Chapter 017

Sympathy for the Spider

For a moment, silence reigned (both literal and mental), as Zorian stared into the unblinking eyes of his adversary. Zorian wasn't one of those people who had a phobia of spiders, but it was hard not to be intimidated by a creature that could read your thoughts and have you completely at its mercy due to induced paralysis. He couldn't even try to physically overpower the effect, since the paralysis was a purely mental one – he was quite literally locked out of control of his own body.

The situation wasn't completely hopeless. As a mage, Zorian was resistant to mind reading almost by default. The ability to clear away stray thoughts and emotions, and otherwise discipline their mind, was a must for any aspiring mage. That said, controlling your thoughts for long periods of time was tiresome. It was only a matter of time until a stray thought escaped him and he slipped… an important secret to the blasted spider. And resistance to mind reading would do him no good if the creature grew frustrated with his resistance and decided to take a metaphorical sledgehammer to his mind.

In the end, the spider decided to speak first. Or rather, communicate telepathically to him first, as that appeared to be its only method of talking to him. It made sense, really – the spider had no recognizable mouth from which to speak out of.

[You're untrained,] the spider opinioned. [It's a pity. I would have loved to trade techniques with a human psychic. I suppose it's to be expected, though, considering the unhealthy attitude towards mind magic your species has.]

…What?

[Why the confusion? You cannot possibly be ignorant of the Gift,] the spider said, torn between bafflement and amusement at the thought. [See, right there! You just sensed my emotions. What do you think that is, if not empathy?]

Zorian's brain froze for a moment. Him, an empath? That… that was ridiculous! He was neither social nor pleasant enough to be empathic!

[What a strange chain of thought,] the spider mused. [Aranea like me are all Open, yet there are plenty of loners and unpleasant individuals among us. I'm sad to say that some even use their empathy to purposely promote discord within the Web.]

Zorian's mind was momentarily aflame with possibilities before he forcibly reigned himself in and shoved those trains of thought into the back of his mind. Focus! This was a horrible time for getting distracted. He had a far more serious issue to think about.

[You must be mistaken,] Zorian thought back, knowing that the spider would pick up on his thought. [It's far more likely you accidentally attached some of your emotions to the telepathic message you sent me.]

[There is no need to be insulting,] the spider immediately sent back. [I am an aranea matriarch. If I had attached something other than speech to our communication, it wouldn't have been by accident. But never mind – if you want to deny the obvious truth of your empathic abilities, I'll play along for now. What I want to know is what your quarrel is with my Web. As far as I know we've never done anything to you, so I'm baffled as to why you felt the need to sic the enforcers at us.]

What was she- Oh. The warning he gave Taiven to watch out for telepathic spiders and the subsequent search for the creatures by the enforcers. Right. Of all the things he had been worried about during this past week, having the spiders track him down for setting enforcers at them had never even entered his mind. Funny how these things worked…

[I'm not sure if you'll believe me, but I never intended to send the enforcers after you,] Zorian sent. [All I did was warn a friend to watch out for you when she went to the sewers. It all seems to have spiraled away from there.]

[Why wouldn't I believe you? I am literally reading your mind as we speak,] the spider noted. [But that still doesn't explain how you even knew about us. We tend to be a tad secretive. Or, for that matter, why you felt the need to warn your friend to watch out for us, since we don't really attack humans without provocation.]

Well crap. How can he possibly explain that without revealing anything sensitive?

[I suppose this is something related to this time loop you're trapped in, then?] the spider asked innocently.

Zorian would have grit his teeth if he could. Damn it, how!? He pointedly didn't think about that!

[Your ability to control your train of thought is fairly impressive for an amateur, but it is a form of mental defense that only works if you know your mind is being read. I observed you and your group for quite a while before I executed this ambush. And while you are Open, and thus hard to read covertly, your friend and sister are virtually defenseless against my powers. They didn't even notice while I was trawling through their memories, much less when I skimmed their surface thoughts.]

Zorian felt like slapping himself for such an obvious oversight. Of course sharing his secrets with the likes of Kirielle would come back to haunt him – a secret is only as secure as its weakest link. He considered the situation for a moment before giving a mental sigh. It was hopeless. The spider had completely outmaneuvered him, and currently had him over the barrel. The creature seemed reasonable enough, but he would have almost preferred that it was murderous – he could recover from death easily enough, but the things a skilled mind mage could do to him would linger with him on subsequent restarts.

[Your insistence on viewing me as an uncompromising threat despite no hostile moves on my part is honestly getting rather tiresome,] the spider sent, and Zorian detected a distinct note of annoyance in her bearing. Zorian idly wondered how the esteemed matriarch would describe her current ambush and her gross violation of his friends' privacy if not as hostile. [I came here to talk, not fight. The enforcers hadn't even managed to track us down, much less dispatch any of us, so there is no reason for hard feelings on my part. This isn't a revenge run – it's an attempt to defuse a situation before it spirals out of control. I know our kind looks frightening to your eyes, but please stop thinking of me as some slavering beast out to eat you or some sadist intending to torture you into insanity for absolutely no reason. We're no worse than humans, really.]

[I'm not sure that sets me at ease. Humans can be pretty horrible,] Zorian noted. [But I see your point. So what now? The enforcers will get tired of their search quickly enough and leave you alone, and I have no intention of taking any further action against you and your… Web. Problem solved, then?]

[Well yes,] the spider agreed. [But in the process of confronting you I found something a hundred times more interesting than a human kid with a grudge. You don't really think I'm going to just ignore the whole time loop business, do you?]

[I was kind of hoping you would, actually,] admitted Zorian. [It's not really your concern-]

[Oh, I beg to differ,] the spider interjected. [I just found out I'm being effectively memory wiped in regular intervals. I am greatly concerned.]

Zorian wracked his brain for a response that could dissuade her from getting involved but gave up after a couple of seconds. He was getting an impression of resolve and stubbornness from the spider, and had a feeling all of the arguments he could marshal were doomed to fall on deaf ears. He didn't know how he could read a giant spider's body language, but apparently he could. Maybe there was something to her claim of him being empathic.

[Look,] Zorian tried, [if we're going to have a serious conversation about this I would really appreciate if you released me from paralysis. This is very uncomfortable and I'd be a lot friendlier if I weren't frozen like this.]

[I don't trust you that much,] the spider told him bluntly. [All you have to do is scream and things could get uncomfortably messy.]

[I'm not going to do that,] Zorian assured. [That would just put my sister and friends in danger. I'm sure you could handle anything anyone in this house could throw at you.]

[Well I'm not. I've lived too long to underestimate mages,] the spider said. [Tell you what, though. Why don't I simply let you go for now and leave? Later, when you calm down a little, you can descend into the city tunnels and track me down for a nice friendly chat in neutral territory where we both feel a lot safer.]

That… sounded like a great idea, actually. Well, except for the question of why-

[Why would you bother tracking me down when you can just pretend this never happened and ignore my existence entirely?] the spider surmised. [Well for one thing, I can tell you're interested in what I mean by you being Open, no matter how hard you try to hide it. You will never get a satisfactory answer unless you seek me out. Secondly, there is a reason why I accepted the idea that you're trapped in a time loop without dismissing you as crazy. I have important clues that could help you solve this puzzle and break out of the loop, but I'm not sharing them until I get something in return. I'm sure we can agree on a fair price. And finally, working with me isn't just going to be an unnecessary chore like you seem to think. I am a leader of a shadowy group of mind reading spiders that have their feelers throughout the entire city – surely you can see how a group like that could be useful in making sense of this event?]

Zorian swallowed heavily as he finally realized the seriousness of the situation he was dealing with. Her group was that big and organized? He knew the spider before him was a representative of a larger group since she introduced herself as an 'aranea matriarch', but he thought it was just a loose pack consisting of a dozen spiders or so at best. Suddenly the pitch black eyes staring at him seemed a lot more threatening than they were just a moment ago. Gods, what had he gotten himself into?

[I'm glad we were finally able to understand one another, Zorian Kazinski. Rest now, and we will talk when you're less tense.]

Zorian suddenly felt a smothering blanket of telepathic force press itself against gently but firmly against his mind. He tried to resist, but the mental attack seemed to ignore his mental defenses entirely. Despite valiant efforts, Zorian soon blacked out. When he woke up a few minutes later, he was alone in the room and there was no trace of giant spider anywhere in the house.

- break -

Afterwards, Zorian thought long and hard about the matriarch's 'offer' and ultimately decided he really didn't have much choice. He somehow doubted she would patiently wait for him if he ignored her for too long, and raising a fuss about her actions would attract unwanted sort of attention to him and might cause the matriarch to retaliate out of spite. And since she knew about the time loop, she was bound to pick something that would haunt him beyond the confines of this particular restart. Of course, there was also the fact that some of the things she said during their brief exchange interested him greatly. The potential benefits of hashing out a deal with her were simply too great to ignore.

That said, he had absolutely no intention of rushing to the damn spider at the earliest opportunity – that would just make him seem desperate. Let her wait for a while. It was a good idea to do some preparations before confronting the matriarch, anyway.

First of all, he needed to know more about these 'aranea' he would be meeting with. His previous searches for information about the spiders left him empty handed, but now he was armed with an actual name of the species and his search was much more successful. He found plenty of descriptions, though they were of much poorer quality than he had hoped. Apparently aranea were considered semi-mythical due to their rarity and there were many conflicting reports circulating about them. Everyone agreed they were sentient and magical in nature, but from there the details diverged wildly. Depending on the author, all sort of powers were attributed to them, from the ability to assume human form to the ability to manipulate shadows and other, crazier abilities. Zorian could see three possible explanations for this. One, the aranea had a dizzying amount of subspecies, all with a wildly different appearance and abilities. Two, the authors were making stuff up. And three, the aranea were mages in the human sense, armed with a flexible spellcasting system capable of producing a wide variety of effects. Knowing Zorian's luck, it was definitely number three – the most worrying of possibilities. A group of one-trick ponies limited to mind magic was a dangerous foe, but one that could be countered with enough preparation. A group of mages utilizing a completely novel spellcasting system whose limitations he was unfamiliar with? That was practically the definition of unpredictability.

Still, the aranea he had met never gave any indication of knowing any magic beyond the mind-based one, so maybe this group specialized in the field or something. Having a way to deal with their mind affecting abilities was certainly a must before going off to confront them. One of the books also suggested aranea were vulnerable to light-based attacks, being nocturnal in nature and lacking eyelids. It sounded plausible to Zorian, and he was pretty sure his spell formula skills were sufficient to cobble together some flash grenades. A few more general defensive measures and he should be set. Well, as set as a mage of his own caliber and resources could possibly be – it wasn't much, but it would hopefully buy him enough time to flee if things turn sour.

The other thing he was trying to puzzle out was the matriarch's claim that he was an empath. The idea seemed so wrong to him. The stories he'd heard about empaths painted an image of a compassionate, sociable person possessing great wisdom, respect for tradition, and lots of friends. Zorian didn't really fit this mold. Did that prove anything, though? Empaths were so rare – among humans, at any rate – that any sort of 'fact' about them was suspect. As strange as it may sound, he rated the opinion of a giant telepathic spider higher than those of human authors. If he really was an empath, however, why didn't he… well, know it? You'd think the ability to sense other people's emotions would be very obvious. He supposed it was possible that his abilities were too weak and erratic to manifest themselves in an unambiguous fashion. Which raised the question - how to discern the truth, then?

Fortunately, empathy wasn't a particularly sensitive topic so nothing stopped him from asking Ilsa or other teachers for help and information. Before he did that, however, he decided to try looking for help closer to home. He had noticed their landlord had an interest in esoteric branches of magic, even though she wasn't a mage herself. She had enough books in her house to stock a small library. It wouldn't hurt to ask, he supposed, and Imaya was a lot more approachable than anyone else he could reach.

He approached her while she was washing the dishes one evening.

"Miss Kuroshka, could you spare a minute?" he asked. "I'd like to talk to you about something."

"I told you to call me Imaya," she said, halting her task long enough to give him a mild glare. "And of course I can talk to you, but I have to finish this first. Pull up a chair and wait till I'm done."

Instead of doing that, however, Zorian moved to help her with her task. She'd be done quicker with him helping her out, and it was a cheap way to score some points with her before asking for help. She seemed momentarily surprised by his gesture, but recovered her composure quickly and continued on as if his action was totally expected.

Once they were done Imaya sat down at the kitchen table and motioned for Zorian to join her.

"So…" she began. "What exactly is weighing so heavily on the mind of my grumpiest tenant that he would come to me for counsel? The way you've been avoiding me this whole time, I almost thought you hated me."

"I don't hate you, miss K… uh, Imaya," finished Zorian, correcting himself after seeing her cross look. "I've just been pretty busy, that's all. Kirielle kind of monopolizes all of my free time here."

"She is quite a handful, isn't she?" Imaya said speculatively. "Still, I can't see what a busy boy like you would want from me. You aren't trying to seduce me, are you?"

"What!? No!" sputtered Zorian. She was at least twice Zorian's age, for heaven's sake! "I am not-"

He stopped himself when he saw the barely restrained mirth emanating from Imaya.

"Very funny, miss Kuroshka," he deadpanned, deliberately not calling her 'Imaya' to spite her. "Very, very funny…"

"It was from my perspective," Imaya said, laughter dancing in her voice. "But I can see you don't take jokes at your expense too well, so let's just move onto the reason you sought me out."

"Well…" started Zorian, pointedly ignoring her remark about him being too sensitive about jokes. "It's actually magic related. I noticed you have a lot of books about esoteric magic in your home."

"It's a hobby of mine," Imaya said. "I always did have an interest in magic, especially the rare kind. I even went to a mage academy as a teenager, much like you did. That's how I met Ilsa, actually – we were classmates back then. But… that was a long time ago."

Zorian nodded, accepting her last statement for what it was – a request not to pursue that topic further. He was fine with that.

"So I assume you read all these books then?" he asked.

"Each and every one of them," she confirmed.

"Did any of them perhaps relate to empathy?" Zorian asked. "Specifically, how can you tell if you're an empath yourself?"

"I did read something about that topic, though I don't have the book in question here with me." She gave him a curious look. "Why? Fancy yourself an empath?"

"Well… maybe," admitted Zorian. "I mean, it doesn't sound very likely to me, but I met an actual empath recently, and she seemed sure I was one too. So I don't feel comfortable with just dismissing the possibility."

"Hmm," Imaya hummed. "And why do you think it's so unlikely if you've been told that you're one by another empath?"

"Shouldn't empathy be pretty obvious to the one who has it?" Zorian asked. "Well it's not obvious to me. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything that would indicate I am one."

"Nothing?" Imaya asked curiously. "I find that hard to believe – the indicators of being an empath are so common and mundane that false positives tend to be a major problem. In fact, a lot of experts insist that there is nothing supernatural about empaths – that some people are simply a lot better at reading people's body language and environmental cues than most of humanity. It's far more likely that you're just ignoring the signs. For instance, can you honestly say that you've never had an instinctive 'feel' about a person you just met?"

"Well no, I can't say that," Zorian admitted. "I get feelings like that all the time. That isn't anything unusual, though."

"It might be," Imaya said. "Just how often do you get such hunches and how reliable are they overall?"

"I…" Zorian hesitated. "I get those feelings pretty much every time I talk to someone. They tend to be pretty accurate from what I can tell. Why? Is that so unusual?"

Imaya gave him a speculative look. "A bit, yes. Every time you talk to someone, you say? How about random strangers minding their own business? Do you get these… 'feelings' about them too?"

"Uh, sometimes?" admitted Zorian, shifting nervously in his seat. "Some people have really intense personalities, you know? You can pick them out of a crowd from the other side of the room without even trying."

"Interesting. How about groups of people? Can you make a spot judgment about the mood of a group without speaking to anyone?"

"Well, no," said Zorian. "Frankly, the pressure crowds out all other sensations when I'm in a large enough group. If I'm subjected to it long enough, I lose even the ability to make judgments about individuals, much less the group as a whole."

"The pressure?" Imaya asked, giving him a baffled look.

"It's a… ah, a personal problem," fumbled Zorian. "Every time I enter a big enough crowd, I feel this weird mental pressure that gives me a headache if I stay inside long enough."

Zorian shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He hated telling people about the pressure thing, since most people immediately assumed he was either delusional or making things up. His family, for instance, had never believed him when he tried to describe the phenomena to them as a child, believing instead that he was making things up so he wouldn't have to follow them to their various social events. Eventually they grew tired of his claims and threatened to send him to a madhouse if he didn't admit he was lying, so he never brought the issue up again.

"That's… an interesting problem," Imaya said carefully. "Tell me, is the pressure constant or does it varies according to some criteria?"

"It varies," said Zorian. "The more people there are in a crowd and the more densely they're packed the stronger it is. It's also stronger if the crowd is…"

He trailed off as he suddenly realized something. Gods, he was so stupid!

"Yes?" Imaya prodded. "If the crowd is what?"

"…emotionally charged for some reason," finished Zorian lamely.

A short silence descended on the scene, before Zorian rose from his seat and began angrily pacing around the room.

"Your empathic abilities are so strong that you literally feel the emotions of a crowd as tangible mental pressure bearing down on you," said Imaya after watching him pace around for a while, "and you think there is nothing to indicate that you're an empath?"

"It's not that easy! How was I supposed to know what the pressure was?" Zorian protested, nervously running his hand through his hair. "It's just… there. It has always been there, a constant annoyance that was with me ever since I was a child. Do you have any idea the sheer amount of trouble this thing has caused me? Isn't empathy supposed to be a boon? Most of the time I did my best to ignore it, vainly hoping it would go away in time."

"Well yes," Imaya agreed. "Empathy is usually depicted as a great gift to the person who has it. But there are plenty of reports of empaths whose powers are so strong or volatile that they are crippled by them instead. Considering some of the horror stories I've read about, your case is relatively mild. It could have been worse."

'It could have been worse' – that could easily serve as a summary of his entire life so far. Oh well – there had to be a way to rein in his errant empathic abilities somehow, and he had plenty of time to find it. The aranea probably knew how, though he suspected he wouldn't like what they would ask in return.

"Zorian?" Imaya asked after a few moment of silence. "I can see this is a somewhat sensitive topic for you, but can I ask you a question? Well, two questions really."

"Sure," agreed Zorian. She did end up helping him, even if he didn't imagine her help to play out the way it did, so the least he could do was satisfy her curiosity.

"I get the feeling that you didn't like the idea of being an empath, even before you knew what you do now," she said. "Why is that? Maybe I am projecting somewhat, but I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to possess an inborn magical ability. I hope you don't think you're a freak just because-"

"No, no, it's nothing like that," Zorian quickly assured. "I know a lot of civilian-born students react badly to anything that may make them… abnormal… but I'm not like that. No, the real reason I didn't like the idea of being an empath is… far more stupid than that. Actually, I'm kind of embarrassed to even admit it, so can we just move on?"

"No," Imaya said, a smirk on her face. "This I definitely got to hear."

Zorian rolled his eyes. Served him right for admitting it was embarrassing. Oh well, it's not like she'd remember this conversation once the loop reset.

"All right, but you can't tell this to anyone, okay?"

Imaya mimicked sealing her mouth shut.

"It's because empathy is usually portrayed as a feminine ability, one reserved for girls and girly men," admitted Zorian.

"Ahhh," nodded Imaya. "Of course a boy would be bothered by something like that…"

"I'm not sexist or anything," Zorian hastily added. "But I already receive a lot of comments about my supposed lack of masculinity, and they're annoying enough as it is. I really don't want to see how bad they would get if they had this sort of 'proof'."

His family was the worst offender in that regard, especially his father, but he would keep that little tidbit to himself.

"I won't tell anyone," Imaya said. "And if it makes you feel any better, there is no evidence that empathy manifests itself more often in women than it does in men."

"I figured," Zorian said. "Very few magical abilities are gender specific, unless they're artificially designed to be that way."

"And I also think those people have no idea what they're talking about," Imaya said with a supposedly innocent smile that had a hint of mischievousness behind it. "I think you're a very handsome young man who will someday make a girl very happy indeed."

"T-thanks. What was the other question you wanted to ask, again?" said Zorian, trying to change the subject to something less embarrassing. She had her fun, no need to torture him further.

"I assume you will try to develop your ability further?" Imaya asked. Zorian nodded. "In that case, I'd like you to keep me informed about your progress. I find stuff like this incredibly interesting."

Zorian agreed, though it was essentially an empty promise. She would remember none of this after the next restart. Their conversation done, Imaya returned to her household chores and Zorian went back to his room to plan his visit to the aranea. He really didn't want to find out what the matriarch would do to him if he didn't show up soon.

- break -

"Well, this is it," Zorian said out loud, standing in front of the entrance to the sewers. The matriarch didn't tell him where exactly in the sewers she hoped to meet with him, but he knew where he had met the spiders the last time he had been down there, so he intended to start from there. "The point of no return. I once again offer you the chance to turn back. You don't have to risk your life with me, Kael."

He gave a pointed look to the morlock following after him, trying to use his newly found (newly recognized?) empathic abilities to gauge the other boy's mood. Sadly, the boy's emotions were too well controlled at the moment and his control over his empathy sucked. Regardless of how Kael truly felt about this trip, he was clearly determined to see it through. Why, Zorian didn't know. When he told Kael about the aranea matriarch's ambush and the resulting conversation, he did it because he wanted to have someone to bounce ideas from and Kael seemed like the best choice (he already knew about the time loop and he was clearly very intelligent), not because he had wanted Kael to come with him. Kael, on the other hand, insisted that coming alone on such a meeting was the height of idiocy and that Zorian needed a partner to cover him. Zorian reluctantly agreed, not entirely comfortable with risking someone else's life in this thing, no matter how logical it was. Kael seemed amused that Zorian cared more about his safety than his own, considering that Kael would be restored to normal once the loop restarted and Zorian might not be, but Zorian's moral sense had yet to adapt to the implications of the time loop and he was horribly bothered by the idea of leading Kael to his death in the tunnels and leaving his daughter all alone in the world… even if it was only for a week or so.

"I told you to drop it," Kael sighed. "I'm definitely going with you. If nothing else, then so this 'aranea matriarch' and I can have a conversation about ethical uses of mind magic."

Oh right – Kael was still kind of bitter that the spider searched through his memories in her quest to piece together what Zorian's motives were.

Finally, they descended into the tunnels, Zorian leading the way. He chose his way carefully, occasionally leaving a magical trap behind them in the form of stone cubes covered in spell formula. If they had to flee, the traps should be able to surprise any pursuers by backtracking where the traps were. Most of them simply erected a forcefield to delay the attackers, but a couple had more… aggressive effects. At the very least it should force the pursuers to slow down in order to deal with the cubes and give them enough time to reach the surface.

Kael, meanwhile, was their anti-mentalist support. He had put a mind shield spell on himself, and would remain under the spell's effects constantly. If the meeting at any point turned sour, Kael would immediately cast the spell on Zorian as well. Kael seemed sure that the spiders had a method of communicating with humans other than telepathy and suggested that they both use the spell right from the start, but Zorian knew he had to keep his mind 'open' if he wanted these talks to be in any way productive. His instincts, which Zorian now recognized as his uncontrolled empathic abilities, were telling him that aranea placed great significance on mind-to-mind communication. Shutting them out completely would be seen as an insult, even if they did happen to have alternative methods of communicating.

As they approached the spot where Zorian had first met the aranea during his romp through the sewers with Taiven and her group, he felt a telepathic contact brush against his mind. Like the first time he had met the sentient spiders, this one was cruder, more forceful than the feather-light touch the matriarch had displayed during her 'visit' to Imaya's home.

A stream of psychedelic images and alien emotions hit his mind like a sledge hammer, causing him to stumble back in shock. Kael immediately shifted into defensive posture but Zorian signaled him to stand down. He was pretty sure at this point that the aranea he was in contact with had no hostile intentions. Apparently the minds of humans and aranea were different enough that telepathic communication was difficult, and this particular one never learned how to do it correctly.

As suddenly as it came, the 'communication' stopped. The presence remained, however, and Zorian soon felt another aranea connect with him, using the first one as a sort of telepathic relay.

[Ah, so you've managed to find us in the end,] the distinctive mental voice of the matriarch spoke in his mind. [Good, I was beginning to fear I should have left instructions on how to find us. Stay where you are, please, I will be with you shortly.]

"She's coming," said Zorian to Kael, who nodded gravely.

They didn't have to wait long. The matriarch soon skittered into view, flanked by two other aranea guards. The fact that he was able to pick out the matriarch among the three aranea, despite the fact that all three of them were fairly identical to his eyes, was probably just another proof that he really was empathic. Things like these made him wonder just why he had needed a talking spider to point it out to him before figuring it out.

[I originally intended this to be a private talk between just the two of us,] the matriarch spoke to his mind. [But since you saw fit to bring a guard, I decided to do likewise. Oh well, at least you didn't shut me out of your mind like your friend did, so you're still better than most humans I converse with.]

"Kael isn't here just as a guard," Zorian said, speaking out loud for Kael's benefit. "He is involved in this thing as surely as you are, and I'd like him to participate fully in the discussion. Do you perhaps have a way to communicate vocally for his benefit?"

The matriarch seemed to consider it for a moment before she suddenly started waving four of her front legs in front of her, tracing some complex gesture in the air. Zorian tried for a moment to decipher what she was trying to communicate before he realized she wasn't trying to talk to him.

She was casting a spell.

"There," a feminine voice declared from the direction of the matriarch, though her mandibles didn't move at all. "This is the aranea equivalent of the 'magic mouth' spell that you are no doubt familiar with. It's just a sonic illusion, but it should be enough."

Huh. So they did have more than just mind magic in their arsenal.

"I thank you for your consideration," Kael said guardedly, obviously threatened by the spiders but trying to stay polite.

"Far from me to refuse such a simple request," the matriarch said guardedly. She was obviously a little suspicious about Kael herself, probably because his mind was protected behind a mind shield spell. The spell made him immune to her abilities, but it also seemed to paint him as a threat to the aranea.

"Please, child," the matriarch scoffed. Zorian heard the words with his flesh and blood ears, but he also felt them broadcasted to his mind – she might be vocalizing her words for Kael's benefit, but she clearly wasn't going to give up communicating with Zorian 'the proper way'. "I could get past your silly human mind magic any time I want to. No, the reason I'm bothered by his mind ward is that it blocks me off from his mind completely. How am I supposed to trust him if he won't even let me read his emotions and surface thoughts? It's rude."

Zorian's mind boggled at the mindset that considered putting your surface thoughts up for scrutiny as being basic courtesy, but he supposed that's species differences for you. Kael didn't appear to be as understanding.

"Rude!?" he demanded, indignant at the accusation. "You think you have a right to just barge into people's mind as you please, no permission given or asked, and you call me rude!? You spied on my personal memories, damn it, I have every reason to protect myself!"

The matriarch sent him a telepathic equivalent of a sigh, though no sound was vocalized for Kael's benefit. "So did I," she said calmly. "Your friend was a possible enemy that I needed to know more about, and you were one of the weak points I could target in order to get the needed information. Your mind was completely unprotected, after all."

"So why didn't you sift through Zorian's memories, then? Wouldn't that be quicker and more relevant to your quest?" Kael asked.

"Hey!" Zorian protested.

"I have limited myself to skimming his surface thoughts as a courtesy, because he is Open," the matriarch said. "Among Aranea there is an unofficial custom to ask for permission before delving deeper into the minds of non-enemy psychics, regardless of species."

Kael narrowed his eyes. "And if a person isn't… 'psychic'?"

"Flickerminds are fair game," the aranea matriarch said dismissively.

"All right, let's stop trying to piss each other off now and get back to business!" said Zorian with a clap of his hands, hoping to halt the argument before it got out of hand. "We were talking about the time loop and how you can help me with that. Before we get to that, though, I really have to ask – when you say I'm 'open', are you referring to my empathy?"

Kael gave him a surprised look at that, since Zorian never told him anything about being empathic.

"Being Open implies being empathic, but they are not the same thing. Empathy is just one of the powers available to you, and a bit of a low-lying fruit at that – that's why you can use it, despite being completely untrained in the psychic arts. Openness often manifests itself as a low, uncontrolled empathy in the beginning, coupled with a gift for divinations and an occasional prophetic dream."

"I… what?" fumbled Zorian, trying to wrap his head around this new information. Just when he had thought he had things a little figured out, something like this happened. What the hell is being 'open' or 'psychic', then? Was she saying he was a full-blown telepath or something?

"You could be that with enough training, yes," confirmed the matriarch. "I can teach you more about it… provided we come to some kind of mutually acceptable agreement about this time loop business."

"And what exactly do you want from Zorian in that regard?" asked Kael suspiciously.

"Why, my dear Kael, the same thing you want from him as well," the matriarch said with a hint of mockery. "I want in on this time loop."

For a moment Zorian wondered what she was talking about, but then his eyes widened as he understood what she meant.

"You want to keep your memories with each restart? To loop around with me and Zach?" asked Zorian incredulously.

Kael shifted uncomfortably in his spot, refusing to look at him in the eye, while the aranea matriarch stared straight back at him without a hint of shame on her face.

"I… I guess I can see why you would want that," said Zorian hesitantly. "I mean, I'm not too happy about my situation, but even I can see that I'm benefiting massively from it. But you seem to have gotten the wrong idea – both of you." He glanced at Kael, but the morlock was still avoiding his eyes. He probably thought Zorian would be angry at him for wanting to 'take advantage of him', but Zorian wasn't really angry. Just confused. "The thing is, I don't know how to bring anyone into this loop. I don't even know how the details of how I got sucked into it, much less how to replicate it. I can't bring you into it."

"We didn't get the wrong idea, Zorian," Kael sighed. "We're not stupid. We know you can't do it now. We know you won't be able to do it by the time this time loop ends." He gave the matriarch a weak glare. "Or at least I know. Maybe the great aranea matriarch knows something this poor flickermind doesn't."

"I agree with the morlock," the matriarch said, refusing to rise to Kael's provocation. "It is highly implausible that you'd be able to bring us into the time loop as you are now."

"You've completely lost me at this point," Zorian complained. "What do you want, then?"

"My idea was to store memory packets in your mind, allowing your soul to ferry them when the time resets itself," the matriarch said nonchalantly. "It's not quite as good as having your entire soul sent back, but it would be good enough for my purposes."

"And I would agree to that… why?" asked Zorian suspiciously. That sounded like it would require some serious messing with his mind. Far more than he was comfortable with, in any case.

"I'm sure I can find something to tempt you with," the matriarch said, punctuating her message with a mental shrug. "You need information about the loop that I have. You want to learn how to control your empathy. You need my help in countering the invaders. Need I go on?"

Zorian sighed and turned to Kael instead of answering her.

"I wanted to connect you with some people and have you figure out, with their help, how your connection with Zach works. Then you could apply that knowledge to bring me into the time loop," said Kael. "It would probably take quite a few restarts, and I don't have anything nearly as tempting as our esteemed matriarch over there, but on the other hand it is something that will definitely help you learn more about this time loop in the process."

Left unsaid was that those people Kael wanted to connect him with were probably all necromancers and that having them mess around with his soul was every bit as dangerous as letting the aranea screw around with his mind, and possibly more so.

"I see," sighed Zorian. "Well, I'll set aside Kael's proposal for now, since that's not what we came here to discuss."

"That's fine with me," Kael said quickly. "I still have a lot to think about in that regard."

"Right," said Zorian. "Then let's move on to the details of the matriarch's proposal. Just out of curiosity, do you have a name? If we're going to do business, especially so sensitive, I'd like to know who exactly I'm talking to."

The matriarch didn't answer verbally. Instead, she sent a short burst of telepathy containing the same sort of psychedelic jumble of images and concepts that the less-skilled aranea bombarded him with in the initial greeting. Thankfully, this particular burst wasn't painful, just confusing – probably because it was so relatively short. After mentally dissecting the chaotic message in his head, he realized this was the name he asked for. Translating the concepts into something appropriate for human communication proved a bit of a challenge, however.

"Spear of Resolve Striking Straight at the Heart of the Matter?" questioned Zorian curiously.

"As good an approximation of my real name as any," said the matriarch. "And yes, I know that's too unwieldy to use in human conversation. Your language is very crude, so it's hard to translate aranea names into it without ending up with such overdramatic-sounding drivel. You can just continue calling me 'matriarch' and I won't take it against you."

Kael snorted derisively at the matriarch's swipe against human speech, but didn't say anything. Zorian, for his part, was considering how to proceed.

"Alright then," said Zorian. "You told me that there is a reason why you took the time loop seriously. Why don't you tell us what you mean by that."

Before the matriarch could answer, a loud roar pierced through the relative silence of the tunnel, quickly followed by several more similar ones. Color drained out of Zorian's face as he realized the identity of the creatures that produced the roar.

A band of war trolls were coming their way.