Change of Plans
It wasn’t long before the group decided to leave the Sovereign Gate space and return to their bodies outside. Partially this was because the Guardian of the Threshold was gone, leaving them on their own in the silent void. When Panaxeth ended his interaction with Zorian and others, he took the Guardian he had been possessing along with him. Or maybe he was the Guardian in the end, who could know? Regardless, with the Guardian no longer present, there was little point in them staying there either.
The second, more important reason, was that Silverlake was gone and they desperately wanted to check if she was outside, waiting for them. Although Panaxeth’s statement that someone had already taken his offer and her subsequent disappearance strongly suggested she had betrayed them, Zorian held on to the hope that she had merely left the Sovereign Gate on her own. Somehow.
It was a hope that would not last long. Whatever force Panaxeth had used to stop Zach and Zorian from returning to their body had dissipated with his disappearance, so getting out of the Sovereign Gate was done without incident. Once outside, they found Silverlake’s lifeless body lying on the floor.
She was dead. There was no evidence of struggle. No wounds, obvious or subtle. No indication of any sort of foul play from the facility staff or hidden enemies. It was as if her soul simply disappeared from her body all of a sudden, painlessly killing her.
It was the same kind of dead that they had already seen in the aranea beneath Cyoria and the other ‘soulkilled’ individuals they’d come across over the restarts.
A grim atmosphere descended upon the group. Zach was so enraged he incinerated Silverlake’s body into ashes before anyone could stop him. Zorian wanted to scold him for destroying critical clues as to what happened, but Alanic placed his hand on his shoulder and shook his head, silently telling him to let it go. Maybe it was better that way. This wasn’t the time for starting arguments and they probably got all they would have gotten out of her corpse anyway.
They didn’t stay in the time magic research facility for long. They needed to talk to everyone about what they had seen and heard, about what Panaxeth had talked with them in private, but that was best done in the privacy of their base at the Noveda Estate. However, an issue suddenly rose up when they tried to leave the facility. Apparently, while the facility staff accepted their mysterious orders without complaint, they still paid close attention to everyone coming and leaving from the facility. They knew exactly how many people their group had, and they knew that Silverlake had suddenly gone missing.
That was a surprisingly thorny situation to get out of. Zach was still visibly fuming and looked like he was going to start throwing around fireballs at all these people questioning him where their companion had suddenly disappeared to, but Krantin refused to let the matter drop. Unfortunately, explaining that Silverlake was dead and that Zach had already incinerated her soulless body was not an option. In the end, Zorian had to memory edit roughly half of the facility personnel to make them forget Silverlake had ever entered the place that day and then make alterations to the physical records which also kept track of that kind of thing.
Strange as that sounded, altering physical records turned out to be a lot harder than editing memories. Those records had some very inventive protections against such tampering, whereas the minds of facility staff were largely unprotected against mental tampering.
Still, although the immediate issue was dealt with, Zorian could already see that their headaches in regards to the facility and Silverlake’s presence there were only starting. Silverlake had been one of the crucial people in regards to their project of turning the imperial orb into a better Black Room. The void left by her disappearance was going to be keenly felt in the near future.
He still had trouble believing this was actually happening, to be honest. He had fully expected their circumstances to change once they brought the key to the Guardian of the Threshold, but not like this. How could Panaxeth even contact them through the Guardian? Even if the Sovereign Gate was made from a primordial, that primordial was clearly not Panaxeth. He of the Flowing Flesh was imprisoned inside the Hole, the massive circular abyss around which Cyoria was built. He had been stuck there since the time the primordials had been sealed away, presumably. The Sovereign Gate, on the other hand, had been primarily used in northern Miasina before its current use. It didn’t make sense… how could Panaxeth infiltrate the time loop mechanism to appear before them? How could he take people out of the time loop? And what had he offered Silverlake to make her swear some kind of death pact with a godlike primordial entity that considered them useful tools at best?
He didn’t know. He hoped other people had managed to get something useful out of the primordial, unlike him.
Having finally left the facility, the group gathered in the Noveda Estate. They left people some free time to collect their thoughts and calm down, and then started discussing what happened.
The first issue, of course, was Panaxeth. Or something that claimed to be Panaxeth, anyway. They had no proof that the unknown entity was telling the truth, but then again it had no reason to lie about that ether. Identifying as Panaxeth would not set anyone at ease. In any case, talking to the rest of the group confirmed what everyone had suspected by now – ‘Panaxeth’ had somehow dragged each of them into their own individual space for a private conversation.
Everyone except Zach, that is. Zach alone did not merit a meeting with the primordial, it seemed. While everyone else disappeared into their own private space, Zach was simply left alone in the darkness of the Sovereign Gate’s area. Even the Guardian of the Threshold was gone, leaving him simply floating in the silent void with no way out until Panaxeth was done with the others.
As for the others, they’d all found themselves in front of the warped, twisted Guardian of Threshold, though most did not see the same eye-covered humanoid that Zorian had. In Kyron’s case, for instance, the Guardian grew another two pairs of arms while his torso split open into a giant vertical mouth lined with predatory teeth. Nora saw the Guardian’s limbs lengthen while bone spikes erupted from its head, causing it look like it had a bony sea urchin growing out of its neck. This initial monstrous form was then gradually changed into a more inoffensive, human form through a process of constant shapeshifting reminiscent of the one Zorian experienced.
After that, though, the experiences of different people wildly diverged. Not all received the offer of making a contract with the primordial. Taiven and Nora were almost completely toyed with, for instance. Panaxeth simply shifted between different forms while occasionally spouting total non-sequiturs like ‘I like dogs’ or ‘your mother would be ashamed of you’, seemingly studying their reactions. Daimen claimed that Panaxeth had never offered him anything, instead simply trying to question him about what he knew about Zorian – his likes, motives and preferences. Something that visibly infuriated his older brother, though Zorian was unsure how much of that was because Panaxeth was basically trying to get him to betray his family and how much it was the fact that Panaxeth clearly didn’t see him as important outside of being ‘Zorian’s brother’. If the situation weren’t so dire, Zorian might have been amused about that.
It also quickly became clear that, even though everyone was reunited at roughly the same time, they did not spend the same amount of time talking to Panaxeth. Some, like Zorian, only interacted with the primordial for a short while before being dismissed. Others, especially ones that pretended to actually consider its offer, spoke with the entity for quite a while before Panaxeth tired of them. The primordial employed some kind of time dilation during its interaction with people, lengthening the meeting with ones that seemed like they could be convinced, while spending only a token effort on others.
This probably explained how it managed to convince Silverlake so relatively quickly. If she showed the greatest amount of interest in its offer out of them all, the primordial would have likely extended her meeting as much as it could. Plus, considering how powerful and experienced Silverlake was, she was probably considered one of the most prioritized targets to begin with.
“Were you not worried that the primordial was reading your mind?” Zorian asked them, frowning. “I mean, it seemed capable of lifting people’s appearances straight out of my head when I talked to it. It was one of the big reasons I was so eager to get out of the meeting as much as possible.”
“He did no such thing while talking to me,” Xvim said, shaking his head. “Then again, Panaxeth did not try to copy any people while talking to me. He just shifted from one generic form to another throughout the entire talk.”
Zorian found it a little interesting how some people, like him, referred to Panaxeth as ‘it’, while Xvim and others referred to the primordial as ‘he’. The cultists did call Panaxeth ‘He of the Flowing Flesh’, so one could indeed argue that the entity was male in some sense, but it was debatable how much normal gender applied to a monstrous shapechanger like that. The entity assumed a female form when speaking to him, male form in front of others, and an aranea form when speaking to the aranea… it clearly thought little of such things.
“I actually did ask the thing about that when it tried to shapeshift into Kana,” Kael said, pausing slightly. “Well, more like I blew up at it and demanded an explanation. Sparingly, it actually gave me one. It said no mind reading was taking place… it was ‘just’ watching everything we did inside the time loop and taking note of people close to us. That’s probably why it tried to convince me while looking like Kana instead of Namira, even though the latter would probably be more effective. Since my wife had died long before the start of the time loop, Panaxeth had no idea what she looked like, and thus couldn’t copy her appearance.”
“Yes, that is what he said to me as well,” Ilsa said. “He tried to tempt me with the secrets of true creation, and I asked how he knew about that. He said the same thing he had to Kael, but he also expanded on it a little bit. Panaxeth claims the Sovereign Gate is not made from a primordial like we thought – it is more like an attachment, or maybe a shell, which must be bonded to a specific primordial in order to work. This can potentially be any primordial, but currently it’s Panaxeth.”
“That’s why he could appear in front of us like that,” Zach said gloomily.
“Yes,” Ilsa said, nodding. “The Sovereign Gate somehow twists the primordial in question into the time loop as we know it. In a very real sense, Panaxeth is the time loop… which means he is aware of everything that occurs inside of him.”
“So Panaxeth is watching us even now?” Taiven said, sounding disturbed.
“Probably,” Ilsa shrugged. She seemed to take the idea in stride. Or maybe she’d just had more time than the rest of them to come to terms with it.
Zorian was personally very disturbed by this discovery. How were they supposed to subvert the time loop mechanism in order to leave this place, if the time loop was basically a sapient being that was always watching them? It was quite likely that Panaxeth could actively sabotage any escape attempt it did not like. Perhaps it was limited by the safeguards built into the Sovereign Gate, but those safeguards probably wouldn’t protect people like him, who were trying to break the system.
No wonder Panaxeth claimed he was never leaving this place without its help. Back then, Zorian thought that meant ‘without its help’, but perhaps what Panaxeth really meant was ‘without its approval’…
“If he is that all-knowing, I wonder why he had not been more effective at tempting us,” Xvim mused. “One would think he would have a far better grasp on our character if it could perceive everything we did so far.”
“Awareness is not necessarily total awareness,” Orissa offered. “I am technically aware of everything my bees do, but if you were to ask me about one particular bee, there is only so much I could tell you.”
“The various elementals we consulted did say that primordials view us all like animals, maybe even mere bugs,” Zach said. “How much do you really understand the sparrows living in the city or ants digging up your garden? We may be greater than them, but they are still alien to us. Hell, Zorian can read their minds and memories, and he still has trouble leading them from place to place without using any magical coercion.”
“You’re talking about that one time he tried to literally herd cats, right?” Kael said, smiling slightly. “I remember that one.”
“It wasn’t a serious attempt,” Zorian complained. “It was just an amusing idea I had when I was bored.”
“This isn’t the time for this,” Alanic said, a little annoyed. “Zach brings up a good point with primordials seeing us all as animals. You don’t discuss things with animals, you manipulate them into doing what you want. We should be wary of trusting that creature too much. Although there is probably some glimmer of truth in what it’s saying, I suspect it is willing to say anything, true or false, if it thinks doing so will increase its chances of escaping its prison.”
“I don’t know. He seemed pretty honest and forthright to me,” Ilsa said, looking at Alanic. “Clearly you also thought there was some value in listening to it, since you were one of the people that managed to engage it in a lengthy conversation. What did you speak about, then?”
Ultimately, only a few people managed to keep their cool and get something substantial out of Panaxeth. Alanic, Xvim, Orissa, Ilsa, Kyron and an aranea named Night Dream were the only ones that managed to interest Panaxeth enough for him to engage them in a lengthy back-and-forth. It made Zorian a little self-conscious to realize he had essentially bungled that meeting. He might have gotten some important answers out of the primordial if he had been a little better at acting.
Then again, were these people really so good at acting or were they actually somewhat tempted by Panaxeth’s offer, and the primordial could sense that in their exchange? He could tell that Ilsa, at the very least, was lying when she claimed she had only been pretending to be interested in the primordial’s offer. The others were harder to read.
In any case, Alanic did not appear in the slightest bit uncomfortable about being put on the spot like that.
“We had a big talk about faith, risk-taking and the duty of the individual towards their community,” Alanic said.
Zorian raised his eyebrow at him. So did a lot of other people, from what he could say.
“And you were scolding me and Zorian for not taking things seriously just a little while ago,” Kael scoffed.
“It’s the truth,” Alanic said. “Rather than just refuse the creature, I asked it why I would ever agree to such a deal. The consequences would be so apocalyptic, especially for Cyoria, that I couldn’t imagine how this would be a good idea. Even if I was selfish to the extreme and only cared about myself, the primordial was a threat to all of humanity.”
“Oh, I asked him the same thing,” Orissa interjected. “He said he had no intention of destroying the world or menacing humanity. All he wanted, he said, was to be free and to free the rest of the imprisoned primordials as well. He would only destroy those who tried to prevent him from achieving those two goals.”
“Ha. Well, it said no such thing to me,” Alanic said. “Probably because it knew I would not believe that. Instead, the primordial countered my concerns by telling me that the gods had left numerous ‘contingencies’ in regards to primordials, should they ever successfully escape. If I truly had faith in the gods, it said, what was the harm in setting it free? The contract would be fulfilled the moment it was out of prison, even if it died immediately afterwards. I should have faith in the divine and their works, in which case there was nothing wrong with taking the deal, releasing it out of its prison and then watching it die immediately afterwards.”
“Do these contingencies of the gods truly exist?” Zorian asked. He heard nothing about that, but Alanic was a priest, so…
“I don’t know,” Alanic admitted. “Even if they did, it is said the gods imprisoned primordials because they had trouble truly killing them. If the gods were incapable of dealing with them in person, I rather doubt a mere contingency could do it. Clearly this Panaxeth did not believe this either, otherwise why would it even make the offer? We then got into a lengthy philosophical discussion about what constitutes true faith and various other things. I doubt you really want to hear about that.”
“Maybe later,” Zach said. “Orissa, you said you also talked to Panaxeth about what he’d do once free?”
“Yes. Aside from what I already said, I think he alluded to these divine contingencies Alanic spoke about at one point,” she said. “He mentioned that, in the process of tearing himself free from his cage, he would likely end up ‘weakened and grievously wounded’, and that it would take him centuries to fully recover. During that time, he would just hide somewhere and wait until he was fully healed. He was suggesting that I had no reason to care about his goals, because by the time he was ready to make his move, I would have died a long time ago.”
After some more back and forth, they confirmed some details with the other members of the group. For instance, it seemed that nobody had been presented with an image of a person that had died before the time loop had begun. In fact, the primordial didn’t even bother copying living relatives, if the temporary looper hadn’t interacted with them within the bounds of the time loop. This led some credence to his claim that he couldn’t read minds and ‘just’ relied on seeing everything that ever happened in the time loop.
This done, they turned to the last three people who had spoken to Panaxeth at any real length. Xvim, Kyron and Night Dream had all asked similar questions, however: they wanted to know the details of what the contract with Panaxeth actually entailed. Thankfully, this appeared to be a topic that Panaxeth was really eager to talk about.
“So if I understood you three correctly, the contract is as follows…” Zorian said. “You make a death pact with Panaxeth, swearing that you would either free him within a month or die trying. He then takes your soul and ‘incarnates’ it in the outside world. That is to say, he creates a brand new copy of your body in the real world, at the start of the month, in effect physically ejecting you out of the time loop. Included in the created body is some kind of kill switch that will kill you if Panaxeth is still imprisoned at the end of the summer festival.”
“Yes,” Night Dream said, her magically produced voice clear and smooth. “It doesn’t matter whether you tried your best or why you failed – if Panaxeth isn’t free by the end of the deadline, the ‘death seal’ activates and kills you. No excuses.”
“And if Panaxeth is freed at any point before the deadline, this kill switch dissolves into nothingness and you are free to do whatever you want?” Zorian asked.
“Yes, even if Panaxeth dies, our part of the agreement is done,” Xvim confirmed. “I asked several variations of that question just to be sure, and he always answered the same. We only needed to get him out, nothing more. Our original selves were not part of the agreement, either, and would not suffer if we failed in our task.”
“Probably because their bodies hadn’t been created by Panaxeth, so he cannot place his ‘death seal’ thingy on them,” Kyron remarked. “Even if he wanted to make them die with us, he cannot.”
“What stops you from taking the deal and then working against Panaxeth? Assuming you don’t mind dying in a month, of course,” Alanic asked.
“When I asked a question along those lines, the shapeshifting asshole immediately ended our conversation and sent me back to the group,” Kyron said. “I guess he really didn’t like that question. From what I can tell, though, the answer is nothing. Nothing stops you from doing just that.”
“Then,” Kael said hesitantly, “do you think that Silverlake–”
Kyron let loose a short, loud laugh.
“Boy, get real!” he told Kael. “Do you think a selfish, self-centered bitch like that would agree to sacrifice herself for our sake? For anyone’s sake!?”
Kael sighed, saying nothing.
A quiet murmur rippled throughout the entire group as they discussed the topic among themselves. Zorian listened to it with half an ear while lost in his own thoughts. Truthfully, now that he had heard about other people’s experiences with Panaxeth, her choice was… predictable. It wasn’t that they had trusted her because they had thought that she was better than this, they had just never realized making a deal like this was even an option. If Zorian had known about this before, he would have been the first one to veto any involvement with her, no matter how useful she could have been to their efforts.
And she had been very, very useful. Without any exaggeration, she was one of the pillars of the group on which their entire plan rested. Zorian wasn’t even sure if they could do this without her. Certainly, without Silverlake, their current exit plan was completely unworkable…
“I have to agree with Kyron,” Alanic said solemnly. “Silverlake did not keep her attitudes hidden, so this decision should not surprise anyone here. You heard what everyone said on this meeting. The primordial offers people a guaranteed way to save their lives, as opposed to the uncertain odds of survival that we can offer her. She probably wouldn’t care if every single person in Cyoria ended up dead as a result of Panaxeth’s release, and it might be centuries before the wider consequences of his unsealing became apparent. Plus, there is no telling what kind of prize the creature offered her to entice her further.”
“She was also clearly already interested in primordials even before the time loop. Including Panaxeth’s prison, specifically,” Zorian said. “She might have felt more confident about being able to come out on top when dealing with one of them.”
“But she’s immortal, right?” Taiven protested. “Shouldn’t she take the long view in this? Even if Panaxeth takes several centuries to start wrecking everything, she’ll still be alive by that point!”
“You have to look at it from her eyes,” Zach said. He had calmed down greatly from his initial rage, and was now thinking much more rationally about the situation. “What’s the alternative? Dying immediately because you couldn’t get out of the time loop? That’s even worse.”
“But if Panaxeth remains sealed, her original self can continue to live in peace indefinitely,” Taiven pointed out. “She’s risking the long-term future of her original in exchange for a little more life for herself.”
“I don’t think she cares about that,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “That Silverlake is not her.”
“Yes. Did you ever notice she never created any simulacrums? Even when it would have been very useful?” Zach pointed out. “I don’t think for a moment she was unable to learn the spell. And I don’t think she would sabotage our attempts to escape from the time loop by not creating more skilled manpower. I think she’s one of the people who can’t use them because they would freak out when they realized their lives were fleeting and do something stupid.”
“Well, when you all put it like that, why did we ever agree to work with her in the first place?” Kyron suddenly demanded, throwing his hands in the air in discontent.
“Yeah!” one of Xvim’s academic friends piped in. “She was a bad idea right from the start! Whose bright idea was to include her, anyway?”
“What was the alternative?” Xvim challenged, alternating his gaze between Kyron and the other speaker. “Silverlake was brought into the group because she had critical skills that no one else possessed. The only reason we got as far as we did was because we had her working along with us. Even if she betrayed us in the end, it’s hard to say whether we would have been better off without her.”
No one had anything to say to that.
“Zorian, you’re the only one Panaxeth told anything related to Silverlake,” Zach said. “Can you tell us anything else?”
“All he said was that someone had already taken his offer, so convincing me didn’t matter anymore,” Zorian said. He was the only one Panaxeth had felt the need to tell that. “I had no idea what that meant back then, but when I saw Silverlake was missing…”
“Yeah,” Zach said, clacking his tongue. “Doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened. So, what now? Now we have two hostile loopers to deal with once we get out of the time loop?”
Zorian had to admire Zach’s spirit sometimes. Even now, with all their plans being thrown into total disarray, he was still confident they would get out of this alive. It was nice to have someone like that, sometimes.
“Panaxeth’s statement was a little confusing, but I think that’s right. He was implying that Red Robe had also taken his offer and made a contract with him in order to leave the time loop. Presumably, this is why he spent so much time optimizing the invasion. His very life depends on its success. Presumably, once outside, Silverlake will work with him to make sure Panaxeth’s release goes off as smoothly as possible.”
“Why does Silverlake accepting his offer mean there is no point in convincing you, though?” Kael asked. “You’d think Panaxeth would want as many agents as possible.”
“Probably because every time he transports someone out the gate becomes barred again,” Zorian said. “Remember, the whole point of gathering the Key was that the gate was inexplicably barred, even though it shouldn’t have been. ‘The Controller has already left’, Guardian of the Threshold told us. That probably means that when Panaxeth got Red Robe out of the time loop, it got stuck. The same probably happened now. Even if Panaxeth wanted to transport more than one person, he couldn’t.”
“But you still have the Key,” Ilsa pointed out.
“We do,” Zach confirmed.
“So you can probably just unbar the gate again,” Ilsa stated.
“Probably,” Zach agreed.
“They’d have to be pretty stupid to take any of us into the Sovereign Gate again,” Alanic said pitilessly. “I would never do so in their place.”
“All of us present refused that thing’s deal,” Kyron pointed out, a little incensed.
“Or maybe we were just too slow and Silverlake hammered out her deal before we had a chance to do the same,” Xvim said. “I agree with Alanic. Now that Silverlake betrayed us, the pressure on remaining people is all the greater. It’s a pointless risk.”
Zorian watched the argument in silence, not knowing what to say.
This was going to be a long evening…
* * *
After finding out what everyone had experienced in the Sovereign Gate, Zach and Zorian departed from the Noveda Estate and went to ransack Silverlake’s dimensional refuge for any clues. Of course, Zorian fully intended to also steal any magical secrets or notable resources he found there. Since Silverlake had betrayed them so utterly, he did not feel bad about robbing her blind in the slightest.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Silverlake’s spite and paranoia knew no bounds. When they finally managed to subvert her defenses and break into her pocket dimension, they found it utterly wrecked. It had been reduced to a smoking crater for quite some time before they arrived, most likely because some dead man’s switch had activated when she died and destroyed everything. Zorian left a couple of simulacrums to sift through the wreckage for anything of value, but he didn’t have much hope they would find anything. The destruction was quite thorough.
The only things that survived relatively intact was a curious arrangement of stones that was apparently responsible for powering her pocket dimension. He had long wondered how she was doing that, since the location itself could not support the dimensional magic she was using to isolate it from the rest of the world. Now he knew. Each of the heavy linking stones, which were build right into the walls of her hideout to disguise them better, had a matching counterpart in the deep in the underworld below her base. The underworld stones siphoned ambient mana from the Dungeon and sent it straight into Silverlake’s hideout through the paired stones in the pocket dimension.
He supposed that if he ever wanted to destroy Silverlake’s pocket dimension, he now knew a really easy way to do it. He just had to wreck the mana siphoning stones in the Dungeon below her sanctuary and the whole place would soon fall apart on its own.
In any case, with this matter currently being dealt with, Zach and Zorian turned their attention towards the next thing that had to be done as soon as possible.
They had to go back to the Sovereign Gate and talk to the Guardian of the Threshold.
There was danger in doing that, of course. However, it had to be done. They had to confirm their suspicions. First, they had to see if the Guardian would still be there at all when they came back, since it had gone missing when they had last left the Sovereign Gate. Secondly, they had to see if the gate really was barred again like they suspected. If so, a lot of their speculation would be all but confirmed.
Finally, they had to see if the Guardian could shed some light on what happened during their last visit. While it had seemed like nothing more than an automated puppet in the past, there was clearly something more complex going on in regards to that thing.
Only the two of them would be going there this time, of course. Considering Panaxeth completely ignored Zach the last time around and told Zorian he would not bother with him in the future, they probably wouldn’t be seeing him on this visit. Even if they did, though, Zorian was far less afraid of him now that he knew he couldn’t just reach into his head and start editing things. Whatever restrictions the primordial was laboring under, they clearly prevented him from coercing people into anything.
When they entered the Sovereign Gate, they were relieved to see the familiar figure of the Guardian of the Threshold floating in front of them.
“Welcome, Controller,” the Guardian greeted.
“So Panaxeth didn’t break everything with his little visit,” Zach commented, loudly exhaling in satisfaction. “That’s great. Finally some good news.”
“Yes,” Zorian agreed. He turned towards the floating humanoid of light, giving him a complex look. What was this thing really? “Guardian, is the gate still open?”
They waited for several seconds, wondering why it took the Guardian so long to answer that. Usually he was really prompt with his answers, only occasionally waiting while it looked up something in the background. As the seconds ticked by, though, they realized he wasn’t checking up on things before giving them an answer.
Instead, the Guardian ignored Zorian’s question completely.
“Hey Guardian! Is the gate still open?” Zach said, repeating Zorian’s question.
“No, Controller. The gate is barred,” the Guardian immediately answered.
Zach and Zorian shared a complex look with each other. On one hand, they just confirmed their speculation about what happened. This was good. It meant they were of the right track. On the other hand…
“Guardian, why did you answer his question and not mine?” Zorian asked the glowing humanoid.
But the Guardian ignored his question, just like he did the previous one. In fact, Zorian realized that, although the Guardian was facing them, he was subtly tilted towards Zach. It was like he was completely ignoring Zorian’s very existence.
Just like he had been ignoring the temporary loopers in the past.
“Guardian, why are you only responding to me and not him?” Zach asked, a bit of frustration bleeding into his voice.
“I only respond to the Controller,” the Guardian stated placidly.
“I knew it,” Zorian said quietly, followed by a small sigh.
Zach stared at the Guardian, getting visibly more and more upset as time went by. Zorian just felt a sinking feeling of defeat, instead. When it rained, it poured.
“This is bullshit,” Zach stated angrily, pointing with his finger at Zorian. “He entered this space on his own, by activating his marker. Only a controller can do that!”
“Yes,” the Guardian agreed. “He is an anomaly. Those happen sometimes. Something or someone has managed to get past the safeguards and disrupted the integrity of the mechanism. The anomaly can access Controller privileges even though he is not one. I am unable to do anything about that at the moment, but do not worry – the mistake will be corrected at the end of this cycle, when the world is recreated again.”
Lovely. Zorian did not need a detailed explanation to understand what the Guardian was implying.
“But why now?” Zach demanded. “How did you figure out he was the anomaly all of a sudden? He had been coming and going here for ages now!”
“Yes. Regretful,” Guardian said blandly. “However, you have presented me with the Key recently, which triggered a complete analysis of the existing situation. During this inspection, the anomaly was identified and correction procedures were scheduled to be performed at the first possible opportunity.”
“Why?” Zach asked. “What is it about the Key that triggers this?”
“Activating the Key signifies that something has gone wrong with the time loop mechanism,” The Guardian answered, as if that was the most obvious thing in the world. “Of course a thorough check of everything is in order.”
“It does? You never mentioned this when we asked you about the Key,” Zach stated accusingly.
The Guardian ignored the statement. Zorian was actually a little taken aback by this, since it meant the Guardian had probably kept them deliberately in the dark about that when they had talked to him in the past.
He supposed it made sense. The key was a security measure meant to confirm the Controller’s identity. It made sense not to discuss the details of its operation unless the Guardian felt he had to, for some reason.
“What about those privileges I claimed, then?” Zach asked. “What does that get me?”
“It affirms your status as the one true Controller and locks out all the other pretenders that may be walking about,” the Guardian said.
“What!?” Zach protested incredulously. “That’s it? No new functions or abilities or anything like that?”
“As a Controller, you already have all the privileges,” the Guardian told him. “You have simply ensured others do not infringe on this.”
“Why can Zorian even access this place, then?” Zach demanded.
“He is an anomaly,” the Guardian said.
“These ‘privileges’ are such a rip-off,” Zach complained. “It doesn’t even do what it’s supposed to properly.
“I’m sorry,” the Guardian said, sounding honestly apologetic. “He’s a very frustrating anomaly.”
‘And thank the gods for that,’ Zorian thought.
He wasn’t panicking, strangely enough. He didn’t know why. Maybe because he already faced a very dire situation today and was rather emotionally drained at the moment, but finding out he was going to be deleted at the end of the month only brought a dull mixture of dread and determination to his mind.
So what if Silverlake had betrayed them? So what if Panaxeth was actively working against him? So what if he would get erased at the end of the month? Hadn’t they already planned to make an escape attempt in this restart?
They just had to make sure it worked.
He looked over at Zach, who had stopped arguing with the Guardian and was instead looking at Zorian like he was a dead man. A mixture of horror and guilt was etched clearly into his face.
“Don’t beat yourself over this,” Zorian told Zach. His voice was so calm and even that even he was surprised how confident he sounded. “There was nothing else we could have done. You heard what the Guardian said – the moment we presented the Key to him, I was marked for erasure. It was always a given that we would do that the moment we gathered all the pieces. We should be grateful it was so difficult and took us that long to do it, or else we would have ended up in this situation at a much earlier and far less favorable restart.”
“But, Zorian!” Zach protested. “You, you…”
“This just means I need to get out of here before this month ends. It’s the same situation the rest of the group is laboring under, really,” Zorian said. “Don’t tell me you’ve already given up?”
“N-No… no…” Zach said slowly, taking a few deep breaths. “Damn it. I really hate this.”
“Ask the Guardian if the Key still works. Can you unbar the gate again?”
He could, it turned out.
“Do you want to do it now?” the Guardian asked.
“No!” Zach shouted at it. “No. Do nothing until I tell you, you useless thing.”
“As you wish,” the Guardian said peacefully, completely oblivious to their emotional turmoil.
There was a few seconds of silence as neither Zach nor Zorian said anything.
“Well…” said Zorian finally. “We should probably end this for now. We need to come here later to ask more questions, but I don’t think either of us is in the right frame of mind to do so at the moment.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Zach gloomily agreed. “I just–”
Suddenly, the Guardian started convulsing again.
“Oh, not this shit again!” Zach protested in an exasperated tone.
Zorian made no moves to exit the Sovereign Gate this time. He probably couldn’t even if he wanted to, but this time he actually wanted to have a talk with Panaxeth, so he didn’t even try. Interestingly, Panaxeth did not bother to separate Zach from Zorian this time around and simply possessed the convulsing Guardian in front of them both. The glowing humanoid erupted into a forest of blood-red branches and tentacles before shuddering and contracting into a more human-like mass. It then quickly shapeshifted into the same female form that it had chosen for Zorian the last time they spoke. It did so far quicker than last time, apparently having gotten more proficient with the process.
It took a step forward, seemingly intending to walk over to them, before pausing and stopping in place.
“Hello Zorian,” Panaxeth said in a pleasant female voice. “We meet again.”
“I thought you said you would not bother talking to me again,” Zorian immediately pointed out. “That it was a one-time offer.”
“Bah, I told you it was just playing hard to get,” Zach stated.
“Getting past the safeguards on this mechanism is not an easy thing to do,” Panaxeth said. “It is not easy for me to appear before you like this. I meant what I said last time, but I decided you are more interesting than I first realized.”
“Last time you didn’t even dare show your face in front of me,” Zach said loudly in a challenging tone, folding his hands over his chest.
“As the Controller, you are especially well protected from any tampering,” Panaxeth said, shifting its attention towards Zach for a moment. “And you can leave at any time. You do not require my help, nor am I able to stop you from leaving. You are of no use to me.”
“But here you are, showing yourself in front of me anyway,” Zach pointed out.
“I need to conserve my power,” Panaxeth said. “Isolating you in a separate space is costly and unnecessary. I do not care if you hear us.”
The female form Panaxeth was wearing turned its attention back to Zorian, staring at him intently.
“You still have a chance to survive this,” Panaxeth said. “I have managed to stop the Guardian from rescinding all your Controller privileges. Wreck the Controller’s mind as much as you’re able, use the key to unbar the gate, and I will incarnate you in the outside world. I do not even ask that you make a contract with me. Grievously sabotaging the Controller and preventing him from exiting the time loop will be payment enough for your salvation.”
Zach actually floated a few steps back when he heard that.
“You don’t want me as an agent?” Zorian asked, frowning.
“I already have two of them. That’s more than enough,” Panaxeth said. “If I can ensure that the Controller dies here when the time loop collapses upon itself, it will be far more valuable to me than any additional number of agents.”
Neither Zach nor Zorian said anything for a few seconds, but Zorian was furiously thinking about things. If Panaxeth was so desperate to take Zach out of the picture… that probably meant this entire time loop had been made specifically to help him find a reliable way to stop Panaxeth’s release. Even if Zach could not remember so, the two of them were mortal enemies.
“Before I helped Zach gather all the pieces of the Key, you were already winning,” Zorian realized. “You had already sent one of the temporary loopers out as your agent, and Zach had mostly forgotten his mission to stop you. He only had vague feelings to guide him in what he must do. Even if he figured out how to come here, the gate was barred and he couldn’t leave.”
“Yes. It would have been better for me if the Key had never been found,” Panaxeth admitted readily. “However, I am the very embodiment of adaptability. I do not blame you for looking out for your best interests. I simply recruited one of you as my agent, thinking that was the best way to make use of the situation. It was only later that I found out how capable you are at mind invasion, and how the original plan could still be salvaged.”
“You didn’t know that before?” Zorian asked.
“I’m always watching,” Panaxeth said. “Everything, everywhere. But my consciousness is a lot like yours, in that I can’t pay attention to every little detail I see. When you observe an anthill, you perceive a lot, but can you really remember what one particular ant does at any point of time? But I remember it all with perfect clarity, and I can review it all later as I wish. Just like you can remember things with perfect clarity when you want to. See? We’re a lot more alike than you might think, Zorian.”
The female shape Panaxeth was using as his avatar smiled. It was a bright, sunny smile that was probably meant to put him at ease but which Zorian found inexplicably terrifying.
“We’re both trapped in this cage, doing anything we can, even distasteful things, in order to get out,” Panaxeth continued. “Do you think I want to destroy your city? Its destruction is simply an unfortunate consequence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I never asked your kind to build a city around me. Just like you are willing to kill your outside self to live, I am willing to obliterate everything around me to get free. It is not my fault my fatality count is higher than yours.”
“I will die if I don’t get out of here in time,” Zorian pointed out. “You won’t.”
“The cage that binds me is torture you can barely imagine,” Panaxeth countered. “Imagine being entombed alive for centuries, alive, but starving and thirsting, and unable to move a finger. If that was your fate, would you not do anything in your power to get free?”
That… was a good argument, actually. Zorian had nothing to say to that.
“And then there is him,” said Panaxeth, suddenly pointing towards Zach.
“Me?” Zach protested. “I’m just sitting here quietly, listening to you two talk. What about me?”
“I am heavily restricted in regards to the Controller and cannot speak about things freely, but I can tell you this – no matter what you think about that person, no matter how friendly he seems, you are ultimately enemies. In the end, one has to kill the other.”
“That’s… That’s bullshit!” Zach exploded. “What the hell do you mean by that!?”
“He is good at pretending,” Panaxeth said, not even bothering to look at him. “However, you should have noticed the signs by now. Don’t let your emotions overpower your reason.”
Angry and ignored, Zach tried to ram himself into Panaxeth’s form, even though he knew no fighting was possible here and that this was probably a bad idea.
Panaxeth’s form simply blurred for a moment, causing Zach to harmlessly pass through it.
“I have said all I that needs to be said,” Panaxeth said. “Make the right choice, Zorian. You have until the end of the restart to make a decision. I will be waiting.”
Then they were outside, back in their real bodies. They hadn’t even activated the exit function in their marker – it was another thing that the primordial could apparently do on its own initiative.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Zach raged, throwing around everything in the vicinity to vent his frustration. Zorian winced when one of the sensitive instruments that the facility staff user to study the Sovereign Gate impacted the nearby wall and broke apart. That was going to be a real bitch to explain to Krantin. “Damn it all to hell! Why is everything suddenly going so wrong!?”
“Zach, you really need to work on your temper,” Zorian said, thrusting his hand towards another device Zach just threw across the room. It immediately ceased flying through the air, stopping just before it hit one of the cabinets.
Zach paced around the room angrily for a while, not saying anything but thankfully no longer destroying expensive equipment either. After a while he marched up to Zorian with heavy, purposeful steps and grasped him by the shoulders with both of his hands.
“Zorian,” he began, “you don’t really believe that nonsense Panaxeth was spouting there at the end, do you?”
Zorian stared at him, stony-faced, for several seconds.
He knew that there was something to Panaxeth’s accusations. Zach’s mind… it clearly had been tampered with somehow. Maybe by Red Robe. Maybe by the angels, when they had given him his task. Maybe by both. Everything pointed towards that conclusion. Even if Zach was genuinely friendly and wished him nothing but good, there could be all sorts of restrictions, compulsions or contingencies placed in there, just waiting for some trigger to activate them. Perhaps once they were out of the time loop, the smiling boy in front of him would suddenly turn hostile and try to kill him for no reason. He still remembered how quickly Princess switched from seeing them as mortal enemies to following one of them like an overgrown puppy, just because they managed to scratch her a little with her control dagger.
However, he also knew it would be a mistake to say that out loud. For one thing, Zach just listened to Panaxeth telling Zorian to scramble his mind in exchange for a ticket to outside. In light of that, any argument Zorian might use to convince Zach to let him rummage inside his mind would seem very suspect.
“No,” Zorian said. “I don’t believe that at all.”
Zach stared at him for a second before finally letting go of his shoulders and straightening himself a little.
“Good,” he said, patting Zorian on the shoulder in a friendly manner. “That’s good. We can’t let that thing divide us like that. We need to trust each other, now most of all.”
“Right,” Zorian said. He actually agreed with that. “And by the way? You’re the one explaining to Krantin why you totally trashed the room like that.”
Zach froze for a second and then looked around him, assessing damage.
“I guess you’re right,” he said with a groan. “I really do need to work on my temper.”