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Chapter 071
Shadows of the Past

After the attack on the Ibasan base had been concluded and it became obvious that no immediate invasion would result from it, Zorian proceeded to re-establish his link to Koth. Since he had dismissed his simulacrum in Koth before the attack, he had to rely on Daimen’s help for the second time in the restart. Although it kind of bothered him that he was forced to rely on Daimen so much, he had to admit his help made things a lot easier than they would have otherwise been.

He didn’t expect any problems to crop up and, in a way, there really hadn’t been any. The dimensional gate opened just fine, after all. The problem was that it opened directly inside the Taramatula estate. Instead of finding some out-of-the-way location in the jungle, like they had agreed on beforehand, Daimen had decided to simply open the gate inside a heavily warded room meant for receiving teleporting visitors. While a dozen or so Taramatula family members stood around the edges of the room and watched.

Zorian, who had stepped through the gate first, was so shocked at the sight that he immediately halted in his tracks. This caused Zach, who was coming right behind him, to crash into him. Thankfully, they managed to keep their balance instead of falling to the floor in a tangle of limbs. That would have been awkward.

“Hey, why did you sto– Oh. That’s a lot bigger reception that I was expecting,” Zach said, looking around.

Zorian didn’t bother responding to Zach’s feeble attempt at humor. Instead, he zeroed in on his older brother and gave him an outraged glare. “Daimen, what the hell were you thinking!?”

To his credit, Daimen actually winced at the question, looking properly guilty.

“I’m sorry,” he said, waving his hands in front of him in a placating gesture. “I didn’t have a choice, okay? I can’t leave the Taramatula estate anymore and I couldn’t just open a dimensional gate in their home without their knowledge or consent. It was either this or aborting the whole thing entirely.”

Zach and Zorian were quiet for a second, processing that statement.

“Why can’t you leave the Taramatula estate?” Zach finally asked. “Are you a prisoner or something?”

“It’s complicated,” Daimen said with a heavy sigh. “Let’s go find somewhere quiet to talk.”

Before either Zach or Zorian could say anything, one of the gathered Taramatula decided to cut in and make a suggestion. It was Ulanna, the woman who had greeted them the first time they had visited the estate.

“I know just the place,” Ulanna said. “For a family of our stature, not having an appropriate meeting room for occasions such as these would be quite an embarrassment. Please wait a minute while I make some arrangements and then we can go.”

Zorian gave Ulanna a thoughtful look. Though her words made it seem she was just trying to be a good host, he could understand the underlying message easily enough: the Taramatula were an involved party in all this, and they wanted to be present during the talk.

Ulanna raised an eyebrow at his look, as if daring him to object. He didn’t.

“That’s quite all right,” he simply said. “Me and Zach will go collapse the gate while you deal with things on your end.”

Zorian had no idea what Daimen had told the Taramatula about the gate. Hopefully he hadn’t been foolish enough to reveal that he and Zorian were opening passages between two different continents, in which case it was imperative that they close the gate quickly, before they could puzzle out the truth for themselves.

As he and Zach worked to collapse the gate, he could hear Ulanna conversing with some of the other Taramatula in the room. His grasp on the local language was still very poor, so the only thing he understood was that she ordered food and drink to be made and brought to them. Zorian was in no mood for either, but he figured out it would be impolite to try and stop her.

A little while later, they were all ushered into a relatively small but luxurious room. There were five of them present: Ulanna, Daimen, Orissa, Zach and Zorian. Despite the presence of Ulanna and Orissa, though, it was Daimen that provided most of the explanation for what was happening. Apparently, one or more members of Daimen’s team had talked to outsiders about the orb they had found, and the story had blown up very quickly. Within hours, everyone and their mother wanted to speak to Daimen to find out what he intended to do with the orb and to try and influence him to sell it to whatever group they represented.

Caught off guard by the sudden flood of interested buyers and aware that not everyone was willing to take their refusal to sell the orb in good grace, Daimen and his team retreated to the Taramatula estate and barricaded themselves there until further notice.

“The people after us can’t afford to be too brazen with the Taramatula, so we’re safe while we remain inside the estate,” Daimen concluded. “But the moment we step out we’ll be ambushed by dozens of different groups. They know we’re in here. They have the estate heavily monitored. Everyone and everything going in or out of the estate is closely tracked. I couldn’t possibly leave the estate to open the gate elsewhere.”

“Maybe I’m just stupid, but why don’t the Taramatula simply tell all these people to back off? They’re supposed to be the main political force here, no?” Zach asked.

“I’m afraid it’s not that simple,” Ulanna said. “There are too many powerful groups making their moves here, quite a few of them from outside our sphere of influence. Though they cannot afford to take us lightly, the same is true for us as well. This is a sensitive situation and we have to move carefully. Rest assured, though, that we are taking note of every slight against us for when the time is right.”

“Another issue is that some elements of the local government are discussing the possibility of simply confiscating the orb from us by force,” Daimen said. “The Taramatula have to spend a lot of their influence on making sure that the initiative doesn’t get anywhere. Damn it, I knew it was important to keep this find a secret but I had no idea it would inspire this sort of greed…”

“It’s a portable pocket dimension of massive size,” Orissa pointed out. “On top of that, it contains ruins from the Age of Gods, and probably the remains of Awan-Temti’s wealth. There could be divine artifacts in there, plants and animals that have gone extinct in the rest of the world, anything. Of course it inspires so much greed. You’re fortunate you have the Taramatula family to shield you from all this while we figure out what to do.”

“Yes, yes, I get it,” Daimen said patiently. “I’m lucky to have you, dear.”

“Have you made any trips to the pocket dimension yet?” Zach asked curiously.

“We haven’t even discovered how to deploy the orb,” Daimen said, shaking his head. “We don’t have a command marker like Zorian does, so we have to do things the hard way.”

“Meaning?” Zach prodded for details.

“We have to reverse-engineer the control spells that are used for operating the orb,” Daimen said. “A generational treasure like this one would definitely have a method of controlling the orb without a command marker, as a safety measure if nothing else. We just have to find it. Unfortunately, that could take a while.”

Daimen gave Zorian a meaningful look. Though Zorian didn’t know for sure what he was trying to tell him, he could guess. While finding a way to operate the orb without a marker was not a priority for him and Zach, it would mean a lot for Daimen. He was probably well aware that Zorian had no intention whatsoever of revealing his abilities to Daimen outside the time loop, which would make those control spells absolutely crucial to his mission. Without them, even removing the orb from its resting place would be impossible, greatly complicating everything.

“Even if we had the means of operating the orb, we would still refrain from sending an expedition to its interior at this time,” Orissa noted. “The possibility of further guardian beasts, like that god-touched hydra, is too high. Months of preparation would be required to mount a proper expedition, and the current political situation makes such preparations impossible.”

“Yes, exactly,” Daimen quickly agreed. He turned to Zach and Zorian. “And because I’m stuck here all the time, I can’t really hire the experts I need to figure out how to operate the orb, either. The truth is that I have very little to do here. I was thinking it might be a good idea for me to disappear for a few days. Get the orb away from covetous eyes and talk to some old friends about my options.”

“This again,” Orissa said with an unhappy frown.

This sparked a brief argument between Orissa and Daimen, since Daimen didn’t want to explain what exactly he was up to and Orissa insisted that she had every right to know the details. In all honesty, Zorian thought Orissa’s position was quite reasonable and empathized with her frustration at Daimen’s evasiveness. However, he also couldn’t fault Daimen for this, since it wasn’t like he could just openly say that–

“If you want us to take you back to Cyoria with us when we reopen the gate, you should just say so,” Zach said.

Everyone sent him a shocked look. Well, everyone except Zorian – he just buried his face in his hands and tried to take deep breaths.

“Damn it, Zach…” he mumbled into his hands.

“What?” Zach protested, giving Zorian an exasperated look. “Any story you and Daimen cook up wouldn’t last a day and you know it. They’re not stupid. They’d figure it out soon enough.”

“Thank you, mister Noveda,” Ulanna told him. “I’m glad that at least one man here respects our reasoning skills.”

Zach gave her a thumbs-up and a sunny grin.

“You’re saying you opened a dimensional passage here all the way from Eldemar?” Orissa asked, sounding just a little bit incredulous.

“We do a lot of crazy stuff,” Zach said with a careless shrug.

It turned out that neither Ulanna nor Orissa were very familiar with the details of how the gate spell works. This wasn’t very surprising, as the spell was extremely rare, but somehow Zorian kept forgetting little details like that.

After Zorian gave them a brief explanation of how the gate spell functioned, Orissa gave him a strange look.

“What?” Zorian asked, feeling somewhat self-conscious.

“This method you use to ignore distance limitations requires another person helping you on the other side, yes?” she asked. Zorian nodded wordlessly. “Then how can you open a gate back to Eldemar? Can the third Kazinski brother cast the gate spell, too?”

“What, Fortov? Please,” Zorian scoffed. “He’ll be lucky not to flunk out of the academy.”

“Zorian!” Daimen protested. He never liked it when Zorian badmouthed the rest of the family.

“No, we’ll be using the simulacrum I left back in Cyoria,” Zorian said, completely ignoring Daimen’s outburst. “Since I can cast the gate spell, my simulacrum can obviously do the same.”

“Oh, so you can create a simulacrum too?” Ulanna asked casually, not sounding particularly surprised. Zorian had to hand it to her, she was very good at projecting an aura of serene confidence. Orissa seemed to be trying to mimic that attitude, but she was nowhere near good enough to pull it off. One could see that these kind of reveals bothered her and put her somewhat off-balance.

“We do a lot of crazy stuff,” Zorian said. He thought about mimicking Zach completely and giving her a thumbs-up and a cheeky smile, but quickly dropped the idea. That sort of thing was something only Zach could pull off without looking like a total idiot.

In the end, they managed to hammer out an agreement. Daimen would return to Cyoria with Zach and Zorian and would take the orb of the first emperor along with him. Zorian would leave a simulacrum in the Taramatula estate so that they could return via gate spell in exactly four days.

Zorian thought this would be the end of it, but his hopes were ruthlessly squashed when Daimen told him he still had to explain to his team that he would be away for a while.

For a moment, Zorian felt the urge to make an overdramatic gesture to the uncaring heavens. And here he’d thought this would just be a short visit to Koth, consisting of little more than replacing his lost simulacrum and asking Daimen if he had found out anything new about the orb.

Sometimes he just couldn’t win.

* * *

It was a massive relief to Zorian when the three of them finally stepped through the gate and returned to Cyoria. Both the Taramatula and Daimen’s team were on edge right now, and thus rather exasperating to deal with. He kind of felt bad for his simulacrum, who would be stuck with them for the next several days. Oh well, at least he had Kirma and Torun to talk to – those two were fairly interesting and he suspected he might be able to broker some kind of trade with at least one of them.

Regardless, he was back and could devote himself to other matters. Xvim’s efforts to convince various experts to trade their secrets with him had been reasonably successful, Sudomir had to be properly interrogated, the efforts of the researchers to understand the Ibasan gate stabilization frame were starting to bear fruit and the Silent Doorway Adepts were hinting that they were willing to send a group over to Koth to acquire a gate key. Sadly, recent events concerning Daimen and the orb had probably made that last idea a dead end in this restart. His simulacrum couldn’t possibly leave the Taramatula estate without a hundred pairs of eyes following his every move. Unfortunate. He could really use an alternate entrance to Koth that didn’t rely on Daimen right now. He would have to assign a high priority to this idea in future restarts.

Daimen had agreed to hand over the orb to him and Zach while he was in Cyoria. Partially because he figured they could find out far more about it than he could, due to possessing a marker that could actually operate it, and partially because he wasn’t entirely sure the orb would be safe in his possession. News traveled faster than people. By all rights, his little trip to Cyoria should have gone undetected by his pursuers, but he couldn’t be completely sure. Thus, he felt it was for the best if he didn’t have the orb on him unless absolutely necessary.

Zorian expected that he would be the only one that could tinker with the orb to discover its secrets, since Zach didn’t have the necessary personal soul awareness to control his marker. He was very much wrong. Apparently, Zach didn’t need to have conscious control over his marker to take command of the orb. After an hour or so of tinkering with the orb, Zach managed to connect to it instinctively.

And after that one success, he no longer needed an hour of tinkering to connect to again. Simply touching the orb would be enough to re-establish contact. Zach didn’t even have to concentrate on it to pull it off – a touch and a stray thought were enough.

Zorian was a little sour about that. The orb certainly never reacted that way to him, no matter how many hours he spent interacting with it. No, he had to spend months going through that hellish soul awareness training and then more time painstakingly studying the way the marker worked to get as far as he did. This sort of stuff really made it obvious that his marker was some kind of inferior version of the one on Zach.

It had been only a day since they were back in Cyoria when Daimen surprised him again. He wanted to talk to Kirielle and Fortov.

This was a bit of a problem. Both of their siblings knew for a fact that Daimen shouldn’t be in Cyoria. Mother and Father had gone to Koth to meet with him. How on earth did he intend to explain his presence here? But Daimen insisted that he needed to do this, and Zorian didn’t feel like arguing with him. There was probably no great harm in it, and he was pretty sure that Daimen would go and have those conversations behind his back if he was too stubborn.

Amusingly, Daimen wanted to talk to Kirielle and Fortov alone, without anyone else being present. Zorian was almost certain that meant he wanted to ask them specifically about Zorian. Hah! Fortov didn’t know anything about Zorian, and Kirielle was a little tattletale and would no doubt tell Zorian everything that she and Daimen talked about. But he told Daimen none of that and simply wished him luck before sending him on his way.

The next day, Daimen came back to talk to him, looking lost and confused.

“They didn’t even want to talk to me…” he complained, sounding quite dejected. It actually made Zorian feel bad for him somewhat.

“Come on, it’s not that bad,” Zorian comforted him. “I don’t know about Fortov, but I’m pretty sure Kirielle wouldn’t have snubbed you like that. Imaya tells me you spent an entire hour with her.”

“Yeah, but that’s all I did with her,” Daimen complained. “She spent the entire hour fidgeting and looking uncomfortable. She barely spoke, and only when I specifically prodded her. I’m not entirely sure, but I think she was actually a little scared of me. That’s…”

Damien waved his hands in the air, as if trying to convey some kind of unpronounceable concept through silent gesticulation.

“Sad?” Zorian offered.

“Sure, let’s go with that,” Daimen said. “Also worrying. And upsetting. And a whole host of other things. Especially when coupled with what happened with Fortov. Do you know what happened when I knocked on his door?”

“Not really, no,” Zorian told him. He had actually known about Daimen’s ‘talk’ with Kirielle, since she had told him all about it when he had come to Imaya’s place in the evening, but he honestly had no idea how Daimen’s talk with Fortov had gone. Not well, obviously, but it would be interesting to hear why. “What did he do?”

“He was just really abrasive to me right from the start,” Daimen said. “He refused to even let me in, eventually started shouting at me and then slammed the door in my face and ignored me.”

Huh. Interesting.

Daimen looked at Zorian, silently asking him for an explanation. Zorian said nothing, though, and Daimen grew visibly frustrated as seconds ticked by. He ran both of his hands through his hair and clutched it tightly in his fists, as if wanting to tear it off.

“You’re going to go prematurely bald if you keep doing that,” Zorian commented lightly.

Daimen gave him an unamused glare.

But he did remove his hands from his head.

“I don’t understand!” Daimen protested loudly. “Am I… Am I such a horrible older brother? I knew you didn’t like me, but even Fortov? Even little Kirielle?! Why?! What did I do?!”

Zorian clacked his tongue and considered things for a second. On one hand, he felt that Daimen was getting exactly what he deserved. On the other hand, the fact that Daimen was so upset over this meant that his mental image of him was little… unfair. He decided to be a little nice to his older brother for a change.

“In regards to Kirielle, the answer is simple, my dear eldest brother,” Zorian told him. “You’re practically a stranger to her. By the time she was old enough to interact with people, you were practically never at home. When was the last time you talked with her? Disregarding yesterday’s meeting, of course.”

“Uhh…” Daimen fumbled.

“You can’t even remember,” Zorian stated, shaking his head. “Anyway, all she had of you were stories she heard of you. Most of which came either from Mother… or from me. After all, I’m one of the people who interacted with her the most over the years.”

“Oh, heavens help me,” Daimen lamented. “What exactly did you tell her about me?”

“The truth,” Zorian shrugged.

“You mean your truth,” Daimen accused.

“Of course,” Zorian responded, completely unmoved by the accusation. “But don’t worry, I kept quiet about your worst excesses. Truth be told, I never liked talking about you to anyone, and that included Kirielle. And besides, Mother never failed to take your side in everything. If it were just the matter of stories, Kirielle would be more ambivalent to you. The thing is, she needs help… and she knows she’ll never get it from you. She just might get it from me, though, which is why she doesn’t want to sabotage her relations with me by getting cozy with you. She knows you kind of piss me off.”

“What do you mean ‘she needs help’?” Daimen frowned. “And why are you so sure she’d never get it from me?”

“Because it would require standing up to Mother,” Zorian said.

Over the next hour or so, Zorian tried to familiarize Daimen with Kirielle’s situation. The arranged marriage their parents had prepared for her. Her desire to learn magic like the rest of them. He tried to keep the explanations brief, worried that telling this to Daimen constituted some kind of betrayal towards Kirielle, who had told him these things in confidence. He said enough for Daimen to form a rudimentary picture of what was happening with Kirielle behind the scenes, though.

“I can’t believe I never heard of this,” Daimen said, his eyes somewhat unfocused as he seemed to recall something in his head. “I speak to Mother and Father often and they never mentioned this.”

“Did you ever actually ask them about Kirielle?” Zorian asked.

Daimen was quiet for a few moments.

“…no,” he eventually admitted.

“Well, there you go,” Zorian shrugged.

Daimen exhaled heavily and then corrected his posture, sitting a little straighter in his chair.

“Okay, I admit I haven’t been very fair to our little sister. I guess I kind of deserved such a chilly reception from her,” Daimen said. “What about Fortov, then? What’s his deal?”

“How would I know?” Zorian protested. “Do you honestly think I speak to Fortov about you?”

Daimen gave him an annoyed huff. “Yes, I get it, I get it – you never talk about me to anyone if you can help it. But surely you have some inkling about how Fortov thinks and what bothers him. You’ve been interacting with him for six years now.”

Zorian made a weird face, momentarily struck speechless by this statement.

“What?” Zorian laughed. “Whatever gave you that idea? Why would I be interacting with Fortov?”

“Are… Are you serious?” Daimen asked incredulously. Zorian stared at him. “He’s your brother. You live in the same city. You can visit him anytime you want.”

“So?” Zorian asked, inclining his head uncomprehendingly.

“Are you honestly telling me that in all these years, you haven’t seriously talked to our brother even once?” Daimen asked. His tone was pleading, as if begging Zorian to tell him he’s wrong.

“That’s what I’m saying, yes,” Zorian nodded. Why would Daimen expect anything else from him?

“Doesn’t the restart end in a massive invasion?” Daimen frowned. Zorian nodded again. “What does Fortov do during the invasion?”

“Presumably he reaches the academy shelters and spends the night there, along with the other students,” Zorian shrugged.

Admittedly, the shelters hadn’t been very safe during the one occasion he had actually experienced them, but that was when Red Robe had actively been helping the invaders by feeding them information. Without his help, the shelters were actually pretty safe.

“Presumably? You never checked?” Daimen asked. Zorian shook his head in denial. “Zorian, for heaven’s sake…”

“I don’t see why you’re so surprised by this,” Zorian told him honestly. “Fortov is my second least-favorite person in the whole family, right after Father. Of course I never bothered to check up on him.”

Daimen opened his mouth, as if he wanted to continue that argument, but then just shook his head and gave up.

“Nevermind,” Daimen sighed. “Did you have any interactions with him during all this time?”

“Actually, yes,” Zorian said. “He pushes this one girl into a purple creeper patch near the end of every restart and then comes to me to beg for a healing salve. I used to just avoid being home whenever he comes, but these days it’s not even necessary. He never comes to find me if I stay at Imaya’s place.”

“He pushes this girl into a purple creeper patch regardless of what you change in a restart?” Daimen said, frowning.

“As far as I can tell, yes,” Zorian confirmed. “The girl has a huge crush on him, if that means anything to you.”

Daimen made a thoughtful hum. “It’s better than nothing, I guess. But really Zorian, must you be so petty and callous? I know you and Fortov didn’t get along as kids, but this sort of attitude is a little too much. You nurse your grudges way too deeply.”

“It’s easy for you to call for peace and understanding,” Zorian said, folding his arms over his chest defiantly. “It’s not you who had to deal with Fortov’s crappy attitude over the years.”

“All I’m saying is that maybe you should give him a chance,” Daimen said. “Like you did with Kirielle when you decided to take her with you to Cyoria. If you were wrong about her, who’s to say you weren’t wrong about Fortov as well?”

“But I wasn’t really wrong about her,” Zorian pointed out. “I didn’t want her around because I felt she was a selfish little blabbermouth that would distract me from my studies and tattle on me when she returns to Mother. That’s all still true, it’s just that I no longer care about that. Provided I actually manage to find a way out of this time loop, my future is set. I can afford a distraction or two, and Kirielle running off and revealing my plans and activities to Mother is irrelevant because our parents can’t stop me anymore. I’m so skilled and powerful that I can do whatever I want, Mother and Father be damned.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Daimen didn’t grow even more frustrated at this response, like Zorian thought he would. Instead he just gave him a sad smile and shook his head ruefully.

“Mother and Father are so concerned about me making a mistake that they’re rushing over to Koth even as we speak to talk me out of my marriage to Orissa, but they fail to notice a crisis developing right in front of them,” he said. “We really are one messed up family, aren’t we? And the terrifying thing in all this is that I will forget all about this very soon, won’t I? After the summer festival, it will be as if none of this ever happened. That’s so unfair. How the hell can I fix a problem if I have no memory of its existence?”

“I don’t think you could fix our family, even if you had all the time in the world,” Zorian told him. “But yes, the reality of the time loop is rather soul crushing if one really thinks about it. You’re dealing with this pretty well, all things considered.”

“It’s mostly because I have avoided thinking about it too deeply, I think,” Daimen said. “Now that we’re getting closer to the time limit, I find my thoughts wandering towards it more and more. Especially since I’ve done so much in these last few weeks. I’ve realized so many things. Important things. It’s frightening and infuriating to realize I must lose it all.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ve heard about the notebooks I’m transferring between restarts for various people,” Zorian noted. “If it’s really so important, you can just write it down and hand it to me for safekeeping.”

“Oh?” Daimen smiled. “So I actually qualify for that prestigious service? I must say, the way you’ve been talking about our family, I was starting to get a little worried. What if you intended to just forget about me in all future restarts? You already know how to find the orb, after all, and I know you aren’t exactly a big fan of me…”

Zorian gave him a mildly uncomfortable look. He had been thinking of something like that. Though his eldest brother would surely be useful in tracking down and recovering the rest of the pieces of the Key, it bothered Zorian a great deal to rely on Daimen for anything. It just… felt wrong. Convincing Daimen to help them was a time consuming task, too, so was it really worth the time to include him in their efforts?

In the end he realized he was just looking for excuses. They needed the help that Daimen could provide. If nothing else, it wasn’t very fair to Zach to sabotage their chances of getting out of the time loop just because he had a problem with Daimen.

Plus, the truth was…

“I was wrong about you, okay?” Zorian said with a heavy sigh. “I still think you’re very annoying, but… you’re not as bad as the Daimen that lived inside my head.”

It hurt him to say it, but it was the truth. Maybe Daimen had changed after he had moved out of the house and stopped interacting with Zorian or maybe Zorian’s image of him had never been all that reliable to begin with. Whatever the truth, this Daimen was more helpful and reasonable than the dark giant that had loomed over him in the past.

“I’m not sure if I’d call it wrong, exactly. Regardless of their reasons, the other two siblings don’t like me much either. I’m clearly an abject failure as an older brother. It’s a sobering realization,” Daimen mused. After a second of silence, he shook his head as if to clear it up. “But enough of depressing topics like that. You mentioned the notebooks you’re carrying across restarts for Xvim and the others. As it happens, I’ve taken the time to talk with Xvim yesterday. He told me about the trade deals you two are trying to set up with various experts.”

“Yes, it’s honestly one of my better ideas,” Zorian nodded. “It’s already showing results and there is every indication we can do even better in future restarts. I don’t think every single one of those experts will agree to a trade in the end, but quite a few are clearly open to the idea if approached by someone they actually respect. Are you thinking of helping Xvim convince people?”

“No,” Daimen shook his head. “I’ll be pleased to help if Xvim asks for it, but my involvement could easily turn the initiative into an unmitigated disaster. You probably think of my fame as purely beneficial, but the truth is it causes many mages to view me as a threat. A lot of them would never trade anything with me. Why do you think I never learned how to cast the Gate spell before you came along?”

“I see,” Zorian said thoughtfully. “If not that, though, why did you mention Xvim’s efforts?”

“Well...” began Daimen. “Gathering secret knowledge from Altazia’s many experts is a commendable initiative, but it is hard work and it will likely only provide incremental improvement to your capabilities.”

“True,” Zorian said. “But what’s the alternative? All the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked.”

“Not necessarily,” Daimen said with a grin. “What is and is not low-hanging fruit depends on a person’s abilities, and you have something that few other people do – an ability to traverse between continents with ease.”

Zorian thought about it for a second and then motioned for Daimen to continue. He didn’t quite see what he was getting at.

“What I’m saying is that Koth would be a good place to extend your magic gathering initiative,” Daimen continued. “Unlike Xlotic, which is relatively well-connected to Altazia due to the existence of the teleport network, Koth is quite remote. Despite that, they use the same basic magic system that we do, unlike Hsan. This makes them a great place to find unexpected spell combinations and novel alchemy. Who knows what kind of… low-hanging fruit can be obtained by combining our magical traditions with those of Koth?”

Zorian raised his eyebrow at his eldest brother. Daimen looked quite animated as he spoke of the idea.

“And I suppose you’re volunteering to run this sort of initiative?” Zorian asked.

“Ha ha…” Daimen laughed nervously. “To be perfectly honest, doing this was one of my objectives in coming to Koth. I was in the process of laying the groundwork for it even before the time loop started.”

“Well… that’s great then,” Zorian told him honestly. “I don’t see an issue with the idea, then.”

“Great!” Daimen said, giving him a sunny smile reminiscent of Zach. “It’s just that this time loop came too soon and not all of the preparations were complete. I may need a tiny, tiny loan from my dearest brother to start things up…”

* * *

A few days later, Daimen was returned to Koth. The orb was left in Cyoria, since Daimen figured it was safer that way and because Zach had really taken a liking to it. Busy as he was with other things, Zorian decided to delegate all orb-related tinkering to Zach. Considering how much more strongly the orb reacted to him, Zach may be in a better position to uncover its secrets anyway.

Today, though, Zorian had received a somewhat unusual request: Taiven wanted to talk to him. In private.

Normally such a request wouldn’t be particularly notable, but Zorian had actually not seen or heard from Taiven at all ever since their attack on the Ibasan base. If it were not for Alanic’s assurances that she had survived the battle in perfect health, Zorian would have been honestly worried for her. As it was, it was obvious she had been avoiding him for some reason. He had actually thought about tracking her down to ask what was happening, but the end of the restart was approaching and so many things were vying for his time and attention…

No matter. Since she’d reached out to him all of a sudden, he would presumably find out what was bothering her quite soon.

When they met he offered to teleport them to some empty, quiet place, but she would have none of that. Apparently when she said she wanted to talk in private, she meant she would bring him to her family training hall – the same one where they sometimes sparred against one another in previous restarts. She seemed to find the place calming and reassuring.

“So what’s this about?” he asked her.

“I’m worried,” she said. She sounded worried, too.

Zorian waited for a few seconds for a clarification of what exactly she was worried about, but Taiven seemed to have trouble finding the words. She paced around the training hall like a caged tiger, scowling and shaking her head.

“No, seriously, what is this about?” Zorian asked.

She still didn’t say anything.

“Is it time loop related?” he added after a bit of thought.

“Of course it’s time loop related!” she burst out at him. She looked like she was going to snap at him but quickly managed to reign herself in. She shook her head sadly. “And, in a way, it isn’t. I don’t even know why I called you here. It’s stupid. I should just–“

“Don’t even dare try to send me away now,” Zorian warned her.

“I won’t, I won’t,” she assured him. “I’m just… I just realized I probably lost you as a friend.”

Zorian gave her an incredulous look.

“And why would you think that?” Zorian asked her curiously.

“Because this time loop has changed you,” she told him. “You already feel like a stranger to me. You’re so hard to read these days, and so very capable. Everything I can do, you can do better. And that’s only going to get worse as you spend time in here. By the time you get out, why would you need me anymore? By the time this is all resolved, I will probably no longer have a friend.”

“Eh, you’re being overdramatic,” Zorian told her. He knew he was probably sounding a little dismissive, but he honestly didn’t know what else to tell her. “I know you don’t remember this, but I spend a lot of time interacting with you in various restarts. There is zero chance that I’m just going to forget you.”

“Well yes, I’m sure that you won’t just forget me,” she huffed. “But any concern you have for me will be of the… well, patronizing kind. You’ll be so above me it isn’t even funny. We won’t be equals, you know? It’ll be you, a secret archmage, keeping an eye on his old friend for old-time’s sake. It’s very depressing.”

“Ah,” said Zorian slowly.

There was a lot of truth in what she was saying. There was really no way their friendship would be the same as it had been before the time loop. However, that was not necessarily a bad thing. His past self was… somewhat bitter with Taiven. He had not considered them to be close friends, something that Taiven seemed rather oblivious to. Much like she was oblivious to his past crush on her, really.

So yes, their relationship would never be the same. But was that a bad thing? While Taiven might lament the loss of their earlier friendship, Zorian couldn’t help but wonder whether there would have even been a friendship if he hadn’t got stuck in this time loop. Would he have eventually overcome the hurt of having his love confession laughed at and reestablished close bonds with her? Probably. But it would have taken quite some time and he wasn’t sure Taiven would have stuck around him for long enough to see that happen.

“Why did you ever decide to become friends with me, anyway?” Zorian asked her curiously. “This will sound a little self-deprecating, but I don’t think I was that good of a friend.”

“Ha ha!” she laughed, her mood brightening a little. “Well, it’s good that you’re so honest. That’s the one change I like about the new you.”

She picked up a practice doll from a nearby bench and started making minute corrections to it. Zorian couldn’t see what they were meant to do, so he assumed she was just stalling for time and giving herself something to do.

“Since you were willing to be a little self-deprecating, I will follow your example,” Taiven eventually said. “I wasn’t a very good friend either. Either to you or to anyone else. I’m too blunt and impulsive and I can’t judge the situation and people very well. Most people actually find me pretty insulting and aggravating.”

Zorian was going to say something to cheer her up, but then he remembered that her nickname for him was ‘Roach’. He still remembered the argument he’d had with her when she had tried to convince him that being compared to cockroaches was a compliment because they were amazing animals, famed for their adaptability and resilience. Eventually he caved in and (reluctantly) let her call him that, but he could see why some people would be deathly insulted if she were to pull that kind of stunt on them.

“I actually have very few friends aside from you,” she continued. “Aside from you, only my two teammates seem to like me. But Urik and Oran… they’re old friends. I’ll never be anything other than the third wheel if I hang out around them.”

“But I didn’t have any other friends,” Zorian surmised.

“Yeah,” Taiven told him. “You annoyed me, I annoyed you, but we got along with each other anyway. Maybe you weren’t a good friend, but I wasn’t much better, so it didn’t matter. But now you’re getting better, and I… I can’t.”

She hugged the practice doll like a little girl trying to comfort herself with a favorite toy. It was a somewhat weird sight, since the practice doll was the size of an adult human and creepily featureless.

Zorian stared at her, wondering how to handle this. He didn’t see how he could convince Taiven that the nature of their friendship wouldn’t change once he got out of the time loop. It would be an obvious lie. Of course, Zorian did not consider this change to be a bad thing, but to explain why he felt that way he would have to…

…eh, why not. If he was really honest with himself, he always had wanted to do this. He just hadn’t had the courage to go through with it.

“I had a crush on you once,” he told her.

“Eh!?” she exclaimed, jerking in surprise and dropping the practice doll. It clattered to the floor, leaving deafening silence in its wake. For a moment, anyway. “What do you mean, you had a crush on me!? When!? How!?”

“Do you remember that time I asked you out on a date?” he asked her.

“What? Are we… are we talking about that time…” she fumbled. Zorian nodded anyway. He had only ever asked her to a date once in the time they knew each other, so she couldn’t be thinking of anything else. “But, uh, isn’t that when I… laughed at you?”

Zorian gave her a long-suffering look.

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Yes, it is. It wasn’t a joke, Taiven. I was dead serious about it.”

“Ah ha ha…” she laughed nervously. “Wow, that’s… really something.”

She buried her face into her hands for a moment.

“Gods above, I’m so stupid sometimes,” she mumbled into her hands.

Then she punched him in the shoulder.

“Hey!” he protested in mild outrage. He’d normally be more bothered about the sudden physical violence, but eh. It was Taiven. He expected that sort of thing from her. “What the hell!?”

“And you’re stupid too!” she told him. “Why the hell would you just accept me laughing at you like that if you were being serious!?”

“Well what the hell was I supposed to do!?” Zorian protested.

“Tell me I was wrong! Ask me out again! Get angry before storming off!” Taiven shouted. “Anything! Not just pretend everything was fine and retreat with a tail between your legs like a wounded puppy. I mean… I kept joking about that long afterwards and you still didn’t say anything. At least if I knew I wouldn’t have been rubbing salt into your wounds like that!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Zorian grunted. “In the end I still got an answer to my question. You clearly weren’t interested in me that way. You found the very idea laughable, even.”

“Oh come on!” she whined. “That’s not fair. I wasn’t laughing because the idea of me dating you was so ridiculous. I was laughing because I gave you love advice urging you to ask people out and you followed it by immediately asking me out. It just… seemed to me like you were making a joke. In retrospect, I was being stupid, but… You should have said something, damn it!”

There was a long, uncomfortable silence as the two of them refused to look at each other and sat there in silence.

“We’re going out on a date,” Taiven suddenly declared.

Zorian gave her a weird look.

“But I’m over you,” he pointed out. “That’s why I said I ‘had’ a crush on you. It’s all in the past for me.”

“Yeah, I figured,” she said. “It doesn’t matter. We’re still having a date.”

“Don’t I get any say in this?” Zorian asked, an amused smile on his face.

“What are you talking about,” Taiven sniffed disdainfully. “You’re the one who asked me to a date. I’m just accepting your invitation… with a bit of a delay.”

Zorian laughed at the uniquely Taiven logic.

“A bit of a delay, she says… You really are something,” he said, shaking his head. “Fine. Have it your way.”

“Good,” she said simply, then looked away, as if too shy to meet his eyes.

Zorian smiled. He had been telling the truth, and he really didn’t have a crush for her any longer. Any romantic feeling he’d had for her had petered out during his long stay in the time loop.

But he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t kind of glad about this.

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