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Chapter 096
Contract

Before the time loop, Zorian had never frequented the taverns, restaurants and other establishments that were so common in Cyoria. They were a waste of time and money in his opinion, and it wasn’t like he had any real friends to go drinking with. It didn’t help that he had seen more than one of his classmates succumb to the lure of big city life in his two years of education. Rural teenagers like him were especially vulnerable, since they had little to no parental supervision and were unaccustomed to the luxuries and opportunities that existed in Cyoria. Zorian did not want to follow their example, especially after it became obvious that his brother Fortov had fallen into the exact same trap as they had.

Amusingly, the time loop had pretty much made him worse in this regard, and he was now familiar with virtually every alcohol-serving establishment in Cyoria. This was mostly Zach’s fault – his fellow time traveler loved drinking and despised the static nature of the time loop, which meant he dragged off Zorian to a different place every time they had to meet or talk.

The situation was similar at the moment. Once they’d both had a chance to gather their thoughts, Zorian tried to pursue the topic of Zach’s angelic contract and the restrictions he was laboring under, only for his fellow time traveler to insist he needed a drink. Zorian himself had never understood the appeal of alcohol, but he also knew it was pointless to argue about things like that with Zach. He just let his friend lead him to a small but lively tavern, where they claimed a table and erected simple privacy wards to ensure some privacy. Still not the safest location for this kind of thing, but it would do.

“Ahh…” said Zach in satisfaction, slamming a beer glass on the table before wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Zorian’s mouth twitched at the sight, but he said nothing. He was already used to that kind of behavior from Zach, really. “I really needed that.”

“So. Can I spoil the mood now and dig a little more into this whole angelic contract thing?” Zorian asked him, folding his fingers together in a thoughtful gesture.

“I guess,” Zach shrugged. “Though I really don’t think I’ll be able to tell you much.”

“I just need some things confirmed,” Zorian said. “You said you can’t talk about the contract thing… that it physically stops you from saying the words… but would it stop me from picking it up from your thoughts through telepathy?”

Zach looked uncomfortable for a moment, his eyebrows twisted into a thoughtful frown.

“It shouldn’t,” he eventually decided. “I mean, we communicated through telepathy quite a few times in the past. You read my surface thoughts more than once, and I never felt any urge to attack you. Let’s try it.”

Zorian felt Zach lowering his mental berries and immediately started looking through his surface thoughts. Which… appeared to be completely empty.

Blank, even.

“Are you thinking about the angel contract at the moment?” Zorian asked, frowning.

“I’m thinking of the ‘mysterious rules’ that I’m laboring under,” Zach told him. “If that’s really a death pact with the angels like Silverlake was saying, then yes, I’m thinking about it. Why?”

“I can’t read anything from you,” Zorian admitted. “It’s like you have no thoughts at all.”

It didn’t work. No matter what trick or method they used, Zorian could not get anything about a contract from Zach’s surface thoughts. It wasn’t that he could not read the boy at all – he could interpret Zach’s thoughts just fine when he was thinking about mundane things, like how his hand itched or how cute the passing waitress was, but every thought that involved the ‘mysterious rules’, as Zach called them, was invisible to Zorian.

The effect was both subtle and sophisticated. There was no indication that Zach’s thoughts were being magically blanked out, and it looked mostly like Zach was deliberately blanking his thoughts or just plain not thinking of anything. If Zach tried to embed a few relevant thoughts in a larger stream of consciousness, the restriction would not only unerringly pick out the offending parts, it would do its best to quietly erase them without leaving any suspicious pauses or other evidence of tampering. Unless someone spent a lot of time scrutinizing Zach’s thoughts or already knew what to look for, it would be very easy to overlook the fact that some of the thoughts had been tampered with.

How was the contract even doing that? Zorian had no idea how something like that could get accomplished without the contract itself being sapient in some fashion. But that couldn’t really be true, right?

“What if I tried to read your memories?” Zorian asked.

“No!” Zach immediately and reflexively protested. He stared at him for a second before shaking his head, seemingly reasserting control over himself in that one moment. “No. Bad idea.”

Zorian nodded slowly, making a placating gesture.

“Alright,” he said carefully. “But you know, someone has already read your mind once. As well as erased a bunch of things in it...”

“Red Robe,” Zach nodded.

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “Doesn’t that… make you murderous, I guess?”

“Well, it kind of did,” Zach said, scratching his hand. “Remember when we first met and I told you I had a confrontation with Red Robe for the first couple of restarts after he disabled me and read my mind? I made it seem like he was the aggressor all the time and I was just an innocent victim, but… I may have been simplifying things just a little bit. I basically made it my life’s goal to destroy him for a while there. I hounded him relentlessly for at least two restarts. It may have been one of the reasons why he decided to leave the time loop entirely after a while.”

“Oh,” said Zorian. That… made a lot of sense, actually. “But you were both time travelers. What would you even do to him if you managed to catch him?”

“You don’t need to be a master mind mage to erase the victim’s entire mind,” Zach told him. “Or scramble it beyond all repair. There are spells for that, and I got ahold of all kinds of illegal spells while looping.”

“You got me there,” Zorian admitted. The sort of effect Zach was describing did not take much skill and sophistication; just power. “I notice you aren’t frothing at the mouth right now at the thought of Red Robe being present again, though. Does the effect run out or something?”

“Yeah, I calmed down after a while, since I could no longer find him,” Zach said with a shrug. “Even after I left the time loop and saw Red Robe again, it didn’t start up again. I guess the angels didn’t want me to become useless if someone read my mind and then fled beyond my reach.”

“So I should have just forcibly read your mind and then spent a few restarts running away from you?” Zorian mused.

Zach scowled at him.

“What? You have to admit that’s a reasonable interpretation of what is happening,” Zorian said.

Except that he was not at all sure he could have successfully evaded Zach for several restarts. His fellow time traveler had vastly more endurance than Zorian did, and knew most of the places and escape routes Zorian could come up with. Zorian might have still been able to avoid any permanent consequences of being caught if he forced a restart every time he was forced into a corner, but doing so would rapidly burn through their remaining restarts.

“Anyway, what about the first time Red Robe messed with your mind?” Zorian asked. “You know, the one where he erased Veyers out of your mind and gods know what else?”

“I don’t know,” Zach said, frowning. “I don’t recall going on that kind of hunt for someone before we met. I guess since I had no idea who mind raped me, and perhaps didn’t even know there was a specific person behind my amnesia, the effect never kicked in.”

“Hmm,” Zorian mused. “So if I never find out that you had your memory read or never see your attacker–”

“It won’t work. I’m no longer the same person I was back then. I will know I had my mind tampered with, and I’ll know it was you,” Zach warned him. “And not just because you just stupidly clued me in that you’re considering it, either. I mean, who else but you could pull it off? Even if I had absolutely no proof, my first instinct would be to blame you.”

“And then you’d try to kill me,” Zorian guessed.

“That, or erase your relevant memories,” Zach said. “But we both know how impractical that option is on a mind mage like yourself. In practice… yes, I’d have to kill you.”

So. The contract could mask Zach’s surface thoughts to eliminate any mention of itself, but it couldn’t do the same for his long-term memories for some reason. Thus, anyone who looked deep into Zach’s memories had to be… silenced.

In whatever manner was practical.

“Who determines who has to be memory wiped and who has to die?” Zorian asked.

“What do you mean?” Zach asked.

“What if Ilsa read your memories?” Zorian clarified with an example. “Would you memory wipe her or kill her?”

“Memory wipe her,” Zach said immediately.

“Really? But she has some pretty advanced knowledge of mind magic under her belt,” Zorian pointed out. “She’s possibly even better than Xvim in that regard.”

“Really?” Zach said, surprised. “Huh. I would have never guessed. Damn… I guess I would have to kill her in that case.”

Zorian stared at Zach for a second.

He lied. Ilsa had no advanced knowledge of mind magic. She knew how to cast telepathy spells, and that was it.

Guess that answered his question – Zach was the one that made the decision. The contract may force him to act in certain ways, but it was Zach’s perception that determined things…

“What?” Zach asked.

“Nothing,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Let’s forget that, then. There is something else I’ve been wondering. Silverlake said you have to make sure the time loop stays a secret or you die, right?”

“Right,” Zach sighed. “She did say that, didn’t she? Of course, I can’t really confirm or deny anything…”

“But it’s pretty much true,” Zorian surmised. “However, back in the time loop, I recall that you tried to convince pretty much everyone who would listen that the time loop was real. Or at least you told me you did so. Plus, you never had any issue with helping me convince people that the time loop was real.”

“Well yeah, I’m not compelled to keep it a secret,” Zach shrugged. “I can’t talk to people about the ‘mysterious rules’ that bind me, but everything else is fair game. I can tell people about the time loop just fine, I just have to keep in mind the potential consequences. And… while the time loop was still going on, those consequences were a non-issue, you know?”

“Right. You only die if the knowledge of the time loop isn’t contained in the real world, when it actually matters. It doesn’t matter how many people you tell inside the time loop, because they’ll never get out of there anyway,” Zorian guessed. “Or at least that was the idea, probably.”

“Keep in mind, I had no idea how the time loop worked back then,” Zach said. “I didn’t know there was a real world and the time loop world, or any other details that we figured out later. I wasn’t lying to you when I said I don’t remember how I got in the time loop and how it functions.”

Right. That was pretty terrible design by the angels. If they could make sure that the contract they made with Zach was impossible to forget by any means, why didn’t they include some basic information there as well?

Alanic apparently wasn’t kidding when he said angels worked in mysterious ways.

“If you didn’t know how the time loop works, how did you know when telling people about the time loop matters and when it doesn’t?” Zorian asked.

Zach couldn’t answer him, of course. That would mean he would reveal some of the information about his contract thing, and that was forbidden.

“Well, we have no real choice here,” Zorian said. “If you can’t discuss these mysterious rules you are laboring under, and you don’t even have a solid idea what they mean, we’ll have to summon the angels for a talk.”

Zach gave him a surprised look.

“But you…” he began.

“I’m not supposed to be here, outside the time loop, yes,” Zorian said, nodding.

This was the primary reason they had been hesitating about contacting the angelic hierarchy, even though they had already suspected the angels were involved in the time loop. It was entirely possible that summoning an angel would just draw their attention to Zorian’s existence and give them a chance to finish what the Guardian of the Threshold had already tried and failed to do.

“We’d be risking a lot,” Zach said, frowning.

“No, I’m risking a lot,” countered Zorian. “And I’m willing to take the risk. We need to see if this contract of yours can be re-negotiated, or at least find out what it actually entails.”

Zach gave it a brief thought, tapping his fingers against the beer glass in his hand.

“Well… it’s not like I was looking forward to dying,” Zach finally said. “Though if the angels immediately smite you dead upon sight, don’t come crying to me that I didn’t warn you.”

“I won’t be doing anything at that point, being dead and all,” Zorian blandly pointed out. “Anyway, Silverlake said you made a contract to stop Panaxeth from being released at the end of the month. If true, that suggests the angels care a lot about keeping Panaxeth in his prison. Killing me would interfere with that. Plus, silencing all the extra witnesses is impossible so long as Red Robe lives. Hopefully that will give them pause.”

Well, that all made perfect sense to Zorian, but it was obvious that the logic of angels was not the same as the logic of men. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the summoned angel just ignored everything Zorian said and tried to kill him anyway.

Would it be considered disrespectful if he sent a simulacrum instead of participating in the summoning personally?

“You really think there is a chance to renegotiate… this?” Zach asked, waving vaguely over his chest.

It was unlikely. But hey, it was worth a try, right?

“The contract is probably divine magic, right?” Zorian asked, ignoring the question for now.

“I… don’t actually know,” Zach said uncertainly. “It has to be. I mean, otherwise I would have managed to find it by now, right? The only piece of mortal magic I ever found embedded in my soul is the marker…”

Zorian shook his head. He was pretty sure the marker did not include any divine energies or ‘mysterious rules’ in it… because if it did, Zorian himself would have probably inherited them from Zach when he acquired his marker.

“It’s probably a part of the soul stabilization frame that boosts your mana reserves,” Zorian pointed out. “The divine blessing and divine contract probably came together as a package deal.”

Zach winced slightly.

“Yes, I kind of guessed that too,” he admitted. “But that whole frame is incredibly complicated… it’s hard to figure out where the blessing ends and the contract starts.”

Yes, that was pretty much how Zorian expected it to be. The blessing and contract were probably intertwined in a way that made it impossible to remove one and not the other. That way, even if Zach found a way to remove the contract, he would have to give up the mana boost that came along with it.

An extra layer of security that would make just about anyone hesitate to tamper with the whole thing. After all, who would be willing to lose something as amazing as a divine blessing that doubles your mana reserves?

“Even if the angels agree to renegotiate, you’d probably have to give up your divine blessing,” Zorian eventually said.

Zach looked horrified at the thought, but also a little bit resigned. He seemed to have expected something like that to be true.

“Aw, man…” he whined, finishing his entire beer glass in one desperate gulp before ordering another from a nearby waitress.

“It’s better than being dead,” Zorian consoled him.

“I don’t know, man… how would you react if you had to give up half of your mana reserves tomorrow?” Zach asked him sullenly.

Zorian blinked rapidly in surprise. That’s right… Zach didn’t even know his mana reserves were a result of a divine blessing until relatively recently. The current situation had persisted as far as he could remember. His mana reserves felt normal as they were right now, and reducing them probably felt no different than a crippling injury…

“I’d be absolutely devastated, but it’s still better than dying,” he finally said, a little quieter this time.

Zach gave him a cranky grunt and said nothing else in response.

“How are we going to summon an angel, anyway?” Zach eventually asked, calming down a little when he got his second glass of beer delivered to their table. “Alanic?”

“Alanic can’t summon an angel,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Only a few priests are capable of that, and he is not one of them. However, I happen to know someone in this very city who is capable of summoning angels, so it shouldn’t be a problem. Though we might want to invite Alanic with us, anyway.”

“Oh? Who is it?” Zach asked curiously. “I don’t remember anyone like that.”

“You wouldn’t know her. I haven’t really interacted with her ever since we teamed up,” Zorian noted. “It’s Kylae Kuosi, a priestess in one of the semi-abandoned temples here in Cyoria. She a bit of an obscure figure, but she’s a capable mage and she knows quite a bit of interesting magic. For instance, she is one of the ‘experts’ when it comes to forecasting the future through divinations… and she also knows how to establish contact with the angels. It didn’t matter much in the time loop, since contact with the spiritual planes had been blocked there, but now…”

“Alright,” Zach said after a second of thought. “Let’s see what the heavenly bastards have to say.”

* * *

It took them three days to arrange for the summoning to occur. It wasn’t particularly difficult, but Kylae was understandably very suspicious about a couple of teenagers showing up on her doorstep and asking for her to summon an angel so they could talk to it. The fact Zach and Zorian were in a hurry and were pushing for her to set up the ritual quickly did not help matters. Thankfully, after bringing in Alanic to vouch for them and explaining several times that Zach had been given some kind of mission by the angels that he had forgot made her reluctantly agree to their request.

While this was going on, their other preparations continued. The Silent Doorway Adepts had finally agreed to open a passage to Koth, and Zach and Zorian used it to quickly claim the imperial orb. They did not establish contact with Daimen for the moment. The original plan was to evacuate everyone to Koth the moment a gate there was established, but that plan was now looking a lot less practical than it used to be. Talking everyone into cooperating with their plan while keeping them ignorant about the time loop was… impractical, to say the least.

Zorian was still a little pissed off that Zach had never tried to stop him when they had been discussing doing that, even though he knew this was practically suicide on his part. But then again… the situation was kind of hopeless. How would they ever be able to contain the knowledge of the time loop when they had no control over Red Robe and he had very little reason to keep things a total secret? Not to mention the problem of Zorian himself…

Princess was claimed as normal and bound to Zorian. Zach’s situation was deemed too unstable to have Princess depend on him. They had no idea how the bond with Princess would interact with his ‘mysterious rules’, and whether its presence would make it more complicated to adjust the contract he had with the angels. Plus, if Zach was compelled to go to a rampage or something, it was best he didn’t also have a loyal hydra at his disposal as well. His current skills were a headache enough.

Xvim also joined their little group of time loop aware individuals. They had already started talking to him before Zorian found out about the contract, so it was pointless to back off from him now… plus, they could really use his help.

Finally, the scheduled day of the summoning had arrived. Zach, Zorian, Alanic, and Xvim came together to Kylae’s temple, where they were greeted by Batak, the friendly green-haired priest that Zorian had met so long ago. Even though Zach and Zorian had been kind of rude and impatient these last few days, the young priest had never lost his temper around them and remained polite and helpful to the very end. He led them to the interior of the temple, which had been dramatically rearranged in the preparation for the summoning ritual.

The chairs and furniture had all been shoved to the walls to make space in the center, and a complicated circular spell formula had been inscribed on the floor in blue paint. Kylae was not the only priest present inside – eight more lower-ranking attendant priests had been brought in from elsewhere, and were currently scurrying around the modified main hall, double-checking the spell formula circle and making last-minute corrections. Additionally, there was a tall, male priest observing the proceedings with a cool, detached look on his face. His fancy blue robes, decorated in gold and silver, meant that he was someone pretty high in the Triumvirate Church hierarchy. He gave them a chilly, unfriendly look when they entered the hall, and then purposely ignored them.

“This is more involved than I thought it would be,” Zorian whispered to Batak.

“Ah-ha… I don’t think you really realize the sort of thing you started,” Batak told him with a quiet, nervous chuckle. “Even in the Triumvirate Church, it is not every day you get to summon an angel for a talk. This is a big deal. It’s especially a big deal when someone pulls as many strings as you did and does it all on such short notice. This has lot of people sitting up and taking notice, I hear.”

Pulling strings? Zorian didn’t remember doing that…

He looked at Alanic, who noticed his look and gave him a small shrug.

“You said it was important,” Alanic said unrepentantly. “I agreed with you.”

They eventually retreated to the side and let Kylae and her fellow priests finish things. The preparations were lengthy, however, and Zorian couldn’t help but wonder if all of this was really necessary. There were lots of chanting and arcane rituals being performed, such as burning of incense and ritualistic bell ringing. Very little of it resembled structured magic as Zorian understood it. That was interesting because as far as he knew, angels could be summoned through any old summoning spell; it was just a matter of knowing how to contact them properly and them actually deigning to answer the summons.

Did all these little rituals count as proper contact procedure or was this just empty tradition that the Triumvirate Church insisted on following?

He didn’t actually ask that question, though. He had antagonized them enough recently with his request, and he knew from Alanic that the Triumvirate Church had some very scary resources to call upon when someone angered them enough. He wasn’t in the time loop anymore.

After what felt like an hour, the actual spellcasting began. Neither Zach nor Zorian had much experience with summoning spells, as they were useless and impossible to train inside the time loop, so the whole process was largely a mystery to them. All they saw was the circular spell formula on the floor lightning up with a soft glow and the air above it rippling like hot summer air.

“We’ve decided to summon a low-ranking angel to start with,” Batak explained to them in a low voice. He wasn’t involved in the summoning and seemed to have assigned as their guide and minder instead. “Even if it cannot help you, it will inform its superiors about the issue and they’ll decide what to do about it from there.”

“That’s fine,” Zorian said. Low-ranking was fine. Less chance of it completely overpowering them that way.

“…servant of the Highest Ones, I implore you to grace us with your presence,” Kylae intoned solemnly. “We, the lowly children of the dust, have a need for your infinite wisdom and guid- urk!”

Uh oh. This doesn’t sound too good…

“What’s happening?” Zach and Batak asked out-loud at the same time.

“The summoning is getting hijacked!” the blue robed priest said in a panicky voice. “I don’t understand! We preformed all the rites correctly! The demons shouldn’t be able to–”

“It’s not the demons,” Kylae said firmly. She was calmer than the blue robed priest, but her voice still trembled a little. “It’s being hijacked by another angel. Someone high up in the angelic hierarchy has used their rights of seniority to substitute themselves with the angel we are trying to summon.”

She then winced and stumbled in place. The other priests followed her action soon after, some of them falling on their knees.

“It’s… it’s too much,” one of the attendant priests gasped. “We can’t supply enough mana for this…”

In the center of the summoning circle, a vague fuzzy outline flickered in and out of existence. Every summoning spell had to incarnate the spirit being summoned into something. A shell, a vessel that would allow them exist in and interact with the material world. The more powerful the spirit, the fancier the vessel had to be to contain them and let them manifest their power… and thus, the more mana one had to pay to create an ectoplasmic shell suitable for them.

The angel that had substituted itself into their summoning ritual was apparently very mana hungry to summon.

Before anyone could say anything, Zach pushed Batak aside and stepped up to the summoning circle. He observed the whole thing for a few seconds and then started pouring his vast mana reserved into the ritual. He may not have been familiar with summoning magic, but simply supplying power to the whole thing was not too difficult to figure out.

Zorian, Alanic and Xvim followed his example immediately afterwards. A few seconds later, Batak woke up from his initial daze and hurriedly joined them in trying to power the summoning.

Zorian’s mana reserves dipped dangerously low almost as soon as he started pouring mana into the summoning ritual. It wasn’t by choice – the angel on the other side of the ritual was aggressively pulling on every available mana source to fuel its descent on the material plane. No wonder the priests had reacted like they did. Having one’s mana reserves forcibly drained in such fashion wasn’t lethal, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience either.

Finally, after everyone in the room had run dry of mana, the fuzzy ectoplasmic form in the center of the summoning circle condensed itself into glowing white ball and then erupted into an explosion of fire.

A brief moment of panic surged in Zorian’s heart when he realized there was a wall of flames coming at them and that he was entirely out of mana and practically defenseless. Thankfully, the explosion of flames suddenly reversed itself before it reached them and collapsed into a writing ball of fiery ectoplasm before suddenly sprouting black branches and metallic surfaces.

Eventually the angel’s form stabilized and Zorian finally got his first look at an angel.

It wasn’t human-looking in the slightest. Most old, powerful spirits weren’t, but somehow Zorian didn’t expect an angel to look so… strange.

The angel was shaped like a black, floating, cross-shaped tree with four sets of branches and no roots. Or maybe it would be more accurate to imagine four trees that had their lower half cut off and were then glued together through their trunk into a cross-shaped pattern. The branches were leafless, and burning orange eyes grew on them instead. The eyes were animated, constantly moving and taking in everything around the angel. Translucent orange flames enveloped the branches, coiling around them like a multitude of snakes and releasing crackling sounds reminiscent of real branches burning in flames.

Floating behind the tree of eyes was a gently spinning ring of silvery metal. The ring was densely covered in tiny golden characters that Zorian didn’t recognize, and which seemed entirely alien to his eyes, unlike anything he had ever seen. Behind it, several ghostly ribbons of multicolored light extended in all directions from the angel, straining Zorian’s eyes and blurring the angel’s form. If one squinted and tilted their head the right way, they kind of looked like six pairs of wings.

Zorian felt some of the eyes swivel in his direction, and he suddenly felt naked and exposed. It was as if the angel’s eyes has seen right through him and peered straight into the depths of his soul, observing, analyzing, judging…

Zorian instinctively took a step back from the angel, and then suddenly realized the entire hall was unnaturally quiet and still.

Only he, Zach and the angel remained in the hall. Everyone else was just… gone.

Zorian was getting uncomfortable flashbacks to his first meeting with Panaxeth.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said. Its voice was booming, and resonated painfully in Zorian’s ears and chest. “I have come to help.”

“What… where is everyone?” Zach asked in confusion.

“They should not hear this,” the angel responded.

“So you just… shunted us off to some private space?” Zach frowned. “Also, can’t you talk a little more quietly?”

“My time here is limited,” the angel cautioned. It made no attempt to lower its voice for them. It was still uncomfortably loud and resonant, and Zorian thought he could faintly hear additional voices repeating its words whenever it spoke. “You must not waste time.”

Zorian supposed the angel had a point there. Even though it had taken all their mana, a spirit of this level probably couldn’t stay manifested on the material plan for very long. They had to make the most of it.

“Did Zach enter into a contract with you?” Zorian asked.

“Yes,” the angel immediately confirmed.

Zorian waited for a second, but the angel seemed disinclined to clarify more than that.

Ugh.

“My enemies made me completely forget about that,” Zach said with a frown.

“They did not,” the angel countered.

Zach made a strange face.

“Yes they did,” he said, laughing in a frustrated manner. “Why would I lie about it to you of all people?”

“They did not make you forget because you never even knew you had made a contract with us,” the angel said. “If they do know that you have made a contract with us, it is because they have guessed correctly.”

“Zach… never knew he’d made a contract with you?” Zorian asked incredulously. “How would that work?”

“We went through a great deal of effort to mask our involvement,” the angel said. “Our current interference… is already overstepping certain boundaries that we would rather not cross. It would have been best for everyone if nobody had realized our involvement.”

“But how would I make a contract with you without realizing it?” Zach insisted. “That doesn’t make any sense!”

“We contacted you through a dream,” the angel told him. “You had no idea who was making the offer when you accepted the contract.”

Zach’s face went through several different expressions as he processed that.

Zorian just buried his face into his palms and took a deep breath.

Zach…

“That’s… that’s slander!” Zach protested. “I’d never do something stupid like that! Even I know it’s dumb as hell to accept spiritual contracts from mysterious people that contact you in your dreams!”

“You being foolish enough to take the offer was one of the reasons we chose you as our champion,” the angel told him bluntly.

“Well, uh…” Zach fumbled. “You know what? Forget it. Even if what you say it’s true, I still ended up mind wiped of critical information inside the time loop. I didn’t even know how to return to the real world! You included so many thing in this… contract I made with you, so why didn’t you include some basic information like that in there as well?”

“We did,” the angel responded. “You simply never satisfied the conditions necessary to access the information.”

What?

“What?” demanded Zach. “What do you mean by that?”

“You had a goal, did you not?” the angel challenged. “You had to stop the invasion without informing anyone about the time loop. Had you ever succeeded at that, the contract would have given you information about the time loop and how to leave it.”

“You never explained to him how the time loop worked to begin with,” Zorian realized. “Giving him the exit method right from the start would mean he could leave at any point he wished, even before he was capable of stopping Panaxeth’s release the way you wanted him to.”

“The hearts of men are weak and fall easily to temptation,” the angel confirmed. “If he could not handle the relentless weathering of time and become the savior we need, it would have been better for him to never emerge from the Sovereign Gate at all.”

“You…” Zach began.

“You chose this,” the angel reminded him, completely unrepentant. “And with that in mind, I would like an explanation. What happened in there?”

“You don’t know?” Zorian asked curiously.

“Would I be asking if I did?” the angel asked rhetorically. “The inner workings of the Sovereign Gate are opaque to us. Much like the Black Rooms you are familiar with, the Sovereign Gate is completely isolated from the rest of the world once activated. We have inferred some things, but we would like an unambiguous answer.”

Zach and Zorian gave the angel a quick summary of what had occurred inside the time loop, taking pains to emphasize Panaxeth’s interference with the normal operation of the time loop and how Red Robe’s and Silverlake’s presence in the real world made the entire task of stopping the invasion very difficult. Finally, they explained Zorian’s situation and how his presence made the idea of eliminating all knowledge of the time loop outside of Zach basically impossible.

“A disappointing result,” the angel concluded. “The task we gave you was not that difficult. Why did you allow things to get so complicated?”

“Not that difficult!?” Zach repeated incredulously. “Do you know how difficult it is to stop an army on your lonesome, without being able to explain to people where your skills come from or how you know things?”

“Even though we initiated the Sovereign Gate prematurely, you still had hundreds of chances to get things right,” the angel said. “I suspect you have a skewed perspective on the difficulty of the problem. In the original scenario, you would have been tackling an unaware force oblivious to your shifting schemes. Even with our restrictions, it should not have been difficult to figure out a solution when you have infinite attempts and your enemy never learns from your mistakes. Instead, you have been competing against a rival time looper. Regardless of how it happened, that is your own failing. Not ours.”

Zach looked like he was about to start yelling at the angel, but eventually restrained himself. He scoffed disdainfully at the spirit, and then folded his hands over his chest in silence.

They didn’t actually know how Red Robe got included as a time looper, so it was difficult to counter the angel’s claims there.

“So you deliberately activated the Sovereign Gate a month before the invasion,” Zorian noted. “You could tell what was going to happen a month in advance?”

“The future is hazy and constantly changing, but some things are more certain than others,” the angel said. “Unless something was done, Panaxeth’s release was practically set in stone.”

“Why not just inform the Triumvirate Church and let them handle it?” Zorian asked.

“Strange as this may sound to you, that would have been far worse than what we ended up doing,” the angel responded. “We are not supposed to meddle in mortal conflicts.”

“Why me?” Zach suddenly asked. “If you have such an accurate way of predicting the future, surely you knew I wasn’t a good choice.”

“On the contrary,” the angel disagreed. “You were the best choice. That is why we settled on you in the end.”

“Best how?” Zach asked suspiciously.

“It is a secret,” the angel responded. “There were considerable restrictions in regards to candidates. They had to begin the month in Cyoria. They needed to have a certain potential and mentality. They needed to have considerable freedom of movement and association. They needed to satisfy the ethical guidelines. And so much more. I cannot tell you the details.”

“If Zorian began the month in Cyoria, would be also be a candidate?” Zach asked.

Zorian gave him a strange look. Why would he ask that?

“Heavens no,” the angel said. “He fails just about every criteria, especially in regards to mentality. I am surprised he was even willing to risk his life in this manner, based on his previous actions and attitudes.”

Annoyingly, Zach seemed really pleased to hear that response.

Zorian folded his arms over his chest in dissatisfaction. Jerks, the both of them.

“What is my status at the moment, then?” Zorian asked. “I defied the laws of the time loop and got out into the real world, but I notice you are not making a move against me. Are you fine with my presence, then?”

The angel’s burning eyes focused on him more closely, studying him in great detail for a couple of seconds. Zorian squirmed uncomfortably under its gaze, but stood his ground and stubbornly kept staring back at the angel without flinching.

“You are a forbidden existence, and you have committed grave sins to be where you are right now,” the angel judged. “However, we are not without mercy and understanding. So long as the primordial’s release is stopped in the end, we are willing to overlook some things.”

“So… I’m safe from your wrath?” Zorian summarized.

If the primordial remains chained by the end of the month,” the angel stressed. “If not, then we will be forced to directly intervene in the material world. At that point, it costs us nothing to be extra thorough and eliminate all possible complications. You understand, yes?”

“Of course,” Zorian confirmed.

Even though he had made no contract with the angels, his life also depended on the outcome of the invasion. If he and Zach failed to stop Red Robe and Silverlake from releasing Panaxeth, the angels would take care of him all the same.

“If you’re fine with Zorian, does that mean that my contract can be renegotiated now?” Zach asked hopefully. “Because the way things are now…”

“We cannot renegotiate the contract,” the angel said. “It simply cannot be done.”

“But you’re the one who made it,” Zach protested. “Why wouldn’t you be able to change it?”

“It is divine magic,” the angel pointed out. “We obviously didn’t make it.”

Of course. No one could cast divine magic in the current age, not even the angels. Only the gods themselves were capable of that. Everyone else, including their spiritual servants, were just tapping into artifacts and resources left behind when the gods went silent.

“How about just removing it?” Zorian tried.

“Also not possible,” the angel responded. “It is deliberately designed to be next to impossible to remove once placed. I am afraid there is nothing we can do about it.”

“But the way things are going, I’ll die at the end of the month, even if I stop the primordial from getting out,” Zach pointed out. “Isn’t that just a little unfair? It’s obvious the situation has changed from the time I agreed to the contract… and even you admitted the way you got me to agree to it was kind of dodgy and inappropriate.”

“We cannot absolve you of fulfilling your part of the bargain,” the angel stubbornly said. “It simply is not within our power to do so. The only thing I can promise you is that if you find the way to remove or evade the contract in some fashion, we will not seek to punish you for it.”

Zach’s eyes widened at the statement.

“You will not seek to… you’re saying if I found a way to trick the contract on my own, you would have gone after me for it?” he asked incredulously.

“We are not the primordials,” the angel told him. “Though our actions are restricted, we are far from powerless in regards to the material world. Even if you could trick the spell left by the gods, it would do you no good if we were also not willing to look the other way and accept this outcome. You made a solemn pact with us, and we have done our side of the bargain. We have every right to be harsh and demand that you fulfill your obligation to the letter… but as I said to your friend, we are not without mercy and understanding. So long as the primordial’s release is stopped in the end, we are willing to overlook some things.”

“So I still have to do the impossible,” complained Zach. “It’s just that, if I succeed at that, you won’t come after me in response.”

“You can view it that way, I suppose,” the angel responded. The spirit froze for a moment, its eyes staring off somewhere into the distance, as if listening to some distant words that neither Zach nor Zorian could hear. “My time here grows short. If you have anything else you need of me, say it quickly.”

“Give me the actual contents of the contract Zach signed with you,” Zorian demanded. “Zach can’t tell me what it says and I need to know.”

For a while, the angel said nothing. Then, it’s branches swayed on unseen winds for a few seconds, and a ray of burning orange light erupted from without warning and struck Zach in the chest. Rather than harming him, however, the ray harmlessly sank into his chest and was absorbed without a trace.

Before either Zach or Zorian could ask what the hell that was about, a series of burning letters started materializing in the air in front of Zach.

And kept going…

…and going…

…and going.

Pages and pages of text, going on and on and on about what was expected of Zach. Zorian expected the contract to be a couple of concise sentences, since that was what a geas spell would look like… but apparently he was wrong. The contract instead consisted of a massive legal document, complete with that peculiar legal word choice that made official documents hard to understand even if you speak the language.

It was good that he could flawlessly memorize everything he could see, because there was no way he could understand this thing without a few hours to pore over it. And possibly some actual legal help.

“For heaven’s sake, Zach…” Zorian sighed. “How the hell could you agree to this? There is no way you actually read all this and understood its implications.”

“I don’t remember any of it!” Zach protested. “It was my stupid younger self, okay? Gods know your younger self was just as stupid in his own way!”

Well, he got him there… but still. This was something else.

“He did not actually read the contract,” the angel added in helpfully. “Still, we had summarized the relevant parts to him. He has to stop the invasion of Cyoria from achieving its goal or he will die at the end of the month. He cannot let anyone know about the existence of the time loop or he’ll die at the end of the month. He cannot kill a ruler of any nation, or otherwise directly cause a nation to collapse into anarchy or he’ll die at the end of the month. Restrictions were placed on what kind of mind and soul magic he can learn, because the ethical committee would not approve the project otherwise. He is also completely forbidden from talking about the specifics of the contract he signed. Anyone who forcibly sees the contents of the contract, such as through a deep memory scan, must be neutralized in whatever manner is practical. Finally, the contract is completely dissolved at the end of the month, allowing him to live him life freely from that point afterwards.”

“Can you tell me how you defined ‘knows about the time loop’?” Zorian asked.

“It is all in the contract,” the angel responded, one of its branches casually waving towards Zach. “I know you memorized it.”

The angel once again stilled for a moment, seemingly listening to something in the distance.

“I must go,” it said. “You have one more question.”

“If the primordial becomes free, is it the end of the world as we know it?” Zach immediately asked, giving no chance for Zorian to think about this last chance to question the spirit.

“Probably not,” the angel admitted. “Nevertheless, you still would not want this to happen… and not just because of the dire consequences for you personally. The Highest Ones had placed a great many… triggers… into the core that governs this world. If conditions satisfying a trigger are detected, automatic countermeasures are initiated. A primordial gaining access to the material plane would activate several of them. You do not want that to happen. No one wants that to happen. Much of our duties involve making sure none of the triggers can be activated, for the sake of both the spirit world and the material one. Most of the triggers look out for things the Highest Ones had considered existential threats… and they had a very ‘scorched earth’ policy when dealing with existential threats.”

Having said that, the angel suddenly swooped down towards the ground, and one of its branches lightly reached towards the stone floor beneath them. Even though its branches looked thin and fragile, they scooped out a chunk of stone out of the floor like it was nothing but wet clay… and then started shaping it just as easily.

Black branches twisted and tapped the stone like hundreds of tiny fingers, chipping off pieces in a flurry of rapid movement. In less than three seconds, the chunk of rock became a smooth, glossy cube that was then thrust directly into Zorian’s hands.

It was the weirdest thing, because it didn’t look like magic – instead it looked as if the angel physically shaped the chunk of stone through a combination of inhuman strength, speed, and precision.

“Take this,” the angel said. “Use it to summon me for the final battle.”

“How do you know there will be a final battle?” asked Zorian.

“The future is hazy and constantly changing, but some things are more certain than others,” the angel said, echoing one of its earlier statements.

And then it was gone, and the temple hall was once again loud and full of people. Alanic, Xvim, Batak, Kylae, and the other priests quickly surrounded them, demanding to know what had occurred. From their perspective they just suddenly disappeared for a while and now they were mysterious back.

Zach and Zorian ignored them for a moment, focusing on the cube in Zorian’s hands.

It wasn’t as smooth as Zorian originally thought it was. It was densely covered with strange writing; the same kind of writing that covered the silver ring that floated behind the angel. There was nothing obviously magical about it, but the cube had a strange sheen to it when the light hit it just right and the characters did seem to have some kind of pattern to them…

In the end he carefully pocketed the cube and put it out of his mind for the moment. Before he dived into the specifics of Zach’s contract and studied the cube, they had one more meeting to go through.

Red Robe had invited them for a talk…

* * *

As Red Robe had noted in his brief letting to them, Zach and Zorian already knew how to contact him with information about the meeting. Their simulacrums clashed all the time, and it was no problem to just throw a letter on the ground during one of those confrontations and then just walk away.

Using that method, Zach and Zorian eventually arranged for a meeting with Red Robe on the roof of one of the academy buildings. It was a sufficiently public location that neither side could really prepare a trap for the other there. Plus, the academy wards were actually pretty good now that Zach and Zorian covertly talked them into changing their ward keys. Even Zach and Zorian had to be a little careful around them, since the new security voided their knowledge as much as it did Red Robe’s.

The meeting was arranged at midnight, and everyone arrived exactly on time. One side consisted of Zach, Zorian, Xvim, and Alanic. The other had Red Robe, Silverlake, and Quatach-Ichl.

Red Robe was wearing his usual red robe as a disguise, his face hidden in a patch of darkness behind the hood. Silverlake was as Zorian last saw her – a young, attractive woman wearing a form-fitting dress. She seemed very happy and pleased with herself, grinning from ear to ear as she looked at them… a fact that made Zach obviously fume at her. It just made her grin wider.

And then there was Quatach-Ichl. He was not in his skeletal form for this meeting, opting to come in his human guise instead. He looked calm, composed, and confident. He greeted them politely with a small bow before turning silent and just observing things.

Zorian sighed inwardly. He knew it was a futile dream, but he had been hoping Red Robe and Silverlake hadn’t initiated the old lich into their deep secrets. This made everything so much harder…

“Ha ha!” Silverlake cackled. “See, I told you they would bring those two with them and none other. Pay up!”

“We never actually agreed to any bets,” Red Robe protested.

“Bah! You’re supposed to play along for appearances sake!” Silverlake said, scowling at him. “Whatever. Zorian, did you reconsider my offer? It still stands, you know?”

“Shut up,” Red Robe snapped at her. “Everyone, I’d like to apologize for her actions recently. I know you probably think I sent her to sow dissent into your group, but that was entirely her own idea. She seems to think there is a genuine chance of convincing mister Kazinski to join us in freeing the primordial, but we all know that is just a fantasy.”

Yeah, as if Zorian was going to believe that. He fully believed that Silverlake being there was an attempt to make Zorian and Zach fight amongst each other. He also suspected it was an attempt by Red Robe and Silverlake to reduce the number of enemies lined up against them, since Zorian was far less likely to keep telling people about the time loop if he knew that would get Zach killed. Which was what ended up happening in the end.

One thing he didn’t believe for a moment was the idea that Silverlake actually made an honest offer for him to join her. Her natural instinct was to exploit others, not work with them.

“As if your plan is any better,” Silverlake complained. “Why do you think–”

“I thought we agreed I’ll be doing the talking?” Red Robe protested with a sigh.

Silverlake clacked her tongue dismissively and then conjured herself a chair to sit on.

Quatach-Ichl did not react at all to his companion’s antics, opting to study Zorian and his group instead.

A short and very uncomfortably silence descended on the scene. Everyone involved was tense and seemed to be ready to attack at a moment’s notice. Even Silverlake, who was sitting on a conjured chair and tried to give off an impression of being bored and inattentive, was clearly twitching whenever someone made an unexpected move.

“What is this all about?” Zach finally asked. “You’re the one who invited us here, so why are you silent all of a sudden? Don’t waste our time.”

“Ah… even after all this time, you still haven’t changed. Still so impatient…” Red Robe said softly, as if reminiscing about something.

Zach frowned at him, clearly considering the merits of just starting a battle here and now.

“I see you came here unmasked,” Red Robe commented.

“You already know who we are,” Zach shrugged. “Is there any point in hiding our faces?”

“True,” Red Robe nodded. “Well, I guess there’s no point in hiding my identity any longer, either.”

He pulled his hood down, and the path of darkness that hid his face suddenly disappeared.

It was Veyers. The same face, the same blonde hair, the same orange, slitted eyes. The main difference was that his hair was well-groomed, his eyes lacked some of that ferocity and violence he had seen in Veyers recently, and his entire attitude was calm and more assured.

“I’m guessing this isn’t much of a surprise to you,” Red Robe said. Without the voice masking spells embedded into the hood of his robe, even his voice was recognizably that of Veyers. Just calmer and quieter. “Still, I hope you take this gesture of good will as just that. I’m not a monster you think I am, and I really thing we can come to a sort of agreement here.”

Zorian studied the boy in front of him for a few seconds before shaking his head.

“You say it’s a gesture of good will and you show us a fake face and identity,” Zorian told him. “How do you expect us to agree to anything when you opened the talks with such a brazen deception?”

Veyers looked honestly taken aback at the accusation.

“You’re overthinking things,” Silverlake said, rolling her eyes at him. “It’s really him. Who else could it be, really?”

“No, he’s not Veyers,” Zorian insisted. “It never made sense and still doesn’t.”

Zach sent Zorian an almost imperceptible frown. He clearly didn’t understand why Zorian was so certain, but didn’t want to call him on it.

Zorian didn’t blame him. He had long had his suspicions, but it was only when he saw the true form of Zach’s angelic contract that he became completely certain…

“Are you asking me to prove that I’m Veyers?” Red Robe said with an amused laugh. “What would even satisfy you?”

“Every student has to give their mana signature to the academy for identification purposes,” Xvim suddenly said, reaching into his jacket pocket and retrieving an inconspicuous looking ball out of it. He displayed it for everyone to see. “Proving whether or not you’re Veyers… should be an extremely simple matter.”

Red Robe stared at the ball for a few seconds before bursting into short, barking laughter.

“Oh hell…” he said, chuckling to himself. “I can’t believe I overlooked something as simple as that…”

Silverlake gave him a shocked look.

“Feeling dumb, now?” Red Robe said, giving her a contemptuous look. “You spent all these days interacting with me and never suspected a thing, but mister Kazinski here saw though it immediately. Maybe you should have asked to join him instead.”

He then ignored her and turned to face Zorian fully.

“I guess you also know who I really am?” he asked, tilting his head to the side with a self-indulgent smile.

“You’re Jornak, Veyers’s lawyer friend,” Zorian said. “I’m guessing Veyers introduced you to Zach, and you hit it off with each other since you have both been cheated out of your inheritance and empathized with each other because of it. He didn’t realize you have ties to the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon until it was too late.”

“The Cult of the Dragon is nothing to me,” Red Robe said. He still continued wearing Veyers’s face. “I was never seriously loyal to them, even before the time loop.”

“So why…” Zach asked him, looking at him with confused eyes. “If Zorian could trick the time loop into letting him leave, then you–”

“You don’t understand,” Red Robe said, shaking his head sadly. “You just wouldn’t understand, no matter how I tried to convince you. This knowledge… this power… it’s just begging to be used. Shutur-Tarana changed the world entirely when he left the time loop. Why can’t I? Why couldn’t we?”

Zach seemed taken aback at the question.

“Have you two ever tried to look into what our country has been doing these past few years?” Red Robe said, looking at Zorian. “I just wanted to figure out how to ensure justice for me and Zach at first. However, I couldn’t stop myself from looking… and the more I looked, the more awful things I found. The prosperity we enjoy right now is all built atop of mountain of lies, theft, unspeakable corruption and even straight up murder. Even if I got justice for myself and Zach, it’s all just a drop in the bucket.”

“The other countries are no better,” Alanic pointed out.

“Yes! Yes, I know that!” Red Robe said, agreeing vigorously. “I’ve looked into them as well, and it was just as disgusting. And… even if one wanted to shut their eyes and ignore all the violations, the current state of peace is just a fragile illusion. Another round of Splinter Wars will occur soon, with all the pain and suffering that entails. Something had to be done. I had to do something. But Zach wouldn’t hear any of it. He just wanted to stop the invasion, get the money his caretaker had taken from him and look away from the ugliness of the world. We had this incredible opportunity to change things for the better, and he was fine letting it slip through his fingers.”

“I hate to break it to you, but you’re trying to raze an entire city of half a million people to the ground and feed their souls to a wraith creation machine,” Zach told him. “If that’s your vision of ‘changing things for the better’, I’m not surprised my forgotten self would have none of it.”

“Things wouldn’t have been so drastic if you had agreed to work with me on this,” Red Robe said. “Though yes, some unpleasantness would still have to get done. Things have to get worse before they get better.”

There was a short pause as everyone processed Red Robe’s… Jornak’s statements. Jornak decided to take this chance to drop his disguise and assume his real form. He took a deep breath and then suddenly became taller, his facial structure shifting and changing. A few seconds later, Veyers was gone – in his place was a perfect copy of Jornak as Zorian remembered him…

…except that there was a spark of intensity in this Jornak’s eyes which simply hadn’t existed in him the last time they had spoken. The Jornak that Zorian had known was a nervous, risk-averse man that harbored no desire to change the world or enact some grand scheme. Zorian knew this because he had read his thoughts and memories several times, and had seen nothing particularly suspicious about them.

Then again, wasn’t Zorian the same? This was just one more proof that the time loop was capable of radically changing a person. For better or for worse.

Of course, this could all just be another disguise… but Zorian rather doubted it. He was pretty sure Red Robe really was Jornak. That’s why Veyers had to be soul killed in the time loop and erased out of Zach’s mind… because Veyers would know if Jornak was acting inconsistently from restart to restart, and Veyers always crashed their first classes of the year and could thus interact with Zach at any time. If Zach regularly spoke to Veyers over the course of many restarts, the other boy would surely mention how his best friend Jornak was missing from his house or doing strange things that differed radically from restart to restart. In order for Jornak to drop off Zach’s perception, Veyers had to go away.

“You know what? Why don’t you just tell us why you invited us here?” Zach suddenly told Jornak. “Surely it isn’t to get us to join you, right?”

“No, I know this is impossible,” Jornak said. “In the end, neither of you are willing to dirty your hands with this, even if doing so would prevent far more suffering in the end. No, I invited you here to arrange for a truce.”

“A truce?” Zorian asked incredulously.

“Yes. I want us to stop fighting until the day of the summer festival,” Jornak clarified. “We’ll decide a winner and loser among us in one massive battle at the end of the month, just like it was always meant to be. In the meantime, you’ll stop making raids on our forces and we’ll make no moves against you.”

“That seems like a deal that completely favors you,” Zorian pointed out. “Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot by agreeing to this?”

Jornak smiled at the question and took out brown stone with a crudely carved flame symbol on it. It didn’t seem magical in the slightest and Zorian did not recognize it, but Zach immediately paled upon sighting it.

“Because I have wraith bombs scattered throughout the major cities on the continent, ready to activate at my command. Because I know exactly who to assassinate and how in order to immediately trigger a new continental war. And,” he shook his stone token as he said this, “because I got Oganj and his group to work with me. Your choice.”

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