Time travel was a hard thing to prove. It was ‘known’ to be impossible among mages, and proof to the contrary usually boiled down to possession of impossible knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, that often simply wasn’t convincing enough. There existed a nigh-infinite number of ways to gather information with magic, none of which required time travel, and impossible skills could just as easily mean you were not who you claimed you were. There was little that Zorian could tell Xvim that couldn’t be explained with something more mundane than time travel.
Still. While Zorian had no idea whether Xvim was actually going to accept his story, he was confident that the information he’d written down on the sheet of paper in front of him would at least give the man some pause. The restarts varied greatly in how they developed, but some things always remained the same, which meant that Zorian could give Xvim a multitude of small predictions about the upcoming days. Things like what was going to be written in the newspapers, what magical stores would announce special sales in preparation for the summer festival and what students would end up leaving the academy because of the monster incursions. It helped that it had been less than a week since the restart had begun, so events didn’t have the time to diverge too much yet.
Individually, each of the things he’d written were easy to explain. When taken as a whole? He would have to be the best damn spy in the whole city to acquire that kind of information, and it still wouldn’t explain how he’d known about some of the more sudden events on the list.
He handed the list to Xvim, who quickly scanned it and then pocketed it with a silent nod. He told Zorian that he would try to verify his claims over the weekend and that Zorian should visit him again on Monday.
And that was that. A decent outcome, all things considered. Zorian halfway expected Xvim to criticize his penmanship and tell him to start over and write properly this time around. He bid Xvim goodbye and left.
He was in the process of walking back home, idly trying to think of a good way to broach the topic of Sudomir’s soul well to Kael, when he spotted a green-haired girl waving at him in the distance. Surprised and distracted as he was, it took him several seconds to realize who he was looking at, even though green hair was pretty damn rare and therefore a huge giveaway. It was Kopriva Reid, one of his classmates.
He waved back uncertainly, wondering what that was about. It was common courtesy to greet your classmates when you meet them outside the academy, of course, but this wasn’t the first time Zorian had encountered Kopriva outside the academy and she had never reacted like this in the past. She’d give him a nod if they passed each other by or say hello if he did it first, but never try to attract his attention like she just had. Which made sense, really. She was almost a total stranger to him, just like most of his classmates. So why was she…
Oh. Nevermind, he was going to find out what she wanted soon enough. She was crossing the street and making a beeline towards him.
Zorian studied her as she approached, trying to see if he was in some kind of trouble. He felt no hostility or apprehension emanating from her, so probably not, but Kopriva always kind of intimidated him. Less so since he got stuck in the time loop – before he used to actively avoid her whenever possible – but even in his current situation he’d rather not tangle with someone from House Reid. He was still vulnerable to being drugged senseless, and that was kind of their specialty.
He clearly wasn’t the only one who found her intimidating, either. She was a tall, shapely girl – something Zorian could attest to at the moment, what with her getting ever closer to his position – but very few people had tried to court her over the years. Even Benisek refrained from making a pass on her, which was pretty damn amazing. Zorian was pretty sure that Akoja was the only other girl in their class who Benisek had never tried to flirt with.
“Zorian, you can’t believe how glad I am to see you here,” she said once she’d finally gotten close enough. He raised his eyebrows at the statement. “You live together with Kael, right?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, curious what that had to do with anything.
“Good. I agreed to meet with him about a business deal today and he gave me the directions to this ‘Imaya’s place’ where you two live, but… I seem to be misremembering something because I can’t find it,” she said. “Could you give me some directions here?”
“I can do better. I’m on my way there myself, so if you don’t mind I can just walk you there,” he said.
“Great! I was hoping you would say that,” she grinned at him. “Lead the way, then. And don’t mention to anyone that I got lost, okay? That was pretty freaking embarrassing, I don’t know how I messed up so badly. If Kael asks, we just… met on the way by accident. Kind of true, anyway.”
Zorian nodded in acceptance and they both set off towards Imaya’s place. He couldn’t help but frown at Kopriva slightly, though. Business deal? Was this what he thought it was?
Unfortunately, Kopriva noticed the look and misconstrued its meaning.
“What’s that look for?” she asked defensively. “You don’t approve of me coming to your place or something?”
“It’s not like that,” Zorian assured her hurriedly. Man, she was prickly. “It’s just that when Kael told me he was going to find someone to buy those ‘rare’ alchemical ingredients from, I didn’t expect this to be the result. I thought he would go to someone… well, older.”
When Kael had told Zorian that he had to get ahold of a fair amount of normally restricted alchemical ingredients to continue with his research, Zorian had thought the morlock would go to some shady shop or something, not try to broker a deal with one of their classmates. Then again, Zorian had to admit that that the idea wasn’t stupid as such. House Reid, of which Kopriva was a member, specialized in growing magical plants and processing them into alchemical ingredients. It was also a public secret that they were heavily involved in the sale of drugs and illegal alchemy products in general, and through that maintained deep links with organized crime groups. There was a highly publicized trial against the House a few years back, since several smuggling rings were found to be led by ‘exiled’ members of the House, but nothing came out of it in the end. House Reid was responsible for a sizeable proportion of Eldemar’s herb fields, greenhouses and forest preserves, some of which nobody except House Reid knew how to tend to, so the government wasn’t willing to antagonize them too much.
So yes, there was some logic to Kael approaching Kopriva to acquire the needed ingredients, though Zorian was still very surprised it had worked. He would have expected Kopriva to act outraged at the implication that she was engaged in criminal activities, fearing some kind of trick. That’s what Zorian would have done in her place. He would have to ask Kael how he had done it later, just in case there was some secret to it that he should know about – he did intend to make use of criminal networks himself in the near future, after all.
“Wait, you’re in on that?” she asked, surprised.
“Yeah. We’re in a partnership of sorts,” Zorian said.
“Huh,” she said, giving him a speculative look. “I would have never guessed you were involved in something like this. You just seem so straight-laced, you know? Then again, you’re a pretty driven guy, and my grandfather always said that nobody ever got powerful by following the law.”
Such sage wisdom from the older generation.
“To tell the truth, I would have never guessed you’d be involved in something like this, either,” Zorian said. “I mean, weren’t you annoyed when Kael approached you about this? Doesn’t it bother you that one of your fellow students automatically assumed you were involved in your family’s ‘other business’ simply because you’re part of House Reid?”
She snorted derisively.
“Everyone assumes that anyway,” she said. “They’re just too polite to say it out loud. At least most of the time. Besides, I made some uncharitable assumptions about him as well. I wouldn’t have acknowledged any random offer, you know? If you had been the one to approach me, I would have told you to go to hell. And possibly punched you, if you didn’t back off after that. But since Kael is a morlock, I assumed his offer is actually genuine. Morlocks have a reputation of their own, you know…”
Ah. So that’s why it had worked so easily.
Kopriva then tried to talk him into telling her what he and Kael needed so much restricted material for and how they had gotten the money to pay for it. Zorian actually answered the first, saying it was for benign medical research (totally true, unless Kael was misleading him) but refused to answer questions about the money. He took the chance to ask her if she was planning on reporting them to someone, reading her surface thoughts to make sure she was telling the truth. She denied that – truthfully, as far as he could tell – and seemed more amused than insulted by the accusation. She didn’t really believe they wanted the materials for medical research, though. Zorian didn’t bother convincing her he was telling the truth.
After that, the conversation shifted to other, more casual topics. Mostly academy-related, as that was a relatively inoffensive subject, but Kopriva sometimes pried into his private life when she saw a convenient opportunity to do so. It was interesting, as she hadn’t been this talkative in the previous restarts when she’d joined his combat magic group.
Eventually they reached their destination, at which point Kopriva met Imaya. His landlord had either never heard of House Reid or had an even better poker face than Zorian had thought, because she looked positively overjoyed about Kopriva’s visit. She insisted that Zorian was rude not to offer Kopriva something to eat and drink before dragging her away to hash out a deal.
“Food before work,” Imaya said in a lecturing voice. “That’s the rule.”
Since Kopriva seemed actually excited at the prospect of eating some homemade cookies, Zorian went along with it. He wasn’t in that much of a hurry.
He really shouldn’t have been surprised when Kopriva asked Imaya for a glass of beer, or when Imaya gave them both a glass in response. He covertly transmuted the liquid into something non-alcoholic while they weren’t looking, but that just made the stuff taste even viler than it usually did, so he may have shot himself in the foot there.
In the end, while the deal was successfully concluded, what was supposed to be a relatively short visit ended up taking most of the afternoon. Kopriva even ended up meeting Kirielle, with whom she got along surprisingly well – he would have to talk to his sister later about what was acceptable for conversation around the green-haired girl, since Kopriva said she would drop by again next week to deliver the materials. He should probably have a talk with Imaya as well, just in case the older woman really had no idea who she was dealing with.
Ultimately, though, Zorian did not worry about the whole thing too much. The deal was largely arranged by Kael, for Kael, with Zorian’s role being mainly to pay for it all. As such, he felt it was only proper to let the morlock boy take care of it while Zorian focused on something else.
Gods knew he had too many things vying for his time as it was.
* * *
Zorian’s plan for the weekend consisted of two solid days of aranea fighting and accompanying memory reading to practice for the eventual opening of the matriarch’s memory packet. Sadly, the plan didn’t survive collision with reality. His first target – the Burning Apex web in the vicinity of Cyoria – turned out to be a rather poor choice for aggression.
They were a martially-inclined web, proficient in both magic and mental combat, and had spent most of their existence in fierce competition with the neighboring webs. The patrol he ambushed seemed like easy targets to him, but they ended up being anything but. They worked together flawlessly, had some sort of mental attack that could partially pass through his mental barriers and had prepared the battlefield beforehand. They ended up maneuvering him into a pre-existing explosion trap and detonated a boulder right next to him. He managed to shield himself against the bulk of the blast, but he still ended up with a severely wounded arm and a multitude of minor scrapes. Plus he had a raging headache from when he failed to shield against their telepathic attacks properly.
He activated his recall stone and fled.
The damage was nothing really serious, he later found out, but it would take several days before he was completely healed, even with the healing potions that Kael was supplying him. Since embarking on further campaigns against the aranea while in less than top form struck him as a terrible idea, his plans would have to be delayed. Damn it.
At least Kael was happy. Ever since he had found out that Zorian could teleport all over the country as he pleased, he had been trying to talk Zorian into taking him to the northern wilderness so he could gather herbs, mushrooms and other materials for his research. Zorian had been decidedly against it, considering it to be a waste of time… but since his plan was already shot to hell and he couldn’t do much at the moment, he figured he would grant Kael’s wish just this once.
Accordingly, Sunday found Zorian wandering around the forest with Kael. Zorian had expected his role would be to simply teleport Kael around and protect him from anything that sought to kill them, but Kael was feeling talkative that day and insisted on explaining everything he was doing to Zorian. Every time they encountered one of the plants Kael was looking for, the morlock boy told him why the plant could be found in that particular place, what it was useful for, and how to harvest the plant correctly. All of which was very important information that was not easy to get ahold of – one could not find this sort of thing in most books, as people were reluctant to share this sort of information. It was all too easy to overharvest specific magical plants if too many people were doing it, so there was a tendency among herbalists to guard their secrets tightly and only pass them on to their apprentices. Even so, quite a few magical plants went totally extinct over the centuries due to unchecked exploitation, making potions they were used for impossible to make in modern times.
So yes, it was a good thing to know all this. And yet…
“I still don’t see why you wanted to do this so badly,” Zorian complained as he used a knife to harvest some sort of river grass. The thing was tricky to harvest correctly, since one had to cut it quickly and in exactly the right place or its alchemical properties would be completely ruined. Not an easy thing to do with one wounded hand. “We could have just bought all of this in a store and saved ourselves so much time. Yes, I know it would have been rather expensive, but I could afford it. Easily. Money is less of a problem for me than time.”
“I’m afraid you are wrong,” Kael said, shaking his head. The morlock boy was crouching not too far from Zorian, staring at a large boulder like it was the most interesting thing in the world. Zorian felt the urge to ask Kael what the hell was so interesting about that rock, but eventually decided he didn’t want to know. “The things we are gathering are very hard to find in a store. They tend to be snapped up by wealthy, influential alchemists who buy them straight from the people who gather them in the wild. They never reach the shelves.”
“Really?” Zorian asked, surprised. “Strange. You’d think someone would just start cultivating them if they’re in such high demand. You know, like House Reid and so many others are already doing for other useful magical plants.”
“Not every plant can be grown in controlled conditions,” Kael told him. “Many of them cannot survive outside their natural environment for whatever reason, and that environment is either impossible or uneconomical to mimic artificially. Others will grow just fine, but will lose whatever essence makes them useful if not taken care of in just the right way or exposed to very specific conditions. Some of them can be transplanted into gardens and survive, but will never grow or reproduce afterwards. Some of them grow so slowly that nobody can be actually bothered to wait for them to grow to maturity.”
“Okay, I get it,” Zorian said, interrupting his lecture. “Magical plants are very hard to domesticate. I actually knew that already but the ones we’re gathering just don’t seem all that special to me, you know? But if you say otherwise, I will take your word for it. I’m not a botanical expert by any means.”
“Neither am I, but I do know a few things about the topic. My adoptive mother insisted I had to know these things if I wanted to be a real alchemist,” Kael said, rising to his feet and discarding the clump of moss he had been scrutinizing up until a moment ago. “Are you done with those? Do you need some help?”
“Here,” Zorian said, handing Kael the river grass he harvested. “I think I got all of them correctly but you should probably check to make sure.”
Kael glanced at the small bundle in Zorian’s hands and immediately discarded three of the stalks that Zorian had apparently ruined without realizing it. How Kael could recognize that on first sight, Zorian had no idea.
“We’re done here, I think,” Kael said, looking around for a second. “I don’t think we’ll find anything else here without a lot of walking around. Do you think you can teleport us to the next section of the forest now?”
“Sure. My mana reserves were replenished a while ago,” Zorian said.
“Let’s go then. Deeper into the wilderness this time around. We haven’t been attacked by anything truly dangerous the entire day and I want to see if I can find some ghost ivy or moonflowers,” Kael said, gesturing northward.
Zorian nodded, unperturbed by the somewhat increased danger. While there were quite a few creatures that could kill them that deep in the forest, he should be able to notice them in time and teleport them to safety. A minute later they popped over to their new destination and Kael started looking around to assess their surroundings.
“Teleporting is so very convenient,” the white-haired boy commented. “I can’t wait to learn how to do that. How long do you think it would take me to learn how to teleport like that?”
“I don’t know. A year or two?” Zorian speculated. “If you work hard on your shaping skills, that is. As little as a couple of months if you work with me to create a training regimen for you like I’m doing for Taiven.”
“Ha. I might take you up on that at some point,” he said. “I’m wasting a lot of your time and nerves as it is, though, and I don’t want to be greedy.”
“You’ve been a lot of help over the restarts,” Zorian assured him. “You’ve earned some consideration from me, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I see,” Kael said speculatively. “In that case, I’d like to pester you a little about those disappearances happening around Knyazov Dveri. Many of these people had been my friends and acquaintances, and their fate rests rather heavily on my mind. I know you have been busy in these past few restarts, but did you perhaps look into the matter at some point?”
Well. He hadn’t planned on having this talk during this particular outing, but he supposed this was as good a moment as any to tell Kael about Sudomir’s soul trap thingy.
“Actually, about that…”
* * *
Zorian had fully expected Kael to freak out when he heard what Sudomir was doing in his isolated forest mansion, and he was not disappointed in that regard. If anything, Zorian greatly underestimated how furious the morlock boy would be by the end of the story. Kael, in a rather stunning display of recklessness, wanted them to go visit Iasku Mansion immediately so he could inspect Sudomir’s soul trap. It took almost an hour for Zorian to convince the other boy that this was a spectacularly bad idea – Zorian was still wounded, Kael was not thinking straight, and neither of them had done any preparations for such an expedition.
“You realize what this means, right?” Kael asked him. It was apparently a rhetorical question because Kael immediately answered it himself. “Every one of those times you died during the invasion, your soul was likely sucked into that thing along with everyone else’s.”
“Yeah, so?” asked Zorian. “The time loop mechanism clearly doesn’t care about that. It just plucks my soul out of the pillar and goes on to do its thing like usual.”
Though now that Zorian thought about it, that in itself might be a clue as to how the time loop really functioned. It could be that the time loop mechanism was just so powerful that it could casually extract his soul out of a giant soul prison that probably had a million safeguards against someone doing that very thing… but it could also be that the way it all worked just sort of sidestepped the problem. If the time loop really destroyed everything whenever it rolled back time, it might not really matter where his soul ended up in the end, so long as it’s still intact.
“Yes, and the collection process is apparently sufficiently benign that you have suffered no soul damage from being exposed to it multiple times,” Kael said. “That’s good to know, at least. It definitely puts some of my fears to rest. But Zorian, I… I’m honestly not sure how much I can help you with this. When you really get down to it, I’m really just a dabbler in soul magic, and Sudomir is clearly an expert at the field. He has also delved deep into areas of soul magic that I wouldn’t have even touched, so even if I were an expert I might not have been of any help. I’ll see what I can find out in the next couple of days, but in all likelihood you’re going to have to find someone else to help you deal with Sudomir.”
“I don’t suppose you have any recommendations?” Zorian tried.
“I already gave you a list of people I know who dabbled in soul magic and, well, Sudomir already got most of them,” Kael shook his head sadly. “Sorry. Maybe try that warrior priest that Lukav is friends with? He clearly has considerable experience with soul magic and he sounds like he could help. In fact, the priesthood in general might be your best bet. They regularly go after people like Sudomir, and have both the qualified experts and the experience necessary for something like this. I’m pretty sure they won’t just dismiss your claims out of hand. They take reports of necromancy very seriously, and your accusations should be easy to prove – just teleport someone in the vicinity of Iasku Mansion and let them see the evidence themselves.”
“That’s an interesting idea. I might actually try that in the next restart, if you really end up being unable to help me in any way,” Zorian said. “Though I’m worried about that escalating into something huge and attracting Red Robe’s attention. Sudomir is connected to the invasion pretty tightly, I don’t think the Ibasans would stay secret for long if Iasku Mansion came under attack like that.”
“Honestly, that might actually be a good thing,” Kael speculated. “Red Robe thinks you are part of an army of time travelers out to get him, right? If so, it might actually be suspicious if you don’t periodically do something big like that.”
“Well, maybe,” Zorian said. “But it’s still a huge hint to Red Robe, telling him where to look to find out more about his opposition. I feel it’s too dangerous to expose myself to danger like that.”
After a while, they ran out of ideas to bounce back between each other and uncomfortable silence descended between them. Kael’s inability to help much against Sudomir clearly kept eating away at him, gradually worsening his mood, and Zorian didn’t know what to say to cheer him up. He doubted Kael even wanted to be cheered up. Eventually, Kael decided to simply cut their expedition short and asked Zorian to teleport them back home.
The gathering trip was over.
* * *
Monday came, and with it his meeting with Xvim. Xvim had never told Zorian when exactly he should drop by for their talk, so Zorian decided to come see him once his classes were over and he had no other obligations. Xvim, as it turned out, had other ideas. The man ended up causing a small stir by barging into Zorian’s first class of the day to pick him up, evidently impatient to talk to him. He had no idea whether this was a good or bad thing, and Xvim refused to discuss anything until they were safely seated inside his office.
“So,” Zorian asked. “What’s your final verdict?”
Instead of answering, Xvim took a palm-sized stone orb out of his drawer and handed it to Zorian.
“Channel some mana into this orb,” Xvim told him.
The moment Zorian did so, the stone sphere lit up in a soft yellow glow. That was very familiar to Zorian. It reminded him of those basic training orbs they were given during their first year at the academy – the ones that helped students learn how to reliably channel their mana into the target. What was the point of making him do something like that again?
“Is this thing testing my mana signature?” Zorian asked curiously.
“Yes,” Xvim confirmed. “Everyone’s personal mana is unique. You can hide or change your mana signature, but you cannot mimic someone else’s to the best of my knowledge. The most you could do is trick the orb into giving a false positive, but I’d be able to tell if you were tampering with it in that fashion. It seems you really are who you claim you are, mister Kazinski. I expected as much, but it would be sloppy not to check.”
“First it was a lock keyed in to my mana signature, and now this. How exactly did the academy acquire my mana signature? I don’t remember giving it at any point,” said Zorian, handing the orb back to Xvim.
“Every time you used one of these training orbs during your first year,” said Xvim, waving the stone orb in front of Zorian’s face, “you were effectively giving the academy your mana signature. It was just a matter of locking the orb down to preserve it for future use.”
“And that’s legal?” Zorian frowned.
Xvim nodded. “Required by law, even. The government likes to have everyone’s mana signatures on hand for investigations. It greatly simplifies a lot of identity disputes and the like.”
“Right,” Zorian sighed. “So now that we’ve established I’m indeed Zorian Kazinski…”
“Yes, the ‘time loop’ problem,” Xvim said, putting the orb back into his drawer. “I assume you are aware of the prevalent opinion regarding time travel?”
“They say it’s impossible,” he said. “I know. But that’s theory-“
“And a lot of failed experiments,” Xvim interjected.
“-and my personal experiences say otherwise,” continued Zorian, ignoring Xvim’s interjection. “Whatever ‘prevalent opinion’ says, I can clearly see that time travel is possible. It’s just a question of whether I’ve convinced you I’m telling the truth or not.”
“You’ve convinced me there is something to your story, at least,” Xvim said. “But I’m afraid I’m going to need more convincing before I actually accept the idea of a time loop. Do you think you could clarify some things for me?”
The next hour and a half consisted of Xvim questioning Zorian about the rules that governed the time loop and the events surrounding it. The questioning was detailed enough that Xvim probably realized Zorian was hiding some things from him, but the man never called him out on this. He also never wrote anything down, simply staring at Zorian and listening to his explanations in silence. It was honestly all a little unnerving.
“The material world has been cut off from the spiritual realms?” Xvim asked, raising an eyebrow at him. “And you didn’t feel this merited an inclusion in that list of things you gave me at the end of our Friday meeting?”
“Well, what would that prove?” Zorian defended himself. “Nothing about that says specifically ‘time travel’.”
“No, but it helps ameliorate one of the major issues that has been bothering me about this scenario,” Xvim said, staring at him. “Namely, the incredible scale of the event you’re describing. You’ve described the time loop as a cosmic phenomenon – it doesn’t just wrench your soul into the past, it literally rolls back time for everything except you and your fellow time travelers. That’s an implausible claim. The universe is very big and magic as we understand it has sharp limitations. But if the time loop had to cut off the material realm from the spiritual sphere to do its work, then that means it is somehow limited in scope, and that makes the whole thing a lot more believable to me. Did you speak to an astronomer to see if there were any irregularities in the stars and planetary orbits?”
“No,” Zorian frowned. “Why do you think there would be irregularities?”
“Because any responsible spell designer tries to minimize the costs of the spell, regardless of how much mana he has at his disposal,” Xvim told him. “If I was in charge of building a spell that does what you describe, I wouldn’t have bothered extending the effect beyond what I absolutely had to. Why burn resources unnecessarily? No one has ever set foot on the other planets, much less the distant stars. You could simply replace the heavens with an illusionary screen and be done with it. Most people would never know the difference.”
“But astronomers might,” Zorian guessed.
“Yes. Especially if the spell originates from the time of the first Ikosian emperor like you said it might. There were no telescopes back then, and even professional starwatchers relied on their eyes to note the changes in the heavens. An illusion good enough to fool them might not be enough to do the same today,” Xvim said.
“I guess it’s worth a try,” Zorian said dubiously. “Though I’m honestly kind of skeptical that will go anywhere. I’m pretty sure you can’t just isolate our planet from the rest of the celestial bodies without breaking everything horribly and killing us all in the process.”
“There has to be a limit somewhere,” Xvim said. “I’ll talk to the couple of astronomers I know and see what they tell me. In the meantime, make a note somewhere to include the spirit world severance factoid in your list the next time you try to convince me that the time loop is real. It should do wonders for your credibility. Also, make sure to sign the list with this.”
Xvim took out a slip of paper from his pocket and handed it to him. Written on it in neat, perfect writing was a long string of letters and numbers. The whole thing was completely random and nonsensical as far as Zorian could tell.
“Some kind of coded message?” Zorian mused out loud.
“Something similar. I’ve made a lot of contingencies over the years, including ones for when I expect to have my memories edited against my will and want to send messages to my future self,” Xvim said, surprising Zorian. That was… quite paranoid. And also a good idea – he should probably make his own version of that. “You will have to memorize the whole thing perfectly for this to work – if even a single number or letter is out of place, the whole thing is ruined.”
Zorian took several seconds to commit the code to his memory and then immediately created a memory packet around it, permanently preserving it for flawless recall in the future.
“Done,” he said, handing the slip of paper back to Xvim. “What now?”
Based on the various adventure novels Zorian had read as a child, he kind of expected Xvim to promptly burn the paper slip in his hand to prevent it from coming into the wrong hands. But no, Xvim just put it back into his pocket and gave Zorian a searching look. Disappointing.
“That, mister Kazinski, is something that I should be asking you,” Xvim said. “I was originally worried that you might be an imposter and that you might have been editing my memories. Regardless of whether or not you really are a time traveler, you have effectively put those fears to rest. Truthfully, I have no right to demand anything more from you. What now, indeed.”
“Well, you are technically my mentor and you’re supposed to advise me about how to develop my magic,” Zorian tried, hoping that Xvim would actually do his job properly for once. He was curious how Xvim’s teaching looked when he was not putting his charges through some messed up dedication test.
“Unfortunately, this is probably not the best time for that. I would need to thoroughly test your skills to see how I can best help you, and I’ve kept you away from your morning classes for too long as it is,” said Xvim. “I should have something ready for you when we meet again on Friday.”
“Not another batch of shaping exercises, I hope?” Zorian couldn’t help but asking.
“No,” Xvim said, smiling slightly at the question. “While I definitely intend to correct any obvious deficiencies in your magic base and raise your shaping skills to acceptable levels, I’m actually thinking of advancing your dimensionalism studies as far as they can go. That is, after all, the magical field that deals with things like time manipulation, which makes it uniquely relevant to your situation. It is a hard and demanding field of study, but if you could endure several years of my trials and keep coming, you doubtlessly have the required patience to succeed at it.”
Huh. That actually sounded kind of nice. The first part sounded a little ominous, but he would reserve judgment until he actually saw what that entailed in practice. He didn’t actually mind the idea of being taught some shaping exercises, so long as Xvim didn’t resort to the same frustrating grind that he had employed in the past, and actually explained to Zorian how he was supposed to go about performing the exercise.
In any case, the meeting was very much finished at this point, so Zorian said his goodbyes and left Xvim’s office.
It was probably the first time he had ever left that place feeling better than he had when he entered it.
* * *
Over the next few days, the aftereffect of Zorian’s failed campaign against the Burning Apex web gradually faded away, leaving him completely healed. Kael was still poring over his necromancy books and tinkering with some kind of spell item he was building, and refused to talk to Zorian about Sudomir. He claimed he was pursuing a lead and that he would discuss things with him when he was ready. Zorian had a feeling that Kael was a little annoyed with him over his handling of the soul trap reveal, but he really couldn’t think of what he could have done so much better. Maybe Kael didn’t like that Zorian had waited so long to break the news to him? On the other hand, Taiven had reacted much better when he had told her about the time loop this time. She was a lot more receptive to the idea if he didn’t wait for her to have a breakdown before telling her.
All in all, the recovery period was a bit boring and Zorian found himself searching for something to pass the time with. Just for fun, he recreated Kirielle’s drawings that he had stored in his mind and showed them to her. She frowned a lot while inspecting them, especially at the ones that clearly depicted the interior of Imaya’s house and its inhabitants, but she did not seem willing to claim them as her own work. Instead, she criticized the technique of whoever drew them and suggested improvement, which amused him. She then asked him where he got them, and was annoyed at him when he insisted that he conjured them fully formed out of his head, which was also amusing.
Somehow, the resulting argument led to Kirielle giving him an impromptu drawing lesson and Zorian was bored enough at the time to go along with it. According to Kirielle, he was actually decent at drawing, which surprised him. She even claimed he could get as good as she was if he was willing to work on it. Considering how swamped with everything he always was, he doubted he would ever find the time for something like that. Then again, perhaps he could use an actual hobby…
It was during one of those slow days that Zorian went to the academy library in search of a book that talked about Eldemar’s internal politics. Partly because he couldn’t shake off the feeling that Sudomir’s offhand comment about how he was working with the invaders because of ‘politics’ wasn’t completely false, and partly because his recent musings about House Reid made him realize just how rudimentary his knowledge about Eldemar’s power structures really was. He doubted he would really find an answer as to what Sudomir was referring to, but it probably wouldn’t hurt to educate himself a little on the issue.
In theory, Eldemar’s internal situation was relatively simple. The country was a monarchy, with the power of the Crown kept in check by a Council of Elders – a gathering of nobles that were ostensibly supposed to advise the monarch and help them govern the country efficiently. The seats were hereditary, each held by a different Noble House. That was why they were ‘Noble’ – they had a seat on the Council of Elders, and were thus involved in the direct governing of the country. A regular House, while usually afforded a fair amount of special privileges and autonomy, did not have a say in how the country as a whole was run.
Of course, reality was far more convoluted than that. The Crown and the Council of Elders clashed all the time, the Houses routinely overstepped their bounds if they thought they could get away with it, organizations like the Mage Guild and the Holy Triumvirate Church wielded considerable influence of their own and powerful independent actors tried to play all sides for their own benefit. And that was not even getting into the issue of semi-autonomous entities like the shifter tribes or the Free Port of Luja.
Basically, the matter was complicated and Zorian’s initiative didn’t accomplish all that much. He was just about to give up and go home when he stumbled upon Tinami. Or rather, she stumbled upon him – he was stationary, with his back turned to her, and the only reason he knew she was there was that he could recognize her mind through long exposure to her during previous restarts. He was content to ignore her at first, pretending he didn’t know she was there… but since she was sufficiently curious to look over his shoulder to see what he was reading, he decided to say hello in the end.
“Hello, Tinami,” he said, not bothering to turn around. She immediately jerked back in surprise at the words. Ha. Surprise successful. Taking care to wipe the smile off his face, Zorian turned around to face the girl. It was only polite to look at someone when you were talking to them, after all. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“N-no, sorry,” she said, stumbling for a moment but recovering her composure quickly. “I was just curious about what you were reading. And I just have to ask: ‘Splinter of Splinters’? Really, Zorian? That’s kind of…”
She paused for a moment, clearly searching for a polite term to use.
“Why would you ever read such trash?” she finished eventually.
Zorian looked at the book in his hands. He hadn’t noticed anything too bad in the book thus far, though admittedly he wouldn’t call it good, either. Frankly, the only reason he was idly reading through it was because one of the other books he had already read and liked listed it among its sources.
“I’m trying to find out an answer to a political question, but I know very little about politics,” Zorian answered honestly. “So I’m mostly just reading things at random, leafing through whatever book catches my attention.”
He placed ‘Splinter of Splinters’ back on the shelf. The book was boring as hell anyway.
“What kind of topic are you looking for?” Tinami asked him.
“I’m trying to find out a political reason why someone would want to burn Cyoria to the ground,” Zorian told her bluntly. “Hypothetically speaking, of course.”
“Are we talking about external or internal forces?” Tinami asked, completely unperturbed by his admission.
“Internal,” Zorian clarified. “I’m pretty sure the number of external enemies that want the same is numberless.”
“Not really, no,” Tinami said. “Cyoria supplies critical products to the entire continent. I think only Sulamnon and a handful of others would be glad to see it completely gone.”
“What about Ulquaan Ibasa?” asked Zorian curiously.
“Them?” Tinami scoffed. “Who cares what they want? They can’t do anything to us except raid our shipping. And as long as Eldemar controls Fort Oroklo, even that is just a minor nuisance.”
Zorian hummed non-committedly. He couldn’t really fault Tinami for that logic, since he would have likely said something similar before he had experienced the invasion and found out who was behind it.
“Fair enough,” he said. “So what I’m getting from all of this is that you know a thing or two about politics, yes?”
“I am an heir of one of the Noble Houses,” Tinami shrugged. “I’m required to know this sort of stuff. So yes, I suppose I do.”
“Excellent. Then, do you think you can recommend me a book about Eldemar’s internal politics that isn’t… ‘trash’, as you say?” he asked her.
He expected her to either say no or give him a title or two to look for. What he did not expect was for her to drag him across the library for over fifteen minutes in search of something that met his exact criteria. By the time Tinami was done ‘suggesting’ things to him, he’d ended up with three different books, one of which was a huge scary tome that made Zorian sleepy just looking at it. He was starting to think he had made just a tiny bit of a mistake when he had asked her for help in this matter.
“Sorry, I went a little overboard,” Tinami apologized, sounding honestly apologetic.
“It’s fine,” Zorian sighed. “Though I’ll be honest with you – I really doubt I’m going to read all of this.”
He shook the stack of books in his hands for emphasis.
“If you must pick one of the three to read, read ‘Time of Tribulations,’” Tinami told him. Oh good, that wasn’t the big one. “That’s the important one. The Splinter Wars and the Weeping completely rearranged the political landscape everywhere in Altazia, but especially in Eldemar. Without understanding what aftershocks they caused and how countries dealt with them, you will never really understand Eldemar’s politics.”
“I see,” Zorian said quietly. That did make a lot of sense – the Splinter Wars essentially created Eldemar in its current form, and the Weeping actually originated from Eldemar. Nobody at the time realized just how dangerous it was, in the early days of its spread, so it had significant effects on the country. It would be surprising if those two events hadn’t changed things greatly. “I guess it has something to do with the significant death toll of mages those two caused?”
“Sort of,” Tinami said. “It has to do with replacing them. Before the Splinter Wars, far more mages belonged to an established House or had at least one mage parent. First generation mages like yourself were… well, not rare exactly, but far less common than they are now. After the Splinter Wars and the Weeping, though, a lot of those Houses and families went extinct or bankrupt, unable to deal with the chaos of the times or the loss of critical members. The last thing Eldemar wanted to do was downscale their operations due to lack of mages, so somebody had to replace the dead. The result was a lot of first-generation mages flooding the magical market in previously unseen numbers.”
“So?” Zorian asked. “I guess I’m a little biased, being a civilian-born student myself… but why is that a problem?”
“Not a problem as such, no,” Tinami said carefully. “But it definitely changed the politics of the country beyond recognition. First generation mages are educated and supported by the Mage Guild, and by extension the Crown of Eldemar. When Houses and other autonomous groups clash with the Crown, first-generation mages overwhelmingly side with the Crown. The influx of civilian-born mages helped Eldemar bounce back from the Splinter Wars and Weeping incredibly quickly, but it also strengthened royal power and made the Mage Guild far more important than it used to be, and that scares a lot of factions.”
“Interesting,” Zorian hummed thoughtfully. “How does that relate to Cyoria and people who want to see it burn, though?”
“Well, Cyoria is absolutely critical for first generation mages who want to make it big,” Tinami said. “Most other mana wells have sharp limits on the amount of mana they produce, and thus have tight regulations about who can perform what magical business in the area. They’re usually controlled by some established group or even a House, and aren’t very friendly to newcomers unless they’re willing to become someone’s underlings. The Hole, on the other hand, spews incomprehensibly vast amounts of mana into the air every single second. Far more than anyone could really use up. There is never a shortage of ambient mana in Cyoria, so nobody cares about how many mana forges, research facilities and various other facilities are built in the city. Unsurprisingly, the city is absolutely flooded with first-generation mages, which makes it a major loyalist stronghold. It’s so important to the central government, politically speaking, that some people call it the second national capital. Anyone who has an axe to grind against either the Crown or the Mage Guild might want to see it gone. Though I rather suspect that anyone expressing the desire to see it literally burned to the ground is just being overdramatic. Our external political situation is sufficiently dangerous that no one really wants to weaken the nation too much, and Cyoria is both a major population center and a magical powerhouse.”
“So, what I’m getting from your explanation is that people who most want to see Cyoria gone probably come from various Houses that dislike their historical importance being eroded,” Zorian said. Sadly, that didn’t explain Sudomir’s remark as far as Zorian could tell – he had no idea whether Sudomir was a first-generation mage, but he definitely wasn’t a part of a House. “But the thing is, there are plenty of Houses, even Noble Houses who have their headquarters stationed here. Yours, for example. Or House Noveda.”
“Not every House likes every other,” Tinami shrugged. “There are plenty of them that would hold a celebration if every Aope spontaneously died in their sleep.”
“But it’s funny you would mention the Novedas. You know what happened to them, right?”
“They all died except Zach,” Zorian said immediately.
“Yes, and then the Crown placed Tesen Zveri as Zach’s caretaker, and he sold off nearly everything they owned to his friends and associates for pocket change while paying himself a huge caretaker fee. Few people will outright say so, but the man basically looted the entire House of everything they had. And the Noveda were very, very wealthy,” Tinami explained. “If Zach wasn’t such an idiot, I’d imagine he’d be extremely bitter about the city authorities that were complicit in the deed. I could totally imagine myself wishing for Cyoria to burn down to ashes, if I were in his place. At least on an emotional level.”
“You know,” Zorian said. “I think I want to hear more about that story…”