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Chapter 104
I Win (I)

He was Zach Noveda, the last surviving member of Noble House Noveda, the chosen of the angels…

…and he had won.

He honestly never thought he would win. He wanted to win, of course. He wanted to know what kind of wonders the world beyond this month had in store for him. He wanted to rebuild his house and make his caretaker pay for what he had done to him. He wanted to have friends and lovers that would never forget him. But this wish… it was merely a wistful dream, flickering in the back of his mind and refusing to die. He didn’t seriously consider it, and not just because of the stupid angel contract and its impossible conditions. The truth was, he’d kind of given up a long time ago.

He had tried to beat the invasion so many times, attempt after attempt, idea after idea, until eventually, he became convinced this was his fate. To stay there forever, in an endlessly looping world. All this power and knowledge, all the revelations about his past life, all the insights into people around him… the time loop dangled these things over his head, but it was all meaningless because he couldn’t get out.

Stopping the invasion of Cyoria was the key. He knew this. Somehow, deep down in his soul, he knew this. But he couldn’t do it, no matter how many times he tried. It was fine while he was still learning things, becoming a better mage, and brimming with ideas… but slowly, he started to slow down. He had learned everything he possibly could about the invaders themselves. Advancing his magic became harder and harder, each new spell or training method giving ever smaller improvements. His inspiration began to dry out.

And yet he still couldn’t get out. He was as good as he realistically would ever be, and yet it wasn’t enough to stop the invasion. His best wasn’t enough. That’s when he realized he wouldn’t be getting out.

He wouldn’t ever be getting out.

And then he met Zorian. His friend was… alright. He scared him with his behavior from time to time, and he wished he was easier to talk to and more fun to hang out with, but hey. You can’t have everything. More importantly, he was driven. He had that spark to keep going that had mostly died in Zach a long time ago. He had ideas that would have never even occurred to Zach, and methods that were alien to Zach’s way of thinking. It was new and refreshing, and it reignited that spark of hope in him that refused to fully die.

A long time ago, when Zach had only begun figuring out the time loop and his skills were still growing, his pride would have bristled at the idea of just letting his new friend take the lead in how they should proceed with their escape plan or go about honing their skills. Alas, that was a long time ago. By the time Zach met Zorian, the time loop had already grounded him, and he was entirely content to simply act as support. He stepped aside and let Zorian plan their escape and set their short-term goals, trusting his new friend to get them out of their looping nightmare and simply steering him away from his more… dubious choices.

In the end, that path had led him here: locked in a deadly battle against his other time travelling companion – Red Robe. Or Jornak. Whatever. He would always be Red Robe to Zach, in all honesty. Even now he was wearing that stupid red robe of his to hide his appearance.

He had trapped Zach in some kind of strange dimensional labyrinth, at first – a mirror image of the city covered in thick mist that severely limited Zach’s vision while allowing Red Robe to move around in some strange manner that Zach found hard to understand at first. Red Robe clearly thought of him as some kind of dumb brute that wouldn’t be able to deal with this kind of environment, but Zach hadn’t spent all those years in the time loop for nothing, and his knowledge of dimensionalism had reached incredible heights while he had been working with Zorian and others to create a viable escape route into the real world.

Red Robe bragged a lot about this misty labyrinth world while he and Zach fought. An attempt to demoralize him, maybe? Maybe he couldn’t see all that well in there either, and wanted Zach to verbally respond so he could lock onto his position more securely? In any case, Red Robe said this misty world was primordial magic granted to him by Panaxeth. A place isolated from the real world, impossible to escape.

Place largely removed from the real world… impossible to escape… ha. Wasn’t that almost exactly the description of the time loop? Hadn’t Zach helped Zorian learn how to punch a hole through it so he could escape?

Red Robe thought Zach was a dumb brute, but Zach had figured his little trick out within a minute of arriving there. Just like the time loop was centered on Panaxeth, this world of mists was centered around Red Robe. There was no point looking for an exit in the environment around them. The exit was Red Robe.

The fight between them lasted a while, but eventually Zach managed to maneuver things in the right direction. He had to let one of Red Robe’s kinetic spells clip him in the leg, leaving him limping, but it was of no importance. It was a relatively light wound, and he had drunk a potion of regeneration before the battle. His leg would be fine soon enough. What was important was that he used the opportunity to hit Red Robe with a dimensional spell designed specifically to punch holes in these kind of prisons. It was literally one-of-a-kind, a product of their intense research near the end of the time loop, and Red Robe clearly had no idea how to deal with it.

Zach had expected to punch a literal hole in the misty world, but it turned out that Red Robe’s little creation was incomparable to that of Panaxeth, even if they had the same origin. The moment it was forcibly punctured, the mist started to thin and fade, until the entire world quietly disappeared at some point, shunting them back to the real world.

They came back just in time to see Zorian take out Quatach-Ichl. It filled Zach with complex feelings to see Zorian best his oldest enemy so seemingly easily. He knew that a lot of work and preparation went into this victory, and that it was not nearly as easy as it looked, but… it still made him a little jealous. Just a little bit.

Red Robe, on the other hand, was just mad. He attacked Zach with increased ferocity to vent his frustration, and Zach matched it without any reservations. Black swords made out of dimensional forces slashed at Jornak, cutting deep gouges as he dodged out of the way. Tiny incandescent suns zipped around with the speed and agility of a swallow, the ground exploded into stone spears that then exploded into thousands of needle-like shards, rays of electrified light surged forward while evading obstacles like immaterial snakes, and the air itself was whipped into a miniature tornado centered on Zach. He may have failed in a lot of areas of his life, but if there was one thing Zach Noveda felt supremely confident in, that was his combat skills. He was good at fighting, and he loved doing it. It rejuvenated him to fight worthy opponents, made him feel alive.

He looked at his opponent, his red robe long since tattered, and met the man’s eyes, trying to jog his memory. To remember the time they apparently met and became friends. Alas, nothing came to his mind. There was no memory, no instinctive knowledge, not even a feeling of déjà vu. The man was a complete stranger.

Red Robe. Jornak. The man who apparently betrayed him and tampered with his mind, leaving him even more lost inside the time loop than he already was. Zach was angry at the man for what he had done… but if he was honest with himself, not that angry. He didn’t actually remember the betrayal, and he was always a relatively easygoing guy. Even so, tracking the man down and making him pay for what he had done had been the driving force of his life for a while now. He didn’t think it was the effect of any magical compulsion or anything… he just found hating the man to be convenient. Invigorating. Focusing on Red Robe and how he messed him up gave Zach a goal in life that he had lacked for so long, so how he could not go after him?

Plus, the man was clearly a total nutcase. He wasn’t an empath like Zorian, but he didn’t need to be one to get a read on the guy. Even more than Zach himself, he was dead inside. The next round of continental wars was going to be bad enough without a guy like this throwing oil into the fire. He had to go.

Then Zorian made Oganj go away. He did it in such a hilarious way, too! Except for the part where he gave up the imperial orb to make it happen, that part was honestly awful. Hadn’t they agreed the orb would go to him after the month was over, since he got Princess? The asshole had no right to give it away! Hell, he didn’t even try to negotiate with the stupid lizard…

Oh well. Truthfully, the idea he would get to enjoy the imperial orb, or anything else for that matter, was just… a wistful dream. The angel contract hung like a sword above his head, ready to strike. Its terms were impossible to fulfill. No matter what happened, Zach only had a little time left.

Or so he thought at the time, anyway.

Without warning, Zorian teleported near the site of Zach’s battle with Red Robe. Zach remembered feeling a flash of anger in response, even if he stayed quiet. It made sense for Zorian to help bring down Red Robe as quickly as possible, but this was the final stretch of the battle and Zach was enjoying himself. This was the last fun thing he was ever going to do in his life, did Zorian really have to take it away from him?

What happened next shocked him completely. Without saying anyway, Zorian simply lunged at Red Robe, rapidly entering melee range with the man while charging some kind of spell Zach didn’t recognize.

Though angry, exhausted, and focused on Zach, Red Robe reacted quickly. He instantly spun to the side to face this new opponent, drawing a knife from his belt in a smooth, practiced motion.

No, it was not just a knife, Zach realized. It was the imperial dagger. Red Robe must have quietly stolen it from the Royal Vaults at some point. It wasn’t that surprising – the man must have gotten quite proficient at it over the restarts – but he thought the dagger wasn’t that useful?

Red Robe’s expression alone told Zach that he had thought wrong. An expression of pure glee and hate shone on the man’s face, as if he hoped this very thing would happen and couldn’t believe Zorian was stupid enough to grant him this opportunity.

Zach hastily launched a fast-moving spell at the two, trying to blast them apart from each other, but he wasn’t fast enough. The dagger shone with a faint purple light as Red Robe thrust it forward towards Zorian’s face. Zorian did nothing to dodge or shield himself with magic, but that protective cube he made quietly interposed itself in the path of the knife.

Zorian’s faith in his grand creation proved to be severely misplaced, however. As great as his skills at artifice were, the dagger was a genuine divine artifact. It sliced straight through the cube like it was made of paper and stabbed forward, impaling Zorian straight through the neck.

Simultaneously, Zorian’s glowing hand slammed straight into Red Robe’s chest, blowing a massive hole straight through his chest and causing some kind of faint blue waves to resonate across the man’s entire body.

And then Zorian’s damaged defense cube detonated in a massive explosion that not only blew Zorian and Red Robe away from each other like rag dolls, but also flung Zach back into the nearby building.

Zach wasn’t really hurt. It wasn’t the first time he was flung back into a wall. He cushioned his impact with the wall with a quick magic, expertly landing on his feet. He quickly scanned the area and found Zorian lying on his back some distance away.

He rushed towards the boy to provide aid but stopped when he got close enough to really see him.

He wasn’t moving. His eyes, blank and glassy, remained open. His chest didn’t move. And the imperial dagger was still stuck up to the hilt in his neck, and his whole body was full of serrated metal bits sticking out his skin – the remains of his defense device driven deep into his flesh by the force of the explosion.

He stared at his friend for a few seconds, overcome in disbelief, before walking forwards. He cast a quick diagnostic spell and slowly, hesitantly placed his hand on him. He wasn’t that great with healing magic, but this was one of the simplest spells in that field and he had an excellent grasp on it. The spell told him what he already knew, but didn’t want to accept.

Zorian was dead.

“No,” he whispered despondently. “No! Zorian you stupid, stupid, stupid- Why!? Why would you do something so-”

‘Because this was deliberate. What don’t you understand? He chose to die so you could live.’

The thought bubbled up to his mind suddenly, unpleasant and uninvited. It hit him like a punch in the face.

“H-He wouldn’t…” Zach mumbled to himself. “He’s too selfish… he said so himself! He has friends, a family, a little sister that needs him, a whole bunch of girls that want to get in his pants. I…”

He took a deep breath and forcefully calmed himself. He… had to check something.

He got up to his feet and ran up to where Red Robe was also laying on the ground, motionless. The man was also dead, unsurprisingly. Not only did Zorian’s last attack completely destroy his heart and chest, the blue wave that accompanied the attack also did something. Ripped his soul out of his body, maybe? His medical magic was too rudimentary to figure it out, but the man was definitely dead.

He swallowed heavily and then got up again. He started to search for other people.

Everyone seemed to be unconscious, Zach soon realized. They were lying all over the place – on the streets, in public buildings, in alleyways, everywhere.

It wasn’t that they got knocked out during a fight, either. His diagnostic spells confirmed most of them were completely healthy, barring some minor scrapes and bruises that were normal for the current conditions of the city. They seemed to have just suddenly dropped unconscious all of a sudden.

He eventually found Alanic, Xvim, and… Zorian’s brother Daimen. Gods above, how was he going to explain to the man that he just let his little brother…

He shook his head and carefully approached. They were still unconscious, just like everyone he encountered so far. After a second of hesitation, he cast a memory reading spell and placed his hand on Xvim’s head.

The spell encountered no resistance. He was sure that Xvim had placed a mind blank spell on him during the battle, but there was no trace of it now. He immediately dove into the man’s memories, searching for any information regarding the time loop.

His hand soon began to tremble. The man had no idea about any time loop. More than that, however, he didn’t possess any memories of this entire month. Someone had quite literally memory wiped his entire recollection of said time period.

He repeated his check on nearby Alanic and Daimen, with the same results. They were free of any knowledge of the time loop… because they had no memory of anything that had transpired during this whole month.

He breathed out heavily.

“Zorian, you scary bastard… how did you even do this?” he said out loud.

Wait. If he could do that to others… could he do it to him as well?

Was any of this real?

The moment the thought bubbled up to his mind, it refused to leave. He could feel something inside his soul wake up and demand a check. He had to know. He had to know as badly as a starving man needed food, a compulsion so strong it was essentially irresistible.

He started casting a plethora of diagnostic divinations on himself, his surroundings, and the three unconscious people in front of him. He performed a multitude of little experiments he learned over the years to detect when illusionists messed with his surroundings.

Nothing. His mind blank was still working. His mind was not being tampered with. The environment was behaving as it should and the people in front of him were as complex as real people should be.

He started to wander the city, casting memory spells on random people he found lying in the streets. By this time some people had started to wake up, but Zach simply walked past them, ignoring them as he went about his task.

He wasn’t really searching for any specific information. He was reading people’s memories in order to find out trivial things like their favorite meals, what their mother looked like, or what the last story they’d heard was about. In other words, he was checking if they were real people.

A mind mage, no matter how good, couldn’t create a mind from scratch. Not a convincing one, in any case. A fake man would be a paper thin disguise, capable of tricking only the most inexperienced of mind mages. However, Zach had gotten to know Zorian long enough that he couldn’t discount anything. He could totally accept that Zorian could produce a convincing fake mind. The guy was just that scary.

Maybe even a pair of fake minds. Maybe a dozen.

By now he had read the memories of more than a hundred people, though. All of them felt real. All of them were complex individuals with lots of little details about their lives and tangled histories that Zach could easily lose himself in for weeks at a time if he really wanted to figure them out. He refused to believe that anyone could create so many lives out of thin air. Even someone like Zorian.

He lost track of time. He wandered around the city, checking on people. Anyone that was even slightly familiar with the time loop had lost their memories of the whole month. No exceptions. Even the aranea beneath Cyoria were missing any memory of this month. An entire colony of skilled telepaths, but Zorian had somehow managed to convince them to willingly delete their own memories.

Eventually, he accepted the truth. It was real. It was all real. Jornak was dead. Silverlake too – she was done in by her old, real world self, who lost her memories of the past month, but was otherwise unharmed.

Nobody knew anything about the time loop except for him.

He left the city. He couldn’t look at it any longer. He found a small hill just outside the city walls that he and Zorian used to sit on sometimes, discussing their plans or just wasting time, and watched the fields around him in silence.

He had no idea how long he stood there. He thought someone approached him at one point and asked him if he was alright, but he ignored them and they eventually went away. All he knew was that at some point he realized that someone was shooting fireworks into the sky.

It was the night of the summer festival. The city may have just suffered a brutal invasion, but that was no reason to halt the celebrations. Hell, if anything this just made the importance of a celebration that much greater!

And Zach… felt happy. He felt disgust with himself for it, but he really did. Panaxeth was still sealed and the conditions of his contract had been fulfilled. He was going to live past this month.

He… had won.

He was Zach Noveda, the last surviving member of Noble House Noveda and the last surviving time looper…

…and he had won.

He fell to his knees and began to cry. Somewhere deep inside his soul, he could feel the angel contract harmlessly dissolve, finally fulfilled.

He was free, and all it cost him was the life of his best friend.

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