For nearly half a minute, the endless void they floated in was silent. Neither Zach nor Zorian knew what to say, and the Guardian of the Threshold seemed content to placidly wait for further questions. Zorian would have liked to say he was considering the implications of this new knowledge at the time, but the truth is that he spent most of it being surprised at how well Zach was taking all this. He kind of expected the other boy to freak out and start swearing and shouting by now. But no, Zach was surprisingly calm and quiet about the situation. The only evidence he was in any way upset was a slight frown on his face.
“So,” Zach eventually said, his voice cutting through the unnerving silence that sprung up around them. “What now?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Zorian admitted. “I really didn’t think Red Robe had already left the time loop. It makes so much sense, though, now that I look back on things…”
“Yeah, he really screwed us over, didn’t he?” Zach sighed.
“Well, I wouldn’t exactly put it like that,” Zorian smiled. “I’m pretty sure this is not what he had been planning. We were meant to disappear. The time loop was supposed to collapse when the controller of the time loop left this place, permanently removing us as a threat. But we’re still here, and if the time loop is this out of its normal parameters, it might actually be possible to get out of this place.”
“Heh,” Zach chuckled. “Now that you mention it, yeah. And also, this means I can stop holding back. You too, for that matter. We’ve both been doing our best to keep a low profile to stop Red Robe from noticing our activities. Now that we know he is no longer here…”
“Yes,” Zorian agreed. “The way I see it, we have three main priorities. Number one, we need to find out how long we have until the time loop collapses. Number two, we need to find a way to get out. And number three, we have to try and find out who the hell Red Robe really is so that we can take care of him quickly if… when we exit this place.”
Zorian turned to the side to look at the Guardian of the Threshold, who had been quietly floating in place not far from them while they talked. It didn’t appear bothered by them ignoring it.
“We should question the Guardian about everything we can think of,” Zorian noted. “Who knows what kind of critical secrets it knows, and it doesn’t appear as if it cares to share anything on its own initiative. Though that could take a while – we should probably return to our bodies for a while to make sure we aren’t interrupted.”
“Do we even have to worry about that?” Zach asked, pulling on his jacket in order to demonstrate the way their clothes seemed an integral part of their body. “The cube seems to have ripped our souls out of our bodies to bring us here. Does it even matter if our bodies get killed out there?”
“We could be just projected here,” Zorian shook his head. “It sounds like the simplest way to achieve this, to be honest. Then again, that would leave the loop controller awfully vulnerable while messing around with controls. Hmm… Guardian?”
“You are merely projected into this place, but your stay will not be cut short by events in the outside world,” the Guardian explained. It was apparently smart enough to interpret what his question was likely going to be based on his and Zach’s conversation. Interesting. “If your physical forms suffer critical damage, or if soul tampering is detected, I will draw in your souls inside the Gate for safekeeping. Your time here will remain uninhibited, though you will have to start a new iteration of the loop in order to leave the place, as I cannot re-anchor your souls back to your bodies if they are not sufficiently intact.”
“Well. Good to know, I guess,” Zorian mumbled. He looked at Zach, and found that the other boy was already staring at him. “Do you have anything you want to ask the Guardian or…?”
“You go first,” Zach told him, shaking his head.
“Alright. First of all, is there a time limit as to how long we can remain here?” Zorian asked.
“When this iteration of the loop ends, so will your current visit to this place,” the Guardian responded. “Other than that, no.”
So when the time loop restarts, they will be flung back to their bodies at the beginning of the month, but other than that, they could stay here as long as possible.
They had plenty of time, then.
“What are the criteria for each iteration’s end?” Zorian asked curiously. “Is mere passage of time sufficient, or is there more to it?”
“Passage of time is sufficient,” the Guardian confirmed. “No iteration is allowed to last for more than a month at the time. Beyond that, there is a multitude of contingencies that will cause the iteration to terminate prematurely.”
“Can you list those contingencies?” Zorian asked.
“No,” the Guardian stated emotionlessly. “You aren’t authorized for that information.”
Zorian blinked in surprise. Though he had suspected the Guardian wouldn’t be able to answer all of their questions, he thought it would have to do more with it being just a dumb animation spell in the end, not that it would literally refuse to help them like that.
“What? But I thought we’re the Controller,” Zach piped in suddenly. “How can we not be authorized to know?”
“The Controller doesn’t have unrestricted authorization,” the Guardian explained. “Only the Maker and his agents have access to information about the workings of the Gate.”
“Maker?” Zach repeated incredulously. “Maker of what?”
“Of the Gate, of course,” the Guardian said. Zorian could almost imagine the Guardian rolling his eyes at the question, even though its eyes didn’t work like that and its voice never changed in tone.
“So the Controller isn’t the ultimate authority when it comes to the Gate or the time loop?” Zorian asked. The Guardian immediately confirmed this. “What can you tell us about this Maker, then?”
“You aren’t authorized to know the identity of the Maker,” the Guardian informed him.
Of course it was going to be something like that…
“Ugh. This thing is so damn annoying!” Zach complained.
Ten more fruitless minutes were spent on trying to question the Guardian about the Maker, its agents, whether it was a god (like Zorian suspected) or not, how long it had been since the Maker had last interacted with the Gate, and so on. The Guardian’s response was the same for each of them: they weren’t allowed to know.
Zorian wished he could just invade the thing’s mind and be done with it, but their inability to perform magic in this place extended to his psychic abilities. They had no way to force the entity into cooperation, and eventually decided to move on to other topics.
“You said no iteration is allowed to last for more than a month,” Zorian reminded the Guardian. “Can you tell us why?”
“When an iteration is over, everything in it is destroyed,” the Guardian began. Well, good to have that confirmed… Zorian had assumed it was so for a while now, but having the Guardian verify it was nice. “Under certain philosophical outlooks, this could be viewed as mass murder…”
“But not under all of them, huh?” Zorian mumbled distastefully.
“Others do not view destruction of copies as a problem, so long as they do not diverge excessively from the original,” the Guardian continued, ignoring Zorian’s interjection. “The time loop is set up under such an assumption. Thus, it is imperative that entities copied by the time loop are not given enough time to meaningfully diverge from the originals, as their destruction would then become unethical. A month was determined to be a good cut-off point.”
“What if one of the copies managed to achieve awareness of the time loop and found a way to maintain continuity across different iterations?” Zorian asked. “Hypothetically speaking.”
“That would be very unfortunate for the copy,” the Guardian noted. “Only the Controller can actually leave the time loop, after all.”
“See, this is the part I don’t get,” Zach suddenly interjected. “Why was such a rule put into place? I mean, there is only one Controller to begin with, so why put that sort of limitation in place?”
“To stop the Controller from trying to smuggle some of the copies out of the time loop,” the Guardian said matter-of-factly, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
There was a short pause as both Zach and Zorian processed this.
“Why… why is that important?” Zorian asked shakily.
“Because only the Controller has their real soul pulled into the time loop,” the Guardian said. “Everyone else is a copy. For a Controller of the loop to leave, I only have to re-anchor their soul back to their original body. For one of the copies to enter the real world, I would have to switch their soul with the soul of the original. This would effectively kill the original.”
There was another, longer pause following this explanation.
Zorian wasn’t terribly surprised at the fact that him leaving the loop would require he switch his soul with his original. It was one of the first ideas he came up with himself, after all. What surprised him was that Zach was apparently not a copy. Being the Controller had more to it than just having a marker stamped on your soul, it seemed.
“So the Controller has their original soul drawn into the time loop when it is first made,” Zorian said. “They aren’t a copy, so there is no problem with them leaving. But everyone else would have to kill someone to get out, and that’s unacceptable. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” the Guardian agreed.
“But you could do that?” Zach suddenly spoke up. “If one of the copies wanted to leave this place, you could switch their soul with that of the original?”
“Theoretically,” the Guardian admitted, “but that goes against what I was made to do. I am the Guardian of the Threshold. One of the main tasks the Maker gave me was to ensure things inside the time loop could not menace the source of the template. If a diverged copy tried to kill the original by switching their souls with it, I would do my best to stop them.”
“What about a normal, un-diverged copy?” asked Zorian. “Surely there is no harm in replacing the original with a normal copy. They’re practically the same thing! It’s what makes it okay to destroy millions of souls every month or so, isn’t it?”
The Guardian hesitated. A short, tense silence descended on the scene as it considered the scenario.
“So long as the copies do not diverge too much from the original, such a switch would be theoretically acceptable,” the Guardian eventually admitted. “But it is my purpose to keep the time loop from spilling out in the real world as much as possible, so I would still refuse to perform such a switch. Only the controller, with the knowledge and secrets they gathered inside the time loop, is allowed to leave and make their mark on the world outside, since they are technically of that world to begin with.”
“Alright,” Zorian nodded, signaling Zach with his hand to drop the issue. Though still very placid, the Guardian seemed almost agitated by their current line of questioning. Zorian was afraid that if they pushed it too much it might realize one of them was a copy somehow and do something to ‘correct’ this. Best to leave the topic alone for now. “Let’s move on to something else. Guardian, you said the Gate is barred because the Controller has already left the time loop.”
“Yes,” the entity confirmed.
“Can you tell me how many iterations that was ago?” Zorian asked.
“The Controller is still inside the time loop, Controller,” the Guardian said unhelpfully.
Some more variations of that question confirmed that the Guardian had no idea when Red Robe left. The Controller left, but didn’t actually leave, and the Guardian was hopelessly confused about the whole thing.
Asking the Guardian for Red Robe’s description or other identifying information didn’t work either – the Guardian didn’t seem to perceive the world in the same way they did, despite its fairly human-like appearance and the lifelike avatars he and Zach were inhabiting. It seemed to ignore just about everything in terms of identifying characteristics when it come to the Controller. Other than the marker, of course.
“So the Controller that left has the marker, then?” Zorian asked.
“Of course,” the Guardian confirmed. “How could he have left, otherwise?”
“How does the Controller get the marker in the first place?” Zorian asked. “Is it hereditary, assigned by the Gate itself according to some criteria or what?”
“The Controller is marked by the Key, by the Maker, or by its agents,” the Guardian said. “I am not aware of what criteria were used in choosing any particular Controller. It is ultimately irrelevant to my purpose to know such things.”
“But the Key is lost,” Zach said, frowning. “Scattered across vast distances. And if the Maker is a god like you suspect he is, well… the gods have been silent for centuries. That only leaves his agents. Who would that be?”
“Impossible to say for now,” Zorian shrugged. “But apparently you were purposely chosen by someone to go in here.”
“Or maybe Red Robe was,” Zach said gloomily. “I know you think I’m the original looper, but the fact that Red Robe was capable of leaving just like… it could be that he’s the one who’s the real deal. You saw how the Guardian reacted to the possibility of switching souls between the copy and the original. How did Red Robe leave if he’s just a copy?”
“I don’t know,” Zorian sighed. “It’s too bad the Guardian gets all stupid whenever anything involving Red Robe leaving is brought up.”
“If it didn’t get all stupid about it, we would have probably been erased out of existence when Red Robe left,” Zach told him. “So that’s probably a blessing in disguise. Anyway, Guardian? This marker I have on me is unique, yes? There is no way for there to be multiple Controller markers?”
“None,” the Guardian confirmed. “Before the time loop is activated, marking a new person will invalidate the old marker. Inside the time loop, the Controller marker cannot be invoked, and only lesser markers can be placed.”
“’Lesser markers’? What the hell are those now?” Zach protested.
“The Controller can temporarily add people to the time loop by placing a lesser marker on them,” the Guardian explained.
“What?” Zach squawked. “There is a way to include someone in the time loop and you’re only mentioning this now!? And what do you mean temporary?”
“Though I’m happy to answer any question you may have to the best of my ability, I am ultimately not designed to teach the Controller how to operate the time loop,” the Guardian said. “That is the job of whoever placed the marker on you. And by temporary, I mean that the target of the lesser marker will retain their memories and abilities for up to six iterations before the marker dissolves.”
“Why would this lesser marker be temporary like that?” Zach asked, baffled. “Is there a way to make it permanent?”
“It is temporary to keep divergence from the original to a manageable level and discourage the Controller from getting excessively emotionally attached to copies marked in such a fashion,” the Guardian explained. “There is no way to make it permanent, as that would be needlessly cruel. They cannot leave the time loop, after all.”
“But if copies that retain awareness for more than a month count as people and killing them is wrong, doesn’t that mean that using these lesser markers is effectively murder?”
“Yes,” the Guardian readily agreed. “But it is not the Gate that does it, so it is acceptable. It is up to the Controller to decide when and if they feel comfortable using such an ability.”
“So…” Zorian began after a short pause.
“I would never have used such a spell,” Zach immediately said, correctly guessing what Zorian was about to ask. “Never. Why would I torture myself by bringing people into the loop, knowing that they would suddenly go back to their old, ignorant self in just six restarts?”
“Fair enough,” Zorian said, guessing he had touched upon a sensitive topic. “Guardian, what about the ability to expel people from the time loop? Make them start each iteration soulless and dead? Does this ability exist?”
“The Controller has such an ability as well,” the Guardian confirmed.
By now, Zorian knew better than to ask whether such an ability had been used in the past. The Guardian had very limited awareness about what happened in the time loop itself, caring for little except the Controller itself.
“How about the ability to restore people ‘erased’ in such a manner back?” he asked instead. He was still angry at the matriarch for planning to betray him, but he wanted her back anyway.
“No,” the Guardian said. “The ability instructs the Gate to make changes to the base template that is used to construct each iteration. There is no undoing them without direct intervention from the Maker. The Controller is advised to use this ability with wisdom and restraint.”
For the next twenty minutes, Zach and Zorian tried to question the Guardian about the manner in which these abilities could be performed by the Controller or about any other abilities they may have at their disposal. Sadly, neither of those inquiries achieved results. The Guardian did not know how any of these abilities might be accomplished, and it refused to list all the abilities the Controller had, saying they were not authorized to know that information.
“This makes no sense,” Zach complained. “It’s happy to tell us about specific abilities if we ask, but a simple list of all options is forbidden?”
“Well, it sort of makes sense if the Maker didn’t want every Controller to know about all the features at their disposal,” mused Zorian. “If some or all of the Controllers are given limited information, you don’t want to let the Guardian tell them all about it anyway…”
Another fruitless question and answer session occurred, where Zorian tried to ask the Guardian about the history of the time loop and its purpose. The Guardian claimed not to have any knowledge of previous time loops, though, beyond simply knowing they existed. Apparently it did not retain its memories between different time loops. As for the purpose of the time loop…
“The purpose of the time loop is between the Controller and the one who marked them,” the Guardian concluded. “Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it is whatever the Controller wants it to be. There is little to stop them from doing whatever they want while inside the time loop, after all.”
“Alright, next question, then,” Zorian sighed. “Can you tell me how long will it be before the time loop runs out of whatever is powering it and shuts down? That is to say, how long do we have to leave this place?”
“Yes, of course. The time loop has enough power for 52 more iterations before it must shut down,” the Guardian said. “Assuming maximum utilization of each iteration, that is equivalent to little more than four years of operation.”
Four years… maybe he was just greedy, but that seemed very short to him. He asked the Guardian about that just to see what it would say. He expected it to refuse to answer, bringing up their lack of sufficient authorization or whatever, but the Guardian actually had an answer for them this time.
“The time loop is normally supposed to be initiated at the peak of planetary alignment,” the Guardian explained. “Unfortunately, something seems to have gone wrong and the time loop has been activated one month prior to it. This made everything more costly, causing the time loop to degrade far more rapidly than it is supposed to.”
“Do you know how long the time loop had been in existence thus far?” Zorian asked.
“967 iterations,” the Guardian answered. “Approximately 30 years in linear time.”
Wait, those numbers were kind of strange… how could almost a thousand iterations equal 30 measly years?
“Wait,” frowned Zorian. “So the time loop spends power per iteration, not according to how much time passes?”
“Yes,” the Guardian confirmed.
“But I cut a lot of restarts short by dying to some stupid shit in the first few days,” Zach protested. “Are you telling me I’ve been burning through our allotted time every time I did that?”
“Yes,” the Guardian confirmed again blandly. “It is the Controller’s right to do such a thing, however. Presumably you felt the gains were worth the sacrifice of additional time.”
“Hell no, I didn’t!” Zach protested. “I just didn’t know any better! If I knew all this, I would have been a lot more cautious about this shit!”
“Unfortunate,” the Guardian said. It did not sound very sorry or compassionate, however, using the same pleasantly bland voice it always did. “It seems you were poorly prepared for this undertaking. You should complain to whoever gave you the marker once you get outside.”
“Yeah, I’ll get right on that. Just as soon as I manage to find the bastard,” Zach said gloomily, “So anyway, let’s just get this finally out of the way… Guardian, how can we unbar the gate?”
“You would have to present me with the Key by bringing it before the Gate,” the Guardian said simply. “If you present all five pieces, you will gain sufficient authorization to reopen the gate.”
“I don’t suppose you could tell us where to find those things, then?” Zach tried.
“No,” the Guardian immediately answered. Of course. “But finding them should not be too difficult for you. Your marker can sense their presence.”
Not for the first time, Zorian wished the damn marker stamped on his soul came with an instruction manual or something.
Though they continued to question the Guardian for two more hours, very little new information came out of it. When they finally decided to leave, the Guardian informed them that they would have to start a new iteration of the time loop because their bodies had been ‘excessively damaged’ while they talked to the Guardian and the dumb thing didn’t find it important to mention that until they were ready to leave.
After about five minutes, when Zorian realized Zach was not going to stop ranting at the Guardian any time soon, he just reached into his soul and flipped the marker restart switch.
Everything went mercifully dark and silent.
* * *
Like always, Zorian’s awakening was done via Kirielle jumping on top of him. The events immediately following the awakening were also fairly typical, with him having his talk with Ilsa and dodging Mother’s attempts at conversation while having breakfast. He even ended up inviting Kirielle to come with him to Cyoria, despite initially planning to leave her behind. Partially, this was because he realized his vague plans of rushing to gather the Key as soon as possible and find a way to fool the Guardian into letting him out were rather premature and he should really take some time to calm down and digest things a little. But an equally important reason for it was that he realized he needed a break. The previous restart had been very exhausting, what with all the non-stop aranea hunting and the various revelations at the end, and he didn’t feel like jumping into another long-term mission right away. Taking a restart or two to relax a little and think things through wasn’t going to kill them. The time limit they had was uncomfortably short for his tastes, but not that short.
He was just wondering how to explain all this to Zach when they next meet each other when he was interrupted by the knock on the door.
What? That… that doesn’t usually happen…
He went to open the door, reaching out with his mind sense towards the unknown visitor, only to find Zach on the doorstep. Apparently his fellow time traveler wasn’t content to wait for him on Cyoria’s train station.
Zorian was kind of shocked, and not just by the fact Zach decided to come to his home…
He could actually sense Zach’s mind now. It was still shielded, but the boy wasn’t under the effect of mind blank anymore. Zorian was kind of touched at the show of trust this represented.
“Hello, Zach,” Zorian said. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Yeah, well, our last meeting’s ending was a little abrupt,” Zach told him with a little glare. “So I thought I should drop by and finish our conversation.”
“Sorry,” Zorian winced. “I know ending things so suddenly was a jerk move, but I was already kind of depressed from what the Guardian was saying and you getting into a one-sided shouting match with the thing was…”
“It’s fine,” Zach said, waving him away. “I lost my nerves too. It’s probably for the best you shut me down before I did something stupid. That thing seemed pretty uncaring, but if anyone can manage to piss off a non-sapient spell construct, it’s me.”
“Zorian, who is that?” Mother suddenly said, walking up to them. Turning around, Zorian could also see Kirielle peering from behind the kitchen door as well, watching the situation unfold.
“It’s just Zach,” Zorian said. “He’s one of my classmates from Cyoria.”
“Oh my, Zorian finally has friends visiting him at home,” Mother noted in exaggerated mirth. “I never thought I’d see the day. Could I get an introduction?”
“Sure,” Zorian agreed. It was only polite. “Mother, this is Zach Noveda, a friend and a classmate. Zach, this is Cikan Kazinski, my mother. The little girl peering from behind the door is my little sister, Kirielle.”
Mother gave Kirielle an annoyed glare and gestured her to come over and introduce herself properly. Huffing slightly at the order, Kirielle approached and shook hands with Zach as proper manners dictated.
“What, no Fortov?” Zach asked with a whisper.
Mother always had good hearing, though, so she ended up hearing anyway.
“He’s at his friend’s place right now. He’ll meet us at the train station, so you can see him there. I assume you intend to take a train to Cyoria along with Zorian, yes?”
“Yes. The train. Of course,” Zach fumbled, giving Zorian a questioning glance. He had probably expected them to just excuse themselves and teleport to Cyoria.
“I decided to take Kirielle with me to Cyoria this time,” Zorian said. “I hope you don’t mind her travelling with us.”
Kirielle gave Zach the hardest look she could muster, daring him to disagree with her coming along.
“Err, right. Of course I’m okay with that,” said Zach.
What followed was about twenty minutes of Mother trying to talk Zach into accepting something to drink and fishing for information about him. Zach decided not to mention he was the last living heir of a Noble House, possibly because he still remembered what Zorian had told him about his mother, and simply described himself as a wealthy orphan from Cyoria. Based on the looks Mother gave him, however, Zorian was pretty sure she suspected the truth. She was quite perceptive about these sorts of things.
Eventually, the four of them packed up and left towards Cirin’s train station.
“How come Zach doesn’t have any luggage to carry along?” Kirielle protested, glaring at the bag of her own things that Mother had forced her to carry herself.
“Well, I’m from Cyoria to begin with,” Zach said with a grin. “My luggage is already there.”
“Unfair…” she mumbled.
“Oh, you’ll see unfair when we get to Cyoria,” Zorian told her. “There’s an hour walk from the train station to where we’ll be staying, and I heard it’s going to rain too…”
When they finally reached the train station, they found Fortov already there, talking to his friends. Mother insisted on introducing Zach to him, which annoyed Zorian far more than it probably should have.
“No offense, Zorian, but your family seems pretty nice to me thus far,” Zach told him later, when he finally managed to excuse himself from Fortov’s group. “Maybe I’m a little biased, since my family all died and I wish I actually had a family… but I honestly can’t figure out your animosity for them.”
“It’s personal,” Zorian told him in a clipped tone. “There’s a lot of history that you aren’t aware of. Just drop it.”
“Fine, whatever,” Zach sighed. “I don’t want to start a fight. I actually want to apologize.”
Zorian gave him a strange look.
“Apologize?” Zorian asked curiously. “What for?”
“Well, you mentioned last time how I keep up a mind blank around you at all times and how it means I don’t trust you…”
“You don’t have to apologize for that,” Zorian told him, shaking his head. “I also told you I would have done the same in your place, remember?”
“No offense, but I don’t want to be like you, Zorian,” Zach said, shaking his head. Well screw you too, Zach! The feeling was mutual! “The point is, you were right. We don’t trust each other, and we’re not going to get anywhere if we have that constantly hanging over our heads. We need to work together if we want to have any chance of getting out of here.”
Well, that wasn’t quite what he said, but since Zorian actually agreed with the sentiment, he didn’t interrupt.
“So anyway, I think you already noticed I’m not under the effect of mind blank…” Zach said.
“Of course,” Zorian nodded. “I do notice your mind is still shielded, though.”
“Well yeah,” Zach said, rolling his eyes. “Trust your neighbors but lock your door, you know?”
“I wasn’t complaining,” Zorian said. “I was just going to notice the shield doesn’t feel like a spell. That’s a non-structured mental defense, yes?”
“Of course you already tested it,” Zach sighed. “Goddamn mind-readers. But yes, it’s non-structured. I got it a long time ago, back in the first decade of my looping.”
“It’s… kind of rough for something you’ve been practicing for decades,” Zorian admitted. “I mean, I know it’s hard to practice non-structured mind magic when you aren’t psychic like me, but I’ve seen other regular mages with similar defenses and theirs were a lot better than this.”
“I never really refined it much since… well, I never needed it for anything more complex than resisting casual mind reading and the like,” Zach said. “This isn’t just me being lazy, mind you. This is pretty much conventional wisdom about non-structured mental defenses among mages. Or at least that’s what the various magic instructors I learned from told me. Get just enough skill in the ability to foil casual attacks and deal with anything more severe with proper defensive wards and the like. If you don’t have time to set up those, locate the source of the mental attack and go on the offensive. Or just outright flee from the scene. Most mages agree that fancy non-structured mental defenses are more trouble than they’re worth.”
“Well, I’m kind of biased, but I don’t agree,” Zorian said.
“Yes, I feel a bit stupid now for just accepting conventional wisdom when it comes to that,” Zach admitted. “I’ve been stuck in a time loop for decades, it’s not like I didn’t have the time. I’ve honed far more useless skills to perfection just for bragging rights, so I really shouldn’t have skimped out on something like this. But enough of that. I have a request for you.”
“Go ahead,” Zorian nodded, motioning him to continue.
“Don’t mess with my mind without my express permission,” Zach said. “Even if you catch me without any mental protection or something.”
“Well, okay,” Zorian agreed. “I can respect that. What if I suspect you to be under the influence of another mind mage already, though?”
“I… have to think about that,” Zach fumbled. “For now, no. Don’t mess with my mind even then. Just knock me out and wait for the effect to wear off.”
Zorian wanted to point out that some mind effects didn’t ‘wear off’, but he could see that Zach was still very uncomfortable around mind magic and decided to postpone this talk for some other time.
“Alright. I’ll leave your mind alone. I will only use my mind sense and empathy on you, since they require no mental invasion to use and it’s almost impossible for me to not use them on someone. Anything else?”
“Yeah,” Zach said. “The fact you can sense and manipulate the marker placed on us and I can’t really burns, you know? I can accept you’re a better mind mage than I’ll ever be since it’s your special ability and all, but this personal soul sense of yours is something I could have easily acquired myself if I knew about it. Do you think you can teach me how to do that?”
“I think I’ll have to set you up with one of my teachers to do that,” Zorian frowned. “Alanic has access to potions I have never even encountered elsewhere and knowledge of how to help if something goes horribly wrong. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a problem, though – he’s a pretty helpful person, despite initial appearances.”
Eventually the train arrived and they were forced to cut their conversation a little short. Since they were going to share a compartment with Kirielle for the rest of the ride, any sensitive conversations would have to wait for a while.
Even if they had wanted to talk about something arcane, though, Kirielle wouldn’t have let them. Any apprehension she felt towards Zach melted away during the first twenty minutes of the train ride and the resulting boredom. She started asking Zach questions about Cyoria and the academy. Later on, Zach would remark how surprised he was at the way Kirielle treated him, as Kirielle had been rather more unfriendly towards him in the previous restart. But, as Zorian explained to him, that Kirielle was one who had a far worse impression of Zach… and that bad first impression of Zach had never really left her for the rest of the restart. The way Kirielle was treating him now was actually far closer to her true personality than what he experienced before.
“Kind of strange that you don’t like most of your family, but you’re so close to your little sister,” Zach remarked. “Was it always like that, or…?”
“I always did like her best out of all of them,” Zorian said. “But no, I did not have this good of a relationship with her before the time loop. There was a reason why I had never brought her along before I started retaining my awareness across restarts.”
“Ah. I figured it was something like that,” Zach said. “So do we have a plan for this restart or what?”
“I was hoping we could take a break for a restart or two,” Zorian sighed. “I need to think about things and come to terms with all of this. It’s a lot to take in.”
“Hmm… fine,” Zach said eventually. “I guess we should spend some time getting to know each other anyway. You can still introduce me to that Alanic fellow that teaches personal soul sensing, right?”
“Absolutely,” Zorian confirmed. “You can work on your soul sense while we decide what to do. It’s not like I intend to literally do nothing myself, you know.”
“Oh? What do you have in mind for yourself?” Zach asked.
“I’ve been pursuing lessons from my mentor, Xvim, but I could never really properly focus on them thus far. Now that I don’t have the decaying memory packet in my head demanding most of my attention, I figure I should finally be able to give him all my attention and see what the results are. I’m still not sure how much to really tell him about the time loop and how it functions, though. I mean, I’m freaked out by how it works, and I’m actually aware of the restarts… I’m not sure it’s a good idea to explain to Xvim what’s really going on.”
“I can’t help you there,” Zach shook his head. “I never had much luck in convincing people about the time loop, and that was before I knew all this crazy stuff about it that I do now. I have no idea how you even convinced Xvim to take you seriously about time travel, considering he never believed me when I tried to do the same.”
“You went to Xvim to try and tell him about the time loop?” Zorian asked. “I guess you really meant it when you said you went to just about everyone with the story.”
“Yeah…” Zach agreed. “Do you think it might help you convince him you’re telling the truth if I came with you? I can do some pretty crazy magic on demand, by now…”
“I don’t know,” Zorian said. “I didn’t mention you when I talked to him previously, but that was mostly to minimize any links between the two of us in case Red Robe somehow caught wind of Xvim’s investigation in the time loop. Now that we know Red Robe is gone, it might be a good idea to include you into the story.”
Zorian considered things for a few seconds.
“I’ll go alone on Monday,” Zorian decided. “But I’ll tell him you’re also a time traveler and see if he wants to meet you.”
* * *
Of course Xvim wanted to meet him. Frankly, if Zorian was in Xvim’s place and a student came to him with a story about being a time traveler and then another student was also a time traveler, he’d react the same way too. Thus, the very next day after Zorian’s talk with Xvim, he returned to the man’s office with Zach in tow.
“So, Mister Noveda,” Xvim began. “Mister Kazinski here claims you and he are stuck in a… ‘time loop’, and have lived through this month many times before. You’ve lived longer than him, apparently. I’ve already heard Mister Kazinski’s story and saw the evidence he had for it, and now I’m curious to hear your side of it. But before we get to that, I admit I’m curious about your level of skill. Do you mind if we take an hour or two to test your magical abilities?”
“Sure,” Zach shrugged. “I guess we’re going to have to leave the office for that, though…”
“That won’t be necessary, mister Noveda,” Xvim told him. “The test will consist of simple shaping exercises.”
“Shaping exercises?” Zach asked, surprised. “Err, kind of underwhelming, but okay. Ready when you are.”
Oh dear. Should Zorian warn him?
No. No, it would be more amusing this way.
“Levitate this pen, please,” Xvim told Zach, handing him one of the many pens strewn along his desk. “And then make it spin in the air.”
Zach smiled, doing just that with total ease…
…at which point a marble nailed him straight in his forehead, causing him to lose concentration and stop levitating the pen, nevermind spinning it.
“…what?” Zach asked incredulously.
“You failed,” Xvim informed him, finger tapping against the table impatiently.
“But… you threw a marble at me!” Zach protested.
“And you immediately lost concentration,” Xvim said with a long sigh. “Shameful. And you’re supposed to be someone who trained magic for literally decades? What could you have possibly been doing all this time? Zorian here would have never let some little thing like that distract him, and he has only been stuck in the time loop for a few years.”
There was a long pause as Zach looked incredulously between Xvim and Zorian, as if unable to believe what he was hearing.
Zorian was struggling not to laugh. He could kind of understand why Xvim had done this – it was an asshole move, and completely inappropriate for a teacher, but damn if it wasn’t amusing.
“Well, I suppose it’s to be expected,” Xvim said. “Decades of shoddy instruction is nonetheless shoddy instruction. One more promising student failed by the poor state of our magical education. Let’s try that again, only properly this time. Start over…”
* * *
“I hate this guy,” Zach told him as they left Xvim’s office. “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to strangle someone more in my entire life.”
“Yeah, Xvim has that kind of effect on people,” Zorian agreed.
“I mean, I knew he was an asshole, but I never quite realized he was that… that much of an asshole. You know?”
Yes, he knew. Oh, how Zorian knew…
“If he’s always like that, then why the hell did you keep coming back to him restart after restart?” Zach asked incredulously.
“I wanted to prove him wrong,” Zorian shrugged. “He was an ass, but he was demanding excellence in something I’d always felt I was good at, and so I just couldn’t let it go. Besides, he’s not utterly terrible, once you get to know him a little.”
“Not utterly terrible,” Zach repeated, rolling his eyes. “I really hope this is the end of it and I never have to talk to the guy again.”
“You know, Xvim is pretty good at non-structured mental defenses,” Zorian said innocently.
“No,” Zach said immediately.
“What?” Zorian grinned. “I was just going to suggest you ask him for help in mastering the ability. I’m sure he’d be happy to help you train.”
“No. Absolutely not,” Zach shook his head. “And don’t think I didn’t notice how much you were enjoying yourself while I suffered in there. I’ll find a way to pay you back somehow, you’ll see.”
Rather than be intimidated by the threat, Zorian finally laughed.