Chapter 098
Beneath the Surface

After the two groups of time travelers agreed to the shaky truce, the daily fighting stopped and the situation in Cyoria stabilized. Zach and Zorian no longer sent their simulacrums to raid invader bases and assassinate their leaders, and the invaders seemed to have no interest in testing their luck with them. Zorian had been worried that their enemies would try to strike at them indirectly, perhaps by sending the law enforcement after them or by attacking targets technically unrelated to them, but fortunately, they did no such thing.

Not that the two groups were entirely ignoring each other just because they weren’t fighting, of course. Zach and Zorian were constantly monitoring invader movements, trying to figure what they were doing and what their secrets were. Where they had placed all those wraith bombs Red Robe was threatening them with, for instance. Red Robe and his allies were similarly spying on them in return. Although both groups were clearly aware of each other’s surveillance, there was an unspoken agreement that this was perfectly acceptable and the truce continued.

Even though this was just calm before the storm, Zorian found himself kind of enjoying it. Too many things had happened recently, barely days apart from each other, and he had never really had time to sit down and process it all properly. They’d failed to get their group physically out of the time loop, and he ended up killing his old self after entering the real world. Zach had almost died at the start of the month, and he was certain to die at the end of it if they couldn’t find a solution to the angelic contract he was working under. He doubted he would figure out something insightful about that just because he spent a few days mulling things over, but it would make him feel a little better, at least.

Of course, he couldn’t really justify wasting a time right now, truce or no truce. Things still needed to be done, preparations made. Thus, he decided to simply spend more time in his workshop, building up his arsenal of bombs, golems, and magical devices. Something that was both useful and relaxing. He had actually wanted to set aside more time for magical artifice for a while now, but the frantic pace of their activities in these past few days made that all but impossible. Just building enough simulacrum bodies and equipping them for the daily skirmishes was challenging enough.

In any case, Zorian was currently sitting in his workshop – a spacious room in the Noveda Mansion that Zach had generously donated for his purposes – and staring at a shiny metal plate in his hands, considering things. The large wooden table in front of him was an absolute mess of tools, half-processed materials, technical reference books, and hastily drawn blueprints that probably only made sense to him and no one else. The rest of the room was not much better. Tall, dangerous looking golems stood lined up next to one of the walls, some of them with gaping holes in their chests, still missing critical components before they could be completed. A stack of small metal cylinders densely covered in glowing lines and magical glyphs lay seemingly forgotten in one of the corners.

Zorian glanced at the half-finished construction on the table in front of him before returning his attention to the metal plates in his hand. The device he was building was still barely formed, but a perceptive onlooker would be able to puzzle out that it was a fairly large and very complicated cube. The center of it consisted of several rare and expensive crystals, which was then surrounded by a plethora of gears and interlocking pieces of metal, wood, and stone. Most of it was already done, just waiting for him to put it all together and cast the necessary spells, but he still had to make the outer chassis of the cube.

[What are you making?] a cheery, excitable voice suddenly sounded in his mind.

Zorian glanced at Novelty, who was currently wandering around the room and inspecting everything within her reach, caressing the items with her hairy spider legs and occasionally taking a nibble when she thought he wasn’t looking. Most of his allies had no real interest in his workshop and what he did there, as they had no interest or deep understanding of magical artifice, but just about everything human-related was new and exciting for Novelty so she insisted on coming along. He suspected she would get bored of it all very soon, but for now she was surprisingly well behaved.

It was amusing, he thought to himself. Once upon a time, her presence here would have driven him up the wall and he would have done all he could to get rid of her. Now, he found her antics to be… kind of nostalgic. She reminded him of an older, simpler time. A time when Novelty had been entirely qualified to teach him mind magic and the aranea had been his only friend. Even though Spear of Resolve had intended to betray him in the end – something he had never actually revealed to the aranea here in the real world – he still felt gratitude towards her and her web.

He sometimes wondered what his life would have been like if they had somehow survived that fateful restart. Would the final outcome have been better with them around, or was their doom a necessary price for him to develop into what he was today? After all, without that reckless ploy he and Spear of Resolve concocted, Red Robe might have decided to stick around in the time loop for a long time. Zorian could easily imagine a situation where he never contacted Zach at all, constantly moving in the shadows in fear of attracting Red Robe’s attention, the aranea his only ally…

[Hey! Why aren’t you answering me?] Novelty protested.

What? Oh right, his project…

[It’s secret,] he told her, shaking his head.

[Secret project…] she said, tapping her legs on the floor excitedly. Rather than backing off, she seemed only more fascinated by the secrecy. [Is it a weapon? Ooh, maybe it’s a collapsible golem that transforms into a giant spider when a command word is spoken!]

[Why would I make a golem in the form of a giant spider of all things?] he asked her, raising an eyebrow at her.

[Well, everything is better with spiders,] she told him matter-of-factly. [Plus, I heard you humans found us cute.]

Zorian gave her an incredulous look.

[What? What?] she demanded, shuffling from side to side in agitation.

[I… think one of your friends played a prank on you or something,] Zorian said diplomatically.

[No way!] she protested. [I have it on good authority that… I mean, you humans like small, furry animals, right? I saw your little sister playing with that black cat yesterday, and some people are taking care of dogs and stuff…]

[I’m afraid humans don’t really place you in the same category as cats and dogs,] Zorian told her. [In fact, a sizeable number of humans think spiders are pretty… horrifying.]

[Even giant spiders?] Novelty asked, visibly incredulous.

[Especially giant spiders,] Zorian said, laughing.

[How mean!] Novelty whined, her entire body vibrating in a clear show of annoyance.

Idly, Zorian wondered if painting Novelty pink and wrapping her in ribbons and glitter would make her cute enough for people to coo over. He could probably talk Novelty into going along with it…

Well. Something to think about if they managed to survive the month.

Fortunately, Novelty got over the incident very quickly and continued her exploration of Zorian’s workshop instead of brooding over the whole event.

Zorian let her to her exploration. He closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and when he opened his eyes again the metal plate in front of his was densely covered in spell formula markings.

They weren’t real, of course. The whole thing was just a mental illusion – a visualization of what the end result would look like based on his plans. Spotting a few possible flaws and failure points, he quickly went through a lengthy series of complicated calculation inside his head, almost instantly calculating problems that would have taken another spell formula crafter an entire afternoon of diligent calculation using pen and paper. The visualization of the end result blurred for a moment and then shifted into a different configuration that took these new calculations into account.

The process repeated itself several times, gradually refining the design. Most other artificers would have to spend a lot of time and mana making test plates and waste hours upon hours every time something had to be recalculated or adjusted, but Zorian’s mental enhancements allowed him to sidestep most of that process.

Of course, all this work wouldn’t even have to be done if it weren’t for the fact he had lost most of his spell formula blueprints while crossing over into the real world. So much work lost…

Thankfully, spell formula were one of the fields he was most confident in.

He suddenly realized Novelty was poking a small metal sphere he left on a nearby chair. He pointed his hand towards her, causing invisible waves of telekinetic force to seize her entire body and then gently but firmly dragged her away from the offending object.

“Don’t touch that,” he told her verbally. “It’s dangerous.”

She gave him an undecipherable look, staring at him quietly for a few seconds.

“What?” he asked her.

[You’re pretty scary,] she told him. [I didn’t even see you cast anything. You just casually pointed at me and I suddenly couldn’t move! And then you just dragged me off like it’s nothing… I thought mages like you needed to mumble and wave when they do their weird human magic?]

“They do. I’m just very, very good at this,” he told her. Though this did remind him that he needed to curb these kind of moments as much as possible, since this kind of casual use of unstructured magic was not something a teenage mage like him should possess. Holding back for years and years was going to be hard…

[How did you even know what I was doing?] she continued. [Your back was turned! I’m sure of it!]

“This whole room is crisscrossed with a mesh of hair-thin mana threads centered on me,” Zorian told her. “Whenever you pass through them, I can sense it.”

[Like an invisible web?] she asked.

“Yes, exactly,” he agreed. It was a detection trick he had learned at some point in the time loop, inspired by Taiven’s old trick of flooding her surroundings with her mana to detect hidden attacks and enemies. He didn’t have the mana reserves to copy her trick exactly, but he didn’t really have to. Shaping the mana into a mass of threads was much cheaper than simply flooding every nook and cranny with his mana, yet just as effective for his purposes. The only downside was that this kind of ‘detection web’ required insanely good shaping skills to execute, but that was not really something Zorian had trouble with.

[Scary…] she repeated unhappily.

She glanced at the metal sphere she had been poking before he stopped her before giving him a speculative look.

[So what’s that thing anyway?] she said, pointing at the small sphere with one of her legs. [You didn’t complain when I was touch– err, I mean looking at the other things in the room, but you immediately reacted now? What is it?]

“It’s a hollow metal sphere holding a pocket dimension inside,” he told her. “It’s supposed to suck in and contain a creature inside. Like a portable prison for powerful monsters.”

[I… don’t understand,] she complained. [That’s meant to capture people? But it’s so small! I’d never fit in inside!]

Oh, right… not everyone was familiar with the concept of expanded spaces and pocket dimensions and whatnot.

“It’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. There is an entire room inside that little metal ball. You’d fit in just fine,” he explained.

Novelty was quiet for a second, trying to process this.

[Oh. How weird,] she eventually said. [You shouldn’t leave it lying around like that, then. What if someone stumbles upon it when you’re not around and gets sucked in? They could starve to death before you remember to check inside!]

“Give me some credit. I did put some safeguards on it. It’s just that it’s meant specifically for capturing giant spiders, so I’m not sure if the safeguards would work properly for an aranea like you. I kind of forgot I left it lying around when I let you come today,” Zorian explained.

[Oh. Wait, why are you making tools for capturing giant spiders?] Novelty asked, suddenly sounding concerned.

“It’s a secret,” Zorian said. “It has nothing to do with aranea, though, so you can rest easy.”

Plus, if he wanted to deal with the aranea, he wouldn’t need to resort to such complicated and expensive methods. But he didn’t really say that out loud. Novelty already thought he was scarily powerful, after all, no need to feed her paranoia further.

[I kind of want to get inside now to see what it’s like,] Novelty eventually admitted, staring intently at the sphere.

Zorian snorted at the admission. And here he thought he was scaring the poor thing. Nosy little spider couldn’t resist sticking her legs and fangs absolutely everywhere…

“It’s meant to be a prison, so it’s pretty bare,” Zorian told her. “Wait a few days and I show you something similar on a far larger, more interesting scale. There is an entire palace in there. And Princess. I guess I can introduce you to her at that time.”

[Princess? You know royalty?] Novelty said, sounding very fascinated.

“Princess isn’t really an officially recognized ruler of any place, but she’s very… majestic. Very memorable. I’m sure you’ll be suitably impressed after seeing her,” Zorian said, smiling evilly inside.

[Huh. You know, you’re pretty nice to me,] Novelty remarked.

“Yes, I’m a pretty great guy, aren’t I?” Zorian indulgently agreed.

[Did we know each other? Before, I mean? In the future? Err, I mean… this is so confusing… you know what I mean!] Novelty fumbled, waving her front legs in front of her frustratingly.

Zorian tapped his finger on the table thoughtfully. He never actually told the aranea the fine details about what happened in the time loop, and definitely didn’t mention Novelty, as she wasn’t terribly relevant in the grand scheme of things.

“What gave you that idea?” he asked her.

[It just seems like you know me a little too well,] she said. [It’s true, isn’t it? We totally knew each other in the future you came from, didn’t we?]

“You taught me mind magic a few times,” Zorian admitted.

[I was your teacher?] Novelty said incredulously. If she was human, she would have probably gasped. [But that means… I wasn’t just your friend, I was your senior! You should be paying your respects to me!]

“Keep dreaming,” Zorian said. “It was just a couple of basic lessons, and you’re younger than I am.”

[The matriarch said you don’t even qualify as a real adult in human terms, whereas I already went through the maturation ceremony. So there,] Novelty insisted stubbornly.

She almost immediately drooped down in an exaggerated gesture of defeat, though.

[Though… if I were honest… I kind of want you to be my teacher instead,] she admitted. [I kind to want to try learning human magic, and you’re the only human mage I know, so… you’d be willing to help your future teacher out, would you?]

“Sure,” Zorian shrugged. “I already have a huge list of people I need to help out once this is all settled, what’s one more person on the list? You’re going to have to wait for this month to end, though.”

[Yes!] she cheered. [I’ll wait! It’s totally not a problem! Patience is my best feature!]

It took an inhuman amount of self-control for Zorian not to roll his eyes at her.

[What?] she demanded.

“Liar,” he told her flatly.

[How can you talk like that to your teacher?] she complained. [Kids these days, no respect…]

Zorian blocked her out and turned back to the metal plate on the table in front of him.

* * *

In a small but familiar tavern in Cyoria, simulacrum number three sat alone in a corner, curiously studying his surroundings. The insides of the tavern were dark, the air stale, but the place was still familiar to the simulacrum even after all these years. This was the tavern where he used to talk with Haslush Ikzeteri, the detective that taught him divination way back when he had still been a novice mage. Now, he would be meeting his old divination teacher again, this time in the real world.

He was disguised for the occasion. At the moment, the simulacrum looked like an older middle-aged man, with graying hair and a bushy, prominent mustache. A formal brown suit, a weathered wooden cane, and a roll of yesterday’s newspapers completed a picture of a regular, nondescript man that he hoped wouldn’t attract too much attention. However, based on the frequent glances he was getting from other people, he was pretty sure he failed at looking like he belonged here. It was likely that regular visitors to this tavern already knew each other and that a newcomer like him was automatically noteworthy, or maybe he just wasn’t as good at pretending as he thought he was. In any case, it didn’t matter much, since he intended to discard this identity entirely after today’s talk.

Eventually a familiar man approached his table. Middle aged, dressed in a cheap, rumpled suit and kind of unkempt, Haslush looked just like he remembered him. He scanned the tavern quickly, his eyes soon falling on the disguised simulacrum. The simulacrum met his gaze, and they stared at each other silently for a second. Haslush had a sleepy, lazy look on his face the whole time as he studied him, but the simulacrum could see a trace of wariness bleed into his posture. The information provided by his empathy and soul perception reinforced this. Eventually, the detective averted his eyes, rubbed his nose for a second, and then casually ambled over to the simulacrum’s table.

“Hi there. Do you mind if I sit here?” Haslush asked in a lazy voice.

“Not at all. After all, I did ask to meet you here,” the simulacrum said.

“Ah, so you were the one that asked to see me,” Haslush said, nodding to himself. He plopped heavily into the chair in front of him, ignoring the ominous creaking of the wood beneath him, and ordered himself a drink. “Why all this cloak and dagger stuff, if I may ask? You didn’t even give me your name in that letter you sent me.”

“With good reason,” the simulacrum said. “We’d both be in danger if you knew who I am.”

“But I already know your face now so–” Haslush began, before suddenly frowning. He narrowed his eyes at the simulacrum, his irises glittering with a subtle divination spell. “This isn’t your real appearance, is it?”

“No,” the simulacrum admitted, shaking his head. “For reasons of convenience, you can call me ‘Kesir’, though that isn’t my real name either. I’m just a throwaway simulacrum. After this talk, I will vanish into ectoplasmic smoke and we’ll hopefully never speak again.”

“A simulacrum?” Haslush repeated, visibly taken aback.

Zorian understood the reaction. Simulacrums were high-level magic, not something that one regularly encountered.

Rather than saying anything, the simulacrum extended his arm between them and let it and willed it to unravel for a second. It quickly grew blurry and dissolved into a mass of glowing blue smoke, before suddenly reforming itself back into his arm.

For this particular meeting, he didn’t inhabit the usual golem body that most of Zorian’s simulacrums were equipped with these days. The less traces he left here today, the better. He was pretty sure he had covered his tracks well enough to stop Red Robe from knowing about this meeting, but it was still best to minimize risks.

“Well I’ll be damned. That’s not a piece of magic you see every day, that’s for sure,” Haslush said, recovering his calm, lazy façade. “Are you sure you got the right person for this, though? This sounds almost like a job for spies and crown agents, not little old me. I’m just your average detective, Mister Kesir.”

“For reasons that will soon become obvious, I can’t contact anyone particularly high ranked, or things will get really bad,” the simulacrum said. He took out a large leather paper holder out of his jacket pocket, deliberately making the entire process visible to the man in front of him.

Haslush’s eyes widened imperceptibly when the simulacrum retrieved a large object from a jacket pocket it couldn’t possibly fit into. It was just a temporary pocket dimension, not even a permanent expanded space, but most people would have still never encountered that sort of thing in their entire life. More than even the simulacrum, pocket dimension creation was a rare form of magic.

“Please take a look at this,” the simulacrum told the man, handing him a stack of pictures and documents before leaning back in his chair and patiently waiting.

Haslush cautiously leafed through the papers, periodically frowning and tapping his fingers on the table. His expression worsened as time went by, and at some point he ordered some really strong alcohol to get through the rest, but eventually he skimmed through the whole stack. There wasn’t enough time for him to comb through the whole thing, but even a casual glance through the documents Zorian gathered painted a grim picture.

“This is insane,” Haslush eventually said, downing an entire glass of hard alcohol and slamming it on the table in front of him. Some of the nearby tavern patrons glanced at them curiously for a moment. “A full scale invasion of the city with the local mage guild in on the whole thing? How can something like this be real? A conspiracy this grant and far-reaching should be impossible to pull off.”

“The invaders are using permanent gates – a concept that has not been known to exist until now. On top of that, the local authorities have been hopelessly infiltrated and are working with the invaders to cover up the whole thing. It’s very real,” the simulacrum said.

“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” Haslush suddenly said. “A defector. That’s the only way you could possibly know all this and have this much evidence.”

“I’m not one of them,” the simulacrum insisted, “but they do have a certain amount of influence over me, or else I wouldn’t be moving in the shadows like this. If I go public with this, the results will be… disastrous.”

“Really?” Haslush asked, raising his eyebrow at him. “A mage of your caliber…”

“I didn’t say I would die. Of course I can always run away and hide. I said the consequences would be disastrous,” the simulacrum clarified.

“More disastrous than the city being invaded by monsters, demons, and the undead?” Haslush asked dubiously.

“Yes,” the simulacrum said.

Haslush waited for a second, but the simulacrum didn’t intend to clarify. What he was telling the detective was unbelievable enough without getting into the whole wraith bomb situation or the possibility of an army of dragons laying waste to northern Eldemar.

“Wouldn’t the same be true if I were to make this public?” Haslush asked.

“Yes,” the simulacrum admitted. “To be honest, the enemy would instantly realize where you got your information from, so you trying to alert people to this would be no different than me doing it myself. Well, other than the fact you’d be much easier to silence than me.”

“Lovely,” Haslush said calmly. “So you don’t actually want me to make these documents known to anyone?”

“I obviously can’t stop you from doing what you feel is right,” the simulacrum said. “But I wouldn’t recommend it, no.”

“What do you expect me to do with this, then?” Haslush asked, waving the leather paper holder in front of him. He looked genuinely curious, rather than angry.

The simulacrum was actually rather impressed with how Haslush was behaving. Most people were either stubbornly disbelieving or had trouble thinking straight when something like this was dumped into their lap. In fact, Haslush wasn’t the first person they were contacting about this, and he wouldn’t be the last, but he was the one who had had the best reaction thus far. This didn’t mean he would end up being useful in the end, of course, but it was encouraging.

“I don’t know,” the simulacrum said. “Although it may seem like I’m holding all the cards here, I’m actually not sure what should be done here. I’m not a professional spy or master manipulator. I’m hoping that you will know what to do with this better than I do.”

Haslush stared at him quietly for a second before leafing through the pages a few more times. It was just an idle gesture. The simulacrum could see he wasn’t really reading things, just idly flipping through the documents and he mulled things over.

He eventually snapped the paper holder shut and pushed it aside before massaging his temples for a bit.

“This is insane,” he said.

“Yes, you already said that,” the simulacrum noted.

“Well, I feel like repeating myself,” Haslush told him, giving him a weak glare. “I suppose this does help explain all the weird attacks and sudden deaths my department has been flooded with lately. Who else did you tell about this?”

“What makes you think I told others?” the simulacrum asked, surprised.

“Who?” Haslush insisted, not offering any explanations.

The simulacrum eventually relented and gave him some names. Kylae and the other priests in the city, which were slowly being informed about the invasion. Some of the shifters living in the city whose children were going to be used in the ritual. A few other policemen and detectives Zach and Zorian had identified as reliable while inside the time loop. And so on.

“That’s more people than I thought,” Haslush noted. “Aren’t you afraid someone will talk?”

“It’s always a possibility, but I feel I judged people correctly,” the simulacrum said. “I’m a mind reader, after all.”

Haslush immediately graced him with a string of colorful curses before casting mental defense spells on himself.

“Of course you’re a mind mage, too…” the detective grumbled. “Anyway, since you so graciously left it up to me to decide how to handle this, I will visit these people and see if we can figure something out. But if we decide to go higher with this information…”

“Then everything goes to hell, probably,” the simulacrum said. “Though… maybe that would be for the best. I don’t think there is a perfect answer to be had, here. Maybe triggering everything sooner rather than later is actually the right move, I don’t know. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you as much as I can… but I’m not all powerful. Don’t be surprised if you end up dead after talking to the wrong person.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Haslush said thoughtfully. “I’m still not tired of living, I can assure you that much. Plus, I know better than anyone how disgustingly underhanded the mage guild can be about protecting people who really don’t deserve state protection, just because they are useful in some way… but let’s not talk about that right now. Do you have anything else for me?”

“Yes,” the simulacrum said, retraining a paper envelope sealed with ornate red wax. “Here, have this.”

“What is it?” Haslush asked, flipping the envelope curiously in his hands.

“Don’t open this until the end of the month,” the simulacrum warned him. “Otherwise I will assume the letter has been compromised and abandon that particular place. That said, there is a key to a post office box inside. It’s empty right now, but if the worst happens, there will be a package inside at the end of the month, explaining everything and containing some information to be distributed to various people.”

“Insurance in case you die, eh?” Haslush guessed. He casually stuffed the envelope in his pocket, carelessly crumping it in the process. “Alright. Do you think–”

But the simulacrum was already unraveling, quickly becoming intangible ectoplasmic smoke.

Before he completely dissolved, he thought he heard Haslush say something about rudeness.

* * *

In Imaya’s kitchen, there was a large and curious gathering. Zorian, Imaya, Kirielle, Kael, Kana, Rea, Nochka, Taiven and Xvim were all present. They weren’t doing anything terribly important – the older people present were playing a game of cards and having scattered conversations, while the three little girls ran around playing with dolls. In the beginning they also participated in the card game, but they were not very good at it, so they eventually wandered off to do their thing.

These sorts of meetings had happened a few times already, but they’d never had so many people before. In addition, Xvim’s presence was an unusual event, to say the least.

Zorian thoughtfully fingered one of the cards in his hand, purposely ignoring Taiven, who was sitting beside him and craning her neck in an attempt to ‘stealthily’ peek at his hand. Times like this were a bit of a guilty pleasure for him, since they were entirely unproductive and he realistically shouldn’t waste time on them. The reasonable response to Imaya’s request to join them in their game would be to say he’s busy and go back to analyzing Zach’s contract again, but… he was only human. Sometimes, he just wanted to play cards and relax, even with the fate of the whole city was at stake.

Xvim was present here for a reason, though. With the discovery of Zach’s contract and the fact Red Robe was sending a simulacrum to Koth to take his friends hostage, he was presented again with a question of what to do about his friends and family in the upcoming invasion. He clearly couldn’t leave them to wander the city on invasion day, ignorant of the threat. However, he also couldn’t just tell them about the time loop and dump them all at the Taramatula Estate in Koth.

In the end, it was decided that Zach and Zorian shouldn’t be doing the evacuation of all these people in the first place. Some people – Taiven for example – reacted very poorly to Zach and Zorian revealing crazy powerful abilities that they shouldn’t have, and other might refuse to cooperate with a bunch of teenagers trying to drag them off to a completely unknown place all of a sudden. It was better to have an adult in the position of authority to contact the people. Someone in on the whole story, capable of advanced dimensionalism, and respectable looking. That made Xvim the prime candidate, especially since he claimed he could talk Ilsa into accompanying him and lending additional weight to his words. Ilsa was Imaya’s best friend, so she would probably trust her if she said Imaya had accompany them and hide for a few days.

But it was still best if Xvim wasn’t a total stranger to the people he intended to contact, so it was agreed that he would visit Imaya’s place one day. Officially, the visit was because he had to discuss something with Zorian, since he was his mentor and all, but the real reason was so that he could introduce himself to everyone. That way, when he and Imaya came knocking to people and told them that they had to evacuate out of the city for a few days because an attack was imminent, they would hopefully be more open to the idea.

As for Zorian, it was his job to arrange things so that most people were actually present when Xvim visited.

He thought he had done a decent job there, to be honest.

“Mister Chao sure is diligent in his work,” Rea remarked, throwing a card at the center of the table. “You don’t often see teachers making a personal visit to their student’s home. I only ever saw it once, and that was because the student in question had vandalized another student’s belongings, not because of anything good. Then again, I did hear that Cyoria’s Royal Academy of Magical Arts is on a different level than most places…”

“I usually don’t make this kind of personal visit, of course,” Xvim said, casually throwing a card of his own on top of hers. Zorian thought the man would be awkward or annoyed when presented with this kind of social gathering over a card game, but Xvim showed no discomfort with the situation whatsoever. He wasn’t exactly relaxed, but he gave off the same sort of severe, dignified atmosphere than he always did. “Sadly, most students today are very lazy and lack proper dedication to truly master their chosen fields. They want shortcuts and instant results, and the modern academy curriculum sadly encourages that sort of attitude.”

“It’s the Weeping, isn’t it?” Kael said softly.

“Indeed,” Xvim nodded solemnly. “With the death of so many mages, the academy received a directive from on high to lower its standards. In more ways than one. On one hand, this meant children from wealthy, but not traditionally magical families could attend our institution far more easily in the past, and I have no issue with that. Unfortunately, it also meant that some of the more boring and unpleasant but necessary lessons were removed in favor of ‘practical education’ and other nonsensical words. As if foundation building is not practical…”

The conversation continued for a while in this vein, with people chipping in with their thoughts from time to time. Zorian noticed Taiven staring at him at one time, but she averted her gaze when he glanced at her. She had probably started to notice that there was something weird going on with him. Well, other than him being a telepath and hanging out with sapient underground spiders. Thankfully, she was still wary of confronting him about it, so he didn’t have to figure out how to explain anything for now. She was one of the people who reacted very badly to him being suddenly absurdly powerful and competent, so delaying that confrontation for as long as possible was for the best.

He was still debating whether it would be better to have her join the fighting on invasion day or to simply hide her along with all the rest. On one hand, having her join the chaotic final fight would be extremely dangerous and there was a high chance she could die. He would be devastated if that happened. On the other hand, she was a warrior mage looking for a chance to get actual experience and make a name for herself, and he was pretty sure she would choose to stay and fight if she had a choice. Did he have the right to take that choice away from her just because he would hate to see her die or get seriously hurt?

He remembered his younger self and how much he hated his parent’s attempts to dictate his life for him. Taiven’s parents were already trying to keep her safe by steering her away from dangerous professions and she resented them for it. If he made this choice for her, how was he any different from his mother? He would be worse, probably, because at least his mother had never used advanced magic to compel him to obey.

Ugh. He put that decision aside for now. He could tackle that later.

He suddenly realized that Kirielle had brought her new toy to show off for her friends and that it was attracting attention from the adults as well. It was a small golem Zorian had made for her. Kirielle had already painted face on it and added hair and a dress and other little touches, so by now it looked almost like an animate doll rather than a golem.

[I hope you realize this is a very eye-catching toy, Mister Kazinski,] a voice said in his head. Zorian was startled to realize it was Xvim, contacting him telepathically. Xvim wasn’t psychic and Zorian hadn’t seen him casting any spells. Then again, it was Xvim… and as he liked to say, there was a shaping exercise for everything. [Laymen may ignore that golem as a curiosity, but any decent mage will know how difficult it is to produce such a thing.]

[I know, but that golem isn’t just a toy,] Zorian sent back. [Beneath its harmless façade, that thing is packed full of weapons and defensive wards. It is a veritable tiny murder machine. This way I get to give Kirielle a powerful bodyguard without being too obvious about it.]

[Ah,] Xvim responded, surprised. [I am admittedly not an artificer, but your ability in that field never ceases to amaze me. I suppose I could understand why you fear the government as much as you do. Your ability to make devices alone would make the authorities do everything in their power to gain control over you.]

[Yeah,] Zorian agreed uneasily. He knew that his abilities would get out at some point, but that would hopefully be years in the future. By that point he should have cemented his position a bit and would be able to resist being pressured against his will.

[I think your sister’s friends are going to very jealous of her, though,] Xvim noticed, observing their reactions.

[I’m actually hoping they will ask for a ‘doll’ of their own,] Zorian admitted. [That way I get to put another two bodyguards among people close to me.]

Xvim had nothing to say to that.

Eventually the game ended and people decided it was time to disperse. Zorian was about half-way back to his room when he suddenly felt a stream of knowledge flood into his mind.

It was from the simulacrum he had left studying Zach’s contract.

The document was hard to understand. The language used was very complex and weirdly structured, and there was a lot of text to read through. However, Zorian was pretty sure he understood the basic points by now.

Two points stuck out to him.

One was that the release of the primordial was tied to the activation of the divine safeguards on its prison. If the safeguards activated before the month was done, regardless of the reason why, Zach was considered to have failed in his mission. Zach’s perception did not matter here – the contract could detect the activation of the safeguards innately, and was apparently tied to them on some intangible level. Zorian could not detect this connection on Zach, but the contract claimed it existed, so it probably did. Divine magic was a headache-inducing bullshit, anyway. Zorian suspected that this part of the contract was the core of it. It was clearly the most important part of it; it was defined near the very beginning of the document and had the most un-ambiguous terms.

The second thing was the definition of time loop knowledge. Zorian had been hoping that enforcement of this clause depended purely on Zach’s perception of what counted and what didn’t, which would make it really easy to manipulate it through warping Zach’s perceptions, but it wasn’t quite that simple. The contract defined exactly what counted as informing people about the existence of the time loop. Telling people he was a time traveler, describing his experiences in such a way as to make it clear he had gone through the same month multiple times, describing future events in a way that made it clear he had already experienced them all ran afoul of the terms of the contract. In fact, that part of the contract went into considerable detail to close any sort of loophole that would allow Zach to tell people about his experiences in the time loop. Even telling people he came ‘from another world’ was not okay. It was obvious for a while now that the angels really didn’t want anyone to know about the time loop, but reading the contract really drove the point home for Zorian.

Which caused an ominous feeling to arise in his heart. After all, the contract had an expiration date. At the end of the month, it would dissolve and Zach would no longer be bound by it. That meant that after the month went by, Zach would be free to make his experiences as public as possible as he wanted to make them.

Were the angels really fine with that? The contract strong suggested they weren’t, but there was really nothing stopping Zach from doing just that. Maybe not immediately after the month ended, but as years and decades went by? A person might get tempted to write a book or something before he died…

It would be probably very convenient for the angels if Zach and Zorian stopped Panaxeth’s release, but perished some time afterwards…

His paranoia aside, the good news was that the enforcement of that particular clause of the contract depended entirely on Zach’s own perception, just like Zorian suspected. Zach was the one who determined whether a violation of the contract had occurred or not. If someone knew about the time loop but Zach never found out about it, the contract would never know either. It pulled information straight from Zach’s senses, thoughts, and memories.

Zorian knew a couple of mental enhancements that might be used to manipulate that, but Zach’s restrictions when it came to mind magic prevented him from teaching them to his fellow time traveler. Not that they had time for that, but still. Zorian had a feeling the mind magic restrictions weren’t just due to ‘ethical concerns’.

Curiously, there was nothing in the contract stopping Zach from doing what Zorian planned to do and just giving people research notes that they had written themselves. Even though such information was clearly made through time travel, and some of the more perceptive and open-minded recipients would probably realize they come from some future version of themselves, it wasn’t actually against the rules. At least not to Zorian’s amateur eyes. So long as the notes never said where they came from and only incidentally hinted at their origin, they were fine from the contract perspective.

This was good, because Zorian had an important task to accomplish in the coming days. He had to talk to his older brother Daimen. He obviously wasn’t going to be sending his friends and family to the Taramatula estate now, since he knew that Red Robe was setting up an ambush party there to take advantage of that. Nonetheless, the fact remained that his older brother and the Taramatula were now in danger because of him. If only for that reason, he had to talk to them.

And he doubted he could convince Daimen to accept him as the legitimate Zorian without utilizing the notes his older brother had written for himself inside the time loop.

Even with them, he was definitely not looking forward for that conversation…


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