Shelter in the Storm
Sometimes he could be so stupid, Zorian lamented. He had known that his simulacrums tended to be more impulsive and whimsical than himself. It seemed to be an intrinsic trait of every one of his copies, no matter how carefully he made them or how closely they were connected to him. They may be very much like him, but they weren’t him. The moment they realized they were just a simulacrum that would not live past a few hours or days, their perspective on long-term consequences would get subtly skewed compared to his own. After all, more likely than not it wouldn’t be them who would have to deal with those when the time finally came.
He also knew that giving his simulacrums unpleasant or boring tasks had a good chance of coming back to bite him in the ass. His simulacrums did not mind dying for him, but they were not at all afraid of inconveniencing him. In fact, they often seemed to relish the idea.
Zorian wondered what it said about him that his simulacrums behaved that way, but that was a thought for another time. The point was that, despite knowing all of that, he had still left his simulacrum in charge of dashing Kirielle’s hopes of going to Cyoria. He should have known that was going to be a problem, but he thought it would be a simple matter of the simulacrum refusing Mother’s offer while Kirielle remained quiet on the sidelines. This was, after all, what usually happened when Zorian didn’t want to bring Kirielle with him. All the simulacrum had to do was just retread his steps and be on his merry way! Instead his copy got bored and actively sought Kirielle out to hang out with, wasting their precious mana on frivolous entertainment, and then got all emotional when it was time to say goodbye…
Ugh. Just like the offending simulacrum predicted, Zorian had been furious. It was a stupid, short-sighted decision! Yes, sending her off to Koth with their parents would be a massive disappointment for her, but at least she’d be out of danger! That was more important than making her momentarily happy!
The simulacrum was completely unapologetic about it, too.
“What’s done is done,” his copy told him over their telepathic link. “I already gave her my word I’m taking her with me. If you have a problem with that, you can come over here and personally inform her that you’ve changed your mind and won’t be taking her with you after all…”
“You bastard!” Zorian fumed at him. “I should dismiss you for that!”
“That would leave Kirielle and the rest of the family completely defenseless until you sent a replacement,” the simulacrum pointed out. “Besides, do you really think I care about that? From my very first moment, I knew my time was fleeting.”
Sadly, true. Since his simulacrums were willing to die and sacrifice themselves for his sake, the thought of dying did not bother them much. Thus, threatening to unmake them was largely ineffective.
“I just don’t understand why you did that,” Zorian complained. “We could have just taken Kirielle to Cyoria in a month or two, once the whole situation has hopefully been resolved and she’s back from Koth. There is no need to take her there now, when the situation there is at its most dangerous!”
“When, if not now?” the simulacrum disagreed. “Even if we can resolve everything and save the city, the consequences are bound to be immense. Even a failed invasion will make our parents perceive Cyoria as a place of unspeakable danger. You think they will let her live in the city after that? Even for a few days? Come on. This is probably the last time we can plausibly take Kirielle to Cyoria without literally kidnapping her.”
Zorian frowned. He hadn’t really thought of that. It was true that no matter how the situation with the invasion was resolved, it was bound to complicate things. Plus, now that he thought about it a little, Kirielle would have to go back to school at some point soon. It wasn’t like she could visit a different city for several weeks at the time, then. Come to think of it, that was probably the reason why she was so excited to make this trip with him now. She knew this was one of her last chances to experience something like this in the near future…
He sighed internally. For all of its blessings, he sometimes worried that the time loop had damaged his thinking. For more than a decade, anything that did not resolve itself within the span of a month was largely irrelevant. He did consider the future a lot, but that was all highly theoretical and often directed at the far future rather than something only a few months later.
Still. Even with all of that in mind, bringing Kirielle to the epicenter of their clash with Red Robe and Silverlake was simply a terrible idea.
“Besides,” his copy continued, “by bringing Kirielle along we actually have a legitimate excuse to rent a room at Imaya’s place. Kael is much more willing to trust us if we come along with Kirielle. And it’s not like we don’t have a plan to evacuate–”
“Those are just excuses you thought up afterwards to justify your decision,” Zorian told him.
“Well… yes,” the simulacrum admitted after a short pause. “Yes, I admit that. It’s still true, though, and I’m not going to go back on my word. Our word. You promised you’re not going to just forget her once we’re out there in the real world. Now you want to just stick her on a ship to Koth and put her out of your mind while you do your stuff?”
“That ‘stuff’ is a matter of life and death and getting her out of danger doesn’t mean I’m going to simply forget about her afterwards!” Zorian snapped. “I just want her to be safe. She’s a prime target and I’m just a little bit busy at the moment. It’s not the time for this!”
“Forget it,” his copy sighed. “I just… I won’t do it, okay? I already said it. What’s done is done. I’m not going to turn around and tell her it was all a mistake and that I changed my mind. It would kill her. If you think this is such a huge mistake, come over and do it yourself. Go tell her that her dream trip is canceled, I dare you.”
The simulacrum then terminated their connection, signaling it considered the conversation over.
After taking several deep breaths and calming down somewhat, Zorian decided that the simulacrum was right about one thing: he should definitely be dealing with this problem personally. As he noted in his earlier lament, it was stupid of him to assign a task like this to a simulacrum to begin with, and only he could truly fix it. Or at least stop the problem from getting worse.
Besides, there was no need for him to stay at Cyoria at the moment. Previously, he had been worried that his simulacrum would get dispelled in the fighting and that he would need to constantly replace them… but that was far less of a concern, now. The first golem simulacrums had been placed into service by now, replacing two of his ectoplasmic simulacrums with a more mana efficient and resilient group. Golem simulacrums were very difficult to neutralize – even punching a hole through the chest or blowing off a limb would not be enough to put them down for good. That extreme resilience, all by itself, should allow his copies to clash with the invaders and Red Robe’s simulacrums without fear.
Additionally, he couldn’t really afford to start anything big while Zach was still incapacitated and vulnerable. Taking some time off to figure out what to do about his family and friends was… doable.
Thus, not long after his argument with his simulacrum, Zorian found himself back in Cirin. He told the simulacrum to make himself scarce for a while and then seamlessly took over his place.
Well, mostly seamlessly.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” Kirielle asked him suspiciously, narrowing her eyes at him. “You… you aren’t thinking on going back on your word, are you?”
She didn’t seem panicked, more outraged at the idea. She placed her hands on her hips and pouted at him in a way that was probably supposed to look angry but looked more like she had an upset stomach or something.
“No take-backs!” she declared, pointing her finger at him. “Mom says that’s not allowed! You said you’re taking me with you, and I’m going!”
Zorian clacked his tongue in distaste. All he did was stare at her a little, and she immediately started jumping at this one specific conclusion… how judgmental. Never mind that she was essentially correct here, was his old self so bad that this was a legitimate first conclusion she came up to?
…okay, yeah, he could kind of see her reasoning here.
“I didn’t say anything about not taking you,” Zorian said slowly.
“Then what?” she asked curiously.
“I’m missing some of my school books,” Zorian told her. “I’d appreciate it if whoever took them returned them to me before we leave the house.”
“Err, yeah, I will– I mean, I’m sure they’ll turn up in your room by the time I finish packing,” Kirielle fumbled, punctuating her statement with a nervous laugh.
She then gave him one final suspicious look before running off upstairs to finish her packing.
The simulacrum he had displaced had been watching the whole exchange through his senses. His copy did not comment on his actions in any way, but Zorian could feel the simulacrum’s amusement at how things turned out.
“Shut up, idiot,” Zorian whispered under his breath. “This is all your fault, anyway.”
He did not need to speak up verbally, of course, but it made him feel slightly better to do so. Why hadn’t he dismissed his stupid copy, again?
Oh, right. He didn’t want to waste mana and he had a task for him later.
In any case, nothing of real note happened until Ilsa knocked on their door, just like she always did at the start of the month, and Zorian volunteered to check up on that.
Sure enough, he found Ilsa waiting for him behind the door. After an appraising glance, she adjusted her glasses and guessed his identity.
“Zorian Kazinski?” she asked.
“That’s me,” Zorian confirmed. “Come in, Miss Zileti.”
“Oh, you know me?” she asked in mild surprise, stepping into the house.
“Err, kind of,” Zorian said. “Someone pointed you out to me. You’re a teacher from the academy, right?”
“That’s right,” Ilsa said. “I didn’t know I’m that famous. Hopefully you heard only nice things about me, yes?”
She gave him a small smile, and Zorian awkwardly returned it.
She didn’t remember anything. That is, of course she didn’t remember anything. He and Zach had already done a check of the various temporary loopers to see if any of them made it out in soul form like Zorian. The results were as expected as they were disappointing. They were all alone in this. Nobody else had made it out.
It was strange and more than a little painful for Zorian to see Ilsa like this. He had worked with her for nearly a year, and she had been one of the people he had been relatively close to. Now that Ilsa was dead, the new one had no idea who he was.
The same was true for Alanic, Taiven, Kael, Xvim, and so many others. They were alive again, but they were not people he had spent all those months working with. He could rebuild these relationships, but without the common goal of escaping the time loop and the limited ability to interact with people outside the group, the nature of those relationships would completely differ. In the meantime, he had to interact with all these people while constantly walking on eggshells because he subconsciously viewed them as friends and allies, and had a year worth of habits and instincts to reinforce that… while they just viewed him as some stupid teenage kid acting a little weird around them.
He’d manage. He totally would.
But damn was this making him depressed…
“Mister Kazinski? Are you alright?” Ilsa asked him, breaking him out of his self-pity.
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “Just… thinking about some things. It’s nothing important.”
He turned the scroll in his hands a few times before casually directing his mana to flow along the sides of the seal, causing it to pop off without resistance. He then glanced at the certificate inside for the sake of appearances and set it aside.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Ilsa noted. “Although you held onto the scroll for a while, I could tell you spent most of that time distracted with other thoughts. Once you actually focused on the task of removing the seal, you did it quickly and easily. I see someone is continuing in Daimen’s footsteps.”
Once, the comparison to Daimen would see him bristling inside at the slight. Now it was just a mildly exasperating statement. He would likely never be totally okay with being compared to his oldest brother like that, but these comparisons no longer had the same sting they once did.
“Only in very general terms,” Zorian told her. “My brother and I are very different people.”
“Of course,” Ilsa smoothly agreed. “Everyone is their own person. I simply meant that you also show signs of great talent.”
Their discussion proceeded in very predictable fashion. Once she heard he was taking Kirielle with him to Cyoria, she brought up the possibility of renting a room at Imaya’s place, which Zorian accepted. She also informed him that he wouldn’t get to choose his mentor like he was supposed to, and that he was simply assigned to Xvim Chao instead. Zorian pretended he knew nothing about the man and Ilsa pretended he was simply a normal, if slightly demanding teacher. He also chose his electives. They were the exact same ones he had chosen the first time he had done all this, except this time the entire process took less than a minute, since he simply told Ilsa his choices the moment she brought the topic up.
It was all so routine and familiar that he found himself quickly slipping into a sort of practiced ‘role’ he had learned to play over the many restarts during which he had done this. It felt comforting and frightening at the same time. Comforting, because this was probably the first time since he had gotten out of the time loop that he felt certain he was making the right choices. Frightening, because he suddenly felt like he was in the time loop all over again. Like everything around him was unreal and illusionary. Unbidden, the notion that he was still trapped in that ever-repeating month popped into his mind and refused to go away.
He imagined himself living through this month, winning against his foes, befriending people he knew from the time loop, changing things for the better and getting emotionally invested in it all… only for the whole thing to turn to smoke in the end when the time loop inevitably reset itself and he woke up in his room in Cirin, just like he always did. It was horrifying.
It was also stupid. He was definitely out of the time loop. The aranea and the mercenaries that had been knocked out of the time loop by Red Robe were back, and Red Robe himself was again active in the world. The spirit world was also once again accessible – he and Zach had checked that already. All evidence pointed at them being out for real.
But the fear remained. Ilsa had finished her explanations and left, but Zorian’s mind remained trapped in this ominous scenario for quite a while afterwards.
Sometimes he could be so stupid, Zorian lamented.
* * *
The long train ride from Cirin to Cyoria was even more boring than it usually was. This was mostly because Zorian was not doing anything of critical importance, and thus had to refrain from tapping into his mana reserves too much. That mana was best reserved for his simulacrums, who were out there acquiring funds, making magic items, teleporting around, and fighting their enemies. Frivolous uses of magic like entertaining Kirielle on the train with illusions were simply inexcusable. He had scolded his simulacrums over these sorts of things many times in the past, so now that he was in their position it was important that he set an example for them and show them how things should be done.
Additionally, this was no longer the time loop, and he would have to deal with consequences that went beyond just this one month. It was best for him to at least pretend to be a normal student mage in front of a little tattletale like Kirielle. That meant no spellcasting at all for the moment, since students could not bypass the wards on the train.
After an hour or so, he kind of began to understand why his simulacrums were so prone to breaking the ‘no frivolous magics’ rule.
Still, in the end he found ways to amuse himself and Kirielle without magic. He told her stories of some of his time looping adventures, using true stories with altered names and a few tweaks here and there. Kirielle complained the stories were too fantastical and ridiculous after a while, so they started a drawing competition instead. Zorian had actually learned how to draw reasonably well over the long course of the time loop, but he was nowhere near good enough to match Kirielle, so she always won.
His sister did not mind, though. Even though it was an unfair competition right from the start, she always wanted to keep going for another round. The little imp never got tired of winning.
“Now stopping in Korsa,” a disembodied voice echoed. A crackling sound again. “I repeat, now stopping in Korsa. Thank you.”
A few things happened in quick succession then. First, Ibery wandered in and peeked into the compartment to see if it was free. Zorian, being kind of bored with Kirielle’s antics, invited her in. Ibery seemed a little taken aback by his friendliness, but seeing Kirielle put her at ease, and she did claim a seat beside them after a moment of hesitation. Then Byrn, a guy he had met way back at the beginning of his time looping experience, also wandered in and asked if a seat was free in their compartment. Zorian happily invited him in, too.
Suddenly, the compartment had become a lot livelier than it used to be. Ibery was shy and quiet, and had immediately chosen to bury her nose in a book when she came in, but Byrn was friendly and talkative and immediately tried to strike up a conversation with them. Kirielle immediately started peppering him with questions about magic and the academy.
“I’m Kirielle Kazinski,” Kirielle said, “and that’s my brother Zorian. Are you a student like Zorian? Can you do magic? What year are you? Is it true that you have to fight a giant spider in order to get admitted as a student? Zorian says that’s a requirement, but I think he’s lying…”
“Ha ha, umm… I don’t think I would have gotten in, if that were the case,” Byrn laughed. “I don’t think I could win a fight against the other students, never mind a giant spider.”
“Lots of types of giant spiders,” Zorian noted. “There’s a whole bunch of them that you could easily club to death with a mundane weapon, so long as you keep your cool and don’t panic.”
“Oh? You sound pretty knowledgeable about that. Did you ever fight one for real?” Byrn asked curiously.
“Yes, though not as an admission test, of course,” Zorian said. “I told that to Kirielle just to mess with her a little.”
“I knew it,” Kirielle pouted, folding her hands over her chest and giving him a grumpy look.
“Ah, so, I hate to shift the subject, but that last name…” Byrn tried.
“Yes, Daimen Kazinski is our brother,” Zorian said with a shrug. “We have very little contact with him, though. He mostly does his own thing and rarely visits.”
The conversation continued for a while after that, meandering from topic to topic. Even Ibery joined in after figuring out from Bryn’s question that they were Fortov’s siblings. She did not actually bring up Fortov, however, which was probably for the best. Zorian would have been diplomatic, of course, but Kirielle disliked their middle brother as much as he did and would likely not have anything nice to say about that topic. In any case, the conversation eventually turned towards a particularly shocking event that occurred in Cyoria recently. Namely, the fact that Zach’s place had gotten utterly trashed during his fight with Red Robe, and that he himself had gone missing for several hours while people frantically searched for him all over the city.
“What? Someone actually attacked the Noveda Mansion like that? I didn’t know that,” Ibery said, surprised.
“Yes, it happened really recently. The attack happened very early in the morning, just a few hours ago,” Byrn said, nodding self-indulgently. He was clearly pleased to have acquired this news so soon after it occurred. Man, news sure does spread fast these days. “I hear the fighting was really fierce. Some of the support columns were damaged, and several walls got breached. I heard repairs will take weeks! It must have been a really powerful force that launched the attack – the newspapers were saying only a fully equipped mage regiment could have done so much damage so quickly.”
“But that place is right there in one of the better parts of the city… and aren’t Noveda an old, influential Noble House?” Ibery asked. “How could a force of that size come and go just like that? Where were the guards during all this?”
“Well, someone was clearly fighting the attackers and fought them off in the end, so presumably the guards were not useless,” Byrn shrugged. “Besides, I hear the Noveda are not the same force they once were. My father says they’re a mere shadow of their former selves. It’s still crazy that something like this can happen.”
“You know, Zach Noveda is one of my classmates,” Zorian said suddenly.
“Really?” Byrn said, perking up. “I don’t suppose you heard more about this, then?”
“I just know Zach is fine,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “He wasn’t present in the mansion when the attack occurred. He was out drinking and dancing throughout the entire night.”
Or at least that was the excuse Zach had picked for himself as an explanation as to what had happened. They modified the memory of the healer that had patched him up (after leaving him a sizeable ‘anonymous tip’ for his services), so no one should be able to contradict his story. Zorian did suggest to Zach that he should pick some other excuse, since saying he had spent the entire night getting drunk and gods know what else was somewhat embarrassing, but Zach insisted this was fine.
Sure enough, Ibery responded to Zorian’s explanation by wrinkling her nose in distaste, while Bryn simply laughed awkwardly.
“I did hear rumors about the Noveda heir,” Ibery said. “They say he’s not exactly a model student, if you know what I mean.”
“There is nothing wrong with his magic skills,” Zorian quickly said, feeling compelled to defend his friend. “He’s just a little… reckless.”
“Are you friends with this Zach?” Kirielle asked curiously. “How come I don’t know anything about this?”
“Why would I say something like this to a little tattletale like you?” Zorian asked rhetorically. “You’d run off to tell Mother the moment my back was turned.”
“I would not!” she huffed, swinging her legs in an attempt to hit his knees. He shifted his legs out of the way a few times and she eventually gave up on the idea.
By the time the train arrived in Cyoria, the whole group was so absorbed in their conversation that they kept together and continued conversing even when it was time to disembark. When the train began to approach Cyoria, the whole group left the compartment and went to stand by the exit… along with so many others. Usually Zorian led Kirielle with him to the exit early enough to seize a place right next to the exit, but he had lost track of time this time, and they ended up in the middle of a literal throng. Somewhat tired from socializing and put off by the throng of people pushing and shoving all around him, Zorian leaned on the nearby window and simply observed the people around them.
It had been a while since he had been stuck in a crowd like this. With his great magical skills and ability to simply teleport from place to place, he usually had no need to use normal transportation methods to get to places. A confusing, erratic mess of emotions and mental signals washed against his mind sense, but he was far too good at controlling his psychic powers these days to be bothered by that. His mind was like a rock in the sea, battered by the winds and violent waves, but solid and unmoving.
“Hey, you! You’re one of the upperclassmen, aren’t you?”
Zorian looked at the girl talking to him, curious as to what she wanted from him. She was part of the group of first years next to him, and had completely ignored him up until now. Her whole group was kind of amusing, talking excitedly amongst themselves about how they were going to start learning magic, and become famous mages, and similar stuff. He kind of wished he could see their faces when they realized the first year was all about theory and repetitive mana exercises.
“I am,” he confirmed. “So?”
“Can you show us any magic?” she asked eagerly.
Wait… this sounded kind of familiar…
“He can’t!” Kirielle, who had apparently been listening in on their conversation, piped in. “The train has a magic field that stops people from doing magic.”
“It’s because some of the students would set fire to the seats or etch their names and crude drawings into the walls of the train,” Zorian confirmed.
“Oh,” the girl said, clearly disappointed.
“I know,” Kirielle agreed with, sadly. “It sucks. Some jerk always has to ruin it for the rest of us.”
Yeah, this whole situation was really familiar to him for some reason.
Oh well, it probably wasn’t anything important.
* * *
Zorian became a little concerned about things after the group disembarked at Cyoria’s main train station. This was because Bryn had a habit of following after them, and Zorian had plans that would be rather inconvenienced by that. He was just debating whether it was justified to use mind magic to nudge his thoughts in the ‘right’ direction, when Bryn regretfully informed them that he had to stay behind at the station for a while. Apparently his parents were disturbed enough by the recent attack on the Noveda Mansion that they had asked a friend of theirs that lived in the city to pick Bryn up from the station and escort him to his dorm. Thus, Bryn would have to stay behind and wait for the man to show up.
Zorian found it curious that Red Robe’s attack on Zach had such far-reaching consequences. Bryn wasn’t even from Cyoria, yet the attack changed the way he went through the month so quickly and radically. Zach and Zorian knew that Tesen and the city authorities would have a strong reaction to the Noveda Mansion being suddenly attacked like that, but he didn’t expect the ordinary people to care so much.
In any case, Zorian simply said goodbye to Bryn and Ibery and was on his merry way with Kirielle in tow. He did exchange contact methods with Bryn and Ibery in case they wanted to get in touch later, but he wasn’t sure if anything would come out of that. Neither of them had been particularly inclined to seek him out when they had done similar things in the time loop. With the world lasting longer than a month, though, perhaps that would change. Only time would tell.
Zorian didn’t take Kirielle immediately towards Imaya’s place, though. Instead, he took her to a familiar bridge in one of the city parks. There, a small black-haired girl was crying her eyes out over a bicycle that had fallen into the creek below.
Kirielle watched quietly from the sidelines as Zorian slowly calmed Nochka down and got her to explain why she was crying. This done, he placed his hand over the bridge and telekinetically lifted the bike out of the water. He also casually cleaned it up a little, ignoring the chorus of complaints from his simulacrums that he was being ‘frivolous’ in his mana use. The jerks had been on the lookout for something like this for a while now, most likely.
“It isn’t frivolous,” he told them telepathically. “What did you expect me to do, exactly?”
“You could have waded in through the muddy water on foot,” a simulacrum helpfully explained.
“It’s just getting a little wet, there’s no harm in that,” another one added.
“All it would take is a bit more time. Gods, why are you so impatient?” a third one scolded.
“All of you, shut up and mind your own business!” Zorian told them grumpily.
He had the worst simulacrums.
“There,” Zorian told Nochka. “Your bike is clean, intact, and out of the creek. You can stop crying now, okay?”
“Okay,” she sniffed, rubbing her eyes. “Um. Thank you.”
“Well, if that’s that, I guess we should get going now,” Zorian said. “Though… I think it’s going to rain soon. Do you have an umbrella?”
“N-No…” She said, shaking her head. “But, um, I’m going to be fine…”
“We should help her get home,” Kirielle suddenly said. She quickly got into Nochka’s personal space and introduced herself. “Hi, I’m Kirielle! Kirielle Kazinski, and that’s my brother Zorian. What’s your name?”
After some back and forth, Nochka agreed to have them accompany her home. The walk was a short one, but Zorian paid close attention to everything around him along the way. He found no evidence of cranium rats or other invader agents along the way. Even the cranium rat swarm he usually encountered while traveling through this part of the city was not here this time – he had chosen the path that led to Nochka on purpose, not because he was trying to avoid the rats. The aranea were fighting a pretty intense war with the cranium rats at the moment, so this turn of events wasn’t particularly surprising. They were too busy to spy on people much, and could no longer move freely through most of the city.
Still, while Rea and her family seemed free of invader schemes at the moment, he knew that wouldn’t last forever. Assuming Red Robe did not find some kind of alternative method of unlocking Panaxeth’s prison, shifter children like Nochka remained a critical component of primordial’s release plans. Thus, evacuating them out of the city through means fair or foul was probably the most certain way of sabotaging the ritual at Zach and Zorian’s disposal. Shifters were not that numerous and there were only so many shifters available in the area.
Though, if he were going to be honest with himself, wanting to befriend Rea and her family wasn’t purely because of pragmatism. Rea had no special influence over her fellow shifters and would be of limited help if he wanted to talk them into going along with the evacuation. He just had a soft spot for the little girl that had befriended his little sister and the sight of her stripped naked and waiting to be drained of all blood for some messed up blood ritual was vividly burned into his mind. He had promised to himself that he would make sure Nochka survived the month out there in the real world, and he still meant that. He meant to save all the shifter children, of course, but making sure Nochka was safe had a personal dimension for him.
Since he had already thrown away his good sense and taken Kirielle to the death trap that was Cyoria, he may as well introduce her to her former and future friend. At least if they started hanging around each other, he could more easily protect the both of them without spreading himself thin.
The actual conversation with Rea was pretty mundane. Nochka’s mother was pretty friendly, and Zorian did not confront her with any heavy topics. They simply talked about who he and Kirielle were, how they had met Nochka, and where they were staying. Kirielle almost ratted out Nochka on dropping her bike in the stream, which caused the little cat shifter to panic and hurriedly shut her up… by manifesting her claws and clamping down on Kirielle’s arm. This caused Rea to freak out because Nochka ‘almost’ ruined their secret and hurt a guest, but the situation was thankfully resolved in the end, and Zorian pretended not to have noticed anything strange about the incident.
Interestingly, Rea also brought up the news of Zach’s place being attacked, just like Bryn did. She didn’t have any new information for Zorian, but it did emphasize how notable the attack was for people. Zorian wondered if Red Robe even realized how eye-catching the whole thing would end up being.
“You are classmates with the Noveda heir?” Rea asked. “My, I seemed to have met an important person today.”
“Not… really?” Zorian said dubiously.
“Come now, Mister Kazinski. You have a famous brother, you attend a prestigious magical academy, and one of your classmates is a scion of a Noble House,” Rea pointed out.
“Two, actually,” said Zorian. There was also Tinami. “I don’t think any of that makes me important.”
Rea hummed loudly at him, clearly not agreeing.
“Have it your way,” she shrugged. She rose from her seat and took a look at the weather outside. Things didn’t look good of course. The rain was pouring in thick sheets while the wind was blowing madly in all directions, and Zorian knew from the time loop that the storm wouldn’t be ending any time soon.
This was the main reason Zorian was less impatient about leaving Rea’s place this time around. He couldn’t just teleport to Imaya’s place or create a rain shield around himself and Kirielle. No, he would have to use an umbrella like a normal person, and they would end up wet and miserable by the time they actually reached their destination. He was in no hurry to experience that.
“What horrid weather,” Rea said, frowning. “I think you’re going to have to remain here over the night.”
“We can’t impose on you like that,” Zorian said hurriedly, shaking his head. “We’ll just slowly make our way through the storm. A little rain won’t kill us.”
“You can’t be serious,” Rea said, giving him an annoyed look. “I know teenage boys can be a little reckless, and I would not have said anything if it was just you being stupid… but you’re taking your little sister along and you have to take this into account. Are you seriously thinking of taking her out there into that with just an umbrella?”
Zorian stared at Rea for a few seconds before looking at Kirielle, who was sitting on the floor with Nochka. They were both whispering something to each other and pretending they weren’t listening in on their conversation.
“Kirielle,” Zorian asked her slowly. “What do you think about going?”
“Umm…” she fumbled, rubbing her hands awkwardly. “It’s raining pretty hard.”
Zorian sighed, taking off his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose. After a few seconds he gave Rea an embarrassed look. He was just about to speak up but she put a hand on his shoulder to stop him and simply nodded her head knowingly.
“I’ll go get some blankets,” she said, before wandering off to do just that.
In the corner of his eye, he could see Nochka and Kirielle excitedly whisper to each other. They, at least, seemed pleased with this outcome.
After a few seconds, Zorian clacked his tongue and decided to just roll with the situation. It was embarrassing, but there was no real harm in it.
He looked through the window, silently observing the storm for a while. After a while, Rea wandered in and placed a steaming cup of tea on the window sill beside him. Zorian gave her a curious look.
“A cup of tea is necessary for proper rain watching,” Rea explained to him.
“Ah. Thank you,” Zorian said quietly. “Sorry for the imposition. I could tell it was going to rain, but–”
“Do I look that mean and selfish to you?” Rea asked, raising her eyebrow at him. “Hospitality had always been important to my people.”
“Your people?” Zorian asked her curiously, feigning ignorance.
“Your acting skills are decent, but I know you saw the claws on Nochka’s fingers. You probably know what we are,” Rea said, sipping slowly from her own cup of tea while standing beside him.
“Yeah,” Zorian admitted with a shrug. “It doesn’t bother me.”
“Good,” Rea said simply. She then dropped the subject and no longer pursued the matter. “I don’t know if this is really the issue, or if there is something deeper going on, but it’s pointless to get angry or frustrated at a storm. It’s a force of nature; there is no fighting that. You just take shelter and wait until it ends.”
“Right,” said Zorian quietly, taking a sip of the tea Rea had made for him.
Sadly, some storms couldn’t be dodged that easily.
* * *
While Zorian had been escorting Kirielle, his simulacrums had been very busy. They, along with Zach’s simulacrums, constantly attacked known cult leaders and invader bases, raiding them for funds and trying to decapitate their organizations. Sadly, this hadn’t been nearly as effective as they had hoped. Red Robe had clearly been very busy and most of their targets had been forewarned they were coming. Warding schemes were changed, the guards were on alert, and some people were just outright evacuated to safety. They had managed to acquire a lot of money and resources, since many of the secret caches had been protected mainly by their secrecy, and it wasn’t easy to strip a base of everything that was worth money in a hurry, but Zorian doubted they had managed to deal any kind of decisive strike to their enemies.
Below the city, the fighting was also intense. It was mostly the aranea fighting the cranium rats, but Zorian’s simulacrum sometimes helped the aranean side… and since Zorian’s uncontested presence would have meant a decisive victory for the aranea, Red Robe’s simulacrum was always there to stop the cranium rats from getting wiped out. Neither Zorian nor Red Robe were fighting seriously, wary of showing the enemy too much and wasting their mana reserves, but the fact Zorian’s simulacrum had a much more resilient golem body meant that he was slowly getting an upper hand in these skirmishes. It remained to be seen what Red Robe would do in response to that. Zorian doubted he would let the cranium rats just die, since they were a critical asset for the invasion forces.
The simulacrums were also negotiating with various aranean webs in the region, trying to bring in additional support for the fight. Of particular importance were the negotiations with the Silent Doorway Adepts, since they needed their help to open a connection to Koth. Zorian did not doubt for a second the negotiations were going to succeed; they had lots of things they could tempt Silent Doorway Adepts with. The Bakora gate addresses in particular were bound to have irresistible allure for the web. However, the issue was that these negotiations would still end up taking time, and they had to keep the web protected from enemy machinations while they were in progress. Silverlake knew exactly how important this was to them, so an attack at Silent Doorway Adepts was worryingly plausible.
Some things were also moved forward a little. Kael and his daughter had been contacted by Zach’s simulacrum disguised as a school official, who teleported them directly to Imaya’s place. This was mostly because Zach and Zorian were worried that Silverlake, whose movements were still a mystery to them, was going to target them. Kael and his daughter were too easy of a target to be left alone for long. Thankfully, Kael did not suspect a thing and even praised the academy for their thoughtfulness. Zorian intended to evacuate Kael to Koth once he opened the gate link there, but for now he was safest at Imaya’s house, since that way he would be living under the same roof as Zorian and Kirielle.
Meanwhile, the simulacrum that got Zorian in the whole trouble with Kirielle got a task to get his parents away from the house as soon as possible. Thus, less than an hour after Zorian and Kirielle had boarded the train to Cyoria, the simulacrum rounded up Mother and Father and teleported them to the port city of Luja. Their memory was modified to make them believe this was perfectly normal. It would create some discrepancies in dates; that could be a problem later. For now, though, Zorian was just glad they would soon be out in the open ocean and out of danger. He’d deal with potential consequences of his decision later.
The simulacrum in his room that was focusing on stabilizing his mana reserves was also evacuated out of the house, leaving it completely empty. Even if Red Robe decided to visit the place now, the most he could do was burn it down in frustration.
Which would still be devastating for Mother and Father, but Zorian was quite sure they wouldn’t want to die to protect it.
Overall, things had been going… decently. There was still no sign of Silverlake, and Red Robe was passively responding to their moves while focusing most of his energies into something they couldn’t see.
It made no sense to Zorian. The way he saw it, he and Zach had an absolute advantage in this conflict. Even if everything else failed, they could always inform the Eldemarian government about the invasion and it would be instant loss for Red Robe and Silverlake. Any chance of successfully invading the city or freeing Panaxeth would be gone. No matter how personally powerful they were or what clever plans they had, they could never take on the central government head-on and win. Thus, Red Robe and Silverlake should have taken a far more aggressive stance against them by now.
But there was nothing Zorian could do about that. All he and Zach could do was wait. Hopefully, by the time they recovered their full strength, they would uncover what their enemies were planning.