It was a peaceful summer day in the Great Northern Forest. The vegetation was vibrantly green and thriving, colorful flowers covered the forest meadows, the songbirds were seemingly competing to see which one of them was louder and shriller than the next, and strange insects were flying through the air.
While the vast expanse of trees that covered the northern portion of the Altazian continent was usually portrayed as a dark and foreboding place, crawling with dangerous monsters and hidden dangers, the truth is that the area could be quite beautiful and breathtaking. One just had to be strong enough to survive the challenges and travel the land unchecked.
Zorian, Taiven and Kael were definitely strong enough. Not just because Zorian was present in the group, either. Taiven and Kael had gone through five whole loops by now, each of which included additional time in the Black Rooms. They’d had nearly an entire year to improve their magic, backed by nearly unlimited resources and top-tier tutors. Even Kael, who spent most of that time focusing on alchemy, was now capable of at least defending himself from common threats. As for Taiven, she was a combat magic specialist to begin with. Her power was probably equal to an average professional combat mage at this point. She even had real combat experience, since she insisted on fighting the Ibasan invaders at the end of every restart and often participated in minor battles that Daimen’s team stumbled upon while exploring Blantyrre. Even if Zorian decided to stand back and let the other two fend for themselves, there was very little in the forest around them that could threaten them.
Currently, the three of them were resting on a large boulder in one of the forest clearings and playing a game of cards. It was just something to pass the time while they rested their feet. They had been wandering the forest for hours before stumbling upon the clearing, and it looked so perfect for a temporary camp they decided to take a bit of a break. They didn’t intend to stay here for very long.
As Zorian pondered his next move, he felt Taiven ‘subtly’ try to take a peek at his cards with a spying spell. Zorian was proud for her for expanding her horizons beyond flashy combat magic, but that didn’t stop him from reflexively crushing her magic into nothingness before giving her a knowing smile. She pouted for a moment, before remembering she was supposed to act like she didn’t know anything and schooling her expression into one of indifference.
Kael silently observed the scene from the side before shaking his head in amusement, probably guessing what had happened. Zorian suspected Taiven had tried to use the same trick on Kael as well, though he had no idea if the morlock boy had managed to stop her, or even noticed her cheating. Then again, Kael didn’t seem to take the card game very seriously. He seemed to be playing mindlessly, uncaring of how likely he is to win. Zorian supposed this sort of attitude made perfect sense, since this was supposed to be just a nice relaxing game with no stakes, but it faintly annoyed him anyway.
Zorian himself didn’t try to cheat, of course. That would suck the joy out of the whole activity, since it would be so trivial for him to succeed. He simply immersed himself in the game while listening to the sounds of the wilderness around them. His legs throbbed in pain, unused to the level of activity he was engaging in, but he had kind of gotten used to that by now. Even with the aid of potions and mind magic, the beginning of every restart involved Zorian being in a constant state of dull pain because he lived far more actively than he had before the time loop. Hopefully that wouldn’t have any long-term mental effects on him once he was out of the time loop…
He was broken out of his thoughts by a loud crunching sound. Looking to the side, he saw Kael with a large yellow root stuffed in his mouth.
Taiven gave Kael a strange, possibly disapproving look.
“What?” Kael complained, chewing loudly. The sound it produced reminded Zorian of someone eating a raw carrot.
“How can you eat that thing?” she asked him.
“It’s really tasty,” he told her matter-of-factly.
“It’s a wild root you washed in a nearby river,” she protested. “That cannot possibly be safe or hygienic. Plus, I can smell it from here and it doesn’t smell like something you should be eating…”
Kael gave her a challenging look before biting into the root again and chewing even louder.
Zorian pretended to study his cards while inwardly chuckling in amusement. Personally, he wasn’t worried about Kael in the slightest. Although the morlock was the weakest of the three in terms of combat strength, he was the person who was most at home in the forest. He had been working and living in this very environment ever since he was a child, and doubtlessly knew exactly what was safe to eat and how.
Taiven had gotten relatively close to Kael after they had both received a temporary marker, since the two of them were arguably the closest in age and relative skill among the new loopers, so she probably knew that too. Thus, she simply threw her hands in the air with a huff, accidentally showing them a glimpse of the cards she was holding, and dropped the issue.
Zorian took note of her cards and changed his tactics accordingly. This wasn’t cheating, of course. Taking advantage of your opponent’s mistakes was only natural. It wasn’t his problem that he could memorize her entire hand flawlessly after seeing it for only a fraction of a second…
After another fifteen minutes of chatting, playing cards, eating roots and berries and lazing around, the three of them reluctantly decided to move on. After all, this whole expedition originated from Kael’s desire to search for rare alchemical ingredients in the depths of the Great Northern Forest. This wasn’t really some critical task that had to be done, and the three of them were mostly using it as an excuse to relax and socialize, but they did intend to seriously search for things Kael was after.
For the next half an hour or so, Zorian followed after Kael casting divination after divination and occasionally taking over the minds of forest birds in order to scout the area around them. Taiven also utilized divinations, having achieved some measure of expertise in the field over the various restarts, while Kael mostly relied on his own two eyes. Considering his extensive experience in searching for magical plants, however, he probably still saw and understood far more than Zorian and Taiven did.
Every once in a while the morlock boy would inspect some random stump or boulder, occasionally picking up some other magical plant that wasn’t on their list, but which he apparently also considered worthwhile, and occasionally just stared at them meaningfully while pondering some mysterious issue. The backpacks the three of them wore had all been made by Zorian, and were considerably larger on the inside than they appeared, but Zorian estimated Kael’s backpack was already starting to get full from the various plants, jars full of worms and beetles, and even some colorful stones that seemed pretty mundane to Zorian’s eyes. Even if they failed to find the things they were searching for, Kael certainly intended to make the most out of this expedition, that’s for sure.
Relaxing times like these had become increasingly rare in these last five restarts. Everyone was constantly busy with something, whether it was following some plan, searching for things that could help them, experimenting with exotic magics or simply training their skills. This was especially true in this particular restart, since this was the last restart for the temporary loopers. If they could not figure out a way to modify the temporary markers before the end of the restart, they would lose… well, everything.
Sure enough, eventually Kael and Taiven could not help but bring up the issue that was constantly in the back of everyone’s mind these days.
“This is the end, isn’t it?” Kael suddenly said.
The other two gave him conflicted looks. There was no need to ask him what he meant by that.
“Tell us honestly, Zorian… what are the chances we can figure out how to adjust our markers before this month runs out?” Kael continued, seeing how he had their attention.
Zorian suppressed a sigh. Temporary markers… they had spent almost a year studying them, if one factored in the time spent in Black Rooms, and in that time they had made significant progress. They managed to map the general structure of the markers and figure out what many of the pieces did. They compared these markers to the larger, more complete markers embedded in Zach and Zorian. They placed and removed temporary markers on random people to test possible modifications and see what happened. They found out that, yes, the markers really did contain components made out of divine energies… and they also found a way to deal with that. Through several ruinously expensive deals with Quatach-Ichl and innumerable destroyed divine artifacts, they managed to create methods to detect and crudely manipulate strands of divine energy inside their markers. Not enough to manipulate them as they wished, but enough to tear out some portions of the structure and change how this divine foundation interacts with more normal magic that surrounded it.
It wasn’t enough. Despite their best efforts, the solution remained frustratingly out of reach.
What bothered Zorian most about this was that he didn’t think the problem was impossible. They were making good progress. He felt they were definitely on the right track. He felt that this was something that could definitely be solved in time.
Could they figure out a way to prolong the temporary marker in one more restart? No. Not even three would be enough. But maybe if they had five or six… if their soul magic was more developed… if they had easier access to the imperial crown resting on Quatach-Ichl’s head… if they had learned how to sense divine energies sooner…
If. If, if, if…
“No,” Zorian finally admitted. “There is no chance at all.”
All three of them walked in silence for a while.
“I am actually not that upset,” Taiven eventually said. “The idea that I could just suddenly disappear at the end of the month was terrifying at first, but I’ve gotten used to it by now. I even died in one of the restarts.”
Zorian vividly remembered that one. Watching Taiven get decapitated by a war troll was strangely upsetting, even though he knew she would be fine in the next restart.
“I mean, I don’t want to disappear at the end of the month,” Taiven continued, “but we’ve done everything we could and it was fun while it lasted. If this is how it has to be, then so be it.”
“Indeed,” Kael said. “Besides, if I understood Zorian correctly, there are only 13 more restarts left at this point. A little more than a year. We’re not losing all that much.”
“Both of you talk like you think you’re dead for sure,” Zorian said. “Have some faith, okay? Modifying the temporary markers is probably a failure, but the possibility of exiting the time loop still remains. This was our fallback plan if we couldn’t modify the markers, remember?”
“Oh?” Taiven perked up. “That’s still an option?”
“Of course,” said Zorian. “What do you think we have been doing all this time?”
“Well I don’t know,” Taiven said with a grin. “That mean old witch keeps complaining about you ‘wasting your time on distractions’ and ‘taking too many breaks from your duties’, so…”
“Silverlake thinks everyone should be a tireless golem except her,” Zorian said with a derisive snort. “It’s not like she never takes any breaks or tinkers with new potions that have no connection to anything urgent.”
“I thought that whole project was still shrouded in uncertainty, though,” Kael pointed out.
“Well yeah,” Zorian reluctantly admitted. “We have yet to actually try things, so it’s all very theoretical. However, just because we are uncertain about some things doesn’t mean the attempt is bound to fail. It’s hard to put actual numbers on things, but I think there is at least a 70% chance that we could transport people’s souls into the real world, and 30% or so that we could successfully open a dimensional bridge that would let us physically step out of the time loop.”
The two of them gave him complex looks that he could not interpret. It was a little hard to accurately discern their emotions these days, since they had both learned to protect their minds and emotions with unstructured mental defenses. In fact, this was something that all temporary loopers decided to invest time in, once they realized the extent of Zorian’s mental powers. Even the ones that already had some level of unstructured mental defenses promptly decided they were insufficient and needed to be strengthened as much as possible.
Zorian understood their reasoning. It was just like that old saying: trust your neighbor, but lock the door. Even if you trusted someone to be a moral and principled person, it was better not to tempt them with easy opportunities. Thus, he did not take such things against them. In fact, he encouraged it. Considering aranea explicitly considered anyone with an unshielded mind fair game for psychic invasion and that they were working closely with several groups of them, getting some level of mental protection was just plain common sense.
“If the only option to exit the time loop is to steal our original bodies from our past selves, I would rather stay here and forget everything,” Kael said, shaking his head. “Additionally, I only care about physically leaving if it allows me to take Kana with me. If not, I’d rather stay with her till the end.”
Zorian opened his mouth to say something, but then realized that it probably didn’t matter that Kana doesn’t have the temporary marker. If they physically left the time loop, every person was as good as any other.
Would others also want to bring family members with them? That… could get kind of complicated.
“Err, I might have gone for the soul exit if it was actually an option,” Taiven said hesitantly. “I mean, I feel sorry for old Taiven but let’s get real here… she is kind of an idiot.”
Zorian’s lips twitched into a beginning of a smile, but he suppressed it.
“As it is, I am not actually capable of taking this way out,” Taiven said. “I’m not even good enough to survive Silverlake’s soul perception granting potion, never mind possessing my old body. So physically crossing over is the only option for me, really.”
Zorian nodded slowly. Truthfully, this was true for most people. People who had zero experience with soul magic would find it impossible to get good enough at it to survive the soul transferal and successfully possess their body. People who were well versed in soul magic, even before the time loop, would probably be annihilated by the originals if they tried to possess them. Aside from Zorian, only Kael, Xvim and Lukav had a good chance of pulling that off. And Xvim, much like Kael, had already ruled out the idea ‘stealing his own life away from himself’.
“Physical exit is what we’re aiming for, anyway,” Zorian said. “Transferring souls is more of a last resort than anything.”
“Yes, but you admitted yourself that chances of success aren’t too high. Not even a coin toss,” Taiven noted. “So yeah, there is still hope… but it’s nothing to get excited about. Hell, you’re probably putting a positive spin on things to cheer us up!”
“No, not at all,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I was actually trying to be conservative with my estimates. I really think this could work.”
“There is one thing that’s been bothering me about all this,” Kael said. “We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out a way out of the time loop, but did you think about what we’re going to do if we succeed with this? If we physically step into the outside world with all our skills and knowledge?”
“Stop the invasion from destroying Cyoria?” Taiven tried, raising her eyebrow at him.
“Well, yes. But what about afterwards?” Kael asked. “You have an entire life in front of you, but there is already someone living your life for you. Are you going to avoid your friends and family and set up a new life for yourself elsewhere? Or are you going to do your best to insert yourself into your old life and damn the consequences? What if someone reports you to the authorities and they come to drag you off? How would you explain your presence and identity?”
Taiven squirmed uncomfortably.
“I don’t know,” she admitted, biting her lip. “Honestly, I try not to think about things like that. I’m kind of impulsive, so even if I reach a resolution here, I will probably just break it when I actually get there. So there’s no point. I can only hope I’ll be able to figure something out when the time comes. I don’t want to ruin the other Taiven’s life, but… I don’t know. What about you two?”
“I’m fairly disconnected from most people,” Kael shrugged. “So long as I have my own Kana, everything is fine. I guess I would deliver my alchemy notes to my original and then wander off to do my own thing. But I’m not sure very many of us are like that. Silverlake and Alanic, maybe. The rest? There are probably at least a few of them that would fight bitterly for a piece of their old life.”
“Honestly? I don’t think I could stay away,” Zorian admitted. “I’d try to ‘reform’ my original into something better. Teach him a few things, nudge him into getting closer with Kirielle, things like that. A bit manipulative, but it would come along with personal magic instruction and other help so I think it could work. I wouldn’t try to steal his life away, though. If there was no place for me in my old life, I would find something else to amuse myself with.”
“As I said, I’m not sure everyone would be so serene about it,” Kael pointed out.
“Yeah, I know,” Zorian nodded. “Zach and I purposely didn’t raise the issue to the group, since we felt there was no way to reach any kind of official agreement on this. No matter the conclusion, someone would disagree. Possibly violently. The entire group might even fragment, if someone feels very strongly about the option that was chosen or not chosen. It’s better to keep everyone focused on the immediate problem and worry about these things later.”
Despite such efforts, however, they already had a couple of casualties. Two restarts ago, a pair of professors Xvim included into the group decided they couldn’t handle the existential implications of the time loop and asked for their temporary markers to be removed so they could forget everything. Additionally, one of the aranea from the Luminous Advocates became so hysterical and violent that the other aranea asked for her to be stripped of her marker and ejected from the group. Zorian wasn’t sure what had caused that, but since the other Luminous Advocates mysteriously acquired soul perception around that time, he suspected it was a product of some secret procedure they had collectively performed on themselves. In the interest of not starting a fight, though, he decided not to pursue the issue.
With this being the last restart in which the temporary markers would remain effective, the pressure on people would only increase.
Zorian really hoped nobody would crack too badly before the end.
* * *
Spells could only persist for so long. Even the most stable spell, supplied with an ample amount of mana, would fall apart in a couple of hours if not anchored to something. Thus, enhancement rituals had a problem. They aimed to place the user under a permanent magic effect or give them an innate magic ability, but that meant they had to anchor the spell to something to prevent it from decaying.
This was a great problem. Anchoring the magic to one’s flesh by inscribing sigils into the skin was ill advised. Forcing large quantities of mana to flow through living flesh, even if it was one’s personal mana, was usually unhealthy in the long term. Additionally, the resulting anchor was easy to break by physically harming the sigils, which was likely to result in dire consequences for the user. Abrupt, uncontrolled spell failures were dangerous enough in normal circumstances – when the spell was embedded into one’s very flesh and bones, the grisly result could be easily imagined.
Fortunately, there was a solution. Far in the distant past, some nameless mage had discovered how to repurpose a portion of their mana reserves into a spell anchor for the enhancement ritual. Since one’s mana reserves were kept naturally stable by the soul, any magic fashioned from them would also be kept stable. The only problem was that since the anchor was literally made out of one’s mana reserves, the caster would permanently have less mana at their disposal. The mana used in the construction of the anchor would never recover, since it was still there in the caster’s reserves, being stabilized by their soul along with the rest of it.
There was one additional issue, however. Even though an enhancement ritual could grant the user a magical ability, it was ultimately just fancy transformation magic. It never expired, it was almost impossible to dispel and the user had very fine control over it, but they would not get the same instinctive affinity with it that the base creature had.
This was where blood magic came into play. It allowed a mage to anchor the spell not only to their mana reserves, but to their life force as well. The resulting connection was deep and potent – potent enough that the user’s descendants had a chance to inherit the ability in question as a bloodline. The innate understanding of the base creature was also transferred over to the new user, allowing them to use it almost as well as someone who had been born with it right from the start.
Enhancement rituals were dangerous. Poorly executed, they could kill the user or permanently ruin them as a mage. More than one mage had completely locked down their mana reserves or transformed them into something that ripped them to shreds from the inside.
Blood magic rituals were dangerous. The user had to cut complicated patterns into their flesh and bleed themselves in order to stir up their vitality and coax their life force into appropriate structures. Unless one knew exactly what they were doing, it was very easy to die of blood loss, or worse.
Zach and Zorian combined the two anyway. They started small, but moved on quickly to more ambitious projects due to time constraints. They made mistakes, but none of them too serious… and any lingering consequences were washed away at the end of every restart. With the help of Kael, they tracked down and talked with surviving morlock blood mages scattered across the continent, seeking advice and tricks of the trade. They practiced with their new abilities and took note of which one worked best for them and why.
Now, with time running out and this restart being so critical, they decided to immediately put those skills into practice. They performed the relevant rituals at the very beginning of the restart. A week and a half later, when their mana reserves and life force mostly stabilized, they gathered Xvim, Silverlake and Daimen for a project that would test their dimensionalism skills to the limit. Something that would prove that they were capable of eventually creating the gateway out of the loop.
They were going to create a miniature copy of the palace orb.
Currently, Zach, Zorian, Silverlake, Xvim and Daimen were all standing on the edge of a massive spell formula circle, equidistant from each other. They had spent the past several hours embedding the spell circle into the ground of this place, followed by setting up several complicated wards that had to be layered just right for the whole thing to work correctly. Now they were resting and adjusting their minds for the final task in front of them.
There was a luxurious house sitting in the center of the circle, surrounded by a large garden and ornamental trees. It stood in a fairly isolated location and Zach and Zorian actually bought the entire place, so they shouldn’t be interrupted by anyone. Silverlake complained about the amount of money that had been wasted on this, when they could have simply ‘stolen’ a house from someone or picked a random patch of ground, but Zach didn’t want to hear it. He wanted his own pocket mansion, and he wanted it to really be his.
In any case, the idea behind their current project was a little different than that behind other pocket dimension creation projects. Previously, Zach and Zorian had focused on isolating a patch of space with a dimensional membrane and then inflating it to desired volume. Now they would be forcibly isolating a large patch of land from the rest of the world, compressing it and then attaching it to a prepared anchor object. In this case, that was a ball of magically-reinforced glass, for maximum resemblance to the palace orb.
This was similar to the method Silverlake used to hide her home from outside scrutiny, but harder. Silverlake simply compressed an area to make it seemingly ‘disappear’, but it remained connected to the rest of the world. That made her pocket dimension immovable, but easier to actually create. What they were doing now, however, would require them to effectively tear out a piece of reality and put it into a portable box for their own use.
The house and its surrounding land were not nearly as big as the space inside the palace orb. Despite that, attempting this required all five of them to join hands and perform a group magic ritual, employing every trick and advantage they could think of… and they still weren’t sure if they could pull it off. Zorian didn’t even want to think what it took to create something like the actual palace orb.
Looking around, Zorian saw that the others were well rested and ready to start. He took a deep breath and stepped forward. Five simulacrums followed after him.
Zorian had long since cracked the method that Princess used to coordinate her eight heads as one entity, and was now capable of using it with his simulacrums. It was a fascinating thing, connecting multiple viewpoints and thought-streams into one unified perspective, but it did have an important limitation: it could only be used when Zorian and his simulacrums were broadly doing the same thing. Such as fighting the same enemy or cooperating on the same task. If he was reading books in Cyoria and his simulacrums were scattered all over the world, each doing their own thing, there would be no connecting points to bind their consciousness together and the hydra method couldn’t be used. But for the task at hand, it was just perfect.
He then activated the magic ability he had acquired through the enhancement ritual. He had acquired it from the humble tunneler toad, whose ability to perceive and navigate warped space had seemed most useful for his purposes. It wasn’t the best ability he could have gotten, but it was relatively cheap and worked well enough for Zorian’s purposes. Anchoring it to his mana reserves robbed him of roughly 8% of his maximum mana, which pained him, but did not affect him too badly.
Finally, he activated the mental enhancements he had crafted over the past year or so, helped by numerous aranea experts and even some human researchers. Many of his simulacrums paid with their short lives to test these enhancements, and the end result was appropriately impressive for something made after so much sacrifice. His thoughts immediately became clearer and more focused, his integration with his simulacrums deepened and his ability to calculate and measure things at a glance became superhuman.
Around him, he saw the others prepare themselves as well.
Zach was leaning back and forth on his feet, humming some sort of tune to himself. He looked relaxed and careless, but there was a distant look in his eyes, as if he wasn’t really all there. His choice for the creature to use an enhancement ritual on was the voidsoul deer. Zach seemed to really like its ability to alter trajectories of things in the space around it, since that meant the ability was useful in combat, as well as for things like this. It was a fairly expensive ability in terms of mana reserves, but Zach was easily able to afford it. Zorian could feel the space around Zach ripple and warp as he flexed his new ability in preparation of the task at hand.
Daimen’s presence was a bit of a surprise. Before the time loop, Daimen hadn’t even known how to cast the gate spell, never mind how to use pocket dimension magic. However, his reputation wasn’t for nothing. With a year of time and access to all the restricted material and knowledgeable tutors he could wish for, Daimen had experienced a meteoric rise in his dimensionalism skills. It reignited Zorian’s jealousy a bit to see him blaze through things so easily, given that Zorian had to try so hard to get where Daimen currently was, but objectively speaking, it was a good thing to have another capable dimensionalist on their hand. It increased their chances of success immensely.
Daimen had also chosen to dabble in enhancement rituals along with Zach and Zorian – the only one of the temporary loopers that dared to do so. He picked a phase spider that Zach and Zorian were lucky to track down in one of the restarts. Their signature ability, which was literally a power to create small pocket dimensions, was bound to be very useful today.
Silverlake had stabbed six gold-plated stakes into the ground around her and was mumbling something to herself and making some sort of strange finger gestures. They didn’t look like spellcasting gestures. It kind of reminded Zorian of Kirielle trying to perform math with the help of her fingers, except that he knew damn well that Silverlake was frighteningly good at performing calculations in her head. Her growth in skill over the past five restarts was difficult to judge, as she often did things on her own, and gave bullshit explanations when people tried to question her about it. Still, her skill at dimensionalism and soul magic made her one of the key people in the group, and little could be done about it.
Xvim simply stood on the edge of the spell formula circle, staring forward with arms crossed behind his back. He gave off a silent and stoic air, as if the problem in front of them was no big deal at all. Zorian didn’t think his magic had improved all that much in the past five restarts, but then again he had already been a highly-capable archmage before the time loop had started. At his level, every improvement took a lot of time and effort as one started hitting their personal limits and their magic plateaued.
With a silent signal, the five of them began casting.
Glowing filaments of light sprang from Zorian’s hands, and from the hands of his simulacrums, crisscrossing into a dome of light over the entire area, before seemingly sinking into thin air and disappearing. Silverlake fired pitch black beams from her fingers at seemingly random spots in the air, causing flashes of red light to burst out on the invisible boundary, while Zach and Xvim created pale white rings that spun lazily around the outer perimeter. Space warped and twisted, distorting the house and its surroundings like hot summer air and causing strange currents and whirlpools to be created in the sky.
A spatial membrane eventually sprang up around the house, transparent and spherical. Its surface rippled and undulated like it was made from water. Strands of inky blackness occasionally radiated from points on its surface, as if reality itself was cracking apart and letting everyone see the terrible void that existed beneath everything. These were hurriedly sealed by the five participants, disappearing into flashes of rainbow light before springing back anew somewhere else. A miniature cyclone whipped about in the air, kicking up dust and pelting the participants with leaves and small stones.
The process took hours and hours. Five times they had to rest to recover their strength, but thankfully the ritual was designed specifically with that in mind. They knew they would not have enough mana to finish the project in one go, so small breathers were planned in advance.
Eventually the process reached a critical point. The spatial membrane turned completely opaque and pitch black, its surface churning wildly like a pot of boiling water. Cracks spread out from the ground as the entire area was ripped out of the surrounding landscape, small tremors threatening to knock down the participants – something that would surely disrupt the casting at a critical moment and ruin everything. In the end everyone kept their balance, but the momentary distraction caused lances of spatial cracks to scythe through the area, reducing trees into chunks and utterly destroying one of Zorian’s simulacrums. He managed to compensate for the loss, however, and the casting continued.
The spherical black membrane started to repeatedly expand and then collapse inward, looking almost like a giant black heart. This process continued for several minutes, but if one observed the whole process carefully they would notice that the sphere was gradually getting smaller and smaller. It was being repeatedly compressed into an ever decreasing volume.
When the sphere had reached half of its original size, a fundamental change occurred and the whole area of space seemed to collapse inward, as if it was about to be sucked into a tiny point in the center. Zach reacted immediately, throwing a large glass ball into the center of the collapsing mass while the rest scattered sixteen stone stabilizers into the surrounding space. Each of the stones was a cube densely covered in spell formula, and they immediately floated into a dense spherical formation around the black mass.
In only a few seconds, the black mass was completely sucked into the glass ball and everything was silent and still. The strange lights and spatial distortions disappeared. The area inside the spell formula circle had completely disappeared, leaving behind a circular crater where the house and garden once stood. In the center of that crater floated an innocuous-looking glass globe, with sixteen stone cubes lazily orbiting around it.
Then, with a deafening boom, all of the stone cubes shattered and fell to the ground. The glass globe was still fine, however – the stabilizers had sacrificed themselves to give that final push for the whole process and firmly attach the newly-made ‘pocket mansion’ to its portable anchor.
If one looked closely, they would be able to see a miniature, lifelike house suspended in the center of the globe. It even appeared intact, which was great. There was a nontrivial chance for everything inside the globe to end up getting wrecked by the stresses of the creation process, if they were not channeled properly.
Everyone gathered around the globe to gawk at it and admire their handiwork. Zach, Zorian, Silverlake and Daimen were in visibly high spirits following the success of such a difficult project. Only Xvim managed to retain his reserved attitude, though Zorian felt he still looked faintly pleased with himself.
“You know, I just realized I have no idea how you intend to power this thing,” Daimen said. “Surely this thing requires a great deal of mana to keep stable.”
“We placed a permanent miniature gate inside the house,” Zach said. “It connects to a cavern deep in the Dungeon, sucking up mana to keep both the gate and the pocket dimension operating. It’s too tiny for the dungeon denizens to pass through, but mana can be collected just fine.”
“Oh? You cracked Quatach-Ichl’s permanent gates?” Daimen asked, surprised.
Silverlake puffed herself up, looking pretty smug. Her contributions were pretty crucial in cracking the method Quatach-Ichl used to make his gate stabilization frame. Hers and, oddly enough, that of the Filigree Sages. Their method of creating spell formula anchors had some surprising similarities to the methods Quatach-Ichl used in his construction of the stabilization frames.
“Yes, we finally managed to replicate the lich’s methods,” confirmed Zorian. “It has limited usefulness to us as a method of transport, though, since it takes a while to make those. It’s more convenient to just use my simulacrums as mobile gate creators.”
“We have made a great deal of progress,” Xvim spoke up. “This globe is a perfect representation of that. However, I wonder if that is really enough to let us make a gateway leading out of the time loop.”
Everyone shared a look for a moment as they considered the issue.
“We have a chance,” Zorian said.
“The chance is too low for my liking,” Silverlake grumbled, before Zorian could say anything else. Her good mood seemed to deflate a little. “If we had another six months…”
“But we don’t. We won’t be able to crack the temporary markers in less than a month,” Zach told her. “Why even waste time thinking about that?”
“Well it’s easy for you and Zorian to be so relaxed about that,” Silverlake sneered at him. “You’ll still be there, even if this all fails, won’t you?”
“You are oversimplifying things and you know it,” Zorian said, frowning. “The protections on the temporary markers are such that we won’t be able to place temporary markers on you for the next six restarts. We have no hope at all of pulling this off without you. Thus, we would be forced to wait until the very last moment to make our next attempt… and if that fails, we are lost. Do you honestly think Zach and I are comfortable with that? We are just as invested in the success of this project as you are.”
“Hmph,” Silverlake scoffed. “Almost as invested, I suppose. But not quite as much.”
“What do you think they should have done, then?” Xvim asked, giving her a knowing look.
“They should have experimented more freely with temporary markers and people’s souls. There are plenty of people in the world that nobody cares about, and it’s not like the damage would have been permanent,” Silverlake said, looking Xvim straight in the eye. Her voice was loud and clear, but perfectly calm. “They should have given Quatach-Ichl a temporary marker and recruited him into the group.”
“Both ideas were already discussed and soundly rejected, and not just by Zach and Zorian,” Xvim pointed out.
“We were already taking a huge risk by dealing with the lich as much as we did,” Zorian said. “Even a minor mistake could easily burn all of our remaining restarts away.”
“The old bag of bones would be more likely to ruin us than help us,” Zach added. “Without us, his plan probably succeeds and Cyoria is leveled to the ground. Why would he want to risk that by helping us escape?”
“Bah!” Silverlake spat. As in, she literally spat on the ground to express her frustration. “I can see when I’m outvoted. Besides, it’s too late to change things now… though I still say our chances are too low? Surely there is something more that could be done?”
“Well, you did say we just need more time,” Daimen pointed out. “If the project to turn the palace orb into a Black Room succeeds as well as expected, we should get another couple of months in a time dilation room.”
“We already turned the palace room into a time dilation chamber two times by now,” Silverlake pointed out. “It was impressive, but the effectiveness was little better than that of a regular Black Room. It just had larger volume. Why expect this attempt to be any different?”
“Well, if Krantin and his staff are to be believed–” began Daimen.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Silverlake cut him off. “In the meantime, I have another idea…”
Although Silverlake could be very abrasive and unpleasant, her skill at dimensionalism was undeniable and many of her ideas were quite insightful. Some of them were even perfectly ethical and legal, shockingly enough.
Thus, the group eventually returned to Cyoria, peacefully discussing various plans along the way…
* * *
The search for the imperial staff was long and frustrating. For a long time, they didn’t have even the slightest clue how to even narrow down their search. Zorian was almost willing to write off the entire endeavor as a lost cause and focus entirely on the exit portal project. However, Daimen felt it was beneath his pride to let the expedition end in failure, and eventually found a clue.
One of their earliest leads for the staff was a dragon mage called Violet-Eyed Disaster, or just Violeteye for short. However, she was almost as hard to track down as the staff itself, and there were plenty of other candidates around, so they didn’t focus on her in particular. In time, however, a curious fact became obvious – Violeteye seemed capable of instantaneously teleporting herself across vast distances. There was simply no other way to explain how she could get around so quickly and evade pursuers. Dragons were fast flyers, but her speed was unearthly. This idea was reinforced when Daimen and his group caught sight of her and pursued, only for her to disappear when they briefly lost sight of her.
This was significant, since dragon mages had huge issues trying to use teleportation. Dimensional magic was nearly unknown among dragons, and the sort of teleportation Violeteye was performing would be shocking even in a human mage.
She was most likely using some kind of divine artifact to pull it off. And by following after her and repeatedly provoking her, Zach and Zorian eventually confirmed it was a simple, unadorned staff.
Deep in the jungles of Blantyrre, atop a small mountain, a fierce battle was raging between Zach and Zorian on one side and Violeteye the dragon mage on the other. Shattered remains of Zorian’s combat golems littered the mountainside, and several large craters lay scattered around the place. Smoke and dust covered the skies.
Roaring in outrage, Violeteye swooped down on Zach’s position, opening her jaws and breathing fire at him. The jet of flame was unnaturally hot and concentrated, even for dragon breath – a white-hot incineration beam that set nearby bushes on fire just by passing near them. Without flinching, Zach placed an opaque black shield made out of spatial forces in front of him. The incineration breath sank into the shield and harmlessly disappeared, as if it had never existed in the first place.
Moments later, he was hit by a gust of magically-enhanced wind. It looked rather ethereal, a gentle rainbow goal suffusing it, but the moment it reached Zach it caused the black shield to collapse into nothingness and almost sent him tumbling down the mountain side.
A trio of stone cylinders flew in the air towards the dragon, shining with dangerous blue light. She managed to knock them away from her before they exploded, but it disrupted her charge and allowed Zach to regain his balance.
She sent a quick glare at Zorian, who was standing in the distance with a gun-like cylinder-launcher in his hands, before judging Zach a greater threat and smashing her tail towards him like a flail.
Zach didn’t try to dodge or put some distance between them. He merely cast another spell, causing huge hands of stone to erupt from the ground beneath her, reaching towards her.
Her eyes narrowed imperceptibly, but she continued her attack, trusting her strength and vast reserves of magic. She was justified in her confidence when trading blow for blow with a human, since they could never match a dragon in terms of toughness.
However, her attack… missed.
Her eyes widened in surprise, not understanding what had happened. This wasn’t the sort of rookie mistake she could ever make.
If one had looked really closely, though, one could have seen space itself subtly shift around Zach just before the tail slap had descended upon him…
The stone hands closed around the dragon, pulling her downward. She manifested huge ectoplasmic claws to crush them into powder, but the moment of weakness was enough for Zorian’s simulacrums, who immediately teleported into the vicinity. Just as she was about to turn her ectoplasmic claws towards the simulacrums, her mind swam in sudden vertigo and her vision grew blurry. When she finally regained her clarity of mind, she found a glittering crystalline spear flying at her, courtesy of Zach. Arcs of red light sparked dangerously on its surface, promising pain and disintegration to anything hit by the spear.
Invading the mind of a dragon was not an easy thing to do… but it was within Zorian’s capabilities, if only for a moment.
Roaring, Violeteye conjured an omnidirectional sound wave that hurled all of the simulacrums away from her like a bunch of rag dolls and destroyed all nearby obstacles. The spear continued to fly, but it was knocked off course and only glanced off her flank, tearing out a chunk of her flesh but largely leaving her intact.
She launched herself in the air and tried to flee. She didn’t teleport away like she had the first few times Zach and Zorian had tried to corner her, presumably because the staff she was using had run out of charges by now. However, she was still a dragon, and few things could catch her in flight if she fled at maximum speed.
Zach and Zorian were nearly out of mana by this point, and Zorian was starting to run out of bombs and other items, too. Even Zach, with his immense mana reserves, could not compare to the stamina of the dragon. They could chase her down, but if she kept stalling and disengaging, she would eventually wear them down and maybe even turn the tables on them. She probably knew that and was deliberately using that as a tactic. Considering that she was armed with a convenient retreat in the form of the teleportation staff, this was probably how she usually fought. Wearing down the enemy by repeatedly retreating and coming back was likely second nature to her by now.
Unfortunately for her, Zach and Zorian weren’t alone. Before she could get very far, she found Alanic, Xvim and Daimen waiting for her in the distance. A roar of frustration echoed across the entire mountain while Zach and Zorian sat down to recover their mana reserves and catch their breath.
“Ha ha, I bet she didn’t expect that,” Zach said, grinning. His face was smeared with dust and there was a thin line of blood running down his left arm where a piece of shrapnel managed to get through his defenses, but he appeared to not notice it. “Now she, too, can experience what is like to be worn down by repeated attacks while her opponents take a rest every once in a while.”
“Didn’t you kill Oganj, who is a famous dragon mage, all by yourself in one of the early restarts?” Zorian asked curiously. “I know he couldn’t teleport around and was less annoying to fight, but he shouldn’t be any weaker. How on earth did you manage to tackle him on your own?”
“Trial and error,” Zach chuckled awkwardly. “Lots of trial and error. I honestly do not recommend it.”
They fell silent after that, simply watching the battle unfold in front of them.
* * *
“We’ve done it,” Zach breathed.
Laid on the ground in front of him were five objects: a glass orb, a plain metal ring, a gleaming dagger, an ornate crown and a simple staff.
All five pieces of the Key, gathered in one place.
The staff Violeteye had been using was indeed the imperial staff they were looking for. They had already brought it to the Guardian of the Threshold for inspection and found out about its powers. It had the ability to place up to six undetectable recall points and allowed the user to teleport back to their recall points… regardless of the distances involved. Each recall point could only be used once every 24 hours, but this was still a very potent ability.
That was for normal users. For the time loop controller, the staff was even more useful, since the recall points remained in place across restarts. That meant that if one began a restart with the staff in their hands, they could potentially travel anywhere on the planet in the blink of an eye.
Zach and Zorian didn’t begin their restarts with the staff in their hands, though, so the item’s usefulness was nearly nonexistent. They had to travel so long and search so far for an item that gave godlike movement capabilities to people… there was some dark humor in the situation, but Zorian didn’t feel like he could appreciate it at the moment.
In any case, at this point the whole thing didn’t matter. The staff was important because it was part of the Key needed to unbar the exit of the time loop, not because of its innate properties. Of course, by the time they acquired it, they already had the orb and the ring, so they were only missing two more items to complete the set. The dagger and the crown.
The dagger was… well, not exactly easy to acquire, but it was entirely doable at this point. They had familiarized themselves enough with the wards on the royal treasury that they could break into it and steal the dagger on their own, without any help from Quatach-Ichl. So they did just that. It caused a terrible uproar, and everyone was still searching for the thieves, but Zach and Zorian were fairly sure they had covered their tracks well enough.
Getting the crown, on the other hand, had been something they had agonized quite a bit over. They succeeded in the end, but now they had Quatach-Ichl after their heads and the restart was not even halfway over. The ancient lich had plenty of time to track them down and make them pay for what they did, which is something they never let him have in the previous restarts.
Still, with only one piece of the Key missing, how could they possibly resist the temptation to complete it? There was no way they could have waited until the end of the restart to do this. For all they knew, using the Key may give them options that hadn’t existed until now.
Numerous people crowded the space around Zach and Zorian, peering at the items on the ground. Pretty much everyone had arrived to take a look at them, even though they were nothing special in terms of appearance. Scattered whispering and quiet speculation filled the air and people speculated what would happen when they were brought before the Guardian of the Threshold.
After some quick discussion, Zach and Zorian decided to bring the Key to the Guardian of the Threshold right away to see what would happen… and they would be taking everyone with them to witness it as well.
Previously, they had already tried to bring a temporary looper into the space of the Sovereign gate and failed. The Guardian of the Threshold later confirmed that temporary loopers are unable to access the space. However, this security measure was childishly easy to bypass through a short duration soul bond that allowed the Controller to simply ‘pull’ outsiders with them as they entered the Sovereign Gate. Once inside, the Guardian of the Threshold largely ignored their presence, recognizing them as temporary loopers, but completely unconcerned about the fact that Zach and Zorian were breaking the rules. Zach and Zorian had used this method to bring various people into the Sovereign Gate at multiple occasions, so they did not foresee any problems.
Thus, the whole group made way into the secret time magic research facility beneath Cyoria and, after some small preparations, entered the Sovereign Gate.
The Guardian of the Threshold soon popped into existence in front of them, just like he always did. He was still the same human-like glowing entity, his face emotionless like a sculpted statue.
“Welcome, Controller,” the Guardian greeted.
“Yeah, yeah,” said Zach. “I’m glad to see you too, you lovable idiot. Did you notice we’ve brought the Key to you?”
The Guardian was silent for a moment.
“One moment, please,” it eventually said, before becoming silent again.
In the dark void of the Sovereign Gate space, there was only a silent glowing humanoid and a small throng of people anxiously waiting for his reaction. The Guardian of the Threshold did not appear to mind the large number of visitors, continuing his mysterious pondering with not a care in the world.
The temporary loopers around Zach and Zorian simply squirmed nervously, not saying much. They had learned by now that the Guardian of the Threshold utterly ignored temporary loopers, refusing to answer their questions or even acknowledge their existence. Watching Daimen and Silverlake getting progressively more angry as the entity ignored their comments had been rather amusing for Zorian the first time he witnessed it, but thankfully this time nobody lost their temper.
In any case, the Guardian eventually finished whatever it was doing and started speaking again.
“Everything is as it should be,” it said. “They Key is valid. Do you want to claim your privileges now?”
“Privileges? Why, I love privileges,” Zach said, grinning. “Yes. Give me all of those.”
“Done,” the entity immediately said.
“Can I unbar the gate now?” Zach asked.
“Yes,” the Guardian of the Threshold confirmed. “Do you want–”
“Yes, damn it, yes!” Zach said, voice full of exasperation. “Do it now.”
“As you wish,” it said. It paused for a few moment, silently performing some kind of task again. “It is done. The gate is now unbar-ar-ar-ar-ar-ar---”
Zorian watched in growing horror as the Guardian of the Threshold suddenly started twitching and stuttering as if it was having some kind of seizure. His head rolled around at impossible angles, rotating a full 360 degrees, his entire torso squirming and bulging as if something was trying to burst out of it.
He had a very bad feeling about this.
“What the hell is happening?” someone asked behind him.
“I don’t know,” Zach said, frowning. “This has never happened befo–”
Everything suddenly became quiet. At first Zorian thought Zach had just stopped speaking because he noticed or realized something important, but when he glanced towards him he found Zach gone.
Everyone but Zorian was gone. It was just him, a madly twitching Guardian of the Threshold and a quiet, featureless black void all around them.
He immediately tried to return to his body, but failed.
Shit… Well, at least the Guardian of the Threshold was starting to calm down. He was twitching less, and no longer twisted his head and limbs at impossible angles. Maybe–
A multitude of eyes suddenly snapped open all over Guardian of the Threshold’s body, blinking rapidly for a few moments before focusing straight at Zorian. Each one was different. Different sizes, different color, different internal structure. Some of them had multiple irises. Some of them glowed. Some of them were multifaceted, like those of an insect. Some of them made his mind feel numb just looking at them.
“Zorian Kazinski,” the Guardian of the Threshold said. Was it still the Guardian of the Threshold? Freaky eyes aside, even his voice was different. It was booming and resonant, with not a trace of humanity in it. “I have a proposition for you.”
“Who are you?” Zorian immediately challenged.
“You call me Panaxeth,” it immediately answered.
Zorian’s mind froze for a moment. What… how…
“The primordial?” he asked numbly, his voice filled with disbelief.
“Yes,” it answered.
Suddenly, some of its eyes closed and disappeared. The ones that made Zorian hurt to look at, as well as some of the freakier ‘normal’ ones.
“You can talk?” Zorian asked. It was a dumb question, but he was still in shock and couldn’t help himself.
Panaxeth seemed to think so too, because he ignored the question.
“I can get you out of here,” Panaxeth said. Its form changed again, additional eyes closing and his form becoming more humanlike in both color and texture. “All you have to do is make a contract with me.”
“No thanks,” he said immediately, shaking his head in denial.
“You will never get out of here alive without me,” it told him. Its voice acquired a human-like quality by this point, and most of the eyes were gone. “The other person didn’t either.”
“Red Robe?” Zorian asked.
“I never asked his name,” Panaxeth said. He looked entirely like a man by now, though his features seem to shift all the time – male and female, old and young, all kinds of skin tones and facial features… “Does it matter? We’re talking about you, now. Swear on your life you will help free me and I will incarnate you outside of this crumbling world.”
“Why would I do that, though?” Zorian asked.
“You get to live?” Panaxeth asked, sounding a little mystified by his response.
His constant shifting of his appearance slowed down greatly at this point. He seemed to have settled on a female form now, tall and good-looking, with long black hair and a body to die f–
Zorian scowled. The damn thing was slowly changing its appearance to appeal to him as much as possible, didn’t it? It constantly cycled through different appearances, all the while paying attention to his body movements and facial expressions to see what evoked a good response in him.
It was showing him what it thought he wanted to see.
Suddenly, the entity shifted into a perfect copy of Kirielle.
“I just want to live and be free!” she said, her lip quivering and her voice on the verge of tears.
“You are not Kirielle!” Zorian shouted at it, his temper rising.
Panaxeth immediately changed forms again, copying Taiven. Then Zach. Then Xvim, Daimen, Ilsa, Imaya…
Some of these people… how did it even know how they looked and sounded? Was it reading his mind?
He immediately strengthened his mental defenses, even though he could detect no intrusion.
“Why are you talking to me now?” Zorian asked. “I was here plenty of times before.”
“The gate was barred until now, so there was no point in speaking to you,” Panaxeth answered. “I can only get people out when the way is open.”
“But you could have contacted me like this all this time?” Zorian asked.
“Yes,” Panaxeth confirmed. “The Sovereign Gate has been damaged over the years, some of the safeguards failing. That is why they stopped using it for a long time. However, there is no point in speaking to most people unless they are strong enough to help me and unless the way is open. I did not think you could gather the entire Key before the world crumbled, but I’m glad to be proved wrong. We can help each other, Zorian. We can even discuss additional rewards once I am out of my cage.”
“But what if I fail?” Zorian asked.
“You die, of course,” Panaxeth said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “That’s what the contract is for.”
“So you get me out of here and in return I must help free you or die?” Zorian asked.
“Exactly,” Panaxeth confirmed.
“I’m going to have to say no,” Zorian sighed.
Panaxeth stared at him for a second. It seemed to realize it would never be able to convince Zorian to take this sort of deal, no matter what it used to entice him.
“You will regret that,” it said. “This was a one-time offer. I will not bother contacting you again.”
Zorian was of two minds about this. On one hand that was a bit disappointing, since he would like to have more talks with a primordial to see if he could get something substantial out of it. On the other hand, it was a freaking primordial and it seemed to be reading his mind in some way he couldn’t detect!
It was probably for the best that it never wanted to see him again.
“You gave up pretty quickly,” Zorian commented. “How are you so sure there is no chance to convince me in the future?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Panaxeth said. “Someone else has already taken my offer.”
Zorian’s eyes widened at the comment. Before he could ask Panaxeth what it meant by that, the generic female form in front of him disappeared and he was surrounded by noise again. He was once again standing next to Zach, with temporary loopers standing around him. All of them were screaming, shouting and talking at once. It was abundantly obvious that Zorian wasn’t the only one who had found himself alone, facing a terrifying primordial entity.
And after the situation had calmed down somewhat and he had done a quick headcount, a terrifying realization suddenly dawned to Zorian.
Silverlake was gone.