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Chapter 044
A Show of Trust

The idea that someone might connect all the dots and realize his abilities were way too developed for his age was not a foreign idea for Zorian. He tried to make sure that the abilities he showed to any one person or group were firmly within the realm of possible, but he always knew that a sufficiently curious and dedicated individual could track down enough clues to realize something didn’t quite add up. There was no solution to this, as far as he could tell – not unless he wanted to spend most of his time performing an incredibly elaborate and boring act. Something which he wasn’t sure he was capable of, and which probably wouldn’t be too good for his sanity. Ultimately, he decided that the whole thing was largely a non-issue. As long as he wasn’t caught doing something illegal, he could simply tell such amateur detectives to get lost. Well, he’d probably be more formal and courteous about it than that, but that was what it all boiled down to in the end.

He was even aware that it might be Taiven who caught on to him. In many ways, she was in an ideal position to do so. She was probably the only person who actually had a solid idea of what was normal for him and what wasn’t, and was thus far more likely to realize just how abnormal and sudden his current skill growth was. He had been interacting with her pretty heavily lately, giving her lots of material to work with. And lastly, they’d known each other from before. They were… friends. She would feel entitled to an explanation of some sort, and would be a lot less hesitant about confronting him than someone else might be.

And yet, despite all of that, Taiven still managed to completely blindside him in the end. He expected her reaction to be a lot of things, but never did he imagine she would break down into tears. It was just so unlike her. Yes, she was a very emotional girl, but she was also the sort to keep going forward and never let anything get to her.

He glanced to the left, where she was sitting on the bed beside him. She was a mess. She had stopped crying for a while now, but after-effects were still very visible – red face, runny nose, the standard stuff. Still, her emotions had leveled off in the past few minutes, so maybe she was ready to talk now?

“Feeling better?” he asked.

She lightly punched him in the shoulder as a response.

Yes, definitely feeling better.

“This sucks,” she complained. “I came here all fired up, ready to get some answers, and in the end we didn't even have a proper fight. I just made a fool of myself. Why couldn’t you have been more angry and defensive and… Zorian-like?”

”Err, sorry?” he said, mildly confused. He was tempted to ask just how she defined ‘Zorian-like’ but decided it would be best if that remained a mystery for now. “To be fair, you weren’t behaving very Taiven-like either.”

“I guess,” she conceded. “Tell me something. Have you always been this talented? Have you been lying to me this whole time?”

“No,” he answered simply.

She scrutinized him for a moment, watching for any sign of uncertainty and shiftiness in his eyes and posture, before sighing heavily.

“Figures,” she said. “I thought as much. You’d have to be very dedicated to keep up the act for so long, and I can’t think of a reason why you’d bother. Still nice to hear it from your own mouth, though. Except… that only leaves one option on the table. That you overtook me in everything, including my specialty, in the few short months since we last saw each other. That…”

“You’re wrong,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I did not overtake you. I am confident that if we fought, you’d be victorious nine times out of ten. You’re still better than me.”

If he didn’t just use mind magic to incapacitate her right from the start. Or ambush her. Or cover the battlefield in enough explosives to level a building. But he was pretty sure Taiven wouldn’t count those as ‘real’ victories anyway, and aside from that, his point still stood.

“It doesn’t matter,” she huffed. “With the kind of ridiculous growth you’re displaying, you’ll close that gap in a handful of weeks and then leave me in the dust. And you’ll have all that other stuff you’re tinkering with too. Am I wrong?”

“Sort of,” he said. She gave him an annoyed look so he immediately clarified. “It’s complex. There is no way I’ll be able to close the gap between us ‘in a handful of weeks’, as you said. But time flows differently for me than it does for you, so I’ll get a lot more than that.”

“What? What the hell are you saying?” she asked, giving him an incredulous look.

“We’ll come back to that later. Before I say more on the topic, I want to know what got you so upset about this,” he said calmly.

“Say what? Zorian, you can’t say something like that and just go ‘but we’ll talk about that later’. This… this demands immediate clarification! This will be bugging me in the back of my head until I get an answer!” she complained.

“I know,” Zorian said, smiling widely. “That’s why I’m not explaining anything until you tell me what’s going on.”

She glared at him. He only smiled wider.

“You’re evil,” she told him, looking away. “Besides, I already told you what’s bothering me and I’m pretty sure you heard me just fine. Everything I’ve done, all the skills I’ve spent my life honing… if you can surpass it all so easily, then what the hell have I been doing all my life? I don’t know what kind of cheat you used, and it honestly doesn’t matter because it shouldn’t have been enough! I’m good at this and I live for this, you can’t just decide one day to pursue the same field as me and then catch up to me in less than three months… while not even focusing on it properly! The only way that could be possible is… is if I were never really that good to begin with…”

“Oh come on,” Zorian protested, quickly wrapping Taiven into another hug to forestall a second round of crying he could feel welling up inside of her. “That’s so totally ridiculous. Why would you doubt yourself like that? How does me being better erase your own accomplishments?”

“Accomplishments?” she asked incredulously, pushing him away. “What accomplishments? I work as a freaking teacher’s assistant, Zorian. For a non-magical class no less! Do you honestly think that’s what I hoped for when I graduated?”

He winced. So Taiven wasn’t as sanguine about that ‘temporary setback’ as she pretended to be… In retrospect, he shouldn’t be so surprised by that – while failing to secure herself a mentor immediately after graduation was by no means the end of the world, it was bound to be a severe blow to her confidence. Still…

“Taiven, aren’t your parents both battlemages?” Zorian asked. “How come they haven’t pulled some of their connections to find you a mentor, or even just a better job?”

“Oh, my parents would love to find me a mentor,” Taiven scoffed. “In fact, they already have someone in mind! He’s one of their old friends who’s long left the exciting parts of the business behind him when he lost his leg to a rock worm. He’s all about being cautious and minimizing risks, and he never does anything more challenging than routine pest extermination. Of course, that’s precisely why my parents want me to learn from him. If they had it their way, I’d be hunting mutated rats until I was thirty or something.”

“Ah…” said Zorian awkwardly. He seemed to have walked straight into a touchy subject there.

“Yeah,” Taiven said. “I love my parents, and I know they just want to keep me safe, but we just don’t see eye to eye there.”

“Okay, sorry to bring that up then. But really, if the reason you’re so upset is that you think you’re some kind of failure, well… you can rest easy. You’re an awesome combat mage. As awesome as you ever were, and nothing I do can change that.”

“I’m… not sure I really believe that,” Taiven sighed. “I couldn’t find a mentor. The team I made wasn’t going anywhere until I recruited you in it. Meanwhile, my parents keep insisting I’m not ready and that it’s a good thing I’ve had such a slow start of my career. It’s nice to hear some encouragement, but it rings a little hollow considering… you know.”

“Taiven, I’m not so good because you’re secretly bad and nobody bothered to clue you in until now,” Zorian said. “I’m so good because I had more than four years to hone my skills since we last saw each other.”

Taiven looked at him like he had grown a second head.

“That’s right – I’m actually older than you now,” Zorian said. “With that in mind, it is actually pretty amazing that I am still not capable of casually sweeping you aside in a fight. Sure, I could kill you instantly from an ambush, but if we clashed head to head in a battle of pure spellwork, I would have to use every trick at my disposal and still wouldn’t be guaranteed a win. That is why I keep insisting you’re awesome.”

“I don’t understand,” she said. “You don’t sound like you’re joking, but that’s what this looks like to me. How can you be older than me? That’s not how age works, Zorian.”

“Ah, did you already forget what I told you earlier?” Zorian asked, amused. “About how time flows differently for me than it does for you? I seem to remember you said it would keep bugging you until you get an answer…”

“Look, you know I’m not one for riddles and intellectual maneuvering,” Taiven said crankily. “Why don’t you just tell me what’s happening here, okay?”

Sure, why not.

“I’ve lived through this month before,” he said. “Many, many times. Every time I die, or on the night of the summer festival if I don’t, my soul gets wrenched back in time to the start of the month. It’s an endless loop that sees me getting stronger and more capable with each passing restart. Since you don’t retain your memories across restarts, my growth appears abrupt and inexplicable to you, but it’s really nothing more than your typical gradual improvement. Believe it or not, you’re the one that taught me a fair deal of that combat magic you’re so jealous of.”

“Shut up. I’m not jealous!” she protested.

He quirked an eyebrow at her. “Out of all of that, that’s what you chose to focus on?”

“Yeah, well, at least that one has an easy response,” she said. “What the hell am I supposed to say about the rest? Sure, it would explain your skills perfectly, but it’s just so…”

“Crazy?” Zorian offered.

“Yes,” she agreed. “And also terrifying. You’re basically saying I’ll get killed in a few weeks and replaced with a one-month younger version of me. And that this isn’t the first time this happened, it’s just that I don’t remember any of it. That’s like something out of a horror story!”

“I prefer to think of it as just memory loss rather than death,” Zorian said. “You’re still you, you just lose a couple of weeks of your life.”

“Repeatedly,” she added.

“Repeatedly,” Zorian confirmed. “I’m not saying it isn’t terrifying, just that I don’t think it’s equivalent to death. Admittedly, I’m a little biased here – if I thought that the time loop murdered millions of people at the end of every restart, I’d have probably gone insane from stress a long time ago.”

“Ah,” she winced. “Sorry, I guess I’m still thinking of this as some kind of hypothetical scenario instead of something that’s actually happening. Still, assuming you’re not just pulling my leg here – and I swear to heavens, Zorian, if you are pulling my leg I’ll glue your mouth shut with that really nasty gunk they use on dangerous prisoners – that’s still pretty messed up. And also very unfair. Why are you the only person to remember anything?”

“I’m not,” he said. “There are at least two other people looping with me, possibly more. One of them wants to destroy Cyoria.”

She stared at him for a second before getting up from her position. For a moment he thought he had gone into too much detail too fast, and that she was going to walk through the door, but instead she started looking through his drawers, searching for something. He thought about telling her off for rooting through his stuff like that, but decided to wait and see what she was up to.

She eventually found an empty notebook and a working pen in one of the drawers, appropriated one of the larger and thicker books in his room and then reclaimed her seat on the bed.

She opened the notebook on her lap, the heavy book she took serving as an improvised table, and quickly scribbled something down on top of the page.

Huh, he’d never thought of Taiven as someone to take notes like that.

“There, I’m ready,” she said. “Why don’t you start from the beginning this time…”

* * *

In the end, he wasn’t sure whether he had convinced her what he was saying was true or not. She took a lot of notes, asked even more questions, and then just left after telling him she had to think about things.

A far better outcome than he had expected to get, honestly. He really hoped she would overcome her disbelief and accept his story. It would be nice to have someone other than Kael to talk to about time loop related things. Not that there was anything wrong with the morlock boy, far from it, but sometimes he really wished he could get a second opinion about stuff.

Of course, it would hardly be him if that little bit of hope that came his way wasn’t soon balanced out by something or someone popping up to complicate things. In this case, that someone was Xvim. When he arrived at his office the next day for their weekly mentoring session, he was informed that ‘his’ training group had been noticed and that Xvim was not happy at all that such an amateur had delusions about being fit for a teacher. In order to make him fit for a teacher, Xvim decided to step up their schedule – they now met three days a week instead of the usual one.

He really hated that man.

* * *

His talk with Raynie was going well, in his opinion. If nothing else, she was a lot more relaxed than she had been in the previous restart – she’d even ordered a glass of wine to go with her meal. Of course, he wasn’t actually learning anything new from her, since she was telling him the same things she had told him the last time they’d done this, but that was to be expected. He couldn’t exactly continue on where they last left off without explaining where he got that information, and he didn’t feel like making something up. The week had been stressful enough, he was fine with just going with the flow like this.

“You know,” Raynie said, taking a small sip from her glass, “I’m getting the feeling that you already know most of what I’m telling you.”

Oops. It seemed Raynie was a bit more perceptive than he gave her credit for. He didn’t think he was being particularly careless, so maybe she was just that good. Probably for the best that he’d never tried to lie to her, then.

“Sort of,” he admitted.

“Why did you ask me something you already know the answer to, then?” she asked.

“So I can compare it with what I already know and see whether you were feeding me a bunch of lies or not,” he said.

She snorted derisively. “I think you’ve confused me with one of your cat shifter friends. Don’t you think it’s kind of rude to assume the worst of people like that?”

“So you’re saying your visit to our training group the other day wasn’t about you testing me to see what I would do?” he asked with a smile.

“Ugh. It was so obvious, huh?” Raynie sighed. “Well, it wasn’t just that… but yes, I wanted to see how you would treat me.”

“And?” he asked curiously. “What’s the verdict?”

“It’s good,” she said. “You didn’t lash out at me for being so clearly underpowered compared to you and your buddies, but you also didn’t drop everything to spend the entire meeting hovering around me, trying to ‘help’. A fair treatment. I respect that. I don’t want special privileges.”

“So you intend to keep coming, then?”

“Yes. As I said, seeing your reaction was just a part of it. I wasn’t lying when I said I wanted to get better.”

There was a brief silence as Raynie seemed to considering something.

“So, Zorian? I’m curious about something,” she eventually said. “What is it that drives you to try so hard? I mean, you’re near the top of the class at every subject, and you seem to be good enough for a fourth-year when it comes to combat magic. That had to have taken quite a lot of work. What are you trying to accomplish?”

Hum. What an interesting question. His reason for pushing himself at so many magical skills was, of course, that he very much needed them to survive… but that wasn’t true for all of them. Some of them he pursued for personal reasons, because he had an interest in the field. The funny thing was, he no longer had any idea what he wanted to actually do with his life once he was out of the time loop. Most of the career paths he had been eyeing before he got stuck in the time loop no longer appealed to him. They were too modest and routine for someone of his current skills, and he would only get more capable as time passed.

He could do better than that. But better how?

“Independence,” he eventually answered. Raynie gave him a curious look so he hurried to clarify. “My family and I don’t really get along. I want to get away from them as soon as possible. Buy my own place, get a source of steady income to support myself, things like that.”

All true, except that he already had the skills to achieve all of that easily. But it was the best answer he could come up with on such short notice.

“I see,” she said. “I apologize if I’m overstepping my boundaries, but why aren’t you getting along with your family?”

“It’s a bit personal,” Zorian sighed. “And also a long story. But the short version of it is that my parents have never cared much for me. I am the third son and a disappointment.”

”A disappointment?” Raynie asked curiously. “Do I want to know?”

“You probably already know this, but I have a really famous older brother,” Zorian said.

“Yes, Daimen,” she nodded. “What about it?”

“I’m not him,” Zorian said simply.

“Ah,” she said, drawing the word out. “It’s that kind of disappointment. But shouldn’t your other brother have the same problem, then?”

“He does, but he’s more charming and social than me,” Zorian shrugged. “He’ll never measure up to Daimen, but he’s ultimately alright in their book.”

Also, Fortov was a selfish asshole and could go straight to hell for all that Zorian cared.

“Interesting,” she said. “Let me present you with a hypothetical situation. Imagine it was not Daimen who came first. Imagine it was you, and your parents treated you as their chosen son. But then Daimen came about, and they promptly switched their favors to this new wonder child. Your time in the spotlight is over, and your parents fully expect you to move aside for their new darling. Do you think you would still have the same attitude you do now?”

Oh boy. He had a feeling this wasn’t really a hypothetical situation at all.

“Well…” he said, swallowing heavily. “Truthfully, I don’t think it’s possible for me to know what this hypothetical me might think and feel. So much would change in my life that I wouldn’t be the same person sitting here today. However, assuming someone magically switched me with this alternate version of me… yes, I would have the same attitude.”

“You wouldn’t try to fight for your birthright as the firstborn?” she asked.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “The alternate version of me, having experienced my parents’ favor, might see some value in trying to get it back. I would still seek to strike out on my own as soon as possible. The scenario doesn’t change anything for me.”

“I see,” she said, lost in thought.

Not long afterwards, they finished their talk and went their separate ways. As he walked back to Imaya’s place, he wondered whether he’d answered her ‘hypothetical situation’ correctly.

She agreed to meet with him next week, so perhaps she would eventually explain what that was about.

* * *

He spent the rest of his Saturday working on the next golem with Edwin. This one was going to be a little more ambitious, being made out of steel and much bigger than Kosjenka – though not nearly as big as he had originally wanted, since Edwin had informed him that construction of golems taller than a meter in height was prohibited unless one had a special license. He had already broken that law in a previous restart, and he was definitely going to break it again in future ones, but there was no need to do so right now. He didn’t think Edwin would report him, but he probably wouldn’t want to help him break the regulations so brazenly. Them being arrested would be but a brief inconvenience for Zorian, but Edwin wouldn't think of it that way.

The next day he immediately left the house in the morning and descended into the tunnels below Cyoria. One way or the other, the magic research room was getting opened – if he could not bypass the wards on the entrance, the Filigree Sages would break down the door to get in, consequences be damned.

He didn’t really agree with this decision. It had been less than a week since the Filigree Sages had started their salvaging operations, so he didn’t see why they were in such a rush to get it open. Well okay, they did explain why they were in such a hurry – the Cyorian underground was highly coveted territory among the aranea, being a center of their magical and technological revolution and all, and they were worried that the neighboring webs would swoop in and muscle them out any day now. Of course, Zorian knew from previous restarts that the neighboring webs weren’t going to come any time soon, but he couldn’t exactly tell the Filigree Sages that he had seen the future and that their fears were unfounded.

But no matter, even if they ended up destroying the contents, it wasn’t some great harm, at least from his perspective. He could always try again in future restarts.

He approached the dead settlement and he reached out telepathically to the guards posted by the Filigree Sages, announcing his arrival. Circle of Fortune and Golden Dust, the overseer of the Filigree Sages’ expedition, moved to greet him.

[Welcome back, Zorian Kazinski,] the aranea greeted. He had told her previously to just call him by his name, but she hadn’t taken him up on that. [Any news from the surface?]

[Nothing too important,] he said. [The monster incursions are beginning to peter out so the number of monster hunters stalking the Dungeon should see a sharp drop soon.]

[Good,] she said. [This place is outside their usual patrol routes but I still worried some of them would stumble upon it. Are you ready for the attempt?]

[I guess. I still think you’re rushing, though.]

[We are,] she admitted. [I am not casting aspersions on your combat skills, but you’re still just one mage. If nothing else, you cannot be in more than one place at the same time. We have to work quickly.]

They soon arrived at the room that held the research room. Six more aranea were already inside, two of them analyzing the wards while the other four waited for a command to break down the door. After conversing with the two aranean ward breakers for a few minutes, Zorian created a floating disc of force to stand on and lifted himself towards the hole in the ceiling where the entrance stood.

He took out the ward analysis device from his jacket – the ‘pocket watch’ that Taiven had been hired to retrieve so long ago, and whose absence clued him in to the existence of the treasury. He had located it inside the treasury uncovered by the Filigree Sages and, while he fully intended to dismantle it to see what made it tick, for now it was more useful to him intact, serving its intended purpose. He channeled a divination spell through the device and got to work.

From what he and the aranean ward breakers had been able to tell thus far, there were three main layers of defenses on the entrance. The first one would electrocute anyone touching the walls of the entrance. The second one would superheat the air inside it to lethal temperatures. The third one would bring down the entire ceiling on top of wannabe looters. All three had complicated and hidden trigger conditions, tied to a detection layer that neither he nor the aranean ward breakers could figure out.

Obviously, the third defense was the priority to disable, but it also appeared to be the defense most sensitive to attempted tampering. The Filigree Sages had worked out a way to neutralize it, but doing so would no doubt trigger all other defenses – both the two they were aware of, and any further ones they had yet to detect.

The ward analysis device really showed its usefulness, though – the detection layer, so byzantine and obscured from scrutiny in the past, simply unraveled under its power. It was… not as bad as he feared. He could do this. He contacted Circle of Fortune and told her he thought he could disable the defenses. The aranea in the room exploded into a flurry of activity, mostly vacating the room in case he overreached and brought the whole room down. Circle of Fortune and the two ward breakers, however, remained. The ward breakers would help him in the attempt, while Circle of Fortune simply announced that she ‘had to be there’. He didn’t argue with her, too absorbed by the task in front of him.

Over the course of the next hour and a half, he and the two aranean ward breakers slowly and carefully neutralized the detection layer and then moved onto unlocking the door itself. The door itself had some additional defenses, relatively minor in nature but strong enough to really ruin their day if they triggered any of them – it was to his immense relief, then, that they managed to get it open without setting off a single one.

Unfortunately, that’s when the defenses inside the room itself, completely separated from the main ward scheme and therefore undetectable from the outside, activated. If Zorian hadn’t reacted immediately by erecting a shield in front of them while simultaneously directing the force platform they were standing on downwards at maximum speed, the incoming explosion would surely have killed them on the spot. Even with that, they ended up crashing painfully on the floor of the cave, dazing them for a couple of crucial seconds.

There was no time to sit down and recover, though, because the ruined entrance to the research room was starting to pump sickly yellow gas into the room and Zorian had no intention of seeing what effect it had when breathed in. He held his breath and quickly sealed the entrance with a bubble of force, stopping more gas from pouring in, before casting a spell he’d seen Kyron cast once during the invasion. He raised his hand into the air and concentrated on the gas, causing it to surge towards his outstretched palm, where it flowed into a small, compact ball.

Moments later, once he was sure he’d gotten all of the gas, he restructured the churning ball of poison gas into harmless, inert dust and took stock of the situation with Circle of Fortune, who was lucky enough to escape the incident without consequences. The two ward breakers were not so lucky – they weren’t dead, but it was close. It turned out that aranea could not hold their breath like humans, so they ended up breathing in some of the poison gas in the room before he neutralized it. They would recover, but not any time soon, so Circle of Fortune asked him to drop them off back at the main Filigree Sages’ settlement and pick up a new pair of ward breakers as replacements.

He later sent some ectoplasmic eyes and other remote sensors into the room to check it out, and found it completely wrecked by the explosion and coated in some dangerous looking green slime. Circle of Fortune just mentally shrugged, pronounced the entire thing a bust and ordered the entrance to the room walled off with alteration spells to prevent any further surprises coming from there.

[Don’t beat yourself up over this failure,] Circle of Fortune told him. [If we had gone through with our original plan, those defenses would have still gone off, probably killing the entire assault team assigned to breaking down the door. Plus, we’d also have had to deal with other traps you ended up disabling before you ran afoul of that last set. This is a much better outcome.]

Well, that was one way of looking at it. He left Circle of Fortune to deal with the final cleanup of the situation and went off to find his mind magic teachers among the aranea.

It didn’t take long for him to track them down to one of the isolated corners of the dead settlements, where the three of them were huddled together and engaged in telepathic conversation.

Before this restart, such intra-aranean conversations were completely opaque to him – telepathy was not language-independent, so unless the aranea ‘spoke’ in a manner he could understand, he was out of luck. Now, however, one of those teachers had begun to teach him how to understand and use the aranean telepathic language, so he could actually understand a few snippets. He was still a rank beginner at it, of course, but it was enough to understand the general topic of the conversation. They were discussing the three strongest neighboring webs – Burning Apex, Red Brand Bearers and Deep Blue – and the threat they would pose to the expedition if they decided to send a war party to Cyoria. Sadly, that was about as much as he could figure out from the conversation. The details totally escaped him.

He made a mental note to see if he could find something about the neighboring webs in the records room. It might be a good idea to visit them sometime and see what they had to offer.

[Greetings,] he sent to all three of them. [Am I interrupting something important?]

[We’re just killing time,] Voice of Peace answered for them. She was the teacher that was supposed to help him learn how to interpret aranean senses, thoughts and memories. She’d decided on her own initiative that this included teaching him the aranean language, claiming he would never be really capable of making sense of the aranean mind without being fluent in it. She was also the most enthusiastic of his three teachers, often willing to work with him beyond their officially allotted time or go beyond the strict boundaries of what she was assigned to help him with. [Are you here for your daily lesson?]

[Yes,] he confirmed. [I know I’m a little early, but the project to open up the magic research room was a bit of a disaster.]

[We’ve heard,] said the aranea known simply as ‘Hammerer’ – an rather apt name, considering the aranea in question specialized in telepathic combat and favored powerful, unrelenting assault. [Circle of Fortune was always the reckless sort. At least you made sure nobody died. I must admit I didn’t expect much from you when I heard you were supposed to guard us, but it seems you are actually useful from time to time.]

[Hammerer!] Voice of Peace protested.

[I just say it how it is,] Hammerer responded, not in the least bit contrite.

[Let’s not bicker in front of our student. It sets a bad example,] said Memory of Sublime Glories, the last of his three teachers. Zorian got the notion that she resented him somewhat and considered the job of teaching a lowly human to be beneath her. Or maybe teaching in general, he wasn’t really sure. Either way, she was too professional to let that get in the way of her job, so he had no cause to complain. [Are we following the same program we did the last time?]

[I don’t see why not,] Zorian said.

[In that case, we will continue where we left off yesterday. As an aside, I will not be able to help you further unless you acquire someone to serve as a, ah, practice subject for our next session. You indicated this would not be a problem?]

[No,] Zorian stated. [It won’t be.]

It should be trivial to ambush one of the cultists and drag him down here for interrogation and memory magic practice. The only thing he was unsure of was whether to go for a low-ranking member who probably didn’t know anything but whose disappearance would go largely unnoticed or if he should aim higher. He would have to think about it some more.

[Before we start though, I’d like your opinion about something,] Zorian said.

[Oh? What about?] Memory of Sublime Glories asked. [Is this about that massive memory packet lodged inside your mind, perhaps?]

Ugh. This was a problem with learning memory manipulation from the aranea – he had no choice but to let Memory of Sublime Glories inside his head somewhat. He was pretty sure he would detect any serious breach of trust on her part, but it was hard to prevent her from taking a sneak peek at his thoughts every now and then.

[I thought you said you’d refrain from doing that?] he asked her, annoyed.

[I barely looked,] she protested. [An aranean memory packet inside a human mind, especially one of that size, is just very noticeable. Besides, you were just thinking about letting me examine it in more detail, so why are you complaining about that? I’m about to get a much closer look at it anyway.]

Zorian sighed in defeat. He hated it when the aranea responded to his thoughts before he actually put them into words. It was just rude. Still, she was essentially correct – he needed her to take a look at the matriarch’s memory packet and tell him what she saw, because to his own amateur mental senses it seemed to be degrading already.

If that was true, then he needed to know how much time he had.

After a bit more back and forth he reluctantly opened his mind to her and agreed to let her take a closer look at his mind so she could figure out what was happening with the memory packet. Thankfully, she seemed to behave herself, so the explosives around his neck remained inert and undetonated.

Eventually she withdrew from his mind and gave him the verdict.

[I’m afraid you’re correct,] she said. [The boundaries of the memory packet have indeed begun to fall apart.]

His heart sank. That was precisely what he was afraid of. He wasn’t ready. If he opened the package now, he doubted he would get anything out of it. But if he waited…

[How long do I have?] he asked.

[Hard to say. I’ve never seen a memory packet that big, so it’s hard to judge how the decay will progress. It can stay stable for another three months, I think. Maybe four. If you really want to be certain, though, you’ll have to open it within the next two months.]

[Isn’t there anything that can be done to stop, or at least slow the decay?] Zorian asked desperately.

[Repairing memory packets is fairly easy if you’re the one who made them,] Memory of Sublime Glories said. [Far less so if somebody else did. I don’t think I could repair something that elaborate, and you would never trust me to tinker that deeply with your mind, anyway. I will teach you the basics of the skill, if you wish, but to get good enough to repair that thing you will have to secure a better teacher.]

[Any idea where I could find one?] Zorian asked.

[The Luminous Advocates probably have what you need,] she said. [I heard they can be hard to deal with, though. They drive a hard bargain.]

Ugh, those guys. Well, desperate times called for desperate measures. If nothing else, getting enough money to pay for their outrageous prices should be fairly trivial at this point.

[In that case, I’d like to postpone our current lesson plan for a bit and concentrate on memory packets and how to repair them,] he told her.

[Of course,] she agreed easily. [Here is what you do…]

* * *

He returned home later in the evening, tired and depressed. He had hoped to do some more work after his visit to the Filigree Sages, but between the failure to secure the contents of the magic research room intact and the confirmation that the matriarch’s memory packet had begun to unravel, he didn’t feel like doing anything.

“Oh, you’re back!” Imaya exclaimed when he entered the house. “Your friend has been waiting for you for a while now. She’s in the basement with Kael right now. Do you want me to call her or are you going to get her yourself?”

His friend? Her?

“Taiven?” he guessed. Imaya nodded. Huh, that was a lot earlier than he had expected to hear from her. This could be either very good or very bad. “I’ll go see what she wants.”

“You know, the last time your ‘friend’ visited you, she left the house looking like she had been crying,” Imaya said casually.

“Is there a reason why you’re pronouncing ‘friend’ like that?” Zorian asked her suspiciously.

“You’re not breaking young girls’ hearts, are you, mister Kazinski?”

“Ugh. There is nothing like that between me and Taiven, okay? And besides, if anyone is the heartbreaker here, it’s definitely Taiven,” he protested.

She gave him a curious look.

“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” he said, shaking his head.

Thankfully, she didn’t press the issue, so he went to the basement to talk to Taiven and see what she decided. He found her talking with Kael about the time loop, comparing notes and discussing time travel mechanics.

“So does this mean you believe me?” he asked her hopefully.

“I suppose,” she said. “This is still all very fantastical and unreal to me, but everything you told me seems to check out. Or at least the parts I can actually check do. And Kael here seems convinced you’re telling the truth, too. So yeah, I guess I kind of believe you.”

“Is there anything you can tell me that would help me convince you in future restarts?” Zorian asked.

“Kael and I talked about that for a while,” she said. “I don’t know. Any personal information I could give you would just creep me out if you started spouting it off all of a sudden – I’d sooner decide that you’ve been spying on me or that you’re reading my mind than that you are a time traveler. If you just tracked me down at the start of the restart and started showing off everything you’ve learned inside the time loop, I’d definitely accept that something strange is going on, but I’d probably think you’re a shapeshifter in disguise or possessed. It’s only because I interacted with you pretty heavily for a whole week that I never doubted that you’re… well, you.”

“How about this then: I start the next restart the same way I did this one, joining your group and all, wait for a few days for you to get annoyed with my growth spike, and then confront you about it on my own initiative before you have a chance to get really fed up with it,” Zorian tried.

Tension that he never even noticed until that moment seemed to drain from her shoulders and she sagged in relief.

“What?” he said, frowning.

“I… was afraid you’d just keep duplicating the circumstances that led me here over and over again,” she admitted. “Even if I don’t retain memories of it, I don’t want to be repeatedly reduced to tears. It was humiliating once, thank you very much.”

“Truth be told, I wasn’t okay with the idea of repeatedly making you cry, either,” he told her. “So that option was definitely off the table, even if you were okay with it.”

She looked away, embarrassed.

Kael cleared his throat to get their attention.

“I hate to break up the moment, but we have much to talk about,” he said.

“Yes,” Taiven agreed, relishing the chance to change the topic. “First of all – Zorian, why haven’t you contacted Zach yet? This ‘Red Robe’ of yours is a threat to you both, and you said yourself that you think he’s at the center of all this. It only makes sense to work together. I don’t understand your reluctance to talk to him.”

“First of all, there is a possibility that Red Robe is monitoring Zach and tracking his movements. If so, then contacting him would mean revealing myself to Red Robe,” Zorian said. “Secondly, I suspect that the moment I contact Zach, my whole schedule is getting thrown into the trash can. I have some fairly urgent things I need to do in the near future, I can’t drop everything to hang out with Zach. Even assuming he is fairly understanding of my goals, he’ll still probably insist on taking part in my activities. Since the things I’m doing require subtlety, which he entirely lacks, that’s a problem. All in all, I just don’t think it’s a good idea to involve myself with him at this moment.”

“So, what, you intend to avoid a potential ally just like that?” Taiven asked.

“Only until I’m done investigating the invaders and I can get the matriarch’s memory packet open,” Zorian said. “After that, I will probably go out and meet with him to see what he has been doing and whether we can help each other.”

“Huh. Alright,” she said, somewhat mollified. “That makes more sense. To be honest, I thought you’d be a lot more stubborn about this than that. Kael said you had some sort of grudge against the guy, and I know how you are with your grudges.”

“Well, Kael is wrong. I don’t have a grudge against Zach,” he said, giving the white-haired boy an annoyed look. “But whatever. One problem solved. What else do we need to talk about?”

Kael ripped out a page out of his notebook and offered it to Zorian.

“We made a list,” Kael said with a smile. “Taiven had a lot of suggestions.”

Zorian accepted the piece of paper with a sigh and began to read. She really knew how to pick a day to drop this on his head, didn’t she?

When it rains, it pours.

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