Chapter 001-B
Abyss of Time

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!!!”

For a moment, Zorian was confused about what was happening. However, that moment was very brief. After all, Zorian had gone through this experience many, many times.

He sent a quick telepathic command to Kirielle and she immediately slumped unconscious across his chest. He pushed her off of him and rose to his feet in a single fluid motion, and then proceeded to walk out of the door without bothering to get dressed or put on his glasses.

His hands were going through a variety of gestures even as he started descending down the stairs. The first restart was always the most annoying one. His current body and soul were deeply flawed, incapable of supporting the full breadth of his magical skills and thought. His first priority after every full restart was to reactivate his mental enhancements.

“Zorian, what are you-”

Mother couldn’t even finish her question before she also slumped unconscious. Zorian never even glanced in her direction, opting to simply keep descending down the stairs in his pajamas while casting spells. His thoughts and awareness shifted and expanded with every passing second as the mental enhancements snapped into place – automated calculation spells constantly informed him about distances and measurements in his environment, sensory filters blocked out distractions and drew his attention to details he might have otherwise missed, and irrelevant thoughts were severed and suppressed.

After a while, he stopped. He wasn’t done modifying things, but there was only so much he could do right now. It would take many, many restarts before he truly restored his peak capabilities.

But no matter – he had time. A vast, possibly infinite amount of time.

He created a simulacrum. The process was simple and quick. The moment the copy had popped into existence, Zorian’s mind reached out to it and started attaching it into his overself. This he had learned from the cephalic rats a long time ago, and then refined further with examples from other collective organisms. The copy didn’t resist the integration and remained silent throughout the whole process.

Once both of their minds were connected into a unified whole, they turned around in opposite directions and started salvaging everything of value from the house. Daimen’s old room was particularly important. It still contained a number of valuable materials and magic items. Zorian and his simulacrums gathered everything that was useful and piled them up in the kitchen to be processed and disassembled for crafting materials.

If he wanted to maintain the overself with his simulacrum over great distances, he needed a way for them to remain in contact. Once he would have been forced to maintain a network of permanent gates and telepathic relays to achieve that. But that was a long time ago, and he now had more convenient and inconspicuous methods available. Mostly he just used a micro-gate stabilized inside a small icosahedron as his method of contact. They were small enough to be turned into amulets and key chains, allowing him and his simulacrums to carry them on their person at all times.

Zorian and his simulacrum quickly made a pair of gate amulets. The materials they were working with weren’t good, so the end product was unstable. The micro-gates contained within the icosahedrons would destabilize within eight hours or so, but that was enough for Zorian’s purposes.

Each of them claimed one of the amulets and then silently got up from the table. The simulacrum telekinetically picked up Mother from where she was slumped on the floor and took her to her room. As for Zorian, he waved his hand once, turning the leftover scrap from their crafting into fine dust. He then waved his other hand, and blowing the dust away and straight into a nearby trashcan.

He then walked over to the front door and opened it. Ilsa, who was just about to knock on the door, stared at him in surprise.

Zorian immediately broke into her mind, too subtly for her to notice, and started monitoring her thoughts. He couldn’t help it – it was practically instinct at this point. Unless people specifically took steps to stop it, Zorian automatically spied on the thoughts of everyone around him, and he was good enough at it that people rarely noticed.

Ilsa’s mind told him he was still in his pajamas, and that it was kind of inappropriate to greet your teacher dressed like that. Oops.

He quickly made a handful of gestures and then pressed his palms against his chest. A wave of light washed over his body, restructuring the fabric of the pajamas into more appropriate clothes.

“What? How did you do that?” Ilsa asked, shocked.

Instead of answering, Zorian deleted the last few seconds of memory from her mind. She suddenly frowned, trying to make sense of her sudden mental stutter.

“Come in, Miss Zileti,” Zorian invited politely.

“Of course,” she nodded, stepping inside.

Zorian felt his simulacrum disappear from the house, having teleported away after tucking Mother under the covers of her bed.

“Are you alone in the house?” Ilsa asked, frowning.

“No, but Mother didn’t feel well this morning and went back to sleep,” Zorian told her.

“I see. I hope she gets better soon,” Ilsa said politely. She glanced curiously at the icosahedron hanging from his neck but didn’t say anything about it. “We shouldn’t disturb her then. I will erect a privacy ward so we can talk without bothering her with noise. Where do you want to talk?”

“We can talk in the kitchen,” Zorian said, pointing at the table behind him. “By the way, do you mind if I ask you a strange question?”

“It really depends on what the question is,” Ilsa said with a small smile.

“What would you do if you had an endless amount of time and no one to share it with?” Zorian asked her seriously, sitting down next to the kitchen table. He noticed he missed some of the dust when he was cleaning up and simply pushed it onto the floor.

“What?” Ilsa laughed. “What do you mean, Mister Kazinski? Are you asking me what I’d do if I was immortal?”

“Yes. You have an eternity to hone your skills, research mysteries, and enjoy material possessions. However, all the people are gone. They have been replaced by shadows,” Zorian explained, staring directly into her eyes as he spoke. “What would you do?”

Ilsa sighed at him.

“Mister Kazinski,” she began. “Everyone feels a little disconnected from the world around them at your age. I know you probably think no one can understand you, but we’ve all been through this at one point in our lives. Now please… let’s just get the formal stuff out of the way, and we can discuss philosophical musings afterwards.”

“Sure,” Zorian agreed easily. He knew she would never bring this topic up again, today or in the future, but no frustration or disappointment arose in his mind.

Truthfully, it was pretty pointless of him to bring up the topic to begin with. He already knew what the response would be, because he had tried this at least twelve times before. It was just something he did out of habit.

A small, nearly forgotten part of him felt he was turning into something of a shadow himself.

One of the mental adjustments he had done earlier quickly crushed that thought as pointless defeatism, and he continued pretending he was paying attention to Ilsa’s explanations, his thoughts turning tranquil once more.

- break -

While Zorian’s main body was dealing with Ilsa, his simulacrum body was walking up a small hill in rural Eldemar. Both the original and the simulacrum were still aware of each other, maintaining contact through the gate amulets hanging from their neck. There would be no need for reports or memory packet exchanges after this – his greater self was aware of everything the simulacrum was doing, and was committing his actions to memory as if they were his own.

Eventually, he reached the top of the hill. There was a Bakora gate standing there, surrounded by a remains of small research camp. Zorian ignored the camp remains, as they contained nothing useful, and placed his hand on the bars of the icosahedron.

He still didn’t understand how the Bakora gate network worked. Despite the multiple greater restarts he had spent studying gate magic, he couldn’t produce anything remotely similar to what was in front of him. He really wondered who the Bakora were.

Still, he hadn’t come here to research the Bakora gate, but to use it. As such, he concentrated and started casting a spell to contact the gate spirit – a complicated variant of the manifold resonance spell that allowed him to connect to the normally isolated entity.

Like everything else about the Bakora gates, the gate spirit was strange. Zorian wasn’t sure what it was, but it definitely wasn’t a spirit from the spiritual planes bound into an object. It did not seem to resent its duty, it had infinite patience, and generally acted as a machine more than a living being. Some kind of soul mechanism, maybe? Was it even possible to assemble a machine out of soul material? He didn’t understand souls enough, but his gut feeling was yes. For all he knew, souls could be spiritual machines to begin with.

In any case, Zorian had gotten pretty good at learning how to interact with the gate spirits. He ordered the gate spirit to open a passage to a gate in Koth, and it immediately complied.

The moment he stepped through the gate, he began teleporting towards the forgotten sinkhole where the imperial orb was located.

- break -

Zorian stepped off the train, glanced at the Cyoria’s main train station for a bit to orient himself, and then started walking in a random direction.

He had no real destination. Much like there was no real point for him to ride a train to Cyoria, there was no real point to him physically walking anywhere. The gate amulet he was wearing didn’t play well with teleportation magic, but he was so good at dimensionalism at this point that he could teleport freely anyway. However, what would be the point? He wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere.

There was no end to this.

The train station was packed with people, and a constant stream of new minds kept entering and leaving his perception as he walked. He invaded their mind automatically as they entered his telepathic radius, some of his mental enhancements automatically assessing their thoughts for threats and interesting tidbits. It all blended together after a while, in all honesty. Just shadow people thinking shadow thoughts, over and over again.

Once upon a time, Zorian had moral compunctions about invading people’s minds without permission. He tried to limit himself and be mindful of common courtesy and ethics. A part of him felt nostalgic for those times, wanting to return to his younger, more innocent self. Alas, that was impossible. A mind, once expanded, cannot return to its simpler origins. Zorian had even invaded the minds of Kirielle and his parents, searching through their deepest memories. What sanctity could the surface thoughts of strangers possibly hold for him?

As he walked, he began cycling through a variety of gestures, mumbling chants under his breath. People around him gave him strange looks, but didn’t say anything – they just put some distance between him and themselves and went on their way. He was interacting with his marker, fixing some of the damage it suffered when it was transplanted from Zach to Zorian, while simultaneously editing some parts of it to be more to his liking.

There was a very real danger of rendering the marker inoperable when doing this kind of tampering, but Zorian hardly cared about that. Even if he was erased out of this particular time loop, he would just wake up back in Cirin and start things all over again. And considering this was the very first loop, this was arguably the best time to edit the marker like this.

He didn’t bother going to the academy to sleep in his room. A some point the rain began to fall, but the raindrops couldn’t touch him. They swerved out of his way as they fell near him, as if afraid of touching him. He kept walking through the entire night, tinkering with his marker and occasionally forming animal shapes from the raindrops around him. Eventually he made it to the outskirts of Cyoria, where he was stopped by guards.

They didn’t find him suspicious, they were just disturbed that a young teenager was out in the pouring rain, in the dead of the night, planning to leave the city. They kept asking him if he was alright and insisting they would take him home. Zorian rarely got upset about anything these days, but somehow these two guards really managed to get under his skin with their attempt to help. He mind-wiped them and left the city behind him.

He didn’t need concern from a couple of shadows.

Eventually he found himself in front of a small mansion not that far from the city. This was where Tesen Zveri, Zach’s official caretaker, kept Zach’s unconscious body while he was incapacitated by the lich’s spell in the first few restarts of every time loop. Apparently Tesen was afraid people would think he was responsible for Zach’s condition, as there was no obvious perpetrator and Tesen had a pretty good motive to get rid of Zach as far as most people were concerned, so every time he found Zach unconscious due to soul damage, he had him moved to this secret location while he investigated the thing and decided what to do. The investigation into Zach’s whereabouts was a total sham, since Tesen knew exactly where Zach was located.

The place had guards. Eight of them, in fact. However, they were picked more for their loyalty and willingness to not ask questions, rather than skill. The mansion wasn’t especially well-warded, either. Tesen was mostly relying on obscurity to keep this place secret. Zorian had no problems breaking into the mansion, after which he quickly disabled all the guards stationed there.

Once the place was secure, he went through each of the guards one by one, editing their memories, placing mental compulsions, and otherwise changing their minds into something more useful for his purposes. Once they woke up, he ordered them to go out in the city and buy a bunch of alchemical materials using their own money and bring them back to the mansion. They didn’t like this one bit, especially since Zorian instructed them to use up their savings and pawn off anything valuable from their own homes in order to get more cash, but then again, they didn’t have much of a choice.

Once they were gone, he dragged a chair from the kitchen so he could sit next to Zach’s bed. His fellow time traveler was unconscious from the aftereffects of soul damage, and would remain so for at least seven or eight more restarts. It was actually a bit unpredictable when Zach would wake up from his coma, Zorian had found.

After scanning the boy for a few minutes, Zorian created two more simulacrums and they all got to work speeding up Zach’s recovery.

Healing soul damage quickly was impossible. Even after spending centuries researching the topic, the best he could do was accelerate the soul’s natural recovery process through potions. He would have to wait for the guards to return before he could make those.

However, the damage done to Zach’s soul was not too extensive. He was unconscious mostly because his damaged soul had damaged his body when it had been shoved into his body at the start of the restart, and now he was too injured to wake up. The damage caused by soul damage was subtle and hard to deal with, but Zorian was an expert in medical magic with centuries of experience. With him and his two simulacrums working on the issue, it only took half an hour to fix Zach up.

He could have woken the boy up at the point, but didn’t. He wanted to give Zach soul recover potions the moment he regained consciousness, and those weren’t even made yet. Instead he went the most spacious room in the mansion and started creating a work space for himself, consuming the fancy furniture in order to make some sturdy tables and throwing out everything else that was taking up space.

Halfway through this process, another simulacrum teleported into the room. It was the simulacrum he had sent to Koth to retrieve the imperial orb. The simulacrum wordlessly dumped an entire bag worth of contents on a nearby table Zorian created. The imperial orb was there, as was a bunch of other divine artifacts the simulacrum had stolen from various places as it made its way back. There was a small bronze pyramid there, a black knife with a wavy pattern on the blade, a gem-encrusted box, and a small figurine of a goat made out of white marble. All of these were brought here for one simple purpose: to be taken apart for raw ingredients.

Divine magic, much like the inner mechanics of souls and the truth behind Bakora gates, were still a major mystery for Zorian. He couldn’t cast divine magic, but he could detect it. With some effort and a lot of trial and error, he was able to map out the internal workings of some divine artifacts and figure out how to crudely modify them. It involved breaking the artifacts and their corresponding divine magic mechanisms, and then combining some of the pieces into a new design.

It was akin to taking apart a train in order to make a really good horse-drawn chariot. A train engineer would be horrified at waste, but if you had no other way to get yourself a chariot that good, it might make sense to do so.

The chariot Zorian wanted was the memory bank function of the imperial orb. It allowed the user of the orb to store a basically infinite amount of information, and that information persisted across restarts. Although it was a function of the orb, the memory bank was fairly self-contained in its function, and it was possible to rip it out of the orb and attach it to something else. Your soul, for instance. For anyone else, that would be a pointless waste of a perfectly good divine artifact, but for Zorian, it was priceless.

The other divine artifacts were just there to make this transfer possible. The knife was needed because it could damage other divine artifacts. The bronze pyramid and the marble goat contained pieces of divine magic that he needed to add to the memory bank in order to let it stick to his soul better. The box could hold and stabilize the pieces of divine magic inside it, giving Zorian enough time to cobble his makeshift divine magic out of the divine artifact remains.

Before he could start the crafting process, however, he sensed Zach getting out of bed and making his way towards him.

Huh. Zorian didn’t expect him to get up for another three hours, at least.

He simulacrums quickly left the house to go gather some more materials needed to speed up Zach’s recovery, while Zorian himself remained in the work room, making further preparations for the transfer of the memory bank.

Zach stumbled into the work room before stopping to check up the situation. He looked surprised to see Zorian there, and for a while he said nothing, slowly taking in the sights and rubbing his eyes to lessen the raging headache he was no doubt having.

“Zorian?” Zach asked uncertainly.

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “It’s certainly me.”

“What… where are we?” Zach asked, his eyes taking in the room around him again.

“A countryside mansion on the outskirts of Cyoria. When Tesen found you unconscious from soul damage, he hid you away here so he could pretend you went missing,” Zorian explained. He knew this explanation would mean nothing to Zach, and would only create more questions, but it was impossible to explain what happened in a truly concise manner.

And besides, it was funnier to explain things this way.

“I… see…” Zach said slowly. “Do you mind if I take a seat? My head won’t stop spinning.”

“Help yourself,” Zorian told him, gesturing to the chair that had been occupied by one of his simulacrums not too long ago. Zorian himself barely glanced at Zach, opting to instead flip the bronze pyramid in one hand while holding the black knife in the other. He was wondering where to make the cut when the moment came. Even now, messing with divine magic like this was full of uncertainties, and he couldn’t guarantee he would be successful. “I sent the guard to get me some materials for soul recovery potions, so don’t be alarmed when they start coming back.”

Zach gave him a strange look.

“Soul recovery potions… you can make those?” Zach asked slowly.

“The time loop has taught me many things,” Zorian replied casually.

“You know about the t- ow.” Zach jumped to his feet in shock, then winced as his head protested the sudden movement. “Ow. Damn it, what did that pile of bones do to me? I feel terrible.”

“Soul damage is no joke,” Zorian told him. “I’m afraid it will be several restarts before you fully recover.”

“You do!” Zach exclaimed excitedly. “You do remember what happened before! Man, that is…” he suddenly halted, frowning. “But wait. Since when did you become aware of the restarts? You sound so casual about it, and you’re making complicated potions and… is this entire room made with alteration?”

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed, putting knife and the bronze pyramid aside for now so he could focus fully on Zach. “I restructured all the luxury furniture into something more useful. Tesen will no doubt be furious when he finds out, but then again… it’s not like either of us care about that man, right?”

“That… that isn’t the skill of Zorian I know,” Zach said, sounding horrified. “How long was I out? Don’t tell me I was sleeping for years!?”

“No, just a few months,” Zorian assured him.

“Oh, thank the gods,” Zach said, exhaling heavily.

Zorian couldn’t help it. He laughed.

“What?” Zach demanded.

“Why are you so relieved? Even if you were incapacitated for years, why does it matter? There is no getting off this wild ride. A few years here and there are irrelevant. You and me are here forever,” Zorian told him, mirth obvious in his voice.

“Don’t say that!” Zach told him. “There is a way out of here, I know it. We just…” He suddenly hesitated.

“We just have to stop the invasion?” Zorian finished for him, his smile widening.

The two of them kept staring at each other for a few seconds. Zach’s face was full of confusion, whereas Zorian initially looked cheerful but then gradually relaxed into an unreadable expression.

“I’m glad you’re here with me,” Zorian told him honestly, turning away from him in order to start carving glyphs into the surface of a nearby wooden board. “You, Jornak, and Quatach-Ichl are the only people I can truly talk to, and Jornak is honestly crazier than me in some ways.”

Which was quite an achievement, in Zorian’s opinion. Jornak had only been looking for a fraction of the time Zorian was. How did he get so bad in less than a hundred years?

He really wished Quatach-Ichl was also a looper. The ancient lich was a brutal opponent, but he was also surprisingly nice and insightful once you got to know him.

“I don’t understand,” Zach complained. “What the hell happened to you, Zorian?”

“It’s nothing,” Zorian tried to wave him off. He continued to carve glyphs, his mind constantly generating complicated spell formula blueprints in his head and supplying his with ideas. He rarely bothered with fixed designs anymore, preferring to adopt designs on the fly based on available materials and current needs. “Just relentless weathering of time, as our dear angelic friends would say. I’ve been doing this for way too long.”

“You said I was only out for a few months,” Zach said, frowning. “Stop being deliberately mysterious and start explaining things or I’ll punch you in the face. Don’t think a simple headache will stop me.”

“There is a second-order time loop,” Zorian told him bluntly. “Whenever we manage to escape the time loop, we are simply flung back at the beginning of the time loop. Well, the beginning of the time loop for me. Unlike this time loop, the second-order time loop seems centered on me instead.”

“What? But… I don’t remember…” Zach trained off. “Zorian, stop carving those stupid glyphs for a second and look at me when I’m talking to you! Are you saying there are parts of the time loop you remember, but I don’t?”

Zorian halted his work for a second, and then sighed. He threw the knife aside and looked at Zach again.

“I know you understand what I’m telling you, you just don’t want to accept it,” Zorian told him. “We lived through this entire time loop. We escaped. When the month was done, we were back here again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.”

“Why don’t I remember then?” Zach demanded.

“People need to escape the current time loop cycle in order to retain their soul and memories in the next one,” Zorian told him.

Unless those people are Zorian. Zorian would still end up flung back to the start of time loop, even if he refused to leave the time loop or flat out got ejected from it. He had completely erased his own marker multiple times, and it didn’t help.

“Anyway, since you didn’t exit the time loop, your memories didn’t transfer over to this cycle,” Zorian continued. “To you, this version of the time loop is everything. As for me, I have lived through this a great many times.” His eyes glazed as select few memories came flooding back. “A great… many times.”

“What happened to me?” Zach asked in surprise. “I mean, I’m not saying I’m invincible or anything but it’s still… I don’t know, I just don’t think I would lose, okay?”

“You didn’t lose,” Zorian told him. “You just didn’t want to do this anymore. It was your twelfth time loop and you were sick of it all.”

There was a second of silence as Zach silently processed that.

“Hey… you aren’t seriously suggesting I just gave up?” Zach demanded.

Zorian was silent for a few seconds, thinking about something. Eventually, he released a small sigh.

“At the end, your old self made me promise I would keep all this this secret from you. That I would let you experience the time loop ‘normally’ without this pointless burden,” Zorian told him. “As you can see, I am a liar and a cheat, and I made a mockery out of that promise immediately. In fact, I never intended to honor that promise to begin with.”

“That’s such a stupid thing to demand of someone!” Zach exclaimed. “I don’t know anything about this ‘old self’ of mine, and to be honest I’m still leaning towards you playing some kind of trick on me. But assuming this is all true… I’m glad you broke it. I wouldn’t have honored that promise if I was in your place, either.”

Zorian said nothing.

“We’re in this together, you hear me?” Zach assured him. “You and me are going to get to the bottom of this, no matter how long it takes. I don’t know about my previous self’s reasons, but I’m never going to quit on you.”

Zorian smiled at him sadly.

That was what the old Zach had told him too.

A note from nobody103

The idea of Zach and Zorian going back to the time loop immediately after the old one ends, deliberately or through some cosmic forces, is a frequent idea from my fans. Another common idea is that the ‘real world’ is actually a longer, second-order time loop, with a sort of hierarchy of time loops nested within each other.

This is inspired by both of those ideas. I initially wanted to put more emphasis on Zorian being a very warped person who is almost inhuman in his thinking and behavior, but there isn’t enough text and interactions with various people to truly convey that. Hopefully that still bleeds through. I also took this as an excuse to bring up a couple of ideas that were cut from MoL for being too overpowered and distracting, such as crude use of divine magic and fusing the consciousness of all simulacrums into a single collective entity.

Also, the Mother of Learning audiobook is now available for purchase! You can find it on the following link, so go check it out.

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