Chapter 016

We Need To Talk

Tearing out a piece of paper from one of his notebooks, Zorian wrote down a short message for Imaya, explaining that he had another of his divination lessons with Haslush and would thus be late today. He still didn't see what the big deal about being late was, but he really didn't want to argue about it.

Of course, writing the message was one thing and getting it to Imaya was another – he was at the Academy currently, and it was a long way from there to Imaya's place. He was pretty sure he had a solution, though. He had found plenty of spells for long range communication, and although not many were within his ability to cast or suitable for his purposes, one of the spell combinations seemed promising. Basically, he was going to make a paper airplane and animate it to fly under its own power. A simple locator spell should guide it towards Imaya. The method worked when he tested it with Kirielle, but that was over considerably smaller distances.

Undeterred by the somewhat experimental nature of his actions, he folded the piece of paper into a paper plane and cast his spells on it before flinging it out of the nearest window. It sailed away out of sight soon enough, tracking its target.

Well… classes were over, and the message sent. Time to find Haslush.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Zorian discovered Haslush had arranged their second meeting in another tavern. Of course. Undeterred, Zorian walked into the place and tried to ignore the stares of the other patrons as he scanned for Haslush among them.

Haslush wasn't there. Did Zorian find the right place or had Haslush simply decided not to show up? He did have a bit of trouble finding the place, since Haslush had given very vague directions to it, but Zorian was sure this was it. He was just about to leave the tavern to see if he had missed something when he realized it.

Something was wrong. He felt an almost unnatural desire to leave this place. If he hadn't spent the dozen or so restarts suffering through Kyron's 'resistance training' he probably wouldn't have noticed it, but there was a compulsion effect targeting him.

He pulled out his divination compass and murmured a quick locator spell, seeking out Haslush. The needle immediately pointed towards an unassuming brown-haired man in factory worker getup sitting in the left corner. Sighing, Zorian shuffled over to the man and sat on one of the chairs facing his table.

"Can I help you?" the man asked in a painfully scratchy voice, staring at Zorian with hollow, bloodshot eyes. Very creepy. Very uninviting.

Instead of answering, Zorian muttered a quick dispel. A wave of dispelling force rushed towards the man, disrupting the illusion. The creepy man melted away to show Haslush pouting at him like a little kid.

"I must say, I didn't expect that," Haslush said. "I figured you'd enter and leave the tavern at least three times before you figured it out. I dare say you just broke the betting pool – only two people voted for you getting it right away."

Out of the corner of his eye Zorian saw two of the bar patrons giving him a thumbs up.

"Can you drop the compulsion spell now?" Zorian sighed. "I don't think I'll be able to pay attention to you with this constantly hanging over my head all the time."

"Oh. Right," said Haslush, snapping his fingers. Zorian's head cleared immediately and the desire to bolt out of the tavern evaporated.

"So what exactly was the point of that?" Zorian asked.

"I wanted to see where your observation skills stand," Haslush said, taking a sip from his glass. "'Divination is one of the trickier magical disciplines, because failure is not obvious. You could perform a divination flawlessly and still get nothing out of it. You could mess it up totally and not even realize you did something wrong. Ask the wrong question, interpret the results incorrectly, or fail to take an important variable into account and it's all just wasted effort. Experience can help you minimize those kind of issues, but it helps to be naturally perceptive."

"I guess getting it right immediately means I scored really well?" Zorian tried.

"It means you're off to a good start," Haslush said. "We're not done yet."

And with that, Haslush reached out across the table and caught him by his wrist before he could pull him arm away. All sights and sounds around Zorian instantly disappeared, his surroundings replaced by an inky silent void. The only things he could still see and hear was his own body and Haslush, who seemed to be sitting on thin air, what with his chair being replaced by the same darkness that consumed everything else.

"Don't," Haslush warned when Zorian tried to wrench his hand free of Haslush's grasp. "It's a harmless spell, and it will disappear the moment we break skin contact. If it makes you feel any better, I'm suffering the same effects while it lasts."

"What's the point of this, then?" asked Zorian.

"How many people were present in the tavern when I used this spell on you?" Haslush said.

"What?" Zorian tried to look around him and immediately realized what the darkness was supposed to accomplish. "Oh. You want to see how much I noticed about the state of the tavern."

"How many people?" repeated Haslush.

Zorian wracked his brains for a moment. He did get a pretty good look at the patrons of the tavern when he was scanning them, trying to spot Haslush, but he never actually counted them. And its possible someone left the tavern while he was talking to Haslush without him noticing it.

"Twenty… three?" he tried.

"Close. How many trophies are lined up on the wall next to our table?"

Unfortunately, while Zorian had noticed the trophies he didn't give them more than a single glance. 15 more questions from Haslush in that vein, and Zorian was no longer feeling so confident about this. Haslush finally let go of his hand and the rest of the tavern immediately appeared again.

"Oh don't feel so down," Haslush said. "You're not half-bad, really. And honestly, I wouldn't have canceled our lessons just because you did badly in something like this. How are you standing with divination, anyway? Standard second year graduate or do you have something extra?"

"I know a bunch of library divinations and I have mastered the north finding shaping exercise," Zorian said.

"What, north finding exercise already?" asked Haslush in surprise. Personally, Zorian felt that exercise was very easy. "Well, there goes the homework I intended to give you after today's session. Anyway, today I'll teach you how to analyze objects."

He reached into the pockets of his long coat and placed a number objects on the table in front of them: a sealed envelope, an old pocket watch, a locked box, some kind of giant nut, a spell rod, and a fancy-looking glove.

"Analyzing objects is something I do a lot, so I figure it's a good thing to start with. Identifying what the object does, finding out who handled them last, what kind of magics and protections are placed on it… you could make an entire career out it, and some do," Haslush said. "I hear you're interested in a job at the spell forges so this is bound to be rather useful for you."

"So what do I do?" asked Zorian.

"Now I teach you the spells you'll need and you practice on these," Haslush said, pointing at the various objects on the table.

It was a very productive session after that, and it got Zorian thinking. Based on the man's various comments, Haslush was clearly somewhat high in Cyoria's police hierarchy. Maybe he could do something useful with the information about the invasion without tipping off the organizers? It might be worth dying once or twice to find out.

"I really must thank you mister Ikzeteri," Zorian said. "You are a lot better at this than I initially gave you credit for."

"It's fine," Haslush said. "I actively cultivate a somewhat unflattering façade. It helps people relax around me. So what are you trying to butter me up for, anyway?"

Zorian sighed. How should he put this then?

"Could you put some privacy wards first?" Zorian asked.

Haslush raised an eyebrow at the request but nodded in agreement soon afterwards. He quickly set up some sort of spells over their table and then waited expectantly. He would have to get the man to teach him some of those protective spells in one of the restarts.

"I have heard there is a plot to smuggle war trolls into the city during the summer festival, after bombarding the city with artillery magic during the fireworks launches," Zorian said.

Haslush immediately sat up straighter, so at least it seemed he wasn't going to get dismissed out of hand. Now he just had to make sure he doesn't get carted off to the police station.

"And I don't suppose you'll tell me where you heard that?" asked Haslush suspiciously.

"Can't," Zorian confirmed. "It seemed reliable to me, though."

"I see," Haslush sighed. He poured some more alcohol into his glass and took a sip. "I hate the summer festival, you know? Virtually all buildings have their warding schemes loosened while it lasts, the huge amount of visitors makes it hard to spot troublemakers in time, and the mayor and other bigheads want all sort of stupid things done in preparation of it. It's a perfect time for criminals and terrorists of all stripes to go wild in the city."

Huh. Zorian didn't actually know that until now.

"So how are these people going to smuggle in goddamn war trolls of all things, and what are they trying to accomplish?"

"Through the Dungeon," said Zorian. "As for the purpose, I honestly don't know."

"Anything else you can tell me?" Haslush asked.

"Not really, no."

"Then I have just one more question," Haslush said. "Why are you telling this to me, of all people?"

"There are some very high placed people involved in this, and I'm not sure who I can trust," Zorian said. "You seem like a fairly influential person who is unlikely to be involved. Also, I'm hoping you won't drag me off to a cell for questioning."

He didn't actually know whether high placed people were involved or not, of course, but he felt it was a good bet they were. He failed to see how an invasion of this kind of magnitude could be organized without the cooperation of some very influential person inside city administration.

"I'm tempted," Haslush admitted. "But all you'd really have to do is claim it was all a prank and I'd pretty much have to let you go. The mage guild was founded because mages didn't trust civilian law enforcement to judge them fairly, and they guard their privileges jealously. They would get you out within days and perform their own investigation. You'd get a slap on the wrist for being stupid and I'd spend the next year being punished by my bosses for falling for a childish trick and getting the mage guild angry at us."

"Um," Zorian fumbled. Haslush sounded more than a little bit bitter. He didn't know Cyoria's police force harbored such resentment towards the mage guild.

"It's fine," Haslush said. "I'm not angry at you. I guess I'll do some investigating and we'll talk more about it after our next session. You try finding out more from these mysterious sources of yours."

Zorian left the tavern in a good mood, though it was somewhat dampened by fear of assassins. Hopefully Haslush would be discreet in his investigation.

When he got to Imaya's place he was told by Imaya that she got his message, but she was still fairly unhappy with him – apparently the paper plane rammed straight into the back of her head when delivering his message, and that was dangerous. What if it had rammed into her face and poked out her eye?

Some people were never happy.

- break -

The house was calm, the only two occupants currently present being Zorian and Kirielle… and thankfully, Kirielle was amusing herself with doodling into her notebook instead of pestering him. That was good, because trying to levitate a snail, like Zorian was currently doing, was not at all easy. Not only was the snail alive, and thus inherently resistant to magic, but it was also actively fighting the levitation effect, twisting and bending in the air in an attempt to break free of the unseen force holding it aloft.

He was cheating a little – he was actually levitating the shell, which was largely immobile and much more solid than the actual snail. The real test of skill would be levitating a slug or something, but… well, he was having enough trouble with the damn snail at the moment.

"Poor snail," Kirielle remarked from the sidelines. "Why don't you let this one go and find another one to torture. It's going to end up traumatized if you keep this up."

"I'm not torturing it," Zorian protested, trying to split his attention between holding the snail in the air and talking with Kirielle. "It's completely unharmed. I'm not even sure if snail brains are complex enough to be traumatized. The damn thing is as enthusiastic about escaping as it was when I started this."

Kirielle looked as if she was about to argue but then just grunted and melted back into her chair.

"Where is he?" she said after a minute of silence.

"I don't know, Kiri," sighed Zorian. "Be patient. He isn't even late yet."

"Maybe we should start without him?" she tried.

"No we should not!" snapped Zorian. The snail wobbled in the air, it's eyestalks swinging wildly as it sensed its bonds weakening and redoubled its efforts. "Honestly Kiri, you can be so callous sometimes. The only reason I'm even doing this is because Kael asked me to. You should be thanking him for letting you participate."

"You're the one to talk about callousness," Kirielle grumbled. "You'd rather help a stranger you met a week ago than your own little sister. And I am grateful, I just-"

"Then be nice and wait." Zorian interrupted her, slowly lowering the snail into his hand. He clearly wasn't going to get any more work done today. "He'll be here soon enough. If you want something to do, go release the snail back into the garden."

"What? No way!"

Zorian raised an eyebrow. "Weren't you just advocating its freedom?"

"Well yeah, but I'm not gonna touch it or anything. It's slimy and disgusting and eww."

Zorian rolled his eyes and put the snail into a small box by his side. He would release it outside later. A sound of door opening signaled Kael's arrival.

"I'm here," Kael said. "I'm not late, I hope?"

"How did you know he was coming?" Kirielle asked suspiciously, turning to Zorian.

"Alarm spells," Zorian said dismissively. "And no Kael, you're not late. Though Kirielle was impatient like usual. Anyway, you said you need my help to catch up to 3rd year curriculum, right? Which part do you need help with?"

"I really don't know," Kael said. "As I said, my education was somewhat spotty so even though I know a lot of things, there are things that formally trained mages take for granted that I'm not even aware of. Why don't you give me a brief overview of your first two years and we'll see where to go from there? Ilsa said she will test me three months from now, so there is plenty of time to work with."

Zorian gave his sister a knowing look, but she was avoiding his eyes. He was sure that Kael knew exactly where he was deficient knowledge-wise, but Kiri had probably asked him to play along for her, being largely ignorant about magic herself. He really didn't know why she was so adamant to learn magic Right Now, as opposed to later, in a proper school environment.

Honestly, as much as he cared for his sister and liked Kael, he probably wouldn't be taking Kirielle with him to Cyoria too often. He spent most of his time in the house dealing with Kirielle, Imaya or Kael (and occasionally Kana), leaving little time for his personal self study. Relatively speaking, of course – Kirielle already complained he spent too much time studying and not enough having fun or paying attention to her.

But all things considered, he could take it easy every once in a while. He could set aside a few hours on helping Kael study for his test, even if he would never actually live to take it during the time loop, and if Kirielle wants to listen in then so what?

He gave them both a brief explanation of the first two years in the academy. Magic wise, most of the first year was spent on teaching students how to consciously and consistently draw on their magical core, mostly by making them activate various magical objects. There was even a first year class called 'Operation of Magic Items', which was exactly what it said in the title. They also worked on their memorization by doing increasingly complex strings of gestures and chants shown to them by teachers, a practice for later study of invocations. The rest was theory: introductions to various magical traditions and disciplines, learning how to understand the basics of Ikosian language, biology, history, geography, law and mathematics. Not all of it was strictly related to magic, but- wait, who's that?

"We'll have to postpone that for the moment," he said, looking at the door. "Someone is-"

Before he could say anything, the door slammed open and Taiven barged into his room in her usual aggressive manner. She scanned the room quickly and immediately stalked towards him when she noticed him.

"…coming here." He finished with a long-suffering sigh.

"Roach!" she exclaimed excitedly. "You're just the man I… wait, am I interrupting something?"

"Yes?" Zorian tried.

"Never mind, it will only take a minute." She shoved a newspaper into his face. "Did you see this?"

He sighed and snatched the newspapers out of her hand so he could put them on the table. There, now he could actually see what she was taking about. Let's see…

Academy Student Kills Oganj!

Yesterday morning Zach Noveda shocked the world when he announced in front of gathered reporters that he had slain Oganj, the feared dragon that had terrorized northern Altazia for more than a century. Naturally, such a bold claim requires suitable proof, and the young Noveda heir had certainly delivered when he summoned the dragon's corpse for inspection. Alliance officials invited in for the occasion have confirmed the body almost certainly belongs to the infamous Terror of the North, although further examination is necessary before they are willing to present Zach with the promised bounty for killing the beast…

Zorian read the article in stony silence. He was dimly aware of Kirielle and Kael staring over his shoulder so they could see what had captivated his attention like that, but he didn't let that distract him.

Was this the reason for all those short restarts? Because Zach wanted to kill a dragon? Zorian wasn't sure what to think about that. On one hand, the mage dragon was a menace, and killing him was an impressive feat. On the other hand, it seemed like a waste of time and effort – what did Zach really gain from this, other than combat experience? Dragon magics were of no use to humans, and Zach was already so rich that he wouldn't gain much from Oganj's hoard.

Whatever game Zach was playing, Zorian couldn't figure it out. Or did the other time traveler just do whatever popped into his head at any particular moment?

"Hey Roach, you went to class with this guy, right?" Taiven prodded after a while.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "He was supposed to be in my class this year too, but failed to show up when the classes started."

"He ran away from home," Taiven said. "There was a recent scandal about that a week ago. They asked him about it in the article but he kind of dodged the question there."

Zorian nodded. Zach simply told the reporters he had 'a great number of disagreements with his former guardian' and refused to elaborate. There was an interesting story in there, Zorian was sure, but if the newspapers haven't managed to dig something up on the whole thing then Zorian definitely wasn't going to accomplish much by poking his nose where it didn't belong.

Zach also told the newspapers he intends to go back to school 'for a few months' when he was prompted for his immediate plans. Great. He would have to lay low during the next few restarts, until Zach got tired of the academy again.

"Isn't Oganj the dragon that annihilated an army sent to kill him?" Kirielle asked. "Or was that mother just trying to scare me?"

"A small army, and Oganj lured it into a trap," Kael said. "The general seemed to think Oganj would wait in his lair while the army approached. He instead decided to do something about it before it reached him. He carved exploding runes into the walls of a canyon and lured the army inside. The only reason anyone survived is that some of the mages teleported out before the whole thing collapsed on top of them."

"And I heard he killed two of the Immortal Eleven, too," Taiven said. "So how the hell did this Zach guy kill the thing?" Taiven said. "Is he some kind of legend or what? Why didn't you tell me you had that kind of guy in your class?"

Zorian sighed. What the hell was he supposed to tell her?

"Let me put it like this," he said carefully. "During the first two years, Zach had trouble with just about everything. He was such a poor mage that people weren't sure if he would pass his certification, and you know how easy that thing is."

"That… doesn't make sense," Taiven said. "Even if the whole killing Oganj thing is a trick of some sort, he still summoned a corpse of a fully grown dragon. Even I can't summon something that big yet."

"I guess everything changed during the school break," Zorian shrugged. "Somehow he went from a borderline failure to amazing genius between year 2 and three."

"That's totally ridiculous," Taiven huffed. "How would that even work?"

"Time travel?" suggested Zorian shamelessly.

"Like I said, ridiculous," Taiven countered immediately. "Are you sure he wasn't faking incompetence?"

"I'm not sure of anything, Taiven," Zorian said. And he really wasn't – even after a whole year of being trapped inside the time loop he still felt the entire situation was all kinds of crazy. "And the few things I do know are so insane you wouldn't believe a word of it."

"Oh, now I just have to hear them," said Taiven, crossing her arms in front of her chest defiantly. "Go on, just try me."

"Tell, tell!" agreed Kirielle. Kael didn't say anything, but Zorian could tell he was curious as well.

Hm. He could tell them about the time loop, but even if they believed him, what would that accomplish? They were no more qualified to solve this mystery than he was, and if they went around telling that story to people they could blow his cover to Zach or possible third parties. Then again, he already told Haslush about the invasion, so he was already playing with fire in this restart…

Oh to hell with it, as if they'd ever believe him anyway.

"If I told you that Zach and I are time travelers perpetually reliving this first month of school, and that a giant army of monsters and hostile mages invades the city during the summer festival, what would you say?"

Taiven raised her eyebrow at him.

"Well, go on," Zorian prompted.

"You're right," Taiven sighed. "I don't believe a word of it. So you're saying the things you know are that insane?"

"At the very least," Zorian confirmed.

"Huh," Taiven said speculatively. "Sounds interesting, but you'll have to tell me those stories some other time. I kept you long enough, I think. See you around, Roach!"

Zorian watched as Taiven left before turning back to Kael and Kirielle. "So. Shall we continue where we left off?"

They both remained silent, staring at him.

"Um," he said. "Why are you staring at me like that?"

"Is it true?" Kirielle asked fearfully. "Are you really a time traveler?"

Zorian opened his mouth and closed it again. What?

"Your friend may be too oblivious to recognize an answer couched as a hypothetical, but we're not," Kael elaborated. "You really do believe that, don't you? That you're a time traveler?"

"I… yes. If it's a delusion, it's a very convincing one," Zorian said carefully. "The magics I learn in each iteration of this month transfer over into the next one. Insanity doesn't give the victim spells and shaping skills."

"I don't understand," Kirielle complained.

"You and me both, Kiri," Zorian sighed. "You and me both."

"Perhaps you should explain from the start?" Kael suggested patiently. "Tell us what you do understand."

"I lived through this month before," Zorian said after taking a moment to collect his thoughts. "The first time, before I knew about the time loop, I did not bring Kirielle with me to Cyoria."

"What!?" protested Kirielle. "Zorian, you jerk!"

"I lived in one of the academy-provided apartments and I went to classes like normal," said Zorian, ignoring her. He glanced at Kael. "You did too, but I didn't know you then. However, we had an extra classmate."

"Zach?" Kael guessed.

"Yes," Zorian confirmed. "Unlike the previous two years I shared a class with him, this time he was amazing. He solved every test perfectly, he had mastered hundreds of spells and he was good enough at alchemy to impress you, of all people."

Kael raised his eyebrow at him.

"Yes," Zorian assured. "It was like he was completely transformed during the summer break. At the time I didn't care very much – I was curious as to how he accomplished it, but it was not my business to pry. And then the summer festival came, and everything went to hell. Artillery spells descended from the sky on the city, and an army of monsters followed in their wake. As I was running through the burning city, I witnessed Zach fighting the invaders. He was throwing high-level spells as if they were candy, fighting with a skill that no third year student could possibly possess. He fared pretty well at first, but then a lich arrived at the scene and demolished him."

He paused for a moment to consider his next words, but Kirielle evidently didn't want to wait that long.

"And then what?" Kirielle asked. "What happened next?"

"What else?" Zorian scoffed. "We died. The lich cast some kind of weird spell at us – a necromantic spell, I am told – and we were instantly killed."

"So how did you go back in time then?" asked Kirielle suspiciously.

"I have no idea. All I know is that I was suddenly back in my bed in Cyoria, with you wishing me a good morning in that uniquely charming Kirielle way. At first I thought this was something the lich did, but I would soon find out this was not an isolated occurrence. Every time I die, or at the end of the Summer festival if I don't, my soul is transported back to that morning in Cirin before I take a train to Cyoria."

They stared at him for a few seconds, and Zorian was already becoming certain they would suddenly start laughing and mocking him when Kirielle decided to speak again.

"So you are a time traveler, but you can only go one month into the past and only until one specific day," said Kirielle carefully. Zorian nodded. She understood that a lot better than Zorian had thought she would. "And you don't control any of it, except by deliberately killing yourself."

"Yes," Zorian confirmed.

"You are the lamest time traveler ever," Kirielle opinioned.

And just like that the tension was broken.

- break -

It had been three days since he had told Kirielle and Kael about the time loop and he was honestly a little bit disappointed by their reactions. They both seemed to believe him, but neither was terribly affected. Both of them were still asking him questions about it whenever they could catch him alone, and he knew Kael was researching the topic in his free time, but they continued to go about their business as if nothing was wrong. They weren't even giving him weird glances when they thought he wasn't looking or anything!

"I told you already, I've only been in the time loop for little over a year," Zorian told Kirielle. "I'm not even close to all-knowing and I can't answer these questions you keep asking me."

"I can't believe you've been going to school all this time," Kirielle grumbled. "I'd have quit after the second time."

"You'd have ended up mind wiped or slaved to Zach in a heartbeat," Zorian retorted. "There is a reason I'm doing this slowly and carefully."

A gentle knock on his door stopped their argument short. Zorian was a bit paranoid about visitors ever since he had told Haslush about the invasion, and telling Kael and Kirielle about it only increased that. Even though he had told Kael and Kirielle not to spread the 'festival invasion' part of the revelation to other people, he could never be sure if they had listened to him. Especially not Kirielle. He kept expecting assassins to barge into the house any day now, but his paranoia had thankfully been groundless so far. Since only Kael knocked so lightly, Zorian had a pretty good idea who it was.

"Come in," Zorian invited.

Instead of coming in, however, Kael remained standing in the doorway.

"We need to talk," Kael said, a hint of nervousness in his voice. "Can you come into my room for a moment?"

"Is it about time travel?" Kirielle said excitedly.

Kael sighed. "Kirielle, I know you won't like this, but can you stay in your room while I talk to your brother? It's related to time travel, but it's a bit… private."

For a moment it looked like Kirielle was going to complain, but then she shot him a speculative look and nodded in assent. As he watched her leave back to her room, grumbling all the way, Zorian had to admit he was a little jealous of Kael's ability to control Kirielle. She never listened to him when he tried that sort of thing.

Shrugging, Zorian followed Kael into his room, where the morlock boy promptly dragged a chest from under his bed and retrieved a mysterious black book with no title out of it.

"I've been looking into your… problem… the last few days," Kael said. "I may have found something."

"You did?" Zorian asked excitedly.

Kael opened the book he was carrying and leafed through for a few seconds before he found what he was looking for. He handed the open book to him and pointed at the page.

"Based on the chant you memorized from the lich, and everything else you told me, I think this is the most likely spell he used," Kael said.

"Soul Meld," Zorian read aloud. "Requires at least two targets. Causes target souls to merge and blend into one. Typically used as a component in more complicated rituals, which heavily modify the effects. If the spell is used in isolation, the resulting entity is virtually always rendered insane or otherwise defective from the stress of the merger. Commonly used in… creation of familiar bonds, and soul bonds in general…"

That definitely sounded like a likely candidate for the spell, but where on earth had Kael found this? Frowning, Zorian leafed through the rest of the book. It was full of soul magic spells, and much of it was written in several unknown scripts that Zorian couldn't read. This… wasn't the sort of thing you could find in the Academy library, least of all with just a student clearance.

Which meant this was probably Kael's personal book.

"Kael… are you a necromancer?" asked Zorian carefully.

"A difficult question," Kael answered after a short pause. "I do not enslave the dead, or curse people. There is more to soul magic than that, though."

Well this was just great – he told his secret to one of the few people who could actually do something to put him down permanently. And he was scolding Kirielle about being reckless just a few minutes ago, too. He really was a giant idiot sometimes.

But hey, what's done is done, and at least Kael didn't seem very hostile at the moment. If anything, the other boy seemed to be more afraid of Zorian than the other way around.

"I won't report you, if that's what you're worried about," Zorian said. Partially because he was deathly afraid of what the other boy would do to him if he tried. A necromancer, of all things… "You agreed to keep quiet about my secret, so it would be hypocritical of me to betray yours without reason. Still, necromancy? Err, I mean, soul magic?"

Kael gave him a weak smile. "It's an interesting discipline, if unfairly judged. My teacher had an interest in it and I wanted to continue the tradition."

Tradition, right. Zorian thought about pressing the matter further, but decided against it. Mistake or not, he could at least get some benefit out of this – he just met a decent-seeming necromancer willing to answer his questions. How often does that happen?

"So if the lich performed a soul meld on me, why am I still… well, me?" Zorian asked. "As I understand it, a spell like that would have fused my soul with Zach's completely. We would both cease to exist as individual people."

"Well, I must admit I am not an expert on soul magic by any means," said Kael. "My primary strengths are alchemy and medicine, with soul magic being merely a side interest. That said, I assume the spell was simply stopped before it could complete the effect. It's entirely possible Zach committed suicide when he realized his soul was being targeted."

"It would have been a sensible course of action in his case," Zorian agreed. "Though he didn't exactly give me the impression that he was aware of the danger when I talked to him. I suppose it could have been the amnesia playing tricks on him."

"Or he may have a contingency spell placed on him, set to kill him if it detects unauthorized tampering of his soul. You already said he may not be the originator of the time loop. Whoever placed the magic on him was doubtlessly aware of the danger, as the time loop you are trapped in is clearly a work of a skilled soul mage."

"Right. So since the spell was only allowed to work its magic for a moment, we were spared of the worst effect," Zorian mused. "And I ended up with some kind of a soul bond that drags me along for the ride. Possibly. There was obviously some soul melding involved, in any case. Can you find out what the spell actually did?"

"Maybe," Kael said slowly. "Although this would involve spells. Soul magic spells, to be more precise. Are you sure you want to trust an evil, slimy necromancer with this?"

"Yes," confirmed Zorian, rolling his eyes at Kael's dramatics. Maybe it wasn't the smartest thing to agree to, but he was honestly desperate for some answers and he was getting an honest feeling from Kael. He was usually a good judge of character. "It is true that I am leery of soul magic, but that doesn't mean I automatically hate you now. Go ahead and cast whatever spells you need."

After 15 minutes of mysterious spellcasting (which had no visible effect on him, and didn't even give him an uncomfortable feeling), Kael was forced to admit he didn't get much. The only thing the other boy could tell him was that he definitively didn't have a classical soul bond with Zach – if he was connected to the other time traveler, it was through something more exotic and subtle than that.

"I'm sorry," Kael said. "I thought soul magic as grand as this would be blatantly obvious but I guess I was wrong. Maybe if I tried it on Zach…?"

"There is no way to perform an examination on him without telling him the truth," Zorian said. "I'm not sure I want to do that yet."

"Of course," Kael said. "Although I'm not sure what else I can do. I'd have to be a vastly better soul mage to help you with this, and if you're right I just don't have the time to become one. Even if you convinced me of all this right at the start of the time loop – and I'm not sure you could do that so soon, before I have gotten to know you a little – one month is not enough to get anywhere in a field like soul magic."

"Uh," fumbled Zorian after a few seconds of silence. "Maybe you could teach me soul magic?"

"You would be willing to do that?" Kael asked in mild amusement.

"You said there is more to soul magic than cursing people and enslaving the dead," Zorian said. "And I really do need answers that only soul magic can provide."

Also, if he learned soul magic personally he would no longer have to trust strangers to mess around with his soul. If someone had to cast soul magic, he'd rather it were him.

"Though I'm flattered you are willing to set aside your prejudices, the truth is you would never be good enough for what you want to do with it," Kael said. "Although most soul magic can be performed by normal wizards like you, the really sophisticated spells require a certain amount of soul perception – a skill that can only be gained by drinking a special potion made from a properly harvested dirge moth chrysalis."

"And is the potion rare?"

"Dirge moths spend most of their lives in the ground," Kael said. "For 23 years they live their lives as a larvae before emerging from the soil en masse as swarms of poisonous dirge moths. The moths live for exactly one day before laying their eggs and dying. In case you're curious, the last emergence of the moth swarms was less than a decade ago."

"There will be no dirge moth chrysalises for at least another decade," realized Zorian.

Kael nodded. "And the potion requires a fresh chrysalis – they cannot be preserved."

"And there is no other way to gain soul perception?"

"Maybe there is, but I only know of this one," Kael said. "There are some rituals involving human sacrifice that claim to provide the same benefit to the mage, but I have never tried them and I suspect you would not want to either."

"Definitely not," Zorian agreed.

After a few more minutes of discussion Zorian left Kael's room, lost in thoughts.

He wasn't quite willing to give up on the idea of learning soul magic, but he had more than enough on his plate right now so he wouldn't push it. There were plenty of other restarts in which to try that later.

The moment he had entered the room and closed the door behind him he felt a very familiar touch on his mind. It was not unlike the time he had ventured with Taiven into the sewers, yet a lot more subtle and less alien, like cobwebs brushing against the edges of his thoughts.

He immediately panicked, his eyes swinging from one corner of the room to another in search of his assailant while he tried to mentally block the presence from his mind. Despite his practice with Kyron, he found himself unable to do so.

[So you are Open?] a clear, confident voice resonated through his mind. Unlike the last time, there was no pain or confusing images involved… but that was somehow even more terrifying. In his last encounter, his opponent was obviously unused to dealing with humans. This one knew exactly what it was doing. [Interesting. You have met one of us before? This will be easier than I thought then.]

There! Did the shadows in that corner move? He was about to cast a magic missile at the spot when his whole body suddenly froze and refused to listen to him.

A dark shadow suddenly jumped from the patch of darkness in the corner of his room and landed on his bed – right in front of him. It was a spider, like he suspected, but it looked nothing like what he expected. The spider was relatively small for a giant spider breed, no bigger than Zorian's chest, and a lot more compact than the spindly, long-legged varieties that people usually associated with spiders. Wracking his brain, Zorian identified it as a type of jumping spider.

As the creature turned around to face him, Zorian suddenly found himself staring at a pair of giant, solid black eyes that gave the spider a surprisingly human-like face. There was another pair of smaller eyes on its 'forehead', for the lack of a better word, but the two big ones kept drawing Zorian's attention. The other thing he noticed, of course, was a pair of giant fangs that looked like they could pierce his skull with ease.

[Greetings, Zorian Kazinski,] the spider spoke telepathically. [I have been wanting to meet you for a while now. You and I need to have a long, looong talk…]