Mistakes Have Been Made
'The beginning of the restart is always the most annoying part of the time loop,' Zorian mused quietly, standing on one of the arrival platforms in Cirin's train station. He pulled a watch out of his pocket and inspected it for a minute before putting it back with a sigh. The train was late. The train was always late, because this was less than a day into the restart and there hadn't really been time for anything important to diverge yet.
It was in times like these that he wondered why he even bothered going through this charade in every restart when he could just teleport out of his room at the start of every new loop and be done with it. It would save him hours of frustration and he knew from a couple of previous restarts that nobody threw a manhunt after him if he did that. He'd basically get an extra half a day each restart – that would add up to something significant pretty quickly, wouldn't it?
But, just as they always did when he considered that option, his thoughts turned to what the reaction of his mother and Kirielle would be at such a move. He never eavesdropped on them during those restarts where he hightailed out of the house at the earliest opportunity, but he couldn't imagine either of them taking it well. He didn't get along with mother all that well, but he knew she cared for him in her own infuriating way and Kirielle…
He looked at Kirielle, standing sullenly some distance from him. The downside of his increasing empathy skills was that he knew just how devastated Kirielle was at not getting to come with him to Cyoria. If that was so upsetting, he couldn't even imagine how she would react if he did his disappearing trick immediately after he chased her out of his room. There was no way he could do that to her, no matter how much sense it made. He was feeling guilty enough about her as it was.
He walked up to her and ruffled her hair, which caused her to snap out of her funk temporarily in order to slap his hand away and give him a fierce glare. Or at least what she thought was a fierce glare, anyway.
"Don't be so gloomy, Kiri," he said. She said nothing, but the spike of anger and resentment he detected in his empathy was answer enough.
"Look," he told her. "I'll bring you with me the next time I go to Cyoria, okay?"
She gave him a startled look as her mind processed what he just said and then looked away with a pout. For a moment he thought she wouldn't say anything, but then her mind stopped cycling between different emotions and settled on faint, suppressed hope.
"You promise?" she finally mumbled after a few seconds.
"Yes," he said seriously. "I promise."
In the back of his mind, Zorian realized he really meant it, too. When he finally decided to go back to Cyoria, he was bringing Kirielle with him. It wasn't sensible in the least – it would cost him considerable time and attention to keep an eye on her and she would be in far greater danger than if he left her behind – but he was going to do it anyway. Not just for Kirielle's sake, either. He kind of missed living at Imaya's place with Kirielle, Kael and Kana…
He had to take a step back to regain his balance when Kirielle rammed into him, wrapping him in a hug and burying her face in his stomach.
"You better not lie," she said, looking up at him with suspicious, narrowed eyes. "I'll never forgive you!"
"Yeah, yeah," Zorian scoffed, pulling at her nose until she let go of him. A loud whistle pierced the air, signifying that the train had finally arrived at the station. "I have to go now. We'll talk about this when I come back."
Fifteen minutes later Zorian watched a much happier Kirielle waving enthusiastically at him as the train departed from the station. Zorian responded with a much more restrained wave of his own and smiled. Maybe it hadn't been the smartest decision to make, but it was the right one nonetheless.
- break -
Zorian spent the entirety of the short train ride to Teshingrad trying to perform a headcount of his fellow passengers using his mind sense – a surprisingly difficult endeavor due to the anti-shaping ward placed on the train. While not remotely able to actually stop him from sensing minds, the minor magical static produced by the ward compounded quickly with distance, effectively cutting his range in half. It was uncannily reminiscent of the similar magical static that suffused the dungeon, which had much the same effect.
Hmm… now that he thought about it, that was probably what had inspired the ward in the first place. Did that mean that practicing magic inside a ward like this one would help him learn how to filter out the Dungeon static? Something to think about, in any case. Making a series of progressively stronger disruption wards to practice on sounded like a lot better idea than his original plan (which mostly consisted of trying to brute force things by practicing teleportation in the Dungeon until he got it right).
Once he disembarked from the train, Zorian teleported to Knyazov Dveri and immediately descended into the local Dungeon, where he proceeded to pick up every single piece of crystallized mana he had discovered in the previous restart before his unfortunate encounter with the eyebeast. When he tried to cash them in at the Delver Village shop he used for the purpose, however, he ran into… problems.
Apparently, there was a huge difference between going into the dungeon a couple of times and returning with a handful of crystals each time (what he did in the previous restart) and going in there once and returning with an entire bag of crystalized mana after a few hours. Not only did the shop not have enough money on hand to buy the whole batch off of him, the fact he had brought back such wealth after a single foray into the Dungeon caused far more of a stir than Zorian would have ever guessed. After all, you just don't do that kind of stuff unless you have some kind of secret method that is better than everyone else's or you were lucky enough to hit some kind of motherlode. Either possibility automatically made him a person of interest to every dungeon delver in Knyazov Dveri, as well as quite a few other people as well.
Any sort of plan he had for the restart immediately crashed and burned. There was just too much attention focused on him, which made it impossible to pursue tasks discreetly or talk to people as a relative unknown. His divination wards got an extensive field test due to the incessant magical spying he had been subjected to ever since, and while Zorian thought they held up admirably in the face of foreign assault, he couldn't actually be sure they were never bypassed. One enterprising spy actually painted spell formula onto living moths and turned them into semi-autonomous voice recorders – if Zorian hadn't tried to chase them off with telepathy and found it curious they kept getting back towards him regardless he probably would have never noticed. How many others had done similar things without him figuring out what they'd done?
Of course, not everyone went with the cloak and dagger stuff. A lot of people simply wanted to talk to him about their amazing offer and what not, and few of them took his 'no thanks' quietly. At least one group outright attacked him when he told them to get lost, though thankfully they weren't all that good at actual fighting and were sent running easily enough. There was also at least one attempt to break into his room, which ended with a would-be thief electrocuted for his trouble and earned Zorian a stern talking-to by the law enforcement regarding excessively lethal security measures.
Finally, after a week of dodging aggressive recruitment efforts and repelling the myriad magical probes directed at him, Zorian decided to admit defeat and leave Knyazov Dveri. He failed to save Lukav and Alanic anyway, due to all the scrutiny he was under, so there was little reason to stay in the town and every reason to leave. He simply picked up all of his belongings, including a handful of bigger mana crystals he'd never managed to sell, and teleported as far south as he could manage.
Live and learn, he supposed. The next time he tried to pull off that trick, he should sell it outside of Knyazov Dveri and probably not all at once in the same shop. It was probably smartest to go to Korsa and Eldemar, since they were big cities that probably saw far more traffic in mana crystals and had plenty of shops to sell to. Though Cyoria would probably be even better in that regard, once he was ready to go back there – it was not only big, but also the magical center of the whole continent.
But no matter, the restart was still salvageable – there were plenty of things to do outside of Knyazov Dveri. For instance, finding the aranean webs to trade with. He knew they existed all over the continent, but other than the destroyed one under Cyoria, he didn't really know the exact location of any of them. Even if he wasn't ready to actually deal with them properly yet, it wouldn't hurt to spend a restart or two just locating every single web he could find and see just how friendly and receptive to trade each of them was. If Spear of Resolve was to be believed, they were unlikely to attack him outright just for contacting them. Modern aranea were descendants of aranea who grew in power after trading with humans, after all, so most of them should be at least mildly receptive to the idea of doing it again.
New goal set, Zorian teleported to Eldemar, the kingdom's capital, to visit the Cartographer's Society library. As far as map collections went, theirs was without equal, and it was largely free for perusal as well – so long as you never destroyed anything, you only had to pay for maps you wanted the library to copy for you. Zorian had spent a few days there the last time he had visited the capital, just browsing the shelves for any map that caught his fancy, and swore he would visit again when he had the time. This seemed as good an excuse as any.
"I dearly hope that's not one of our maps you are writing on, young sir," the voice behind Zorian's shoulder said. "As far as the library is concerned, that would undisputedly be destruction of our property."
Zorian jumped in surprise at the voice, too absorbed in his research to notice the librarian sneaking up at him. He looked at the map in front of him, heavily annotated and fighting for desk space with several stacks of map cases, travel journals and atlases and then shifted his attention to the old, bearded librarian behind him.
"It's not," he told the man. "It's the cheapest map of Eldemar I could find in a store I found on the way."
"Hmm. Would you object if I ask you what you are working on? It is rare to see such a young man here, especially one who is so absorbed in his research."
"I'm trying to find an aranean colony," said Zorian, not seeing the need to lie.
"And those are?"
"Magical talking spiders."
"Ah. Sounds like an intriguing project," said the old librarian. "I'll leave you to it. As friendly advice, I will note that it would have probably been cheaper to just have the library make a few copies of the maps you were interested in. The Cartographer's Society is not a profit-seeking organization and we try to keep the prices down as much as possible."
"I'll keep that in mind," said Zorian. "Say, since we're on the subject of copies… do you think I could learn how to copy documents like that from someone? Or is it some big secret of yours?"
"It is no secret," the librarian said. "The official policy of the Society is that maps should be as widely disseminated as possible, and we do not have a monopoly on that type of magic."
"Oh good," said Zorian. He knew a few ways to magically copy documents, but they relied on animating writing instruments to transcribe the contents. That didn't work all that well on non-textual content, and was slow even for written works. The spell used by the Cartographer's Society made perfect duplicates of any given map, down to every detail and shade, with only a single spell. "So does that mean you're open to teaching me how to cast the spell?"
"I'm afraid that isn't one of the services offered by this library. However, if you visit the main offices of the Cartographer's Society, you can sign up for some basic classes in map-related magic, map making, map handling, and map-related research like you're doing right now," the librarian said. "The prices are very affordable and it would probably help you in your quest to find these 'aranea' as well."
Zorian hummed speculatively.
"I guess I'll check it out," he said. He certainly had no shortage of money, thanks to his ill-considered stunt at the start of the restart, and he was going to have to spend a few days in Eldemar one way or the other.
The librarian soon left Zorian to his own devices again, and he considered the map in front of him. He didn't have anything concrete yet, but he had several likely places to look for an aranean web. Korsa, Jatnik, Gozd and Padina were all large cities that had dungeon access and would be easy to reach from Cyoria, the source of the aranean expansion wave. One of them was bound to have the aranea living close by, and they might be willing to give him the location of nearby webs if he asked nicely (or bribed them sufficiently). Korsa was especially suspicious, since the city had an extensive textile industry, including one dealing in special clothes made out of spider silk. They got most of their raw material from Cyoria – unsurprising, as it produced the lion's share of the stuff – but at least some of it was gathered locally… 'from a mostly harmless breed of giant spiders native to the region'.
Yeah. Totally not an aranean colony.
Zorian made a small note in his notebook to track down every settlement that produced spider silk in any significant amount and decided to end the search for the day.
- break -
Zorian spent five days in Eldemar, though in all honesty he got everything he could about possible aranean sites on day three. The other two days were mostly so he could relax a bit and mentally prepare himself for what was to come. The idea of an impending meeting with another group of aranea left him in a depressed mood, since it reminded him of what happened to the previous group of aranea that had gotten involved with him, and that wasn't exactly the best mindset with which to go and meet a bunch of telepaths. He did his best to distract himself by sight-seeing around the capital and browsing various magical stores he encountered.
He only browsed, though, never actually bought anything - Eldemar was a terribly expensive place to live in, he'd found. Everything, from room and board to already expensive magical reagents had higher prices in the capital than anywhere else Zorian had stayed at. 'Higher quality demands higher payments,' the merchants assured him. What a load of crap. He suspected the average citizen in Eldemar was simply richer than those in the rest of the country and could thus pay more. The large number of theaters, art houses and music halls present in the city certainly indicated that the inhabitants had plenty of money to burn.
That aside, the city was nice. Orderly. The royal quarter was walled in and off-limits to uninvited commoners like him, but that didn't mean that the government left the rest of the city outside their little bubble to rot. There were no obvious slums that Zorian could find – all of the buildings were well cared for and the streets free of trash and decay. Police patrolled everywhere, and were even joined by a group of well-armed soldiers at one point.
Asking around, he found that security was always tight. Eldemar had been a favorite target for saboteurs during the Splinter Wars, at least one of which managed to set the entire city ablaze. The fire consumed many important buildings, including both of Eldemar's magical academies and its central library. By the time the city had recovered and rebuilt, most of the mages and their attendant facilities had already moved to Cyoria, cementing its rise as a magical nexus of the continent. Eldemar's citizens still seemed bitter about that, harboring a fair amount of resentment over the fact. In any case, security was upgraded immensely in the aftermath of the fire, and never really went away. Even their underworld was thoroughly purged and resculpted into something more manageable. Dungeon delving was forbidden within city limits – instead, the royal family sent the army into the depths several times a year to get rid of anything remotely dangerous they could find.
Basically, he could cross Eldemar from the list of possible candidates to have an aranean colony. If it ever existed, it was almost certainly wiped out or chased away at this point. It also helped explain why the invaders targeted Cyoria instead of Eldemar, even though Eldemar contained the royal palace, treasury and most of the government buildings - much juicier targets if one intended to collapse a country and destabilize the continent. The city was too well guarded for such a large-scale attack to take them by surprise.
He ended up taking the classes offered by the Cartographer's Society. More accurately, he paid extra to have an instructor assigned to him for individual lessons, so he could save some time. Zorian was pleasantly surprised by the mage they sent him in response – the young man assigned to him was polite and straightforward in his teaching methods. A welcome reprieve from Zorian's usual luck with teachers. He only attended three sessions with the man, but that was enough to give him a plethora of mapping spells, not all of which dealt with classical paper maps. Zorian's personal favorite in that bunch was a spell that created a miniature illusionary replica of the caster's surroundings above their palm – that had been fun to play with.
It was tempting to just spend the rest of the restart goofing around with maps and visiting various curiosities in the capital, but he didn't. He had a task to do, and an invisible time limit counting in the background. At the end of the fifth day, he gathered up his things and set off for Korsa to find the aranea.
- break -
Korsa was a big city – the third biggest city in the kingdom, to be precise, right after Cyoria and Eldemar. Even though Zorian was certain the aranea were in there somewhere, he knew it would take him ages to find them if he searched for them by exploring the local Dungeon. So he didn't even try. Instead he approached the textile manufacturer that produced spider silk products and flat out asked him to introduce him to the aranea.
The man refused, claiming he had no idea what Zorian was talking about before throwing him out of his store with a warning to never come back again. Harsh. Still, Zorian never actually expected his request to be granted. He just wanted the man to inform his aranea trading partners that there was this strange kid going around town asking people about them. If the local aranea were anything like those in Cyoria, that would get their attention in a flash. He wouldn't have to look for them because they would be looking for him.
It took less than two days for the aranea to track him down.
It was late in the evening of his second day in Korsa when Zorian felt an aranean signature enter his radius. Considering he was currently sitting on a small hill on the outskirts of Korsa, surrounded with a lot of grass and fields and nothing of any importance whatsoever, he felt confident that it was here for him.
[Greetings,] Zorian sent telepathically. [I am Zorian Kazinski. I have come to trade.]
Aranean minds were still too strange for him to recognize their emotions easily, but he felt sure the aranea was thoroughly shocked when he spoke to her.
[You are Open?] the aranea asked after a few seconds.
[Yes,] Zorian confirmed. He decided not to mention the Cyorian aranea and his connection to them for now – for all he knew they might have been mortal enemies or something. [May I know who I am talking to?]
[I am Seeker of the Eight Universal Paths, of the Sword Divers Web,] the aranea sent. [You can simply call me Seeker.]
[Seeker then. I would like to start by apologizing for the way I attracted your attention, but I didn't know how else to contact you. I hope I haven't caused too much of a stir,] Zorian said. [I hope we can work with each other despite this somewhat rough start.]
[I'm afraid I am not qualified to negotiate on behalf of my web, so I cannot make any firm promises. My task was only to find you and report my findings to the web,] Seeker responded. Translation: she was supposed to trawl through Zorian's memories to see what his deal was, but him being psychic kind of made that impractical. [That said, I'm sure a small incident like this one can be easily smoothed over if you refrain from scaring us like this in the future. Just so I know what to report to the matriarch, what kind of trade are you proposing?]
[I want to trade for knowledge and training,] said Zorian. [Specifically, I want your help in learning how to wield my psychic abilities.]
[You already seem fairly proficient in them, though,] Seeker pointed out. She sent a weak psychic probe to worm its way through Zorian's defenses but promptly retracted it when Zorian harshly slapped it down. [Not many humans can use telepathy so smoothly, and even fewer would have noticed that probe.]
[You flatter me, but we both know I am but a rank beginner when it comes to mind arts,] Zorian said. [I wish to move beyond bare basics in the field. At the very least I want to get a better grasp on telepathic combat and develop memory manipulation abilities.]
Seeker produced a burst of uncertainty and surprise over the link that Zorian didn't quite know how to interpret. Some kind of aranean curse, maybe?
[You are certainly ambitious, young human,] Seeker said. [I hope you realize that this is not really a small thing you are asking for. I don't believe the leadership will be happy with that idea. What exactly do you offer in return?]
[I have a number of magical items that I believe would be very useful to aranea, including one that allows telepathic communication over vast distances. Since I am the inventor and maker of such devices, I am open to requests in regard to their modification to suit your needs better. Since I am also a capable mage in general, I can help you out in any task that would benefit from human-style magic. And finally, I have access to important news that I would rather not discuss at this time, and which I suspect would greatly interest you.]
There was a short pause as the aranea absorbed this, after which it responded with a note of tentative acceptance.
[I see,] said Seeker. [As I said, I am not in a position to agree to any deals, but I shall present your case to the matriarch and we'll see the result. Is there anything else you wish for me to note?]
[Not really, no. I would like to know how I can contact you properly in the future, if you don't mind.]
Seeker was silent for a few moments before sending him a mental map of Korsa's lower sewers with three distinct locations marked with a tiny blue sun.
[You can contact us by going to any one of these three places, but please don't be impatient. It will probably take a couple of days before we're prepared to talk to you again and impatience isn't going to endear you to us.]
[Fair enough,] Zorian said. He had no intention of staying inside Korsa for days while they deliberated on whether to give him the time of the day or not, but fortunately he didn't have to. He could kill two birds with one stone by giving them means of contacting him wherever he may be, while also providing a tangible example of what he was offering to them.
He removed a large wooden disc out of his jacket and placed it on the ground before him.
[This is a telepathic relay,] Zorian told Seeker. [Anyone touching it will be able to get ahold of the person holding the matching pair, regardless of distance. In this particular case, that someone is me. I'm not going to be in Korsa for long so use this to contact me when you've reached your decision.]
[I'm not bringing a possible bomb into the settlement,] Seeker said. [But I guess there is no harm in dragging it off to some forgotten corner where no one will stumble upon it until we come back for it again. Farewell, Zorian Kazinski. Events permitting, we shall meet again in a few days.]
- break -
Zorian wasn't idle while the Sword Divers deliberated whether to accept his offer or not – he left Korsa to continue searching for more aranean colonies. Sadly, none of the other colonies were as easy to find as theirs, despite living beneath much smaller settlements. By the time the Sword Divers contacted him again eight days later, he only found one more colony. Illustrious Gem Collectors lived under a small village near Ticlin and, although perfectly friendly and polite, immediately informed him that they had an exclusive contract with the leaders of the village to only engage in trade with them and none else. Unfortunate. That said, they were perfectly willing to tell Zorian the locations of five other webs in their vicinity that might be more open to the idea, so that was still a win in his book.
Before Zorian had the chance to check out any of them, however, he finally received a call from the Sword Divers that they were ready to make a deal. At this point the restart only had a week and a half left in it, so Zorian doubted he would get much out of the agreement, but he went to meet with them regardless.
When he reached the designated meeting place, however, he found only two aranea waiting for him, which was very suspicious. His experience with the aranea, limited as it may be, told him there should have been a minimum of three – one negotiator and two guards. More realistically, it should have been even more of them. The Cyorian matriarch had been fond of carting at least four honor guards along with her, and that was when meeting with little old him that she knew for a fact was no threat to her. Illustrious Gem Collectors sent a total of eight aranea in their greeting party.
His suspicions were confirmed when the two aranea revealed they were just guides, meant to take him where the real meeting was to take place. Zorian was instantly alarmed, and his paranoia was not assuaged in the least when the two aranea proceeded to lead him deep, deep into the Dungeon beneath Korsa. Too deep for his liking.
"Okay, we're stopping here. This is as far as I'm willing to go," said Zorian out loud, purposely not bothering to communicate with his guides telepathically. His voice resonated unnervingly in the large cavern they were in, and the two aranea flinched at the harsh sound of his voice.
[Please, be patient,] one of them said nervously. [We're not far from the meeting place. It will only take a little while to reach it.]
"Well, then it shouldn't be too big of a problem for you to go fetch them and tell them to come here," Zorian said. "The exact place shouldn't matter much unless you are trying to lead me into an ambush."
The sudden stiffening of their bodies told Zorian everything he needed to know. He had just enough time to channel mana into the 'mind shield' spell inscribed on the medallion he wore under his shirt for the occasion before two mental attacks slammed into his newly-erected barrier like a pair of sledgehammers. He immediately fired an overpowered magic missile at one of the aranea in front of them, crushing her like a grape. Her mind instantly winked out and disappeared from his mind sense.
The other aranea, realizing it would never batter down his mental shield fast enough, jumped straight at him, fangs bared. It bounced back harmlessly off the shield he erected in front of himself. Zorian drew his spell rod out of his belt and pointed it at her.
"Why do this?" Zorian asked her. "Tell me and maybe I won't just incinerate you on the spot?" Zorian asked her.
She didn't answer. After a second, Zorian realized with some embarrassment she couldn't, seeing how his mind was totally shielded from her at the moment. He dismissed the shield for the moment, but kept the spell rod trained at her.
[Please, I don't know anything!] she mentally whined. Zorian kept alert for any surprises she might send at him over the telepathic link, but she didn't even try. She seemed completely overcome with terror. [I was just supposed to lead you there, nobody told me the reasons! Please don't kill me, I don't want to die!]
Zorian growled before shoving the suddenly glowing spell rod at her. Her fear spiked for a moment and she let a terrified screech, curling upon itself in preparation for her demise… and then suddenly stopped when all that happened was a bubble of force springing into existence around her.
Just then Zorian felt two additional aranean signatures speeding towards him from the direction his two 'guides' had been leading him to. Then another, and another…
Shit. The two must have sent a warning to the main ambush force. He gave the surviving 'guide' a brief glare, causing her to curl up inside her force cage, and then started running towards the surface. He knew for a fact that humans were way faster than aranea so it should be possible to simply outrun the pursuers and-
There were eight more aranean minds in front of him, blocking off his path of retreat.
Zorian cursed his rotten luck and he skidded to a halt, trying to think of a way out of this. His mind shield wasn't going to last long against… 16 araneas!? No, 18, two were just slow runners apparently.
Six telepathic attacks slammed into his mind shield, failing to break it but causing him to stagger drunkenly as his vision swam and his balance went haywire. He wondered for a moment why only six of them had attacked his mind when so many more of them were in range before he remembered his talks with Novelty about telepathic combat. Battering down mental shields like this one too vigorously could easily destroy the mind underneath.
Seven attacks this time. His mind shield still held, but only just barely, and he collapsed on his knees in response regardless.
They weren't trying to kill him. Of course not – what would have been the point of that? No, they were aiming to capture…
Zorian almost lost consciousness as nine attacks slammed into his mental shield, crushed it like an egg and then ripped straight into his unprotected mind. The pain was excruciating, blanking out all thought and making it impossible to concentrate on anything. There was something he needed to do, he was sure, but for the life of him he couldn't remember what exactly it was…
He felt his muscles lock up as an alien mind seized his motor control away from him and started rooting in his head for facts and memories. He had to do… something… had to…
Suddenly an image flashed before him, of two necklaces hanging from his neck, one of them inscribed with the defensive spell that ultimately failed him and the other that contained…
His mind suddenly snapped back into place, his course of action clear. Activate the suicide rings, that's what he had to do. He felt the alien mind panic as it realized what he was going to do, and felt three more attacks rip through his thoughts. They were far weaker than the ones that broke through his shield, but his mind was unprotected now and they felt like hot knives driven into his brain. He held onto the thought, though, the idea that he had to activate those rings no matter what. He forgot what the rings really did when the mental knives hit, forgot why they mattered or where he was and what he was doing, but he still knew what he had to do. Had to… had to…
A weak, gentle pulse of mana poured into the rings around his neck and the world suddenly became awash in light and heat.
Then there was only darkness.
- break -
Like many times before, Zorian woke up in his room back in Cirin. However, there was no Kirielle jumping on him to wake him up this time, and it was late in the evening instead of early in the morning.
Also, he had a blinding headache. Can't forget about that part.
Suddenly the door cracked open and a familiar head peaked inside tentatively, as if afraid what it would find inside. Zorian squinted, his vision blurry without his glasses, and gave Kirielle a searching look.
Her eyes immediately widened in surprise for some reason. He reached out to her mind in order to understand what was going on and-
"Ow," he croaked painfully. Okay, apparently he wasn't supposed to do that.
"Mother! He's awake! He woke up! He woke up!" Kirielle shouted, thundering down the stairs. Zorian winced at the sound and tried to remember what happened. How the hell did he mess himself up this badly so early in the restart? The last thing he remembered was…
Suddenly his memories came rushing back in, along with a fresh wave of pain, and he remembered everything. Well, not literally everything – his memories of everything after he confronted the 'guides' were fuzzy and jumbled out of order – but enough of it to understand what happened to him.
Those treacherous, motherfucking slimes!
Zorian jerked in surprise at his mother's voice, broken out of his recollection.
"Uh… I'm… sort of fine?" Zorian mumbled. "My head is killing me, but I don't think it's anything serious. Can you hand me my glasses?"
His vision cleared immensely with his glasses on, allowing him to see just how worried mother looked as she stared at him. He winced internally. He was pretty sure he knew what the problem was, but better feign ignorance…
"What happened to me?" he asked.
"You wouldn't wake up," Mother said. "You scared Kirielle like you wouldn't believe – she came running down this morning, bawling her eyes out, saying she killed you. Well, you obviously weren't dead but nothing we did could shock you awake either. We summoned a doctor, but he couldn't find anything wrong with you. As far as he could tell, you just suddenly fell into a coma for no reason."
He nodded slowly. That sounded about right. The Sword Divers really did a number on h- wait, what was that first part?
"Killed me?" he asked incredulously.
"I didn't say that!" Kirielle protested, suddenly entering the room and carrying a bowl of soup in her hands. "Mother is just making things up! It's just that I… um…"
"Relax, Kiri," Zorian sighed. "There is no way you jumping on top of me could have caused this."
The silence that followed clued him in that he'd made some sort of mistake. What did he…?
Oh. Oh damn.
"How'd you know I did that?" asked Kirielle.
"Because… that's what you always do?" Zorian tried, his mind still a little fuzzy and unresponsive. Probably why he made that kind of stupid mistake in the first place. "Hey, how about that soup, huh? Is that for me?"
"Not always," Kirielle huffed sullenly, thrusting the bowl at him. Whew, one bullet dodged. Mother was still giving him suspicious looks, though…
Zorian considered things as he practically inhaled the bowl of soup in front of him (the aranea may have scoured his mind, but there was nothing wrong with his stomach and he had not eaten for an entire day). This whole restart was probably a bust. The headache was bound to stay with him for weeks, only gradually going away, and he would be pretty useless while it lasted. On top of that, he wasn't sure if mother would even let him go to the Academy after an episode like that, so it might be impossible to leave the house without flat out running away. It might be best to just spend the entire month recovering and making sure his attackers didn't saddle him with any nasty surprises or permanent consequences.
He glanced at mother and Kirielle, who were both still giving him concerned looks, as if expecting him to fall apart at any particular moment, and then the empty soup bowl in his hand.
"So," he said. "You wouldn't happen to have more of this stuff, would you?"
- break -
Like he expected, mother didn't want to even hear about him going back to the academy so soon after his inexplicable coma and insisted he remain at home to recover. However, she and father had arranged for their trip to Koth in three days' time, and she was clearly loath to delay it. Since the last thing Zorian wanted was to spend any more time around his parents than necessary (even though mother had been surprisingly nice to him at the moment, he knew the effect would wear off after a few days), he was fully on board with her going through with their original plans and leaving him alone at home to recover.
In the end, mother and father did not need too much convincing to leave for their extended visit to Daimen. Zorian just had to promise to stay home for at least a month before heading back to the academy, with neighbors occasionally checking up on him to make sure he was keeping to his end of the bargain. Oh, and take Kirielle off their hands, but he no longer considered that such a chore as he once did.
Interestingly, this was the first time since he got stuck in the time loop that he had spoken to his father again. It only took a single snide comment about his 'weak, fainting son' for him to remember why. If he was lucky, this would be the last restart he had to interact with the man.
The month passed in quiet recovery. Kirielle was initially enthusiastic about 'nursing him back to health', but it took her all of two days before she got bored of playing nurse and dumped all of the cooking and household chores in his lap. He was fine with it, really – she meant well, but he wasn't a big fan of burned steak and half-cooked eggs, which was just about the only thing she knew how to make. That seemed to signify to her that he was okay, though, because she began pestering him for magic lessons soon after. Not having anything better to do with his time, he agreed. She showed much more patience for that than she did for cooking, at least.
As the restart gradually dragged to its close, Zorian breathed a sigh of relief. The attack had no lasting consequences he could detect. The headaches were annoying, but thankfully subsided quickly. By the end of the third week, they were completely gone. He had no problems using his powers after the second week or so, and he noticed no holes in his memory – even the memories of the final attack had gradually un-jumbled themselves into a proper timeline by the end of the first week, although the very end was hard to interpret due to his less than coherent state at the time. The matriarch's memory package was thankfully still whole and intact, waiting for the day he was good enough to open it properly.
He had been lucky. That could have gone far worse for him than it had in the end. Far, far worse. If he hadn't managed to activate his suicide rings in time…
But no matter – live and learn. He would just have to make sure he came better prepared when he visited the other aranea communities in the next restart. He had five other candidates from the Illustrious Gem Collectors, and they can't all be treacherous jackasses like the Sword Divers, right? Still, he had every intention of taking better precautions in the future to make sure something like the previous restart could never happen again.
If another group of aranea tried to betray him in the future, he would be ready to show them just how big of a mistake they made in attacking him.