In the months leading up to their disastrous exit from the time loop, Zorian and the other members of the group had entertained many different outcomes and how each of them would reflect on what they would have to do immediately after crossing over into the real world. This included the possibility of having to cross over in soul form, much like Zorian had ended up doing in the end. Theoretically, this meant that Zorian already knew what to do and how to arrange his priorities.
In practice, things weren’t so simple. While he had succeeded in leaving the time loop and possessing his old body, the process had a critical flaw.
Their theorizing had assumed that, if Zorian executed everything correctly, he would be at his top form upon seizing his body. After all, he would possess a body that was flawlessly matched to his soul, so there shouldn’t be any rejection issues that usually plagued possession attempts. Having crossed over as a soul meant losing all the physical resources and information storage they had planned to bring, but at least his magic would be fully intact.
In reality, he didn’t even have that.
The problem was the dimensional ability of the tunneler toad he had anchored to himself in the time loop. His body may have been perfectly matched to his soul, but it wasn’t the body to which he had anchored the ability to. Without the life force portion of the anchor, the part located in his mana reserves couldn’t persist for long, either. He was fortunate he had managed to prevent its collapse before successfully possessing his old body, or else he’d be dead right now and all the sacrifices the others had made would have been for nothing. However, once he established full control of his body, the ability anchor in his mana reserves finally gave out and unraveled completely.
Unraveling a permanent enhancement like that was not a small matter. It caused him no pain, and he would not be permanently crippled by any means, but his mana reserves would be in utter turmoil for the next four to five days.
An eternity, considering time was of the essence.
Standing completely still in the darkness of his room, Zorian closed his eyes and sensed his mana again with a more critical eye. It was bad… but not unmanageable. A regular mage would have been completely crippled by the chaotic, unruly nature of his current mana reserves, but Zorian had honed his shaping skills to virtual perfection. Plus, he had experienced something similar before, when Quatach-Ichl had inflicted grievous soul damage, so he had experience in how to handle these sorts of things.
Slowly and carefully, he waved his hands in the air in front of him, softly muttering a spell chant. After some time, a single flawless simulacrum materialized in front of him.
The simulacrum did not speak or wait for Zorian to give him a command. He knew what was asked from it. He simply walked back to the bed, lied down, closed his eyes, and focused completely on calming down the raging mana reserves they both shared.
Zorian breathed a sigh of relief as he felt his mana reserves immediately stabilize into a more manageable form. Good. So long as one of his simulacrums focused all their attention on stabilizing them, his mana reserves would remain usable. It wasn’t the same as him being in top form, but it would do for now.
His spellcasting restored to a usable condition, he immediately threw himself into the next task before him: confirming that Zach had left the time loop and waking him up before Red Robe had a chance to assassinate him in his sleep. A critical task that would normally require him to drop everything else and rush to Cyoria, but which might be achievable through faster and cheaper methods.
Quickly rummaging through his old school supplies for alchemical reagents and deconstructing a bunch of old items scattered around his room for necessary materials, Zorian constructed a simple ritual circle on the floor of his room. He then spent almost a minute performing a special long-range ritual spell… one that tapped into his marker. The same marker that he had shared with Zach.
There was no guarantee that Zach still had the marker on his soul, of course, even if he had successfully left the time loop. Unlike Zorian, Zach was supposed to leave the time loop the normal way for a Controller. That is to say, the Guardian of the Threshold would perform the transfer. For all Zorian knew, this process may have involved erasing the marker, since it was no longer necessary.
However, Zorian had a suspicion that the marker was definitely going to stay embedded in Zach’s soul. A suspicion that turned out to be correct when the ritual finished, and the information from it rushed into Zorian’s mind. He could feel the existence of the second marker in the direction of Cyoria, shining like a star in the darkness.
He breathed a sigh of relief. He had made it out. There was no reason why he wouldn’t have, but so many things had gone wrong that Zorian did not dare take anything for granted.
He then reached out to Zach over the faint connection provided by the ritual and their identical markers. His mana reserves dropped like a stone. Bridging the vast distances between Cirin and Cyoria was hard and costly, even for such a small thing. Without the two identical markers connecting them, it would have been entirely impossible.
Just before he was about to run out of mana, he succeeded in touching Zach’s soul. It was just a light brush, but it was enough. A sharp spiritual jolt shook his soul, shocking him awake.
After observing things for a second to make sure he had really succeeded, Zorian broke the connection and stood up. He couldn’t actually talk to Zach through a spell like that, so there was no point in burning through his mana to keep the link going. They would talk more once they actually met.
He waited for a while till his mana reserves recovered and then cast the simulacrum spell three more times. Like the first simulacrums, these ones did not bother speaking either. There was no point. Zorian’s connection with his simulacrum was very strong, intertwining them on both mental and spiritual levels. Though they still had their own individual minds, they were constantly exchanging thoughts with Zorian and each other, much of it on a purely unconscious level with no need to expend effort or concentration to make it happen.
Four simulacrums. This was the most he could manage at the moment while still remaining effective. He would be casting a lot of magic in the near future, so he had to keep his mana regeneration rate at acceptable levels.
He considered what to do next for a moment, mentally bouncing ideas back and forth between his simulacrums. While they talked, they silently wandered around the house and rummaged through his belongings, gathering materials. They didn’t have too much time to spend on making equipment, but some basic spell aids and disguises were a must.
The chance that Red Robe and Silverlake would target his family immediately after exiting the time loop was low, in his opinion. Those two had more pressing issues to tackle for now, and Cirin was far from Cyoria. Red Robe might not even know about Zorian and where he lived, or else he would have knocked Zorian out of the loop before leaving it. Silverlake obviously did know, but she and Red Robe presumably did not know each other before now and would struggle to establish trust.
Nonetheless, Zorian knew he couldn’t just leave his family undefended. He had to either move them to a secure place or leave a simulacrum behind to protect them.
Gathering them up and moving them to some distant area was the safest option. The most responsible option. However, that would be a lengthy and mana expensive task, and many critical tasks would have to be postponed until it was done. He couldn’t make that choice. Xvim… Alanic… all the temporary loopers that had died to keep the exit open instead of trying to save their own lives… they had made that choice because they trusted him to look after everyone’s interests once outside. He couldn’t just blow everything off in order to make sure his family was perfectly protected.
Plus, he was ultimately a bit selfish. Evacuating the house would require him to inform his parents about what was happening or use mental compulsions on them. He didn’t want to do either. He wanted some semblance of normalcy to remain between them for now. If possible, he wanted to just wait for them to leave for Koth as they normally did. In just a few days, his parents would be on a ship at sea and all but unreachable. The problem of their safety was ultimately self-solving.
It was unreasonable, perhaps, but he still held on to a tiny sliver of hope that all this could be solved without informing the whole world.
He shook his head, forcibly banishing his idle thoughts and fears for the future. It wasn’t the time. Just as it wasn’t the time to be shaken by the death of people that had been working with him on this project for more than a year. He’d worry about that later.
A little while later, all the preparations were finished and he was back in his room. He glanced at the simulacrum to his left and his copy silently nodded at him before wandering off to secure the house. Cirin was not a magically potent area, and the materials he had at his disposal left a lot to be desired, but it should be enough. He would have to appropriate a fair portion of the family silverware, though…
For a second, Zorian stared at the two remaining simulacrums in front of him. Four simulacrums, but he could really only use two of them. So inefficient. Still, one had to work with what they had, not what they wished they had. He silently told the two to get ready, and then all three of them started to cast a powerful teleportation spell. Moments afterward, they were enveloped by a ripple in space and disappeared.
Lying on the bed, the first simulacrum did not even twitch at their departure. He was wholly consumed in his task, knowing that if his attention lapsed even slightly over the next couple of hours, it could spell disaster for everything they were trying to accomplish. Having their mana reserves suddenly turn chaotic in the middle of a critical moment could kill the original or dispel one of his fellow simulacrums before they could accomplish their goals. Fortunately, Zorian’s research into mental enhancements had taught him how to assume some very useful states of mind, or else he likely wouldn’t have been able to maintain focus over such long periods of time.
The final iteration of the month had not started auspiciously, but Zorian and his simulacrums were determined to make it work anyway.
* * *
Cyoria was fairly easy to teleport to, since there was a teleport beacon placed in the middle of the city. Though the real purpose of the construction was to redirect all incoming teleportation into one specific area, so that they could be more easily monitored and policed, it also acted as a sort of lighthouse for teleportation magic. This meant that while Red Robe and Silverlake would find it very inconvenient and mana expensive to travel to a small rural town like Cirin, it was relatively easy and cheap for Zorian to teleport himself towards Cyoria.
The moment he and his two simulacrums had arrived into the city, they each split off to pursue their own tasks. For simulacrum number three, that meant checking up on Veyers. After all, there was a good chance that Red Robe was actually Veyers, in which case he would probably try to get his old self out of the line of fire as soon as possible. Probably. Whatever the case, visiting Jornak’s place to see what was happening there was of very high importance in Zorian’s mind.
The simulacrum moved rapidly through the streets of Cyoria, using his own two feet to move around instead of wasting mana on teleportation. He wore a featureless white mask over his face and his other features were hidden with heavy clothing and layers of privacy wards. The original and the other simulacrums similarly hid their identity. It was likely they would come face-to-face with Red Robe at some point, and there was no point in making things easy for him by openly identifying themselves as Zorian Kazinski. Silverlake knew who Zorian was, of course, but she was also an untrusting bitch, and it might take a while for her and Red Robe to set aside their differences and start working together. If Zorian could keep his identity secret for a few extra hours with his disguise, he would not consider this a wasted effort.
As he approached Jornak’s house, the simulacrum grew more cautious. He slowed his pace, circling the house wearily. He knew how to bypass the house wards, of course. He’d done it dozens of times, by now. However, if Red Robe was really here, he had likely modified or upgraded those just in case. It’s what Zorian himself would have done and there was no reason to assume Red Robe had been any less cautious.
His paranoia soon proved itself well-warranted. As he studied the house wards, he noticed they had been subtly changed. He was lucky, or maybe unlucky, because this was pretty damning proof of Red Robe’s activity.
Five minutes later, the simulacrum managed to get past the defenses and entered the house. What greeted him was eerie silence. The house was dark and abandoned, and it only took a few moments for the simulacrum to realize that both Veyers and Jornak were gone. Walking around the place, the simulacrum could see numerous signs of frantic activity scattered around the place: closets and cabinets flung open, drawers ripped out of their sockets, piles of clothes and small items scattered all over the floor…
It wasn’t just that Veyers and Jornak were gone – they had gathered up anything of real worth from the house before leaving. This was an evacuation, not a kidnapping.
The simulacrum cast a number of divination spells, trying to see if he could get some clues about where the two had gone, but failed to find anything. That was to be expected, though – it would have been shockingly incompetent of Red Robe to leave a trail behind him as he evacuated the place.
The simulacrum stood in the living room of the abandoned house, fiddling with a small white statuette of a dragon that he found on the floor, lost in thought for a while. Did this prove that Veyers was Red Robe? Well, not exactly… but it did prove that he was connected to him somehow. Jornak was also gone, which could mean a lot of things. Maybe the lawyer was the real Red Robe. Admittedly, the Red Robe that Zorian met in the past was roughly his own height and thus a poor match for Jornak, who was a fully grown man, but that could be accomplished easily through shapeshifting. Or maybe the time-looping Veyers just appreciated what the older man had done for his old self and so had taken him to safety as well. Whatever the case, they were all gone now, and there was little point in staying here when there were so many other things to be done.
He thought about torching the whole place out of spite, but it was better not to escalate things for now. Red Robe clearly cared a lot for these two, so burning down Jornak’s place might genuinely anger him. Sure, they were already irreconcilable enemies, but doing this would make things personal. He might go after Zorian’s friends and family sooner than he otherwise would have.
Before he moved on, the simulacrum quickly contacted the original and the other copy to find out what was happening on their end. They were both currently fighting and couldn’t talk much. Should he go help them? No… the whole point of creating so many simulacrums was to pursue many different goals simultaneously. He would just have to trust the other two would be able to complete their task on their own.
Instead he went north, towards Knyazov Dveri.
It was time to see what Silverlake was up to.
* * *
While simulacrum number three was checking out Jornak’s house, number four had rushed into the tunnels beneath Cyoria to contact the aranea living beneath the city.
Once, the Cyorian web had been his closest allies. They had taught him how to control his telepathic abilities, helped him make sense of the invasion, and provided a semblance of companionship in a world where most things were painfully short-lived. Spear of Resolve, the aranean matriarch, had intended to betray him in the end… but he was still devastated when they were all erased out of the time loop.
Part of his desire to see them as soon as possible was definitely emotional. Everything he knew about the time loop suggested they would be alive and well out here in the real world, but he had to see that with his own eyes. In his mind, he couldn’t help but draw parallels between the aranea and the temporary loopers that had sacrificed themselves so that he could cross over into the real world. He needed some good news right now.
However, there was also a practical side to his visit. Zach and Zorian were quite capable of dismantling the entire invasion in a matter of days, halting it in its tracks… but that was without Red Robe’s interference. Plus, who could forget Silverlake was also working against them? Thus, the idea of just quickly shutting down the invasion was untenable. However, this did not mean they would just sit back and do nothing about them. If they wanted to do serious damage to the invaders, the best time to do so was right now, at the very beginning of the month, before Red Robe and Silverlake had a chance to warn all their allies about the danger.
They had to move quickly, and that meant recruiting helpers… and the Cyorian aranea were one of the few powerful groups that Zorian felt they could win over to their side very quickly.
Apparently Red Robe agreed with his assessment, because when simulacrum number four arrived on the outskirts of the aranean settlement he found them locked in a desperate battle against Red Robe.
The battle had clearly been raging for quite some time. Mutilated aranean bodies and arachnoid viscera lay scattered everywhere, and several of the caves and tunnels had been collapsed by both sides in an attempt to get rid of the other. A choking cloud of dust lingered in the air, reducing visibility.
Red Robe was just as Zorian remembered him. A bright red robe covered him completely, hiding most of his features, and a patch of magical darkness obscured his face. His movements were unhurried and methodical, though instead of painlessly and instantly ‘killing’ the aranea in front of him he mostly relied on various force spells to crush them and cut them apart. The sight of him fearlessly advancing forward like an invincible juggernaut and killing aranea in very brutal and bloody ways was probably very intimidating to the spiders. Zorian suspected Red Robe was trying to crush their will to fight and scatter them before he ran out of mana.
Simulacrum number four quickly realized that Red Robe in front of him was a simulacrum, just like him. It made sense, really. Much like Zorian had created a bunch of copies to perform several tasks simultaneously, Red Robe had likely done the same.
He immediately rushed into the battle, firing a powerful incineration ray at Red Robe’s back. The other simulacrum did not show any signs of surprise, as if he had fully expected the interruption. He simply turned to the side in a smooth, practiced motion, blocking both Zorian’s spell and one from a nearby aranea.
Simulacrum number four did not speak, and neither did his opponent. They simply circled each other and kept launching probing spells at one another, testing each other’s skills and spell selection. The simulacrum was a bit disappointed at Red Robe’s silence. Based on his previous experiences with the third time looper, he had expected Red Robe to try and strike up a conversation or start monologuing. That could have given Zorian an opportunity to figure something out about his opponent and his goals.
Probably why he was staying silent. Oh well.
The aranea did not interfere in their fight much. Some of the angrier ones, who had lost friends and family members to the assault, kept trying to launch surprise attacks at Red Robe whenever they spotted an opening. Many of those ended up dying, since their attacks exposed them to Red Robe’s retaliation. Zorian tried to keep Red Robe too occupied to focus on the aranea much, but there was only so much he could do. Thankfully, most of the aranea had had the common sense to pull back deeper into their settlement to regroup and recover their strength.
After a while of this sort of spell exchange, Red Robe suddenly stopped. He appeared indecisive for a moment, as if he wanted to say something, but he eventually just shook his head minutely and reached for a short spell rod on his belt. Zorian tensed and prepared for the fight to escalate, but it turned out he had misjudged the situation. The rod was a simple recall spell. The moment Red Robe touched it, his body blurred for a second and then he was gone.
Zorian’s simulacrum did not try to pursue. He was here to save the aranea and recruit them as allies, not to take out a disposable pawn that Red Robe could recreate in a couple of minutes. This was already a victory.
He relaxed and waited for the aranea to approach him, reasoning that trying to be proactive wouldn’t be a good idea at the moment. He may have saved them, but the aranea were still obviously tense and might lash out if they felt pressured.
Thankfully, he did not have to wait long. It took less than two minutes for the aranea to assemble a welcoming party that cautiously approached him. They were visibly surprised when he responded to their greetings with telepathy and fumbled in indecision when he asked to talk to Spear of Resolve. The matriarch was true to her name, however. She quickly interrupted the talks and announced she would be arriving to talk to him personally, brushing aside the outraged protests of her subordinates.
Soon he was standing in front of her again, the two guards she brought along standing behind her and giving him their best menacing looks. To most people, she would doubtlessly look like any other aranea – a giant black jumping spider, same as any other. For the simulacrum, though, the sight brought back a flood of memories rushing to his mind.
He wanted to punch her right in that big-eyed, manipulative face… but also hug her and tell her he was glad to see her. This was probably similar to how Zach had felt upon seeing him on Cyoria’s train station, so long ago.
Except that he had much better impulse control than Zach and wasn’t going to punch her.
Or hug her, for that matter.
[Greetings, friend,] Spear of Resolve said politely. [I am grateful for the help you provided us in our hour of need. We are not ungrateful people and will surely find something to reward you with, but I sense there is more to this visit than just this.]
[True,] the simulacrum sent back. [We have many things to talk about.]
The matriarch tapped her front legs against the ground curiously.
[Curious. There was a curious note of nostalgia bleeding over into your messages,] she pointed out.
[Ah. Sorry about that,] he said, wincing slightly. [I can’t help it. You don’t remember this, but we knew each other.]
[Oh? I find that very hard to believe,] the matriarch said.
[It’s true,] the copy insisted. [We worked quite closely in the past.]
The matriarch sent him a note of patronized amusement.
[I have a very good memory when it comes to people, and you seem like a very noteworthy person. I would surely remember if I’d had the fortune to meet a mage of your caliber,] she said. [In particular, the level of control you have over your Gift would immediately make you stand out in the sea of people I have met over the years.]
An entirely reasonable argument. Sadly, the simulacrum didn’t have time to take things slowly and delicately guide the matriarch to the correct conclusion. He decided to take a risk and be totally blunt.
[I come from the future,] he told her.
The matriarch was silent for a moment. Several other aranea in the vicinity shifted in place from either amusement or incredulousness. They were clearly listening in on their conversations through their link with the matriarch. Nothing out of Zorian’s expectations, really.
[That’s… quite a claim you’re making, friend,] the matriarch said. She seemed more intrigued than dismissive, which surprised Zorian a little. He supposed that, even if she did not take his claim seriously, she wanted to hear his clarification.
[Zorian Kazinski,] said the simulacrum, taking off his mask as a show of trust. If this worked, he would be working closely with these people anyway. [You can just call me Zorian.]
[Zorian, then,] the matriarch agreed. [Zorian, you surely realize that great claims like that require great proof to be taken seriously?]
Zorian no longer had the matriarch’s memory packets, which meant that the method he used to employ to get her cooperation in the past was no longer possible. However, that was okay. He had other means of catching her attention.
[Of course I do,] the simulacrum said. [I can even show you my memories of the timeline I came from.]
[Come now, Zorian,] the matriarch scolded. [Any memory you show me could be fabricated entirely. That proves nothing.]
[Not quite,] the copy responded, a small grin on his face. [If I showed you some random scene with little relation to you, then yes, it could easily be a forgery. But what if I showed you a detailed map of your inner settlement, including the insides of your secret research room and your treasury? What if I demonstrated detailed knowledge about your secret research and your trading networks – the sort of things only your most respected elders have access to? What if I told you the names of every aranea that makes up your web, described what the insides of your private rooms look like, and demonstrated I could mimic the speech patterns and personality traits of a great many of your subordinates? Such things do not necessarily prove I come from the future, but certainly prove something, no? How could I possibly know that?]
The matriarch’s legs began to twitch uncontrollably.
A small commotion broke out among the aranea surrounding them. The simulacrum could tell there was a heated discussion going on in the background.
“Enough,” Spear of Resolve suddenly said, speaking up verbally for the first time since the meeting began. Obviously she wanted the simulacrum to hear this too.
“But honored matriarch!” one of the guards protested.
“I’ve decided!” she said firmly, spinning around in place to stare down the guard, who shrank back at her admonishment. She then turned back towards the simulacrum.
[I’ll open my mind to you,] the matriarch said telepathically. [Show me these ‘memories’ of yours.]
Zorian’s copy did just that. He tapped into the stored memories inside his head, reproducing them as best as he was able. For several hours the aranea watched in uncomfortable silence as the simulacrum laid their closely guarded secrets bare to them. He showed them his conversations with Spear of Resolve, Novelty and the various guards and ambassadors he had interacted with in the past.
By the time he was finally done, the matriarch was clearly disturbed at the amount of information he possessed. It was as the simulacrum had said - it wasn’t ironclad proof that he was from the future, but it did mean he had access to just about everything about them at some point. That was disturbing enough on its own.
[This… how could you possibly know all of this?] the matriarch asked hesitantly. She usually tried to project an air of certainty and confidence when interacting with him, even when she was secretly bothered behind the façade. There was none of that now, however. [Even if you’re from the future, even if we worked together in this future, I would never–]
[You died,] Zorian’s copy told her bluntly, cutting her off. [You all died. That cloaked man that just attacked you earlier? In the future I know… I was not strong enough.]
[Oh,] the matriarch said, deflating.
[You were supposedly allied with us, but you searched our city for anything of value the moment we died,] one of the aranea elder interjected, accusation clear in her voice.
[You would have done the same in my place,] he said, wholly unrepentant.
The aranea said nothing to that.
[I am curious,] the matriarch eventually said, picking her words carefully. [If I were to just tell you to go away and refuse to have anything to do with you… what would you do, oh mighty time traveler?]
[I would respect your decision,] the simulacrum shrugged.
[Truly?] the matriarch asked, sounding very skeptical.
[Why not? I would just go to one of the other aranean webs in the area,] Zorian’s copy said. [It’s not like you’re the only aranean web that I worked with.]
Every aranea in the room suddenly became very quiet and still.
And simulacrum number four could not help but smile smugly, for he knew he had them.
* * *
While the two simulacrums pursued their own tasks elsewhere in the city, the original had what was arguably the most important task of all – he had to check up on Zach and help him if he was in danger. He wouldn’t put it past Red Robe and Silverlake to focus on killing him as their very first priority.
It’s what Zorian would have done in their place, after all.
His fears turned out to have been only half-right. When he arrived at the Noveda estate, he found the place on fire and wracked with explosions. Destructive beams punched straight through the thick, warded walls of the building, triggering various alarms and countermeasures. Clearly an attack on Zach was already in progress. It was good that he had woken up his fellow time traveler with that ritual, or else Zach would have probably met a quick and ignoble end at the hand of his attackers.
Well… attacker, singular. When he reached the sight of the battle itself, he only found Red Robe fighting Zach. Silverlake was nowhere to be seen.
Very curious. Even if she was wary of Red Robe, she should have at least cooperated with him on this.
In any case, this Red Robe was the same as the one that had attacked the aranea in the tunnels below. It was just a simulacrum.
Once Zorian joined the fight, this second simulacrum seemed to realize the attack had failed and that persisting would just waste mana, so it just… dismissed itself.
What an underwhelming outcome. What was Red Robe doing, if he was so wary of really committing himself anywhere? He didn’t like this. He really didn’t like this…
He turned towards Zach and winced. He hadn’t noticed it while he had been fighting Red Robe’s simulacrum, but the other boy had a large bleeding gash across the chest.
“H-Hey…” Zach panted. “Thanks for the wakeup call back there. If you had been just a moment late, I would have probably never woken up. I, a-ah…”
His knees gave out suddenly, causing him to tip over. Zorian quickly rushed forward and caught him just before he was going to slam head-first into the floor.
“Shit…” Zorian swore, inspecting the wound. His medical magic was a joke, but he could at least assess the severity of an open wound like this one. “You lost so much blood there. How were you even standing for so long?”
“It’s not the f-first time…” Zach gasped, pressing his trembling fingers over the wound. The bleeding immediately lessened somewhat. “I’ll live.”
Zorian sighed. He would live, sure… but he would be pretty much incapacitated for the next day or two, even with the best medical care in the country. This was terrible news.
“I’m glad you made it out,” Zach said with a trembling voice.
[Don’t speak,] Zorian told him telepathically, picking him up like a baby. Well, he tried to, at least. Picking up another person was a little bit too much for him, so he first had to cast some spells to lighten the load, but he managed it in the end. He then immediately set off in the direction of the nearest hospital. [You’re going to aggravate your wound. Also, damn you’re heavy.]
[I’m doing you a favor,] Zach responded back. [Didn’t you say you wanted to work out more when we get out?]
[Not like this, you asshole,] Zorian grumbled.
[Wait…] Zach suddenly frowned. [You… you’re wounded too!]
Zorian gave him an incredulous look. What… oh.
[Ah, no,] Zorian said. [My mana is in chaos because the tunneler toad’s dimensional perception ability unraveled when I abandoned my body back in the time loop.]
It was scary how perceptive Zach was sometimes. Zorian didn’t even think he was showing any signs of mana instability on the outside, but clearly he was wrong.
[Oh yeah,] Zach said, immediately calming down. [Still, doesn’t that mean–]
[I’ll be held back in what I can do for at least a couple of days, yes,] Zorian confirmed.
[Damn it! Nothing ever goes right about this!] Zach raged.
[I wouldn’t say that,] Zorian said. He tracked down the nearest potion store and teleported them both towards it. It was closed at this time of day, but breaking in was a simple matter. He idly wondered whether a medical emergency like this counted as a valid reason to perform a burglary, but then decided he didn’t care. He would anonymously pay the shopkeeper back for the damages he caused. [I’m sure Red Robe is feeling pretty aggrieved right now. He almost had you, but he failed in the end. Plus, my simulacrum just stopped him from getting rid of the aranea beneath the city.]
He quickly picked up the most powerful wound closing and blood replenishing potions in the store and fed them to Zach, who immediately showed a positive reaction. His skin got back some of its color and the wound seemingly closed, though Zorian knew it was still very much present beneath the surface.
Zach immediately tried to get up on his own two feet, the idiot. He collapsed back immediately, having aggravated his wound.
“Let’s… just get you to the nearest hospital, alright?” Zorian said, face-palming at the sight.
“Zorian, listen,” Zach said. “When you left through the exit and the time loop reset itself, I lingered behind for a bit. Just to see what would happen to you and Silverlake over the next few restarts, you know?”
Zorian raised his eyebrow at him. “And?”
“You were back,” Zach said. “Both of you. You didn’t remember anything about the time loop but you were walking and talking as normal. You were just like any other person stuck in the time loop, unaware of the passage of time past the summer festival. Man, talking to your old self was freaky, I tell you. I all but forgot how unfriendly and sensitive you were back then. Did I tell you I’m really glad you made it out in the end?”
“You did,” Zorian confirmed.
“Oh yeah… what did you do with the–” Zach started to ask, before being cut off by Zorian.
“I killed him,” Zorian said curtly. “Sent his soul to the afterlife.”
“I… umm… shit,” Zach fumbled. “That’s kind of… brutal?”
“What was I supposed to do?” Zorian asked, uncomfortable with this line of questioning. “I don’t know how to make a new body for him. Maybe I never will. I’d have to either keep him in stasis for years and years before finally releasing him into an alien world where a stranger has usurped his life… or having him accompany me as a powerless ghost looking over my shoulder, constantly getting his face rubbed in at the fact I’m so much better than him at everything. Isn’t that a cruel and horrifying fate to inflict on someone?”
“I… don’t know,” Zach admitted after a while.
“I know I’m not the same person as him by this point,” Zorian said quietly, “but I would hate that with every fiber of my being. I… don’t think I’d ever get over it. Maybe I’m just a selfish monster trying to justify my crimes, but I think I’m doing him a favor. Alanic says the afterlife is still a thing, even after the gods stopped talking to people. For all his faults, I don’t think the old Zorian had done anything truly heinous in his life… there should be a good outcome waiting for him there. Something he’d never get back here with us.”
There was an awkward silence for a few seconds, and then Zorian cracked his knuckles before picking Zach up again. Thank the gods for lightening spells.
“I don’t want to talk about this,” Zorian admitted. “Let just get you to a hospital and call it a day. We’ll just have to leave the rest to our simulacrums. Now that I think about it, maybe Red Robe is onto something by only sending simulacrums to tackle problems and never appearing in person. Sure, it makes him more likely to fail and get beaten back, but it also makes every failure more inconsequential…”
He babbled about all sorts of things as he walked through the city. He was mostly out of mana by this point, since pretty much all his simulacrums had been tapping into them for their own purposes, so he couldn’t simply teleport to the hospital. However, it was fine – Zach had stopped bleeding by this point, so he wasn’t going to die any time soon. He should make use of this breather to make some golem simulacrums and replace the current ectoplasmic ones with them. Of course, the golem simulacrums were expensive so he would have to raid some of the Ibasan caches for money and materials. Plus, he needed a proper workshop and–
He suddenly stopped and sighed internally. So many things to do. So little time and mana to play with. The only thing that made him feel better was that Red Robe and Silverlake were probably faced with choices just as difficult as theirs.
Hopefully they had chosen their priorities better than their opponents.
* * *
When simulacrum number three arrived at the spot of Silverlake’s hideout, he found no signs of fighting or forced entry in the vicinity. However, that did not actually tell him much. For all he knew, Silverlake had some kind of secret entrance into her pocket dimension, and could simply walk in any time she pleased, wards be damned. Hell, perhaps the old Silverlake had simply let her in. It was hardly a given that the two would fight to the death once they met.
It all depended on whether the time looper Silverlake wanted to kill her old self to take her life and belongings back, or if she wanted to recruit her into her plans.
Or maybe she intended to simply ignore her old self entirely. After all, simply coming here was highly dangerous, since Zach and Zorian knew about this place, and it was an obvious place to set up an ambush for her.
Anyway, the first task simulacrum three currently faced was checking if the old Silverlake was still alive and inside. If she was, then he needed to know if the time looper Silverlake had already visited her and tried to recruit her.
To find that out, he could rely on slowly using exotic divination on her hideout while carefully avoiding being found out… but that would take a lot of time and mana and he didn’t want to bother. Instead he simply made an unearthly racket just out of her pocket dimension, screaming obscenities at the treacherous old witch until she decided to come out to confront him.
Which she did. She stomped out of the pocket dimension, visibly fuming and glaring at him.
The simulacrum immediately decided she probably hadn’t been visited by her time looper self. She had approached him too carelessly, like she had no idea what he was capable of. She would have been far more cautious if the other Silverlake had warned her about him.
Still, he had to make sure.
“Boy, what the hell are you shouting for!?” Silverlake shouted, stopping some distance away from him. “Coming here in the dead of the night, at three in the morning, shouting all these obscenities at a poor old woman like me… what is the world coming to these days!? Haven’t your parents taught you to respect your elders!? Bow down and apologize or I’m going to poison your whole family, you hear me!?”
“I just wanted to get your attention,” the simulacrum told her honestly.
That only made her angrier.
“Listen, I’m kind of in a hurry… did you perhaps get visited lately by an ugly old crone that looks just like you?”
Silverlake raised her hand and fired a weak lightning bolt. Well, relatively speaking, since that spell could have inflicted serious damage to a normal person.
Zorian’s simulacrum, though? He simply copied his mentor Xvim and backhanded the lightning bolt to the side. Rather than char his hand, the bolt was deflected harmlessly into the nearby ground, creating a small crater in the forest soil.
Silverlake’s posture instantly changed, becoming warier and more alert.
“No, seriously… did someone who looks just like you visit you recently and try to kill you or recruit you? Someone who knows all your secrets and abilities?” he again asked.
“Who are you?” Silverlake said, her eyes narrowing suspiciously and her hands twitching with half-formed spells.
The simulacrum clacked his tongue. She was totally ignorant of everything, he was sure of it. Time looper Silverlake had not visited this place.
But why? Did she really not care about her old self, or was she just being paranoid? He hadn’t arrived here particularly quickly – if Silverlake wanted to travel here from Cyoria, she would have arrived way before he did. In all likelihood, she would have finished up before he had a chance to get here and intercept her.
“Hey! Are you deaf or something?” Silverlake shouted, kicking a nearby stone in his direction. It was surprisingly accurate, flying straight at his forehead. She had a pretty good kick. Of course, Zorian just dodged the stone with practiced ease, so it ultimately amounted to nothing.
He could kill her, he realized. Even if time looper Silverlake wanted her dead, there was no guarantee that old Silverlake would be grateful to them once they saved her. She was an incredibly cynical person, and would simply see two young fools she could exploit to her advantage. She might work with them out of a sense of self-preservation, but she would be constantly looking for an angle to exploit and probably wouldn’t want to do anything that placed her into significant danger.
What was the point of such an ally?
“Here. Catch,” he said, throwing a small stone disc at her. She did not bother catching it, simply stepping back and letting it hit the ground. She then used a nearby fallen branch to suspiciously poke at it.
The simulacrum rolled his eyes at her.
“What the hell is this thing?” she asked.
“It’s an illusion stone,” the simulacrum said. “I recorded a rather interesting scene in it. You can study it later in the privacy of your own abode. Oh, and by the way? You should probably change your warding scheme as soon as possible. You should also collapse any secret entrances into your place, even if you think you’re the only one who knows about them.”
He turned to leave.
“Now wait just a moment here, you little brat! You’re just going to leave without explaining any of the crap you just unloaded into my lap?” Silverlake demanded.
“Yes,” Zorian’s copy nodded. “I decided not to kill you. Don’t make me regret it, alright?”
Before she could respond, he teleported away.
He didn’t want to linger around Silverlake’s place. While setting up an ambush around her hideout might have seemed like a good way to get the time looping version of her, Zorian felt something wasn’t right there.
He had to make sure Alanic, Kael and Lukav were fine. Silverlake could wait.
* * *
While Zorian and the other simulacrums were teleporting around and wracking their heads to figure out what the enemy was planning, simulacrum number two was bored. His job was to secure the house and watch out for Red Robe or Silverlake staging an attack on his family. However, he had already done all he could to secure the house and no attack was happening.
The hours passed, and eventually he found himself in front of Kirielle’s room. Hmm… the morning was already here, wasn’t it? Didn’t that mean it was about time for Kirielle to wake up?
He rubbed his hands sinisterly, an evil grin on his face. It had been so long since he had a chance to wake up Kirielle. He liked to sleep in, and the time loop never really changed that, so it was usually her that woke him up.
He entered her room and crouched next to her bed. She was covered up to her neck in a blanket, with only her face visible. She was blissfully unaware of Zorian crouching next to her, a look of peace and contentment on her face.
The simulacrum considered how he should go about doing this. Jumping on her, like she liked to do to him, had an air of poetic justice on it. However, it didn’t feel right. He was too big and heavy, and it would be a bit too much for a prank.
Dropping a bucket of water on her like she had when she had thought he was a shapeshifter?
No, that would get the bed wet and mother would freak out on him.
Oh well, he’d just go with the classic.
“Good morning, sister!” he suddenly shouted in her ear. “Morning, morning, MORNING!”
She woke up screaming and flailing, and eventually fell out of the bed.
He laughed at her. Ah, he needed that…
“Zorian, you jerk!” she shouted at him, flailing her little arms at him like a windmill. She was like a little angry kitten, though, so it just made him laugh harder.
She eventually kicked him out of the room so she could switch out of her pajamas. Once she was out, she gave him a curious look.
“How come you’re awake?” she asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” the simulacrum said.
“Oh,” she said. She looked at him hopefully. “Hey, can you show me some magic? Please?”
He spent the next half an hour entertaining Kirielle, casting various spells for her amusement, until the original contacted him and told him to stop wasting mana on frivolities like that. What a jerk. The mana drain on those illusions was totally negligible!
He watched Kirielle deflate when he told her he had to go pack and couldn’t play with her anymore. She looked like she wanted to ask him something but eventually just chickened out, staring at the floor like a kicked puppy instead.
He sighed internally. He knew what she wanted to ask, of course. She wanted him to take her to Cyoria with him. But doing that would be… irresponsible.
He watched Kirielle for a few more seconds, remembering all the promises he made to his little sister over the many restarts he shared with her. He promised he wouldn’t forget her. He promised he would teach her magic.
He promised he would bring her with him to Cyoria.
Just as she was about to run off, Zorian placed his hand on her shoulder, causing her to halt in her tracks and look at him in surprise. Her lip quivered slightly.
“Hey, Kirielle…” he told her with a mischievous smile. “Do you want to come with me to Cyoria?”
Simulacrum number two could practically imagine Zorian screaming at him in the near future, explaining in great detail what an idiot he was being.
He didn’t care, though.
The smile on her face when he asked her that question made it all worth it.