The great wilderness that existed in the north of Altazia was a place that contained many rare and valuable things. Exotic natural resources, interesting locations, magical plants and animals extinct in the south… all of those and more could be located if one was willing to spend time searching for them and was strong enough to survive deep in the untamed mountains and forests. This wasn’t because the northern wilderness was particularly blessed in natural resources and magical hot-spots, of course, but simply because most of it had never been settled and systematically exploited by human societies. The southern areas had once had these kinds of things as well, but the spread of civilization and rising number of mages had caused many of them to disappear. Mines were depleted, forests chopped down and turned into farmlands, Dungeon openings sealed away or turned into carefully-regulated mana wells, delicate areas destroyed through war or short-term greed and dangerous plants and animals deliberately hunted to extinction. After all, nobody wanted to live next to a man-eating magical tiger or a walking tree that periodically planted itself in your field and ruined the crops, no matter how valuable they were to some mage in the neighboring country.
Such was the case with the plant that Zach and Zorian were currently after. The soulseizer chrysanthemum, as it was called, was one of the rare entities that ate souls. Since nobody wanted a soul-eating flower growing in their garden – or anywhere near them, really – the plant rapidly went extinct any time humans moved into an area. Thus, if Zach and Zorian wanted to find one, they had to go to the wild areas untouched by most of humanity.
Currently, the two of them were hiding under a globe of invisibility, warily watching a huge black bear amble past them. Though the bear wasn’t truly a life-threatening danger to them, they were in no mood to pick a fight with it. It was a resilient monster, and no part of its body was particularly valuable on the general market. Considering they had been trudging through the dense foliage of the Great Northern Forest for most of the day, they really just wanted to find where the soulseizer chrysanthemum was hiding and go home.
Thankfully, the bear did not appear to be hunting and paid little attention to its surroundings. It simply walked past them and soon disappeared from sight.
Zach dispelled the globe of invisibility that hid them from sight and then cautiously scanned the area for further dangers. Although not as dangerous as the deeper layers of the Dungeon and the like, Altazia’s northern forests were not a place for the unwary. This deep in the wilderness, there lurked threats that posed a danger even to Zach and Zorian working together, should they be caught by surprise.
“Gathering all these ingredients on Silverlake’s list is surprisingly hard,” Zach said, relaxing slightly upon detecting nothing of note. “They’re rare, dangerous, or both, and Silverlake never gave us a single clue where we could find any of them… and yet, the task is still clearly doable, so we can’t really complain about being given a completely impossible task. The old witch really has a knack for this stuff.”
“I’m half-convinced that most of these are not necessary for the potion at all,” Zorian said, sighing lightly. He spent a few seconds reorienting himself and then set off in the northwestern direction. Zach followed him without complaint. “She probably added quite a few of these because she personally needs them for something, not because the potion we ordered demands it. The trouble is–”
“We have no idea which ingredients are essential and which are not,” Zach finished for him. “She never lets us see the actual recipe. We can only speculate and try to call her bluff, but we’re more pressed for time than she is and she knows it. She wouldn’t relent, even if we guessed correctly, and might even up the price out of spite.”
“Yes,” Zorian nodded. “Whatever. It’s doable, that’s all that matters. Let her have her little victory if it pleases her.”
“True,” Zach agreed. “Say, are you really sure we’re in the right place? We’ve been looking for more than two hours and the flower doesn’t appear to be here. Maybe the yeti tribe we spoke to lied to us. Relations between them and humans are not exactly the best.”
“The tribe’s shaman didn’t lie,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “He thinks we’re cocky idiots that will get our souls eaten by the soulseizer chrysanthemum, so he told us the truth as he saw it. He gets the payment we promised him and two humans end up dead. It’s a win-win as far as he was concerned. It’s just that yetis don’t really have any concept of maps or precise coordinates, so all I have is a set of vague directions regarding the local landmarks. Just be a little patient.”
“But this is so boring,” Zach whined childishly.
“Tough luck,” Zorian told him pitilessly.
Zach was quiet for a few seconds before he started talking again.
“You know, the idea of fighting a flower is kind of funny. And embarrassing,” he said.
“I don’t know,” Zorian said. “I think fighting those rabbits a few days back was way more embarrassing. Especially since both of us ended up getting bitten before we managed to bring them down.”
“Ugh. Don’t remind me,” Zach groused. “Those have got to be one of those fake ingredients Silverlake added to the list. I mean, how are a bunch of rabbits like that related to a potion of soul perception?”
“I think those red gems embedded in their foreheads were some kind of sensors,” Zorian speculated. “They did see through our every attempt to sneak up on them.”
The two of them spent the next half an hour discussing which of the ingredients were likely to be fake, only to realize that none of them were obvious imposters. They could all potentially be valid, which meant that either Zorian was too paranoid or Silverlake was very clever when picking her additions. Zorian was leaning towards the second option.
“I know we already talked about this before visiting Silverlake, but are you really sure this is even necessary?” Zach eventually asked. Seeing Zorian’s confused look, he moved to clarify. “Acquiring soul sight, I mean. Are you really sure you need it?”
“Of course I’m not sure,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Maybe once we get the whole key, everything will be neatly resolved, and me getting soul sight will end up being a pointless diversion. The thing is, even if the Guardian of the Threshold overlooks the fact there are two of us and places our souls back into our bodies, there is a problem…”
“Your original body still has its old soul,” Zach said.
“Well, it would be more accurate to say that the body I hope to inhabit was never truly mine to begin with,” Zorian said. “But yes, that’s the core issue. If I want out, I need to steal my real world body somehow. I guess this could be done by convincing the Guardian to switch my soul with that of the original, but… the Guardian has made it clear that this goes against the very nature of his job. I’m skeptical that acquiring the Key will let us ignore this.”
“I get that,” Zach said. “But maybe you don’t have to literally steal the body, you know? Maybe you can kind of, you know… coexist with your old self?”
“An interesting idea,” Zorian said. “I don’t know enough about soul magic to say if that would be possible, but… that kind of thing would still require me to acquire soul perception first.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Zach sighed.
They walked through the forest in silence for a few seconds, Zorian keeping an eye out for that funny-shaped rock outcropping that the old yeti had told him about. It should be around here…
“What’s really on your mind?” Zorian eventually asked.
“You know I’m not really sure that I’m the real Controller of this time loop,” Zach said. “And if I’m not… I could be facing the same choice you are.”
“Ah,” Zorian said, nodding. Personally, he felt Zach’s fears were unfounded, but he knew by now it was useless to tell him that. “I see.”
“Do you think I should try to acquire soul perception too?” Zach asked. “I’m not nearly as comfortable as you are in killing my old self, but I have to admit… if I have to choose between myself and him…”
“It would be the safe thing to do,” Zorian told him. Concerns about not being the true Controller aside, he didn’t see any particular downsides about Zach acquiring soul perception. “But best not to try that in this particular restart. We have no idea how the safety triggers on your marker are going to react to a potion like that. I mean, they did terminate the restart when you tried to undergo Alanic’s training, remember?”
“I remember,” Zach scowled. “If it weren’t for that, I would have had simulacrums of my own by now.”
“Right. They could easily trigger this time too, since the potion works on similar principles,” Zorian remarked. “It’s best if we wait for a less interesting restart before testing this.”
“Yeah, I’m in no hurry,” Zach said. He glanced around the area they were traveling in. “How long do you think it will take you to find this soul-eating flower? Maybe we should stop for now and come back tomorrow?”
“Actually…” Zorian began, his eyes zeroing in on a bunch of seemingly unremarkable trees, “we’re here.”
He pointed at the base of one of the trees, where a beautiful white flower proudly sprouted from the forest floor.
There was nothing overtly supernatural or sinister about the soulseizer chrysanthemum. It was a large plant, but not monstrously huge. Its leaves and stalk were the most mundane of green, easily blending into the rest of the nearby vegetation. A single white flower the size of Zorian’s head crowned the otherwise unremarkable plant, its numerous rows of petals folded inwards into a sort of flowery hemisphere.
This sort of peaceful, unremarkable appearance was merely a trap, though. Since the soulseizer chrysanthemum was immobile, most of the time it behaved as inconspicuously as possible to lure its victims near. The moment Zach or Zorian stepped close enough, the flower would reveal its true nature.
“You know how I said earlier that the idea of fighting a flower is kind of funny?” Zach asked.
“Yeah?” Zorian prompted.
“I take it back,” Zach said. “There is nothing funny about a dangerous creature that hides itself so thoroughly. I looked straight at it and I still can’t see any sign of danger. If we hadn’t been clued in advance about its true nature and where exactly it can be found, we’d never have noticed it.”
“Mm,” Zorian hummed in agreement. “If you really think about it, this is one of the most dangerous enemies we could possibly face. Stuff like the grey hunter could kill us, but the time loop makes that just an inconvenience. But this flower? If we stumbled upon it by accident, without being mentally ready or applying some kind of soul ward beforehand, there is a good chance we’d really end up with our souls devoured by it.”
“Well, you would,” Zach pointed out cheekily. “The safeguards on my marker would probably kick in the moment my soul was torn away from my body. You, on the other hand, would be thoroughly doomed. You know what soul devouring entities do, right?”
“They flay the outer layers of the soul for nourishment and keep the indestructible core as a sort of mana battery,” Zorian said. “Or in the case of wraiths, they use the core to make more of their kind. I don’t know how fast this process is, but even if it takes a while, I’d probably end up with my soul severely damaged by the time the restart ended. I would probably spend every single restart thereafter in a deep coma and stay that way until the time loop collapsed.”
They both stared at the seemingly peaceful flower for about a minute, both of them lost in their own thoughts.
“Alright, enough dawdling,” Zach suddenly said, clapping his hands loudly to wake up Zorian from his reverie. “Let’s get this thing uprooted and chopped up into ingredients!”
After discussing it for a few minutes, they decided it would be best if only one of them confronted the chrysanthemum. The other would stay back and be ready to extract them if something went wrong. This, however, led to the issue of who would be staying back and who should advance upon the dangerous plant.
The argument was surprisingly charged, with both of them arguing that they should be the ones attacking. Zorian argued that his soul defenses were better than Zach’s by far and that they couldn’t afford to get into the habit of triggering premature restarts. Zach, on the other hand, argued this was dumb and that he should definitely be the one making the attempt. Zorian might have much better soul defenses, but if they proved to be insufficient, he could wind up permanently dead in all future restarts. In light of that sort of risk, who cares about a single interrupted restart?
“This is beyond stupid,” Zach told him. “You don’t even like fighting!”
“But I fight when I have to,” Zorian countered. “Besides, I think you’re exaggerating the level of danger I would be in. If you see me slump dead, immediately kill yourself. That will trigger a restart and get my soul out of its stomach. I doubt the chrysanthemum can mutilate my soul in such a short time.”
Zach scowled at him. “Any plan that involves me committing suicide is a bad plan. I swear, I still can’t believe you were wearing a bomb around your neck before getting control of your restart trigger…”
“Actually, I still carry a bomb around my neck,” Zorian told him, showing Zach the plain-looking golden chain he usually kept tucked into his shirt. His spell formula skills had advanced to such an extent by now that the chain was no longer obviously a magic item – unless one specifically decided to inspect it with analytic spells, it would look just like a mundane accessory. “Having more contingencies is always useful, after all. Still, I guess you have a point… I don’t think I’d fail here, but the worst scenario is worrying. Tell you what – I will agree to back off here, but if you fail and end up cutting the restart short, I get to confront the chrysanthemum the next time around. Deal?”
“Deal,” Zach nodded. “If I can’t do it now, I probably won’t be able to do it on the second or third attempts either. I guess it is kind of unreasonable of me to cut restart after restart short like that. I still feel an urge to hit myself when I think of all the restarts I frittered away by doing just that…”
Then Zach started walking towards the flower, and all their arguments were revealed to have been moot. The soulseizer chrysanthemum twisted itself to face them both, the flower stalk moving with the speed and fluidity alien to normal plants, and a barely perceptible ripple emanated from it, covering a spherical area easily large enough to cover them both.
They had been within its striking range all along. It just chose not to attack them immediately.
Fast and omnidirectional, the ethereal ripple released by the chrysanthemum was impossible to dodge. Zorian, caught off guard by the attack, could do nothing except take it head on. Zach, having expected some kind of response from the flower, had successfully erected a shield around himself before it hit. It didn’t matter, though – the ripple passed through the shield like it wasn’t there at all. It slammed into both of them at almost the same time, sending them reeling.
Zorian felt sick in a way he had never experienced before in his life. His vision swam, assailed by numberless fleeting illusions and flashing lights, and his ears felt like a bomb had gone off right next to him. His sense of balance went completely haywire, his skin stung all over and his stomach churned like something was trying to tear itself out of him. It took a monumental act of will not to vomit all over himself and collapse on the ground. It was some kind of stun attack, Zorian realized. An incredibly complex stun attack, weaving together physical, mental and spiritual aspects into one unified whole.
Zorian reached into his own mind and forcibly shattered the mental aspect of the stun. The whole structure of the attack immediately became unbalanced, allowing Zorian to stabilize his condition somewhat. His vision cleared up a bit, and he saw Zach collapse to his knees, hands shaking, and vomit all over the forest floor. That… wasn’t much of a surprise, to be honest. Zach was not as adept as Zorian in defending either his mind or his soul, and he was closer to the chrysanthemum when it attacked.
Before Zorian could do anything, the soulseizer chrysanthemum turned towards him. Perhaps because he had weathered its stun effect better than Zach, or because he was closer to the border of its attack radius and it worried he would flee, but the flower chose to deal with him first. Its multitude of petals erupted with ghostly blue flame and unfolded like a mouth full of teeth, revealing a pitch black area in the middle of the flower.
Zorian’s soul immediately started vibrating in his body, sending waves of pain throughout his very being. Normally, this level of soul attack would never be able to seriously threaten Zorian… but with the aftereffect of the stun still lingering, resisting the pull of the flower was proving difficult. And the effect wasn’t stopping. Instead, the suction only seemed to get stronger as time went by and the flower searched for a firmer grip on his soul.
Despite that, Zorian was not worried. Before it attacked, the flower felt just like any other plant in the forest. It had no discernible mind, and thus nothing that Zorian could target with his mind magic. Now, however, he could very much feel a thinking mind behind the chrysanthemum.
He gathered all of his concentration and then launched a massive telepathic attack at the plant’s mind. This time, it was the flower’s turn to reel back in shock. Its attack on Zorian’s soul immediately ceased as it silently shook and waved around, trying to stabilize itself.
Zorian wasn’t going to let it have the time. Even though he still hadn’t entirely recovered from the initial attack, he poured all of his energies into launching one mental attack after another. The flower resisted fiercely. It was clearly a complete amateur when it came to mental combat, but it possessed an instinctive ability to form mental barriers and was armed with a powerful magic resistance that made it difficult and mana expensive for Zorian to target it.
After a while, Zach recovered enough to make his own move. He summoned a massive ghostly blade and sent it chopping down at the stem of the plant. In all honestly, it looked like compete overkill and Zorian worried he was going to ruin the chrysanthemum’s value as an alchemical component. They needed it fairly intact, after all.
The flower was undaunted, though. Threatened by the incoming blade, it spat a stream of glittering stars out of the black hole in the center of the flower. The glittering motes of light immediately arranged themselves into a dome-like construct that stopped the blade cold with barely a flicker.
They were soul cores of creatures the chrysanthemum had devoured in the past, Zorian realized. Somehow, it could control them and shape them into defensive constructs.
Well, not just defensive constructs, it turned out. After Zach and Zorian kept hammering its defenses for a while, it realized that at the rate things were going, it was going to lose. Its shield was going to get battered down sooner or later, and Zorian’s strategically launched mental attacks were disrupting its attempts to launch further soul attacks at them. Upon realizing this, the chrysanthemum reshaped the soul cores into a series of long, hair-like whips and started flailing them around. Zorian at first thought the chrysanthemum intended to attack them with those, but it turned out he had once again underestimated the plant. It quickly wrapped the whips around the nearby branches and uprooted itself right out of the ground before turning to flee.
Zorian had to admit, seeing an uprooted flower swing about from branch to branch, like some kind of weird monkey, was a unique experience.
Sadly for the soulseizer chrysanthemum, such desperate measures would not save it. It launched another stunning pulse at them in an attempt to lose them, and this did slow them down quite a bit, but in the end it was chased down and killed.
“We have been outsmarted and nearly killed by a flower,” Zach said, still keeping a wary distance from the chrysanthemum’s remains. “We are never speaking about this again.”
Zorian readily agreed to this request.
* * *
The Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon, known to most people as the Cult of the Dragon Below, was more than just a weird religion. It was an entire support organization that helped its members advance forward in life. They vouched for their fellow members when skills and trustworthiness were questioned, they helped them get the jobs and mentorships they needed to advance in their careers, offered their members loans under favorable conditions, granted free access to spell libraries that would be too restricted or expensive for members to otherwise get and they provided legal aid if members got into trouble with the mage guild. The higher ranking one had in the Cult, the more pronounced these advantages got.
This was the main reason why the Cult got so powerful and widespread. The sort of large-scale, highly treasonous plot that the Cult was currently participating in was not really something that they usually did. It was actually very, very atypical. For the vast majority of their existence, they had simply been a mystery cult crossed with a mutual aid society – kind of shady and disreputable, but nothing that the authorities would go too crazy over. Their biggest enemy was the Triumvirate Church and their faithful, which considered the Cult’s beliefs to be a direct affront to their dogma.
In any case, an expansive organization like that had more than just direct members of their secret club to draw upon. They also had a multitude of outside associates and other experts that sporadically worked with them. Some of these were true faithful that deliberately maintained distance from the main organization so that outsiders could not easily puzzle out the connections between them, others were just mercenaries that sporadically took missions from the Cult and some simply didn’t know who exactly they were working with. Zorian had largely ignored these people during his investigation into the Cult’s activities, since tracking them all down was an incredibly time-consuming and difficult task. He had better things to do with his time.
Then Alanic interrogated Sudomir a bunch of times and they discovered that the crazy mayor of Knyazov Dveri had detailed knowledge of these people. Sudomir appeared to have gone out of his way to gather as much information about the Cult as possible, worried that they might move against him at some point. The relations between him and Cult leadership hadn’t been the best since they realized he intended to publically advocate for the legalization of necromancy, something they regarded as lunacy.
Zorian still wasn’t terribly interested in spending time to investigate all these people. He didn’t think that would result in anything substantial. But Alanic was, and he didn’t have too many other things vying for his time. Thus, he wholeheartedly threw himself into the investigation, making full use of the time loop to comb through every lead and scrap of evidence Zorian could wrench from Sudomir’s mind.
And today, that effort seemed to have borne some kind of fruit. Alanic had notified Zach and Zorian that he had uncovered something important and told them to meet him next to an unassuming house in one Cyoria’s richer neighborhoods.
When they arrived, they found the place cordoned off by the mage guild personnel, but they had been notified that the two of them were coming and let them through on Alanic’s orders. Once again Zorian wondered just what position Alanic occupied that he could command people like this, but Alanic stubbornly refused to answer such questions and Zorian respected the man’s help too much to go prying into his thoughts.
“You called, we came,” Zach said, waving his hand at Alanic to get his attention. “What do you have for us?”
“I don’t claim to understand every detail of the… situation you have found yourselves in,” Alanic said, choosing his words carefully due to the presence of other people in the room, “but I believe you’ve indicated the name ‘Veyers Boranova’ is important to you, yes?”
Zorian looked at him in shock.
“What? What does Veyers have to do with this? Is he here?” Zach asked.
“In a matter of speaking,” Alanic said evenly. He motioned them to follow him and led them down the stairs and into the basement beneath the house. “This is the house of one of the lawyers deeply associated with the Cult of the Dragon Below. He is not a member, but he has helped on a number of occasions and is known to be sympathetic to their organization. I managed to get authorization to conduct a search of his house and… well, this is what I found when I opened the icebox in his basement.”
Alanic stopped next to one of the three iceboxes lined up next to the basement wall and unceremoniously lifted the lid up. Inside was a frozen body of a teenage male, a peaceful expression on his frosted face.
It was unmistakably Veyers Boranova.
Zach and Zorian stared at the body for nearly half a minute, not saying anything.
“He’s… dead?” Zach asked lamely.
“Indeed,” Alanic said. “I hear neither of you really got along with him well, so I will not offer you condolences.”
“So the owner of this house…” Zorian began uncertainly.
“Jornak Dokochin,” Alanic told him.
“Yes, this Jornak… did he kill Veyers?” Zorian asked. “When did this happen?”
“He is adamant that he did not kill the boy,” Alanic said. “He claims the boy died of unknown causes while sleeping. One day he was fine, if a little surly, and the next day Jornak went into his room to check up on him and found him dead in his bed. I’d normally scoff at that explanation, but the timing…”
“He died on the first day of the restart, didn’t he?” Zach guessed.
“Yes,” Alanic nodded. “The frost damage and the sheer passage of time make it difficult to tell for certain, but I’m pretty sure this is the same situation like those aranea beneath Cyoria and the mercenaries that were found mysteriously dead in their homes.”
“Doesn’t that mean Veyers was soulkilled?” Zach frowned. “He isn’t Red Robe?”
“We can’t say that just from this,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “We have no idea how exactly he entered the time loop, or what would happen if he left it. For all we know this could be the natural result of his leaving the time loop.”
“Ugh,” Zach grumbled. “So we found Veyers and yet learned nothing of value. I hate things like this.”
“Well, anyway… I guess Veyers being frozen in the basement of a heavily warded house does explain why we never managed to find him when we searched for him in the previous restarts. What was he doing here, anyway?”
“Jornak has been disinclined to cooperate with us in this regard,” Alanic told them. “He refuses to discuss details with me. He is a lawyer so he is harder to shake up and interrogate than most people I deal with. That’s why I told you to come here immediately. If you want to get anything out of him, we need to talk to him now. I’m afraid House Boranova has already heard of the news and is going to descend here sooner or later.”
Alanic then led them to the second floor of the house, where Jornak was currently under house arrest with a couple of guards posted next to him. When they arrived they found Jornak pacing around his room like a caged tiger, angry and agitated. He deliberately ignored their entrance, not giving them so much as a glance.
Zorian observed the man and the room itself. Jornak was younger than he thought he would be, probably in his mid-twenties and with a very handsome, boyish face. He was immaculately dressed in expensive but conservative clothes, and the room he was in seemed to be designed to maximize his image as a cultured, well-read intellectual. The walls were lined with filled-out book shelves and small works of art laid scattered around the place to give it a bit of artistic flair.
Zorian’s parents had a similar room back in Cirin. Much like them, Jornak had probably never even read most of the books lining the bookshelves.
“So mister Dokochin,” Alanic began. “I’m back. Don’t mind my two helpers here, they’re just here as support. Now that you’ve had a chance to calm down a little, are you willing to discuss things like a civilized person?”
Zorian gave Alanic a mildly questioning glance. Was he deliberately pissing the guy off? Jornak did not look calm at all. Alanic did not react to his silent question though, so Zorian simply trusted him to know what he was doing. He supposed that with him here, it hardly mattered whether Jornak wanted to talk or not.
Jornak finally deigned to look at them, giving Zach and Zorian a brief, contemptuous glance before dismissing them as unimportant.
“Your church really likes them young, doesn’t it, priest?” Jornak said, grimacing at Alanic unhappily. “I know my rights, mister Zosk. I will not talk to anyone until Mage Guild representatives and my lawyer arrive. Until then, I will patiently wait here and I’d appreciate it if you stopped wasting my time.”
“Curious that a lawyer would want someone else to defend them,” Alanic said.
“A surgeon would be foolish to try to operate on himself, and a lawyer is ill advised to represent himself in court,” Jornak said dismissively. “I would not expect a Church dog to understand these things. People like you always think you’re above the law, anyway.”
“Hmm,” Alanic hummed, completely unaffected by Jornak’s caustic comments. “I’ll be honest and say I expected as much. Zorian?”
Zorian did not ask Alanic what he wanted. He already knew. He reached out mentally towards Jornak. The young lawyer actually had rudimentary mental defenses, but this was not something that could stop Zorian. He punched through those defenses as if they were paper and pressed down on the man’s mind.
Jornak’s eyes widened like saucers as he realized what was happening.
“Answer the questions,” Zorian commanded.
“N-no!” Jornak protested. “This… this is illegal! I’ll… damn it. Damn it!”
“Did you kill Veyers?” Zorian asked, just to be sure.
“I didn’t kill him! I didn’t kill anyone! I already said I just found him dead one day! It’s the truth!”
“What was he doing in your home?” Zorian asked.
“That’s… we were friends,” Jornak said, gritting his teeth.
“A friendship between a 15-year-old-boy and a 25-year-old man like you?” Alanic commented lightly. “Who is it that likes them young, again?”
“You people…” Jornak hissed angrily at him. He took a deep breath and forcibly calmed himself down. “Look… I promise to tell you the whole story. Just… release me from your mental compulsion. It’s hard to think with this thing muddying my thoughts.”
Zorian gave Alanic a questioning glance. Alanic nodded for him to do as Jornak said, apparently willing to give the man a chance. Fair enough. He supposed they could always repeat the procedure if Jornak became uncooperative later on.
“I’m still keeping an eye on your surface thoughts,” Zorian told him as he released the compulsion to make him talk. “So don’t try to lie to us.”
“I don’t have to lie!” Jornak snapped at him. “This whole thing is just… damn it, Veyers! Even when dead, he still makes trouble for me.”
“Yeah, he has that effect on people,” Zach said with a sagely nod.
Jornak ignored that comment, gathering his thoughts for a moment.
“Alright,” Jornak said. “So, I met Veyers almost a year ago when he came to talk to me about his legal options in regards to his… situation… in his House. I empathized with him then. What happened to him reminded me a little of myself. I too have had my birthright stolen from me.”
“Really?” Zach asked curiously.
“I don’t want to talk about it and I ask you to be merciful and not force me,” Jornak said. “It has nothing to do with this, and you can find out most of it through public documents. It’s not like I’ve ever hid my grievances, after all.”
“Just give us the short version,” Alanic said.
Jornak gave him a hateful look, but after glancing at Zorian for a second he decided to humor the scarred battle-priest anyway.
“In short, I was a relative of a small House that went extinct some time ago. Although not a true member of the House, I was the closest thing to a descendant and I was supposed to inherit their wealth and properties… but then a new claimant suddenly appeared, completely out of nowhere, claiming even closer relations. His proof of his lineage was painfully fake and all the documents obvious forgeries, but he was better connected than me and in the end, courts assigned everything to him and left me with nothing.”
“I see,” Alanic said. “And so you saw young Veyers coming to you for help and felt touched by this young man that was seeing his legacy usurped from him by branch members of his House.”
“Yes, precisely,” Jornak said. “In truth, I couldn’t help him much. Formal Houses like his own are given a lot of leeway in how they govern themselves internally, and general law is only somewhat applicable to his situation. Still, the boy seemed to appreciate my advice, and the fact that I cared… which not many people around him did, if he was to be believed.”
“And him coming to live inside your home…?” Zorian prompted.
“That… you know he was expelled from his school?” Jornak said, frowning. “Well, he didn’t want to go back to his family after that. After wandering all over the city to cool down, he came over to my house and begged me to house him for a few days. He said he needed a place to hide for a while and think about what to do about things. How could I refuse?”
“That’s very generous of you, and I mean that sincerely,” Zorian said. “But how does that lead to his body being stuffed into your icebox?”
“That… I didn’t know what to do, okay!?” Jornak said, becoming agitated. “I just came into his guest room one morning to see why he missed breakfast and found him dead. I didn’t know what to do! Despite all his problems, he was still a noble and House Boranova would never take this lying down. He died in my home and the wards didn’t register any intruder at all. How would I possibly explain this? I empathize with the boy, but I don’t want to ruin my life for him! Haven’t I suffered enough!?”
Jornak gritted his teeth and started pulling at his hair in frustration. With a sharp turn, he started pacing around the room again, gesticulating to himself and muttering under his breath.
It wasn’t an act, as far as Zorian could tell. Jornak had never bothered to reform his mental barriers after Zorian destroyed them, leaving his thoughts completely unguarded. Everything he said was truth as he saw it, and he was honestly panicking and unsure what to do.
“So, this could be a dumb question, but why keep Veyers’ body in the icebox in your basement?” Zach asked suddenly.
“I didn’t know what else to do,” Jornak said, still pacing around the room. “If I took it out of the house to dump somewhere, the trackers hired by House Boranova would find me the moment I stepped out of my house’s privacy wards. As for destroying it… well, I’ve never destroyed a body before! I mean, obviously I didn’t! How would I know how to do that? So I put the body on ice while trying to think up a solution…”
They didn’t find out much from Jornak after that. Although Zorian personally found the man’s choices to be rather questionable, he was ultimately just a man who found a dead teenager in his guest room and panicked. If Jornak hadn’t knowingly helped the Cult of the Dragon Below so many times in the past, Zorian would have even felt sorry for the man.
About fifteen minutes after Zach and Zorian left Jornak’s room, another group of Mage Guild personnel arrived, accompanied by several representatives from Noble House Boranova, and took over the scene. Alanic informed Zach and Zorian that this marked the end of his involvement with the case… and thus the end of their ability to examine the house or question the man.
It was just as well, though. The restart was coming to a close, so there was not much time for a detailed examination. Additionally, it would have been better if they arrived in the man’s house at the start of the restart, before he had a chance to stuff Veyers’ body in an icebox. And in the next restart, they would do just that.
Until then, Zach and Zorian agreed to keep speculation about what this meant about Red Robe to a minimum.
* * *
Despite numerous issues that had cropped up in their search, in the end Zach and Zorian managed to gather all the ingredients Silverlake needed (or at least claimed she needed) for a soul perception potion. It took them most of the remaining time to do so, however, and by then the end of the restart was looming close. Thus, they were somewhat anxious as they waited for Silverlake to finish making the potion.
“It should work,” Silverlake told them. “I mean, I’ve never actually made that specific potion in my life and the old witch recipe that describes it is not nearly as clear and precise as the modern recipes you two are familiar with… but since it’s me making the attempt, it will probably work out fine.”
“Yes, yes, we get it – you’re awesome,” Zach said with a tired nod.
“And don’t you forget it,” Silverlake said shamelessly. “It shouldn’t take long. Gathering the ingredients is the time-consuming part; the actual potion making could be done in as little as two hours. You two go play outside while I work. You can practice your pocket dimension creation skills or something.”
“You have a real gift for finding exceptionally infuriating teachers, Zorian,” Zach told him after they got out of Silverlake’s earshot.
“Yes, but they tend to be exceptionally capable ones, too,” Zorian countered. He took out a small box from his jacket pocket and flipped it upside down, allowing a stream of marbles to pour out of the box and into his waiting palm. A moderately perceptive person would quickly realize that there was no way all these marbles could fit into such a small box.
“Only 28 marbles?” Zach smirked. “Amateur. I managed to cram 32 of them inside a box like that.”
Zorian gave Zach a suspicious look, but it didn’t seem like his fellow time traveler was lying about that.
“Damn it,” Zorian grumbled. “All those specialized shaping exercises and I still can’t advance faster in this field than you do.”
“I have six times more mana than you do and you’re further hampered by the number of simulacrums you keep around you at all times,” Zach said with a careless shrug. “It’s hard to make up for such a disadvantage.”
He was right, of course. Truthfully, it was amazing he was able to keep up with Zach’s learning rate at all. It still made him feel a little annoyed that he lost their informal competition about who would advance faster in the field of pocket dimension creation.
Oh well – there was still time to catch up. They would be chipping away at the topic for quite a few restarts after this, and he was confident he had more patience than Zach did…
It ended up taking Silverlake nearly four hours to finish the potion, despite her claim that it could be done in as little as two hours. She claimed she had merely been waiting for the concoction to cool down to a comfortable drinking temperature before bringing it over, but Zorian suspected it had more to do with the process being harder than she’d thought it would be rather than anything considerate like that.
“You should drink the potion soon,” Silverlake told him. “The instructions were a little fuzzy about its shelf life and there was a bit of unplanned excitement involved in making it, so I had to add in a little something to forcibly stabilize it. It should retain its potency for about a week, after which there is a small but non-trivial chance it might explode in your face. Best not to take that chance, hmm?”
“’Unplanned excitement’, you say,” Zach dead-panned. “That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.”
“I’m 97.3% sure it will work as expected,” Silverlake said firmly.
There was a small silence as Silverlake looked at them expectantly, no doubt hoping one of them would ask her why it was 97.3 instead of 99 or something like that. She would be sorely disappointed. They both knew better than to humor her like that.
“I’m 97.3% sure you pulled that number out of your ass,” Zorian told her bluntly. “But it doesn’t matter. This month is approaching its end and time will soon reset itself. I’m going to drink this right away.”
“Ah yes, the great time reset,” Silverlake said. “You’re still going on about that, huh? Well, did I ever tell you about–”
But Zorian wasn’t listening anymore. He uncapped the potion bottle Silverlake handed to him and immediately drank the entire potion. The thick green liquid was bitter as hell, but otherwise unremarkable. For a few seconds, nothing happened…
…and then he experienced a sensation reminiscent of the soul-stealing move he had experienced when fighting the soulseizer chrysanthemum and his senses rapidly began to dim.
He lost consciousness.
* * *
When Zorian woke up, he found out two days had gone by. They had expected as much, though. According to what they knew, the process of gaining soul perception through this method always took at least a day, and could take as many as five. Some unfortunate souls, ignorant of this little detail, had been known to die of dehydration after drinking a potion like this in secret.
In regards to what had happened while he was unconscious, Zorian had only the fuzziest of recollections. He had periodically regained awareness throughout the process, but it was like trying to remember a dream. He remembered a series of senseless, disjoined images: a sea of suns connected by glowing threads, a massive volcano in the middle of an eruption, a carpet of smoke crawling across desolate lands…
Just like his usual dreams, in other words. He put it out of his mind, and focused on the important stuff… like whether he had successfully acquired soul sight or not.
The answer was that he had. It wasn’t as instinctive as Zorian’s mind magic, but Zorian had found a sufficient amount of instructions in Sudomir’s mind to figure out what he had to do. So long as he poured mana into his soul in very specific ways, he could ‘see’ the souls of other people. It wasn’t really sight as such, so much as a whole new sense that gave him headaches when he tried to process what it was really telling him, but that would improve with time and practice.
Overall, Zorian considered the whole thing to be a massive success. The only problem with the whole thing was that he had forgotten to mention to Imaya and Kirielle that he would be absent from home for several days, so Zach had to take the brunt of their ire and convince them not to report his disappearance to the police. Now all three were kind of annoyed with him…
Currently, Zorian was sort of hiding from them in Silverlake’s pocket dimension. Of course, he did have a valid reason for being there, beside that – he was trying to find something that would convince her future self that the time loop is real. Silverlake did have a penchant for telling him little personal stories from time to time, but it was hard to discern which ones were fake and which ones real, so he doubted that would help him convince her in the future.
“Did you know I was considered a dangerous radical in my youth?” Silverlake asked him. Zorian didn’t and told her so. “Oh yes. When I was born, the covens had already been on their last legs – Ikosian magic had shown itself to be mostly superior to our own spellcasting traditions. After all, most of our spells are long rituals involving lots of chanting and standing still for hours on end, or relied upon invoking the spirits of the land – who are notoriously fickle things if you ask me, you can never rely on them to aid you when you need them the most. The one thing we had going for us – our potion making – the Ikosians simply copied and then improved upon. I saw all this, and I decided to commit a huge heresy – I decided to study Ikosian methods in addition to traditional education I received from my mother. My coven exiled me for it when they found out.”
“Tragic,” Zorian said. “But that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t really be surprised if I revealed I knew this little tidbit of your past.”
“No, of course not,” Silverlake said. “I’m sure you could find out that and more if you really decided to investigate my history. If you came to me and started narrating my past, I’d just think you did your homework before coming to see me.”
“Right,” Zorian nodded. “So I’d really prefer if you gave me something more substantial. Surely you have some kind of private password that you could easily tell me without truly inconveniencing yourself. You can change it immediately after you tell me, so it’s not like there is any danger I’ll abuse it.”
“Not during this month, no,” Silverlake scoffed. “But what if you’re right? I have no assurance you’ll only use such a secret to convince my future self of your crazy tale – you could use it just as easily to rob her blind!”
“But you don’t believe in the time loop?” Zorian tried.
“If I’m going to entertain a stupid hypothetical, I’m not going to do a half-assed job,” Silverlake said, her tone brooking no argument. “But… hmm. I think I have it. Do you remember how you came in front of my home and made all that racket to draw my attention?”
“Of course,” Zorian nodded. “It’s one of the best moments of this month.”
Silverlake took a sudden swipe at him with her bony, withered hand, but Zorian successfully dodged her strike.
“Brat. I should refuse to say anything now, but I don’t want you pestering me about this further,” Silverlake grumbled. “Anyway, at some point I actually considered the possibility of someone finding my abode and trying to catch my attention. I was thinking of what would be the proper, polite way of doing that, and I realized I would probably have to install some kind of doorbell or something. And that would be kind of incompatible with the whole hidden nature of this place, no?”
“Right,” Zorian agreed. “So the doorbell would have to be hidden too, accessible only to people who have been told about it in advance.”
“Exactly!” Silverlake said. “Now, in the end, I just scrapped the whole idea. I didn’t want people visiting the place too casually. However, I did implement part of the system before I gave up. There is a stone in this place that emits shrill whistles when a special keystone is activated right outside the entrance to this dimension. These keystones were never actually made, so the whistle stone just sits there, uselessly gathering dust. I guess there is no harm in showing you how to create a matching keystone…”
“And that would convince you there’s something funny going on?” Zorian asked.
“Well yes, I guess it would,” Silverlake said. “I mean, I never actually made a single keystone, let alone distributed them to people. How could you possibly create one that matches perfectly with the whistle stone in my dimension? If you showed up holding one of those, that would catch my attention for sure.”
Zorian grinned. He had a feeling their chances of convincing Silverlake in the future had just dramatically improved…
* * *
One of the more unexpected things about this restart was that Daimen had made a surprise decision to stay in Cyoria for the last few days of the restart. Zorian was not sure what exactly triggered this decision. Perhaps it was because Zorian had asked to borrow his divine artifice mirror for a little research or because his eldest brother had joined them in exploring the ruined palace inside the orb this time, but he suddenly decided he absolutely must see the invasion that occurs on the night of the summer festival.
Zorian thought nothing of it at first. Even when Daimen came to Cyoria a few days before the actual day of the invasion, making a mysterious claim that he had ‘something he needed to do’, Zorian just dismissed it as him wanting to talk with his old friends or whatever. Then Daimen came to him for help and Zorian realized he probably should have inquired deeper into what Daimen was doing while back home in Eldemar.
“No, Daimen,” Zorian told him firmly. “I am not going to set up a meeting between you and Fortov.”
“Come on, Zorian, this is our family at stake here,” Daimen pleaded.
“Oh please,” Zorian protested. “You and Fortov not getting along with each other is not a crisis. That’s par for the course in our family. Stop being so melodramatic.”
“Crisis or no, this time loop is perfect for solving things like this, and it will take so little effort, too! Show some compassion for your big brother and do me a favor, eh?” Daimen insisted. “Haven’t I let you borrow my mirror when you asked, despite my better judgment? And let’s not forget about that secret room full of treasure that I found in the ruined palace – it would have taken you months to find that without me, if you ever did.”
Zorian made a sour face. Yes, Daimen was rather more helpful in this restart than he usually was. That secret room in particular… they were still sorting through the contents, but it would seem there were some very nice things hidden there. One of the daggers appeared to be a genuine divine artifact! They had no idea what it did yet, but even if it turned out to be underwhelming, it would be extremely valuable as a research subject and priceless trade good.
“Look,” Zorian said. “Using me as a lure so you can basically ambush Fortov out there in the open really doesn’t sit well with me. Don’t you think that’s kind of a jerk thing to do?”
“I thought you hated Fortov?” Daimen challenged, raising his eyebrow at him.
“I don’t like him, but this sort of manipulative maneuver doesn’t sit well with me,” Zorian said. “Just go confront him directly, okay? I’m sure he’ll relent if you keep pestering him.”
“No, he won’t,” Daimen said slowly. “Do you think I’d suggest this if that worked? Besides, you’re looking at this the wrong way. You don’t have to trick him or anything. You said he always seeks you out at the end of the restart, so long as you don’t avoid him. Something about the cure for the purple creeper rash, yes?”
“Yes,” Zorian reluctantly admitted. “So you want me to just go somewhere where he can easily reach and wait for him to show up on his own?”
“Yes,” Daimen nodded. “Since you haven’t asked him to meet with you, he has no right to complain when it turns out I was in the vicinity.”
“Well… alright,” Zorian sighed. “Though if you have been pestering him these past few days, he might decide to deviate from his usual pattern. It’s amazing as it is that he always ends up pushing Ibery into that purple creeper patch. That has got to be a deliberate move on his part…”
“Mm,” Daimen agreed. “I should ask about that too, I guess.”
The final plan was very simple. Zorian would spend the evening walking around the city, occasionally casting divinations to see if Fortov was approaching. If he was, he would quickly seek shelter in one of the many coffee shops scattered around Cyoria, under the theory that Fortov was slightly less likely to start yelling at Daimen in the middle of a crowded coffee shop than in the middle of the street or whatever. Once Fortov sat down, Daimen would show up to crash the event.
Daimen’s little plot worked perfectly. Fortov did show up, looking for Zorian’s help in procuring an ‘anti-rash potion’. Zorian had already made the necessary salve before coming here, so he just handed the little jar full of salve to Fortov and sat back to finish the cup of tea he ordered.
Fortov looked down at the cure jar in his hand, fingering it awkwardly, and frowned at him.
“You just… happened to have that very specific cure lying around in your pocket?” Fortov asked Zorian incredulously. “What the hell, Zorian? Do you carry a whole apothecary with you at all times or something?”
Well, the way his pocket dimension creation skills were advancing, that might actually be a possibility in the future.
“I knew you’d be looking for that,” Zorian said. “I spoke to Ibery, after all.”
Fortov’s face twisted in surprise.
“She spoke to you!?” he asked, shocked. “Oh man… why me? Look, I… thank you for this, but–”
“You pushed her into that purple creeper patch deliberately, didn’t you,” Zorian said, not really asking so much as making an observation.
“It’s not that simple, okay?” Fortov said defensively. “You don’t know what she’s like. I know she looks quiet and all, but she was being really aggressive and wouldn’t take no for an answer and she kept trying to kiss me and… I guess I went a little overboard.”
“And a purple creeper patch just happened to be nearby?” Zorian asked. Fortov’s explanation was great and all, but how did that explain Ibery ending up in in that bush every single time?
“I deliberately took the purple creeper related task when they were distributing class assignments, because people usually avoid them like a plague. But that didn’t deter her this time. I guess in retrospect it would have been smarter to take something where lots of other people would be nearby. At least that would stop her from trying to get physical with me…”
Zorian was going to inquire more about this, but this was the moment that Daimen finally showed up to crash the meeting. Strange… he actually kind of wished Daimen had taken longer to arrive. The story was just getting interesting…
“You again!” Fortov hissed, giving Daimen an angry glare. “Why can’t you take the hint!? And how the hell are you even here? I thought you were supposed to be in Koth!”
“Please, I just wanted to talk, okay? Why are you being so…”
Zorian leaned back in his chair, taking another sip of his tea, and mentally toned down the volume of the shouting going around him. So much for the idea that Fortov would hold back because they were in a public location. But it didn’t matter because this was Daimen’s stage now and there was no need for him to get involved.
Well, there wasn’t any need for it until both of them decided to pull him into their argument just because he was there. And because his ‘smug attitude’ pissed them off, apparently.
Sometimes he just couldn’t win.