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Chapter 040
Shifting Tracks

Zorian woke up very early in the morning, roused from his slumber by the faint, incoherent mumbling of Kirielle sleeping beside him. For a moment he wondered why Kirielle was sleeping in his bed instead of being in her own room, but then he snapped out of the confused half-dream state he was in and memories of the previous evening came rushing in to him.

Rea and her husband were dead, their daughter missing. An event that had completely blindsided Zorian, who had never heard of anything like that happening in the previous restarts. Was this something that usually happened and he just never heard of it, or did the many changes in the wake of the aranean destruction somehow cause this? That fact that Rea and Sauh had been killed by a wandering monster seemed to suggest the latter, but Zorian had a hunch there was nothing random about that monster attack. The cranium rats had been monitoring the Sashal household for a reason, after all, and the invaders were ever so fond of slaving dungeon denizens to their will and using them as their attack dogs.

Kirielle, of course, neither knew nor cared about Zorian’s musings on the matter. Unlike him, who was not terribly close to the Sashal family and for whom their deaths would in no way be permanent, Kirielle had gotten very close to Nochka and was devastated to hear about the attack. Not even pointing out that she may still be alive could get her to stop crying. After all, the police said her parents were killed by a dungeon denizen, and those weren’t exactly known for kidnapping people and keeping them alive for ransom.

In the end, Kirielle only calmed down and went to sleep when Imaya gave her some ‘homemade calming tea’ that kicked in suspiciously quickly. Probably a mild opiate. He should have asked for a cup of that himself, in all likelihood – he had already been rather unnerved by his experience of reading the cultists’ memories, and was thus ill-equipped to deal with this brand new crisis.

Moving slowly, Zorian carefully extricated himself out of his bed and vacated the room, trying not to wake up Kirielle. He was pretty sure he failed in that regard, as her mental signature abruptly got more active about halfway through his retreat from the room, but since she never said anything and kept her eyes closed, he figured she didn’t want to talk to him yet. Or maybe she just wanted to go back to sleep. It was pretty early…

He found everyone else already awake and seated around the table when he entered the kitchen – Imaya, Kael and even Kana.

“Couldn’t sleep either, huh?” Kael asked rhetorically.

“Kirielle snuck into my bed in the middle of the night,” said Zorian with a sigh. “She’s hard to bunk with even in normal circumstances, and considering the recent events…”

“Poor thing,” Imaya said. “She was hit the hardest by this, I think. It’s a disgrace that something like that could happen in the middle of the city, and after it was already known that monsters were getting unusually aggressive too!”

Imaya spent the next ten minutes or so blaming the city for poor handling of the monster crisis – a subject that she never showed all that much of an interest in before now. It didn’t take an empath to figure out that Kirielle wasn’t the only one greatly affected by the killings. She had probably formed a friendship with Rea during the many times she had brought Nochka to meet with Kirielle.

Kael and Kana, on the other hand, seemed far less affected. Kael had virtually no interaction with either Nochka or Rea, and had never even met Sauh, so that was understandable. Kana had sometimes joined Nochka and Kirielle in their games, but had been nowhere near as close to Nochka as Kirielle had. She was also very young and probably didn’t quite understand what was happening.

Eventually Imaya ran out of steam and fell silent, though Zorian could still feel a lot of frustration coming off her. An uneasy atmosphere descended on the table.

“Oh yes,” Imaya said suddenly. “I forgot to tell you yesterday, but the police want to talk to you about… Rea and her family.”

“Me?” asked Zorian in surprise. “What would I know about that?”

“You did speak to Rea and her husband relatively recently,” pointed out Kael. “They probably want to see if they told you something of importance. Most likely they want to talk to everyone who knew the victim.”

“I see,” Zorian said, idly drumming his fingers on the table. “Are they going to drop by at some point or should I go visit the police station?”

“Detective Ikzeteri said he was going to be at the Sashal residence at noon today, and that you should meet him there if possible,” Imaya said.

Zorian frowned. Ikzeteri? That sounded familiar, where did he… oh, his old divination teacher had that last name too, didn’t he? And he was a detective, too…

“This detective Ikzeteri… he wouldn’t be named Haslush, would he?” asked Zorian.

“I think that was his name, yes,” Imaya said, frowning. “I have to say I don’t really remember his introduction all that well. I was too shocked to really pay attention. Why, do you know him?”

“I’ve heard of him,” said Zorian. “It’s not really important, I was just curious. I’ll go give him a visit later.”

At that point Kirielle trudged into the kitchen, apparently having decided not to go back to sleep after all, and they all wordlessly decided to shelve the topic of the Sashal family for the moment.

* * *

The Sashal family home didn’t look like a scene of death. That was the first thing Zorian noticed when he approached the house. He had expected to see some kind of damage on the building – broken windows, the door torn off its hinges, maybe a damaged wall section – but the house looked entirely intact. If it weren’t for the trio of policemen hanging around the entrance and giving him severe looks as he approached, he would have never guessed the occupants had been killed.

Didn’t look much like a monster attack to him. The chance of this being an actual random event kept getting lower and lower.

“I’m here to speak to detective Ikzeteri,” he said to the tall, mustachioed, stern-looking policeman that looked like he was the leader of the group in front of him. “He told me I should look for him here. Is he present?”

“He’s inside,” the man nodded. “But I’m afraid I can’t let you go look for him yourself. If you are willing to wait a little, I will notify him you’re here.”

“I’m fine with that,” said Zorian, though internally he wasn’t happy. He had wanted to take a look inside the place to see if he could spot any clues. He doubted the police would be willing to tell him any details about the killings, after all.

Inconvenient. He could just wait until they left the place alone and sneak in then, but that might take several days – most of the clues would have gone cold by then, assuming they hadn’t been confiscated by the police as evidence. Besides, there wasn’t all that much time left before the end of the restart, so his window of opportunity to conduct an investigation was very small.

Damn it, he so didn’t need this right now…

“Wait here, then,” the mustachioed policeman said. “What is your name, boy?”

Zorian gave him his name, and the man promptly disappeared through the door to fetch Haslush. After five minutes of waiting in uncomfortable silence while the other two policemen gave him suspicious looks, however, he could tell it would take a while for the man to return.

Zorian shuffled in place uncomfortably, probably looking mightily suspicious to the two policeman scrutinizing his every move. He knew it wasn’t entirely rational, but he was profoundly unnerved about being so close to law enforcement. Logically speaking, they had no reason to suspect him of anything and this entire talk was likely just a formality. He’d had bad dealings with the police back in Cirin, though, and he was also dealing with Haslush – his old teacher could be scarily perceptive at times. Zorian wouldn’t put it past the man to notice something strange about him and bring him in for more detailed questioning, which would be a gigantic waste of time at best, and at worst would necessitate an early end to the restart via suicide.

He’d prefer to avoid the latter possibility at all costs. Kirielle was already devastated about losing a friend, so having her brother suddenly blow himself up in the police station all of a sudden would be terrible. True, Zorian wouldn’t be there to see her anguish, and the restart would end a few days later, but just imagining the possibility made him ill.

Maybe he should read Haslush’s mind? Haslush was probably trained in detecting and resisting mental intrusion, being a mage working for law enforcement and all, but Zorian’s particular brand of mind magic was very non-standard. He didn’t use any obvious chants and gestures, so maybe he could get away with it. It would probably answer a lot of questions and would allow him to avoid any obvious blunders while talking to him…

…but no, that was too much of a risk. Besides, he had a much better target for something like that standing just beside him – he doubted those mundane policemen were trained in dealing with mind magic, beyond maybe being given a few pointers. A secret is only as strong as its weakest links.

He proceeded to worm his way into the two policeman’s thoughts. He found out that they were really not as interested in him as he had been imagining, but they also weren’t thinking about the Sashal family either – one of them was hungry and thinking of the dinner his wife was making him back home, and the other was fantasizing about some female administrative employee back in the station. Well, that was okay – he would talk to them and lead their thoughts back to the situation at hand.

“So, I don’t want to get you gentlemen in trouble or anything, but is there anything you can tell me about what happened here? Sauh and Rea had been friends of mine and I was shocked to hear what happened to them… is there anything you can tell me about all this?”

Zorian didn’t really expect them to say much – he fully expected them to give him the silent treatment until Haslush got outside, but simply mentioning the topic was usually enough to get a person to start thinking about it. He didn’t expect to be hit by a veritable wave of distrust and derisiveness coming from his link to one of the policemen, though.

[And he looked like such a normal-looking kid, too,] the man thought to himself. [I’d never have guessed he was hanging around a bunch of thieving cat shifters. Just shows you can never trust outward appearances when it comes to magic bullshit…]

Rea was a cat shifter? Huh. That made a lot of sense, actually – explained some things. What he didn’t understand at all was that the policeman seemed to think this made Rea and her family bad people – so much so that Zorian was apparently bad just for associating with them.

Apparently he had physically reacted to this revelation, because the other policeman noticed it and spoke up to forestall any possible unpleasantness. He didn’t seem to see Zorian’s reaction as any evidence of mind reading, chalking up his reaction to him being able to sense the change in his partner’s bearing and facial expression.

“We’re just here to look tough and discourage curious neighbors from snooping around, kid,” the other policeman said. “We don’t know anything more about this than you do, in all likelihood – some sort of dungeon creature made its way into the house and killed the couple inside. For anything more you’ll have to wait for officer Kalan to come back with the detective.”

The first policeman lightly shook his head before catching himself and stopping. [The creature that killed them simply sauntered in through an unlocked door instead of breaking in and attacked absolutely no one else in this entire crowded neighborhood. If that was an actual monster incursion, I will eat my own shoes,] the man thought to himself. [The kitties probably stuck their noses in some shady business, like usual, and got offed for it when someone took offense. Gods know they got their paws on everything these days…]

Zorian frowned. “What about Nochka? Their daughter? I was told her body was never recovered and that she might still be alive?”

The two policemen suddenly became very uncomfortable. Even the first one, who clearly didn’t like cat shifters as a whole, felt bad about the little girl who reminded him of his own daughter. Neither of them thought there was much chance of Nochka ever being found again, but they were unsurprisingly unwilling to tell this to Zorian and instead tried to think of a suitable non-answer they could give him.

They both breathed a sigh of relief when their exchange was interrupted by the arrival of their mustachioed friend who exited the house with Haslush in tow. Haslush, for his part, decided to lead Zorian on a walk away from the house, ruining his plan to keep mind reading the mundane policemen while they talked for additional clues.

It might be for the better, actually – paying attention to two different thought streams at the same time had already been rather hard. Trying to have a conversation with Haslush while doing the same would have probably been impossible.

“So, Zorian… I can call you Zorian, right?” Haslush asked. Zorian nodded, aware that the man had a massive dislike for formality. “Right. I’m guessing Miss Kuroshka has told you what happened back there, but just so we’re clear: Rea and Sauh Sashal have been found dead in their home yesterday morning, along with the mangled corpses of two giant centipedes. Their daughter was nowhere to be found, and nobody has heard anything about her since. Any of that news to you?”

“Mister Tverinov and Miss Kuroshka already told me most of that, but not the part about the mangled centipedes,” said Zorian.

“Yes, well, your younger sibling reacted so badly to the news that I censored myself a little. Called it a monster attack rather than dwelling on the details,” Haslush shrugged. “I apologize for upsetting her so much. I’m told I can be a little tactless at times, but it’s a hard trait to lose. This line of work tends to make you more than a little bit morbid, and I sometimes forget most people aren’t exposed to death and crime every waking moment of their lives.”

Zorian thought about assuaging the man’s worry and assuring him he didn’t hold a grudge about that, but then figured the man would be more willing to share information with him if he appeared guilty, so he remained silent. Instead, he shifted the topic back to the killings.

“So they were killed by giant centipedes?” asked Zorian. “I didn’t see any damage outside the house. How did they get in?”

“Through the door. Apparently the occupants had left it unlocked.”

Zorian gave Haslush an incredulous look.

“I’m just telling you what we found,” Haslush said defensively. “I know this case is strange, it’s why we haven’t pronounced it closed and moved on. And on that note, is there anything you could tell me about the Sashal family that would explain what happened to them?”

Of course he did – but nothing he could tell the man without getting himself in trouble. He told Haslush everything he had figured out about the apparent cat shifters though his interactions with them, but this was very sketchy information, and based on Haslush’s unhappy expression probably wasn’t anything new to the detective. Not that surprising – Imaya alone had probably told him everything Zorian just did and then some.

“This wasn’t really a monster attack, was it?” Zorian asked.

Haslush gave Zorian a piercing look, which Zorian met unflinchingly. After a few seconds, Haslush withdrew a hip flask from his jacket, took a long, deep sip from it and then put it back into his jacket pocket.

“No, probably not,” he admitted.

“Why were they targeted and by whom, if you don’t mind me asking?” Zorian said, trying his luck. Hey, who knows? Maybe the man would even answer.

“Well now. If I knew that, I wouldn’t be speaking to you now, would I?” Haslush pointed out.

“So you have no leads,” Zorian concluded.

“I have too many leads,” Haslush corrected. “The Sashals… well, how much do you really know about them?”

“I presume you’re talking about them being cat shifters?” Zorian guessed.

“Ah, so you do know about that. I’ve been wondering about that – the rest of your housemates didn’t seem aware of that fact, but Imaya said you were ‘unreasonably suspicious’ of Rea right from the start. Well, if you know what they are, then you surely know why this could be any number of things…”

“I don’t, actually,” said Zorian shaking his head in denial. “I was suspicious about Rea because she looked suspicious and I am a paranoid person. Them being cat shifters never factored into it, and to be frank I know virtually nothing about them. What’s the deal with cat shifters anyway?”

“Bluntly put, most cat shifters are heavily involved with crime,” Haslush said. “Theft, smuggling and spying, usually, but occasionally even assassination. Their alternate forms are tailor-made for such shady activities, after all. Cats are small, stealthy animals whose presence is hardly ever notable in and of itself. How many new, never-seen-them-before cats do you see in a week?”

“A lot.”

“Right. In a big city like this, unfamiliar cats are ubiquitous. Few things threaten them aside from humans, and most humans don’t hurt cats without reason. And on top of that, shifters get the ability to access traits of their animal form even while they’re human, meaning cat shifters get things like night vision, a sense of smell powerful enough to put most dogs to shame, superior balance and agility, and a whole bunch of other benefits.”

“I’m still a bit surprised this lets them be so active in crime,” said Zorian. “You’d think the sheer flexibility of classical mages employed by the various police forces would allow them to shut down a shifter group operating like that, regardless of their special abilities.”

“Ah, but you’re assuming cat shifters work alone, which is not the case at all. They are hands down the most firmly assimilated shifter type of them all. They live in cities and towns among ordinary people, and are virtually indistinguishable from a normal human on casual inspection. Everything a regular citizen could do, cat shifters can as well – in particular, this means they have no problems in getting classical magic of their own. Hell, their links to crime mean they can get their hands on many things an average mage can’t, like permanent enhancement rituals or illegal spells for evading notice and influencing people….”

“Do you have any evidence that Rea and her family were that type of cat shifter though?” Zorian frowned. “Maybe I’m naïve, but they didn’t look like that to me. Surely there are non-criminal cat shifters?”

“There are,” Haslush nodded. “And every single cat shifter would have you believe they’re one of them. Considering what happened, I don’t think I’m willing to put much stock in the Sashal family being such counter-examples.”

Half an hour later, Haslush decided he’d gotten everything he needed out of Zorian and sent him on his way. Instead of going home, however, Zorian hung back. Once he had confirmed that Haslush was not going back to the scene of the crime, Zorian stealthily went back there in order to do some more fact-finding. There were guards posted in front of the house, but none were inside. Perfect. Zorian didn’t dare enter the house himself, afraid that there was some kind of alarm on the house to notify the police of break-ins, but conjuring an ectoplasmic eyeball and sending it inside didn’t seem to trip any wards so he closed his eyes and had his eyeball spy look around the house.

The bodies of Rea and Sauh were long gone by this time, but it was not hard to figure out where each had died due to all the blood stains. Tragically, Rea seemed to have been killed in front of her daughter’s room, trying to keep the attackers away from Nochka. She didn’t go down without a fight – the bodies of the two giant centipedes, which the police decided to leave in the house for some reason, littered the entire area. They had been quite literally torn to pieces, their bodies sliced into sections by some powerful severing attack. In the end, though, it hadn’t been enough. The door to Nochka’s room was smashed open – the only door in the house to have been dealt with so destructively – her bed flipped over, and Nochka herself nowhere to be found.

Zorian had been harboring a hope that maybe Nochka had turned into a cat when the attack had come and then escaped into the night, but that didn’t seem likely anymore. It was beyond obvious now that Nochka had been taken by the attackers for some reason.

Half an hour later, not having found anything similarly notable, he was ready to call it a day and go home. That’s when he searched the place where Rea had died again, and noticed something interesting on the severed head of one of the centipedes – faintly carved into the chitin of one of the forward sections of the centipede was a very familiar symbol – a circle with an archaic Ikosian pictogram for ‘heart’ inside of it. It wasn’t the official symbol used by the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon, but it was one of the several ‘secret’ signs that their lower order cultists used to signal other members of their membership.

After inspecting the rest of the centipede parts and failing to find anything else significant, Zorian let the eye dissolve and walked away. So his initial suspicion was right – this wasn’t some shady deal coming back to haunt Rea and her family, it was connected to the invasion somehow. Admittedly, Zorian had no idea how, but he knew where he could find that out.

The Cult of the Dragon Below was going to get a lot more visits from Zorian in the coming days.

* * *

After that day, Zorian’s daily schedule changed completely. Kirielle lost all interest in magic and no longer attended the lessons he had organized for her, and he decided to free some more time by dropping his membership in Taiven’s group and skipping most of his classes. He spent most of this extra time planning and executing attacks on known members of the Cult of the Dragon Below, trying to find out what they did with Nochka. He attacked them incessantly, hitting two or more locations a day, and ruthlessly memory-probed every cultist he disabled in those excursions.

He learned some interesting things doing that. For instance, while Sudomir Kandrei, the mayor of Knyazov Dveri, was indeed a member of the cult, he was a very independent-minded one… to the point that the cult was very annoyed with him. They seemed to have no idea he was killing soul mages around his town, nor did he have any links to the Ibasans as far as they knew – the man promised to give his flocks of iron beaks and hordes of winter wolves to the Cult of the Dragon Below, not to the invaders as a whole. Zorian supposed he might be in contact with the Ibasans on his own initiative, but it was equally possible that his soul mage killing practices were his own thing. What he hoped to accomplish with that, Zorian could only guess.

He also found some emergency resource caches that the Cult scattered around the city, its underworld, and surrounding villages. They looked very… steal-able. He made himself a note – a real written note, seeing as how he could now effectively take a notebook with him to the next restart – to search through those in some future restart for anything interesting or easy to sell for some quick cash.

When it came to locating Nochka, however, his successes had been underwhelming. He managed to track down the group that kidnapped her, but they had simply been following orders and had long since handed her off to another group. He then tracked down that group too, but they no longer had her either and also didn’t know who had her now. He had dived deeply and aggressively into their memories, shattering their minds beyond repair, but to no avail – the man they handed Nochka to was a total unknown to them, other than being a high ranking member of the cult, and they had absolutely no idea where she might have ended up in.

Truthfully, Zorian had already suspected that kidnapping Nochka had been the whole point of the attack on the Sashal family, so his findings weren’t a huge surprise. The fact that the order had come from the very top of the cult indicated they considered it to be of critical importance. They also told both groups that Nochka had to be delivered alive and unharmed to the transfer point, forbidding abuse under the pain of death, which was also fairly strange. Why? Why did they want Nochka so badly, and why was her continued health so important?

He suspected the answer was something in line with ‘she’s their sacrifice to the primordial to wake him up’. Demon summoning often involved ritual killings, so it wouldn’t surprise him much if unbinding a primordial required the same. Still, why Nochka in particular? Because she was a shifter? The cultists did refer to the primordial as – among other names – He of the Flowing Flesh, which could indicate an ability to change its physical form. There were other shifters in the city, though. Other cat shifters, even.

He didn’t think he could get to the bottom of this by the end of the restart. If he had another week, maybe, but the restart was near its end and the Cult of the Dragon Below was getting more paranoid in the face of his constant assaults on them – they’d already tried to set up an ambush for him the last time he tried to attack a location, and only his ability to read people’s surface thoughts kept him from stumbling into it and getting himself killed. He wasn’t going to get much from them in the two days he had left before the summer festival.

Although, as horrible as Nochka’s kidnapping was, it could prove to actually be a huge opportunity for him, so long as it happened predictably in every restart. If he could place some kind of tracker on Nochka, she could lead him to the highest echelons of the Cult of Dragon, those who had stayed well hidden from him up until now. Also, if she really was intended as a sacrifice like he suspected, she could lead him to the place where the cult intended to perform their unbinding ritual, which could be a key to a lot of mysteries surrounding the Cult’s actions - perhaps even the time loop itself.

He would have to wait and see how events would play out in the next restart.

* * *

“Can we talk?”

Zorian looked away from the novel he was reading and glanced towards Kirielle, who was currently standing on the doorway, nervously gripping one of the support beams. Strange. Kirielle had been very subdued and asocial ever since Nochka had disappeared, rarely ever bothering him anymore, so her approaching him like this was quite unexpected.

“Sure,” he agreed easily. He wasn’t doing anything important at the moment, anyway. He was supposed to be organizing his notebooks so he could store the latest blueprints in his mind, but he just didn’t feel like doing that at the moment and was instead procrastinating with some light reading. He could spare some time for his little sister. “What is it?”

She ran up to him and, before he could tell her to stop, hurled herself on top of him. As he was currently lying on his bed, she ended up basically re-enacting what had long become a very familiar scene to Zorian.

‘Damn it, Kiri, I get enough of that crap at the beginning of each loop!’ thought Zorian, but refrained from actually saying it out loud. Kirielle was already shaken up, no need to snap at her when she finally decided to open up a little.

“Where are your shoes?” he asked instead. “Don’t tell me you’ve been walking around the house bare-footed again?”

Kirielle glanced at her feet and gave him a guilty look. “Don’t be like Mom, Zorian. It was only one time.”

“You’re doing it right now, too,” Zorian pointed out.

“Okay, two times,” she said, pouting.

He put a bookmark into his novel, laid it aside, pushed her off of him and rose in a sitting position. She immediately mimicked him, sitting on the end of his bed beside him. They sat like that in silence for a while, Kirielle dangling her bare feet over the floor and staring at her toes like they were the most fascinating thing in the world.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said.

“What are you sorry for?” asked Zorian, surprised.

“For being difficult.”

“Difficult?” asked Zorian incredulously. He peered into her mind for a moment and found her thinking about Mother. Ugh. Yeah, that did kind of sound like something their mother would say. She never did like crying much. One of the few things she praised him for was that he rarely cried, even as a young child. “Kiri, you lost your friend. It’s okay to be sad about that. You weren’t being difficult at all.”

“But you’ve been avoiding me all week,” she mumbled.

“I wasn’t avoiding you,” he protested, aghast that she would even think that. “I was just… giving you some space to grieve in peace. You know? And besides, I was…”

She gave him a curious look when he didn’t continue. “You were what?”

Should he tell her?

“I was trying to find Nochka,” he finally admitted.

Her eyes widened at this. “You were… Is that… you should have told me!”

“I didn’t want to get your hopes up,” Zorian said.

“I was hoping anyway,” she said, gripping the sheets tightly in her little fists.

He put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her into an embrace. She was still tense, but gradually relaxed after a while and returned his hug.

“I didn’t find her,” he admitted after a while.

“Well, obviously,” she said, as if it was the most self-evident thing ever. “But you tried. You knew you probably weren’t going to find her, and you still went out and searched for her. You didn’t cry and mope around the house all day like I did.”

“Kiri, you’re nine,” Zorian sighed. “What else could you have done? You’re being way too hard on yourself.”

She didn’t say anything to that. Eventually he decided to just spend some time playing cards with her and praising her drawings. Which did cheer her up in the end, so he chalked that up as one of his better ideas. One of these days, once he mastered the alteration spell he was using to transfer notes into subsequent restarts sufficiently, he should gather some of her artwork into an art book of some sort and copy it into the next restart. Showing her the drawings she herself had made in previous restarts was bound to produce some amusing reactions.

* * *

Later that evening, Zorian decided he had given Kael enough time to wrap up his last minute experiments and went down into the basement to retrieve the last of the morlock’s promised notebooks. The door was unlocked, so Zorian simply walked in and closed them behind him.

As the door clicked shut, Zorian felt the sounds of the house above them disappear, the privacy portion of the wards placed on the basement engaging and sound-proofing the room. Among many other things. The privacy measures were apparently a standard part of the warding package the academy used to secure their workshops, and thus got added automatically to Imaya’s basement when Kael had requested they turn it into a proper alchemical workshop… something that was very convenient in moments like these, since it meant that Zorian didn’t have to spend hours securing the room every time he wanted to talk to Kael about some sensitive subject.

“You done yet?” Zorian asked the other boy. Kael ignored him for a moment, staring at some passage in the book in front of him, but then shook his head and pushed it away from him, massaging his eyes.

“Yes, I’m done,” he said. He pointed at the notebook placed on top of a large stack of books. “The notebook is there. Everything is ready on your end?”

“Mostly,” Zorian said. “I still have to write down some stuff I found out today.”

Kael raised an eyebrow at him. “I thought you said you were taking a break from the cult today?”

“I did,” Zorian said. “Doesn’t mean I did absolutely nothing, though.”

“Oh?”

“Basically, I was thinking about warding, and how the upper level cultists all lived in warded houses that were a pain to break into and was thinking of how to speed the process up. And then I remembered that there is not only already a type of tool to do that present on the black market, I actually know where to find one for free. The aranea had stolen a ward scanner from one of the invaders a while before the start of the time loop, and the device was surely still in the destroyed colony.”

“You said you don’t like going there,” Kael noted.

“I don’t,” Zorian sighed. “The place is… it has too many bad memories. And the corpses of the aranea are literally scattered all over the place, so it’s hard to go there and not be reminded of that whole fiasco that saw them destroyed.”

“I still think they were somehow ejected from the time loop rather than soul-killed,” Kael said. “I agree with what other people told you – souls are indestructible. There has got to be a trick there.”

“Yes, well, time travel is supposed to be impossible too,” Zorian pointed out. “Though I’ll admit that I’m hoping you’re right. Never mind that for the moment, the point is that I went there to find the ward scanner… and I couldn’t find it.”

“So?” Kael asked.

“So, that means that either somebody already took it or that there is some secret part of the aranean complex that I’m unaware of. And frankly, I think it’s the latter. I mean, once I thought about it a little, the sheer emptiness of the aranean settlement was very suspicious… The Cyorian web was very wealthy and surely had a sizeable treasury. The matriarch often implied they have some kind of storage full of trade items and such. But I never saw anything like that when I checked the settlement out earlier, probably because I was very uncomfortable there and in a hurry to leave.”

“You think there is something important there?”

“Time loop related? No, probably not,” Zorian admitted. “But I need every advantage over Red Robe I can get, and there could be a lot of useful stuff there. Who knows what the aranea have squirrelled away over the years?”

“True,” Kael agreed, rising from his seat and popping his spine. “Well, I’m tired. I think I’ll go to sleep now. Is there anything else we need to talk about?”

“There’s nothing pressing I can think of,” Zorian said, shaking his head.

“I see. Just so you know, I’ll be taking Kana with me on a trip to a nearby village on the day of the summer festival. I don’t really want to be in Cyoria when the invasion comes, and I’m even less enthused about Kana being caught up in the invasion.”

“I understand.”

“I’m glad. If you want, I can take Kirielle with me,” said Kael. “I know you’ve been agonizing about what to do with her for a while now.”

“Yeah,” agreed Zorian. “I don’t want to leave her alone for the invasion, but at the same time I need to be able to move freely if I am to investigate what’s happening with the invasion after all these changes. You think she’ll agree to go with you?”

“I don’t know, that’s up to you,” Kael shrugged. “All I can do is make an offer.”

“Fine, fine, I’ll talk to her,” Zorian sighed. “That’ll be a lovely talk, I can already tell.”

“Notify me what you decided by tomorrow evening,” said Kael.

And just like that, the restart was already almost done. Tomorrow he would see how the invasion of the city proceeded this time around.

* * *

Zorian looked over his things, trying to remember if he had forgotten something crucial in his rush to finish the preparations in time. He couldn’t think of anything, but it would be just like him to forget something blindingly obvious while worrying about the irrelevant minutiae.

He still had several hours to burn until the start of the invasion, however, so he left the preparations alone for a now and left his room to find some quick diversion. Remembering that Imaya kept a whole miniature library of exotic works in her house, he set off to browse its shelves in search of a good time waster. He found Imaya already there, though, staring at her collection with a faraway look.

“Miss Kuroshka?” he asked worriedly. He was getting some worrying feelings from her with his empathy. “Are you alright?”

“Hm?” she mumbled, before her brain rebooted again and she truly focused on his presence. “Oh, Zorian. How long have you been standing there?”

“I only just came here. Been looking for a book to pass the time with, but you looked…”

“Don’t worry,” she sighed. “I’m just disturbed by the sudden quiet in the house. It looks so… lonely.”

“Huh. I thought you’d be glad to have some peace and quiet for a change,” Zorian said.

She snorted. “I think you’re projecting your own attitude here a little,” she said.

“Probably,” admitted Zorian. He always did like to have some space from everybody else, and would have probably welcomed a situation like this in her place. “But Kael and the girls are only gone for one day, so it’s hardly a big deal. You could have gone with them, you know?”

“I know. But if there really is rioting during the festival, like you said there might be, I don’t want to leave my house to the looters. It’s… it’s the only thing I have left.”

“Oh…”

“Sorry, getting a little personal there,” she smiled. “Is there any particular book you were looking f-“

There was a loud knock on the front door. Imaya and Zorian both raised their eyebrows at each other – apparently neither of the two knew who might be coming for a visit in this time of day. Most people were getting ready to attend the summer festival somewhere, either at some friend’s house or some other venue. Imaya hurried towards the door to see who it was.

There was a brief pause where Imaya had a brief exchange with whoever was at the door, after which Imaya called out at Zorian to join them.

“Zorian, your date is here!” she yelled.

“My date?” he asked incredulously, more to himself than to anyone else. How could he have a date when he didn’t-

She didn’t.

But she totally did. As he came to the front door to see what Imaya was talking about, the frowning face of Akoja greeted him from the doorframe.

“Hello, Ako,” Zorian said blandly. “What a surprise to see you here. I suppose Ilsa had something to do with this?”

“I, yes,” she fumbled, her composure breaking for a bit. “Miss Zileti told me to accompany you to the dance, since we are both without a partner.”

Now wasn’t that interesting. How the hell had Ilsa known that? True, Zorian had no date for the dance, and in fact had no intention of attending the academy dance at all, but she shouldn’t have been aware of that! Zorian had never told her anything to that effect, nor did he hint at that to anyone except… Imaya. Damn.

He gave his landlord a dirty look before refocusing back on Akoja. This was not part of the plan. He was supposed to roam around the city, observing the invaders in action and noting the changes to their tactics as a result of the various changes arising from the destruction of the aranea and that unfortunate mercenary band he’d hired to participate in the ambush.

Sometimes he hated his empathy. Without it, he would never have known just how much this meant for Akoja and how hard blowing her off to do his own thing would hit her.

“We still have several hours before we have to be at the dance hall. Come inside and wait with Imaya for a bit while I run some urgent errands in the city,” he said.

“What?” she stammered, confused, as Zorian squeezed past her through the door and began walking into the city. “Wait, you can’t just-“

Zorian quickly cast the teleport spell and let the city’s teleport beacon draw him into Cyoria’s teleport access point. He had lots of work to do and only so much time to execute it.

* * *

“What were you in such a hurry for, earlier?” Akoja asked as they slowly made their way towards the academy. She was surprisingly calm and polite, all things considered. Zorian had thought she’d be more annoyed at him because of his ‘emergency exit’ earlier.

“I had something already arranged before you arrived. I had to take care of some things when you came knocking at Imaya’s door,” Zorian said. “Cancel some things and adjust others.”

Specifically, he was placing marker stones in various parts of the city to make scrying easier. Watching the invasion forces move through the city was not quite the same as ambushing isolated battlegroups and rooting through their minds, but at least it was something.

Maybe it was better this way. His original plan was kind of ambitious. Possibly too ambitious…

As they talked, Akoja told him a little about how the rest of his classmates handled the changes to the restart. It was mostly just idle chat, though it did remind him that he hadn’t paid much attention to his class in this restart. There was just so much to do in this particular restart that interaction with his classmates sort of fell by the wayside. Considering that one of his motivations for coming back to Cyoria had been to see and talk to them again, that was something that should probably be remedied in the near future.

The night proceeded far more smoothly than the last one where he’d had Akoja as his date – she seemed to have far more respect and concern for his wishes this time around, though Zorian couldn’t for the life of him figure out why. In some ways he had actually been a bigger jerk now than he had back then. Regardless, once the flares started hitting the city, he snuck away from her and started scrying the city for information.

The initial barrage of artillery spells was different this time around. While the old artillery barrage used by the invaders specifically targeted critical buildings whose destruction was calculated to send the city into chaos and cripple its ability to organize a defense, the new barrage was… uninspired. Oh, they still targeted the central police station, the city hall, and other obvious targets, but things like backup government buildings and armories were left intact. In fact, a lot of the flares seem to have been aimed completely at random, demolishing unremarkable clusters of houses and civilian apartments – something that would admittedly greatly increase the number of deaths in the invasion, but was of questionable strategic benefit. Bizarrely, every single temple in the city was the target of at least one flare – Zorian had no idea what the invaders were trying to accomplish there, and it definitely wasn’t something they did in their previous invasion plan.

The fights around the city were far fiercer than they had been in Zorian’s previous restarts. Partly it was due to the defenders being in a lot better shape this time around, courtesy of the invasion’s poor choice of targets for their initial strike, but there was more to it than that. The invasion forces seemed a lot less coordinated than he remembered them being. They moved a lot less purposefully through the city and often blew off their apparent goals to rampage through the undefended civilian neighborhoods. That happened sometimes in the past as well, but never in such high numbers.

As far as the initial attack on the academy went, the invaders chose their actions there just as poorly as they did elsewhere. The new barrage targeted the academy building directly instead of aiming for the less well defended dormitories and support buildings like the old barrage did. Consequently, the flares simply splashed harmlessly off the heavy wards protecting the main complex, doing minimal damage. With no need to render aid and run damage control in the peripheral part of the academy, the teachers were free to keep their forces concentrated and organize the evacuation of the student body and other non-combatant employees much more competently than they had before.

Funny, he originally thought the academy was massively incompetent for leading the students into massive underground death traps, especially since that involved going over vast swathes of open ground where they would be completely exposed. They didn’t look so dumb right now. The evacuation went off without a single problem, and no one attacked them when they were shoved inside the shelters.

Zorian was pretty sure at this point that he was looking at what the invasion was really like – what it would look like had Red Robe never given them any help. When he really thought about it, most of their ‘mistakes’ could be chalked up to being far less well informed and lacking the ability to bypass every ward and defense they encounter because they’ve been either keyed into them or knew how to counter it quickly.

It would appear that Red Robe really did abandon the invaders in this restart, right down to the very end. Was this a one-time thing or did Red Robe suddenly decide not to meddle in the invasion anymore?

His musings were interrupted by Ilsa coming to the shelter and demanding that every combat-capable student come with her to defend the academy. Thanks to him participating in monster hunts with Taiven’s group, that included him as well, so he got up from his spot on the floor and joined the group of students following her outside. There, he saw what had gotten Ilsa so concerned that she was recruiting students as defenders – the invaders were massing just outside the academy wards, preparing for an all-out assault. Entire regiments of war trolls, winter wolves and skeletons were present there, supported by their mage handlers and thick flocks of razor beaks. More unusually, there were a couple of flying drakes mixed in among the deadly corvids, and two bulky, elephant-sized lizards stalked in front of the miniature army.

“Thunder lizards,” Ilsa said distastefully from beside him. “Immensely tough and very destructive. They can breathe arcs of electricity in a straight line in front of them, so try not to fight them from the front if you are forced to engage them at all.”

Lovely. He never saw those in any previous restarts. Maybe this was something they never felt like committing to the battlefield because they never felt they needed them?

But the time for considering such things was over. Although clearly not fully assembled for attack, the commander of the monstrous horde urged his forces to charge ahead. Maybe he felt that waiting for the rest of the forces would be a bad move since the academy defenders were busily fortifying their positions, or maybe he was just impatient. Either way, they surged ahead, thunder lizards leading the charge.

Zorian knew he could offer very little by simply pouring some more offensive spells into the attacking horde along with the rest of the defenders, but he had a better idea anyway. Focusing on the two thunder lizards, he felt their simplistic minds and was overjoyed to find out that they were far less magically resistant than he had feared. He suspected that might be the case – the invaders were probably controlling those things with mind magic to begin with, so it would only make sense that they were not all that resistant to it. Regardless, this meant he could manipulate them. Not to the extent of directing them like puppets, but enough to negate their attacks.

Sure enough, when the lizards started approaching the makeshift barricades that the teachers had made out of the ground via alteration spells, the two lizards opened their toothy mouths and tried to blow up the barricades with their thunder attack. Zorian quickly seized control of their movements and made them angle their heads towards one another, their thunder attacks colliding with each other’s bodies. A surge of anger flooded the minds of the two thunder lizards, and they halted their charge in favor of roaring at each other, too dumb to realize their actions were caused by outside influence. Zorian seized on this opportunity, amplifying their wrath and urging them to fight each other, and the two of them promptly collided with each other and began fighting to the death.

To their credit, the rest of the invading forces simply flowed around the two battling behemoths, unconcerned with their failure. The battle was joined.

* * *

Zorian stared at the battle site full of corpses, more than a little bit dazed. He had been in a fair amount of battles ever since he’d gotten pulled into the time loop, but nothing quite like this. The fight had quickly turned chaotic once the two forces seriously started engaging one another, and even now that it was over Zorian still wasn’t sure what exactly happened there.

They won in the end, repulsing the attackers – the mages decided to flee when enough of their monster minions got killed – but they lost far more people in the attack than Zorian had thought they would. Zorian himself was surrounded by a pack of winter wolves at one point and only survived thanks to no less than five blasting rods he had smuggled into the dance hall with him. Well, that and Kyron’s timely arrival with reinforcements to drive the attackers back.

He jumped in fright when someone’s heavy hand clasped his shoulder suddenly, almost blowing their head off with a reflexive piercer before he realized it was just Kyron.

“You’re the one that was messing with the heavy-hitter monsters during the whole fight, aren’t you?” his combat teacher asked.

“Yeah,” Zorian shrugged. No need to keep it a secret this close to the end. “I felt that was the most effective way of contributing to the battle that I was capable of.”

“Well, that flying drake would have roasted poor Nora alive if you hadn’t made it plow into the ground suddenly, so thanks for that. Though we’re really going to have to talk about how you learned how to do that and what exactly your limits are…”

“Ha,” Zorian snorted. “It’s far too late for that, I’m afraid.”

“Oh?” Kyron asked, a mixture of warning and curiosity in his voice.

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. He consulted his watch to see what time it was. It was 2 hours and 39 minutes after midnight. “I’m afraid this loop is just about to end.”

Kyron stared at him blankly for a few seconds before opening his mouth to say something. Before he could utter a single word, though, everything went black and Zorian woke up back in Cirin, ready to start this month anew.

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