Zorian stared at his tormentor in silence, as relaxed and impassive as one could be when faced with such a pitiless, unreasonable man. Xvim stared back at him, his face a picture of unshakable, effortless composure that made Zorian’s best efforts at stoicism appear laughable in comparison. Still, he wouldn’t break. He didn’t break. He had (eventually) met every ridiculous demand Xvim had given him and had never blown up at the man even once. Of course, that hadn’t impressed the man any, even when he’d demonstrated insanely good shaping skills for a third year student, but he’d expected as much.
They continued staring at each other in silence for several seconds.
“That,” Xvim finally decided, “was terrible. You are inflexible, slow, yet paradoxically impatient. I see in you a tendency to overreach, mister Kazinski, moving on to advanced fields of study without a healthy foundation to back it up. A common problem with many of your fellow mages, true, but ‘everyone else is doing it’ was never a valid excuse for anything. We will have to work on that before we tackle anything more substantial.”
“Of course, sir,” Zorian said calmly. “I’ll be sure to practice everything you’ve shown me back at home.”
“Good. I expect a better performance on our second session,” said Xvim, leaning back in his chair before making a shooing motion with his hand. “You are dismissed.”
Zorian made a solemn nod, slowly rose from his chair and then fled the office as fast as he could without making it obvious he was in a hurry to leave. Only when he shut the door and put some distance from the room did he let himself relax.
That could have ended up badly. Very, very badly. He knew he’d be taking a risk when he tried to read Xvim’s mind, but the man had aggravated him so much that he couldn’t help himself. Besides, what were the chances of Xvim deciding to shield his mind for a meeting with one of his students? Pretty good, apparently, because Zorian encountered a powerful mental shield when he tried to read his thoughts. He withdrew immediately, terrified that his telepathic probe had been noticed by the man, but whatever defenses Xvim had apparently gave the man too little feedback to notice Zorian’s relatively delicate attack. Well, that or he did notice but decided not to say anything, but that seemed very unlikely – if that were the case, he would have at least made a snide comment or two about how sloppy Zorian’s attempt was, even if he wasn’t at all bothered by the attempt itself.
It was very interesting that Xvim had bothered shielding his mind for their meeting, though. Was Xvim one of those mages who kept their mind shielded at all times, or did he somehow know about Zorian’s talents? There were a lot of possibilities. Zorian made a mental note to barge into the man’s office unannounced at some point in the next week, just to see if Xvim had his mind shielded even when not expecting Zorian to arrive…
His thoughts were still preoccupied with Xvim when he arrived back home, at which point the realization that he could sense the minds of Nochka and her mother in the house pushed the topic of his so-called mentor out of his mind. That was unexpected – there had been no plans for them to visit, as far as he knew. He entered the house and made a beeline towards the kitchen, where he could sense Imaya and Rea were currently situated, and found them seated around the kitchen table, gossiping over some cookies and… plum brandy?
Well, whatever. After exchanging greetings, he tried to ask Rea about her reasons for coming unannounced without sounding rude and accusing. He didn’t quite succeed if the dirty look Imaya shot him was any indication, but Rea herself didn’t seem to mind.
“Nochka was being impatient about your next visit so I decided to take her to Kirielle instead,” she explained. “Besides, it is not fair to make you spend your time on bringing your sister over to my home. You are a student of magic, with many additional obligations aside, I’m told, and I am but a simple housewife with plenty of free time.”
‘Simple housewife’, right. If she really was what she claimed to be, he would… well, he wouldn’t do anything crazy, but he’d be shocked. It was possible, but she was too confident and emotionally composed to be some ordinary housewife.
“For myself, I have no complaint about Nochka coming here from time to time,” Imaya piped in. “So you need not worry about any complaint from me.”
“I see,” Zorian said slowly. He looked at Rea, and found her unflinchingly meeting his gaze. Though his empathy detected no hostile intent and she didn’t do anything overtly threatening, he found her vaguely unsettling. It was her body language, he realized – though her posture was relaxed, she did not fidget or move at all.
Making a snap decision, Zorian decided to take a risk for the second time in a day and dived into her surface thoughts. He didn’t want to get too comfortable with violating the mental sanctity of people around him, but if a person looked like a threat, he felt it was justified. And Rea definitely looked suspicious to him right now.
Rea’s mind was not shielded, and she gave no indication that she detected his intrusion. That said, he didn’t get anything worthwhile out of it. She was not feeling very introspective at the moment, nor thinking any incriminating thoughts. Mostly, she seemed to be studying him, even as he was doing the same to her. Much like Zorian could tell she was not a normal housewife, she too seemed aware that he was anything but a normal student.
He decided to get her talking about her background and current situation, hopefully guiding her thoughts down the path that would reveal what her deal was. Besides, Imaya seemed to be getting more and more uncomfortable with their silent stare-down so if nothing else he should break the silence to calm her down a little.
“You know, I just realized I never did ask you why you and your family moved into Cyoria,” said Zorian. “I bet it’s a fascinating story…”
Over the next half an hour, Zorian spoke with Rea about her life and recent history, with Imaya occasionally jumping in with her opinion. Despite his efforts, Zorian failed to uncover any deep secret from Rea’s thoughts. Her mind was too focused on what she was saying, with little in the way of internal musings or stray thoughts. The only thing Zorian could tell with certainty was that she hadn’t lied even once while talking to him. Her story about her family moving from a small rural town to Cyoria out of simple desire for a better life in the big city was something she honestly believed in, rather than some clichéd cover story. Her husband wanted a better paying job he could not get in their old home, Rea wanted to get away from their rather unpleasant neighbors who were spreading nasty rumors about her whenever they could get away with it, and they were both unhappy with the poor state of the local school and wanted better for Nochka. So they moved. Simple as that. Currently they were still in the process of setting up in Cyoria, and were thus having some money problems, but Rea seemed unconcerned about that, claiming it to be a temporary issue.
His mind reading did pick up on two interesting things. First, Rea had ridiculously good hearing. Throughout the entire conversation, she was somehow picking up on the conversation Kirielle and Nochka were having in another part of the house, separated from the kitchen by a corridor and two closed doors. Zorian himself could not hear a thing from the two girls, no matter how hard he strained his ears. Secondly, while Rea did not know he was reading her mind, she was pretty good at figuring out people’s moods and motives the old fashioned way – she realized pretty quickly he was suspicious of her and trying to interrogate her.
And she found it amusing. Very, very amusing.
Eventually, Zorian was forced to admit defeat, withdrawing from Rea’s mind and excusing himself so he could leave. At the very least he was mollified that Rea did not seem to have any sinister plan for him and Kirielle, which was really all he cared about in regards to her. She could keep her secrets, so long as they didn’t come back to haunt him later.
“Oh yes, I nearly forgot,” Imaya said as he turned to leave. “Kael said he wanted to talk to you when you get back. He’s in the basement right now, tinkering with his alchemical equipment again.”
Thanking her for the information, Zorian descended into the basement to see what Kael wanted from him. It could be any number of things, really – he had dropped a multitude of bizarre problems on the morlock boy since they’d met in this restart, and he counted himself lucky that Kael was so reasonable and level-headed about what he had learned. He had to admit, with no small amount of embarrassment, that he himself probably wouldn’t have taken it half as well in his place.
Then again, he had the feeling that Kael’s willingness to accept his explanation about the time loop came from greed. He was sure that Kael saw the time loop less as a terrifying anomaly and more as a fantastic opportunity that could catapult his skills and knowledge immensely if he played his cards right, and that doubtlessly influenced how inclined he was to accept Zorian’s story as truthful. Case in point…
“Ah, you’re here,” Kael greeted him. “Did you get the ingredients I asked of you?”
“Yup,” said Zorian, reaching into his bag and withdrawing a wooden box full of alchemical ingredients.
“There were no problems?” Kael asked, accepting the box and promptly opening it to examine the contents. He pulled out one of the bottles from the box, the one full of inky black liquid, and brought it towards the light to check something.
“No. The shopkeeper looked at me strangely for buying so many expensive ingredients, but said nothing in the end. It would still probably be smart to buy the next batch from some other shop, though.”
“Probably,” agreed Kael, putting the bottle back and snapping the box shut.
There was no offer of reimbursing Zorian for his expenses. One of the first demands Kael had of Zorian once he decided the time loop thing had something to it was for Zorian to finance his experiments to the best of his ability. He understood Kael’s demand for what it was – not just a way for the boy to secure more funding, but also a challenge for Zorian to prove he believed what he was saying. After all, if he really believed in his own time loop story, he wouldn’t care at all about spending his money like that, would he?
Kael placed the box on the work table next to him, depositing it among the many other boxes, ceramic bowls, glass bottles and other alchemical instruments that cluttered Kael’s workspace. He seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, his bright blue eyes rapidly scanning the rest of the basement, before he focused back to his conversation with Zorian.
“How often do you think you’ll be able to buy more?” he asked.
“Well… I hesitate to say ‘as often as you need me to’, since I’m sure you can burn through any amount of money I have if you go wild, but I’m pretty loaded right now. Thanks to the time loop I found a very time-efficient way to extract a great deal of crystalized mana from Knyazov Dveri’s underworld, and selling that has given me a huge amount of money to spend,” Zorian explained. “So… two or three boxes like that a day if I had to? Maybe more, but I really think that would be a bad idea, since I don’t think I’d be able to avoid unwelcome attention if I started buying so much expensive stuff.”
“I… see…” Kael said slowly, clearly more than a little surprised at the information. “That’s a lot of money. Out of curiosity, why did you go to the trouble to get so much? Funds for your own experiments?”
“Partially,” said Zorian. “It certainly makes things a lot easier when you can throw around money like it’s nothing. Saves time. And yes, I know it’s strange for that to be a concern when you’re stuck in an ever-repeating time loop.”
“And the other part?”
“Greed, I guess,” Zorian admitted. “When I finally break out of the time loop I kind of want to have all my monetary concerns taken care of. Probably not the best use of my time but-”
“Don’t worry, I understand you completely,” said Kael, smiling slightly. “I probably wouldn’t have been able to resist doing so myself. In fact, I probably would have done it much sooner, even with the threat of other time travelers and the presence of more pressing problems you’re dealing with. So many problems in my life would have disappeared if I had a million pieces or so…”
“Well, you are an alchemist,” Zorian said. “Your profession has always been very expensive to practice, unless you were one of those alchemists who were willing to limit themselves to components they could grow and personally harvest in the wilderness. It makes perfect sense that you’d want to get rich if given a chance.”
“Perhaps. I don’t think I’d be anywhere near as efficient about it as you are, though. Well, not without resorting to theft. The thought of looking for crystalized mana would have never occurred to me. What’s so valuable about it that people are willing to pay so much?”
Zorian gave Kael a curious look. “It’s a bit strange to hear an alchemist ask that. I’m pretty sure that powdered crystalized mana is an important potion ingredient.”
“Not in the kind of potions I’m making,” Kael said, shaking his head.
“Ah. Well, crystalized mana is basically ambient mana in solid form. Harder to make use of than ambient mana, since it first has to be broken down into the more familiar, ethereal form before you can use it to power anything, but it is very convenient as a mana battery. Most mana batteries, such as the ones made with spell formulas, lose all stored mana in a couple of days to a week. Crystalized mana, on the other hand, is completely stable in normal circumstances. That’s very useful if you want to, say, support a powerful magical item or warding scheme independently of ambient mana levels,” explained Zorian.
“Ah, so these are the crystals the new trains use for fuel,” said Kael.
“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “I heard that use of crystalized mana as train fuel is really driving the prices of it upwards lately, got a bunch of people worried. Very convenient for me, though.”
“Shame it’s only useful for powering items,” Kael said. “Having some kind of personal mana battery would have been a nice way of side stepping your limited mana reserves. Have you looked into making such a thing? Even if it only lasted a few weeks, that should be enough to be useful in your circumstances.”
“Of course I’ve looked into it,” Zorian scoffed. “It’s impossible. Personal mana loses its affinity with its maker rapidly once expended, becoming indistinguishable from ambient mana in a matter of minutes.”
“Indeed. What about alchemical solutions? Is there a potion that increases your mana regeneration, gives you a momentary mana boost or something like that?”
“I doubt it. I think we would have all heard about such a potion if it was at all available. But it’s possible, I suppose, especially if it has some serious drawbacks that curtails its use. You should probably ask Lukav about that – if anyone knows how to answer that question definitively, it’s him,” Kael said. He squirmed uncomfortably. “And since we’re on the topic of Lukav, I have a bit of a… personal request.”
“I’m listening,” Zorian said curiously.
“Okay…” Kael began. “When I gave you that list of people to consult with in regards to soul magic, I did not exactly give you a list of strangers. We weren’t best friends, but I knew these people. We had history between us, we met sometimes to exchange news and the like… to find out that someone had been going around, kidnapping and killing them, was very upsetting to me.”
Zorian winced. Now that it was pointed out to him, he had been really rather callous when he told Kael of the disappearances in Knyazov Dveri, hadn’t he? This wasn’t just another disquieting mystery to Kael, but an outright attack on him and his acquaintances.
“I’m not angry at you,” Kael hurriedly added. “I realize you already have a lot on your plate, and that staying alive and figuring out what is behind the time loop takes precedence over everything else. However, I would really appreciate it if you looked into these killers and figured out a way to stop them for good.”
“Of course,” Zorian immediately agreed. “I had fully intended to do so anyway. I simply delayed that investigation until I had taken care of more pressing problems and gotten somewhat better at magical combat.”
Besides, he had figured that investigating the invasion forces here in Cyoria would automatically bring him closer to solving that particular mystery. The two were clearly connected somehow, perhaps even two different fronts of the exact same operation.
“I see. That takes a load off my chest,” Kael said, exhaling heavily. “If there is anything I can do to help you with this, just let me know. I’m still in the process of asking around, but I think I can get my hands on a couple of truth potion recipes.”
“I already have my own interrogation magic, but I suppose having more options to choose from never hurts,” Zorian said. Truthfully, truth potions might actually be more effective than what he had in mind, at least at the current stage of the investigation, but he really needed to develop his ability to sift through people’s memories so he was reluctant to use them. “Keep in mind that Lukav already knows how to make a truth potion, so if your talks fall through I can just teleport you to his village so you can have a friendly chat with him. Perhaps he is willing to share.”
“He knows how to do that? Sneaky bastard was holding out on me,” Kael grumbled. “Still, that does remind me that Lukav is far from being a helpless victim and neither is his priest friend. It might be a good idea to involve them in the investigation – they might be perfectly capable of taking the killers down on their own if you provide him with sufficient information.”
Now there was an idea. It would be hard to secure Alanic’s cooperation without coming clean about absolutely everything, but the benefits could be immense. He would have to seriously consider it when he started to seriously tackle the problem of Iasku Manor and disappearances around Knyazov Dveri.
“Well,” said Kael after a few seconds of silence, unlocking one of the drawers attached to his work desk and withdrawing a cheap, featureless notebook out of it. “With that out of the way, I’d like to discuss another unpleasant topic with you: your soul marker.”
Zorian straightened his back a little, suddenly alert. Truthfully, when he had told Kael about the soul marker and allowed the morlock boy to perform a scan of his soul, he had not expected much. Kael may have been a necromancer, but he was very much an amateur one. Still, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to put some trust in the other boy – both Lukav and Alanic were rather narrowly specialized when it came to their soul magic expertise, and it was entirely possible that they had missed something that a full-blown necromancer, even a novice one, would find obvious. It seemed that was indeed the case.
“What is it?” he asked with barely hidden excitement.
Kael sighed and pressed the notebook into Zorian’s hand. Leafing through it, however, Zorian realized he didn’t understand anything in it. It was full of unfamiliar diagrams and alien jargon, interspersed with brief paragraphs that meant nothing to one who lacked sufficient context to understand them. He shot Kael an annoyed look.
“I’ll be blunt,” said Kael, ignoring his glare. “Your marker shouldn’t work.” Seeing Zorian’s confused expression, he moved to explain. “I was immediately suspicious when you described how tightly the marker’s entwined with your soul – why would someone make such a deeply embedded marker and then make it a simple unchanging identification stamp like you assumed it was? The desire to make the marker resilient to damage and harder to remove could explain some of it, but it was still excessive – there are less invasive means that would have only failed if the soul was so mangled that the person was effectively dead. Those methods do have a noticeable flaw, though – they are a lot easier to copy than what you have rooted in your soul. That, I felt, was key. The marker was designed to foil attempts at copying it to other people. And in order to do that-“
“It needed to check up on the host’s soul to see whether it has been transplanted to another person,” Zorian interrupted.
“Yes,” Kael said. He took the notebook out of Zorian’s hands, flipped it to one of the later pages and handed it back to him.
Looking at it again, Zorian could tell that the diagram was supposed to be a crude outline of a human’s body, several circles, tringles and straight lines drawn over it. Below it was a short paragraph talking about ‘essence channels’, ‘feedback nodes’ and ‘transition barriers’. It still didn’t mean much to Zorian, but he could tell this time that it was supposed to represent Zorian’s soul, the marker attached to it and their interaction to one another.
“I do not claim to completely understand the marker,” Kael said. “Or even most of it – it’s an awe-inspiring thing, clearly made by a master soul mage. I especially like how it makes itself inconspicuous to casual soul scans – I’m not surprised I never detected it before being informed it was there. Still, there are some things about its functions that are obvious to me, and one of them is that the marker is designed to consult the soul of its host – the core, unchanging part of it, anyway – and alter its identification tag according to what it detects. Transplanting the marker to another person should result in a totally different identification value.”
“But that’s clearly not how it works,” Zorian protested. “Zach and I have the same damn marker! The tracking spell wouldn’t have worked otherwise!”
“It’s broken,” Kael said calmly. “Your marker, that is. There are parts of it that are totally inert, either because they do not acknowledge you as its rightful host or because they are missing some critical piece that got lost in the transfer. I’m guessing that at least one of those is supposed to send a signal to the looping mechanism when you die, terminating the loop prematurely – that would neatly explain why you get sent back when Zach dies but he doesn’t experience the same when you end up dead. He has the intact version of the marker, whereas you don’t.”
“But the main part of the thing works?”
“In a sense. It does everything it is supposed to, consulting the core of your soul, but for some reason it is still stuck on the same value it had while it was still inside Zach. It’s broken, but it’s broken in your favor.”
“Huh,” said Zorian lamely. What was he supposed to say to that? “Honestly? This isn’t such a huge surprise. I always suspected that the marker was in some way defective. After all, I highly doubt that its makers intended for someone like me to enter the time loop the way I did. Does this really change anything?”
“Depends how you look at it,” Kael said. “You are in no danger of being suddenly dropped out of the loop, so I suppose from a personal perspective this doesn’t change much. But look at it from a wider perspective. If I’m right, then whatever convergence of circumstances aligned to pull you into the time loop along with Zach was a fluke. A fortunate fluke, but a fluke all the same. It is not consistently reproducible.”
Zorian frowned. What was he…
Then it hit him.
“Wait. How did Red Robe end up time looping, then?”
“Yes, that is the question, isn’t it?” Kael said, his fingers drumming on his work table impatiently. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that question. But he clearly didn’t use the same method you did.”
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed. “I had strongly suspected that, but I couldn’t be sure. Him having some other method of joining the time loop would explain why he never used his own marker to track me down the way I did Zach. He doesn’t have the same marker as me and Zach, if he indeed has one at all, so he would have to capture Zach and use him as a key to locate me that way.”
“And if he’s indeed a master soul mage like you seem to think, he probably ‘knows’ you could not possibly have an identical marker as Zach, so there is no reason for him to try that in the first place,” Kael said.
They bounced theories and ideas off one another for the next half an hour, but it was all just hollow speculation at the moment. They had no way to confirm or discard any of the possibilities. Kael thought that Red Robe was in some way piggy backing on Zach, either by leaving portions of his mind in Zach the way the Cyorian matriarch did with Zorian, or by having some kind of soul link with Zach. Zorian discarded the possibility of a mind package immediately. The logistics of that kind of setup didn’t add up – Red Robe was active within hours of the start of the loop, if his quick arrival to the ruins of the aranea colony in that one restart were any indication, and processing a large amount of memories took more than a day. Not to mention that Zach didn’t start every restart by going to the same location, so it was questionable how Red Robe would have even gotten a memory package in every restart. No, Red Robe definitely wasn’t using memory packages. And really, Zorian didn’t think he was linked to Zach’s soul either – if he was, he would have checked Zach’s soul for additional connections when he’d read his mind and found out there were additional time travelers running around. Instead, he immediately ran off to confront the aranea. The thought of someone being connected to Zach’s soul didn’t seem to occur to him.
Personally, Zorian thought Red Robe did have a marker of some sort. It was entirely possible, he felt, that there was a way for people who knew what they were doing to enter the time loop ‘properly’ – to get their own marker and all. Though that did raise a question about why he didn’t just off Zach and go on with his life free of interference.
What was so special about Zach?
“Right. I don’t think we’re getting anywhere with this,” Zorian said. “Anything else I should keep in mind?”
“Nothing that Lukav and his priest friend didn’t already warn you about – avoid any magic that could alter your soul substantially. We don’t know what caused the marker to get stuck on its current identification value, and there is no telling what will push it off the edge so take care,” said Kael.
“I was afraid to do that even before now, and for that exact reason too,” Zorian said, leaning back on making a deliberately dramatic sigh. “Pity, though. I guess my dream of turning that stupid grey hunter Silverlake sent me to deal with into my very own familiar or becoming a grey hunter shifter is doomed to remain just a dream…”
“Didn’t you know? There is a reason why most shifters are made from normal animals,” Kael warned him. “Being a shifter means you get instincts from the other part of the soul, and magical creatures always have very strong souls… the more magical the creature, the stronger. And they tend to be extremely violent and territorial. With regards to grey hunters, I’m fairly certain they don’t tolerate even their own kind, much less anything else. Such an attitude would bleed over to you if you became a grey hunter shifter. And there is also the matter of inheritance to consider - even if you are able to master a grey hunter’s soul and not let its urges rule you, there is no guarantee that your children will be similarly strong-willed, especially since they’ll have those urges from the day they are born. I’d strongly recommend against that course of action. As for making it your familiar, keep in mind that it takes a long time for the soul link to mature and that you need to be close to it the whole time. There is no guarantee that the creature won’t kill you during the process. And if you do manage to slave it to your will, it could still be dangerous to everyone around you who is not protected by the soul bond.”
“There was no need for a lecture. I was just joking,” said Zorian flatly.
“Even if its abilities would have been so very useful…” Zorian said wistfully. “Extreme toughness, speed and magical resistance? Yes, please!”
“Just kill it, chop it up for parts and make an enhancement potion out of them,” suggested Kael. “You can ask Lukav to help you do it, I’m sure he’d jump at the chance. Not many people are crazy enough to go after one of those monsters, after all, so I’m pretty sure he never had a chance to work with grey hunter parts.”
“You know, that actually sounds like an interesting idea…”
“Glad I could help,” Kael said, peering into a slowly bubbling metal pot on the table in front of him and scowling. “Well, my current experiment is not going too well. And I thought I had it this time, too. Time to try batch number four.” He gave Zorian a speculative look. “Say, do you think you can help me out here? Some of the steps are pretty simple, and observing my work will ensure you don’t forget what I talked about as easily as you did last time.”
“Yeah, I’ll help, and holy gods will you stop reminding me of that!?” Zorian whined. “It was more than a year, and I had a lot on my mind, it was natural I would forget a lot of things. Besides, I’m already working on side-stepping my faulty memory somehow.”
“Hmm, I wish you luck about that,” Kael said. “Nonetheless, we both know you’ll remember my work a lot better if you understand what I’m doing instead of just blindly memorizing recipes and dry instructions. Think of this as free alchemical lessons.”
Well. He did use a fair amount of alchemy in solving the problems he encountered, so getting some advice in the field might actually be useful.
“Alright. Where do you want me to start?”
* * *
The next day, Zorian decided to make good on his own internal promise to find some solution to the ‘forgetting things’ problem. Well, he had to organize another one of Kirielle’s magic lessons first, but there were no issues with that. Her progress was much faster than it had been in the previous restarts he had tried teaching her, since he had already been through this several times and was therefore getting better at motivating her and explaining the subject matter in a way she intuitively understood. His obligations done for the day, he quickly excused himself and went out for a walk, lest Kael or Imaya find some other job to dump in his lap.
In the long run, Zorian knew he already had a perfectly good solution for remembering things with perfect clarity – he could just make memory packets like those of the Cyorian matriarch, storing them in his mind for future recall. The map of Cyoria’s underworld that the matriarch had left him was still as crystal clear in his mind as it had been the day he had assembled it from the scattered remnants left in the minds of the male survivors of the colony. It served as a shining example of what was possible for one who could master the procedure of creating such things. And it wasn’t like learning how to do that would be an additional time sink, either – learning how to handle memory packets was something he was already working on. It was his current priority, in fact.
The problem was, it would be a while before his effort there bore any fruit. Could be a couple of months, could be a couple of years… well, hopefully not years, since the matriarch’s memory package could decay into uselessness by then, but the point remained: it was not a quick solution to his immediate problem. Fortunately, human mages were quite good at making quick solutions to immediate problems, and surely some of them had at one point needed to memorize a map down to the very last detail, or recite a book word for word? Zorian would be shocked if the spell to do such a thing didn’t already exist somewhere out there, it was just a question of whether he could find it.
He decided to try at the academy library first. A bit unimaginative, but it was the best place to start his research and it had been a while since he’d spent some time browsing its shelves. He kind of missed that during his long absence from Cyoria.
Three hours later, he was torn between smiling in satisfaction and the urge to find something flammable to take his frustration out on. The bright side was: he found what he was looking for. There were no less than five different spells that could do what he wanted, mostly by allowing the caster to record what they see and hear for a brief period of time and storing that record in their minds. They differed in details, such as whether it was possible to pause the recording or not, but the core was the same. One even claimed it could form a clear memory retroactively, allowing the caster to remember what they had forgotten.
The bad news was that these spells were only available in the restricted section of the library.
Specifically, the mind magic section of it.
Zorian leaned back in his chair, precariously balancing it on its back two legs and taking his glasses off to massage his eyes. To say that the academy was reluctant to give permission to random students with regards to doing mind magic would be a severe understatement. He needed a better library pass if he wanted to get what he wanted, and there was no way he was going to get it through legal means.
He narrowed his eyes while staring at the library ceiling. There was no helping it. He would just have to steal one.
“What has gotten my best student so gloomy on this fine day?”
Zorian jumped in his seat, startled, the poorly balanced chair almost giving up on him and pulling him to the floor. After finally stabilizing himself enough, he turned around to give Ilsa an unamused look.
“Sorry,” she said, but her smile and the emotions he felt off of her told Zorian she was not sorry at all. “I didn’t think you would react so… explosively.”
“You just surprised me a bit,” Zorian said. He had detected a person passing by him with his mind sense, but that wasn’t exactly something unusual in this place. It wasn’t like the library was empty, after all. “What can I help you with, Miss Zileti?”
“Nothing, really – I am already done with what I came here for. You didn’t notice it because you were so absorbed into your reading, but I had passed through this section twice before now. I just didn’t want to interrupt you then, since you looked quite busy. I was just leaving now when I noticed you trying to burn a hole in the ceiling with your eyes, so I wondered if I can help you with whatever is troubling you.”
“I appreciate the offer, Miss Zileti,” Zorian said. “I really do. But I don’t think you can help me with this.”
Helpful though she may be, Zorian was pretty sure that asking her to help him with committing a crime was a terrible idea. Amusing, but terrible.
“What are you working on, anyway?” she asked, peering at the open book in front of him. “Memory preservation spells? Why would you need that?”
“I need a way to quickly and flawlessly memorize a notebook or two,” Zorian said truthfully.
Ilsa gave him a searching look.
“If this is about class work…”
“No, I think I’m doing quite well in my classes,” Zorian said, shaking his head. If anything, he thought he was doing too well – he was at the top of his class in terms of grades, despite his efforts to avoid standing out. “It’s personal. All I can say is that I’ll be going on a trip soon, and I won’t be able to bring anything with me. Anything but my memories, that is. And while my memory is quite good, it is not good enough to memorize, say, a word-for-word transcription of a book of potion recipes.”
“Sounds ominous and suspicious,” Ilsa noted.
“I’m not planning anything illegal,” Zorian assured.
“I’m sure,” Ilsa deadpanned. “That’s why you’re looking up spells that I know you’re not authorized to learn.”
“Hence me being gloomy when you approached me,” Zorian countered. “I’d thought I had found a solution to my problem, but it turns out it’s beyond my reach at the moment.”
“I see,” she said. “Out of curiosity, how important is it that you be able to access the information in the book while it is stored inside your mind?”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Zorian frowned. “What would be the point of holding a book in your head if you couldn’t read it?”
“To create a copy of it, of course,” Ilsa smiled. “It’s a trick that some alteration experts use if they want to be able to create complex objects without carrying the originals with them. They use a spell to record the blueprint of an object, storing it inside their heads, then simply use that blueprint to create copies of the object whenever it strikes their fancy. Well, provided they have the correct raw materials. In your case, that would be a blank book of similar dimensions to what you’re trying to copy and a bottle of ink.”
“And… you know how to do this?” asked Zorian hopefully.
Ilsa hummed. “Well, I am an alteration expert… but even if I was willing to teach you, this is not exactly an easy spell combination. It requires a great deal of alteration expertise and great shaping control. It would take-“
Zorian concentrated for a second and pulled at the heavy, metal lined book on the shelf next to him with his magic, not bothering to make a single gesture or hand motion. The book smoothly slid out of its shelf and floated in front of Ilsa, startling her. Before she could say anything, the book opened itself and started turning its pages, slowly at first but then speeding up until the last half of it passed in a blur and the book slammed itself shut. His point made, Zorian smoothly slotted the book back to its previous place on the shelf.
“I can’t think of a proper way to prove my alteration expertise right now,” said Zorian in the resulting silence, “but I’m perfectly capable of restructuring a metal pan into a fully functional metal watch. How much harder would this be compared to that?”
“Not exactly harder,” Ilsa admitted, still staring at the book on the shelf with a frown. “But certainly different. You’d have to practice for a few days before you can get it right.” She shook her head and tore her eyes away from the book to stare Zorian in the eyes. “We’re going to have a talk about this on Monday, mister Kazinski.”
“Does that mean you agree to teach it to me?” he asked.
“Not yet. I’ll need to run some tests on you to see whether you can handle the spells safely.”
Ilsa soon left, leaving Zorian alone to his own thoughts. He closed the book in front of him, setting it aside. Ilsa’s spell combination wasn’t exactly what he had been looking for when he searched for a quick and dirty solution, but it could work. In fact, it was even better than his original idea in some regards. Much less annoying to use, for instance. Plus, he wouldn’t need to painstakingly transcribe the information from his head every time he wanted to add or change something. He would give Ilsa’s method a chance.
But he was going to steal a better library pass anyway.
* * *
Two weeks passed in a blur of activity. Most of it was routine, like him accompanying Taiven and her team to the Dungeon, teaching Kirielle or helping Kael with his alchemy (and having his soul occasionally scanned by the other boy, with little results thus far). It helped that Kirielle actually had a friend her age this time so she monopolized his time a lot less. Whatever dark secret her mother harbored, Zorian had to admit Nochka’s presence made Kirielle a lot more manageable than she usually was, so he was definitely going to visit that bridge in future restarts as well.
Two main things stood out from the rest. The first one was that he had managed to learn the spells Ilsa had talked about, and they worked just as she said they would. He was happy that he could finally keep written notes on what happened in the time loop, since he now had a method of effectively transferring his notebooks into the next restart. Kael was happy too, since he could now be much more liberal about the amount of information he was sending over to his future self – he promptly gave Zorian four fully filled-out notebooks to store the blueprints of, with a promise of one more by the end of the restart. Zorian really hoped Kael wouldn’t accumulate notebooks so rapidly in future restarts, because Zorian could only hold about 15 blueprints in his mind. The matriarch’s memory packet didn’t leave much room for anything else, really.
The second interesting thing was that he had all but confirmed that Xvim had his mind shielded at all times. He had barged into the man’s office three different times, and the shield had always been active. Sadly, his unannounced visits seemed to have finally provoked the unflappable man somewhat, so now Zorian had 5 different shaping books on his reading list for their next session. Depending on which book Xvim decided to focus on, their next lesson would consist of Zorian making detailed shapes out of sand, telekinetically dismantling a watch without breaking any of its parts, playing around with candles and matches, trying to apply paint on canvas without using any brushes or carving glyphs into stones with his fingers. Or maybe all five if Xvim was feeling particularly vindictive.
But that was all background activity – the real focus of his efforts was tracking the Ibasans and the Cult of the Dragon Below, mapping the structure of their organization. Originally he wanted to be cautious, spending most of the restart just observing everything, identifying their members and locations they met and did business in, but… well, he saw his chance and he took it. While the Ibasans were mostly full blown mages and lived deep underground in heavily warded bases crawling with guards, only periodically visiting the surface, most of their allies in the city were far more modestly protected. Zorian followed around cultists and simple mercenaries that worked with the Ibasans, tracking them down to their homes and reading their thoughts as they skulked around. The wards on their houses, if they even had them, were hilariously easy to avoid or break, allowing Zorian to root through their stuff for additional clues and connections with other members of their conspiracy.
He had found out some interesting things. For instance, not all of the Ibasan agents in the city were aware of what they were getting themselves into. The various merchants that smuggled food and other supplies to the invaders seemed entirely ignorant of whom they were really supporting. It was just business to them. Apparently there were numerous secret bases and operations happening in deep reaches of Cyoria’s Dungeon, and most of them were fairly inoffensive – illegal harvesting operations for dangerous substances, secret research facilities by various trading groups, even a government black site of some sort. The merchants thought they were simply supplying one of these many shadowy factions and never pried much into the identity of their customers. A couple of mercenaries knew that the invaders planned to do some kind of terrorist strike during the summer festival, but didn’t care about the details so long as they got paid – they didn’t seem to be aware of the true scale of the invasion.
Then there was the Cult of the Dragon Below, who honestly baffled him. The cult had a very complex, confusing structure, with lots of different ranks and categories of membership, and every rank seemed to have been fed a different story. On top of that, some members seemed to be in it purely for the benefits and had never bought into the Cult’s belief system in the first place. They were in it for the money – apparently, being a member of the Cult of Dragon could be pretty profitable if you played your cards right. They knew that the cult planned to release a primordial at the summer festival to ravage the city and everything around it, of course, but didn’t believe the primordial in question even existed, so no harm in going along with it, right?
There was still no evidence that Red Robe was in any way operating among the invasion forces, nor that he had shared even a speck of knowledge with them before running off to do something else, so Zorian decided to be a little more aggressive and start actually practicing his memory reading on acceptable targets. To that end, he identified a small cultist gathering – organized by a trio of magic-wielding members who appeared to be of a slightly higher rank than the usual dregs Zorian encountered thus far – and prepared to subdue them for questioning.
Eight armed cultists, three of whom were magic wielders. His old self would have called him crazy for trying to tackle them all on his lonesome, even from ambush, but they never really stood a chance – he trapped the house they were to meet in before they even got there, having found out about their chosen meeting place several days in advance, and took them down one by one as they came. Mostly by telepathically compelling them into falling asleep, much like the aranea had tried to do to him such a long time ago when he’d first encountered them. The last arrival was a mage who had a mind shield spell formula on a ring and fought his attempt off. Zorian was forced to deal with him via slamming him into a wall a couple of times with some judicious application of the ‘force blast’ spell.
Once they were all down and tied up, Zorian took a deep breath and concentrated on diving into the memories of his first victim.
Before he got instruction from the Yellow Cavern Guardians, Zorian sort of expected that probing someone’s memories would be like one sometimes sees in adventure novels and the like – a walk through some psychedelic mindscape, where the intruder has to navigate deeply symbolical mazes and fight mental representations of the victim’s psyche and what not. The reality was nothing like that. Or at least the way aranea did it was nothing like that, and the Yellow Cavern Guardians had seemed more than a little amused when Zorian had described the idea to them. Instead, memory probes simply consisted of a powerful telepathic probe that punched through the surface layers of the victim’s mind and then started branching throughout their inner self in search of whatever the psychic was after.
It was by its very nature a dangerous procedure – unlike lighter, surface manipulations, deep scans like the one he was about to do could permanently ruin a mind. An amateur like Zorian was all but guaranteed to cause irreparable damage on his first try, unless they had spent years doing careful exercises which Zorian had no time for. Thus, he was not terribly surprised when that first man ended up as a mindless husk five minutes later. The convulsions and foaming at the mouth that preceded it were very disturbing, however, and almost made him give up on the whole thing right then and there. He didn’t even manage to read anything out of his memories, so his death had been for nothing.
A few minutes later, after he’d had some time to calm down and drown out the little voice in his head telling him he was a monster for killing a defenseless man like that, he continued with victim number two. He decided not to stay so long inside the minds of the rest of them.
Number two, three, four, five and six survived his probes. They could even wake up some day. Well, they could have, if the time loop wasn’t so close to its end. The sixth attempt actually yielded some results, too – he didn’t find much in the man’s memories before he had to withdraw, but he did add a few more names to his list to investigate, so at least some good came out of it. The last two suffered only light damage due to his probe. They knew nothing useful that could help him.
Zorian left the house feeling hollow, wondering whether he was really justified in doing this.
He came home to find Kirielle in tears and the entire household in an uproar. Rea and Sauh Sashal had been found dead in their home, brutally murdered by what appeared to be a monster missed by the many extermination squads operating in the city by now.
Of their daughter, there was no trace.