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Chapter 105
I Win (II)

He was Jornak Dokochin, a humble lawyer from Cyoria, the true heir of House Denen, and the last surviving time looper…

…and he had won.

The path had been long and difficult. He still remembered that fateful day he had realized Zach was a time traveler. The boy had been making scene after scene around the city, making ‘nonsensical’ statements to the newspapers and everyone else who would listen, never once outright stating what he was, but very much hinting at it. Very few people had taken him seriously. Jornak hadn’t either, in all honesty – not until the boy had come to him one day and asked him to help him figure out some legal documents he ‘found lying around the living room’.

The documents blew Jornak’s mind away. Not because the contents were so shocking, but because of what they implied. The people they implicated in crimes were so influential and highly placed, and the evidence so damning, that Jornak simply knew that Zach must have stolen them from the very people mentioned in the documents.

Jornak knew exactly how hard that feat was. After the corrupt Eldemarian courts had taken the inheritance of House Denen away from him, he had come to understand that truth and the letter of the law were almost entirely inconsequential in the face of money, connections, and social status. He became a covert member of the Cult of the Dragon Below and rubbed shoulders with many powerful people. He came to know the darker undercurrents of Eldemar society, and knew what it would take to acquire this kind of dirt on someone.

No amount of money could buy something like this, so how could  Zach have possibly acquired these documents? Jornak had agonized over this question for days, dissecting every statement Zach had made, no matter how minor or nonsensical, and eventually came up with a crazy idea. The craziest idea, possibly. He confronted Zach with it, and… the boy just laughed and admitted to it easily.

Yes, he was a time traveler. In fact, he had lived through this month many, many times, and they had talked before.

Jornak believed him. He wanted to believe him. His life had been rather dreary and frustrating for several years by that point. His career wasn’t going anywhere, despite his attempts to build connections and increase his social standing. He had no success in love. His family was long dead. The inheritance of House Denen, his best chance at achieving greatness, was stolen from him. His youth was all but spent, and he felt he wasn’t going anywhere. This looping time travel thing may have been completely insane, but Jornak was willing to take a chance on it.

The two became fast friends. Zach explained that he had originally found Jornak because he’d befriended Veyers in one of the restarts, and the boy had introduced him to his lawyer friend. Zach’s story about his caretaker selling Noveda property for pocket change to his friends and then siphoning most of the money into his pockets fascinated Jornak almost as much as the time travel story itself.

He wasn’t that unique in his realization that Zach was a time traveler. Zach had been making a lot of noise during that particular restart, handing out clues to various people he was fond of, and a number of them had reached the same conclusion he had. Zach was also dating no less than two women at the time – both of them aware of the other and fine with it – and he’d outright told them the truth long before Jornak had met him. It was… a fascinating group. He’d made a lot of new friends that month.

There was a looming shadow over the whole thing, however, and it grew colder and more obvious with every passing day. Zach Noveda wasn’t a mage who invented time travel, merely a leaf caught in the storm. The mechanics of the time loop were merciless, and they would soon strike.

As the end of the month approached, some people in the group got increasingly concerned. Jornak was one of them. During one evening when they were alone, and Zach had a little too much to drink, he admitted to Jornak that he would eventually stop interacting with him altogether. It had happened repeatedly in the past: Zach would get to know someone, interact with them over and over again, get emotionally attached to them, and then decide it was too painful to be around them in the future.

The admission shook Jornak to his core. He wasn’t sure why. He wouldn’t really remember anything soon, so why did it matter that Zach would replace him with someone else in one of the future restarts? It shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. He grew increasingly desperate, constantly probing Zach for any ideas about how he can keep existing after the month was over. He recruited the other members of Zach’s group into his efforts, and eventually they managed to force an admission out of him.

There was a way. A divine artifact, held by a lich, that could confer the status of a temporary looper upon a person. It would only be for six restarts, and Zach explained again and again why he didn’t want to do it, why it was a bad idea, and so forth. It didn’t matter – not to Jornak, and not to the other people. Six months was better than nothing.

It was probably the two lovers that did most of the job of convincing Zach to play along with their request, Jornak suspected. Still, he was the one who organized the whole effort and he was very proud of it. The next six months were a great time, possibly the happiest in Jornak’s life. He did not intend to betray Zach at that time, not at all – the boy was his best friend, and Jornak had every intention of helping him out in any way he could.

But alas… six restarts had eventually passed. The second deadline started to approach. Tempers ran high. People started asking Zach for a way to prolong their time looping status, horrified that they were about to lose everything they had achieved during these past six months. Zach’s mood continually worsened, both from him being heartbroken that the people he spent the past six months with were about to become lost to him, and the fact they were constantly badgering him about a solution that didn’t exist. That he couldn’t provide.

Jornak’s friendship with Zach also started to gradually deteriorate as the end approached. Jornak was far more interested in politics of the state and in what was happening behind closed doors of their nation’s elite. He had come to know much, and he grew more disgusted with them than he ever had been. He talked to Zach often about these issues, but the boy was just a teenager at heart, and his perspective was narrow and naïve. He simply wanted to get back at his caretaker, start rebuilding his House, and have fun. He did not appreciate the knowledge Jornak had painstakingly gathered, and found his methods to be immoral and disturbing. As the end of their temporary looper status approached, they clashed more and more frequently, and Jornak made the mistake of telling Zach exactly what he would do if he were in his place. The look Zach had given him when he stopped talking… Jornak would always remember that…

Eventually Zach called for a group meeting. He swore again and again that he wasn’t hiding any methods of prolonging their looping, and that there was nothing he could do. He promised them he would make them all temporary loopers again as soon as he could.

He also privately promised Jornak he would supply his future looper with all the work he had done in those six restarts, but Jornak didn’t believe him. The boy hadn’t even read the last two reports Jornak gave him, much less memorized them. Even if he wanted to hand future Jornak the fruits of his work, how would he do it? Not to mention that he probably didn’t even want to do it. He doubted Zach would even make him a temporary looper in the future. He remembered Zach’s admission that he eventually dropped people from his social circle after interacting with them for a few restarts. He remembered the look Zach had given him not too long ago. And he decided he had to do something.

He had never planned to betray Zach. He’d wanted to work with him. To help him. When one really thought about it, Zach was the one who betrayed him.

Jornak himself was not a powerful man. His magical aptitude was entirely average, and not even the time loop could change that. But some of the people in the looper group were magically powerful, and their skills had only gotten better due to Zach’s willingness to help them grow. Getting them to side with him was tricky, but not too difficult. Desperation made people do previously unthinkable things. Contacting Quatach-Ichl and arranging a meeting with him without being immediately killed had been harder, but not nearly as hard as he had feared it would be. From that point on, everything kind of slid into place.

In the end, that path had led him here: locked in a deadly battle against his one-time best friend and fellow time travelling companion – Zach.

He had to admit, he had been pretty worried for a while. The ability he’d gotten from Panaxeth was not nearly as effective as he thought it would be. Weren’t primordials supposed to be on the level of gods? He expected more out of primordial magic, to be honest. That prison should have taken some kind of advanced, specialized magic to get out of, but Zach had an appropriate spell for breaking it already in his arsenal.

Then, when they were pulled back into Cyoria proper, it was just in time to see Zorian banish Quatach-Ichl back to his phylactery with the help of a… flower? He dimly recognized it as a soulseizer chrysanthemum. What an obscure magical creature. In any case, he was of two minds about this. On one hand, he needed the ancient lich to win this. On the other hand, it was satisfying to see the black-hearted bastard finally get knocked down a peg or two. And besides, he still had the dragon m-

Oganj left. He took the crown and the orb, and he just left! Unbelievable. Jornak had given him so much for his assistance as forward payment – materials, maps, records of draconic magic that humans had taken from other dragon mages, everything – but Oganj still chose to switch sides in exchange for two thrice-damned divine artifacts.

A familiar bitterness welled up from the back of his mind. Everyone always betrayed him. He was so fed up with everything.

He still didn’t think the situation was hopeless. He started the invasion a day before the actual deadline for releasing Panaxeth, so he had some time for another attempt. He would activate all of his contingencies and plunge the country into chaos. He would activate all of the remaining wraith bombs in other cities – he refused to believe his enemies had enough countermeasures to disable them all, or that they had even managed to track down every single one of them. He would assassinate people and mind control critical individuals into starting hostilities with every nearby country. He would sic the police and Eldemar’s military on them, their allies, friends, and family. He would descend straight into the Hole and lure the monsters lurking in the deepest layer of the dungeon back to the surface to wreak havoc on it until the city was nothing but ruins…

It was suboptimal. He wanted to rule this country, and make it better, not bring it to its knees. However, he had to be alive in order to improve things, and his opponents had forced his hand. If this was the only path they had left for him, he would not hesitate. He was-

Suddenly, that other looper, Zorian Kazinski, teleported next to them and immediately rushed towards them.

Zorian… Jornak had so many regrets in regards to the boy. He shouldn’t have panicked and fled the time loop when he realized there were other time loopers aside from him and Zach, but it made perfect sense at the time. The information he had gotten from the aranea said there was a small legion of them, which… was entirely possible. If Zach wanted to and had the crown, he could have made the entire city into temporary loopers. What if Panaxeth decided some of them would make for a better champion than him? And if Zach was creating so many loopers, he probably knew about the Sovereign Gate and how to leave the time loop. He couldn’t play around and risk things. The safest thing to do was to leave as soon as possible.

As it turned out, there was just one additional looper, and he hadn’t gotten in through Zach’s actions. He got in through some weird mistake in the time loop system. Jornak couldn’t even begin to describe how jealous he was of the boy when he heard that. He had to go through so much trouble to keep existing, and then this boy got all of that and more through a simple stroke of luck? The world was sometimes so unfair.

But no matter, this was perfect. He didn’t know what had possessed the boy to get this close to him all of a sudden, but he wasn’t going waste a golden opportunity like this. He drew the imperial dagger out of his belt with a smooth, practiced motion, its weight and shape familiar and comforting in his hand. The dagger had long been his oldest and most reliable companion, and if he could, he always recovered it from the royal vaults, where it was just uselessly gathering dust. He had spent many years tinkering with it and learning everything it could do.

The dagger lit up with a faint purple glow as he thrust it towards Zorian. The imperial dagger was mostly known for its ability to hurt spirits easily, but it had several alternate modes, and this was one of them. The third looper arrogantly refused to dodge his strike, instead placing his defense device in front of him to ward off the blow. Jornak would be first to admit that the cube was an incredible achievement that left him in awe of Zorian’s ingenuity and skill, but it was ultimately just a mortal item. The dagger pierced through the complex, multi-layer shield projected by the cube like it didn’t exist and then stabbed right through the alchemically-reinforced metal like it was paper.

To his credit, this wasn’t enough to take the boy down. Zorian reacted quickly, telekinetically moving his body out of the way of the knife while simultaneously hurling the ruined cube into the sky. Having suffered catastrophic damage, the cube exploded above their heads moments later, showering the area with serrated metal fragments and exotic magical energies.

Jornak locked eyes with Zorian, unsurprised by the boy’s quick reactions. Though he was standing here partially due to luck, Zorian Kazinski was someone that had repeatedly shown himself to be a shrewd and decisive person. When Jornak was about to capture and interrogate him back in the time loop, he killed himself without hesitation to deny him useful information. What’s more, the action was clearly a pre-planned contingency and he had enough presence of mind as he ran to make sure Jornak would be unable to recover his body. He did not expect him to die so easily.

Still, with his best defensive tool destroyed, and with him momentarily unbalanced, Jornak decided to bet it all on one last push. This was extremely dangerous and may very well end with him killed, but it wasn’t the first time he risked his life for a chance to live, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. He wrapped his hand around a small black bottle hanging from his neck and squeezed, shattering it with ease with his supernatural strength.

Hundreds of black shapes suddenly slipped from between his fingers, expanding in size as they filled the skies above them. Vaguely humanoid, the entities looked like legless incorporeal humans in tattered pitch black cloaks.

Wraiths. The whole area immediately began to feel uncomfortably chilly as the mere presence of so many of them began to leech minute amounts of life force from the three combatants, and resonant whispers filled the air as wraiths began to babble in that usual incomprehensible nonsense they constantly spouted.

Wraiths were mysterious creatures, with unclear origins and very few methods of effectively fighting them. In many ways, they almost resembled spirits, but they were usually classified as undead due to their ability to convert human souls into more of themselves. They were difficult to control. Jornak did not actually have any ability to direct the wraith horde he had just released from his miniature wraith bomb, and he had no doubt the wraiths would see him as just as big of a target as the other two people present. However, Jornak was betting he would have a definite advantage anyway, because he had something he didn’t think either of the other two had: sophisticated, well-honed soul magic skills.

Soul magic was a sinister branch of magic, requiring a lot of cruel and unpleasant experimentation and willingness to deal and negotiate with some very loathsome people. Jornak had long accepted this, and he did not let it bother him. He had tortured entire villages of people, over and over again, to see how different soul magic methods affected the same soul over various restarts. He sold kidnapped babies and small orphans to some of the more unscrupulous witches that were willing to teach him their skills in exchange for ‘suitable material’. He spoke with demon summoners, participating in their disgusting rituals in order to prove his ‘sincerity’. His magical talents may be average, but he was confident that there were few people who could boast about having a similar level of skill when it came to soul magic. Zach certainly wasn’t one of them, and Silverlake was adamant that Zorian wasn’t that much better.

His opponents knew it too. When they saw the wraiths flood the area, the two of them tried to retreat and regroup elsewhere, but how could Jornak allow that? He stopped them. He foiled their teleportation, he wrenched them back when they tried to fly away, and when the two attacked him together and he was forced to choose between being wounded and letting them flee, he chose to get wounded. His regeneration ability was not nearly as potent as that of Silverlake, but his body was far more resilient than that of a regular person, and healed quickly. So long as he didn’t black out and could cast magic, it was fine. He would bear it. He would outlast them, outlast everyone, and win.

He had to win. All of the sacrifices, all the things he’d done… it couldn’t have been all in vain. He was close, so very close to the end…

In the end, he triumphed. His soul defenses were honed to perfection, yet even he strained to deal with so many wraiths relentlessly assaulting him. Zach and Zorian? They couldn’t compare. Maybe if they hadn’t expended so many of their resources before they decided to tackle him, they could have got themselves out of this situation, but alas. For all their power and skill, in the end, all it took was one mistake for them to fall and be devoured by wraiths. Jornak quietly thanked Zorian for deciding to join the battle when he had – if Jornak had been unable to catch both of his enemies at once in his wraith trap, this wouldn’t have worked.

The moment the two loopers fell, Jornak fled the site and waited for the wraiths to scatter before returning to check up on them. Always check the bodies to make sure your enemies were really dead, after all. This was especially true when dealing with enemies on the level of Zach and Zorian.

A minute later, he breathed a sigh of release. They were really dead. It was over.

He started to laugh. Yes. Yes! He… he knew he could do it!

Now was not the time for gloating, however. That would come later. For now, he started searching the city for his ‘partner’, Silverlake.

He eventually found her not far from where he fought Zach and Zorian. Or what was left of her, anyway. She was really just an empty bag of skin now. After cautiously kneeling down and inspecting the skin, he found two large puncture wounds in her chest and no other notable damage. Something, probably some kind of magical creature, had liquefied her insides and slurped it all out, leaving this preserved husk behind.

Jornak frowned. Silverlake was probably the weakest one from among the four of them that had managed to escape from the time loop, but she shouldn’t have been this easy to kill. In fact, despite being the weakest, Jornak suspected she was the hardest of them to kill, both because her primordial abilities were all defensive in nature and because she herself was a cowardly wretch that would no doubt flee at the first hint of actual danger. The creature that had killed her… some kind of spider, maybe? In any case, it had to be very powerful. On the level of a dragon, really. How did a creature like that get here, and where was it now? And why hadn’t Silverlake simply retreated if she had encountered something like that? Magical creatures generally had little ability to stop high-level mages from fleeing if outmatched, unless they were sapient spellcasters in their own right.

Concerning.

Still. Maybe it was better this way. Jornak hadn’t actually liked Silverlake that much. She had brought him some very useful knowledge, and for that, he would always be grateful to her, but she was also clearly playing her own game and knew too much about Jornak’s true nature for him to be comfortable with it. This way there was one less person potentially messing up his plans.

With Silverlake dead, it fell to him to fulfill their bargain with Panaxeth and set him loose upon the world. He threw himself into the task without hesitation, rallying the invader forces under his banner and gathering the surviving cultists that had scattered around the city after their defeat near the Hole. While most of the cultists had perished, their leaders and high-level members were powerful and resourceful enough to survive for the most part, and they were the most important part anyway. Jornak had them set up the ritual while the Ibasan army protected them, and used his own primordial essence in place of the shifter children that the defenders had managed to rescue and evacuate out of the city. He had thought about trying to recover them, but eventually decided that would take too long. Eldemar was already mobilizing their whole army to crush this invasion, and he had no time to lose. Using his own primordial essence was going to weaken him for a long time, and disable most of his primordial magic, but he would rather pay this price than risk dying at the end of the month because he had wasted too much time.

Imagine if that happened – he, the ultimate victor of the time loop war, ended up dying because he had failed to release Panaxeth before the Eldemar army rolled into the city and killed all his underlings. He would die wallowing in shame and embarrassment! No, he would pay the price with his own flesh and blood and do things properly. No gains without sacrifice.

The ritual went off without issue. Space cracked, the prison broke, and then Panaxeth burst into existence above the city, his fleshy limbs reaching out of his prison and burying themselves into the roads and buildings. Then, he slowly started to drag his entire bulk out of the pocket dimension that had contained him all these millennia…

Jornak immediately fled. He may have been Panaxeth’s champion, but he did not trust the primordial at all. His part of the contract was finished, in any case. Funny, he thought he would be able to feel it when the restriction lifted, but there was nothing. The death pact Panaxeth placed on him simply disappeared from his perception – one moment it was there, the next it was gone. Well… it was primordial magic, after all. Who knows how that worked. He was finally free, that was all that mattered.

The cultists, arrogant idiots that they were, stayed behind. Jornak knew that they had some kind of crazy plan that involved binding the primordial to their will and becoming gods in the process, but it was lunacy. They were like ants trying to enslave a tiger. Even weakened, Panaxeth was not something they could handle. Even a fragment of him could probably annihilate them.

The primordial let loose a deep, resonant rumble that made the whole city visibly vibrate. Some of the weaker buildings, weakened by the fires and the fighting, immediately collapsed from it. Then the rampage began. Ibasan forces were retreating now as fast as they could, but Jornak knew most of them would never make it.

He took one last look at the unraveling city and then teleported away. He wanted to be as far as possible from the area.

- break -

Eventually, Jornak made his way to Iasku Mansion. The place was thoroughly trashed, its wards broken and most of the souls that powered it set free when their prison cracked and crumbled, but the structure itself was still standing when the angel was done venting its ire on it. Probably because Sudomir placed and set smaller, but far stronger defensive wards around the ward core that housed his wife’s soul, and the angel didn’t want to spend time breaking it down when there were more important battles happening elsewhere.

The angel then dropped the barrier that had kept Iasku Mansion contained, and Sudomir enacted another long-distance teleport ritual to translocate the mansion out of the city, and then all the way to Ulquaan Ibasa. This was something that Sudomir had long since arranged with Quatach-Ichl in case things went wrong with their plan.

Sitting in one of the few intact rooms inside the mansion, Jornak had been feeling quite pleased with himself, basking in the glow of his own success, when another person entered the room.

Quatach-Ichl. The lich was in his human guise now (though Quatach-Ichl insisted this form was just as true as his ‘battle form’), and he looked as relaxed and confident as ever. Jornak wanted to make some snide comments about him getting taken out by a flower, but he refrained. More than Zach, Zorian, or anyone else, the ancient lich was the one that really terrified Jornak. He didn’t think even his fellow loopers really understood the force they were dealing with when they tangled with him.

Without Quatach-Ichl, Jornak would never have been able to make himself a permanent looper. Oh sure, Panaxeth was the one who supplied him with a method of transforming his temporary marker into a permanent one, but never in a million years would Jornak have been able to actually use the method himself. No, he had to beg Quatach-Ichl for assistance to help him perform the task. And the price for the lich’s help… even now Jornak couldn’t help but feel uneasy about it.

He had heard from Silverlake that the other looper already suspected that Quatach-Ichl had been integral in turning his temporary marker into a permanent one, but they couldn’t figure out why the lich hadn’t also made himself into a looper as well, then. The answer was simple: the method required one to make a deal with Panaxeth in order to work, and the lich wasn’t willing to make a death pact with a primordial under any circumstances. However, that didn’t mean he was willing to help Jornak without any assurances. He forced Jornak to accept something called a ’soul seed’ – a small fragment of Quatach-Ichl’s soul, somehow processed to prevent degradation and imbued with some measure of self-awareness and memory – and bound said soul fragment to Jornak’s soul, with instructions to return to the original Quatach-Ichl when Jornak successfully came back to the real world.

The soul fragment had been with Jornak for the entire duration of his stay in the time loop, and even Jornak wasn’t sure what it was up to during that time. Was it merely patiently waiting to return to its master, containing only the memories of that one Quatach-Ichl Jornak made the deal with? Or was it watching and learning the whole time, riding him like a spying parasite? He didn’t know. All he knew was that once he left the time loop and was incarnated in the real world, the soul fragment immediately left him and rejoined Quatach-Ichl.

Jornak had no need to convince the lich he was a time traveler. Quatach-Ichl already knew, and was waiting for him when Jornak came knocking.

He had no idea how much the ancient lich knew about what happened in the time loop, and it scared him.

“So,” Quatach-Ichl said, sitting down in one of the nearby chairs. “I think we can safely describe this operation as a success, yes?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Jornak agreed. “Though, if I may make an observation… the damage made by the primordial seemed to be somewhat underwhelming. Cyoria will be no more after today, that is true, but the country as a whole will survive. Aren’t you worried they will launch a punitive expedition against your homeland for this? Your involvement in this will be impossible to hide.”

“Oh no, I fully expect them to retaliate in some manner,” Quatach-Ichl said. “I welcome it. Our leaders have been very foolish lately, trying to set up trade treaties with the mainland and other such nonsense. A nice war or two will be good for us.”

Jornak nodded. This kind of attitude meshed pretty well with the lich’s attitude in their past conversations.

“What about you?” the lich asked. “Aren’t you worried?”

“Why would I be?” Jornak asked curiously. “I won.”

“It was a close thing,” Quatach-Ichl remarked.

“A win is a win,” Jornak insisted. He glared slightly at the lich. “Besides, it wouldn’t have been that close if you hadn’t stupidly got yourself killed. And by a flower, no less.”

“Soulseizers are curious creatures,” Quatach-Ichl said lightly, clearly not bothered by the swipe. Or at least not giving any visible indication that he was. The ancient lich’s poker face was too good. “I’ll have to look into them when I find the time. Alas, I suspect the next few years are going to be very busy for me indeed.”

Well, he was certainly right about that. For one thing, Jornak fully intended to start executing his plans the moment he left from here. He and the lich had completely incompatible plans for the future, and were pretty much guaranteed to start sabotaging each other’s efforts soon.

Really, Jornak wouldn’t be surprised if Quatach-Ichl tried to kill him here today. Unfortunately for him, Jornak was well aware of this possibility and had taken every possible precaution before coming here. He won’t die here. He won’t die ever.

He was only just starting, really.

“What would you have done if the invasion failed?” Quatach-Ichl asked, sounding genuinely curious.

A multitude of contingencies floated in Jornak’s mind in response to the lich’s question – explosive traps in numerous cities and buildings meant to cause mass casualties, assassination contracts that would be executed unless he called them off, documents unmasking Zach and Zorian just waiting to be discovered by the authorities… he had many ways to make his enemies regret their victory if he ever lost. Still he told none of them to Quatach-Ichl. Although he planned to dismantle all of them now, there was no reason to reveal his methods and reasoning to someone who would soon become his bitter enemy.

He quickly checked his mental defenses and found that his mind blank was still on and in perfect condition. Good. For a moment he was afraid Quatach-Ichl was trying to pick up answers straight from his surface thoughts.

Still, he felt an urge to brag a little. He started to ramble about one of his less important contingencies – a bundle of documents implicating Zorian in the events of the invasion, deliberately placed in one of the cabinets of the police building in Korsa. The cabinet was rarely used, but its owner was very dutiful and meticulous. It would take weeks for the documents to be discovered, and by that time Zach and Zorian will have likely stopped being on high alert for such things and should hopefully be caught completely by surprise. Then there was that letter he sent straight to the royal residence. It should be arriving-

He suddenly stopped talking. Why… why was he telling the lich this? Didn’t he just conclude they were going to become enemies soon and that it would be best to stay quiet? And the expression on Quatach-Ichl’s face… he was leaning forward and listening with bated breath, like this was the most interesting thing ever. What…?

“Who… who are you!?” Jornak suddenly snapped, jumping from his chair and going on full combat alert. He had spent enough time around the lich to learn some of his mannerisms and this didn’t look like him. In fact, when he really thought about it, his entire demeanor this whole time was slightly off. “You’re not Quatach-Ichl?”

“Why do you say that?” the imposter asked, feigning calm curiosity.

Jornak fired a blistering beam of red light at the imposter, who didn’t even try to dodge.

The beam went straight through his forehead without any resistance.

The man wearing Quatach-Ichl’s face sighed.

“So impersonating the lich is a lost cause,” he lamented to himself. “No matter how many times I try, I just can’t seem to portray him convincingly. It’s a shame, since he’s the one you’re most likely to really talk with about all the details. Maybe I should try Silverlake?”

W-What?

Wait…

No.

No!

“You can’t be! You can’t be him!” Jornak protested, his voice getting more and more panicked. “I killed you! I know I did! Your soul got devoured by wraiths! I… I have a mind blank on, that spell is total protection against-”

He checked his mind. He checked it again, and then a third time. Always the same result. His mind blank was still on. His mind was protected.

Except it wasn’t.

‘None of this is real…’ Jornak realized.

“Well then,” the imposter in the guise of Quatach-Ichl said. “Let’s try this again, shall we?”

Jornak’s heart went cold. How many times had he done this? How many times had he lived through this day, enjoying his triumph, making grand plans about what would come next, only to forget all about it again and again? All the while some sinister force keeps talking to him, pumping him for information, varying their approach in this or that way, to get what they wanted out of him.

His mind couldn’t help but harken back to his time in the time loop, back when he was just a humble lawyer wishing there was more to his life. Back to when he realized his life was literally an endless loop meant to exploit him. It was just like that now, but worse. Infinitely worse.

His vision began to darken. He wanted to do something, wanted to send a signal to his various contingencies in one final act of spite, but his mind was fading, fading, fading… He forgot Zorian’s words, forgot what led him to this place, forgot any of this ever happened. He found himself back in Cyoria, surrounded by corpses of Zach and Zorian, knowing only one thing:

He was Jornak Dokochin, a humble lawyer from Cyoria, the true heir of House Denen, and the last surviving time looper…

…and he had won.

Again, and again, and again.

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