The Fourth Looper
Hidden in the shadow of a damaged building, Zorian watched Zach fight against a horde of monsters in quiet awe. Regardless of whether it was war trolls, winter wolves, or iron beaks, none of the creatures could get close to Zach. A flash of fire, a barrage of force needles, and they all fell before the boy’s magical might. The only creatures that saw any success against the boy were iron beaks, since they could launch their feathers from a considerable range and were relatively small and maneuverable. Even then, Zach dealt with most feathers by side-stepping the attack or making slight body movements, dodging the feathers with casual ease.
It was unbelievable. The magic Zach was using was leagues better than that of a normal student, which made no sense since it was completely at odds with what Zach displayed in their first two years of classes. Zorian couldn’t claim he knew Zach especially well, but the boy he knew wasn’t subtle or restrained, and didn’t strike him as someone capable of keeping this kind of secret.
And the dodging… Zorian couldn’t imagine how long he would have to practice something like this in order to be able to do it with such ease and confidence. Improbable magic skills could be explained away by great natural talent, perhaps, but this was something else. Zorian was so transfixed by the sight of Zach practically dancing through the hail of feathers like this was all just a giant theater play that he failed to notice one of the winter wolves sneaking up on him.
Zorian jumped back when he sensed danger, but it was already too late. The winter wolf was already very close, and it lunged at him too fast to avoid. The winter wolf tried to clamp its jaws around Zorian’s neck, but since Zorian managed to jump back and instinctively crossed his arms in front of him in a feeble instinctive move to ward off the attack, it didn’t quite succeed. Instead, the wolf’s maw closed around his forearms, ripping skin and tearing flesh.
Zorian screamed, his panicked wail easily heard over the sounds of fighting around them, but he was already unbalanced from his failed dodge and the winter wolf soon slammed into him with its considerable weight and knocked the air out of his lungs, shutting him up.
Zorian fell backwards on his back, and the wolf fell along with him. Thankfully, the beast failed to keep its balance as they fell. It let go of Zorian’s arms and rolled away a short distance away from him, giving Zorian a moment to gather his bearings and attempt to escape.
It wasn’t enough. Zorian’s arms were terribly injured and hurt immensely as he attempted to push himself up, his glasses were missing somewhere, and he had hit his head when he hit the ground. He had just enough time to lift his head before the wolf was already upon him again, ready to finish the job this time.
A blindingly bright bolt of force hit the winter wolf in the flank as it jumped towards Zorian, easily knocking it off-course and slamming it into the wall of a nearby house. Its entire body caved in upon impact, bones and internal organs crushed into paste by the force of the spell.
A web of cracks was created on the wall of the building where the wolf slammed into it. Although it was a silly thought, inappropriate for the severity of the situation, Zorian couldn’t help but imagine Ilsa criticizing Zach for his reckless use of combat magic and causing so much collateral damage.
His arms hurt. His arms hurt a lot and he felt a wave of dizziness and nausea assault him for a moment. Perhaps because of all the bleeding he was doing…?
“Zorian! Damn it, are you all right!?”
Zach quickly ran up to him, killing any creature that sought to bar his way, and helped him get back on his feet. With Zach’s help, they managed to lose the monster horde and found a quiet place for Zorian to calm down and recover.
Zorian winced as he looked at his arms. Winter wolves had powerful jaws, and while his arms weren’t broken or insensate, the wounds were serious. When the wolf lost its grip on Zorian in the fall, its teeth ripped out chunks of his flesh and left his forearms covered in deep gashes that kept bleeding and hurting.
The back of his head also had a painful bump on it, but that was comparatively minor in comparison.
Looking around, Zorian managed to spot his glasses lying on the ground, and was pleased to see they weren’t broken. While he moved to pick them up, Zach was busy rummaging through his belongings for something. The other boy eventually fished out a pair of potions out of a jacket pocket and gave them to Zorian.
“A blood clotting potion, and some kind of healing potion,” Zach explained. “I’m not sure what it’s called, but it should help.”
Zorian visibly winced. Drinking medical potions provided by strangers was usually not a good idea, and Zach’s explanation didn’t exactly soothe Zorian’s fears in this regard. But truthfully, Zorian didn’t doubt for a second that Zach was offering him the real deal. Zach was clearly ridiculously capable in all sorts of way. The thing was… well…
“The price of these… I can’t…” he feebly protested.
“Zorian, are you really going to bleed out here just because you’re too proud to accept an expensive gift?” Zach gave him a strange look.
Zorian didn’t bother to argue with the boy after that. He drank both potions in quick succession, and his arms recovered a little after a few minutes. They were far from fine, but he was no longer bleeding and the pain had dulled to a manageable throb.
“Thank you,” Zorian eventually said. “I would have surely died here without your help. I owe you my life. If there is anything you need in the future-”
“Yeah, yeah,” Zach grumbled, waving him off. “What the hell are you doing here, anyway?”
“Searching for Akoja,” Zorian admitted. “She left the dance a while before the attack and it’s kind of my fault.”
Zach rubbed his face in frustration. “I see. Well, let’s go find Akoja before she ends up even worse than you did. Do you know the way?”
They traveled through the burning streets of the city, leaving a trail of dead invaders behind them. Zach didn’t even try to avoid the monsters, simply plowing through them like an angry god out for vengeance. At one point they were even attacked by a horde of skeletons and an enemy mage, but Zach simply made the earth beneath their feet open up and swallow them. Zorian dutifully kept his mouth shut and never questioned Zach about his seemingly inexhaustible mana reserves or his knowledge of advanced magic that should be beyond his access level and proficiency, content to enjoy the benefits of Zach’s skill and talent. Zach had outright saved his life tonight – he was entitled to his secrets, as far as Zorian was concerned.
Eventually, they found Akoja. She had fled into one of the vacant buildings to escape a pack of winter wolves chasing after her and barricaded herself in one of the rooms on the upper floor.
She had been very, very lucky. Finding a building whose main door had been bashed in by the war trolls, long after those war trolls moved over to other targets, just in time for her to take refuge in there from a pursuing winter wolf pack… well, that whole situation had had the potential to develop very differently. The wounds on his arms throbbed a little, as if resonating with those dark musings, sending pangs of pain down his spine.
He shook his head, banishing the thought of Akoja being torn to shreds by the wolf pack. It didn’t happen and he didn’t want to think about it.
There was no trace of winter wolves around the house at the time Zach and Zorian found the girl, though. The wolves had clearly been inside the house and tried to get to her – the door behind which she hid was covered in scratches from wolf claws and frosted over. However, winter wolves were not really equipped for sieges, and the door was a sturdy thing made from quality oak. The house was very spacious and well-made in general, made by someone with lots of money to spend.
Alas, while the winter wolves were gone, Akoja was not willing to simply trust them on that claim. The winter wolves had clearly moved on to other targets, but Akoja was still fearful and refused to open the door and step outside. It took several minutes of talking to her through the closed door before Zach and Zorian convinced her it was safe to come out and that staying inside until the city guards arrive was not a good plan.
Actually, Zorian was not entirely sure why joining Akoja in her improvised shelter and waiting for things to die down was a bad move at this point. Things were bad out there, but surely the attackers couldn’t beat the entire Eldemar military, right? The royal forces would eventually restore order. They just had to survive until that happened.
However, Zach clearly didn’t agree with that sentiment, and Zorian didn’t dare contradict him. Clearly the other boy knew something Zorian didn’t. He did his best to convince Akoja to come out, and eventually it worked.
They heard the sound of furniture being dragged across the floor. Akoja had dragged virtually the entire contents of the room in front of the door to stop the wolves from getting to her if they managed to break through it, and now it took quite a bit of time and effort to clear the way before she could come out.
Zorian was certain she would blame him for causing her to leave the safety of the dance hall, so he was quite surprised when Akoja immediately latched onto him when she finally opened the door, engulfing him in a strong hug.
Surprised and in pain. This was the worst possible time for someone to squeeze his arms like that.
He screamed in pain involuntarily, causing her to immediately step back in shock.
“Wha…? Zorian, your arms! W-What happened to you!?” Akoja said, sounding horrified.
“It’s…” Zorian hesitated, not quite willing to tell her it’s nothing. She might hug him again if he did. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
“I gave him a healing potion,” Zach helpfully added. “He’ll be fine, he’s just being a big baby.”
Zorian gave him an unamused look but didn’t snap at him.
“A winter wolf bit me,” Zorian told Akoja, focusing his attention back to her instead. “It hurts, but I’ll live.”
“T-Those horrible beasts…” Akoja said fearfully, visibly trembling. Seeing the bite wounds on Zorian’s arms seemed to remind her of her own experience with the wolf pack.
“Anyway,” Zach said, clapping his hand obnoxiously to snap Akoja out of her terrified daze, “I know you’re both a little shaken by all this, but it’s best if you continued this conversation back in the shelters.”
“Shelters?” Akoja asked, confused for a second. “Ah, yes! The academy shelters! But we’re so far away... how will we get there without being eaten? I really think it would be safer to just hide here until morning? Surely the owner of the house will understand…”
“Have no fear, the great Zach has a solution,” Zach said with a wide grin, lifting a spell rod of some sort into the air theatrically. Zorian found it interesting, and also more than a little disturbing, that Zach could maintain this kind of attitude in the current situation.
His thoughts were interrupted by Zach thrusting the rod towards them.
“Both of you hold on to this and it will teleport you to the shelters,” Zach said, shaking the rod up and down for emphasis.
“Teleport rod?” Zorian asked suspiciously.
“Yes,” Zach confirmed. “It will teleport anything touching it when it triggers. I’ve set it to a 30 second delay, so both of you should hold on to it before you’re left behind.”
Zorian and Akoja quickly placed a hand on the rod, but when they did, Zach immediately let go of it and stepped back.
“Wait, what about you?” Zorian asked in alarm.
“Yes, what are you doing!?” Akoja loudly protested. “You can’t possibly be planning to stay here? Don’t be an idiot!”
Ah, right. Akoja hadn’t seen Zach fighting the invaders.
“Don’t worry about me. I still have something to do here. I’ll catch up with you in no time,” Zach said, trying to wave her concerns off. He turned around and started to walk out of the house.
“Zach, this isn’t a game! These things are going to kill you!” Akoja protested, following after him. She still clutched the teleport rod in her hand as she did, and Zorian didn’t have much choice but to follow after her if he wanted to hold on to it.
Sadly, Zach ignored her complaints, not even bothering to turn back and look at her as she tried to catch up to him and shove the rod towards him.
“Look, I’m perfectly capable-” Zach began, just as they stepped through the ruined door of the house.
Zorian wasn’t sure what tipped him off, exactly – he just got a vague feeling of dread and knew he had to react immediately. He immediately let go of the teleport rod and slammed his whole body into Zach, pushing him out of the path of an incoming spell. An angry red ray surged through the air in front of them, passing right where Zach’s head was only a few moments ago, and hit the wall behind them. The jagged beam of red light bit deep into the wall, gouging a deep trench in it and shrouding the area in a cloud of fine dust.
“Crap,” Zach said. “He found me. Quick, hold the rod before-“
Zorian turned towards Akoja, only to see her standing empty-handed behind him. When Zorian let go of the rod to save Zach, she was left as the sole person holding it. Unfortunately, she either hadn’t been holding it too tightly or she let go of it in shock, being the rod was currently rolling on the ground beside her.
A moment later, it winked out of existence, having teleported away to the shelters as it was set up to do.
“Damn it, you two,” Zach complained. “Why didn’t you hold on!?”
“You’d be dead, then!” Zorian protested. He wasn’t going to let a person who saved his life and helped him find Akoja die from a stray spell if he could help it. What kind of question was that?
Besides, it was clear Zach was amazingly good combat mage. Just how much trouble… uh…
A sudden gust of air blew the dust away and a gaunt humanoid figure stepped into view. Zorian actually gasped in surprise as he took in the appearance of the thing in front of them. It was a skeleton wreathed in sickly green light. Its bones were black with a strange metallic sheen, as if they were not bones at all, but rather a facsimile of a skeleton made out of some kind of black metal. Encased in gold-decorated armor, with a scepter held tightly in one of its skeletal hands and a crown full of purple gemstones, the creature looked like some long-dead king risen from the dead.
It was a lich. It was a thrice-damned lich! Oh, they were so going to die…
The lich swept its empty eye sockets over them. As Zorian’s eyes met the black pits that once held the lich’s eyes, an uncomfortable feeling washed over him, like the lich was peering into his very soul. After less than a second, the lich lazily shifted its attention to Akoja, who visibly took a step back and made a whining sound upon being scrutinized by the creature.
The lich dismissed Akoja just as quickly as it did Zorian, however, and shifted its attention to Zach instead.
“So…” the lich spoke, its voice resonant with power, “You’re the one that has been killing my minions.”
“Zorian, Ako… you two run away while I deal with this guy,” Zach said, clutching the staff in his hand.
Without waiting for a response, Zach launched a barrage of magic missiles towards the lich, who retaliated with a trio of purple beams as it erected an aegis around itself with a single wave of its bony hand. Two of them were aimed at Zach, but sadly enough the lich saw fit to aim one towards Zorian’s retreating form. While it failed to hit Zorian directly, the beam’s impact with the nearby ground created a sizeable explosion that drove stone shrapnel into his legs. The pain was immense, and Zorian collapsed on the ground in an instant, unable to take a single step further.
Zorian gritted his teeth in pain. The new wounds were horrific, and made his legs almost useless. He tried to drag himself to safety, but with his arms already hurting and weak, he found it impossible to do so.
A spell hit the ground to the left of him a moment after, detonating into a massive explosion. Although the impact was relatively far from him, the force of the blast was strong enough that Zorian could still feel it as it passed over him.
He couldn’t take it anymore. He blacked out.
- break -
When Zorian regained consciousness, not much time had passed. He knew this because he could still hear the sounds of Zach and the lich fighting, he was still surrounded by ruined buildings, and there was Akoja crying over him.
He was no longer in the same spot where he fell. His vision was blurred, but Akoja had clearly dragged him behind some rubble to shield him from the aftershocks of the spell battle.
He took a deep breath and tried to see if she was injured. As far as he could tell, she wasn’t. He didn’t think this was because she was better at dodging than him, so that probably meant the lich hadn’t even bothered to target her in his initial spell barrage.
Why did the lich attack Zorian, but not Akoja? So unfair. Wait, was it because he had pushed Zach out of the way of that disintegration ray? That move saved Zach’s life and Zorian wasn’t sorry he’d done it, but it probably made him look like a bigger threat than he actually was.
“Please don’t die…” Akoja said quietly. “Please don’t die. We’re going to live through this. Please don’t die.”
Zorian didn’t know if she was talking to him or to herself, but he did know that she was being very stupid and he couldn’t stand it.
“You should go,” he suddenly told her. He was hurting all over, but he could still speak just fine.
“Zorian!” She said happily. She then winced, realizing she was being too loud and might be attracting attention to their hiding spot. “Thank the gods, I thought-”
“Seriously, you need to go,” Zorian told her. “Zach isn’t going to win this. He’s just buying time for us to run away, so why haven’t you done so already?”
“I… I’m not strong enough to carry you,” she protested. “It was hard to drag you over here, I don’t think I could-”
“Forget about me,” Zorian told her. “What am I to you, anyway? We’re just classmates. I ruined your evening and caused all of this anyway. I’m not going anywhere like this, but you can still make it out alive. Just go.”
She said nothing, simply shaking her head. She didn’t move.
Before he could say anything else, the sounds of fighting stopped. Zach and the lich were talking about something, but Zorian was too far away to understand what they were saying. It didn’t help that his ears were still ringing slightly from the explosion that made him black out.
Suddenly, Zorian completely lost control of his body. Some kind of alien force paralyzed him and lifted him roughly into the air. Beside him, he could see Akoja being likewise lifted into the air.
A moment later they were both hurtling through the air. After a brief but disorienting flight, Zorian slammed painfully into Zach, and then Akoja slammed into both of them. The three of them ended up in a confused pile, hurting all over but very much alive.
“It doesn’t matter if your soul can be reincarnated elsewhere if someone mutilates it beyond recognition before it gets there,” a voice suddenly said. Zorian couldn’t see anything, as he was currently squeezed between Zach and Akoja, but he recognized the voice as that of the lich. “After all, the soul may be immortal, but no one said it cannot be altered or added to.”
Zorian could hear the lich chanting in some strange language that definitely wasn’t standard Ikosian used in traditional invocations, but any curiosity about this was washed away by a wave of pain and unidentifiable wrongness that suddenly slammed into him. He opened his mouth to scream but then his world suddenly erupted into bright light before going completely black.
- break -
Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.
“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!!!”
- break -
By the time Zorian arrived to Cyoria, it was becoming impossible to deny what had happened. Somehow, he had gone back in time and was currently relieving the month leading up to the summer festival. The whole thing was crazy and unbelievable, but there was no way this was an illusion.
The whole thing was most likely related to Zach. Thus, Zorian was both dreading and looking forward to meeting Zach on the first day of classes. He didn’t know how to confront his classmate about what was happening, but he had to try.
However, there was a complication. When he approached his classroom, he found Akoja standing there uneasily with her clipboard clutched tightly in front of her. The moment she saw him, her eyes widened and she seized him by the arm before dragging him off to an empty corridor.
“Zorian, please tell me I’m not crazy,” She asked him urgently.
“Crazy?” he asked.
“The summer festival. The burning city. The lich. The… everything,” she said, growing every more agitated as she went on. “We lived through this entire month already, and no one but me seems to remember it. But you remember, right? R-right? I mean, you were there when the lich…”
Zorian rubbed his forehead. Truthfully, this was not entirely unexpected. Zorian already suspected that last spell the lich had cast on the three of them had sometimes caused this. It made sense that Akoja got caught up in the whole thing too, since she was also a target.
Akoja seemed to wilt at his silence, taking it as a bad sign, so he decided to reassure her.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “Yeah, I remember.”
“You do? Thank the gods. I knew I wasn’t crazy,” Akoja said, taking a deep breath. “I don’t know what I’d do if you also couldn’t remember.”
“Is Zach here?” Zorian asked.
“No,” she shook her head fiercely. “I also want to talk to him.”
An uncomfortable silence followed for a few seconds.
“Anyway, you need to help me talk to Ilsa when she gets here,” Akoja suddenly said. “With both of us saying the same thing, she is going to have to-”
“Err, Ako? I don’t think random telling people about this is a good idea,” Zorian said hurriedly. “All of this sounds completely crazy, and if we try to prove it, we could end up imprisoned by the government.”
“You can’t be serious,” Akoja told him. “Zorian, this is far too important to keep to ourselves. Especially for such a selfish and paranoid reason – so what if we’re imprisoned and questioned, we’ve got nothing to hide.”
Zorian swallowed heavily, suddenly getting fearful of Akoja. Although a part of him was glad he wasn’t alone in this, he found Akoja’s reasoning highly disturbing.
“Ako, please, listen to me…” he said hesitantly. “I’m not saying we do nothing while the city burns, but we need to do this carefully. Can you at least wait for a few days until we have a better picture of what’s happening?”
“B-besides…” Akoja said, refusing to look him in the eye. “I already told Ilsa and some other people. They didn’t believe me, which is why I was so glad you remember things. You can back me up and people can stop saying I’m doing it all for attention.”
Zorian’s unease ratcheted up.
“You… already told Ilsa?” Zorian said, more as a shocked statement to himself rather than a serious question. “And others? What others?”
“My parents,” Akoja said, biting her lip. “A bunch of Cyoria policemen when I visited one of the local stations. Some of our classmates.”
Zorian took off his glasses with one hand and started massaging his face with the other.
He really wished someone else got caught up in that spell…