Chapter 076
Critical Blunder

The evening was a pleasant one, with cool winds blowing through the streets of Cyoria and the moon shining brightly in the sky. Zorian took it all in, feeling somewhat invigorated by the evening chill, and thought about life. It was interesting, Zorian mused, that even after all these years spent in the time loop, some simple experiences had eluded him until now.

Getting thrown out of a coffee shop for disturbing the other customers, for instance, was an entirely novel experience.

He glanced to the side, where Daimen and Fortov were currently having a tense face-off, staring at each other with serious expressions. He wasn’t even angry, in all honesty. Yes, being ejected out of the building was mildly embarrassing, but it didn’t bother him all that much. What did bother him was that even after causing such a commotion, they still failed to even establish what the problem was. Honestly, these two…

“Fortov, look…” Zorian began cautiously, “I understand you being mad at Daimen but you’re only shooting yourself in the foot here. The reason Daimen sought you out is because he wants to know why you’re angry with him. If you want to get rid of him, just tell him what your problem with him is and he’ll go away. Well, probably.”

“Don’t you start,” Fortov said, giving him a suspicious frown. “You helped him set this up, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t ask you to seek me out,” Zorian pointed out calmly. “You decided that on your own. And nobody forced you to stay around and argue with Daimen, either. You already have the salve you came for, no? You could have just picked yourself up and left the moment Daimen showed up. That’s what I’d have done in your place. The fact that you stayed around means you do want Daimen to know why you’re angry after all.”

For a second, Fortov just stared at him, a stony expression on his face. It was a somewhat alien look on the normally amiable Fortov.

“I so want to punch you in the face right now, you smug asshole,” Fortov eventually said. “But I suppose there is something to that logic, so I’ll restrain myself.”

“Finally,” Daimen mumbled, just loud enough for both of them to hear him. “All this dancing around and refusing to say what’s bothering you, I almost thought you had turned into a woman while I wasn’t looking.”

Fortov glared furiously at him, to which Daimen reacted only by rolling his eyes. Thankfully, the shouting didn’t start up again. It seemed that Fortov had gotten his anger out of his system a bit.

“Right, now, just before the nice waitress asked us to leave the premises, I believe you were saying something about your problems with the academy being Daimen’s fault?” Zorian prompted. It was in his best interest to help Daimen get his answer now, or else the man would no doubt make more annoying plots like this one in upcoming restarts.

“Which is ridiculous,” Daimen butted in. “We barely even interacted with each other by the time Fortov started attending the Academy in Cyoria.”

“Yes!” Fortov said, pointing his index finger at Daimen with a stabbing motion. Then he repeated the gesture for emphasis. “Yes, that’s exactly my problem! We barely interacted at all!”

“What?” Daimen asked uncomprehendingly.

“You don’t even know what I’m talking about,” Fortov said, more as a statement of fact than a question. “I think that’s what pisses me off the most about this. You don’t even remember! You’ve completely forgotten all about your promise!”

“Wha- What promise?” Daimen fumbled.

“You were supposed to help me!” Fortov burst out, pointing at Daimen again and then hitting himself in the chest with a closed fist to indicate himself. “Remember? I came to you before enrolling here and asked you if I could count on you to support me when I run into troubles at the Academy, and you said yes… you said I could always come to you for help if I needed it and that it’s no issue, no issue at all…”

Daimen visibly winced at those words.

“Oh,” he said weakly. “That.”

“Yes, that,” Fortov said sullenly. “I was such a fool to actually trust you on that. What good is a promise like that when you’re always busy with something, always unreachable and brushing me off when you’re not? You probably forgot about that promise the moment you made it… if you ever took it seriously at all.”

“I made that promise in good faith,” Daimen protested. “It’s just that I had some professional opportunities come up afterwards that were too good to let go. Don’t you think it’s kind of unreasonable of you to expect me to sabotage my career just to help you with schoolwork? I mean, you could have always just asked Zorian for help instead and…”

Both Fortov and Zorian gave him a glare for that. Daimen considered his words for a moment and then mumbled something that was either a quick prayer to the gods or a colorful curse before dropping the idea and moving on.

“Anyway, moving on,” Daimen said, coughing into his fist. “I guess I kind of did fail you there. I do admit that. However, to say that makes me responsible for your academy problems, that’s still rubbish. Let’s be honest here Fortov… me helping you out every once in a while wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the grand scheme of things.”

“It wasn’t supposed to be ‘every once in a while’, you jerk…” Fortov protested.

Zorian stood off to the side, shaking his head as the two continued to argue. As minutes ticked by, it became obvious that this promise thing meant completely different things to Fortov than it did to Daimen. Fortov, it turned out, had understood Daimen’s promise as a commitment to a much heavier form of support. Though Fortov did not phrase things that way, Zorian understood his middle brother’s explanations for what they were: an admission that he expected to be carried along throughout his entire education on Daimen’s coattails. Daimen, on the other hand, probably made that promise without much thought put into it, thinking it a mere formality. He evidently expected that Fortov would come seek him out once every few months to ask a question or two and talk about girls and life and stuff.

Amusingly enough, he ended up not even getting that in the end…

“Can’t you see you’re being completely unreasonable?” Daimen said, gesticulating wildly. “Do you even hear what you’re saying? You basically expected me to do half of your work for you. That’s completely ridiculous!”

“He’s right, it is,” added Zorian, nodding sagely.

“I was just describing an ideal case, I would have been happy with even a fraction of it,” Fortov shot back. “And it doesn’t matter because in the end I got nothing at all! You gave me a promise and then you forgot you’d ever made it. That’s a jerk thing to do, no matter how you try to spin it.”

“He’s right, it is,” added Zorian, nodding sagely.

“Shut up, Zorian!” they both said in perfect synchronization.

Zorian pretended to stagger back from the outburst and mimicked clamping his mouth shut.

As for Daimen and Fortov, the two of them shared an uncertain look between each other before quietly deciding to calm down a little and take a step back. Zorian would have liked to claim that this was his plan all along, but truthfully he was just messing with them for his own amusement.

“But seriously, you’re being kind of crazy here,” Daimen said to Fortov again, a little more sedately this time. “I get that you’re having problems with your studies, but–”

“Man, you just don’t understand,” Fortov complained, cutting him off. “This city, this academy… it’s out of my league. I know this. I’ve always known this. I know my limits. I’m not as smart as you and Zorian...”

“You’re plenty smart, Fortov,” Zorian cut in. “You’re just lazy.”

Fortov didn’t even try to refute him, but Daimen gave him a sidelong glance.

“I thought you were going to keep quiet?” Daimen asked.

“I lied,” Zorian said with a careless shrug.

“Whatever,” Fortov said, exhaling heavily. “I’m not as good as you two. Happy now?” Zorian made a circular motion with his hand, signaling him to keep going. “Anyway, my point was that I only agreed to enroll here because Daimen said he would support me. If I had known I would have to do this alone, I would have told Mother and Father to enroll me somewhere else. Somewhere less… prestigious. But they pushed hard for this, saying what an opportunity this is and I thought… well, at least I’ll have my genius older brother there to help me sort things out…”

Zorian didn’t say anything after that, quietly waiting by the side and letting the two of them talk. He didn’t feel much compassion for Fortov’s plight. Daimen may have a cause for feeling a little guilty about how things turned out, but all Zorian saw was the same old Fortov he’d known from his childhood – a lazy, shallow asshole constantly looking for ways to shift his own responsibilities onto people around him. He was darkly amused when the two of them eventually decided to just take a step back and have another meeting in a week or so… something that would never happen, and Daimen damn well knew so.

Oh well, it wasn’t really Zorian’s problem. That is, until Fortov left the scene and Daimen tried to make it his problem…

“No, Daimen, I am not going to delve into the hows and whys of Fortov’s failures and assemble a tutoring program for him,” Zorian bluntly told him.

“Why not? You do for Kirielle and even that female friend of yours,” Daimen said. “He’s your brother, Zorian.”

“Sorry, but you can’t guilt-trip me into doing this. Mother’s antics have made me completely immune to guilt-trips,” Zorian said dispassionately. “I am sick and tired of having to pick up after Fortov’s failures time and time again. How about you do it for once in your life? You’re the one who made a promise that you failed to keep, no? Don’t you think it’s in poor taste to try fobbing this off on me so quickly after your little heart-to-heart with Fortov?”

“The restart is just about to end, when else am I going to talk to you about this if not now?” Daimen protested. “And I don’t retain memories over the restarts like you do, that’s why I can’t do it.”

“But you can leave yourself notes at the end of each restart and work on the problem that way,” Zorian countered. “You are doing that very thing in order to figure out how to get Mother and Father to accept your marriage to Orissa, so I don’t see why you can’t apply it here too.”

Daimen frowned, either because he did not like the idea or because he was reminded of how utterly he had failed in his task of convincing them thus far.

“He’s your brother, Daimen,” Zorian said, flinging his words back at him.

“Ugh,” Daimen grumbled. “You can be such a little shit sometimes… Fine, you win. I guess it has to be me. But I’ll need you to do me a small favor…”

* * *

One restart ended and a new one began. At the start of the new restart, Zach and Zorian immediately invaded Jornak’s home, knocking him out, kidnapping him and searching his home. They found Veyers dead in the guest room, just like Jornak’s story in the previous restart suggested they would. Using his brand new soul perception and a couple of soul magic forensic spells he had stolen from Sudomir’s mind (unsurprisingly, necromancers had a very developed tradition of analytic spells meant to be used on corpses), Zorian determined that Veyers was in a virtually identical situation as the soul-killed aranea beneath Cyoria.

Normally, when one’s soul was ripped out of their body, there would be subtle signs left etched into the flesh of the deceased, and these could be used to infer the method of extraction used. Neither the aranea nor Veyers showed such traces, though – it was as if they were merely flesh puppets that had never held any life to begin with.

They had expected such a result, but it was nice to have things confirmed so clearly.

After examining Veyers’ body, they moved on to Jornak. Zorian had expected the young lawyer to be absolutely livid at them, but the way they just barged into his home and brutally subdued him must have clued him in to the fact they weren’t here on behalf of regular law enforcement. Or maybe it was their age – Zorian sometimes forgot to account for that little detail, as he felt pretty old these days, but he and Zach still looked like teenagers. Jornak was thus a lot more subdued this time around, too terrified about what they wanted to do with him to put up much of a resistance. Sadly, interrogating him with the aid of truth potions and mind magic yielded very little of note. Everything was mostly as Jornak had said in the previous restart, except that Veyers was also something of an informant for the young lawyer in addition to being a ‘friend’ – he basically reported anything interesting that occurred in his House to Jornak, who then forwarded the information to the Cult of the Dragon Below. Thus, Veyers was something of an unwitting low-level spy for the Cult.

Finally, Zach and Zorian sat down one day to discuss their findings and what they meant regarding the identity of Red Robe.

“So,” Zach began, “we’ve confirmed that Veyers is either Red Robe or connected to him in some fashion. His body is clearly just a meat puppet that never held a soul to begin with, just like the bodies of your aranean friends beneath the city. Either he was somehow connected to Red Robe and the man decided to use soulkill on him, or he is Red Robe and this is what happens to a controller’s body when they leave the time loop. Is that about right?”

“It is,” Zorian confirmed. “Additionally, the fact Red Robe saw fit to delete your memories of Veyers reinforces his importance. We haven’t been able to find anyone else whose entire presence had been scoured from your mind, so whatever link he has to Red Robe isn’t small.”

“He also has a reason to be bitter at the city and a link to the Invasion, however tenuous,” Zach added. “Yeah, he could totally be Red Robe. Even his height and build matches what I remember of him when he attacked me at the start of that one restart…”

“Sadly, that is not real proof of anything,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “At the level of skill we are working at, that sort of thing is trivially easy to fake. All it takes is a quick transformation spell and you could radically change your height and build.”

“Well, he did attack me at the very start of the restart when he was undoubtedly in a hurry and didn’t have much time to make detailed preparations. Maybe it slipped his mind? You have a better memory than I do and you saw him up close… how does the Red Robe in your mind compare to Veyers?”

Zorian considered it carefully. After a while he decided that Zach was right – Veyers did have the appropriate height and build to be the Red Robe in his memories.

“It is as you say,” Zorian said slowly. “He does kind of fit under that robe. But really, in order to get to the bottom of this, we need to find out what happens when a controller leaves the time loop. This should tell us whether Veyers is just a soulkilled victim or the very mastermind we are looking for.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Zach complained. “That stupid Guardian of the Threshold thing refuses to entertain hypotheticals like that. We already asked it what happens in this scenario, remember? It simply insisted that no such thing could transpire. Besides, we still don’t know what method Red Robe used to leave. If he’s a later addition to the time loop like you assume he is, he couldn’t have used the normal method to do so. He would have run into the problem of his original already having a soul, which should have led to the Guardian refusing to cooperate. Depending on what method Red Robe used to leave the time loop, the answer to the question of what would happen to his body might radically change…”

“Not necessarily,” Zorian said. “One thing that always stuck with me about Red Robe is that he honestly seemed concerned about the possibility of there being a large number of other time travelers involved in the time loop. That means that he knew of a very easy and reliable way of inducing people in the time loop and thought it was entirely plausible that someone was using it on a mass scale.”

“He did seem quite certain that there were a lot of other time travelers lurking around,” Zach said, frowning. “My memory of that time is not the best, but that did appear to be the main thing he sought answers about when he probed my mind that night…”

“Right,” Zorian said. “And this method couldn’t have been the same as what I went through, because what happened to me is highly dangerous to the marker donor and probably doesn’t give consistent results. It also couldn’t have been something that is hard to set up, or else Red Robe wouldn’t have accepted it happening so readily and on such a large scale...”

“So what is it then?” Zach asked impatiently. “I’m guessing you have some sort of answer, or else you wouldn’t be mentioning it. Don’t try to re-enact those cheap detective novels with me, please. I always found the long reveals in those books to be really annoying…”

“Fine, I’ll be blunt,” Zorian sighed. Killjoy. “I think Red Robe was simply using a modified temporary marker to persist in the time loop. Sure, they’re supposed to last only six months, but that’s probably just an extra restriction rather than something inherent in the marker itself. And my own marker demonstrates quite clearly that these markers can be damaged. Perhaps selectively damaged, allowing people to remove some of the functions.”

“There have to be some protections against that,” Zach frowned. “I doubt that the makers of the system would just allow people to tinker with their work like that.”

“Possibly,” Zorian conceded. “Not having seen any temporary marker yet, I can offer little except baseless speculation. But still, this seems to me like the most likely and straightforward way for Red Robe to enter the time loop.”

Zach considered his words for a while before giving it a careless shrug and focusing his attention back to Zorian.

“Well… alright,” Zach shrugged. “Let’s assume you’re right. So what? How does that relate to what we were talking about?”

“Well, the temporary markers are supposed to be temporary,” Zorian said. “There is probably a clear course of action meant to be done when they run out and the person they were supporting… disappears. And this course of action will probably be performed even if the person disappears prematurely through some other method.”

“Oh!” Zach said, slapping himself in the forehead. “Of course! So if Red Robe entered the time loop through a ‘selectively damaged’ temporary marker, all we have to do to find out what would happen after he leaves… is place a temporary marker on someone and see what happens after it runs out.”

“Exactly,” Zorian nodded.

A brief silence descended on the scene.

“You know,” Zach began after a while, “I’m pretty sure we already know the answer to that question. It probably just recreates a person from its usual template, as if they were never a temporary looper to begin with. I have no proof of this, but it intuitively makes sense to me.”

“You are probably correct,” Zorian nodded. “I also have no proof, but it is consistent with the intent of the time loop as the training simulation to set things up in that fashion.”

“Which would mean that Veyers isn’t Red Robe,” Zach continued with that line of thought. “Red Robe should have ended up as a normal person with no memory of his time looping self, not a soulless corpse.”

“If he really did enter the time loop via a modified temporary marker, that is probably the case,” Zorian nodded.

“Hmm,” Zach hummed thoughtfully, tapping his fingers against his chin. “So let’s assume for a moment that Veyers is just a broken link. I still think he’s the most likely candidate for Red Robe, but whatever – your theory does sound rather plausible. Who is Veyers linked to? Jornak? Is he Red Robe?”

“He could be, I guess,” Zorian said uncertainly. “I mean, I see no real evidence for that, and the man is not very impressive…”

“We weren’t very impressive before the time loop happened to us, either,” Zach pointed out.

“True,” Zorian said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible for Jornak to be Red Robe, just that I see no real evidence for the idea.”

“Did Veyers have any other friends and associates other than Jornak?” Zach asked.

“I think he did, but Jornak did not know who these people were,” Zorian said. “Veyers didn’t like to talk about his personal life and Jornak didn’t pry into it too much. The fact that Veyers chose to take shelter in Jornak’s place might be artificially skewing our perception of how close they were – they weren’t really that close. Jornak was actually quite surprised when Veyers came knocking on his door with a plea to let him stay for a while, and even contemplated refusing.”

They discussed things for another hour or so before deciding to shelve the discussion for now. They would be interrogating Jornak in more detail in upcoming days, which would hopefully shed more light on the issue. They also intended to use pieces of Veyers’ body as divination tools to try and track his movement while he was alive. They would have to do this very, very carefully though, lest they get tracked down themselves by the Boranova House investigators.

Eventually the two of them retired into one of the quieter, less frequented taverns on the outskirts of the city and sat down to have a drink and talk about less serious topics. The waitress gave Zorian a really weird look when he ordered fruit juice instead of anything alcoholic and Zach mocked him for it, but Zorian wasn’t really bothered about that. Instead he decided to make use of this opportunity to complain about the family drama that Daimen forced him to participate in near the end of the previous restart.

“Oh man, your family is such a train wreck,” Zach laughed. “It’s not even funny, except it kind of is. Though I have to admit, I kind of get the urge to defend Fortov when you explain his situation like that. I mean, I understand why you feel the way you do, but us fuck-ups needs to look out for each other, you know?”

“What do you– Oh yeah, you were kind of doing badly in the Academy yourself, weren’t you?” Zorian suddenly realized. He winced. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, it’s fine,” Zach said, shaking his head. “I’m not insulted. Much like Fortov, I too had excuses for my poor performance. But I understand now that they were just that: excuses. Perhaps Fortov will eventually learn his lesson as well, eh?”

“Perhaps,” Zorian agreed diplomatically.

Zach responded by taking a deep sip out of his beer keg and then leaned back in his chair in contentment.

“You know, every time I think about what my future would have been like if I never got pulled into this time loop thing, I get both furious and horrified,” Zach said, staring at the ceiling of the tavern with unfocused eyes. “It’s been so long but I remember what it was like so very vividly… How I lived in an empty, half-abandoned house, constantly hearing about how I was expected to rebuild my entire House from scratch and feeling utterly lost as to how I can accomplish it. How I eventually decided it was a hopeless task and began to coast by on the least amount of effort I could get away with and just tried to keep myself happy. But hey, it was fine! I had plenty of money! I mean, that was why Tesen fired all the servants and sold off all our properties, right? So it doesn’t matter if I don’t do too well at the academy and have no real professional skills. Everything will work out… just… fine!”

Zach suddenly finished off his beer keg and then slammed it violently onto the cheap wooden table. The tavern workers all turned towards them, and for a moment Zorian thought he would be thrown out of a building for the second time in two restarts, but in the end they just shook their heads slightly and went about their work. Evidently this was not a rare occurrence around here.

“I’m getting angry again,” Zach explained unnecessarily. “I shouldn’t be talking about this while drinking.”

Zorian scratched his cheek awkwardly, not sure how to respond to that. He was really regretting starting the topic about Fortov now…

“You know what the problem with teaming up with you is?” Zach asked him suddenly, staring intently into his eyes. He didn’t wait for his answer. “I can’t start a restart by beating Tesen into a bloody pulp anymore. I used to do that every once in a while to work out my frustrations.”

Zorian remembered that. It used to occur quite frequently, leading up to a lot of speculation about Zach and his reasons for doing that…

“It’s probably for the best you stopped doing that,” Zorian told him. “You might develop unhealthy habits and end up becoming a fugitive for no good reason once we’re out of the time loop. That would be a pretty sad way for all this to end, no?”

“I guess,” Zach said. “But it was so satisfying…”

Zach eyed his keg for a couple of seconds, as if considering if he should get himself another, before sighing and pushing it to the side. Good. He’d rather not deal with a drunk Zach right now.

“What do you intend to do about Tesen, anyway?” Zorian asked. “When we get out of the time loop, I mean.”

“What else? I’m going to sue him into oblivion,” Zach said. “He may be powerful and well connected, but I still have some friends in high places and he was pretty brazen in his actions. He broke the law when he robbed me of my inheritance and I’ll do my best to make him pay for it through official channels. If that doesn’t work… well, I hope it doesn’t get to that.”

“I see,” Zorian said. “I didn’t see you do any research on the topic thus far…”

“I’ve already done all the preparations a long time ago,” Zach said. “I have all the evidence I need, I know how to blindside him when putting things into motion and I can afford to hire the best damn lawyers in the country to represent me. There is nothing more that can be done within the confines of the restart. These kind of legal cases take years of legal wrangling, not weeks. Still, a strong start does count for a lot and all the lawyers I spoke with tell me I have a good chance of winning.”

“That’s good,” Zorian nodded slowly. “Though I have a suspicion Tesen and his faction won’t limit themselves to mere legal wrangling in their attempts to deal with you.”

“I know,” Zach grinned. “But you know me. I don’t shy away from danger. Let them come. It will just give me a stronger case when it turns up what they’ve been up to.”

“Anything I can do to help?” Zorian asked.

“Probably not, actually,” Zach said, shaking his head. “This is mostly a job for lawyers, not for the likes of us. Once I put things into motion, I just need to keep the money flowing and ward off any assassination attempts and the like. But we’ll see. Rest assured I will not be too shy to ask for help from my fellow time traveler.”

The conversation wound down after that, and they each went their separate ways for the day. The upcoming days were going to be somewhat busy ones, involving a great deal of preparations and planning.

It was time to visit Silverlake again… and this time they planned to seriously try and convince her that the time loop is real.

* * *

When Zach and Zorian showed at Silverlake’s hidden base, they came carrying the grey hunter’s egg sack and the ancient giant salamander that Silverlake was looking for. The eggs were acquired in the exact same way they had been in the previous restart. As for the salamander, they just went to the same place Zorian had found it in the past and then started their search from there. Eventually, after two whole days of searching up and down the river and examining nearby hiding places, they found the giant salamander buried in the mud of one of the flooded caverns, almost undetectable if one didn’t know what to look for. Without an appropriate starting point, it would have taken them forever to track it down.

But no matter, the point was that they had both of the ingredients that Silverlake wanted so badly for her youth potion, and Zorian had created the keystone that Silverlake had shown him how to make in the previous restart. They also loaded up a bunch of combat golems into the portable palace orb, ready to be taken out at a moment’s notice, just in case Silverlake reacted badly to their approach… something that was entirely possible, but unavoidable. They didn’t have the time to take things slowly anymore.

“I’m ready,” Zach said, twirling a combat staff in his fingers to pass the time. “Go ahead and ring the bell.”

Zorian nodded and activated the keystone in his hands. Nothing visible happened, but Zorian was sure he had performed the action correctly. Now they could only wait.

They had to wait a surprisingly long time, longer than they had to the last time they had come here. Zorian suspected this was because Silverlake was studying them from inside before deciding to come out, and this time they had come more heavily armed and visibly dangerous. Eventually, however, she decided to greet them anyway. The fact that Zach had gotten bored at some point and started building a giant statue of himself via alteration spells right outside her home might have motivated her to hurry up.

“How the hell did you activate that old piece of junk?” She immediately demanded, squinting at each of them suspiciously. “I never gave anyone a matching keystone. Hell, I never even made any matching keystones. Suspicious. Very, very suspicious. Who are you two?”

“To answer your last question, I am Zach Noveda and this is Zorian Kazinski. We are but humble academy students coming here to pay our respects to a living legend,” Zach flattered shamelessly. Silverlake snorted derisively at him, saying nothing. “And also to arrange for a trade, I guess. Or should I say… re-negotiate our existing one? After all, this is the second time we’re meeting like this.”

“I don’t think so?” Silverlake said curiously. “I don’t remember you. I may be old, but I’m pretty sure I’d never forget a couple of brats as brazen as you two. I mean, I kind of like that kind of attitude, but only when it’s directed at other people…”

“That’s just because your memory of our meeting has been wiped clean from your mind,” Zorian said in a carefree manner. “Nothing to worry about. Anyway, here is a gift.”

Zorian reached into his backpack and withdrew a bottle of brandy and a box of sweets from it, which he then handed to a surprised Silverlake. She made no move to claim them, looking at both objects like they were poisonous vipers.

“A gift?” she asked emotionlessly.

“It is customary to bring gifts when visiting someone,” Zorian said sagely. “It’s an important tradition.”

Silverlake made a sour face at that explanation. She spent a few more seconds scrutinizing the two objects before finally deciding they were probably harmless. She took them both from his hands and immediately stuffed them into one of her jacket pockets. Even though the heavy bottle and the large box of sweets shouldn’t have possibly been able to fit into that tiny jacket pocket, they somehow did.

What a casual use of pocket dimension creation… Zorian couldn’t help but feel a little jealous. He wouldn’t be able to duplicate that feat, and in fact didn’t even know how to go about achieving it. He could only extend the space of rigid containers right now, and had no idea how to use something as flexible as a pocket as a base for a pocket dimension. He knew it was unreasonable to expect to be as good as Silverlake after only a month of instruction, but this was a pretty stark reminder of how far he had to go to match the old witch’s expertise in that regard.

Silverlake grinned at him in triumph, savoring this little victory for all it was worth.

“Let’s back up a bit, shall we?” she asked, a little more confident this time. “You said something about my memory being wiped?”

“Yes,” Zach nodded. “You see, about a month ago we came to you with a certain offer…”

And Zach started giving Silverlake the summarized version of what happened in the previous restart, though they took pains to temporarily omit any mention of the time loop itself. They figured it would immediately make Silverlake disbelieve anything else they had to say if they started with that. Instead they just narrated the general terms of their deal and the way she had instructed them in the art of pocket dimension creation and occasionally sent them on random errands.

And they used plenty of props in their explanation. When they spoke of how they offered the previous version of Silverlake grey hunter’s eggs, they took the eggs they obtained in this restart out of the portable palace orb and showed them to her. When they spoke of how Silverlake told them she also needed an ancient giant salamander to complete her youth potion, they took out the living salamander they captured and showed it off as well.

Silverlake’s eyes shone brightly when she saw the two alchemical ingredients she wanted the most laid out in front of her, but she remained silent and motionless as she listened to their story in a rapt manner.

When it came time to move the story into Silverlake’s home dimension, though, her expression fell and turned grave. This was because Zorian started using illusionary scenes from his memory to illustrate his points. Normally these kinds of illusory images weren’t worth much as a proof. After all, nothing stopped the illusionist from fabricating things, and people’s memories tended to be kind of fuzzy in even the best of cases. However, Zorian had the ability to remember a scene down to the tiniest detail and it wasn’t like one could randomly invent a detailed layout of Silverlake’s dimension and be correct. He could replicate the image of her favorite cauldron down to the tiniest scratch and replicate the exact number of dried onions and mushrooms hanging from the hooks on her wall. It was a pretty damning proof that he had at least been there at some point, even if he wasn’t telling the truth about anything else, and Silverlake clearly knew it.

“Stop, stop,” she suddenly told him, waving her hand in a forceful manner. She looked honestly shaken at the sight of these images. “I… I need to check something.”

Zach and Zorian stood by the side while Silverlake started casting one diagnostic spell after another on herself. Occasionally she would stop and mutter to herself in some alien Khusky tongue that neither Zach nor Zorian had ever encountered, before shaking her head and continuing with her self-diagnostics.

After that she started examining the entrance to her dimension before wordlessly disappearing inside. Zach and Zorian still waited patiently, not saying anything. She returned twenty minutes later, looking more disturbed than ever.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she loudly proclaimed. “None of this makes sense. My memory is fine. It hasn’t been tampered with. I know it hasn’t, because there are always, always traces left when one does so and my mind doesn’t have any. But you’ve clearly been inside my home long enough to dig up that old stone and puzzle out a matching keystone for it, long enough to memorize every corner of it down to the smallest detail. Except there is no trace of illegal entry, not even the faintest whiff of it, and there is no way in all the hells and all the heavens I’d ever forget letting someone like you inside. And your story! What a bunch of rubbish! You say you sold me grey hunter’s eggs a whole month ago, yet I see no evidence I’ve ever processed them! And now you come here with a new sack of grey hunter’s eggs, as if those can be acquired just by going into your neighborhood store or something. Who are you people and what is happening here!?”

She punctuated her statement by making a sweeping hand gesture, causing two huge, hulking humanoids of earth to suddenly coalesce out of the soil around them.

Earth elementals, and not minor ones either. However…

“Should we…?” Zach mouthed.

Zorian quietly nodded and made a sweeping gesture of his own, though his one was mostly for show, not because he actually needed to make it. Then again, maybe it was the same for Silverlake. In any case, he made use of the time needed to make the gesture to reach out into the ever-useful orb, causing a bunch of equally huge and hulking war golems to pop into existence next to them.

“We don’t want to fight,” Zorian said. “But if you really insist on it, I guarantee you it won’t end in your favor.”

Rather than answer him, Silverlake stomped her foot on the ground, causing a set of heavy, potent wards to radiate out of the entrance to her pocket dimensions. The warding scheme quickly enclosed the entire area, shutting down their teleportation, filling the area with fog, inhibiting their shaping skills, disturbing their souls…

Even as Silverlake was making her move, though, Zorian was doing the same. He quickly reached into his backpack again and retrieved from it a truncated pyramid made out of glittering blue stone. He threw it in front of him, and it promptly righted itself in the air and began to hover there, golden lines and glyphs suddenly appearing on its surface. In a blink of an eye, it had enclosed Zach, Zorian and their war golems under a dome of yellow light.

Silverlake’s wards crashed into the dome… and were immediately halted in their tracks. The old witch was way better than Zorian in a number of fields, but her skill at setting up wards wasn’t one of them. Not to mention that wards were always more effective as a means of defense than they were as an offensive tool.

There was a tense silence as the two sides stared at each other from behind their respective barriers. After about a minute of this, Silverlake suddenly sighed and commanded the earth elementals to merge back into the earth and the wards to retreat back into her pocket dimension. After a second of hesitation, Zach and Zorian similarly put away their own defenses.

“Well…” Silverlake said, sounding surprisingly chirpy and relaxed. She chuckled at their wary postures and serious faces. “I really suffered a loss this time, didn’t I? I guess this is what I get for trying to escalate things into combat. I was never that much of a fighter, truth be told. I don’t suppose we could all forget this ever happened, hmm?”

“Sure, let’s,” Zach said, giving her a friendly grin. “It’s probably for the best if this never happens again, though. I only ever give people two chances.”

“Oh?” Silverlake said, cocking her head sideways like a curious bird. “Oh, I see. Everything I’ve been met with thus far is your friend’s work, but he isn’t actually the combat specialist. You are. And you never even made a move thus far…” She shook her head, speaking to herself self-depreciatingly. “Silly old girl, making such blunders at your age… it’s just as they say: you learn all your life and still die a fool. Though there should hopefully be no dying for me just yet…”

“In any case,” said Zorian, coughing into his fist to attract her attention, “I believe I have an answer for the concerns you expressed just before this… unpleasantness. You were wondering how this was all possible, yes?”

“Yes,” she bluntly confirmed. “I’m very curious as to how this could happen.”

“It’s like this,” said Zorian, creating another illusory scene, this one depicting the planet they lived on, spinning placidly in the air. “There is an artifact from the Age of Gods that can take our entire world, take a snapshot of every single thing in existence and create a flawless copy of it in a giant pocket dimension…”

Surprisingly, after Zorian had gotten about halfway into the story, Silverlake suddenly started to ask a series of rapid-fire questions about the Sovereign Gate, the Guardian of the Threshold, the exact mechanics of the time loop itself, and so on.

“Alright, you can stop now,” she eventually said, tapping her leg with her bony fingers. “I think I know what’s going on now. Well, somewhat. And if I’m right, then there is a very easy way to check if you’re telling the truth or not.”

Zach and Zorian perked up at her words.

“Oh?” Zach asked excitedly.

Silverlake grinned, obviously enjoying the fact that she knew something they didn’t. Or at least thought she did – Zorian wasn’t going to get excited before he heard what she actually had to say. For all he knew, she was just trying to patch up her wounded pride.

“Tell me,” she said, “have you two ever heard about the primordials?”


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