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Chapter 059
One Step Forward

Not too long after Xvim had left the house, Zorian did as well. He had no particular destination in mind, he just wanted to get out of the house for a while. As far as he could tell, it was the only way for him to get some time alone. The rest of the house’s inhabitants could tell something had happened between him and Xvim that had greatly upset him and kept prodding him for answers. He knew they meant well, but gods were they annoying.

Their questions were especially inconvenient because he couldn’t actually answer any of them. Not without explaining the true nature of the time loop and multiple other things he had been keeping secret from them.

Maybe he had no right to be annoyed. Considering the magnitude of the secrets he was keeping from them, their nosiness was well justified. But he was not in a good mood at the moment and it was hard to be understanding and rational. Best to get away from everyone until he had a chance to cool off.

Zach didn’t try to follow after him, thankfully. Zorian made a mental note to thank him for his consideration later.

For a while he simply walked aimlessly through Cyoria’s streets, checking out storefronts and watching the people around him. Eventually, though, he grew bored with that and decided to visit some of the more significant places from his past. He checked out his old, academy-provided apartment that he had lived in during the initial restarts (it was now occupied by someone else, as it turned out) and spent some time on the roof of the building, just watching the city and feeling the wind blow over him. He then descended into the dungeon beneath Cyoria and walked through the lifeless corridors of the aranean settlement hidden within it. Finally, he walked over to Hole and spent some time peering into its fathomless depths, idly wondering whether the primordial’s prison was placed here because of the Hole or if the Hole was the product of the prison being placed here.

As he departed from the immediate vicinity of the massive mana well, he encountered a small group of cranium rats hiding in the shadows of a nearby building. With him no longer trying to mess up the invasion and with so many things happening in a short period of time, he almost forgot about them. He was pretty sure his mind magic had long since surpassed the swarm’s ability to hurt him, so they didn’t frighten him the way they once had. Hmm…

On a whim, he extended a telepathic probe into one of the rats, trying to start a conversation with the collective mind of the swarm. Maybe he could bribe or blackmail it into switching sides? Or at least get it to gather information for him as well as for the invaders – it would hardly be the first time a spy worked for multiple sides…

Connecting to the collective was easy. Trivial, even. Due to the way the swarm mind worked, it couldn’t really use mental shields the way he was using them. Instead, it relied on redundancy of individual rat minds and the sheer psychic might of its combined self when faced with hostile mind mages.

Talking to the collective, on the other hand, was proving to be as difficult as he had feared it would be. The swarm treated his every contact as an attack, striking back at him whenever he established a telepathic link and cutting off individual rats from the greater whole when they realized their ‘counterattack’ was getting them nowhere.

In the end, when Zorian refused to stop his contact attempts and gradually ramped up the aggressiveness of his telepathic probes, the swarm mind just plain wrote off the entire group he had cornered and disconnected them all from the collective rather than continue dealing with him.

Only mildly disappointed by the outcome, Zorian continued on, not even bothering to kill the frightened, suddenly isolated cranium rats. What would be the point, really? The idea of making the cranium rats work for him stuck with him, though. What should he do to get the swarm to hear him out, though? Just keep pestering it like he just did until the swarm grew sufficiently annoyed with him to actually start talking back? If Zorian was in their shoes, he’d break the silence after a while to tell the jerk to knock it off. Just in case it actually worked.

Still, maybe he was assigning excessively human thinking to what was a composite mind made out of rats. If he wanted to talk to the swarm mind, he might have to actually capture one of the rats and bind it harder to the collective. Make it impossible for them to cut the connection and abandon it.

Sitting on a nearby bench and taking out a notebook, Zorian started to sketch a spell formula setup that would ‘lock’ a cranium rat to its collective. A metal cage with three overlapping wards that should… no, wait, that wouldn’t work. Maybe he should just make his own connection instead of trying to strengthen the existing one… if he placed a small marker on five to six rats, it should create a resonance that…

A while later he had to reluctantly put his plotting aside, because it was getting dark and it was time to start going back home. It would take a couple of days to finalize the design anyway. And he was feeling a lot better now too, so there was no need to stay away from Imaya’s house any longer.

He found it curious that making designs for contacting cranium rats had been satisfying. What did he like so much about that? After thinking about it for a while, he figured it was because that was a problem he actually knew how to solve. He wasn’t sure which one of his ideas was the best solution, but it wasn’t like his time loop problems, which seemed completely intractable. He had no idea how to track down the five Keys, and even if he did they wouldn’t automatically tell him how to enter the real world along with Zach. He had no idea how to track down a kid that couldn’t be found by his own Noble House. Not only did he not have the skills necessary to accomplish these feats, he didn’t even know which skills he even needed for that.

With that in mind, was the sort of thing Xvim advocated even necessary? He had flipped through the notebook Xvim had given him as he wandered around. Some of the people Xvim had recommended were experts at divination and mind magic, which might potentially help him gather information. But most of them were more oriented towards magic in general.

What he had was largely an information problem. Would being a better mage help with that?

It might. What were the chances that the Keys, once found, could be acquired without using a lot of magical skill and effort? Miniscule, knowing his luck. And the way out of the fake world, whatever it ended up being, would surely demand far greater skills than he could currently marshal.

And that’s without considering the issue of Red Robe and the fact they would have to deal with him somehow when (if) they got out of the time loop.

It was dark when he finally returned, and when he entered the house, he found Imaya still awake and waiting for him.

Honestly, he just didn’t understand that woman.

“You know you didn’t have to wait for me, don’t you?” Zorian asked her, exasperated. “I do have a key of my own.”

Even if he had forgotten it, it would have been childishly easy to unlock the door with magic. He could have even relocked it the same way after he went inside.

“I know,” she nodded, unbothered by his tone. “But I wanted to wait for you anyway. Do you feel better now?”

“I do,” Zorian admitted. He didn’t really accomplish anything, but he felt calmer anyway.

“Where did you go? Just wandering around?” Imaya asked knowingly.

“Pretty much,” Zorian said with a shrug. “I bought Kirielle a hairclip, climbed to the top of a building, visited a graveyard, stared into a hole and tried to talk to rats.”

“You bought your sister a gift?” she asked, curious. “What’s the occasion?”

Zorian gave her a strange look. Out of all the things he said, that was what she chose to focus on?

“It was cheap and I felt like it,” he said. He sat down opposite to his landlord, not really in the mood for going to sleep yet. He wasn’t tired. “Why did you wait for me? Aren’t I just a tenant to you?”

“I’m not sure. I have heard about these ‘tenants’. They are supposed to be these terrible creatures that come home drunk and late, destroy your walls and furniture and never pay rent on time,” said Imaya, voice tinged with amusement.

“Slander,” Zorian said blandly.

“In all seriousness, I guess you’re right that I care too much,” she said, sighing lightly. “It’s Kana’s and Kirielle’s fault, I think. They make me think of children I always wish I had.”

Zorian gave her a mildly surprised look. Not because her wanting to have children was so unbelievable, but because in all the restarts he had known her, she rarely talked about herself like that. He almost asked her why she was still single if she wanted kids, before he remembered Ilsa’s warning not to discuss marriage or husbands with her.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “It’s natural to want kids, you know? I know young people like you don’t want to think about it, but that will change as you age.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Though… I apologize in advance for being so brazen, but if you want children so much, why don’t you just have them. Sure, some people would judge you for being a single mother, but-”

He was interrupted by Imaya bursting into laughter.

“Oh, that is kind of funny,” she said. “I guess Ilsa told you not to mention my husband and you jumped to conclusions, hmm? But no, being single isn’t the problem. It’s the fact I’m infertile.”

Oh.

“My husband left me when we found that out,” Imaya said. “He wanted kids too, and I couldn’t give him any. So there – now you know about that too. It’s not that big of a secret, and I’m mostly over it, so don’t worry about avoiding any mention of it. I’m not as delicate as Ilsa thinks I am.”

She seemed to consider things for a moment.

“Though don’t mention it on a whim, either,” she added. “It’s a depressing topic.”

“I understand,” Zorian nodded. Why would he keep bringing it up for no reason, anyway? “Just one question. You being infertile… is this a problem of not being able to afford the cure, or it being literally incurable?”

“The second, I think. The healers at regular hospitals certainly don’t know of any cure that would help. If it exists, it’s something that would take a budget of a small state to track down and buy,” Imaya said.

Zorian filed that away in the back of his head and moved on to other topics. Imaya’s problem, while tragic, was not very high on his list of concerns. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to look for any miracle cures when he conducted his investigation of the Keys and the like. He was pretty sure Kael would appreciate something like that too, and powerful medicines might not be useless to him and Zach either.

He spent the next half an hour talking to Imaya, mostly about Kirielle and what she had been doing all these days while Zorian was away. He was relieved to hear she was surprisingly well-behaved – he had been absent more often in this restart in comparison to others, and he was afraid she would act out because of it. The only issue was that she had apparently broken a couple of plates a few days ago and never bothered to tell him about it. It was annoying - if she had told him immediately, he could have probably fixed them up with magic. As it was, the pieces were dumped into the trash and were long gone now, so he would have to pay Imaya back for the plates with money.

Not that he couldn’t afford it, but still. He was so giving the little brat an earful tomorrow.

* * *

The next day found Zorian sitting in his room, surrounded by a veritable mountain of books. Some of the books were mundane, borrowed from the library or bought from the stores. Others were brought over from the book cache held in the aranean treasury, or stolen from the private collections of the cultists working with the invaders.

He was looking for something, anything, that might allow him to grow fast enough without resorting to Xvim’s idea of advancement.

Unfortunately, he had found little so far. As expected, really – if there was an obvious way to gather magical skills and power faster than normal, it would already be in widespread use.

He was actually rather glad when the door opened and Zach walked inside, since it gave him the excuse to take a break from his self-appointed task. He was kind of amused to see Zach flipping through a book of his own, though. It wasn’t often that Zach decided to read a book, especially one as thick as what he was currently holding.

“Something interesting?” Zorian asked him curiously.

“Not really, no,” Zach replied. “It’s a medical textbook. Kael gave it to me. He has been bothering me for a couple of days now, saying that the time loop is absolutely perfect for medical research and begging me to invest more of my time in practicing my medical magic. Apparently someone told him that I am good at medical magic.”

He gave Zorian a small glare while saying the last part. It had no effect on Zorian. He had no reason to keep that a secret from Kael, and he was pretty sure Zach could have made Kael back off easily enough if he really tried.

Instead he decided to change the subject and get to the probable point of this visit.

“What do you think about Xvim’s idea?” Zorian asked.

Zach visibly scowled, throwing his book on top of a nearby book stack before replying.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “Extremely uncomfortable. That’s the kind of stuff Red Robe did to me, didn’t he? But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I’m pretty biased here, but I can see Xvim’s reasoning. If you feel you have to do this, I won’t try and stop you.”

“Did you ever do something like that when you were first gathering strength?” Zorian asked.

“Not like this,” Zach said, shaking his head. “I didn’t like mind magic much, even back then. But I did attack people and looked through their private libraries and spell collections. I usually had a good reason to attack these people, though. Maybe you can do the same? Limit yourself to people you can justify attacking?”

“That’s kind of what I’m already doing,” Zorian said. “Maybe not as aggressively as I could be, but only because I lack the time to truly dedicate myself to it. Xvim’s whole point is that this wasn’t going to be enough. That I need to take what I need, regardless of how justified the target is.”

Zach hummed thoughtfully, thinking about that for a couple of seconds. Zorian waited patiently, curious about what his response would be.

“You know, most of my magic doesn’t come from raiding other people’s secrets,” Zach finally said. “The majority of it I accumulated by simply paying, begging and annoying various experts into teaching me. Granted, some of it is only possible because I’m the last of the Novedas. Before its fall, my House had a habit of financing talented mages from poorer backgrounds while they were still beginning their careers, and quite a few such people still live and feel they owe Noveda a debt because of it. Me being the last of them also tugs at people’s heartstrings in some cases, as does the fact my guardian practically dismantled the House and robbed me of their legacy. Plus, some of them wish for fame that comes from teaching the last Noveda, or hope to profit from ingratiating themselves to me, gambling on me restoring the House to glory and paying them back afterwards. Between my money, family legacy and fame, it usually isn’t too difficult to talk people into teaching me. Maybe we can leverage that to get some of these people to cooperate willingly?”

“That is an interesting idea,” Zorian said after a short pause. “I’m not sure how effective it would really be, but it’s worth a try. In fact, it kind of reminds me of the fact I do have some small amount of reflected fame myself, courtesy of my older brother. It might be a good idea to see if I can get something with that. That didn’t work too well for me in the past, but back then I clearly wasn’t a magical prodigy like Daimen. Now, I can effectively pass myself off as a second coming of Daimen by demonstrating some of the magical proficiency I picked up in the time loop.”

Zach gave him a surprised look.

“Yeah, I know,” Zorian said unhappily. “It kind of rankles to rely on Daimen like that, but desperate times call for desperate measures.”

Zach just shook his head in amusement, not saying anything.

“What about black rooms?” Zach asked after a while. “Couldn’t we get extra time using them?”

“Actually, yes,” Zorian agreed. “I’ve been checking them out and I think we can definitely trick the operators beneath Cyoria into letting us use the room once per restart.”

“Just once?” Zach frowned.

“Black rooms are really mana intensive,” Zorian said. “The facility beneath Cyoria can activate their black rooms twice a month, but the first activation is really inconveniently timed for our purposes. It happens right at the beginning of the restart. There is no way we can make use of it then, unless we stage an all-out assault on the facility as the very first thing in the restart. And even if that succeeds, that would surely cause the facility to shut down and postpone the second planned activation, so it wouldn’t actually gain us anything.”

“Ugh,” Zach mumbled unhappily. “But that still means we can essentially double our time, doesn’t it? A single activation gives as an entire month for the cost of a day.”

“In a way, that’s true,” said Zorian. “But it’s a month during which we cannot access any experts or books we didn’t think to bring with us in advance. It’s useful to be sure, and we should abuse it for all it’s worth, but it’s not nearly as useful as another actual restart would be.”

“Maybe we can find some more black rooms elsewhere and commandeer them too?” Zach offered.

“It doesn’t hurt to look for them,” Zorian agreed. “In any case, we won’t be able to use the chamber beneath Cyoria in this restart. We already missed the activation day, unfortunately. But starting in the next restart, we should plan to take advantage of it every single time to maximize training time.”

“Yeah,” Zach agreed. “Though I can’t help but think those will be some very boring months spent in there…”

“Probably,” Zorian agreed. Especially for Zach, since he didn’t look like the sort of person who handled being cooped in a small room for weeks very well. “We’ll see how it goes in the next restart and adjust the plan from there. If it doesn’t work, we’ll scrap the idea.”

“I know what you’re thinking. I’m not that impatient,” Zach huffed. “I’m not going to throw away a golden opportunity like that just because I’m a little bored.”

After a quick discussion about what to bring to the black rooms to pass the time (Zach insisted the best answer to that is ‘girlfriends’, but reluctantly gave up on the idea when Zorian started enumerating problems with that idea), they lapsed into a short silence. Zach looked around the room, taking in the books Zorian surrounded himself with and even casually flipping through some of them.

“So is there anything else?” Zach asked. “Did you find something worthwhile in this little book fort you made?”

“Not really,” Zorian admitted. “Enhancement rituals seem interesting, if we can find the right one. Unfortunately, mages are very secretive about those. A lot of enhancement rituals require a lot of dead test subjects before one can fine-tune them to usability, so mages are leery of admitting they use them or know how to perform them. I think someone high up in the Cult of the Dragon Below is very good at those, though, so we might have something there if we can track that person down.”

“Don’t enhancement rituals require you permanently tie up some of your mana reserves into maintaining them?” Zach asked. “Sounds like a bad deal for you. No offense, but you don’t really have that much mana reserve to burn.”

“That’s why I specified we need to find the right one,” said Zorian. “And besides, nobody said it has to be me who makes use of them. You’re good now, but it never hurts to get better and your reserves are more than big enough for an enhancement or two.”

Zach considered it for a while, before shaking his head.

“I’m leery of messing with my magic like that,” he said. “I’m not vetoing the idea, but it would have to be some pretty amazing enhancement to get me interested.”

“Fair enough,” Zorian shrugged. Indeed, enhancement rituals could be quite dangerous and some may even have effects that linger across restarts, so Zach’s hesitance was quite reasonable. “Oh! I been meaning to ask you this, but I keep forgetting. Could you teach me how to cast the simulacrum spell?”

“Uh, no,” Zach said. “I did find the spell once, but I couldn’t cast it. The scroll said the spell requires the caster to have ‘awareness of their own soul’, which I couldn’t figure out at the time. I suppose this is what Alanic is teaching me how to do right now, but at the time I couldn’t figure it out and eventually gave up on learning it.”

“Hmm,” Zorian hummed thoughtfully. “Well, I can sense my own soul, so I should be able to do it. I don’t suppose this scroll is somewhere easy to get to, at least?”

“I don’t even remember where I found it,” Zach said. He seemed lost in thought for a moment, before shaking his head sadly. “Sorry, but it was a long time ago. I think it was in the sanctum of that lich in Taraman, but it could have easily been in the treasury of that demon-worshipping cult in Tetra or in that secret vault I found under Marbolkano or in a hundred other places.”

“Damn,” said Zorian. “Well, try to remember. I can’t find a detailed description of the spell, but depending on how it works it could greatly improve our efforts.”

“Will do,” Zach nodded. Before he could say anything else, though, Kirielle barged into the room. Posing dramatically for no real reason, she announced that he had another visitor.

Yesterday it was Xvim, and it was Alanic’s turn to come and talk to him.

* * *

After a short round of greetings, Zorian ushered Alanic into his room, where Zach had been waiting for them, and retook his position on the bed, surrounded by his books. Alanic flipped through some of them, frowning at the dodgier works he stole from the cultists but saying nothing.

“Xvim visited me yesterday,” Zorian said when Alanic didn’t seem like he would start talking any time soon.

“I know,” Alanic said. There was no emotion in his voice, and Zorian couldn’t feel anything from his mind.

“I hope this isn’t an attempt to pressure me to take his advice,” he warned.

“Heavens forbid,” Alanic told him seriously, giving him a grave look. “I didn’t agree with his decision to begin with, so why would I pressure you to go along with him?”

“You don’t approve?” Zach asked, surprised.

“I’m a priest,” Alanic said. “Why would I approve of attacking innocent people for magical power?”

“Forgive me for saying this, but you haven’t exactly been a shining beacon of morality in the previous restarts I’ve known you,” Zorian said, frowning.

“Towards my enemies, perhaps,” Alanic shrugged. “But these are not the kind of tactics one should use on allies and those who haven’t done anything wrong.”

For a few seconds, there was a silence in the room as everyone digested this statement. After those couple of moments passed, however, Alanic seemed to deflate and closed his eyes in defeat.

“That said,” he began. “I have to say what you’ve told me is both terrifying and depressing. Without your intervention, both Lukav and me end up dead at the start of the month. Even if the invasion of Cyoria fails, it will still take thousands of lives, most of which will have their souls captured and fed to Sudomir’s necromantic device. The aftermath could easily spawn another round of splinter wars, and I don’t even want to think what this Red Robe of yours would do if allowed to run unchecked.”

“What’s your point?” Zach frowned. “We know damn well the stakes are high.”

“I’m getting to it,” Alanic said, giving Zach an unamused look. Zach just rolled his eyes at him. Rather than argue further with Zach, Alanic turned back towards Zorian. “From what I understand, a crucial part of you getting out of this fake world we’re trapped in is finding these five Keys, yes? And the marker on your soul is supposed to be able to sense them, but you don’t know how.”

“Correct,” Zorian confirmed.

“In that case, it is imperative that you learn how to sense your soul better. If we’re lucky, this will allow you to understand your marker better and unlock this critical ability,” Alanic said.

“But I’m already doing that,” Zorian pointed out. “You’re already teaching me how to sense my soul better, are you not?”

“I’m teaching you using the safest method I know of,” Alanic said. “The kind I would naturally use when a teenager comes to me for help in learning how to defend himself against soul magic. It is not the fastest one, however. Not by a long shot. The method I have in mind is absolutely lethal if done even slightly wrong and leaves a permanent mark on the user’s body, and I would have never suggested it to anyone under normal circumstances. But these are not normal circumstances, and if you’re telling the truth about the time loop then the downsides are minimal. The only danger for you is that you might cut your restart short if you get it wrong.”

Not exactly a small downside in Zorian’s opinion. Still, he was willing to risk it at least once to gauge how viable it was.

“How much faster is this new method?” Zorian asked.

“A lot faster,” Alanic said, insisting on being frustratingly vague. “Additionally, there is a level of personal soul awareness you would have never been able to reach using the safe method I’m currently teaching you. Only by utilizing some of the more extreme methods, like the one I’m suggesting, could you truly master your skill at sensing your own soul.”

“Well,” Zorian said after a short pause. “I’m definitely interested, then.”

“Yeah, not really much of a choice, isn’t it?” Zach said. “If it’s like that, of course we’re going to go for it.”

Alanic gave Zach a strange look.

“I’m afraid this offer is only for Zorian for now,” Alanic said, shaking his head. “As you are now, you would have never survived the ritual. You need a certain amount of existing soul awareness to undergo this training successfully.”

“What?” Zach protested. “No accelerated learning for me? That’s not fair! I’m perfectly fine with risking my life, you know!”

“No, Zorian is the one risking his life,” Alanic said. “You would just be throwing it away for no gain. You can’t afford to be so wasteful with your life. None of us can.”

One giant argument (and some shouting) later, Zach grudgingly accepted that Alanic wasn’t going to let him go through the life-threatening training along with Zorian. Zach would still accompany them to the training site, but he would simply continue on with his current lessons rather than what Zorian was getting.

Strangely, Zorian found himself actually enthusiastic at the prospect of this life-threatening training. In all honesty, soul awareness training was some of the most boring magic training he had the displeasure to experience and he would gladly take the chance Alanic was offering. He could understand Zach’s frustration perfectly.

He just hoped Alanic’s faith in his ability wasn’t misplaced. At the very least, he was sure Zach would never let him forget it if he actually ended up dying because of a measly training exercise.

* * *

Two days later, Alanic led two of them to a completely new place, even to Zorian. It wasn’t inside the temple Alanic lived in, or any other place he had brought Zorian over to in the previous restarts. It was a literal hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere (well, in the middle of the poorly-visited forest in any case), which opened to a dark, dusty staircase. Light-suppressing wards were etched into the walls of the staircase, making both magical and mundane illumination impossible. They had to use their mana to sense their environment, slowly descending down the rough, uneven stairs while cursing whomever built the place. Probably Alanic, if the surety with which he moved inside was of any indication. If he didn’t build the place, he was certainly very familiar with it.

In any case, once they finally reached the bottom, they arrived inside a spacious, perfectly square room. This one wasn’t magically darkened, but Alanic forbade them from casting any lighting spells, insisting they use torches instead, so it ended up being pretty damn dark anyway.

“It’s a ritual room,” Alanic said. “And the ritual I’m about to do is disastrous if done wrong. Any magic not related to the ritual could warp it in undesirable ways. Magical lighting should be safe, but it’s best not to risk it.”

“This whole setup is sinister as hell,” Zach complained. “If Zorian didn’t vouch for you, I’d probably be attacking you by now.”

Alanic said nothing, instead focusing on lighting all the torches around the room with smooth, practiced motions. As the dim light of the scattered torches filled the room, it became obvious that there was a complex spell formula etched into the floor, arranged into several concentric circles.

“So can you explain now what this ritual is all about?” Zorian asked, staring at the spell formula in an attempt to understand what it did. The outermost circle was simply a classical mana barrier that sought to isolate the inside of the circle from ambient mana – a common addition to ritual setups in order to minimize the interference of outside forces upon the magic being done. The innermost circle, on the other hand, seemed to be some kind of anchor, preventing the contents from going… uh, what?

“The point of the exercise is for you to die for a time,” Alanic said, turning towards him. All the torches had been lit by this point.

Zorian looked at the inner circle again. That was supposed to anchor his soul, wasn’t it? Prevent it from simply moving on…

“More specifically,” Alanic continued, “I will eject your soul from your body while allowing you to retain awareness of yourself. By becoming a pure soul with no body to distract you, you gain unparalleled awareness of your soul and how it works. Partially because there is no body to distract you from concentrating on your soul, and partially because pulling a soul out of the body makes its structure and quirks less muddled and easier to study.”

“See, what did I tell you?” Zach whispered to him. “He is trying to kill you. Pay up.”

“We never put any stakes on the bet,” Zorian whispered back. “And you’re right only on a technicality – the point of the exercise is for me to return back to life in the end. I think.”

“If you won’t take this with utmost seriousness, I’m stopping this right now!” Alanic said angrily.

Zach quickly mimicked shutting up and Zorian schooled his features into a properly severe expression.

Alanic stared at them for a few seconds to make sure they were properly contrite and then continued on.

“The longer you remain outside the body, the more time you have to hone your skills and the clearer your soul will become to you,” Alanic said. “But the longer you stay outside the body, the more tenuous the link that tethers your soul to your body will become. It is a fine balancing act, and the price of being incautious and guessing it wrong is death.”

Alanic paused for a second.

“There is still time for you to back out,” he finally said.

What, seriously? Like he would back out now.

“I’m willing to risk it,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “What do I need to do?”

“Go sit in the center of the ritual diagram,” Alanic instructed. “Before we do this, we must make preparations. Several spells have to be cast on you. One is a spell that will tether your soul to your body, but not pull you back in unless you will it. Another is a spell that will make a sort of magical brain for your soul to think with, allowing you to retain awareness as a soul without a body. If any of them is done wrong, you will just die…”

For the next fifteen minutes, Alanic kept explaining the mechanics of the ritual to Zorian, and even quizzed him several times to make sure he was paying attention. It was a bit tiresome, but he supposed that for something this dangerous it paid to be overcautious. Alanic felt that he should be able to handle the ritual, but stressed that there were no certainties when it came to things like this. A procedure like this was never really safe.

One thing was interesting, though. Zorian couldn’t help but notice how much of the setup clearly relied upon the leader of the ritual having soul sight and being able to cast soul magic on the trainee. This was not something an expert in soul defense could set up – it was full-blown necromancy. Another clue that Alanic might have a bit of a dark past…

“Oh, and one last thing before we start,” Alanic said. “As you may be aware, bodies of living beings are not designed to work without a soul. Having your soul absent from your body does terrible things to it. The damage done by a person’s life force running wild throughout one’s body is insidious and hard to recover from. Many people have permanently ruined their health through abusing this method of honing their soul awareness. Due to the way the time loop resets your body, you should be immune to this long-term damage. However, this will do nothing to shield you from immediate aftermath of separating your soul from your body for a while. Even if everything goes flawlessly, you will wake up feeling incredibly sick and in terrible pain.”

“I see,” said Zorian.

“I’m telling you this so you don’t freak out and hurt yourself,” Alanic continued. “It would be best if you don’t try to talk or move after waking up. Just endure the pain and the sickness for a while and wait for your body to re-establish equilibrium.”

Zorian nodded, already dreading the experience.

“Ready?”

No.

“Yes,” he said, sounding more certain than he actually felt.

There was no warning. With a sudden movement, Alanic clasped his hand around the top of Zorian’s head and pulled.

Only once had Zorian felt such pain, and that was when Quatach-Ichl had tried to fuse his soul to Zach’s. He tried to scream and found that he had no control over his body anymore.

His vision grew dark around the edges, his body felt numb and unfeeling, and all the sound in the room gradually disappeared. His awareness quickly shrank into a single point, until there was nothing left.

* * *

And then there was something. His soul blazed into his awareness, bright and clear in a way it never had been before. He panicked at first, struggling to understand what had happened to him and instinctively flailing around for some leverage with nonexistent limbs and finding nothing. After a moment, though, he remembered what was happening and what Alanic’s instruction said – the very first thing he had to do was find the link that tethered his soul to his body. He must never let it out of his sight, lest he stay this way for too long without realizing.

He was alone – alone in a way that was difficult to put into words. He could sense his soul, but everything outside the outer boundary of his soul was an empty, silent, featureless void. It was absolutely terrifying, and he felt a powerful urge to return to his body immediately.

But he didn’t. Gradually he calmed down and got to work.

He didn’t know how long he stayed as an aware soul, tracing the structure of his soul and the way it interacted with the marker woven into it. It was hard to tell the passage of time in his current form. It didn’t really matter if it was just moments, though, because this one visit told him so many things… everything was so much clearer and more obvious in this form, and he could already see-

The tether! It was weakening!

After fumbling in panic for a moment, Zorian activated the tether and his tether and soul rushed down to reunite with his body.

* * *

After going through Alanic’s new soul awareness training a couple of times, Zorian could finally say with certainty that coming back to life was worse than dying. Having Alanic rip his soul out of his body hurt like hell, but only for a moment. The pain and the sick feeling from returning to life lasted for hours, only slowly fading away.

He had to give Alanic some credit, though – it was effective. Very effective. After the fourth session, Zorian finally managed to locate the part of the marker that was in charge of detecting the Keys. It turns out the reason it was so hard to puzzle out was that it didn’t work over unlimited distances – it could only detect a marker when it was relatively close. That meant that, unfortunately, they couldn’t just follow the path laid out by their marker in tracking them down. But at least they would know now if they got close to one of them.

None of the Keys were around Cyoria. He had checked just to be sure, since he would have felt like an idiot if it turned out there was a Key just under his nose and he had never bothered to check.

Aside from that, he also identified a marker function that would tell him exactly how many restarts they had left until the collapse. They already knew that by now, courtesy of the Guardian, but it was nice to have a way to check that information at a whim.

In other news, Zach was kind of jealous about Zorian’s increased soul awareness and corresponding marker control. He was working extra hard on his basic training and was not at all discouraged from following in Zorian’s footsteps once Alanic pronounced him as ready, despite Zorian describing to him in loving detail how horrible the procedure felt.

Zorian refrained from noting that Zach had only just started his basic training in soul awareness, and that it would take multiple restarts before he reached the level Alanic wanted him to be at.

In any case, the restart was nearing its end, so preparations had to be made. Kael once again brought him his research notebooks to be carried over into the next restart, and Zorian also updated his own notes, as well as the outcome of Kirielle’s and Taiven’s training regimen for the restart.

And this time, there were new additions to his collection – both Xvim and Alanic brought him their own notebooks to transfer into the next restart. Well, Xvim actually brought more than one…

“I must admit you’ve outmatched me with your ingenuity in this regard,” Xvim told him. “I would have never thought to just bring over entire notebooks by storing them in my mind. I trust there is no issue with giving me the same deal that you gave your friend, yes?”

“It’s fine,” Zorian said. Since he no longer carried the matriarch’s memory packet, he had plenty of free space for more notebooks. He looked at Alanic standing beside his mentor. “What about you? Are you sure you only want to transfer this one little notebook?

“It’s all I need,” Alanic said, shaking his head. “Unlike Xvim and Kael, I don’t intend to use the time loop to conduct some kind of research. I just need facts and names, so that I waste less of your time the next time you tell me about the time loop.”

“I guess we shouldn’t give this to you if we don’t plan to tell you about the time loop in that restart, then,” Zorian mused.

“Obviously,” Alanic agreed. “But if you want to undergo the same training you just did, you’re going to have to tell me about it or else I’d never agree to it.”

“I already guessed that,” Zorian said. “Well, if that’s all, then this is it. This is probably the last time we will speak to each other before time resets itself.”

Xvim and Alanic shared an uneasy look between each other.

“Actually, there is something else,” Alanic said. “Me and Xvim plan to lead a combat group into the Hole during the invasion in order to disrupt the so-called ‘summoning’.”

“Well, I’m not going to stop you,” Zorian said, confused at where this was going.

“I know,” Alanic said, giving him a look implying that he was being stupid. “I want you to come with us. If we can fight our way through to the ritual site, we can identify the mages in charge of the summoning and you can then interrogate them in future restarts. There is also a high chance that leaders of the local Cult of the Dragon Below will be there too. All in all, this is definitely information you should be interested in.”

“I am,” Zorian confirmed. “And yes, what you say makes sense. I guess I just wasn’t thinking of the implications of what you were planning. I guess I’m just so used to failing against the invaders when trying to fight them directly that I just unconsciously discounted the chance you might succeed. You know you’re going to have to fight Quatach-Ichl if you want to reach the ritual site, right?”

“We know,” Xvim said. “He might be old and mighty, but he’s still just one mage.”

“Well, one mage commanding a whole army of monsters and underlings,” Zorian noted. “But fine, we’ll give it a shot.”

“Good,” Alanic said. “Do you think Zach will also come?”

“Are you kidding me? He’d never forgive us if we excluded him out of a good fight like that,” Zorian said. “Just tell me where the meeting point is and we’ll be there.”

* * *

When Alanic told him he and Xvim would come at the head of a combat group, Zorian had assumed they meant twenty or so mages as the main combat force and maybe twice that many riflemen to serve as support. Instead, when he and Zach came to the meeting point they found almost a hundred men, all of them mages. Some of them were indeed carrying rifles, but Alanic explained that they were just mages carrying firearms rather than regular soldiers.

Xvim and Alanic clearly took their warnings about the invaders and Quatach-Ichl very seriously, which was a good sign.

In any case, Alanic (who was the overall commander of the group, with Xvim being content to follow the man’s lead) decided not to waste their strength by fighting through the city to reach the Hole. Instead, the entire group hid themselves near their destination and waited for the invasion to begin.

“The point of this operation is to catch the leaders of the attack red-handed,” Alanic explained when one of the mages asked why they weren’t attacking the summoners immediately. “We must wait for the attack to begin and gather steam, or else they might decide not to stick around the ritual site.”

Xvim and Alanic had clearly been talking to the defenders of the city, making preparations, because when the fighting started, it immediately turned fierce around the Hole. Defenders focused much of their efforts into fighting the invaders there, and the invaders reacted to this by concentrating their forces around the Hole even more.

“We’ll wait for the city defenders to soften the invaders up a little before making our move,” Alanic announced, dispassionately watching the carnage.

Zorian was watching it too, scanning the crowd from any sign of Quatach-Ichl. The ancient lich was prone to teleporting often when he fought for real, which made it a chore to keep tabs on him, even from this distance.

“Every time I lose sight of him I keep expecting him to suddenly appear behind me and blast me in the back,” Zorian admitted to Zach quietly.

“Yeah, I know how you feel,” Zach replied back equally quietly. “I’ve fought against other liches and won, but I could never really beat that son of a bitch. And he does have a tendency to pull crap like that on you when you least expect it.”

Idly, Zorian began to do the same thing he often did these days to calm his nerves – he checked up on the Key detection mechanism in his marker. He never got a valid response from it, of course, but it reminded him that he had actually succeeded in something recently, and that usually helped his mood.

Except he actually did feel something now. Excited, he focused on what the marker was telling him and-

“Fuck,” Zorian hissed, suddenly stiffening.

“What?” Zach asked worriedly.

“I found Quatach-Ichl,” Zorian said bitterly, pointing at a spot to the left of them. The lich was just standing next to a building, placidly watching the battle unfold without bothering to intervene.

“Oh,” Zach said, quickly noticing the lich now that he knew where to look. “What the hell is he doing just standing by the sidelines like that?”

“I don’t know,” Zorian said. “I don’t really care at the moment to be honest. I found one of the Keys.”

“Oh?” Zach said, his mood rising.

“You know that crown Quatach-Ichl is always wearing?” Zorian asked.

Zach looked at him blankly for a moment before his face twisted in a grimace.

“Oh you’ve got to be kidding me,” Zach complained.

But unfortunately, Zorian wasn’t kidding. According to his marker, Quatach-Ichl was wearing the crown of the Ikosian emperors, one of the five Keys they needed to assemble to leave the time loop.

“This restart just keeps getting better and better,” Zorian sighed.

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