The moment Zorian realized that there was a fist flying towards him, he instinctively tried to take a step back to avoid it. Unfortunately, his and Kirielle’s luggage was right behind him and he was never really a hand-to-hand fighter to begin with. Surprised and imbalanced as he was, Zach’s punch not only connected with his face but also sent him sprawling to the ground, the back of his head slamming painfully against the unyielding concrete.
He didn’t black out, but the force of the impact still left him in a confused daze for some time. It couldn’t have been very long, just a couple of seconds, but when he regained the ability to process what his senses were telling him, he found that his surroundings had absolutely exploded in the brief period of time he was incapacitated. Kirielle was screaming for help at the top of her voice (and she could scream really, really loudly when she wanted to) while simultaneously kicking and clawing at Zach like a cornered lynx. Zach, for his part, looked very confused and panicked, awkwardly trying to fend off Kirielle’s attacks without hurting her while trying to explain himself. Sadly for him, his words were largely unintelligible due to Kirielle’s shrill and incessant shouting. The boy seemed to be at a total loss as to how he should deal with the situation he found himself in.
In other, less public circumstances, Zorian would have probably stayed on the ground for a little while longer, amused at Zach’s predicament and feeling the boy deserved his fate. Served him right for punching him out of nowhere like that. As it was, he scrambled to his feet as quickly as possible while looking around. As he thought, they were attracting a lot of attention from people around them – everyone in the vicinity was watching the situation, talking and whispering amongst themselves and pointing fingers at them. It was likely that the only reason why nobody intervened into the situation yet was that Zach was visibly ‘losing’ against Kirielle, making the situation sufficiently comical to put them at ease. Still, that could change any moment now. He was pretty sure he saw a couple of policemen hurrying over in their direction, if nothing else. Best to stop this before it escalated.
He shouted for Kirielle to stop and calm down, and was a little surprised when she immediately stopped attacking and retreated behind him. Considering how fiercely she had defended him, he sort of expected her to be harder to restrain. But no, apparently now that he was back on his feet, it was his own responsibility to defend them both. Fair enough. Logically speaking, he was better qualified to stand up to Zach than a nine year old girl. Logic could be misleading, though – he doubted he could ever put Zach on the defensive as much as Kirielle had a few moments ago. It was a good thing that Zach didn’t look like he wanted to continue attacking him any time soon.
Kirielle poked her head from behind Zorian to give Zach one final glare, causing him to flinch slightly, before turning to Zorian and giving him a questioning look. No doubt she wanted to know why this total stranger just punched him in the face out of nowhere. It was a good question. Why did Zach just do that? Hell if Zorian knew. He had considered the possibility that Zach might be hostile to him when they finally met, yes, but this wasn’t really what he had in mind when he thought of a hostile Zach. Punching him in the face was hostile, yes, but physically attacking your target in a crowded train station was not a proper way to ambush a fellow time traveler. Even Zach should know this. So what was this about, really?
Sighing heavily, Zorian ran his hand through his hair in frustration and gave Zach a good hard look. Two things immediately jumped out to him. First of all, he couldn’t sense anything from Zach – as far as his empathy and mind sense were concerned, the boy in front of him did not exist. He had no thoughts or emotions at all. That meant that the Zach in front of him was either a very good illusion or under the effect of mind blank spell. Considering his punch felt quite real, he was going to assume it was the latter. Evidently Zach had come to this meeting a lot better prepared than he had been in the past. Secondly, he should probably get Kirielle’s nails clipped after they got to Imaya’s place, because they were evidently long enough to draw blood if she used them to scratch people. Zach had received a pretty nasty-looking wound on his forearm during his brief ‘battle’ with her.
As he noted before, Zach didn’t seem interested in fighting with him anymore. The boy looked back at him with a strained smile and greeted him with a quick, awkward wave of his hand.
‘Ugh,’ Zorian thought to himself unhappily. ‘This guy…’
“This,” Zorian announced out loud, “is all one giant misunderstanding.”
“Yes!” Zach immediately agreed, nodding frantically. “Totally a misunderstanding.”
Of course, it couldn’t really be that simple. Zach and Zorian spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to Kirielle that they were classmates who knew each other from before and that this was just Zach making good on his promise to punch Zorian in the face the next time he saw him for being a big jerk. Or so Zach claimed, anyway.
Zorian could hardly believe what he was hearing. That was serious? He had to admit he did vaguely remember Zach promising something along those lines in that awful soulkill restart when they had last seen each other, but he hadn’t thought much of it. People make proclamations like that all the time. Zorian had totally forgotten about it until Zach reminded him about it.
In any case, after they were done explaining things to Kirielle, they had to explain things again to the policemen that had come to check up on the disturbance. Since Zorian had stood up in Zach’s defense, they decided not to arrest him… so instead they issued a monetary fine to both of them for fighting in public. Zorian personally thought that was totally bullshit, but since Zach immediately promised he would pay both of their fines out of his own pocket, he decided not to protest too much.
Then it was time for a third round of explanation. Since Zach’s attack on Zorian took place so soon after their arrival in Cyoria, Fortov was still around and decided to check up on this disturbance happening nearby. It was pretty bizarre seeing Fortov actually concerned for his and Kirielle’s wellbeing for once in his life, but the concern did not last very long. Once Fortov realized they were both fine and that Zorian’s attacker was his ‘friend’, he quickly left them alone to go back to his friends.
Not that Zorian was complaining, of course – the less time he had to spend around Fortov, the better. Still, this was the first time since forever that Fortov had sought him without intending to get a favor. He even managed to restrain himself from insulting Zorian in the course of talking to him. It was novel, and therefore interesting.
“Well then,” Zorian clapped his hands. “Now that that’s done, we should get going. Our new landlord is waiting for us, and I want to get somewhere where people aren’t staring at us and talking behind our backs.”
“Is he going to come with us?” Kirielle asked, giving Zach a suspicious look.
“Yes,” Zach confirmed. He had largely recovered from Kirielle’s attack by now, regaining most of his usual confidence. “I need to talk to your brother about some things.”
“What kind of things?” Kirielle demanded.
“Serious things,” Zach said.
She looked to Zorian for confirmation and harrumphed dismissively when he nodded in agreement to this.
“You’re both stupid,” she pouted. “Acting like that in public… and I was actually scared we were under attack and everything…”
“Don’t be like that,” Zorian told her, using one of his arms to draw her into a one-armed hug. “I was really touched by your defense of me, you know? I’m pretty sure this was the first time someone stood up for me like that since… well, ever.”
“She’s too much,” Zach said, studying the three bloody lines Kirielle had scratched into his forearm.
“So I’ll tell you what – if you show some patience with Zach today, I’ll answer any question you may have about the whole thing later in the evening before we go to sleep,” Zorian told her, ignoring Zach’s whining.
“Really?” Kirielle asked, peering at him suspiciously.
“Really,” Zorian confirmed. While Zorian didn’t usually tell Kirielle that he was a time traveler, he wasn’t violently opposed to the idea. Since it seemed he was going to interact with Zach pretty heavily in this restart, he didn’t see much harm in telling her what was really going on. He was pretty sure Red Robe would sooner track him down by monitoring Zach’s movements than by following a chain of distorted rumors back to Kirielle.
“Really?” Zach asked, looking at him curiously.
“Yes, really!” Zorian huffed. What’s with all this disbelief? It’s almost as if they didn’t expect him to tell the truth or something. “I already told her about the restarts before, and it wasn’t a problem.”
“You did?” Kirielle frowned. “But I don’t remember you telling me anything about any ‘restarts’.”
“Completely understandable,” Zorian said, patting her on the head. “Don’t worry, all will become clear later.”
He hoped. He glanced at Zach again, wondering why the boy tracked him down now, of all times, after spending so many restarts avoiding Cyoria.
He really did hope Zach’s arrival would make things clearer instead of just complicating things further.
* * *
Zorian had originally intended for this restart to be much like the previous ones, but with the sudden inclusion of Zach into his schedule, he decided that plan was untenable and would have to change. Accordingly, he did not bother meeting Nochka this time around, instead taking Kirielle and Zach straight to Imaya’s place. Kirielle had a tendency to blab just about anything to Nochka, who was not exactly very good at keeping secrets herself, and that didn’t mesh too well with his intention to tell Kirielle about the time loop in this restart.
The first half of the journey was uncomfortably subdued. Well, Zorian himself didn’t mind the peace and quiet all that much, but he knew that neither Kirielle nor Zach were predisposed to be that silent for long periods of time. The two did not know how they should act in the presence of the other and thus kept to themselves. That lasted up until it started raining. At that point Kirielle decided she wanted to play around with the rain barrier Zorian set up around them, just like she usually did at the start of the restart, Zach’s presence be damned. That turned out to have been the ice breaker, and they both got more talkative all of a sudden. Both towards Zorian and to each other.
Of course, he and Zach could not really discuss the time loop out in the open with Kirielle around, so their conversation mostly took place in the form of discussing their magical skills and occasionally demonstrating a spell or two to Kirielle and each other. Aside from being a useful conversational tool, it also allowed the two of them to compare their abilities against one another to see where they stood in regards to magical ability. Well, somewhat – obviously Zorian wasn’t laying bare his entire skillset to Zach’s scrutiny, and he doubted the other time traveler was being perfectly forthright either, but still. Just because the comparison wasn’t complete did not mean it was worthless.
What Zorian discovered was humbling. While Zach was very combat magic focused, just like the boy had admitted to him in the past, he had made good use of the time loop to turn himself into a well-rounded mage. He was the sort of archmage that made other archmages envious – he had expertise in just about every type of magic, including the notoriously difficult and specialized medical spells. He actually healed the scratch marks Kirielle gave him as a proof of that claim. Even in regards to crafting-oriented magics like alchemy and spell formula, which Zach admitted were his least favorite fields and which Zorian specialized in, the last Noveda still possessed sufficient expertise to debate Zorian in a non-vacuous manner.
Finally, the little demonstrations they did for Kirielle clearly showed that Zach’s shaping skills weren’t any worse than Zorian’s. Despite having huge mana reserves, Zach had excellent shaping skills.
Whatever Zorian could say about Zach’s choices in the time loop, he clearly hadn’t been standing idle this whole time – he had been steadily working on his skills for decades, and it showed. In retrospect, it was horribly arrogant of Zorian to even think he could have caught up to the guy in little more than 5 years.
“You know, I can’t help but notice that your older brother left pretty quickly and didn’t even try to talk to me,” Zach said. “Not that I’m complaining, since it works out better for me that way, but you’d think he’d be more interested in someone attacking his little brother in public.”
“He knows that neither of us can stand him, so he keeps away,” Kirielle said casually, doing her best to snatch the little animated water drakes flying around her out of the air. Zorian and Zach had competed earlier to see who can create more realistic-looking drakes out of the surrounding rainwater, so the entire shield bubble was still full of them. Zorian was pretty sure he won, but Kirielle was the judge and she claimed she couldn’t tell the difference. The little traitor.
“I don’t think he’s that considerate,” Zorian scowled. “He just didn’t feel like spending time on us. He had better things to do than waste time on his younger siblings.”
“No, I’m pretty sure he knows you hate him,” Kirielle said, shaking her head. “He even said so when we were alone once. It’s why he tries to avoid you if he can help it. He thinks he’s doing you a favor.”
Zorian frowned. He supposed he hadn’t been terribly subtle about his opinion about Fortov, so he wasn’t really surprised that Fortov knew. He did find it hard to accept that Fortov’s behavior was motivated by anything other than his selfishness, though. If he wanted to do Zorian a favor, why was it that he still came to Zorian from time to time to ask for favors? That was the worst reason possible for approaching him – the whole reason why he hated Fortov was because he always had to make up for Fortov’s failures to do his job in addition to his own duties.
“So you think I’m being too harsh with him?” Zorian asked curiously. Before he had gotten stuck in the time loop, the mere insinuation that this was the case would have been the equivalent of throwing a lit match in a bowl of lamp fuel. Now he found himself honestly curious about what Kirielle thought about the topic.
“No. Yes. Maybe,” Kirielle said. “I mean, he’s still a jerk and I don’t like him either. So I know how you feel. But maybe us being mean to him back isn’t the correct thing to do. Maybe he’d be better if we were more patient with him. I’m not. I try being nice to him sometimes, but he makes it very hard.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Zorian snorted derisively.
“You know, I’m getting the idea that your family is a little messed up,” Zach said.
“You have no idea,” Zorian said. “And that’s probably a good idea. Let’s end the subject here, okay?”
“Fine, fine,” Zach acquiesced. “So, is this the place?”
Zorian looked at the house Zach was pointing out and nodded.
“That’s Imaya’s house, yes. Let me just arrange for everything with the landlord and unpack a little and then we can talk. Do you have a place already lined up?”
“I… didn’t think that far,” Zach admitted.
Zorian sighed. Figures. “Then we’ll go to the ruins of the aranean colony in the tunnels below us. There is already a pretty good warding scheme protecting the place.”
“Oh, so you know where that is?” Zach said, perking up. “Did any of the spiders survive?”
“Spiders?” Kirielle mumbled, brows furrowed in thought. Zorian could tell she had been analyzing their every word during the entire walk, trying to figure out what they were hiding. It was both commendable and amusing.
“No, none,” Zorian shook his head. Zach immediately deflated.
“So it’s just the two of us, or…?” he asked hopefully.
Though his empathy could pick nothing from him, Zach wasn’t a terribly hard person to read. Zorian realized that Zach really wanted to talk to fellow time travelers. The more of them there were, the better. He must have been very lonely and bored all these years he spent in the time loop.
“Just… let me drop off Kirielle at the house and then we’ll talk,” Zorian said.
“You better not forget your promise,” Kirielle warned, jabbing him in the ribs with her bony little index finger. Yeah, she was definitely getting her nails clipped when he got back.
“Fine,” said Zach. “I’ll wait for you to-“
“Oh no,” Zorian said, cutting him of. “Do you know what Imaya would do to me if she heard I left a person out here in the rain instead of inviting them inside? And she’d definitely hear, because Kirielle is too much of a tattletale to keep her mouth shut.”
“Hey!” said tattletale protested.
“She won’t care that you’re a mage and can easily protect yourself against the rain. I’d be hearing lectures and snide comments for days,” Zorian said. “You’re coming inside and introducing yourself to Imaya.”
And so, with Kirielle and Zach in tow, Zorian walked up to Imaya’s door and knocked…
* * *
After an hour or so, once everything had been arranged, Zorian led Zach into the depths of Cyoria’s underworld. Along the way, Zorian explained the truth behind what happened to Zach. There had been no large number of time travelers – just him and the araneas piggy-backing on him using memory packets. And in the aftermath of their confrontation with Red Robe, the aranea were all dead – soulkilled, according to Red Robe. While Zorian had some doubts about that, it was undeniable that the aranea started every loop dead from that point on.
Once they had reached the dead aranean settlements and Zach had had the chance to study the place for a while, they sat down and began to talk.
“I tried to find this place immediately after that restart,” Zach noted, staring at the nearby aranean corpse. He was surprisingly shaken by the dead settlement, considering aranea were rather inhuman and he had known them for a very short time anyway. “All I found were some isolated aranean corpses like this one.”
“Those were basically guard posts,” explained Zorian.
“Yeah, I guess. Maybe I’d have tracked it down eventually, but then this… ‘Red Robe’ tried to ambush me.”
Zorian perked up. This was the first clue he had about Red Robe’s activities in the wake of Zorian’s confrontation with him.
“He attacked you?” Zorian asked, leaning forward with interest.
“Attacked me and lost,” Zach grinned proudly. “He’s not that hard to beat without Quatach-Ichl to support him.”
So Zach was good enough to defeat Red Robe in a straight one-on-one fight. That was good to know.
“I guess he was counting on the advantage of surprise, but I saw his ambush from a mile away,” Zach continued. “I knew he was probably stalking me so I was already on guard. Still. He managed to escape in the end, and I didn’t really feel safe wandering around these tunnels with someone like that hunting me. I basically left Cyoria and hid for the rest of the restart.”
“Did he ever come after you again?” Zorian asked.
“Yes. Once,” Zach said. “In the very next restart, he tried to attack me at its very beginning. He teleported straight through the wards on my home and tried to kill me while I was still in the bedroom, getting dressed.”
“And he once again fled when you defeated him?” Zorian asked.
“Well, I’m actually the one that fled there,” Zach said, coughing uncomfortably. “I was still half-asleep and in my underwear, okay? I didn’t expect him to come after me so early. Anyway, from that point on I have been leaving Cyoria at the start of every restart to prevent further surprises like that. Even if Red Robe never came after me again after that one surprise attack.”
“Hmm,” Zorian hummed thoughtfully. He doubted that Red Robe spent all this time trying to track down Zach, so this still did not explain why he had been quiet all this time… but it was interesting information nonetheless. What did Red Robe want from Zach so badly?
“So… why did you stop hiding now, of all times? And did you really have to punch me in the face like that?” Zorian asked sourly. “My teeth still hurt from that.”
“Do you even have to ask?” Zach scoffed. “You have been stuck in this time loop along with me for gods know how long, and you never came to me about it. No, worse than that – when I came to talk to you, you played dumb and did things on your own behind my back. You deserved a good punch in the face just for that.”
Zorian fiddled with his glasses awkwardly. Okay, it did sound kind of bad when he said it like that. But he had good reason for behaving like he did! He really did!
“But you know, I understand,” Zach continued. “I got played like a drum by that red robed fucker that’s looping along with us. He messed with my mind and was probably monitoring me somehow–”
“You’re sure he’s not doing it right now, right?” Zorian cut in with a question.
“I know how to shield myself from tracking magic, Zorian,” Zach said frostily. “Better than you, I imagine. It’s just that I usually didn’t bother with it, since I thought I was the only person aware of the time loop, so why bother? Ever since that night, though, I’ve been layering non-detection spells on myself constantly. The asshole hasn’t managed to track me down once in all this time. I doubt anyone can.”
“I can,” Zorian noted. “But then again, I seem to have an advantage that Red Robe does not seem to possess. I’ll trust that you know how to protect yourself.”
Zach gave him an unreadable look. Almost without thinking, he tried to focus his empathy on the boy to get a better feel for his emotions, only to suddenly remember that Zach was under the effect of mind blank when he felt nothing at all from the boy.
Yes, Zach could definitely protect himself if he wanted to.
“You’ll tell me about that later,” Zach said, shaking his head. “Anyway, sorry for snapping at you. I’m still kind of angry at myself for getting screwed over by Red Robe. I get a little testy about the subject. But anyway… I understand. It was dangerous to just talk to me directly with Red Robe lurking in the background. I still think you should have talked to me, but I can see why you’d think otherwise. I can even understand why you left that night without bothering to explain anything to me, considering what ended up happening.”
Zach gestured towards a nearby aranean corpse for emphasis.
“So I decided to leave you alone for a while. Even once it became obvious that Red Robe was no longer after me, and had essentially disappeared into thin air as far as I could tell, I stayed away so as to not attract attention to you. Just in case Red Robe was somehow watching, despite all my precautions. I figured you knew what you’re doing, and once you were ready, you’d come to me so we could tackle the time loop and this Red Robe guy together.”
How did he expect Zorian to track him down if he purposely made himself as untraceable as possible? Nevermind, he’d ask that question some other time. Best not to interrupt the boy now.
“And then you pull that crap in the last restart,” said Zach, anger leaking into his voice. “You’re finally making a move, and in a big way too, triggering the invasion several weeks early, but you made no attempt to involve me in any way. How can I not be angry? How can I not want to punch you in the face? Do you think so little of me? Just because you saw me brought down by two incredibly powerful opponents, one of which is a thousand-year-old lich, you think you can-“
“Zach, Zach, listen, that… that wasn’t intentional,”
Zorian said hurriedly, trying to stop Zach from getting too angry. He had a feeling he was going to get another punch in the face if he let the boy get going too much. “I never intended that restart to blow up like that. The whole thing was a mistake, it escalated way beyond what I was comfortable with, but I was curious and–”
“Did you even intend to contact me? Ever?” Zach asked him bluntly.
“Yes. Absolutely,” Zorian confirmed. “Probably after this very restart.”
Zach leaned back in surprise, giving him a surprised look.
“Oh,” he said, anger draining right out of him. “Well, if that’s so, then it’s probably good I came to you when I did, isn’t it?”
“I’m kind of in the middle of something important,” Zorian sighed. “I really should be focusing on that. Hell, I should have been focusing on it in the previous restart too, instead of messing around with Iasku Mansion and the invaders, but I can get really stupid sometimes. That’s why I only wanted to contact you after this restart.”
“If it’s so important, why not let me help?” Zach asked curiously.
“It’s not something you can help me with,” said Zorian. “Remember those memory packets the aranea used to retain awareness between restarts? Well here’s the thing…”
He then launched into an explanation about the matriarch’s memory packet and how he had been trying to hone his aranea memory interpreting skills to a high enough level to understand its contents. This also led to a discussion about Zorian’s mind magic abilities. Zach was clearly uncomfortable with mind magic, which made sense considering how it was used against him. After some internal debate, Zorian offered to have a look inside Zach’s mind to see what exactly Red Robe had done to him… but Zach predictably refused. He admitted that he didn’t really trust Zorian that far yet, and maybe never would. Zorian was just glad the other boy didn’t take offense at his offer.
“So if I understand you correctly, you’re attacking isolated aranean patrols in order to practice memory reading skills on subdued aranea,” Zach said.
“Yes,” Zorian confirmed.
“And you think I can’t help you there?” Zach asked incredulously. “Zorian, you’re a total idiot.”
“Err,” Zorian fumbled, not sure how to respond to that.
“Zorian, with my help you would not need to waste time stalking isolated patrols. We could just walk up to the main aranean settlement and take them all head on,” Zach told him. “I’ve done that before. I didn’t just spend all these past months just keeping out of Red Robe’s sight – I’ve also been investigating things on my own, such as searching for other aranean webs around the continent to see if they can help me. Except that I’m not psychic like you and they can be incredibly dismissive and rude to ‘flickerminds’ like myself. I’ve been attacked plenty of times, and I know exactly how to fight them. They’re no match for me at all. The power disparity is so big I can actually focus on incapacitating them instead of aiming to kill – even when they attack in groups. With my help, you could have had hundreds of aranean practice dummies every week, maybe every day. It largely depends on how fast we can find new webs to target.”
Zorian stared at Zach for a few seconds before swallowing heavily. That… that was a good point. He hadn’t even considered that.
“Well, what’s done is done,” Zach shrugged. “But I’m here now, so you have no excuse to keep being stupid. When do we start?”
* * *
In the end, Zorian decided there was no reason to delay things – they would be going after their first web the very next day. In the meantime, he went back to Imaya’s place and talked to Kirielle. She claimed to believe him when he said he was a time traveler, but Zorian could sense she wasn’t entirely convinced yet. Even after he recreated a stack of her drawings from his mental storage and showed them to her.
Though that part did seem to make his story a lot more plausible to her.
“I’m relieved,” She told him before going to bed for the night. “You were so nice to me, it was really scary. I was afraid you were replaced by some kind of shape changer.”
“Go to sleep, Kiri,” Zorian sighed.
The next day Zorian located one of the smaller webs in the vicinity of Cyoria and took Zach there. He wasn’t entirely convinced the operation would go as smoothly as Zach had promised, but Zach soon made all his fears groundless: the aranean web in front of them was subdued with terrifying ease.
There were no fancy tactics involved. Zach simply walked up to the settlement’s main entrance tunnel and started raining down spells on the ill-prepared defenders. Waves of translucent blue force battered them against the walls, animated serpents made out of lightning electrocuted them and grasping ectoplasmic threads entangled them and stopped them from simply fleeing. When they realized that Zach was immune to mind magic, the aranea turned to traps, ambushes and mass attacks – but Zach simply punched through them, barely slowed at all. Magical traps were dispelled, non-magical traps disabled with alteration spells, the mass attacks and ambushes Zach simply tackled head on and won anyway.
In less than half an hour, every aranea that did not flee was incapacitated or dead. Aside from actually locating the web, Zorian hadn’t done much and had just stood back and watched the carnage.
Zach was absolutely terrifying.
“Do you think this will be enough for you to work with?” Zach asked, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet and giving him an expectant look.
Zorian gave him an annoyed look. He could sense at least fifty aranean minds around them. The asshole knew well enough that this was more than Zorian could have subdued in an entire week of non-stop attacks on aranean patrols. This was just him taking a ‘subtle’ swipe at him.
Then again, considering the level of skill Zach had just displayed, maybe he deserved to be a little arrogant.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s plenty.”
* * *
After talking about things for a while and exchanging information, both Zach and Zorian agreed that neither of them knew all that much about the time loop. Like Zorian had long suspected, Zach spent most of his time trying to think up a way to counter the invasion and had not put much thought into what the time loop actually was. According to him, he always thought he had to find a way to counter the invasion in order to end the time loop. He could not explain why he thought so, since his memories were full of unexplained holes, but he felt very sure about that.
That could be a confirmation of Zorian’s earlier theory that the release of the primordial was what triggered the restart, but it could also be a compulsion that Red Robe had put on Zach to screw him over. After all, the release of the primordial in the previous restart involved very visible cracks in space heralding its coming… something that Zorian had never witnessed before. And it wasn’t like he had never observed the area around the Hole during the last moments of previous restarts. Why had the release of the primordial never caused such dramatic symptoms in the past?
Regardless, they both agreed that opening the matriarch’s memory packet was their best bet for getting some solid answers. Accordingly, over the course of the next week, most of their time was spent on tracking down and attacking various aranean webs. They attacked a new one every single day, and the amount of experience in reading aranean minds that Zorian had accumulated was incredible. Zorian probably read more aranean minds in that one week alone than he had in the entire two previous restarts combined.
The especially important part was that Zorian was no longer just reading the minds of random guards and patrol aranea, but also the minds of their leaders and even matriarchs. Not only were these higher-ranking aranea especially hard to read (and thus gave the most useful experience), their thoughts were also an entire order of magnitude harder to interpret. There seemed to be a method among aranea to turn their mental powers inward onto their own minds, and most higher-ranking aranea had at least some expertise in it. Zorian wasn’t exactly sure what those techniques were designed to accomplish, but they altered the thoughts and perceptions of the user immensely.
As a matriarch of a powerful web, Spear of Resolve was doubtlessly a user of these techniques as well. If Zorian had tried to interpret her memories without having taken this into account, he would have likely been in for a nasty surprise.
On Monday, when classes began, Zorian visited Xvim’s office to try and bring him into awareness of the time loop again. In the previous restart, Xvim had been very suspicious of him and his overtures hadn’t gone anywhere. It was difficult to know how much that had to do with his approach and how much of it was a product of all the arrests in Cyoria at the time, but Zorian was not taking any chances this time. He suspected he had tried to move a little too fast in the previous restarts, so this time he was more conservative.
He waited until Xvim was in his office before visiting him, tried to reduce his arguments to bare essentials and then finally handed him the code the man made him memorize. Xvim still told him to come back on Friday in the end, but Zorian had a feeling things would end up working better this way.
He was right. On Friday, Xvim tentatively accepted his story and once again decided to help Zorian grow by honing his dimensional magic and shaping skills. For now he just tested Zorian’s abilities to see where he stood, but he promised to have something more substantial for him next week.
Considering how busy this restart promised to be, Zorian was perfectly fine with that kind of pace.
The first week also reminded him how much more Kirielle focused on him when there was no Nochka around to distract her. Without a friend of similar age to spend most of her time with, Kirielle focused most of her attention on trying to monopolize Zorian’s time as much as possible. He had almost forgotten how clingy and annoying she could be, and now resorted to building all kinds of magical toys for her to amuse herself with and leave him alone for a few minutes. Thankfully, she liked puzzles, and there were a lot of magical puzzles described in old spell formula books – mages loved inventing them for some reason.
Later in the week, when Kael and Kana moved into the house, some of that attention shifted onto Kana. In the restarts where Zorian introduced Kirielle to Nochka, Kana inevitably ended up as something of a third wheel to the two of them. They played with her, sure, but in any group of three people, someone was going to get pushed to the side… and Kana was much younger than Kirielle and Nochka, and silent to boot. He kind of suspected that Kana was happier with just Kirielle around.
Since Kael was always informed of the time loop the moment he arrived at Imaya’s house, and since Zach often visited the place to speak with Zorian, the two of them finally had the opportunity to meet and talk with one another. Although they did discuss the time loop a little, Kael had yet to fully absorb the content of his notebooks yet (that was getting harder and harder as the number of past restarts and the number of notes in them increased), so that didn’t really get anywhere. Instead, they mostly talked about alchemy. And the Weeping. Zorian would have thought they’d shy away from the topic, but apparently they were perfectly fine with bonding over their shared tragedies.
Currently, both Zach and Zorian were sitting beneath a tree in the middle of nowhere – a small copse of trees surrounded by farmland in the vicinity of Jatnik, not really a notable area in any way. Zach was currently trying to make an unbroken crown of daisies (and failing hilariously) while Zorian stared at the map of Eldemar that had every web they had located marked on it. Thanks to the memories of various matriarchs and aranean diplomats that Zorian had recently viewed, he now knew the locations of hundreds upon hundreds of new webs. Deciding where next to attack was actually quite a problem at this point.
“Hey, Zorian,” Zach suddenly said, discarding the daisy crown he was building in a huff after accidentally tearing it apart again. “I know you’re on a time limit, but do you think we could take a few days to find a specific aranean web?”
Zorian gave him a curious look. Truthfully, he found their current pace very demanding and stressful, and would have probably begged for a break soon enough anyway.
“I could, yes,” he nodded, pointing at the map in front of him. “I won’t say the map we have is really comprehensive or anything, but even if the web you’re looking for isn’t on it, it can probably point us in the right direction.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m bringing it up,” Zach said. “I originally wanted to wait until you opened the matriarch’s package before mentioning this, but the more I think about it, the more I think we should check this out now. Maybe it will be crucial in understanding what the matriarch was thinking.”
“What is it?” Zorian asked.
“Spear of Resolve told me back then that if anything should happen to her, I should go talk to the ‘Ghost Serpent Acolytes’ web,” said Zach. “She refused to say where they are or how to reach them, though. That’s why I have been visiting the aranea webs ever since then.”
Zorian frowned. Ghost Serpent Acolytes? The web that refused to speak to him because their spirit told them he was ‘bad news’? Could it be that they or their spirit knew something about the time loop?
Well, the time loop did sever the link between the material plane and the spiritual ones, and the Ghost Serpent Acolytes worshipped some kind of snake spirit. Even if it was a native spirit, and thus lived in the material world, maybe it still had some kind of connection to the spirit planes and knew something important.
“I know where they are,” Zorian said. “There is no need to search for them. I can just tell you where they are.”
“Oh,” Zach said. “Wow, and I spent so much time looking for them… I can’t believe I could have just popped over to you and asked you where they live. We really should have met sooner than this, it seems.”
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed. “Anyway, it’s probably best if I just point you in the right direction and don’t come with you. Every time I tried to talk to them in the past they said their spirit doesn’t like me and that I should go away. It says I’m bad news.”
“That’s weird,” Zach frowned. “What did you do to piss it off?”
“Nothing,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I even tried visiting them soon after the restart began, before I ever interacted with any aranea. They react exactly the same way. I don’t know what’s up with that, but it’s best if you go there alone and don’t give them any indication we know each other.”
After listening to Zorian’s directions, Zach immediately teleported away to meet with the Ghost Serpent Acolytes and Zorian himself returned home to wait for him and get some much-needed rest. However, it was only several hours later that Zach returned to Cyoria as well and came over to Imaya’s place to talk to him. He walked up to the table Zorian was sitting at and sat down next to him, an unreadable expression on his face.
“They wouldn’t see me,” Zach said. “Their spirit says I’m bad news.”
“Really? So we’re both bad news,” Zorian hummed, tapping his fingers against the table. “Did they say why you’re bad news?”
“No,” Zach shook his head.
“Do you think we should just attack them and read their memories?” Zorian asked. He was all for being considerate, but it was obvious at this point that Ghost Serpent Acolytes held some important piece of the puzzle in regards to the time loop.
“No,” Zach said quickly. “If they know we’re time travelers, perhaps they have some method of perceiving the restarts. Attacking them might forever sour their opinions of us. Maybe we try going there at the same time and refuse to leave until they agree to speak with us?”
Zorian arched an eyebrow at Zach.
“What?” Zach defended himself. “It’s worth a try! Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of being annoying for extended periods of time.”
In the end, Zorian agreed to go along with Zach’s plan of annoying the Ghost Serpent Acolytes into talking with them. He notified Kirielle and Imaya that he’d be gone from the house for a while and then left with Zach to visit the suspiciously judgmental web.
The moment they approached the aranean settlement, they were immediately ushered inside. Zach and Zorian gave each other an incredulous look and tried to ask their aranean guides why they were admitted so readily when Zach was turned down earlier in the day as bad news. They were simply told that the Ghost Serpent wanted to see them and that they neither knew what was happening nor cared. They just did as they were told.
Eventually they were led into a large circular cavern filled with water. There was a large rocky outcropping jutting from the center of this miniature underground lake, and a stone bridge connected the entrance to the cave to this rock. The ceiling of the cave was covered in small clumps of glowing white crystals, giving it an appearance reminiscent of the night sky full of stars, and the waters of the lake were dark and still.
All in all, the cave gave off a very eerie feel to Zorian.
Floating in the middle of this underground lake, just above the rocky outcropping, was a giant, milky-white, translucent snake. The only spot of color present on the ghostly serpent were its eyes, which had a soft pink glow. Spirit names were often very fanciful and poetic, but it seemed that the Ghost Serpent was exactly what it advertised itself as.
The moment he and Zach entered the cavern, the Ghost Serpent focused its large slitted eyes on them. A wave of pink light rippled across its ghostly scales, travelling out from its eyes and down to the very tip of its tail, and then it spoke.
“Leave us, leave us, leave us,” it said, its voice soft and melodious, not a trace of a hiss in the pronunciation. Why it felt the need to repeat the order three times was anyone’s guess, since the aranea immediately began leaving the chamber after it had instructed them to leave.
The Ghost Serpent waited for the aranea to leave and seal the entrance before it began to speak again.
“How?” It demanded. “How can there be two of you? I know the rules well enough – only one can enter and only one can leave.”
“We don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zach protested, folding his hands across his chest. “Why don’t you start from the beginning, okay?”
“You cannot order me, Branded One!” The Ghost Serpent snapped, coiling through the air angrily before fixing its glowing pink eyes at Zach again. “I hate you, hate you, hate you! Thief and murderer! Liar and egg smasher!”
“Hey, that’s slander!” Zach protested. “We don’t even know each other! This is the first time we’ve met!”
“Is it? Is it really, really, really?” the Ghost Serpent asked with narrowed eyes, once again employing the unnecessary repetition in its words. “I wouldn’t know, even if it is, would I? I know how this works. You both bear the Brand.” It glanced at Zorian for a second. “That is the only reason I’m talking to you. I know the Brand and I know what it means. Most have forgotten it, dormant as it has been in the past few Cycles, but I am older than the mountains and rivers, and I remember. I remember the crimes they did – the way they made me fall. And if they behaved as they did at the End, who dares even imagine what they did in the In-Between? But the Branded Ones are one and there are two of you. This makes no sense, sense, sense!”
“Ghost Serpent, you must believe us when we say that we understand very little about what is happening,” Zorian said. “I have gathered from your words that you know about the time loop, yes?”
“The time loop?” Ghost Serpent repeated slowly, as if tasting the words. “An interesting choice of words. But nobody remembers the In-Between. Only the Branded One. This is something that has happened again and again in the past. It is not difficult to understand.”
“Then please shower us with your wisdom and explain it to us dumb people,” Zach said, rolling his eyes.
“You’re saying there have been more time loops in the past?” Zorian asked hurriedly, before Zach had the chance to piss off the Ghost Serpent for good. Fortunately, it seemed that while the Ghost Serpent knew about the time loop, it did not actually retain the memories between restarts. It just knew that it was stuck in the time loop and could recognize them as time travelers due to their marker… which meant that this situation was possibly reproducible, and even if they bungled things up, it should still be possible to retry this conversation again.
“They were regular like the progression between night and day,” Ghost Serpent replied. “Every four hundred years, whenever the planets aligned. But the Gate has been lost for some time now, or perhaps the Key. Alas, it seems someone has finally enacted this wretched thing again. May he burn in the molten heart of the world forever, ever, ever!”
The Ghost Serpent writhed in the air for a moment, seemingly overcome with anger and outrage at the person responsible for the time loop. Then it focused on them both once again and spoke.
“I remember. Do you not?” It asked. “Do not answer, I can see it on your faces. I do not understand how the Brand can be shared, but clearly it has happened. I do not wish to talk to you anymore.”
“Please, oh great spirit of this cavern,” Zorian knelt, hoping that flattery and some humility may buy them some time. “I can see you have been wronged grievously by the Branded Ones in the past. We do not dispute your grudge. But we have been thrust into the time loop unknowingly and without any say on our behalf.”
“Flattery is good, but useless here,” the Ghost Serpent said. “I know how this works, works, works… you will come here again and again, sucking me dry of any knowledge and wisdom, learning of my fears and weaknesses, and you will take, take, take until there is nothing else. The only thing to do is not to engage you at all. What can you do to me, after all? Today I die, and tomorrow I live once more.”
“We just want to know how this time loop works,” Zorian said.
“Yes!” Zach agreed. “Just tell us what is happening here! If we are really the evil masterminds you imagine us being, then you’d be telling us something we already know anyway.”
Ghost Serpent hovered in the air silently for a while, considering the request.
“Very well,” it said eventually. “But after that, you must leave. And if you have any honor at all, you will never visit me again. Even after I have forgotten.”
“We promise,” Zach said easily. Zorian couldn’t help but wonder if the boy really meant it. After all, the Ghost Serpent could be such a useful source of information…
“Promises are but wind, but they are better than nothing at all,” Ghost Serpent said. “Watch closely.”
The spirit shifted its gaze to the still waters around them, and a large sphere of water floated up in the air from the surface. After a few moments, the sphere flew over to where Zach and Zorian were standing and started writhing like it was about to burst.
Instead it unfolded into a crude diagram – a single horizontal line with an upturned triangle balanced on top of it by the tip.
“The bottom link is the Beginning and the End,” the Ghost Serpent said. “It is the world you were born in, and the world you will die in. The triangle is the world of In-Between. It exists between the moments, constantly destroyed and recreated anew. A lifetime condensed in a moment. We are all trapped in this place, phantoms created for the Branded Ones like you to learn from and test themselves against. When the fires that fuel the world of In-Between run out, we will all fade away into the void… except for the Branded One, who will go to the End, to live through this month one last time, time, time…”
“Wait, are you saying this is all fake?” Zach asked incredulously. “That we’re all some kind of illusion!?”
“A reproduction, not an illusion,” Ghost Serpent replied. “If you could mimic a painting in every stroke and shade, would it not be as real as the original from which it sprang?”
“But that’s-“ Zach began to protest.
“Enough!” Ghost Serpent snapped. “I have given you what you asked for. Honor your end of the bargain and leave, leave, leave! Guards! Escort them out, out, out!”
And then, before either Zorian or Zach could protest further, the Ghost Serpent dived into the waters of the lake and disappeared from view. Despite its ghostly appearance, its dive caused a huge splash, forcing Zorian and Zach to quickly shield themselves or be thoroughly drenched.
Okay, that was just rude.
Regardless, the aranea soon came and politely, but firmly threw them out of the settlement. They both stood outside in silence for a while, lost in their own thoughts.
“So…” Zach said. “What do you think?”
“I think that I need to open that memory packet as soon as possible,” Zorian replied.
The Ghost Serpent’s story had given Zorian a horrible suspicion about what Red Robe had been doing all this time…