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Chapter 054
The Gate Is Barred

In the wake of their talk with the Ghost Serpent and their subsequent ejection from the aranean settlement, Zach and Zorian teleported away to a sufficiently distant and remote location and sat down to discuss what to do next. And that’s when the arguments began.

Zorian really wanted for them to separate for a few hours. He needed some alone time to think about what they’d heard. To make sure his logic was solid. He had his suspicions already – terrible, terrible suspicions – but they weren’t the sort of thing he’d want to blurt out lightly. In fact, he wasn’t sure he wanted to confide them at all… to anyone. Even Zach.

Another reason why he wanted a short break from his fellow time traveler.

Zach didn’t want to play along, though.

“We should talk about this now,” Zach argued. “While the memory is still fresh in both our minds.

“I have a really good memory,” Zorian argued. Indeed, he had specifically memorized the entire meeting with the help of mind magic, and would never forget any of it. He could review the memory in vivid detail as many times as he wished. “It would be better if I had a chance to think about the spirit’s words for a while.”

“Well, that’s fine,” Zach said, giving him a dismissive shrug. “You can do that. Who’s stopping you? But there’s no reason why you can’t do that here with me. I can be patient. I’ll just… quietly sit here by the side and wait until you’re ready to talk. It will be like I’m not even here.”

Zorian gave him an annoyed look. He had serious doubts about Zach’s ability to sit quietly like that for extended periods of time, and even if he could… it wasn’t the same. There was no way Zach didn’t know that.

“Look,” Zach said, matching his annoyed look with his own. “I know how this goes. If I let you get away now, you’ll use that time to think up some stupid story to throw me off with. You know something.”

“I don’t know anything for certain,” Zorian protested, shaking his head. “And frankly, if I wanted to keep my suspicions to myself, I wouldn’t have bothered to invent some kind of elaborate lie to deceive you. I would have simply refused to tell you anything.”

Zach shifted uneasily for a moment.

“Okay,” he said. “I guess I was being a little unfair there. Sorry. But still, you aren’t seriously considering just leaving me in the dark, are you? After I informed you of that stupid snake and helped out with your mind magic training? Surely you realize how fast that would kill any sort of trust between us?”

Zorian looked away. Of course he realized that! But it wasn’t that simple! If what he was suspecting was correct, then how could there ever really be trust between them?

“There can only ever be one winner in this game”, Spear of Resolve had said in her fragmented message.

“Only one can enter, and only one can leave”, said the Ghost Serpent.

If only one time traveler could keep the gains made in the time loop and the rest get dissolved into the void, like they had never existed at all, then how could they ever truly cooperate with one another? Any alliance would just be a temporary convenience, inevitably ending in betrayal.

And when all was said and done, Zorian was pretty sure that Zach was in a much better position to screw him over than Zorian was to do the same. The time loop seemed to recognize Zach as more legitimate, if nothing else.

Still, while a big part of him screamed at him to keep quiet about his theories at all costs, there was a small but equally insistent part of him that argued against keeping Zach in the dark. This situation seemed strangely familiar to him…

After a while, Zorian realized what was bothering him. The idea of him hiding this sort of knowledge ‘until he could be sure’ and Zach being bitter at him for doing so… it reminded him so very much of his arguments with Spear of Resolve before she was soulkilled. And for good reason – he was pretty sure his current suspicions were exactly what she had tried to keep secret from him. He was thinking of treating Zach the same way he had been treated in the past. And he knew how much he had hated the matriarch’s secretiveness back then…

Did he really want to basically re-enact the matriarch’s secretive scheme, despite the catastrophic way it ended up resolving? Wouldn’t it be better to treat Zach the same way he wanted to be treated?

The trust had to start somewhere.

“Fine,” Zorian sighed, turning back to face Zach again. “I’ll tell you.”

“Finally,” Zach shouted in exasperation, raising his hands in the air. “I thought I’d have to hit you to make you come to your senses.”

Note to self: talk to Zach about his unfortunate tendency to resort to physical violence to solve personal disputes. Right now they had more pressing topics to discuss.

“I should note that this has the potential to really destroy any chance of us trusting each other,” Zorian sighed. “I mean, we already don’t trust each other. You keep that mind blank spell up at all times when you’re around me, for instance. That spell is harmful for your mind if you keep it up non-stop. I don’t believe for a second that you don’t know this. So you apply it up specifically for our meetings because you’re afraid I’ll mess you up with my mind powers if I get the chance.”

Zach flinched, his face morphing into a comical expression of surprise. It reminded Zorian of that time he had caught Kirielle raiding the kitchen pantry for sweets a few years ago.

“You don’t have to feel guilty,” Zorian interrupted his response, shaking his head sadly. “It’s smart. I would have done the same in your place. But it helps illustrate my point – we already don’t trust one another. How much more, then, would we be paranoid around each other if we knew only one of us could exit the time loop with their mind and magic intact?”

“What?” Zach asked incredulously. “How? Why?”

“The Ghost Serpent pretty much stated it outright – only one time traveler gets to leave the time loop,” Zorian said. “The rest… disappear forever, I suppose. It makes sense, really – I don’t think there was ever supposed to be more than one time traveler. Or ‘Branded One’, as the Ghost Serpent calls us. A reference to the marker, most likely. Anyway, if our situation is as unprecedented as the spirit suggested, and the time loop mechanism was only ever designed under the assumption-”

“Zorian,” Zach interrupted him. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but… your explanations suck. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Well, okay, I kind of do, but still. Start from the beginning, please.”

“Fine,” Zorian sighed, trying to squash his annoyance. “The beginning. First of all, no time travel is technically happening here.”

“No?” Zach asked, frowning. “How is that? The illusion world thing?”

“There is no illusion,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “It’s all real. We’re real. Flesh and blood and soul and everything else. We’re not living in a spell construct or some fancy dream.”

“That’s good,” Zach said, breathing deeply. “It would just kill me inside if it turned out that everything I’ve learned in here is fake and that I’ll be the same old Zach I once was once I wake up in the real world. So what is this, then – an actual copy of the real world?”

“Why not?” Zorian asked. “The gods have been known to copy people completely, duplicating them down to their souls and all. Plus, it seems that even mortal mages once knew how to conjure actual matter from nothing. Here, let me show you something…”

Zorian took out a piece of paper and some alteration tools out of his backpack and created a copy of one of Kirielle’s drawings in front of Zach, explaining how the spell functioned to the other time traveler.

“That’s a damn useful spell combination,” Zach said. “I can’t believe I never learned about it in all this time. This would have made so many things easier…”

“Yes, well… I can teach you how to cast the spells later,” Zorian said. “Anyway, this is what I believe the time loop is essentially doing, albeit on a much greater scale. Whatever is behind this took a blueprint of the world, much in the same way I did with Kael’s notebooks and my little sister’s drawings. A mind-bogglingly detailed image of a single moment in time across the entire planet. Possibly beyond. And it is repeatedly producing a replica of the world based on that blueprint, allowing it to run for a month before destroying it and starting over.”

Zach stared at the drawing Zorian recreated, lost in thought. This particular one depicted two sparrows in the middle of fighting one another. It was pretty impressive how perfectly Kirielle managed to capture this one moment of their battle in a static image. If only she was as dedicated in her magic studies as she was in her art…

“That’s crazy,” Zach eventually stated.

“And time travel isn’t?” Zorian asked, raising his eyebrow.

“I don’t know, it somehow sounds more plausible to me than this,” Zach said, sighing. He handed the drawing back to Zorian. “I guess it does make a lot of Ghost Serpent’s ramblings make sense, though. But here is what doesn’t make sense - if our original world is real, and this copy we’re living in is also real… where are we exactly? An entire world takes up a lot of space, after all.”

“In a pocket dimension, I’m guessing,” Zorian answered. “I have no proof, but hear me out. It is clear that, in order for this whole setup to work, we have to be under an insane amount of temporal acceleration right now. Otherwise, how could only a moment pass in the real world while we spend decades or even centuries in this… looping world?”

“Ah, I get it,” Zach said. “It’s not that the time doesn’t pass in the real world while we’re here – it’s just that time flows so fast here that barely any time has passed in the real world.”

“Exactly,” Zorian said. “But this sort of temporal acceleration is on a whole other level than even the best temporal acceleration facilities currently in existence.”

“Yes, so?” Zach shrugged. “Compared to copying the whole world, that seems pretty underwhelming.”

“I guess,” Zorian agreed. “But I suspect there is more to it than just the creator of this thing being ridiculously powerful. Time acceleration rooms have to be isolated from the outside world in order to work with any sort of efficiency. But this isolation is still done through magical wards and physical obstacles like walls, which means there is only so much you can separate them from the rest of existence. A pocket dimension, on the other hand, only touches our reality in one particular spot – its anchor point. You can’t get more isolated than that, and I bet the possible temporal acceleration is much bigger if you enclose the target area in its own pocket dimension.”

“So, you think the time loop is actually a physical copy of the world, enclosed in its very own, temporally accelerated pocket dimension,” summarized Zach. “The time loop has a ridiculously detailed image of the real world as it was at the start of this month, and it periodically recreates the whole world based on that.”

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “I’m only guessing all this, but it fits with what I found out so far.”

“And here I thought this thing couldn’t possibly be any crazier,” Zach complained, burying his face in his hands. After a second or two he straightened up again and looked at Zorian. “So how does this affect us? How is this different from this actually being a time loop?”

“For one thing, it means that ensuring a perfect month is impossible,” Zorian said. “You can’t live through one loop, decide you really like how it turned out and then end the time loop and continue on from there. If you want to do things ‘for real’, you have to leave the time loop. You will then be flung back at the beginning of the month to try everything one last time.”

“Okay, that is an important difference,” Zach admitted.

“Secondly, the Cyorian aranea will almost certainly be alive and well in the real world,” continued Zorian. “If everything here is a copy, and the pocket dimension is deliberately isolated from the real world as much as possible in order to facilitate temporal acceleration, then it’s unlikely that anything done to people in the looping world affects their real life counterparts.”

“He could always soulkill them again in the real world, though,” Zach pointed out, frowning.

“I doubt he can,” Zorian said. “I don’t think the spell actually kills souls. I think it simply marks them in some way, letting the time loop mechanism know it should not recreate them at the beginning of the new restart. If the time loop is, as the Ghost Serpent believes, some kind of training mechanism, then it makes sense to include a function like that into it. It allows the Branded One to get rid of impassable obstacles by removing them from the loop entirely.”

“What? That’s so unfair,” Zach complained. “Why does he get such an ability and I don’t?”

‘You might have had it at some point,’ Zorian thought to himself. ‘It’s quite possible Red Robe got it from you and then wiped your memory of the spell…’

“Do you think it might be possible to… unmark them somehow?” Zach asked. “It’s nice that the aranea aren’t permanently gone, but it would be nice to have their help within the time loop too.”

“I don’t know,” Zorian said. “It depends on what exactly has been done to them. There is still another issue.”

“Yes?” Zach asked curiously.

“Considering what the time loop really is, I don’t think we can just passively wait for the mechanism to run out of power,” Zorian said. “It seems likely to me that staying inside the looping world once it runs out of power equals permanent destruction. If we want to survive the collapse, we have to deliberately leave this place before it’s too late. Which is a problem, since neither of us knows where the exit is or how to access it.”

Zach stared at him in shock. It seemed he hadn’t really considered this possibility.

“And on top of that, the Ghost Serpent said only one person can exit this place,” Zorian sighed. “Meaning that the moment one of us leaves the looping world, all the other time travelers still inside are dead. Erased out of existence, really.”

“We don’t know this,” Zach protested. “How would the stupid snake know something like that anyway? You heard what it said – it has no memories of anything that happened during previous time loops. It could be making things up to divide us. It certainly hates the ‘Branded Ones’ enough to try something like that.”

“Still, what if the spirit is right?” Zorian asked. “What if only one of us can ‘win’ this?”

“Then neither of us leaves until we figure something out,” said Zach immediately, straightening his posture. He gave Zorian a direct and determined look. “We’ll figure out a way to get both of us out alive and well. There must be a way.”

Though the boy was immune to Zorian’s empathy due to his mind blank spell, Zorian could still feel the passion behind his words. Zorian had to give it to him – Zach could be very inspiring when he wanted to be. Unfortunately, there was a very important detail he had forgotten…

“The thing is,” Zorian noted quietly, “it’s not just the two of us who are here. Red Robe is in this world as well.”

Zach paused for a moment, not saying anything.

“…shit,” he finally concluded.

“Yes,” Zorian agreed. “I think I know why we haven’t seen any sign of him in all this time.”

“You think he’s trying to leave?” Zach asked, fear creeping into his voice.

“It’s what I’d do in his place,” Zorian said. “He thinks there is an unknown amount of other time travelers plotting against him, at least one of whom is a better mind mage than he is, and you have effectively slipped from his grasp. Why take the risk of confronting all that when he can just leave the looping world and erase all his enemies out of existence in the process? He’s been in this place long enough that he’s probably gotten most of what he wanted out of it, anyway.”

“Damnit,” Zach swore, kicking a nearby rock in frustration and beginning to pace around the place. “Damnit! Why!? Why is it always like this!? I finally, finally get some answers about this shit and of course I’m three steps behind some asshole who is doing his best to screw me over! Zorian, please tell me you have some sort of idea where the exit is.”

“This is just a wild guess, but I suspect it might be in the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria,” Zorian said. “Spear of Resolve was very insistent on making sure I learned its exact location, putting multiple redundant copies of that section of the map. There must be something important there.”

“That’s great!” Zach said, brightening up. “When can we go there?”

Zorian snorted derisively. “Not for a long, long time. The place is insanely well secured. Even Quatach-Ichl refused to attack the place without army support.”

“Damnit,” Zach swore. “Of course it couldn’t be that simple.”

“I’m hoping that the matriarch’s memory packet contains some crucial information about the topic,” Zorian noted. “At the very least, it should tell me what about that place is so important. That way we can at least know whether or not to waste our time on the place.”

“Well that’s something at least,” Zach sighed. “Hopefully we don’t find the exit, only to see Red Robe just about to leave when we get there.”

“Don’t tempt fate,” Zorian told him. “Anyway, I just have to ask. Suppose we find the exit and Red Robe isn’t there…”

“I already told you. No one is getting left behind,” Zach said, correctly guessing Zorian’s question. “Once we confirm where the exit is, we’ll mess up Red Robe until he’s no longer a problem, and then we sit down and figure out a way to get both of us out. And if we can’t figure it out ourselves, we’ll find someone who can. It’s a big world out there, someone must know a way to help.”

Zorian stared at his fellow time traveler, a bit humbled by his optimism and sense of ethics. He kind of wished he could sense emotions off the boy, though, because he couldn’t help but wonder if Zach was feeding him a bunch of idealistic rubbish while quietly planning to leave the time loop at the first opportunity. How much could he afford to trust the boy?

And in the back of his head, a small, treacherous part of his mind whispered: how much could Zach afford to trust him?

* * *

After that talk, Zach and Zorian threw themselves into aranea hunting with newfound fervor. Day after day, week after week… in all honesty, the different webs were already starting to blur together a little in Zorian’s mind.

But it was effective – his ability to interpret aranean memories was growing by leaps and bounds, and he had even identified what the high-ranking aranea were doing with their own minds.

They were manipulating their own thoughts, doing things like filtering distractions out of their senses, blunting inconvenient emotional highs and placing compulsions on their own behavior. It seemed to be a way to increase productivity and ensure better decision making.

It was also incredibly dangerous. Improperly done, this sort of mind magic could render one dead, catatonic, irreparably insane or worse… and it was a branch of magic that was easy to do incorrectly. Nobody truly understood their own mind, after all.

Despite the danger, Zorian found the idea fascinating. It wasn’t literally an intelligence boost, but it almost functioned like one. He would probably try to dabble in it at some point… but not now. He had his hands full at the moment. He just hoped that Spear of Resolve’s mental manipulations weren’t as radical and convoluted as some of the other aranean elders he had seen recently.

Zorian’s lessons with Xvim proceeded without incident. He decided not to tell the man about his latest findings about the nature of the time loop, as he still didn’t know what to think about that himself, and was worried about how Xvim would react to finding out he was just a copy. He was a remarkably calm and collected man, but that would be quite a revelation. He did, however, ask Xvim about pocket dimensions.

Unfortunately, Xvim knew virtually nothing about them. The secrets of their creation were rare and closely guarded – only the greatest of mages could make even a tiny one, and they did not share that knowledge lightly. Xvim had claimed he had never seen one in his entire life, despite talking to a lot of capable mages, which made Zorian a bit amused. Technically, Xvim was looking at a pocket dimension right now, he just didn’t recognize it as such.

Between his interaction with Zach, aranea hunting and lessons with Xvim, Zorian was constantly busy. It was tiring, and he opted not to do many of his usual routines from previous restarts. He never went to hunt monsters with Taiven, for instance, and never told her about the time loop either.

Finally, as the end of the restart began to approach, Zorian decided he had prepared as much as he could. He informed Zach he would try opening the matriarch’s memory packet soon and that he was taking a two day break from aranea hunting to get some rest before the attempt.

Kirielle, at least, was ecstatic about that. She could finally have him all to herself for two whole days… or at least that’s how she seemed to interpret his decision, anyway.

It was currently the second day of his self-imposed rest, and he was lying on his bed, reading a rather silly piece of fiction dealing with time travel. It was a book about a man who went three years back into the past to prevent a devastating war and save his lost love. The story was more amusing than Zorian thought it would be when he started reading it, but that was probably just him – the story was supposed to be a romance, not a comedy, it’s just that he personally couldn’t take it very seriously.

The time travel spell was powered by love, of all things – what kind of magic was that?

Kirielle interrupted his fun by jumping on top of his bed (and him) and elbowing herself in by his side, where she pretended to read the book with him for a while.

“Can I ask you something?” she suddenly asked after a while.

“Go ahead,” Zorian said, turning the page. Kirielle quickly stopped him and turned the page back where it was. Huh, maybe she actually was reading along…

“Do you always bring me along when you go to Cyoria?” she asked.

Oh. That question again…

“No, not always,” Zorian admitted.

“Why?” she asked immediately, outrage creeping into her voice. He could tell she kind of expected that answer, but definitely didn’t like it.

“Because it’s dangerous,” Zorian admitted. “Zach isn’t the only time traveler beside me. There is a third person looping, and he is after us. Truthfully, the sensible thing would have been to never bring you along-”

“No!” Kirielle protested.

“-but I’m just too damn nice to do such a thing,” Zorian finished.

“Mom says that praising yourself is in poor taste,” Kirielle informed him.

Zorian gave her an annoyed look and promptly dropped the open book on her face. She sputtered indignantly for a moment before lifting the book and trying to use it as a bludgeon against him.

She gave up quickly when she realized it wasn’t very effective. And when she noticed Zorian was trying to distract her from her questions.

“Why don’t you call the mage guild on this guy if he’s so dangerous?” she asked.

“Because he’s a time traveler and they would be of no help,” Zorian said, rolling his eyes. “I doubt I could even get them to believe me. And even if I could, it would just be a huge clue for the jerk as to where he can find me.”

“That sucks,” Kirielle declared.

“Yup,” Zorian agreed.

She fidgeted nervously for a moment, setting the book down beside her on the bed.

“Am I of no help?” she asked.

“You help keep me sane,” Zorian told her.

“That’s it? I totally defended you from Zach back at the train station,” she pointed out huffily.

“Okay, you definitely have a point there,” Zorian admitted. Even if he hadn’t been in any real danger, Kirielle’s actions were still glorious. “But really, what are you getting upset about? Are you afraid if I don’t bring you along every single restart, I’ll get bored of you or something?”

“Yes,” she admitted. “Daimen and Fortov both went to the academy, got themselves new friends and forgot all about us. Then you went there as well, but couldn’t get any friends and I know it’s kind of mean, but I was glad for that because that meant you didn’t forget about me-”

“Kiri…” Zorian sighed.

She ignored him and continued with her explanation, quickly spilling out word after word and barely pausing for breath, as if it was all going to disappear if she stopped.

“-but you were still getting so distant and you were always, always annoyed at everything. And then you bring me along and you’re suddenly nice, but now you suddenly have this Zach who is a time traveler like you and he will remember and I won’t and-”

“Kiri, there is no way Zach can replace you,” sighed Zorian, hugging her to stop her from getting herself even more upset, and rolling his eyes at her when she could no longer see him. She got worked up over the dumbest things sometimes. “The guy is almost as annoying as you are, and he doesn’t even have an excuse of being nine years old.”

She proceeded to hit him in the back for that comment. Well, at least she wasn’t crying.

“I’ll forgive you for not bringing me with you sometimes,” Kirielle eventually decided. Very generous of her. “But you’re not allowed to forget me!”

“Sure,” he agreed easily. What kind of request was that anyway?

But the more he really thought about it, the more he realized he might not have a choice in the matter. If Red Robe decided to leave the time loop and collapse this entire world behind him, what would the future have in store for him and Kirielle? The real Zorian and Kirielle, that is, since the Kirielle he was looking at was just a copy, same as he was…

And that was another thing. He was just a copy of the real Zorian. If he found a way to return into the real world… what was going to happen to the original? Ugh… he was getting a headache just thinking about it. He’d kind of have preferred it if the time loop simply switched his soul with that of the original – that would mean he was killing the original Zorian by exiting the time loop, but this looping world had effectively killed hundreds of such Zorians already, so what difference would one more make?

Would the original Zorian agree with such assessment? Would he accept that it was okay for him to die so that a future version of him might live? In all honesty, probably not… but there was no way that would stop him from performing the switch if he had to.

Tomorrow he was going to finally open the matriarch’s memory packet. He really hoped it had the final pieces he needed to figure out this puzzle once and for all.

* * *

“Alright,” said Kael, handing him a vial full of glowing yellow liquid. Inspecting it closely, Zorian could see that the glow was not uniform, but instead came from tiny glowing motes swimming inside the liquid. “This is the potion I was talking about. The potion of self-awareness. It’s meant to improve a person’s ability to block out distractions and focus inwards. It’s typically used to help train people’s ability to sense their mana reserves and souls, but I suspect it will help for this type of mind magic to work as well.”

“How reliable is your information about this stuff?” asked Zorian suspiciously, swirling the liquid inside the container. “Did you test it somehow or…?”

“This is what my teacher used to help train my… abilities,” Kael said. “It definitely works for its intended purpose. And while I’m not entirely sure it will help you in your task, it definitely won’t hurt to take it. Zach volunteered to test the potion a few times, so I know for a fact it doesn’t interfere with mind magic.”

He pointed towards the boy in question and Zach promptly gave Zorian a thumbs up and a bright smile.

Ugh. The jerk refuses to drop his mind blank around him for any reason, but he blithely drinks a bunch of strange potions made by a junior necromancer he just met. Sometimes he just didn’t get that guy.

“Fine. Here goes,” said Zorian, quickly downing the liquid.

Almost instantly, Zorian’s mind sharpened to an incredible degree while, paradoxically, the outside world began to feel distant and indistinct. It wasn’t that his senses suddenly grew worse, because they were as sharp as they ever were, but what they were telling him suddenly became a lot harder to focus on.

He stopped struggling against the effect and let his mind turn inward. He could sense his heart beat, his muscles shifting as he fidgeted in place, the blood coursing through his veins… he could sense his mana reserves and the way they reacted when he tugged at them… his personal soul sense, normally so faint and sluggish to respond, suddenly seemed much easier to understand…

Damn. Why hadn’t he asked Kael for something like this earlier? This would have been incredibly useful back when he was trying to develop a personal soul sense.

No, he couldn’t get distracted – he discarded these visions and instead dived into his own mind where the matriarch’s memory packet stood. He did not feel the same sense of increased clarity this time – probably because his mind magic was already too good for the potion to improve – but that was okay. He mentally grasped the decaying memory packet and began to carefully take it apart.

Not carefully enough, it turned out. The packet, already on the verge of falling apart completely when he began, couldn’t tolerate Zorian’s still somewhat inexperienced touch. It violently burst apart, momentarily dazing Zorian with a burst of confusing images (some kind of defense mechanism, maybe?), and the memories contained within began to rapidly fade away from his mind.

Swearing internally at his failure, Zorian scrambled to access some of the memories before they all faded away.

Previously, Zorian had been hoping that Spear of Resolve hadn’t delved as deeply into the mental self-manipulation as some of the other aranean elders had. Now he could safely say he was an optimistic fool. The memories currently floating in his mind spoke of an absolute master in the field that made all the other ‘expert’ araneas look like total underachievers in comparison. Spear of Resolve seemed to have found a way to turn part of her mind into a magical calculator, could somehow temporarily separate her mind into multiple parallel threads of thought and could integrate perceptions of multiple araneas into a unified, coherent whole. And that was just the stuff he could figure out in the short time he had been given. Even if Zorian had been given several extra years to get better at reading aranean memories, he doubted it would have helped him interpret the memories locked inside the memory packet.

And yet, despite all of this, there was one particular memory that Zorian could easily understand… because it had been made understandable specifically for him.

[If you are reviewing this memory,] the matriarch’s memory echo said, [then in all likelihood, our plans were foiled and things went awry. It also means you have gotten good enough at mind magic to dive into the memory packet and read some of my memories. Well done. I hope you have had the courtesy of respecting my privacy and leaving the rest of my memories alone.]

Zorian could literally feel the smugness in her words. As in, she had made sure to attach that particular emotional impression to that particular section of the message. She knew damn well he had no hope of interpreting the rest of her memories.

Even in death, that spider was mocking him.

[I know you think I had it coming by rushing into this, but hear me out. I have sought out every clue about the time loop I could find. Most of what I’m about to tell you comes from the patron spirit of another aranean web – the Ghost Serpent Acolytes. Seek it out if you haven’t already, though be warned that the spirit might not be too happy to see you.]

What an understatement. Did the matriarch not realize the depth of the Ghost Serpent’s hatred of time travelers, or did she simply think her warning was sufficiently informative?

[Other sources include the researchers at the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria – you can find its location in the map I’ve attached inside this message – as well as some of the invaders that had the chance to interact with our mysterious time-traveling foe. It seems the invaders were quite curious about their new informant and have invested considerable time and effort into figuring him out.]

Damn. His investigation into invaders never seemed to produce any results as far as Red Robe was concerned. Then again, by the time Zorian was able to investigate them properly, Red Robe was no longer interacting with them at all.

[What I have gathered from all this is that this time loop is some kind of… fake, parallel world. We’re real, but we’re not. It’s hard to understand. Or maybe accept. The problem that arises from this is very simple: the time loop is degrading. I can’t tell how long it will be before it collapses entirely, but I do know that simply waiting for it to end would be disastrous. One has to deliberately leave this place. And everything I’ve gathered about our time-travelling foe from the invaders suggests he is completely unconcerned with finding the exit or leaving. I do not believe for a second that our foe is too stupid to see the importance of this or too complacent to make it his priority. The obvious conclusion is that he has already found the exit, and he can leave at any time. Thus, stopping him was of utmost importance. No matter what, he couldn’t be allowed to leave the time loop.]

Oh this was bad…

[And also, if I am honest with myself…] The ghostly memory of the matriarch hesitated, as if wondering whether to say the next part at all. [If I am honest with myself, I had been hoping that I could find out how our mutual foe joined the time loop. So I could join it as well… and then, eventually, leave it before anyone else could.]

Wait, what?

[I’m not heartless, mind you. I would have done everything in my power to help the alternate version of you on the other side. Zach too, for that matter. But I had essentially been planning to betray you. The amount of good I could do – for my web, for my species and yes, maybe even for myself… it’s so very irresistible. I hope if you ever get out of this place, you will not blame my other self for my own weaknesses, but I simply cannot see how I can make any other choice. It’s nothing personal, but there can only ever be one winner in this game. I am truly sorry.]

That… Zorian almost tore the entire message apart in anger after listening to that. All this time he had been feeling guilty about her dying, hoping that Red Robe was lying and there was some way to bring them back… and it turns out Spear of Resolve was planning to screw him over?

But no. No, he wouldn’t be destroying the message. It was important. Too important for him to throw it away.

He would listen to the message to the very end. He owed Spear of Resolve that much, at least. Even if she tried to betray him.

[I am unsure if this message is even necessary. But if the time loop can so casually create copies of us, it can surely destroy us just as easily. Our foe clearly has deep knowledge of how the time loop works. Thus, this message. I hope it won’t be necessary, but just in case, I put in a map to point you towards the invaders’ bases and – more importantly – the time magic research facility deep beneath Cyoria. I am rather sure the time loop exit is located there – it is an ancient artifact called ‘the Sovereign Gate’. You can find its legend in various books easily enough, I’m sure. The security is high, but you will find a way to access the facility peacefully at the end of this message. The Gate did not react to me no matter what I did, but maybe it will to a proper time traveler like yourself. Otherwise, you may have to find ‘The Key’ to get it to open. This is bad, since – if I have interpreted the Ghost Serpent’s ramblings correctly – the Key consists of the five imperial treasures of the first Ikosian emperor. The ring, the crown, the staff, the orb and the dagger. These items are all lost, likely scattered across Miasina. You’d have to conduct your search on a whole other continent. I didn’t think it was possible, even with the help of something like working Bakora gates, so I didn’t put too much effort into tracking down rumors surrounding them…]

After that was a map of Cyoria’s underworld, largely identical to the one he already had but with the various holes in his version filled out with relevant information. Finally, the matriarch gave him information on the government inspector that had the authorization to access the time magic research facility, to check up on their work and make sure they weren’t wasting government funding. According to the matriarch, the man was not even a mage, and was easy to impersonate… which was how she had gotten access to the place.

Aside from the pre-arranged message, he did not get anything else out of the memory packet. But truthfully, the message was already a little too much for him. The matriarch’s plans to betray him, the fact that Red Robe might have figured out a way to leave a long time ago, the stuff about the Key in the end…

Eventually the effects of the potion wore off and he found himself drawn to the world around him again. Both Zach and Kael were eager to see what he learned from the packet and Zorian did his best to tell them about his findings. All except for the way Spear of Resolve planned to betray him. That felt a little too personal at the moment.

The unanimous conclusion was that they had to access this time magic research facility as soon as possible. Accordingly, Zorian would raid the government inspector’s place the very next day to steal his identity badges and everything else they needed to gain access to the place.

* * *

Two days later, everything was ready. Since it would be a bit implausible for government inspectors to consist of two teenagers, Zach had bought them both a shapeshifting potion on the black market that turned them into nondescript, middle-aged men. Which was… weird. Regardless, with their appearances changed and with all the necessary documentation in their hands, they simply walked into the appropriate city office and demanded access to the facility.

Zorian had been worried that Spear of Resolve had been insanely lucky on her own try and that somebody was going to call their supposed superiors to confirm their orders and identity… but no such things happened. They weren’t even suspicious about the fact that there were two of them when there should have been just one.

Zach, being an idiot, actually asked them about this. Zorian was about to wipe their memories and shout at him, but it turned out they saw nothing wrong with his question.

Awful security.

“You must be new,” the guy talking to them said. “That place gets inspected constantly. The royals are afraid someone is going to steal their precious ‘Sovereign Gate’, so they check up on it constantly. That’s why there’s so much security around the place. Honestly, I don’t understand why the researchers tolerate it. If I was in their shoes, I’d send the damn thing back to the royal treasury so I can work in peace. I bet it isn’t even the real thing…”

After that, they were directed to a fancy magical elevator on the edge of the Hole, which took them down to the facility in question. Along the way, they passed next to the various other, less secretive research facilities – one of the armed guards that rode along with them was talkative and wouldn’t shut up about them. Zach actually engaged the man in conversation, which was nice, because it allowed him to stay silent without looking too rude.

The other guard was as silent as Zorian. The two of them shared a friendly eye roll with each other in regards to the two gossips next to them and then ignored each other for the entire ride.

Finally they reached the place, passing through two more armed checkpoints that merely glanced at their papers before shooing them inside, and then they were finally inside.

They were greeted by a pair of researchers – one middle-aged, and one that couldn’t be more than 18 years old in Zorian’s estimation. They offered to give them both a tour of the place, and were quite surprised when they accepted the offer.

“We don’t often get inspectors that are actually interested in our work,” the middle aged man commented. He had introduced himself as Krantin Keklos earlier. “Most just want to see the Sovereign Gate to see it’s still there and intact, and then leave as soon as possible.”

“Oh, we definitely want to see the Sovereign Gate as well,” Zach said, smiling. “We just thought it might be interesting to see what else you have got down here.”

“Of course,” Krantin said. “Rest assured that we have been taking good care of it. We’re grateful to the Crown for allowing us to study such an amazing artifact.”

“You don’t believe it’s a fake like everyone else seems to,” asked Zorian curiously.

“I’m not sure if it’s the Sovereign Gate of historical legend,” Krantin admitted. “But it is surely a genuine artifact from the Age of Gods.”

Over the next hour, Krantin and Aread (his younger assistant who mostly let Krantin take the lead) led Zach and Zorian through the facility to demonstrate their work. Zorian could tell that Krantin was absolutely ecstatic to give someone he considered influential a tour of the place, despite his subdued attitude. He wanted more funds and support from the Crown, and thought that pandering to them might help him get it.

There were three main portions of the facility. The first was a series of three Black Rooms – the first and smallest was reserved for experiments on plants and animals, while the two bigger ones saw human use. The second portion dealt with combining alchemy and temporal acceleration in various ways. Finally, the third and last part was based around a large black cube about four meters long on each side. There was a door-like depression on the side of the cube, but Krantin explained that they had never managed to get it open.

Carved into this door was a very familiar geometric diagram – a horizontal line with an upturned triangle balanced on top of it.

“There it is,” Krantin said, sweeping his hand towards the black cube. “The Sovereign Gate. Despite the legend surrounding it, we believe it is some kind of powerful time acceleration room rather than a literal gate to another world. Sadly, we have never really managed to activate it. I had high hopes that the upcoming planetary alignment and the resulting amplification of dimensional magic might be the key to getting it to work, but no such luck. Shame.”

“Amazing,” Zach said staring at the cube with an unreadable expression on his face.

“Yes,” Krantin agreed. “It’s hard to believe something like this had just been gathering dust in the Noveda family treasury for countless decades. If it weren’t for Mister Zveri’s generosity in donating some of Noveda’s unneeded artifacts to the Crown, who knows how long it would have languished there undiscovered!”

“Yes,” Zach said frostily, grinding his teeth. “What a generous guy, that Tesen.”

“Well,” Krantin coughed, realizing he had struck some kind of nerve, “Although I’m happy to answer any questions you may have, this is about it for what we do here. If you would-”

Looking around, Zorian looked around to confirm they were alone in the area for the moment and then reached out to the two researchers’ minds. Though both Krantin and Aread were highly-trained mages, they were specialists in time magic and had no real mental defenses. In just a few seconds, Zorian forced their minds into mindless stupor. They remained standing on their feet, and looked fine at first glance, but they were effectively unconscious.

Zach raised an eyebrow at their sudden silence.

“You got them?” he asked, turning to Zorian.

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “So. Do you know how we can activate this thing? And is it even wise to do so? I mean-”

“We should try touching it,” said Zach.

…yeah, okay. It wasn’t like Zorian had any better idea.

“We should do it together, though,” Zorian remarked.

“Oh, right – that way we will hopefully both activate it at the same time. We both have the same marker thing, so it should work, right?”

“Right,” Zorian agreed uneasily. He wasn’t so sure personally, but what else he could do? If the matriarch was right, Red Robe already knew about this place and could leave whenever he wished. The time loop still existed, though, so clearly he didn’t. Why not? Zorian would have in his place.

He needed the answers the thing held.

“On three,” said Zorian. “One, two… three!”

The both pressed their palm against the diagram on the door in perfect synchronization with each other.

Two seconds passed.

“Nothing is happening,” Zach complained. “Damn…”

“No,” Zorian frowned. He could feel something reaching out from the cube in front of them, trying to access his marker. Asking for… confirmation? “I could feel something. I don’t know if you can feel your own marker yet-”

“Not really, no,” Zach said.

“Well, anyway, I think if I just-”

He flipped one of the switches on his marker. The mysterious force reaching out from the cube immediately rushed into him. Everything went black.

Zorian half expected to wake up in Cirin again, with Kirielle jumping on top of him and wishing him a good morning.

But he didn’t. He was instead floating in a black, featureless void. And Zach was right beside him.

“Woah. What happened,” Zach asked, looking around. “Where are we?”

“The cube wanted me to give it confirmation of some sort,” said Zorian. “So I said yes. And here we are.”

“If we’re permanently stuck in this void because of you, I’ll never forgive you,” Zach warned him.

“You would have done the exact same thing in my place and you know it,” Zorian said.

“Well yeah, but aren’t you supposed to be the paranoid, sensible one? Agreeing to unknown requests from a mysterious ancient artifact sounds pretty stupid to me.”

Before Zorian could say anything, another person popped into existence in front of them.

No… not a person. The entity in front of them was vaguely humanlike, but that was clearly just a crude façade. It wore no clothes, but that was okay because it had no genitals, body hair or anything else other than smooth skin. Its face was blank and apathetic, and its eyes were glowing white voids devoid of iris or anything else except soft light spilling out of them.

“Welcome, Controller,” the entity said, its voice soft and emotionless.

Zach reacted faster than him – he immediately reached for his spell rod, only to find it effectively glued to its holster. Checking himself, Zorian noticed his own spell rods suffered similar fates. In fact, his very clothes seemed to be glued onto his skin and though he could feel his mana reserves he didn’t seem able to manifest any of that mana at all.

“Who are you?” Zach demanded. “What is this place?”

“I am the Guardian of the Threshold,” the entity said, as apathetic as its face. “And this is the control room.”

“I don’t think this is a physical place,” Zorian noted. “Notice how your clothes seem to be a part of your body.”

“Hey, you’re right…” Zach said, frowning as he tried to roll up his sleeves and failed.

“We’re some kind of projections,” Zorian said. “As is the entity in front of us.”

They both stared at the entity in front of them. It seemed to interpret their attention as some kind of prompt.

“What is your request, Controller?” the Guardian asked.

“Can we leave this place?” Zorian asked.

“Of course,” the Guardian agreed easily. “Do you want to do that now?”

“By leave, we mean go back to the bodies we’re being projected from,” Zach clarified.

“The answer remains the same,” the Guardian easily responded.

“What about leaving the time loop?” Zorian asked.

“Time loop?” the guardian mouthed uncomprehendingly. Its eyes flashed for a moment before it refocused on them again. “I’m sorry, but the gate is barred.”

“What?” Zach protested. “What the hell do you mean ‘the gate is barred’?”

“The Controller has already left the time loop,” the Guardian explained. “It’s not possible for anyone else to leave.”

There was a brief silence as Zach and Zorian processed this claim.

“But I thought we were the Controller,” Zach protested.

“You are the Controller,” the Guardian agreed easily.

“But you just said the Controller has left the time loop,” Zorian frowned.

“He has,” the Guardian confirmed.

“Why is the time loop still in existence, then?” Zorian asked.

“The time loop cannot end while the Controller is still inside the time loop,” the Guardian said.

“So the Controller has left the time loop, but you can’t end the time loop because the Controller is still in the time loop?” Zach asked incredulously. “Don’t you realize how stupid that sounds?”

“I don’t think we’re dealing with a sapient being,” Zorian said. “It’s some kind of animated spell performing its function and getting confused that there are multiple Controllers when there is only ever supposed to exist one. Guardian, how many people are you talking with right now?”

“Only the Controller can access this place,” the guardian placidly answered.

“So wait…” Zach said in a trembling voice. “You’re saying…”

“Red Robe has somehow tricked the control room into thinking he’s the Controller of the loop,” Zorian sighed. “He has already left. And so no one else can leave.”

“The gate is barred,” the Guardian confirmed.

Well, fuck.

End of Arc 2

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