Eldemar and Koth were very far from one another. The exact distance was hard to pin down, since the name ‘Koth’ covered a pretty big area on the southern continent, but Zorian estimated it to be around 7000 kilometers minimum. Worse, this was a straight line distance, so the actual journey would be even longer. It was not impossible to make that journey in the span of a month, but just reaching the place was not enough for Zach and Zorian – they needed to reach it with plenty of time to spare, or else they would have no time to search for the piece of the Key that was supposedly lost there. Additionally, if they spent most of their time in transit to Koth, they could not make use of the Black Rooms scattered across Altazia. Thus, by committing themselves to such a journey, they effectively lost more than a single month of time.
There were two main methods of traveling from Eldemar to Koth. The simplest, as well as the cheapest method was to board a ship at the city of Luja and make your way to Koth by sea. Even the cheaper ships would get you there within a month, and the pricier vessel may make the journey in as little as 20 days! Well, assuming the ship didn’t get sunk by a tiger-striped nautilus or something along the way. But he heard those were pretty much exterminated along major shipping routes, along with sea hydras, razor sharks and flying barracudas, so probably not. In any case, this was the method Zorian’s parents were using to get to Koth, as they were not in that much of a hurry and didn’t want to spend more money than they needed to.
The second main method was utilizing the existing network of teleport platforms that connected most major settlements on Altazia and Miasina. It was pricier that ship travel, but that was not an issue for Zach and Zorian. A bigger problem was that while this method was faster than ship travel… it actually wasn’t that much faster. Using publically available information, Zorian calculated that it would take them 15 days to reach Koth by using the teleport platform network, and that was under ideal conditions. The issue was that the teleport platform network worked on a strict schedule that couldn’t be sped up – the network spanned over numerous different countries, after all, and none of them were willing to let mass teleport traffic go in and out of country with no control or supervision. Each platform had security checks and border control that travelers had to go through, and that took time. A lot of time, according to Zach – he had already tried to use the platforms as a method of reaching Koth once, purely on a whim, and it actually took him most of the month to reach his destination. Would Zorian be able to do better? Doubtful. Even if Zorian offered to pay extra, the teleport operators would refuse to make an off-schedule platform activation just for his sake – who would cause an international incident just for some extra cash? And even if Zorian went wild with his mind magic and convinced them to make an exception for him and Zach, the destination platform security would not be inclined to play along. Depending on the destination, they might even shoot him on sight – there had been cases where teleport platforms were used for raids and surprise attacks, and some places were very trigger happy about un-announced teleports.
All in all, Zorian didn’t think he could optimize the teleport platform to any significant extent. They were a very fast and convenient method if one was traveling to a destination that was a couple of jumps away, but they just weren’t designed to get people over vast distances as fast as they were willing to pay. If anything, the speed of transit was deliberately throttled to more manageable levels, so that the local authorities could exercise some measure of control over it.
Unfortunately, there were no other routine methods for crossing such large distances. Not many absurdly rich people needed to get from Eldemar to Koth as fast as humanly possible in any given year, so no widespread service provided it.
That left unconventional methods. Zorian had considered some wild ones, such as stealing one of the few existing airships to make the journey or transforming into a migratory bird and flying there, but ultimately dismissed them as too fanciful to really work. Besides, methods like that didn’t solve the problem of losing access to Altazia’s Black Rooms, and would require them to dedicate at least several restarts in pursuit of exotic skills that were unlikely to be useful for anything else. Being able to pilot an airship was good for bragging rights and not much else, unless you were actually an airship pilot by trade.
Eventually, his thoughts turned to the gate spell and his recent practice of making heavy use of simulacrums. Probably because that was what he had been working on recently. By themselves, neither of the two spells was the solution to his problem… but combined together, they could be.
The simulacrum had no range limit as far as Zorian was aware – it had to be created next to the caster, but it could then roam as far away from the original as it wanted. The gate spell, on the other hand, was largely limited by its rather miserable range… unless there were people on both ends of the gate working in tandem to stabilize it. If there were people casting the spell on both ends of the gate, then it also didn’t have a known range limit. In practice, the gate spell was rarely utilized in this way, both because people capable of casting the gate spell were as rare as hen’s teeth and because actually coordinating two such people to synchronize their casting over large distances was hard. It was often quicker and more practical to simply chain teleports from place to place than to go through such a hassle.
With the simulacrum spell, Zorian didn’t have to worry about finding another person capable of casting the spell. He could effectively be two or more people at the same time. And while coordinating the spell over continental distances was a bit of an issue, it was not insurmountable. In the worst case, he could simply instruct his simulacrum to leave a trail of telepathic relays along its path and maintain contact that way.
One nice thing about the idea was that while his simulacrum was traveling to Koth, he would be able to stay in Eldemar and wouldn’t lose access to the Black Rooms in that particular restart. One not so nice thing was that this would permanently tie down one of his simulacrums, leaving one less for him to boss around. He could only maintain three simulacrums at most without his mana regeneration going negative, so that was not an entirely irrelevant cost.
Additionally, that would require him to discard his previous rule about only allowing simulacrums to exist for 24 hours. However, he didn’t really foresee much problems with that – his simulacrums had been really well behaved, all things considered. His current simulacrums could be kind of cranky and weird sometimes, but they were clearly him and had his best interests at heart. Still, maybe he should start considering some kind of countermeasure in case one of his simulacrums went rogue and tried to take over? But any countermeasure he designed his simulacrum would know about. Argh…
In any case, that still left the question of how the simulacrum was going to reach Koth in a reasonable amount of time. It was nice that Zorian wasn’t going to have to dedicate half a restart to such a journey and lose access to the black rooms, but the fact remained they would only have 15 or so days in each restart left to conduct a search for the Key. He needed something better than that.
That was why he decided to talk to the Silent Doorway Adepts. It could turn out to be a massive waste of time, but if they really knew something about the operation of Bakora gates, that could be precisely the solution he needed.
After all, why bother setting up a brand new gate network if one already existed, and was largely unsupervised to boot?
Thus, Zach and Zorian were currently standing in front of the Silent Doorway Adept representative, Refuge in Void. She was a skittish little thing, twitching and shuffling in place all the time, acting way too nervous for a professional negotiator. Then again, how many humans interacted with aranea so heavily they learned how to read their body cues? Maybe it was Zorian who was weird.
Surrounding them were eight other aranea, serving as guards. There were originally four of them, but the Silent Doorway Adepts brought in another four once they realized what Zach and Zorian were after.
The negotiations weren’t going too well.
“I am sorry, honored guests, but we really cannot help you with this,” the Silent Doorway Adept representative said, using a vocalization spell to speak out loud instead of resorting to their usual telepathy. She was either not very proficient in the spell or was trying to unnerve them with amateurish psychological warfare, because her voice was weirdly resonant and distorted. “The Bakora Gate in our possession is simply a treasured historical artifact. It has great sentimental value to us, but we know of no method to actually make it work.”
Her middle legs twitched slightly, an obvious nervous tic that plagued her since the very beginning of these talks.
“But please,” she added, trying her best to sound sincere, “if you find anything regarding the activation of Bakora gates, contact us immediately. We are as interested in this matter as you are.”
“I’m sure you are,” said Zorian, clacking his tongue unhappily.
They had tried just about everything they could think of to secure the web’s cooperation on this – they had offered confidential information on surrounding polities, offered rare materials and money, offered knowledge of secret aranean techniques they had gotten from the other webs in various restarts and they had offered an utterly ridiculous amount of crystalized mana for it. It was all for naught – the Silent Doorway Adepts remained obstinate in feigning ignorance on the matter.
He exchanged a long look with Zach, who just shrugged in response. This meeting was largely Zorian’s idea. Zach came to the meeting while under the effects of the mind blank spell and mostly remained silent – a fact that surely wasn’t helping the Silent Doorway Adepts relax around them. Still, that was the whole point – Zorian deliberately instructed Zach to do that, as an unspoken intimidation attempt. He knew from his past dealings with the Silent Doorway Adepts that merely being polite and generous wasn’t going to accomplish anything, so he brought Zach along to show them he wasn’t someone they could dismiss out of hand. In a way, it worked – Zorian was sure the web would have chased him off by now if he had come alone, but since there was a mind-blanked mage standing next to him, looking all grim and imposing, they remained polite and treated him far nicer than they did in the past.
It was true, what they say – negotiations tended to go better if you brought both gifts and an armed entourage, as opposed to just gifts.
Unfortunately, their hosts seemed to be running out of patience, as Zorian spotted some of the guards shifting their positions, as if preparing themselves for a surprise attack.
“Please don’t do that,” he said with a sigh. “You have no chance against us in an actual fight. I’m sure you’ve noticed that my friend here is under a mind blank, and I assure you he’s as good as you’d think. I am not that bad at fighting myself, if you’ll permit me to be a little immodest, so don’t discount me as a threat either. You would only be walking into your death if you attack us. Don’t do this to yourself.”
“If you are so confident in your combat prowess, why not just attack us and take what you want by force?” Refuge in Void said. Perhaps it was just Zorian, but she sounded a little bitter to him. “Why negotiate with us at all?”
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” Zorian told her matter-of-factly. “We’re not brigands.”
“I see. So your friend here…?” she asked, leaning slightly towards Zach, who raised his eyebrow at her curiously.
“It’s just a precaution,” Zorian said. “Unless you attack me, this meeting will not degenerate into violence.”
Also, he was not at all sure he could figure out their secrets from reading their minds. The sort of knowledge about the gate he wanted was likely held by a small selection of their experts and maybe leaders, and they were liable to have protected it well. In the past, when Zach and Zorian raided aranean webs, their elders had the annoying tendency to erase their own memories in regards to important secrets, rather than let them fall into their hands. Since the two of them hadn’t been after their closest secrets back then, this had been a minor matter back then. Now, though, it would be a giant show stopper.
“In that case, I will be frank with you – we are not willing to divulge our secrets to you,” Refuge in Void said. “You’re just wasting both of our time here.”
“At any price?” Zorian frowned.
“I’m afraid so. I honestly can’t think of anything you could offer us that would make us reveal our closest mysteries to you.”
Well. This was… not unexpected. It was time to bring out his secret weapon, then.
“Let’s test this with one last offer, then,” Zorian said.
“Sure,” Refuge in Void said, projecting a mixture of relief and disinterest, as if she was just pleased this was about to end.
“Me and Zach here are time travelers,” Zorian said. “And we can help you send messages from your current selves to the Silent Doorway Adepts in the past.”
There was a short pause as the aranean representative froze for a second and then shook her forward legs in a strange gesture.
“Well,” she said. “I have to say, this… this is the first time anyone has tried that argument. I find myself curious… do you have any kind of proof for that statement?”
“Three days from now, you are going to send a team of three aranea to an old contact in Tozen to pick up another shipment of crystalized mana,” said Zorian, causing the representative to freeze again. “However, it will be a trap and two of them will never return.”
“That doesn’t-” Refuge in Void started saying.
“Two days after that,” continued Zorian in a louder voice, cutting her off, “you will finally track down the Red Scrolls of Tmilicen, but your previous buyer will say he is no longer interested in them. He will instead point you to Padina’s Magical Museum as a possible buyer. At the same time, you will come into possession of a box of emberheart crystals…”
After Zorian made another ten or so predictions, Refuge in Void finally broke down and went to speak with her elders. An hour later, he was handed over to someone higher in the chain of command – specifically, Glittering River of Stars, who was some kind of vice-elder as far as he could figure out. She was a lot less obstructive than Refuge in Void had been, but still not willing to talk to him about Bakora gates.
“We will need some time to confirm these… predictions of yours. I’m sure you understand,” Glittering River said apologetically. She really sounded apologetic, too! She was a much better actor than Refuge in Void had been.
“I understand,” Zorian said, nodding slowly. “It’s fine. We didn’t really expect to get your cooperation after one attempt, anyway.”
“But that’s okay,” Zach said with a sunny smile. “We have as many attempts to get this right as we want to.”
To her credit, Glittering River did not shift or twitch uncomfortably, as Refuge in Void had been prone to, but Zorian could tell she was uncomfortable anyway. They had explained to her the general nature of the time loop they were in, but neglected to mention some important details – such as that they were on a time limit or just how crucial Bakora gate information might be to them. Zorian wasn’t sure how much the Silent Doorway Adepts really believed about their story, but they were clearly spooked enough by the implications to humor him for a bit.
“Incidentally, if there is a way for me to prove my claims easier to your web in future restarts, I’d love to hear it,” Zorian said.
“We will have to discuss things before I get back to you on that,” Glittering River said diplomatically.
After that, they were basically ejected out of the colony and told to come back in a week. Considering that Zorian had been afraid they would laugh them straight out of the room the moment they mentioned time travel, he considered this already a victory. So long as they didn’t reject the idea out of hand, he was sure they could prove to them that the time loop was real. They may not have literally infinite retries like they had implied to Glittering River, but what they did have should be more than enough.
“We seem to have frightened them pretty badly there,” Zach commented on the way back to Cyoria. “Especially when you started mentioning the deals you’ve made with other webs and how you intend to repay them after you get out of the time loop. You’d think they’d be happy about their fellow webs being rewarded, but apparently not.”
“The last time one of the aranean webs got massively superior to others, they swept over the entire continent, conquering or supplanting every rival colony in the way,” Zorian pointed out. “They’ve got every right to be worried.”
“Huh, I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Zach said thoughtfully. “I mean, you’ve already told me that, but I just hadn’t considered how that would affect their attitudes. It’s good I left the negotiations mostly to you, then. You really understand aranean psychology way better than I do.”
There was a short silence before Zach spoke again.
“So… do you really intend to just hand down knowledge to other webs like that?” he asked curiously.
“Of course,” Zorian nodded. “Not to every single web I interacted with, admittedly, but every web that has been especially helpful to me is bound to get something for their trouble.”
“What about help of the human variety?” Zach asked. “Do they get any repayment?”
“That’s a bit more dangerous, since they are far more likely to track me down through my gifts than the aranea. I want to pay people back for their help, but I don’t want to suffer just because I have a sense of honor,” said Zorian.
“Yeah, some people are really shameless,” Zach agreed. “Give them a finger and they’ll try to bite off the whole arm. And some might just be too curious for their own good.”
“Yeah,” Zorian nodded. “I intend to try and repay people anyway, but I’ll have to be a lot more careful and selective about it.”
“Makes me feel a little guilty,” Zach admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considered paying people back for things I got from them over the restarts. Invite me when you start finalizing those plans, okay? I think I have a few people I should really reward somehow for all the good they’ve done to me.”
“Sure,” Zorian nodded.
“So,” Zach continued. “The Silent Doorway Adepts. Do you think their leadership will believe us in the end?”
“Maybe. But even if they do, it’s no guarantee that they’ll agree to a trade,” Zorian said, shaking his head sadly. “If they’re paranoid enough, any deal with us might seem like shooting themselves in the foot. They have no way to make sure we’re actually going to keep our end of the bargain once we’re outside the time loop. Who’s to say we won’t just pump them for every secret they have and then unceremoniously discard them? You know, like the Ghost Serpent thought we would do to it?”
Zach made a sour face. He didn’t like to be reminded of the snake spirit – he had been severely insulted by its accusations, taking them much more personally than Zorian himself did.
“In any case,” Zorian continued, “Even if these negotiations fail, it’s not the end of the world. There is at least one other group that seems to have insight into how Bakora gates work – there is a fully functional gate mechanism beneath Cyoria, courtesy of the invaders, and it’s supposed to be heavily inspired by Bakora gates.”
“None of the Ibasans know how that thing works,” pointed out Zach. “I bet only Quatach-Ichl really does. So that doesn’t really help us much.”
“Yeah, probably,” Zorian agreed. He had delved into the minds of enough high-ranking invaders to realize that the gates probably weren’t made by any of them. Either Quatach-Ichl was the only one who knew the secrets of their construction or the other builders weren’t allowed to be part of the invasion force. It would make sense if it were so – the gates were one huge advantage for the Ibasans, and they definitely didn’t want that secret to fall into the hands of Eldemar’s mages. “But I wasn’t thinking of finding someone to memory probe for the information. I was thinking of simply taking over the gate site and analyzing the gate scaffolding itself.”
Zach raised an eyebrow at him.
“I though you said that would take months,” he asked curiously. “Maybe years. What changed?”
“I realized I was being kind of an idiot,” Zorian said. “Sure, it would take a long time if I tried to figure it out all alone… but why do that? Why not bring a small army of experts down there and have us all tackle it together?”
Zach hummed thoughtfully.
“It would have to be done very, very carefully, unless we want Quatach-Ichl to come crashing to the party,” he said. “But then again, that’s true for anything involving the invasion, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s worth a try. Let’s do it.”
“We’ll wait for the day of the invasion,” Zorian said hurriedly. He could see Zach was getting fired up and he would rather not go get himself killed in the middle of the restart due to his impatience. “The security of the gate is laughable if you time things right.”
“Oh, right, you did mention that,” Zach said, deflating a little. “Man, I feel so angry at myself for never figuring that out before you told me. I never did manage to step through the gate myself, you know? Even when I was fast enough in carving my way through the defenders to avoid Quatach-Ichl showing up to get rid of me, the defenders always collapsed the gate before I reached it.”
“I still can’t believe you just made a direct, frontal assault on the Ibasan base instead of trying to infiltrate it,” Zorian said. “Why the hell did you think that would work?”
“I’m not good at infiltration,” Zach said with an unrepentant shrug. “Besides, it almost did work. It’s not stupid if it works, right?”
They spent the rest of the journey home arguing about whether or not there is any difference between ‘almost worked’ and ‘ultimately failed’.
* * *
“What do you mean, I have a date with Akoja?” Zorian asked his simulacrum incredulously.
“Just what I said,” the simulacrum said, unconcerned with his agitation. “She asked me to meet her in that little tea house two blocks from the academy and I accepted.”
Zorian felt the urge to throw a lightning bolt at his damn simulacrum, but he knew that wouldn’t actually help him feel any better. If anything, it would just complicate things further by denying him much needed answers as to how could this happen!?
“You can’t just decide things like this on your own!” Zorian hissed to his simulacrum in frustration.
The simulacrum arched his eyebrow at him.
“Well it’s true,” Zorian insisted. “I know you’re my simulacrum and I told you to do whatever, but you should have contacted me for opinion before agreeing to something like this.”
“Are you saying that if you had been in my place, you would have blown her off when she asked to meet?” his simulacrum asked with a knowing smile.
Zorian frowned. If this were before the time loop? Yeah, definitely. Now? No, not a chance. He wasn’t interested in dating Akoja – he didn’t think their personalities meshed well – but he’d give her a chance at least.
He hated that gods-damned smirk that was on his simulacrum’s face right now, but he was right that Zorian would have likely made the same decision in his place.
“This is just-” Zorian started, before stopping himself with a sigh. “When?”
“Two days from now,” the simulacrum said.
“How the hell did this happen?” Zorian asked. “I knew Akoja was kind of crushing on me, but she never tried anything until now. What changed? What did you do?”
“Actually she did set up a meeting with you once, remember?” his simulacrum said. “Only she chickened out at the end and nothing came of it. But I doubt it’s going to be like that this time, since she set up an actual date for it and all. Anyway, I didn’t do anything, it’s your previous simulacrums that did.”
“What do you mean?” Zorian frowned. He’d been doing a lot of frowning ever since this conversation started.
“Apparently they’ve been pretty active among our classmates without telling you. They’re hanging out with all sorts of people and then leaving out that detail when making their final reports. In particular, they’ve been interacting with Akoja heavily enough that she apparently felt confident enough to ask me out.”
Before dismissing a simulacrum, Zorian always made sure to ask it for a memory packet of everything important that had occurred to it during its short life. This was usually accompanied by a verbal report, since Zorian found it useful to chat with his simulacrums from time to time to see how they’re faring. This did mean he had to rely on the simulacrums being able to effectively summarize their existence for him, but there was no real alternative. If he asked the simulacrums for memories of their entire existence, he would never be able to digest the memory packets in any reasonable amount of time. Interpreting 24 hours of memories, no matter how mundane, would take him at least a couple of hours… and he usually had more than one simulacrum active at the time. He could only rely on his simulacrums to pick what they felt was important and pass it on.
“Why would they do that?” Zorian asked.
“No idea. But if I were to guess… because it’s kind of funny to imagine your reaction when you finally find out,” his simulacrum said, grinning. “I’m certainly amused at your predicament.”
“My predicament, huh?” Zorian said slowly, giving the simulacrum a nasty look. “Actually, I have a better idea. You are going to do it.”
“But I’m going to go away at the end of the day,” the simulacrum said, confused.
“Not anymore,” Zorian said. “I’ve been thinking of relaxing the 24-hour rule, and you’re going to be the first test subject. Congratulations – you’re going to remain active for more than a day, just so you can take responsibility for what you’ve done.”
“Hey, hey,” the simulacrum protested. “Wait just a minute here! Don’t you think it’s kind of an asshole move to send a simulacrum on a date instead of you?”
“Why?” Zorian asked with a malicious smile. “You’re the one she spoke to, so it’s only fair that you be the one to do it.”
“Yes, well… I’m still just made of ectoplasm and we’re meeting in a tea house,” the simulacrum said. “I’ll probably be expected to drink something, and I kind of can’t. I’m totally solid and homogenous from the neck down.”
Huh, he didn’t know that. He knew that simulacrums had to sleep just as well as he did, because he tried to leave one to work over night once and found it snoring on the floor in the morning. As for things like food and water, he’d never really thought about it – the spell description on the scroll said a simulacrum didn’t need any sustenance besides magic so he didn’t think there was anything there to worry about.
“You know what?” Zorian sighed. “You’re right. I should be the one going, if only for Akoja’s sake.”
“Right. I’m glad you can see reason,” the simulacrum said, clearly relieved.
“However,” Zorian added with louder voice. “That doesn’t mean you’re completely off the hook. You remember what I said earlier?”
“No?” the simulacrum said slowly.
“I said I was thinking of relaxing the 24-hour rule,” Zorian patiently reminded him. “That still applies, and you’re still going to be a test rat for that.”
He quickly gathered all the maps, brochures and partially filled out information tables and unceremoniously thrusted them at the simulacrum.
“Congratulations,” Zorian said blandly. “You just earned yourself a one-way ticket to Koth. Your job, which you have no option but to accept, is to find a way to cross more than 7000 kilometers in less than a week. Good luck.”
“Oh, come on!” the simulacrum protested. “That’s impossible and you know it! Hey! Hey, come back here!”
But Zorian wasn’t listening. He had less than two days to figure out what kind of nonsense his previous simulacrums had set up for him.
Beside the current situation with Akoja, that is.
* * *
The small, out of the way tea house Zorian and Akoja were currently in had a bit of a reputation among students. Not all of them – before the time loop, Zorian had no idea it even existed – but among the more relationship-focused students of the academy, this place was famous as a good place for a romantic meet-up. As such, there was no doubt in Zorian’s mind what Akoja was trying to say when she asked him if he wanted to meet with her here – the fact she picked this place in particular made it pretty clear she was expressing romantic interest in him.
The… date… had gone well in Zorian’s opinion. Neither Zorian nor Akoja were very talkative people, so most of the time passed in awkward silence. Still, they did chat a little and he didn’t make Akoja run off in tears or storm off angrily out of the tea house – considering how his previous evening with Akoja had gone, this was a massive success!
He gulped down the last dregs of his tea, which had gone thoroughly cold by now, and took a good look at Akoja. She looked away shyly, projecting a mixture of discomfort and excitement in response to his attention. She was a thin girl, with short brown hair and expensive-looking glasses. The clothes she wore were fancier than she usually had on her, but still very conservative and modest – all muted colors and not a bit of extra skin visible anywhere.
She wasn’t a classical beauty, but he’d still describe her as kind of attractive. Especially when she was blushing and being shy, like she was right now.
She was so hard to figure out. Yes, she was kind of crushing on him, but he was pretty sure there was more to it than that. Out of concern for her privacy, he had refrained from peeking at her surface thoughts and limited himself to what his passive empathy was telling him. The more the date progressed, the more certain he became that she wanted to bring some topic up to his attention, but somehow she always back down before she went through it. What was that about? He thought about calling her on it, but was reluctant to do so – things were going pretty well thus far, so why risk ruining things?
Besides, if this thing was actually important to her, she would surely summon the courage to bring it up eventually…
“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” Akoja suddenly said, straightening herself a little. “I, um… can I ask you something?”
“Yes, go ahead,” Zorian nodded.
“I know… that you don’t get along all that well with your family,” she said, before stopping to study his reaction.
Oh boy. No wonder she was so reluctant to bring this up, whatever it was. If she were to start a conversation like that with the pre-time loop Zorian, it would be threading on very dangerous waters. Now though… well, Zorian liked to believe he had progressed a little since those days, so he just motioned her to continue.
“A-Anyway,” she continued hurriedly, “you kind of indicated that you want to become independent because of that. Find a high-paying job somewhere, get yourself a home and such…”
Zorian gave her a curious look.
“I was wondering if you could give me advice in that regard,” she finally asked.
“How to achieve your own independence?” Zorian asked.
“Yes,” she confirmed quickly.
“Why?” he asked curiously. “I thought you got along great with your family.”
“I do,” she said. “We’re pretty close to each other and I have no problems with them. I’m fortunate that way. It’s just… I don’t really have a good relationship with anyone else.”
Zorian was about to say something before she cut him off.
“Except for the teachers, I know,” she added, giving him a warning look. “But they don’t really care about the students half as much as they pretend to. Especially not students of average talents like mine, who come from a non-magical background and only have their work ethics to lean on.”
Zorian hummed thoughtfully, not really understanding what she was getting at. As for Akoja herself, she remained silent and thoughtful for a few seconds, and Zorian got the impression she was thinking of how to explain things further. Thus, he simply waited and refrained from interrupting her.
“Did you ever get the impression that the academy was just milking us for cash?” she finally asked.
Zorian reeled back a little, caught off guard by the question. Did he think that? Well, there were plenty of things he felt they were doing wrong, but…
“No, not really,” he admitted. “Sorry. Why do you think so?”
“Well, until the Splinter Wars and Weeping thinned out the number of Noble Houses and other ‘respectable’ sources of students, the Cyoria’s Royal Academy of Magical Arts didn’t even think of allowing people like us, with no prominent ancestry, into its halls. I’m pretty sure we’re only here because the academy was faced with a choice of either cutting costs or accepting riff-raff in for money. And picked money in the end, of course.”
“Ah,” Zorian said. “Yes, you’re probably right there. But I wouldn’t describe that as ‘milking us for money’ personally.”
“Maybe I’m just getting paranoid,” Akoja sighed. “I’m getting a bit disappointed in academy staff these days. Anyway, the point is that I’m not sure how useful the academy diploma is going to be for me. My family paid a lot of money for me to be here, and they expect great things from me in the future. When I had just come here, I thought that if I just tried my best in class and excelled, that it would all work out. Now I’m not so sure. And I don’t want to go back to my family and beg for help. They’d help me, I know… but I don’t want to disappoint them. I don’t want to be a burden.”
“So you’re hoping I can give you some advice in how to find a well-paying job, affordable housing and so on,” Zorian finished.
Before the time loop, it was unlikely that Zorian would have been able to advise her much. At the end of the day, his idea was quite similar to her own – excel in your studies and everything would hopefully work itself out in the end. They just had a slightly different definition of what constitutes excelling. Now, though, he actually could recommend a few places to her. He had checked out the employment opportunities a couple of times, though by that point he had been severely overqualified for most of them and had abandoned the project in disappointment. Still, he felt that it was actually smarter of her to forget about that for now and focus on excelling in her magic studies… though perhaps in a slightly more focused manner.
“Just pick one field of magic and focus the bulk of your effort there,” he said. “I’d normally suggest spell formula, since being good at those is very well paid… but I noticed you don’t like math much, so maybe not. How do you feel about alteration?”
“It’s fine, I guess,” she shrugged.
“Try focusing on that, then,” he suggested. “It’s one of the better paying fields. Plus, Ilsa is a master of that type of magic and she seems to like you, so you might be able to get some help out of her with that as your focus.”
“I see,” she said, looking thoughtful.
“Also, I’m pretty good at alteration,” he noted. “I might be able to give you a bit of help if you get stuck with it.”
Actually, he would be able to help her with just about any field of magic. But it would sound stupidly boastful to say that, so best to be a little modest about his self-praise.
There as a long pause as Akoja digested all this and fiddled nervously with her teacup.
“So,” Zorian said, ending the silence. “Was this all?”
“Hm?” she mumbled, broken out of her reverie. She looked panicked for a moment. “Oh. Well, I… yes. I guess.”
“I see,” Zorian said. “That’s a bit of a shame. When you asked us to meet here, I thought you were actually asking me out on a date.”
“I, w-well, it’s not… it was part of the whole, I-” she stammered.
“Relax, I’m just joking with you,” he said with a light laugh.
“Jerk,” she huffed. “But, um… I kind of do like you…”
“I have to be honest here – I’m not really interested in relationships right now,” he told her bluntly. So long as he was stuck in the time loop, he had no intention of pursuing a relationship with anyone. “I know this sounds a little heartless, but…”
“I understand,” she sighed, sagging a little. A surprisingly level-headed reaction to a rejection. “Since you’re being so honest, tell me straight – do I have any chance at all with you?”
“I don’t know,” Zorian admitted. “We’re so different from each other…”
“How so?” she asked, sounding more curious than insulted. “We seem quite similar from where I’m standing.”
“Well, you’re far more concerned about rules and reputation than I am, for one thing…” Zorian said.
She gave him an exasperated look.
“I’d have to be blind to not notice that you don’t care about propriety to the same extent I do,” she said. “Yet I still like you. Surely that means I’m willing to work with you on it, right?”
‘Work with me or work on trying to change me?’ Zorian wanted to ask. He could be wrong, but he got the impression that Akoja saw him less as his own person and more as raw material to turn into something more to her liking. But no, that would be too confrontational and the date would only go downward from there. So he just glossed over her question and moved on.
Despite him refusing to become an item with her, the date ended pretty amiably from there. Perhaps because he didn’t categorically refuse her and she still thought she might have a chance with him? Whatever the case, they agreed to meet again next week in a more neutral location, ostensibly so Zorian could give her the material he gathered about potential places of employment, costs of living in different cities and so on.
He didn’t know what to think of the whole thing in the end. When he heard his simulacrums had set him up on a date with Akoja, he thought this could only end badly. In his opinion, he and Akoja were very incompatible with one another. After today’s meeting, though, he could almost see it working out in the end.
He so didn’t need this right now…
Well. Could be worse, he supposed – his simulacrums could have set him up with Neolu instead. He had found out that she was also someone they had befriended over the course of the current restart, for whatever reason, and a sneak peek at her thoughts told him she wasn’t exactly opposed to getting involved with him. If he had ended up on a date with her, everyone in the academy would have known about it by the end of the day. At least Akoja had some sense of discretion. Thankfully, Neolu was kind of traditional in mindset, and would never ask someone out the way Akoja did – she would expect a guy to make the first move.
He was going to have to supervise simulacrums he sent on boring tasks like going to class a lot closer in the future.
* * *
“You have got to be kidding me,” simulacrum number 2 said incredulously. “500 silver coins just for a teleport to Zixia? Do you think I grow money on trees or something?”
The man he was talking to, a bald, heavily-tattooed man in his forties, simply scowled at him in response.
“No like, can get lost,” he told Zorian in broken Ikosian.
The simulacrum sighed in frustration and walked away. The original might be swimming in cash right now, but he wasn’t. There was only so much money he could take with him when he left Eldemar, so he couldn’t afford to be too profligate with his funds. This was especially true because every country had its own currency, so he couldn’t just bring stacks of paper money to pay people with – Eldemar’s paper bills weren’t worth much outside Altazia. Hell, they weren’t worth much in some places in Altazia, either. One of the tiny statelets he visited hated Eldemar so much he had nearly gotten attacked when he tried to pay a mage with their money.
No, if he wanted to complete his journey, he needed to carry things that had more universal value – gold, silver and gems. And since those things were both heavy and fairly bulky, he could only bring so much with him.
Simulacrum number 2 grumbled to himself discontentedly. When he had started his journey, he was so sure he had thought of a genius solution. If the teleport platform network was too slow and inconvenient, he thought, why not just find teleport-capable mages and pay them to teleport him personally? Combined with an occasional teleport of his own when he couldn’t find anyone willing to provide this service, and he felt the idea of getting to Koth in less than a week might not be so crazy after all!
Well… it was a little harder than that. First of all, he had a somewhat skewed image of how common teleport capable mages were. Especially mages that could teleport over large distances and could bring other people with them. These kind of people were very rare, and could only be reliably found in large cities and other places where mages naturally congregate. In addition, not every such mage was a heavy traveler, and often had an extremely limited selection of places they could teleport to. Finally, on top of all that, accepting Zorian’s deal was technically illegal dodging of border checks – some mages wouldn’t do it at all because of it, or charged very steep prices for their services.
But still, despite all these issues, the plan had been working fairly well so long as he was still traveling through Altazia. Once he entered the Shivan Archipelago and the Xlotic states, though, another problem with the idea made itself known.
He didn’t speak the local language.
Zorian knew three languages – the common Ikosian that was spoken throughout Altazia in various dialects, the local Khusky tongue that peasantry around Cirin used in their daily lives and the ‘High Ikosian’ that was used in scholarly works and international trade.
Even among mages, fluency in High Ikosian was not common. Thus, if Zorian wanted to question people for information and negotiate, he often had to resort to common Ikosian. The worked out pretty well in Altazia, but quickly became a big headache outside of it. It was true that both the Shivan Archipelago and the Xlotic states were once part of the Ikosian empire, but while these places spoke common Ikosian, this was such an alien dialect of Ikosian, at least to Zorian’s ears, that he could barely understand them. Additionally, many of these places were like Zorian’s own home region, in that many of the regular inhabitants spoke mainly in their own native tongue and only knew the smattering of common Ikosian for use in trade and such. The Ikosian Empire may have conquered these places and forced the Ikosian language to be used by the administration, but local languages were still there beneath it all.
This was especially true in Shivan Archipelago, where every damn island seemed to have its own local language and dialect.
He thought that was bad, but as he traveled ever southward along the coast of Miasina, he realized this problem was only going to get worse. Koth had never been successfully conquered by Ikosia, due to being separated from northern Miasina by a giant desert (much smaller in those times, but still present) and an imposing mountain range that cut the continent nearly in half. As a consequence, they spoke completely alien tongues that Zorian couldn’t understand in the slightest.
On top of that, the further south he went, the darker the people’s skin tone became, and the more exotic their facial features got in comparison to his own. People recognized him as a weird stranger on sight, and were intensely suspicious of him the moment he approached them.
The area he was currently in was especially bad, because it was very sparsely populated and the settlement he was in was the only congregation of mages for several hundred kilometers around… and the people inside it knew it. Which was why they were trying to bleed him dry whenever he tried to purchase their services.
Oh well. It could be worse.
He could still be attending classes at the academy, for one. Now that would have been a real nightmare.
He did wonder how the original’s date with Akoja went, though. He would have to pester the original for details again when he contacted him for his daily report.