Chapter 072

He never really realized how beautiful Cyoria could be in the evening.

That was Zorian’s thought as he and Taiven wandered around Cyoria, checking up street stands and discussing casual topics. Most settlements grew dark and quiet as evening approached, giving off a dangerous and sinister atmosphere, but Cyoria was a major metropolis and this was the week before the summer festival. The streets were lively and well-illuminated, with lots of people wandering around and lots of street vendors setting up stands and trying to convince these people to part with their money for sweets, trinkets and so on.

Zorian would never have guessed that he would enjoy this kind of atmosphere. In the past, he had found occasions like this to be rather aggravating and avoided them whenever possible. Of course, in the past, Zorian would get headaches just from being in a crowd and he didn’t have a pretty girl to keep him company.

He gave a sideways glance to Taiven, who was walking beside him. Even though this was just a ‘friendly’ date and not anything romantic, he couldn’t help but treat it fairly seriously. He had chosen to wear a fairly formal outfit for the evening, took her to an expensive restaurant and even invited her for a round of dance. He was initially worried he was taking things too far, but considering Taiven came to the date wearing a very expensive-looking dress and had kept her usual cheery disposition throughout the entire evening, he seemed to have made a good choice.

“I’ve got to say, this went a lot better than I thought it would,” Taiven suddenly said. Zorian raised an eyebrow at her. “Wait, that came out kind of wrong. What I mean is… considering how bad both of us are at the social side of things… umm…”

Zorian gave her a faint smile and decided to save her from further awkwardness.

“It’s fine,” he said. “I get your point. I’m also pleasantly surprised at how well this turned out. I guess we’re better at this than we thought.”

“Well, in my case it’s mostly trial and error, so I can’t feel too proud about myself,” Taiven laughed lightly. “I went to quite a few dates in the past. Plenty of guys get attracted to me for my looks and don’t quite comprehend what they’re getting into until they experience it firsthand. Trust me, my first date was a real disaster.”

“Oh? You’ll have to tell me that story sometime,” Zorian teased.

“No way,” she said, giving him a playful shove and causing him to stumble to the side a little. He nearly crashed into an elderly couple walking past them, but managed to correct himself in time. “The less people know that story, the better. Hell, sometimes I wish I could forget that memory myself. But then I’d probably make the same mistakes all over again, so I guess it’s a good thing I can’t forget.”

She frowned suddenly, staring at the night sky for a moment before giving him a curious look.

“What?” he prodded.

“What about you? Do you do this often?” she asked him.

“Do what often? Go on a date with you?” Zorian asked, amused.

“Well not with me,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I mean in general. You’ve been in this time loop for years. Surely you’ve gone on a few dates in all that time.”

“A few,” Zorian admitted.

“Ha!” she said, pointing her finger at him triumphantly. “I knew it!”

Zorian opened his mouth to respond but Taiven immediately stopped him.

“Don’t you try and bewitch me with your honeyed words,” she said in mock outrage. “I bet you tell them to every girl you pursue.”

“But I haven’t even said anything yet,” Zorian pointed out. “Really, I have no intention of justifying myself to you. Based on what you just told me about your dating experiences, you went to a lot more dates than I have. You heartbreaker.”

They kept talking and meandering through the streets for a while longer, until eventually the conversation wound down and they both seemed to reach an unspoken agreement that it was getting late and that it was time for the date to end. Zorian couldn’t help but get progressively quieter and more contemplative as the date grew to a close.

They had been walking in silence for several minutes when Taiven decided to speak up again.

“What’s wrong?” Taiven asked. “Why did you get so depressed all of a sudden? Was it something I said?”

“Hm?” Zorian said, broken out of his reverie. “No, no. It’s not you. I’m just thinking. It’s… well, it’s probably for the best if I don’t tell you.”

“Zorian, don’t make me hit you,” she said warningly.

“Fine, if you insist…” Zorian said, giving her an awkward chuckle. “I was just thinking how utterly depressing it is that you will not remember anything that happened tonight in future restarts. We cleared the air between us, enjoyed a wonderful evening… and none of that will matter when the loop resets again. You will revert to the same suspicious, borderline hostile Taiven that I get at the start of every restart. It takes half of each restart just to convince you the time loop is real and that I haven’t been lying to you since I met you or been replaced by an imposter, nevermind anything else.”

Taiven winced, looking away guiltily.

“No, don’t feel guilty,” Zorian told her, shaking his head. “It’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. It’s one thing for old, experienced mages like Xvim, Alanic and Daimen to believe in the time loop. They’ve dealt with many complicated situations in their life and experienced plenty of strange magic. People like you and me? Well… did you know I spent the first six restarts going to classes like everything was just fine, hoping everything would return to normal if I just kept my head down and behaved like usual?”

Taiven gave him a surprised look.

“Yes, I know,” Zorian nodded. “It’s kind of stupid, but that’s what I did. Your reaction is pretty good, all things considered. It’s just that I really like how this turned out, and yet… I realize this will probably forever remain an empty memory in my head. I can’t replicate the chain of events that led to this in the real world. I’m not even sure I can replicate it in future restarts. So I guess I’m just trying to figure out what I should do about this in the future.”

A short, awkward silence descended on the scene, causing Zorian to wince a little inside at his own poor timing. Why did he insist on telling her this now? He just couldn’t let things end on a positive note, could he?

“Sorry,” he said quietly.

He suddenly felt like he could understand some of Zach’s attitude towards people around them. Was this why Zach no longer bothered to actively befriend any of their classmates or friendly strangers, even though he clearly used to do so extensively in the past? The way Zorian was feeling this evening… perhaps this was how Zach felt all the time during his earlier years? Making friends and experiencing life changing moments with them over and over again, only for the other party to forget all about it in the next restart…

“Don’t be sorry,” Taiven said. “What are friends for if they can’t even listen to you whine from time to time? Besides, it was a fun evening. One moment of depressing seriousness isn’t going to ruin it.”

Eventually they reached a crossroads where their paths separated and stopped. Zorian wracked his head for a moment, trying to figure out what was the appropriate way to end the date. They weren’t actually romantically involved, after all.

“So… I guess this is it,” he eventually said lamely.

“I guess it is,” Taiven agreed, equally lamely.

After a second of hesitation, with neither of them making a move to leave, Taiven spoke up again.

“Hey,” she suddenly said. “So, I know you said you were totally over me… and I totally respect that! But just in case you ever change your mind about that, you should really work on your body a little.”

“What?” Zorian asked, surprised.

“You know. Start running and exercising. Pick up some kind of physically intensive outdoor hobby. Put on some muscle,” she said. “I’m not saying you stand no chance otherwise, but…”

Zorian huffed at her, torn between amusement and exasperation. “But it would do wonders to make you see me as relationship material, right?” he surmised. Taiven nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Well. Taiven’s preferences in men aside, he had been rather annoyed with his lack of endurance lately. It made things more difficult than they needed to be and forced him to constantly drink potions just to keep up with Zach and others. It wasn’t a huge issue in the time loop, but such an extensive use of potions was inadvisable in the long term. Once he was out of the time loop, he’d probably end up working on his physique on his own initiative, just so he could maintain the sort of pace he was used to by now…

In any case, this was the end of their evening together. After saying their goodbyes, both of them went their separate ways.

Zorian deliberately took the scenic route back to Imaya’s place, consumed in his own thoughts and in no hurry to get back to sleep.

* * *

Simulacrum number two, stationed in Koth, was pretty pleased with how things were going.

Being stationed in Koth was usually a rather boring task, since it meant being stranded in an alien land whose language and writing he did not understand. He couldn’t read any of the local books, he couldn’t engage in casual conversations with people and he couldn’t cast any spells without good reason.

This time, however, he was living in the Taramatula estate. The Taramatula knew very well he was just a simulacrum, but this didn’t seem to bother them much. They treated him just as well as they did the real Zorian – they gave him a room to sleep in, a teacher to help him master the local language, and access to things like paper and building materials for his research.

Plus, there was Torun and Kirma, Daimen’s two teammates who were currently trapped in the Taramatula estate. Perhaps because they currently had nothing better to do and were bored out of their minds, or maybe because the original really left an impression on them, but both of them proved very receptive to the simulacrum’s offer of magic exchange.

Kirma was the more conventional of the two. Although Zorian had never seen divinations being used in such a way before he’d met her, she claimed she was using pretty standard magic that could be acquired from ‘practically anywhere’. Even her flower-shaped divination aid was simply something she had commissioned from a professional artificer, not something she had made herself. Thus, she didn’t feel much need to keep her methods secret. In exchange for the many rare and exotic spells that Zorian had acquired in the time loop, she was entirely willing to show him some tricks of her trade and give him guidance on how best to develop his divination skills.

In addition, she gave him a list of people to talk to in case he wanted to pursue a career in the field, completely unprompted by the simulacrum. He suspected she had some kind of deal with these people to send young talents their way, but he decided to give them a visit in one of the future restarts anyway.

As for Torun, he was pursuing a very rare and exotic field of magic that involved extracting and preserving organs of magical creatures and then using specialized control spells to turn them into something of an extension of the caster. It was not a popular field of study, both due to having been created relatively recently and because it existed in something of a legal limbo in most places, so Torun was actually ecstatic when the simulacrum showed an interest in it. Most people considered his magic to be somewhat creepy and off-putting.

The simulacrum very much doubted the original would dive particularly deeply into the field. It would take a lot of time to get anywhere with it and it didn’t provide anything they desperately needed. However, some of the spells and techniques Torun used to control and make use of his eyes could potentially be used to improve coordination between Zorian and his golems, or even Zorian and his simulacrums.

Of course, such developments were too general to be the cause of the simulacrum’s current happiness with his situation. The truth was, he had recently dodged a huge bullet!

Mother and Father were coming to Koth, and someone had to pick them up and ‘smuggle’ them into the Taramatula estate. That someone was, of course, Daimen… but Daimen also insisted that Zorian accompany him in this task. He wouldn’t budge on this in the slightest, stubbornly insisting it was Zorian’s family duty to accompany him to pick up their parents.

Sometimes it was good to be just a simulacrum. While the original had to explain to Mother and Father what he was doing in Koth, he was told instead to stay hidden from them at all times in order to minimize the amount of necessary explanations. An order he was only too happy to obey.

He was currently safely sequestered in the corner of the Taramatula library (of course the estate had its own library), humming a discordant tune to himself and reading a children’s book in an attempt to hone his ability to read the local writing. Sadly, language skills were one of those things that were almost impossible for him to transfer to the original in any meaningful manner, so this was something done more for his own amusement than any long-term gain.

As some point Orissa had also entered the room, but he paid little heed to that, giving her a short greeting and then getting back to his book. He had monopolized one of the three tables in the room, stacking it full of books that he judged to be relatively easy to understand, but that still left plenty of space for her to work with. He didn’t react even when she looked over his shoulder to see what he was reading. He wasn’t ashamed of his choice of reading in the slightest.

Everybody had to start somewhere. Plus, the book had pretty pictures.

However, Orissa didn’t just pick up a book from the library and leave, like the simulacrum expected her to. Instead she fetched a chair from a nearby empty table and sat down next to him.

“Yes?” he asked, curious. It was unusual for Orissa to deliberately seek him out like this, to say the least. Aside from that one time when she invited the original for a discussion via Daimen, she had been quite reserved.

“I’m worried,” she said simply. “Daimen and your… other self should be back in a few hours.”

“Ah,” the simulacrum said, suddenly understanding what this was about. “You’re worried about Mother and Father coming here.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “I know I’m being rude here, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little about your parents.”

“Me?” the simulacrum asked incredulously.

“I was told simulacrums retain most of the memory of the original,” Orissa said blandly.

“You know that wasn’t my point,” the simulacrum complained. Orissa smiled faintly at him. “I mean, the original doesn’t exactly have the best relationship with the rest of his family. What could I possibly tell you that Daimen hadn’t already?”

“Daimen got really evasive about his parents once it became obvious they don’t approve of our marriage,” Orissa said, shaking her head. “He says I shouldn’t worry, that he’ll handle it, but how can I possibly not worry? He clearly thinks the world of them and here they are, coming all the way to another continent to talk him out of marrying me.”

“This will probably sound a little flippant, but there’s probably no need for you to worry so much over this,” the simulacrum told her. “He’s their darling genius son. Whatever he wants, he’s going to get it. It’s been that way since forever.”

“It would still mean a lot to me if you could tell me a little about them before they arrive,” Orissa insisted.

Simulacrum number two gave her a contemplative look. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure if telling her about Mother and Father would be a good idea. His depiction of them would no doubt be really negative, and might end up worsening tensions between his parents and Orissa as a result. That probably wasn’t in anyone’s interest, least of all Orissa’s.

“You’re basically asking me to stick my hand into the fire, here,” the simulacrum said.

“I guess I am,” she admitted.

“Then let me ask you something first,” the simulacrum said. “Are you interested in Daimen only because of his mind magic bloodline thingy?”

He expected Orissa to be either shocked at the question or explode with outrage. He did not expect her to laugh at him.

“What, are you worried I’m taking advantage of your big brother?” she asked with a grin.

“Just a little,” the simulacrum admitted. “He’s an empath, so he should be hard to fool… but you’re a talented mind mage from a family specializing in mind magic. Anything is possible.”

“And here Daimen thinks you hate him,” Orissa said with a sigh. “To answer your question… it’s definitely not irrelevant. I love him, but if he didn’t have this innate mind magic affinity of his, I probably would not choose to marry him. I love my family too, and I need to keep their interests in mind. However, do you honestly think your brother is marrying me purely for love?”

The simulacrum gave her a surprised look.

“By marrying me, he is marrying into nobility and wealth. It’s not his only concern, but it’s hardly irrelevant. If I was a poor orphan, or even just a well-to-do middle-class girl, he would have never agreed to marry me. So no, I don’t think I’m taking advantage of him. We both have our ambitions. It’s just fortunate that we can fulfil them with someone we actually like.”

“Huh,” the simulacrum said thoughtfully.

After a few seconds of silence, Orissa spoke up again.

“So can I get an answer to my question, then?” she asked.

“Sure,” the simulacrum shrugged. “So, the first thing you should know about our parents is that they’re very driven and ambitious people. Our father, Andir Kazinski, was the fourth son of a wealthy farmer. Our mother, Cikan Kazinski, was the only daughter of one of the few remaining witches, who raised her alone after her husband left her. Father knew that as a fourth son, he would never inherit anything. Thus, when he was 15 years old, he managed to procure a small loan from his father and left home to open his own business. He married our mother less than a year later. Over the years, they had turned that small initial business into a local power that has made them quite wealthy and respected. Well, not by your standards, but…”

“It’s impressive,” Orissa nodded. “They reached surprising heights from such humble roots. That must have taken a lot of work.”

“They did work very hard to get where they are,” the simulacrum agreed. He had his disagreements with Mother and Father, but they had very much earned their wealth and status. Of course, their success involved just as much scheming as it did hard work, but he was pretty sure Orissa understood that part without him having to spell it out. “But while such attitude brought them success, it does have some consequences. Bluntly put, they view almost everything through the prism of how it will reflect on the family reputation and finances. This marriage between you and Daimen… even if Mother and Father thought this was a good thing for Daimen–”

“That’s it! That’s what I’ve been missing all this time! They don’t see the benefit for the family as a whole!” Orissa exclaimed suddenly. “Of course. After putting so much money and effort into Daimen, they naturally expect to see some kind of return for their trouble. Ah… we’ll continue this later, okay? I need to make some arrangements.”

The simulacrum watched, surprised and amused, as Orissa hurriedly left the library. He wasn’t entirely sure what happened there, but it would seem that Orissa didn’t actually perceive his parents’ attitude as wrong. Considering the sort of background she comes from and her explanation about how her marriage with Daimen came to be… he probably shouldn’t be surprised.

“Well, at least now I know why Daimen likes her so much,” simulacrum mused quietly to himself. “She’s like a younger version of Mother! Sometimes life really is a comedy.”

* * *

In normal circumstances, picking up Mother and Father from Jasuka harbor and bringing them to the Taramatula estate would have been a simple matter. Now that Daimen was under such intense scrutiny, however, this became a huge, complicated endeavor. The Taramatula mobilized a large portion of their manpower to disrupt and distract surveillance operations that kept an eye on Daimen’s movements. When Daimen and Zorian finally left the estate, five other decoy teams, shapeshifted in their likeness, also left at the same time to muddy the water further. Then, all six teams started teleporting around randomly for a while, before each of them made their way to a completely different city.

Despite all these preparations, the whole plan would have surely failed if Daimen had really gone to pick up Mother and Father during this trip. In reality, the whole operation was simply a giant distraction. Its main purpose was to mask the fact that Zorian had created a third simulacrum while they were teleporting around randomly through Koth and then sent it away to hide while they drew everyone’s attention. When Daimen and Zorian returned to the Taramatula estate, Zorian’s brand new simulacrum slowly made his way to Jasuka and then opened a hidden gate between the city and the estate, allowing Daimen to enter and leave the city too quickly for anyone to really intercept him.

Naturally, this meant that Zorian’s involvement was absolutely crucial for the operation’s success. If it weren’t for that, Zorian would have never agreed to take part in it, no matter how much Daimen begged and threatened. How the hell was he supposed to explain his presence in Koth to Mother and Father? No matter how poor their knowledge of magic was, they would surely recognize dimensional gates and simulacrums as high-level magic that should be way beyond him.

“Even if you hadn’t come with me, they would have still realized you were in Koth,” Daimen told him. “You are too well known among the Taramatula by now. Someone would have surely let them know about you, whether intentionally or accidentally.”

“Maybe, but that wouldn’t have been my problem,” Zorian countered. “I’d be back in Cyoria, and it would be your job to figure out an explanation that made sense and deal with their attitude.”

Daimen scowled at him, saying nothing.

In any case, the initial meeting was much calmer and more subdued than Zorian expected. The steam ship that carried their parents languidly entered Jasuka harbor and then disgorged an endless stream of passengers and cargo, temporarily creating a miniature pandemonium as the throng of disembarking people and dockworkers shouted and pushed at one another. By the time Daimen and Zorian had found Mother and Father, they already looked absolutely exhausted and were in no mood to start a fight. They were surprised to see Zorian in Koth, of course, but mostly they were glad to have an extra person help out with the luggage and whatnot.

“Aren’t you supposed to watch Kirielle?” Mother asked him, frowning.

“I am,” Zorian said. “I’m just here to pick you up. I’ll be back in Cyoria before nightfall.”

“How?” Father asked. “I thought no one could teleport over such distances. And teleportation is supposed to be advanced magic, anyway.”

“It’s a secret,” Zorian simply said.

Father made an indecipherable hum and said nothing further.

“Whatever it is, I hope you can use the same method to send us home when the time comes,” Mother said, sounding worn and tired. “Ship travel doesn’t agree with me. I think I lost a whole year of my life getting here. It would be great if we could avoid boarding a ship for the return trip.”

And that was it. Nothing more was spoken about Zorian’s presence. Especially since, when the group had finally stepped through the dimensional gate and entered the Taramatula estate, they were greeted by Orissa and the rest of the Taramatula delegation. At that point, the mystery of Zorian’s presence on another continent was the furthest thing from their minds.

Naturally, Mother and Father were full of smiles and compliments. The tiredness they displayed before Daimen and Zorian seemed to instantly disappear and they busied themselves with handing out very expensive gifts and endlessly praising the thoughtfulness and generosity of their hosts. If Zorian hadn’t known in advance what their purpose for coming here was, he would have never guessed they disapproved of the marriage.

Two days passed. Mother and Father slowly settled into the Taramatula estate. Zorian tried to stay away from the place as much as possible, not wanting to get tangled into Daimen’s mess too much, and the simulacrum he had left in the estate did the same. As such, he didn’t really know how their attempts to talk Daimen out of the marriage were progressing. He had his own things to worry about. Now that he had a simulacrum outside the Taramatula estate, he hurriedly arranged for a group of Silent Doorway Adepts to be transported to Koth, next to one of the local Bakora Gates.

Happily, the operation to acquire the gate key was a full success. Both Zorian and the Silent Doorway Adepts were ecstatic about this. For the aranea, this gate key represented access to a virgin territory awash with opportunities. For Zorian, it was a way to ensuring easy access to Koth without having to rely on Daimen. Plus, he suspected that having this key would make it much, much easier to convince the Silent Doorway Adepts to cooperate with him in future restarts.

Now, however, Zorian was back in the Taramatula estate. His parents had specifically called for him to come see them. In all honesty, Zorian had totally expected this to happen. They had taken his presence in Koth in stride when they had first come, but now that they had time to rest, talk with people and think about things, they no doubt realized there was something very much off about him. The only thing he hadn’t been certain of was whether the restart would have come to an end before this happened.

He was currently standing in one of Taramatula meeting rooms, Father and Mother standing in front of him. Originally, Daimen had wanted to be present for the talk as well, but they had shooed him away, insisting this was a ‘private talk’. That had been kind of amusing. It was not often that they treated their favorite son in such fashion. Apparently, whatever ‘arrangements’ Orissa did were insufficient, and they still opposed the marriage. And since Daimen stubbornly refused to give up on the idea, they were currently not terribly fond of him.

“We spoke with Daimen about you,” Mother said suddenly.

She had a complex, worried look on her face, as if she was having trouble deciding how to handle this. Father, on the other hand, stayed silent and stony-faced, his emotions indecipherable.

“Yes?” Zorian responded blandly.

“He tells us you’re incredibly powerful and competent. Far more than you let on,” she said.

“True,” Zorian admitted. He didn’t see the point of hiding it. They already knew he could move across continents in a quick, reliable manner.

“But why would you keep something like that hidden from us?” Mother asked imploringly. “Having another genius in the family is a joyous thing. Surely you don’t think we would have stood in your way?”

“Ah, you mean… like you’re not standing in the way of Daimen’s marriage?” Zorian asked innocently.

“That’s something completely different!” Mother said, scowling at him. She quickly reined herself in, however. “And besides, we’re not standing in Daimen’s way. We’re simply… trying to pull him back for taking a wrong turn. If he stubbornly refuses to heed our advice, we will reluctantly accept it, not sabotage his life in revenge.”

“What she’s saying,” Father suddenly spoke up, “is that we already disagree with what you’re doing with your life, so what’s one disagreement more? You can just throw one of your juvenile hissy fits, just like you always do, and we’ll grit our teeth and bear it because at the end of the day you’re still our son. Just like we always do.”

Zorian stretched his mouth into a thin line and gave Father a narrowed stare, but said nothing. Father simply stared back at him, as if daring him to say anything.

“Andir, honey, I thought we agreed I would be the one to talk,” Mother sighed.

Father raised both of his hands in a gesture of surrender. He also gave her an exasperated look, but she had already turned back towards Zorian, ignoring him.

“What are you planning, Zorian?” Mother asked him bluntly.

“Nothing much,” Zorian said. “I’m going to move out of the house immediately after I graduate. Maybe sooner. Open my own business, buy myself a house, things like that.”

“You think running a business is easy?” Father challenged. Well, that didn’t take long.

“I’m an amazing mage,” Zorian said immodestly. “Even if I had the worst business sense in the world, I’d still be able to make enough for a living.”

“But the family business–” Mother began.

“Not for all the money in the world,” Zorian said, cutting her off.

A brief silence descended upon the scene as Mother and Father shared a long look between them.

“Oh!” Zorian said, suddenly remembering something. “I’ll also take care of Kirielle.”

This statement naturally caused both of them to give Zorian a look of surprise.

“What do you mean you’ll take care of Kirielle?” Mother asked slowly. “Why would she need someone to take care of her?”

“Well, someone needs to teach her magic and nullify that stupid arranged marriage you prepared for her,” Zorian said casually.

A look of intense, shocked outrage appeared on Mother’s face. For a moment she seemed unable to process what she just heard, but then she outright exploded at him.

“You little brat!” she snapped at him agitatedly. “You have no idea what you’re talking about!”

Weirdly, Father just laughed at the scene, shaking his head at nobody in particular. Zorian was mystified by this reaction, but decided to ignore it for now.

“The situation seems simple enough to my eyes,” Zorian countered, unperturbed by her outrage.

“In regards to living your life, we can humor you, but you have no right, no right at all to tell me how to raise my daughter!” Mother shouted angrily at him, stomping threateningly straight into his personal space. “You are way out of line! Andir, you tell him!”

“What, me?” Father said with a look of exaggerated surprise. “I thought we agreed you would be the one to talk to him?”

Mother gave him an angry, venomous look that promised later retribution, but didn’t press him further.

“You have no idea what’s in Kirielle’s best interest, Zorian,” Mother told him warningly. “Don’t stick your nose where it does not belong!”

“I’m afraid that, if I don’t get an actual explanation, I’m still going to go through with my idea,” Zorian told her.

“You can’t take a child from her parents, even if you’re her brother,” Mother told him angrily. “We can call the police!”

“But would you actually do so?” Zorian challenged. She shrank back a little. They both knew she wouldn’t. “Besides, I bet that marriage is of questionable legality to begin with.”

“The marriage is… negotiable,” Mother said, pacing around the room in agitation. “You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. It’s just an informal agreement, not a legally binding document. It’s not like we’d force Kirielle to go through it at all costs. But magic is absolutely off the table! She can never, under any circumstances be taught magic!”

“Why?” Zorian frowned.

“I’m trying to do her a favor!” Mother shouted, turning to face his again. “Don’t you know what her roots are? What my mother was?”

Zorian gave her an uncomprehending look. Her mother? What did her mother have to do with anything? He knew they didn’t get along well, but he never really heard anything too shocking about her. Besides, she had been dead for a while now.

“Wait,” he said. “Are you talking about–”

“She was a witch!” Mother said, preempting his conclusion. “She was a witch and she was so damned proud of that fact. She never let anyone forget it! Once, she even threatened she was going to poison the town well when a bunch of customer tried to get out of paying her for the potions she made them. You know, just like the witches of old were said to do when someone wronged them!”

Zorian winced.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be the daughter of a witch,” Mother continued. “A son is fine. Witches didn’t care about male children. Everyone knows this. They firmly believed that magic was transferred to the child through the womb, so only a daughter can continue the lineage.”

Zorian raised an eyebrow at her. Why would they–

“I don’t know why they believed what they did!” Mother said, as if reading his mind. “I never cared to know. I just wished she would shut up about witches and let me live some semblance of a normal life. But she never did, so everyone around me saw me as a soul-stealing, mind-ensnaring, poison-wielding witch-in-waiting. And if Kirielle learns magic, she’ll suffer the same fate.”

“Mother…” Zorian sighed.

“I was really lucky to marry your father,” Mother said.

“Well, you were a pretty fine catch yourself,” Father said, grinning. He had been silent while Mother ranted about her childhood frustrations, but apparently he now felt it was safe to throw in a comment or two.

Mother ignored him, though. She was probably still angry about his earlier quip about her being the designated speaker.

“My daughter won’t have to fear for her future and rely on luck to find a good husband. She won’t have people cross to the other side of the road when they see her or spreading vile slander about her completely unprovoked,” Mother continued. “Unlike my mother, I’ve done everything I can to distance myself from our family legacy. So long as she takes my example and stays well away from anything magic related, anyone that tries to start something will end up looking petty and paranoid. But if she starts learning magic, then everything will be ruined!”

“You don’t know that,” Zorian pointed out.

“Why take the risk?” Mother challenged. “Maybe if she married early, to a wealthy and respected husband… but you already said you are opposed to that, didn’t you? So where does that leave us?”

Zorian stared at her. This was the side of Mother that he had never really known before. Was this why she was so obsessed with family reputation and social position?

He looked at Father, but the man was uncharacteristically skittish. He just looked away, refusing to meet his eyes.

Though he didn’t actually say anything, Zorian understood the message: he was on his own here. Kirielle was Mother’s project, and he wasn’t going to stick his nose in it unless he had to.

“What if Kirielle doesn’t want to go along with your plan?” Zorian asked slowly.

“She’s nine,” Mother said. “She doesn’t know what she wants.”

“She’s not always going to be nine, though,” Zorian pointed out.

“Yes, well, we can continue this conversation when she gets older,” she told him firmly. “You didn’t start learning magic when you were nine, either.”

She had a point there. In all honesty, he wasn’t willing to push this matter further than this. He mostly just raised the issue to gauge her reaction to it. He hadn’t expected this sort of response. On top of that, while Kirielle said she wanted to learn magic, she was also rather impatient and flighty. Who knew whether she was even capable of the discipline required to become a mage.

Besides, the most important thing was that the arranged marriage was apparently just an informal thing and not something his parents would push for at all costs. He couldn’t claim with certainty that it would be a good idea to teach Kirielle magic, but he knew for a fact that she hated the arranged marriage thing.

“Right,” Zorian said finally. “I’m not informed enough to make a decision here, so I’ll withdraw for now.”

“You’re damn right you’re going to withdraw!” she told him. She still sounded outraged but the anger was visibly draining out of her now that he was no longer challenging her. “What the hell made you think you have the right to give me parenting advice? Not even your father dares to tell me how to raise my daughter and you, an immature brat that has never even been with a woman, think you can tell me what to do. Why don’t you make a daughter of your own if you think–”

This was going to take quite a while, wasn’t it?

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Father staring at the scene and smiling faintly in schadenfreude.

Zorian sighed. Yes, this would definitely take a while.

* * *

“So, I discovered a new function of the orb,” Zach said.

Zorian stopped working on the metal, flower-shaped construct on his bench and gave Zach a curious look.

“What do you mean you found a new function?” Zorian asked.

“I mean, one completely unrelated to its role as a mobile palace,” Zach said, waving the orb in front of him. “Look. Take the orb and try this…”

It took a while for Zach to convey to Zorian what he had to do to activate this new function he discovered. After all, the way Zorian interacted with the orb was completely different from the way Zach did. Zach’s way was more instinctive, almost automatic, whereas Zorian had to take the initiative and actively grope around for a way to interface with it.

Eventually, though, he succeeded. He connected with the orb in the new manner that Zach found and immediately found himself connected to… something. Some kind of empty space, maybe?

“Weird,” Zorian eventually said.

“Yeah,” Zach said. “I have no idea what this does, though.”

“Neither do I,” said Zorian after some tinkering. He handed the orb back to Zach. “Keep tinkering with it. You’ll probably have more luck with it than I would.”

Besides, Zach had far more free time to tinker with the orb than Zorian did. The restart was nearing its end and there were so many things that needed to be done…

* * *

The restart was almost over. Overall, Zorian would have described it as a highly productive one.

The study of the gate stabilization frame they had stolen from the Ibasan base yielded a lot more results than Zorian expected. He now knew that some very unconventional methods had been used while making the gate – instead of carving the spell formula necessary for the operation of the frame, the Ibasans had embedded them directly into the frame in the form of numerous magic threads. The frame literally had to be peeled away, layer by layer, in order for researchers to record the layout of the threads and attempt to decipher it. Sadly, though they had invited many capable researchers on the project, they had failed to make sense of how the frame worked. Perhaps if the gate frame was still actively maintaining a dimensional passage, but as it was? Not a chance…

Still, it was a start. A lot of important groundwork had been done, and future analysis of the gate should go much faster. It was probably good that they didn’t manage to take an active gate in this restart – if they did, they would no doubt shy away from simply taking it apart like they ended up doing here, and several crucial insights would never have been made.

The interrogation of Sudomir was also a success. Granted, the man knew so many important things that he and Alanic had already agreed to keep kidnapping him in future restarts as well, but even his current gains were considerable. For instance, Zorian had finally found out what the deal was behind his strange transformations.

While Sudomir was an extremely talented warder and soul mage, and dabbled in lots of other magics as well, he was not terribly impressive as a fighter. Sudomir was well aware of this, and thus decided to close that vulnerability by becoming a shifter.

But he was overconfident and reached far beyond his grasp. Rather than picking one specific magical creature to fuse his soul with, he decided to splice up several magical creatures into some kind of unholy abomination that theoretically combined the best features of all of them… and then fused with that.

According to Alanic, it was incredible that the ritual didn’t end up turning him utterly insane or a quivering mass of unstable flesh right from the get go. As it was, the shifter ritual he designed was only a partial failure – the transformation was almost uncontrollable, forcing him to keep it suppressed at all times. But whenever he was under a lot of stress or in emotionally charged situations, his control inevitably started to slip, warping his mind…

Still, while the shifter ritual was a failure in many ways, it did give him his signature resilience. One of the creatures he used in crafting his initial abomination was a troll, and the other a dragon. The other three were similarly hard to kill. Zorian shuddered to think what would happen if he were allowed to completely transform into his composite form.

Another thing they found out from Sudomir was that there were some people related to the Cult of the Dragon Below that they had missed thus far when investigating the invaders. This was because they technically weren’t cultists. In fact, they were purposely kept separated from known cultists as much as possible, so they would look as clean as possible in case somebody investigated them. This included a fair number of lawyers, low-level politicians and even a respected judge. There was no time left to really check these people out, and Zorian suspected they weren’t too important for understanding the invasion, but he made a mental note to investigate them anyway. Just for the sake of being thorough.

Eventually the day of the summer festival came… and no attack occurred. The Ibasans continued evacuating, the Cult of the Dragon Below never made a move, and the primordial trapped in the Hole was never released.

But the restart ended right on schedule anyway, and Zorian woke up in Cirin, with Kirielle wishing him a good morning…


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