running around and could be coming after him this very moment.
On the fact that the aranea were dead. Dead and never coming back.
He absent-mindedly pushed Kirielle off of him, put on his glasses and started pacing around the room.
Killing a soul was impossible. They could not be destroyed, only modified. Everyone said so – the teachers, all the books he had read discussing the topic, Kael the amateur necromancer… hell, even the goddamn lich had said so in one of his offhand comments back when Zorian was first brought into the time loop. How, then, did Red Robe manage to kill the souls of the aranea?
He supposed the simplest explanation would be that Red Robe simply found out something that normal mages hadn’t. He was a necromancer with a huge amount of time and an easy way to avoid the usual consequences of various grisly experiments. Perhaps he succeeded where other necromancers had failed. Zorian didn’t think this was likely – the lich seemed to be a better mage than anyone he had met thus far, Red Robe included, and he certainly considered a soul-killing spell impossible – but that just might all be wishful thinking on his part. He didn’t want the aranea to be gone for good. Dammit, he had grown to like the stupid spiders! Sure they’d had their disagreements, but he had really never wished them ill and he didn’t think they had wished him ill either. Novelty certainly hadn’t, and she couldn’t lie to save her life. If… if he was being perfectly honest with himself, he had practically thought of Novelty as a second little sister. But now she was gone, just like the rest of the aranea beneath Cyoria.
And the worst thing? He let it happen. He had spent the whole evening gathering the matriarch’s last message, oblivious and uncaring to what was really happening, while Red Robe was hunting down the aranea across the city. He had known he was dealing with another time traveler and he had never once considered that the man might have developed countermeasures against others of their kind. Gods, he felt so stupid now.
Although it was strange… First of all, if Red Robe could permanently get rid of anyone who bothered him with a spell like that, why hadn’t he used it more often? Surely the invasion would be a lot easier if he got rid of a couple of key stumbling blocks. Yet Zorian never heard of any notable people waking up dead at the start of each restart, and he had access to the extensive information network maintained by the aranea. There was an obvious answer to that, of course: there could be a significant cost associated with the spell which Red Robe was unwilling to pay. But the fact that he had gone out of the way to remove every single aranea in Cyoria made Zorian doubt that. If there was a serious cost associated with it, he would have made sure to investigate more thoroughly and soulkill only those he had to.
Secondly, the aranea weren’t actually time travelers, so the spell shouldn’t have worked! Zorian was quite sure that the time loop didn’t pull every soul back in time – if that was the case, every mage would feel the difference after a dozen or so restarts as their shaping skills miraculously increased overnight. Plus, there are ‘normal’ necromantic killing spells that forcibly banish the soul from the body to kill people and Zorian had occasionally seen them in use during the invasion. If every person whose soul was banished from their body ended up dead at the start of the time loop, the number of inexplicable corpses showing up at the start of the time loop would have started to pile up quickly and everyone would have realized something was very wrong by the time Zorian was brought in. So all in all, clearly the souls of regular people who were not time travelers weren’t affected by anything that happened to them in previous time loops. The fact that Red Robe’s spell affected normal people in future time loops was strange, to say the least.
Zorian stopped pacing and frowned, idly noting that Kirielle had left the room at some point. He was getting the feeling that Red Robe was exploiting the very nature of the time loop to somehow get the desired effect. Zorian himself had no idea how the time loop really functioned, but presumably Red Robe did. Without that knowledge, he was probably never going to figure it out. Like always, he needed more information.
…except his main source of information – the aranea – had been utterly wiped out by the enemy, leaving him with nothing except a cryptic, incomplete dying message.
* * *
Over the next few hours, Zorian simply went through the motions, trying to hide the frustration, shame and panic he was feeling and to appear as normal as possible. He had failed to keep his inner turmoil strictly to himself, if mother’s worried questions were any indication, but in the end she accepted his explanation of being slightly shaken from a recent nightmare and stopped bothering him so he took that as a win.
And what a nightmare it was! Aside from losing the aranea, there was a non-negligible chance that Red Robe managed to figure out his identity and was going to assault the house at any moment now. True, he had managed to hide his face behind a scarf and had never spoken, but there were ways nonetheless…
He didn’t even think about trying to immediately leave the house in panic, though. The first and main reason for that was that if Red Robe had identified him and was coming to Cirin, then his family was in danger of being permanently killed, just like the aranea, and he wasn’t willing to let that happen. Kiri had grown on him over the course of the time loop and while he didn’t like his mother very much he wouldn’t let some psycho murder her. No, it was bad enough that the aranea had paid the ultimate price for his mistakes - he’d be damned if he’d leave his family to save his own hide.
The second reason was that, while it was certainly possible that his identity had been compromised, it was just that – a possibility, not a certainty. Yes, it would be easy to track him down by noting which students from Zach’s class were missing and then checking them out one by one, but it was entirely possible that Red Robe wouldn’t think of it. After all, as far as Red Robe was concerned, the mysterious human time traveler was associated with the aranea, not Zach. There was no reason to search for him among Zach’s classmates. And while Zach probably knew that Zorian was a time traveler by now, Zorian strongly suspected he would be out of Cyoria when Red Robe came knocking. If Zach had even a smidgen of common sense (not a certainty, admittedly), he would skip town first thing in the morning upon starting a new restart. Considering Red Robe thoroughly trounced Zach during the invasion by bringing the lich as his backup, and that Zach actually remembered it happening this time, Zorian felt that even Zach wouldn’t be crazy enough to stay where the clearly superior enemy could find him.
That was a lot of assumptions to rely on, but what else did he have left? He was backed into a corner. All he could do was wait and hope Red Robe wasn’t a master detective on top of being a scarily good necromancer and gods know what else.
In any case, his plan was quite simple at the moment - go board the train as normal, then promptly disembark upon leaving Cirin. He had no intention of going back to Cyoria in the near future. Red Robe was bound to pay attention to Cyoria for a while, trying to catch any time travelers the aranea may have brought in, so going there so soon would be just begging for trouble. Any minor misstep could blow his cover, and he didn’t trust himself to be able to lay low for multiple restarts at a time. No, best if he avoided the city for a while. He would have to return there at some point, of course, but he had to be a lot stronger and a lot better informed before he could show himself in the city again.
Aside from his determination to avoid Cyoria at all costs, his plans were virtually nonexistent. He was feeling rather lost at the moment. All emotional attachment aside, the aranea were also his best allies in this messed up event, and losing them effectively pulled the rug from under his feet. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
The conclusion he settled on was that he needed some time to calm down and come to terms with what happened. Think up a new way forward. He would probably end up just wandering around the country for a restart or two. Or maybe a dozen restarts. Yes, now that he thought about it some, the time loop was the perfect time for him to go on a country-wide, maybe even a continent-wide tour. Just… exploring and sight-seeing. Very relaxing. Admittedly, the matriarch’s last message mentioned something about the time loop gradually decaying, but she named no concrete deadlines in the fragments he had managed to piece together and he believed she would have put greater emphasis on that part if the timetable was particularly tight. No, that statement was there just to let him know he did not have an infinite amount of time to work with – he had some fairly large, but very much finite number to look forward to, and time was steadily ticking.
At least he hoped. He was quite doomed otherwise. ‘Large but finite’ he could work with, but if he had only a handful of restarts left? It didn’t bear thinking about.
“Mister Kazinski?” Ilsa said, breaking him out of his thoughts. Just as well, his thoughts had taken a dark turn again, and he was tired of feeling depressed. “Are you listening to me?”
“I’m listening,” Zorian lied. He wasn’t really listening, of course, but that was because he’d had this conversation with Ilsa a million times by now.
“Right,” Ilsa said dubiously. “As I was saying, you can pick up your badge when you finish school since it’s so expensive and-“
“What if I want to pick it up now?” Zorian interrupted. His savings should be enough to fund a month of aimless wandering so he probably didn’t need the badge for work, but he didn’t like the idea of keeping his spellcasting abilities a secret lest some overzealous policeman report him to the guild and ultimately bring the academy in. Having a badge to prove his certification and membership would allow him to do as he pleased for the most part.
“You can pick one up at any of the mage guild offices scattered around Eldemar,” Ilsa said. “Most large cities and regional centers have one.”
Oh good. He had feared he could only pick one up at the Academy or something.
Eventually, Ilsa left, her parting words being that she looked forward to seeing him in class. Huh, that was new. Did she suspect he intended to blow off school to do his own thing? Well whatever, even if she did, it did not matter much – the academy always had a rather anemic response to students who didn’t show up for class. They would send a letter to his parents informing them that he wasn’t attending his classes, and that was it. And fortunately for Zorian, no one would be at home to read the mail by the time the letter arrived, since his parents were going to Koth to visit their precious Daimen.
Satisfied that his course had been set for the moment, he picked up his things and set off towards the train station.
* * *
As the train departed from Cirin and started its journey towards Cyoria, Zorian began to relax somewhat. Part of that was that train rides always made him kind of sleepy and therefore sapped the tension straight out of his body and mind, but a great deal of it came from the fact that Red Robe was nowhere to be seen. Hours had passed – enough time to prepare and mount an attack on the Kazinski household several times over for someone of Red Robe’s abilities – and no hostile force had struck against him or his family, so chances were that Red Robe wasn’t coming at all. That meant his identity was probably safe for now, which was a major relief. If he hadn’t discovered Zorian’s identity in the previous restart, he probably wouldn’t discover it at all – a month was ample time to track him down if Red Robe knew where to look. He wouldn’t really relax fully until several restarts passed as peacefully as this one, but this was an encouraging sign.
He just had to make sure he didn’t make any more stupid mistakes in the future.
The train stopped for a moment and then continued onward towards Cyoria. Zorian opted to stay on the train for now, despite his initial intention of getting off the train on the very first station after Cirin. The first stop after Cirin was an even smaller village that gravitated towards Cirin and had nothing notable to recommend it to anyone. Him disembarking there would be noted and remarked upon by the inhabitants and there was a chance that someone might recognize him and report him to his family before they could leave for Koth. And that was the kind of drama he really didn’t need at the moment. And besides, what the hell would he do in a tiny unfamiliar village like that? No, it was far better to wait until Nigelvar and then travel on foot to Teshingrad. Nigelvar was also a small town of little note, but it was an important enough transport junction that no one would find a traveler who disembarked there on the way particularly strange. Teshingrad was a regional capital. It couldn’t hold a candle to Eldemar, Korsa or Cyoria, but it was big and influential enough that newcomers were normal.
Teshingrad also had a mage guild office, so he could pick up his badge there.
He disembarked at Nigelvar without complications and immediately set out towards Teshingrad. Unfortunately for him, the storm that invariably hit Cyoria on the first day of every restart was apparently a more wide-scale phenomenon than he first thought, because he found himself in the middle of a raging rainstorm halfway there. His rain shield thankfully held out long enough for him to reach one of the roadside inns and take shelter there. He ended up spending the night there, slightly annoyed at the delay despite not having any concrete plans for the restart. It did not help that the food was terrible and the people kept giving him funny looks. It was probably his clothes – the ones his mother made him wear were clearly a bit fancy and out of the price range of most commoners, and he didn’t have the chance to change before entering the inn. He made sure to put a basic warding scheme on his room to deter would be thieves and attackers, but thankfully no one tried anything while he slept.
Having survived the night at the inn without incident, Zorian departed the place early in the morning and reached Teshingrad a few hours later… only to get unpleasantly surprised when he tried to pick up his badge. As it turned out, Ilsa had not been exaggerating when she said the badge was expensive. It would cost him half of his savings to have one of those made! It was a highway robbery in Zorian’s opinion, but the man he spoke with in the mage guild office wouldn’t hear anything about lowering the price. Instead he pointed Zorian at a nearby wall where a job panel stood. It was similar to the job panel posted at the academy in Cyoria, only the jobs were much more reasonably priced, since the town did not have the same glut of amateur mages that Cyoria did. It would take two days for Zorian’s badge to be ready for pickup, so he figured he may as well earn some money while he waited to replenish his money stash. It wasn’t like he had something better to do.
The job list was… rather more eclectic than he hoped. He was sure that 2 chickens and a bag of flour was a fair price for fixing up a broken wall, but it was of no use to him personally. And the couple of job postings that did not define any concrete payment sounded very suspicious to him. Even so, he still found plenty of things to occupy his time with. Thus, for the next three days, Zorian helped with a bunch of repairs, tracked down a missing goat, carried a stack of stone blocks from one end of the town to the other on one of his floating discs, helped the local alchemist harvest her herbs, and eradicated a particularly nasty rat infestation in one of the private granaries on the edge of town. None of it was particularly difficult, but Zorian would be lying if he said he didn’t learn anything in the process. It was a lot different knowing a spell academically and trying to use it to solve concrete problems.
“Well, there you go,” the man behind the counter said, handing Zorian his badge. It was quite unexceptional in appearance, though Zorian could feel a complex spell formula embedded in it when his fingers touched the surface. He would have to take one of these things apart someday to see what that was about. “You can apply to any job you want with that, not just unofficial ones like the ones on the job board. Nice work, by the way. It’s been a while since someone went through the town and helped out the townsfolk like that.”
“I didn’t really do it out of charity,” Zorian grumbled.
“Oh, I know,” the man said. “But there are a lot of mages who would consider such petty jobs to be beneath them and refuse to do them out of principle.”
“A lot of them look like something the civilians could do on their own,” Zorian admitted. “And no offense, but why don’t you help if it’s something that so desperately needs doing? I kind of doubt the guild would place a non-mage as their representative for the area.”
“Ha!” the man laughed, not at all insulted by the accusation. “I do in fact help… when I find the time. This position is a lot busier than it appears, trust me on that. And while those jobs are admittedly not very desperate, most of them would take great efforts and a lot of time to accomplish without magic, whereas even a baby mage like yourself can solve them in less than an hour with a handful of spells. So yeah, maybe you didn’t save the world in the past few days or whatever, but the people you helped are certainly glad you made their lives a little easier. The townsfolk saved some time, you got some easy cash to spend, and I got rid of some of my more annoying obligations. Everyone’s a winner, no?”
“Hmm,” said Zorian noncommittally.
“So… do you have a specific job already waiting for you or are you in search of one?” the man asked.
“Nothing specific,” Zorian said. “I was going to wander around for a while and see what catches my eye.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I can recommend a few neighboring sites if you’re interested in checking them out.”
“Sure,” shrugged Zorian. “It can’t hurt to check things out, I guess.”
“Alternatively, if you’re looking for a better paying version of the sort of one-off jobs you’ve been doing for the past few days, I recommend you go north, towards the Sarokian Highlands. Always plenty of work at the frontier, whether it’s in infrastructure building or hunting monsters and whatnot. Much more dangerous than hunting overgrown rats, of course, but also a lot more profitable.”
“An interesting idea,” Zorian said. The only problem was that Cyoria was the main springboard for the expansion efforts into the Highlands. From what Zorian could figure out from the maps, it was very hard to bypass Cyoria when going that far north, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near the city for the foreseeable future. “You know, I can’t help but notice that the mage guild is pushing the settlement of the Sarokian Highlands pretty aggressively. What’s up with that?”
“Ah, well, it’s the whole thing with the Splintering, you see? Successor States are always looking to one-up each other and searching for advantages that could let them overcome their enemies. Eldemar has a nice big access to untamed wilderness to the north, so it would be a bit silly not to take advantage of it. It’s a place rich in natural resources, I hear, both magical and mundane.”
Zorian spent an hour with the man, discussing the region and his options. He didn’t really want to settle down in any place in this particular restart, but he supposed he might want to try out some of the options presented by the man in the future, and in that case it might be convenient to have visited the location already and thus be capable of teleporting there directly.
So for the next two weeks, Zorian walked around the region, visiting various workshops, libraries, alchemists, herbalists and so on. Or just plain sight-seeing and doing odd jobs for the villagers and townsfolk he encountered along the way. He did not stop his magical training, but in the absence of any sort of clear goal or a convenient repository of spells like the academy library had been, he defaulted to the most basic of advancement methods – shaping exercises. It helped that most of the rural mages he met on his journey had some private shaping exercise they were willing to show him… and unlike Xvim, who simply told him the end result he wanted and refused to elaborate, they actually had detailed instructions about what to do and in what order.
By the end of the time loop, Zorian had learned how to peel the surface of a marble away, layer by layer; how to do the same to an apple and other fruit; how to cut paper by dragging his finger along the cutting line; how to induce a gentle ripple in a pool of water without touching it; how to levitate a blob of water and shape it into a perfect sphere; then freeze that sphere; and finally, how to telekinetically draw geometric shapes in the dust. None of those were really mastered in the Xvim sense of the word, but luckily Xvim wasn’t anywhere near him this time so he could simply move on to the next exercise when he felt he had absorbed it to his liking. Shaping exercises were a lot less annoying when he didn’t have to keep doing them until they could be done flawlessly, he found.
He also continued practicing his mind powers. They were extremely important, he felt – if it weren’t for them, he would have never survived his altercation with Red Robe intact. At some point he planned to seek out other aranean colonies and execute his ‘exploit the time loop to slowly leech aranean magic from them’ plan, but right now he couldn’t do it. It was too soon, his memories of aranea and their demise (and the role his obliviousness and carelessness played in it) too fresh in his mind. So instead he simply used his empathy on every person he spoke to and practiced connecting to the minds of various animals. He particularly liked walking near streams and ponds and taking control of the dragonflies flitting about in order to make them perform dizzying acrobatics around him. Insects had such rudimentary minds that taking total control over them was exceedingly easy, though figuring out how to puppeteer them effectively took some doing and he still couldn’t keep control over more than 3 dragonflies at the same time.
Time passed. For the most part he managed to keep himself busy enough that he didn’t have enough time to be depressed, but all his worries and feelings of powerlessness returned in full force every evening as he prepared himself for sleep. Every plan he tried to make seemed hollow, doomed to failure. He wasn’t powerful enough. He didn’t know enough. Red Robe had years and years of experience over him, and that was never going to change.
As the end of the restart approached, his mood only turned darker. He had avoided another confrontation in this restart, but what about the next? Would he wake up next time to eerie silence, only to find out that Red Robe got to his family after he had left and left them lifeless, soulless husks for him to find?
On the last night of the restart, Zorian didn’t sleep at all, simply watching the night sky from a small, isolated hill he had found in his travels, idly using his mind powers to deflect mosquitos away from him as he stood consumed in his own thoughts.
* * *
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 mor- Hey!” Kirielle yelped as Zorian enveloped her into a strong hug. “What the hell, Zorian!? Let me go, you brute!”
“Still the same Kirielle as ever,” Zorian sighed dramatically, a weak smile on his face. “Now get off of me before I hug you some more.”
His family was alright and, just like in the previous restart, Red Robe was nowhere to be seen. Thus, a much happier Zorian once again boarded the train and disembarked at Nigelvar. He didn’t bother picking up his badge this time, though – it really was very expensive, and no one had actually asked to see it anyway. Instead he simply teleported himself to the last place he’d been at in the previous restart and continued his wanderings.
Being a mage out there in the periphery was a lot different than being a mage in Cyoria, Zorian mused. Without the massive quantities of ambient mana gushing out of the Hole, conserving mana was actually a noticeable issue – even shaping exercises tended to deplete his reserves after a couple of hours, whereas back in Cyoria his main limitation had been his patience and existing obligations eating into his free time. That was another reason why Zorian focused on shaping exercises in preference to any actual spellcasting while traveling.
He was also starting to miss the academy library. He had thought its reputation was way overblown for a while now, but now that he could no longer hit its vast shelves every time he ran into some issue he realized just how damn convenient it really was. It had a lot of holes where really exotic topics were concerned, but its selection of basic spells and books on common topics was second to none. Out here in the periphery, finding a spellbook that had the exact spell you needed was damn hard. They existed, but they had only the most basic of things and if you wanted anything exotic you were directed to some other settlement or private collection or what not.
He also found out that magic detection spells were a lot more useful than he had first realized. Outside of Cyoria, magical items and creatures actually stood out when exposed to such scrutiny. Back in Cyoria, most general magic detection spells just returned false positives all the time – you had to narrow your divination criteria down to something specific to get results.
All in all, he was starting to understand why mages tended to flock towards Cyoria and other cities situated on top of mana wells. Those kinds of places provided a whole lot of resources that were hard to acquire elsewhere in one convenient location.
But Zorian’s journey continued. He was determined to visit every large city in the country, if nothing else then so he could teleport to any of them as he pleased, and he was seriously considering a journey around the continent as well. The only thing stopping him was that international travel was bound to be a hassle, and he was doing all this traveling to relax, not argue with border officials about authorization.
When another restart passed and Red Robe still failed to show up, Zorian finally allowed himself to more fully relax. It had been three restarts, and Red Robe still hadn’t tracked Zorian down – he was pretty sure that meant he never would, then. Not a master detective then, that was good to know. Buoyed by the knowledge that he dodged the bullet this time, Zorian seriously considered what to do next.
He needed to contact Zach, but it wasn’t a priority. Zach likely didn’t have any crucial information that would help Zorian figure out how the time loop functioned, and Zorian didn’t know how to find the other time traveler anyway. They were bound to meet again at some point, and Zorian wasn’t going to play dumb again when they finally encountered one another, but he saw no need to waste his time on looking for a boy who probably didn’t want to be found right now. It wasn’t like he didn’t have anything to do in the meantime. He absolutely needed to master a number of skills before he considered going back to Cyoria and looking for Zach: he needed to find out more about soul magic, he needed to hone his mind magic into a proper tool and weapon like the aranea had done, and he needed to raise his combat skills to a level where he could meaningfully counter Red Robe in open combat.
The first priority was pretty obvious: he needed to know how to at least counter soul magic if he wasn’t going to get blindsided again when dealing with Red Robe. Preferably he also wanted to figure out what Red Robe really did to the aranea and – if possible – reverse it. He still had Kael’s list of people who could help him in that regard, and all of them were conveniently outside of Cyoria.
The second was just as crucial. Whatever knowledge about the time loop the matriarch gained behind his back, she almost certainly did it by ripping it out of someone’s mind. Someone who wasn’t Red Robe - probably a handful of normal people not aware of the time loop but still holding a small part of the puzzle. If he could identify these key people and read their minds he could find out what the big secret was. In other words, he needed to develop his mind magic, ethics be damned. He didn’t think he could do this on his own, so he would have to seek out other aranea webs for this.
Lastly, he was embarrassingly powerless against Red Robe in their last encounter, and if the other mage hadn’t made some big mistakes when handling him he would have lost utterly. He needed better traps and ambush tactics, better combat skills in order to not be utterly doomed when said ambushes fail, and better movement magic to retreat and escape when said combat skills prove insufficient. As far as he could tell, the only effective way to improve here was simple practice – in other words, going around and looking for trouble. The only problem with this was that this went against pretty much every instinct he had.
It would have to be done, though. He figured that delving into the Dungeon and taking a few restarts to visit the untamed wilderness to the north should do for a start, and he would figure out later where to go from there.
In line with those goals, he decided that his third post-aranea restart was going to be a bit more systematic than his previous wanderings. After marking down the locations of Kael’s associates on a map, he chose a medium-sized town called Knyazov Dveri as his next destination. The town was close to the northern wilderness and had a notable dungeon access, so there should be plenty of opportunities to practice his combat skills; it was situated on top of a Rank 2 mana well, which was fairly anemic as far as mana wells went but was nonetheless better than nothing; and finally, it was roughly in the center of a diffuse cloud of Kael’s associates scattered throughout the region, so he would have easy access to the rest of them should the one in the city prove to be a dead end. It was, as far as Zorian could tell, an ideal place to start at.
The next day he teleported to the nearest town he could reach with his teleport spell and set off towards his target.