Chapter 056


Despite how much the experience had annoyed Zach, Zorian judged their meeting with Xvim to have been a full success. Sure, Xvim had been openly dismissive of Zach's skills, but that was just Xvim being Xvim. The man had been impressed in his own way, else he would not have kept pushing Zach towards ever more demanding shaping exercises as their meeting progressed. Not that this outcome was surprising – there was a lot to be impressed about when it came to Zach's shaping, especially if one knew how big his mana reserves were. His fellow time traveler had not honed his shaping skills to the same ridiculous standard that Zorian had achieved under Xvim's tutelage, but he was clearly far better than he had any right to be. Zorian was confident that the skills Zach displayed in that office would be taken as a point in their favor.

The next day, Zorian decided to introduce Zach to Alanic as well and see if the priest was open to the idea of teaching Zach some of his soul defenses. Accordingly, they went to the priest first thing in the morning, effectively skipping an entire day of classes. Not that skipping classes was much of a problem for either of them at this point.

The start of the meeting went about as Zorian expected it would. Zach talked, Alanic listened, and Zorian mostly stayed quiet. The priest already knew the nature of their request, since Zorian had already explained things to him while arranging the meeting, but he wanted to hear Zach's version of the story as well before he agreed to anything. Thankfully, Zach successfully kept to the script and didn't blurt out anything he wasn't supposed to.

Their story was, in essence, very simple: the two of them had ended up on the receiving end of a soul magic attack and now had some kind of marker stamped on their soul. Zach, being shaken by the experience, now wanted to learn how to defend himself from similar attacks.

"There is one thing that is bothering me about this," Alanic told them when Zach finished his tale, shifting his attention from Zach to Zorian. "If both of you suffered from this attack, how come only Zach is interested in learning how to defend his soul? Does the experience you went through not worry you as well?"

"Ah, well, I already know how to perceive and defend my soul," Zorian admitted.

"Really?" Alanic said curiously, raising his eyebrows in a silent question.

"Why would I lie?" asked Zorian with a shrug.

Alanic stared at him for a second before reaching across the table they were gathered around and grasping his shoulder tightly in his hand. Zorian was about to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing when suddenly all of his senses went haywire.

He swayed in his chair for a moment, the world around him spinning and melting like a bad illusion and his body feeling like it was being twisted into some unnatural form. Then he realized what was happening and used his magic to violently shove Alanic's attack away from his soul. It worked, and the world immediately returned to normal, but Zorian had an uncomfortable feeling that had more to do with Alanic backing off at the first sign of resistance than him being all that good.

He gave the man a nasty glare, and Alanic removed his hand from Zorian's shoulder.

"Shoddy defenses," Alanic said. "Serviceable, but shoddy. You should reconsider you decision, mister Kazinski. You could use my instruction as much as mister Noveda here."

"I know that!" Zorian snapped. "I just thought…"

…that Alanic would refuse to teach him, since he didn't want to do so in previous restarts. Well, not without receiving explanations that Zorian had been unwilling to give the man at that time.


"You know what? Nevermind that," Zorian sighed. "Does that mean you're willing to teach us, then? Both of us?"

"I suppose I am," Alanic said, tapping his fingers against the table for a few seconds. "You are hiding things from me, but I don't think it's something sinister. Who taught you how to feel your soul, if I may ask?"

"A friendly shifter," said Zorian.

Partially true, even if Alanic had done the lion's share of the work.

"A shifter, huh?" Alanic said, giving him another long look. "Very well. Come with me so I can check up on this marker you two received from your attacker."

"Err, we don't want it removed," Zach hurriedly said.

"Yes, you already said that," Alanic said. "I just want to have a look. Don't worry, I'm not doing anything to you without your consent."

"You mean like launching a surprise soul attack to test our claims of already having a soul defense?" asked Zorian snidely.

"Don't be so whiny," Alanic told him unsympathetically. "That was just a light tap, spiritually speaking."

"That 'light tap' almost caused me to vomit all over your table," Zorian told him.

"Hmph," Alanic scoffed. "Your defenses are even shoddier than I thought, then."

Sighing, Zorian decided to drop the issue.

"What is it with you and annoying teachers?" Zach whispered to him as they followed Alanic deeper into the temple that served as his house. "Is this going to be a recurring thing with you? I don't think I can handle a repeat of the Xvim episode this soon."

Zorian was tempted to bring Zach to Silverlake after this, just to show him the true meaning of annoying. At least Alanic and Xvim were each helpful in their own way in addition to being hard to deal with. He wondered if Zach was good enough to deal with the grey hunter… he probably could kill the beast, but could he do it in a way that keeps the eggs intact?

Though now that he thought about it, Silverlake probably doesn't count as a teacher. She had taught him precisely nothing so far.

"Mister Zosk is way less annoying than Xvim," he whispered back to Zach, putting his musings aside for the moment. "He can be pretty harsh at times, but he's always fair. He doesn't insult people without good reason. The truth is my soul defenses really are shoddy at the moment. Give him a chance."

"I'm happy you have so much faith in me, mister Kazinski," Alanic said, butting into their conversation. Oops, guess they weren't quiet enough. Or maybe Alanic's hearing was just that good. "This Xvim fellow you keep talking about sounds fascinating. I hope you can introduce us sometime."

Zorian made a sour face. Bringing Xvim and Alanic together into the same room? Yeah, no way in hell was he letting that happen…

Alanic seemed to have noticed Zorian's distaste for the idea because he actually laughed at him.

"I was just joking, mister Kazinski," the priest said, his voice still tinged with amusement. "If I really wanted to meet this 'Xvim', I would have sought him out on my own. With a name like that, I doubt he'd be hard to find."

"I suppose you're right," Zorian admitted. 'Xvim' was a fairly exotic name, and he had a feeling that his mentor was rather famous within certain circles as well. Everyone who worked in a prestigious institution like Cyoria's Royal Magical Academy was at least somewhat famous. All in all, Xvim probably wasn't very hard to find for someone like Alanic, who clearly had connections to one or more spy organizations.

Not for the first time, Zorian found himself wondering what exactly would happen if he told Alanic about the time loop. Not in this restart, obviously, but as an idea for the future… well, he could use the battle-priest's help and advice.

Then again, he wasn't working alone anymore, was he? He would have to see what Zach would say about that.

Oh well. Hopefully Alanic would leave a better impression on Zach than Xvim had.

- break -

"Ugh," Zach said as they departed from Alanic's home. "That psychedelic potion is pure hell. And I'm apparently going to have to go through several restarts worth of that stuff?"

"You didn't have to take it," Zorian pointed out. "Its only purpose is to speed things up. You could have taken the slow, painless way and meditated your way to soul perception."

"No, I know my limits," Zach said, shaking his head. "Even you opted for the 'fast' route, and I'm even more impatient than you are. How you managed to pretend to be unaware of the time loop all this time I'll never fathom… What did he have you do while I was off hallucinating, anyway?"

"That 'light touch' stuff he tried on me earlier," grimaced Zorian. "He kept using weak soul attacks on me while having me fight him off. It's helpful, I guess. At the very least it gives me some experience in fending off soul manipulation. I usually rely on actual defensive wards to counter hostile soul magic, but this sort of stuff is useful if I'm ever caught off-guard with some casual soul spell. It's strange, though. Why is Alanic willing to help me refine my soul defenses now that I've brought you along? Why does your presence make him less suspicious of me?"

"I guess I just look like a more honest person than you do," Zach said with a grin. Zorian rolled his eyes at him. "Anyway, what now?"

"Now? Well, you either go home and do whatever you want, or you go with me to Knyazov Dveri while I visit the local dungeon," Zorian told him. "I was going to go there while you had your lessons with Alanic, but that idea obviously had to be scrapped, so I guess I'll do it now."

"You were going to go have fun in the dungeon while I suffered back there?" Zach frowned.

"Depends how you define fun," Zorian said. "I'm just going to load up on crystalized mana before getting back to the surface."

"I'm not sure I understand," Zach said. "Why would you need so much crystalized mana?"

"Money, of course," Zorian said. "I use some of it for my magic items and golems, but most of it is sold for some quick cash. I memorized where the crystal clumps are over the restarts, so it doesn't take long to pick up a lot of them. It's almost like collecting money."

Zach was quiet for a while.

"Well crap," said Zach after a while. "That's clever. Why didn't I think of that? I could have used that trick a decade or so ago…"

"What, you had cash problems?" Zorian asked curiously. "Aren't you obscenely rich?"

"I don't have nearly as much money as people think," Zach shook his head. Oh, right, his guardian kind of robbed him. "Hell, I don't have nearly as much money as I thought I did, thanks to my slimy caretaker. But the real problem is that most of my money is unavailable to me. It's all either banked into long-term accounts or stored away in ways that make it really hard for me to get to it on short notice. And even if I could get to it easily, I would still have to justify my expenses to my caretaker and get his permission in order to spend any significant sum. Which means that when I really wanted to spend a lot of money during the restarts, I basically had to get the money from scratch somehow…"

"Hmm. And how did you solve that?"

"Well, these days I just kill some rare magical creature and sell the corpse," Zach shrugged. "You can earn huge amounts of cash if you know who to sell it to. I really like your solution, though. It's a lot safer, and not even that much more time consuming. Doesn't dumping a huge amount of crystalized mana on the market collapse the price, though?"

Zorian shook his head. "In the grand scheme of things, the amounts of crystalized mana I can gather in a few days are a drop in the bucket. Even if I focused on doing nothing else for the entire restart, I'd only produce a fraction of what dedicated mines produce on a daily basis. Though trying to sell too much to individual shops does tend to bring unwanted attention."

"Alright," Zach nodded. "So how are we doing this?"

- break -

Later that day, when they finally returned to Cyoria, Zorian was lugging no less than five luggage boxes full of crystalized mana – a lot more than his excursions into the dungeons beneath Knyazov Dveri usually got him. They probably went a little overboard with their crystal collection, but that was fine. One could never have too much money.

Zorian usually stuck to the safer areas of the dungeon he had mapped and explored a long time ago when embarking on his crystal gathering expeditions, but Zach had insisted they explore the dungeon a little deeper than usual this time. Since the other time traveler was so powerful, Zorian had agreed. He was actually somewhat curious if they could find something interesting. In the end, though, they didn't discover anything too amazing – just several new crystal clumps and some strange cave plants that Zorian couldn't identify and decided to bring along with him. He could then show them to Kael when the boy finally showed up again. They didn't stumble upon anything particularly dangerous, which pleased Zorian (who didn't want to end the restart short because they died to some stupid monster in the dungeon depths) and disappointed Zach (who had been hoping for a good fight to blow off some steam).

Just as they were about to separate and go each to their own homes, Zach suddenly spoke up.

"That was kind of fun," he said. "We should go deeper next time."

"That's a bad idea," Zorian said. "We already went past the depth where I met this floating mass of eyes that killed me just by looking at me. It's only luck we didn't meet anything like that today. Do you really want to cut one of our restarts short by dying to some stupid monster?"

"Ugh. You're no fun," Zach complained.

"We can always go hunting all the monsters that are terrorizing the city now that aranea are gone," Zorian pointed out. "I already did that with Taiven in previous restarts, but… well, I can never really set myself loose when I'm around her. She knows me too well to accept my growth in skill at face value."

"Taiven. I remember her," Zach said. "She was your date for the evening that time when I invited all the students to my home for the summer festival. Are you close to her?"

"Not in the way you're probably thinking of. We're just friends," Zorian said.

"Friends that go on dates together?" Zach said with a grin.


"I'm pretty sure I told you something like this back then, but Taiven isn't interested in guys like me. I'm not her type," Zorian responded, hoping this was the end of it.

Yeah, fat chance of that.

"Ah, so she shot you down then," Zach nodded sagely. "Well, don't let it get to you. You can't get to them all, even with the time loop and its multiple retries. I never managed to talk either Raynie or Akoja to go out on a date with me, for example, no matter what I tried…"

Zorian was sorely tempted to ask Zach about his attempts to woo Akoja, since that was bound to have been amusing, in a train-wreck sort of way. In the end, however, he decided that he really didn't want to know.

"I hope you realize that I've been in this time loop for only a handful of years and that most of that time has been spent while under threat and under pressure from various 'emergencies'," Zorian told him.

"Yes, so?" Zach asked, not understanding his point.

"Aside from picking a girl for the date at the end of the restart, I never went out on any dates," Zorian told him. Did his meetings with Raynie count as dates? No, probably not. "I certainly didn't go after every single girl in the class like you seem to have done."

Zach stared at him in silence for a few seconds, apparently struck speechless at Zorian's statement.

"Seriously?!" he eventually asked, his voice incredulous.

"Seriously," Zorian confirmed.

"You're crazy," Zach told him. "Mark my words, you'll regret this once we're out of this time loop. You'll never get a chance like this in your life!"

"You sound like an old man," Zorian said.

"Well, I am several decades older than you," Zach pointed out. "Listen to your elders, young man, I know what I'm talking about…"

Ten minutes and a lot of pointless banter later, they finally called it a day and separated. Strangely enough, despite the fact he spent the entire day either having his soul slapped around, crawling through dark, monster-infested tunnels or being teased by his fellow time traveler, Zorian found himself happy with how it turned out.

Though he really could have gone without that last conversation – now he couldn't stop thinking about the various girls in his life.

And he was certain that if Zach knew about it, he would be laughing at his predicament.

The jerk.

- break -

Two days after their meeting with Xvim, the man called Zorian in his office to tell him that he had tentatively accepted his story as plausible and to talk about what they should do next. That was… surprisingly fast. It was interesting to experience just how big of an effect Zach's presence had on people he talked to. Both Xvim and Alanic seemed to be taking him more seriously this time around, just because there was a second person backing his story up. Was it just that multiple people were convincing in a way that a single person wasn't, or was there more to it?

He was tempted to ask Xvim about the topic directly, but it was unlikely he could offer much insight into the thought processes of his previous incarnations and would force him to admit he was purposely restricting Xvim's access to relevant information about the time loop.

Regardless, he currently found himself standing in front of Xvim on one of the Academy's many training grounds, waiting for the lessons to start.

"So," Xvim said. "I see you are here alone. I take it your fellow time traveler declined my offer, then?"

"I'm afraid you didn't leave the best impression on him the last time you met, sir," Zorian told him respectfully.

"A pity. He could have used my help. But enough about the easily discouraged – we're here to help you. You say you've already worked with me to hone your dimensionalism? Show me, then."

Zorian didn't have to ask what Xvim was talking about. He took out a large, oval rock from his jacket pocket and outstretched his hand in front of him so Xvim could see the stone.

And then he generated a flawless dimensional boundary around the stone. Visually, nothing happened… but Zorian knew Xvim could tell the difference somehow. He supposed that his ability to sense magic was just that good.

"Passable," Xvim said, passing his judgement. "Keep working on it in your free time, but I suppose I can work with this."

Zorian nodded, and quietly pocketed the stone, his long experience with Xvim allowing him to shrug off his mentor's ridiculous perfectionism without really getting upset. His dimensional boundary was more than just 'passable' and they both knew it. Zorian had already started to work on forming a dimensional boundary over complex objects like small statues and planned to move on to live, moving insects soon.

"You seem to have rather good grasp on the basic teleport spell, and even know a great many variants," Xvim said. "So today I will show you how to defend against teleportation instead."

"I already know how to ward places against teleportation," pointed out Zorian.

"Truly?" Xvim said. "Let's test that."

He waved his hands, conjuring four glowing orbs of light that quickly assumed a square formation over a large section of the training ground.

"Ward that area against teleportation, and then I'll do my best to teleport in," Xvim told him.

Shrugging, Zorian went and did just that. He was quite good at warding, in his humble opinion, but he had no illusions that his wards would actually hold against Xvim's attempts to sidestep it. Who knows what kind of sophisticated teleportation spells his mentor had at his disposal?

There. Not his best work, perhaps, as he was slightly rushed for time and didn't have any fancy materials to work with, but that should at least force him to spend some time to-

Without saying a word, Xvim unceremoniously dispelled his teleportation ward with a wide-area dispel and teleported into the previously warded area.

Though he knew it wouldn't help, Zorian just couldn't help himself. He just had to say it.

"That's cheating," he said. "You told me you were going to try to teleport in, not that you'd just dispel the ward."

"And an actual attacker would play by the rules, hmm?" Xvim asked him. "You don't think they would just teleport to the edge of the ward and get rid of it?"

"If you gave me time to prepare, the ward would be anchored to something and be nigh impossible to dispel like that," Zorian said.

"And if you gave me time to prepare I'd bring a couple of mana siphons to starve the ward into collapse," Xvim said pitilessly.

"Ugh. Fine. Can I have another try?" Zorian asked.

"Of course," Xvim nodded. "You can have as many tries as you want."

Two hours later and 5 ward refinements later, Zorian had a warding scheme that Xvim couldn't just casually dispel whenever he wished. He had to extend the ward far outside the limits of the area indicated by Xvim's glowing orbs, but apparently that wasn't cheating either. The man even praised him for 'finally thinking outside the box'.

And then, when he finally couldn't dispel the ward, Xvim promptly teleported into the area as if the ward had never existed. Zorian wouldn't have been so upset about that, except that Xvim didn't appear to have used anything more complex than a basic teleport to do so.

"What happened?" he asked the man. "How did you teleport in with just the regular teleport? There are three stages of the basic teleport, and I made sure to suppress each and every one of them."

"I made a microscopic dimensional gate and used it to extend a ward-suppressing bubble in the middle of the area," Xvim said. "Then I simply teleported into a patch of effectively unprotected land. It is a standard way of getting into heavily-warded areas, though most people use magic items thrown into the area instead of creating a microscopic gate like I did."

"I presume this is because they can't create a gate like that, even a tiny one," Zorian said.

"Yes," Xvim confirmed. "But I'm hardly unique in this capacity, so it would be best to know how to deal with the tactic."

"Fine," Zorian said wearily. "I admit defeat, master. I don't know how to ward against teleportation effectively, so please teach me how. And if possible, I'd also like to know how to make the micro-gate thing, too."

"I suspect that level of skill is still beyond you, my student," Xvim told him with a small smile. "But we'll see. Now listen closely…"

- break -

Days passed. Aside from getting lessons from both Alanic and Xvim, Zorian spent his time playing games with Kirielle and creating experimental spell formula blueprints. He sought out Nora Boole's help for the latter task, discussing his designs with the enthusiastic woman that helped him start on his current path so long ago. She was surprisingly helpful, even after all this time… though it did bring him a bit more attention than he would have liked, since Nora couldn't shut up about this amazing spell formula talent she had found among the students. With Red Robe out of the picture, however, he didn't care as much about attracting attention.

He and Zach also went to hunt monsters that kept spilling into Cyoria a couple of times. Zorian already knew where a lot of them made their nests and which paths they took to the surface, and since he didn't have to feign ignorance around Zach, they thinned out monster populations considerably during those couple of visits to Cyoria's underground. At Zorian's request, Zach mostly let Zorian tackle the monsters on his own, only getting himself involved when he had to. Which was embarrassingly often, to Zorian's annoyance – his combat skills were steadily growing, but he still wasn't a one man army like Zach was.

Eventually Kael arrived at Imaya's place, and Zorian brought both him and Taiven into the time loop. Kael was very easy to convince, like usual, but Taiven was still rather incredulous about the idea. Then again, she always was rather hard to convince that he was telling the truth…

Currently he and Zach were just lazing around in an empty meadow, far from any settlement. Well, any inhabited settlement. There was a small village nearby, but it had been completely depopulated during the Weeping, and now the locals considered the entire area cursed and refused to move back in. Zorian didn't expect that to last for long, but for now the village remained empty and the fields overgrown with grass.

Though the background of the place was rather morbid, it was a very beautiful location otherwise. Zach had really found some nice sites in his decades of wandering the continent.

"So what was Kael being so excited about the other day?" Zach asked him. "I don't remember him being so excited about the time loop in the previous restart."

"Well, since I no longer have to worry about keeping my head down to stay below Red Robe's radar, Kael decided he can conscript some of the local alchemists for that research he keeps transferring across restarts," Zorian said.

"That sounds very expensive," Zach said, frowning.

"It probably will be," Zorian said, nodding. "I'd be annoyed at him throwing my money around like that, but in truth I really don't have much use for most of it. Besides, I can always dip into other sources of cash if I ever run out."

"Other sources?" Zach asked.

"I know the locations of several secret stashes of the Ibasans and the cultists scattered around Cyoria," Zorian said. "And I can always rob their houses too, since I know where a lot of them live and all."

"But that's stealing," Zach protested.

"Yes?" Zorian confirmed, mystified at Zach's response. "Why wouldn't I steal from them? They're a bunch of murderous invaders."

"Well… I guess it makes sense," Zach admitted. "But it just feels wrong to me, you know?"

"But you didn't feel uncomfortable helping me violently break into aranean settlements so we could violate their minds for practice and skill theft?" Zorian asked curiously.

Zach winced. "I, uh… didn't think of it that way. Besides, they're giant spiders. It's easier to justify that sort of thing when I can't read their body cues and they don't bother to talk to me about it."

"That's because you had a mind blank on," Zorian noted. "They literally couldn't talk to you. They did talk to me, though. They asked, even begged us to stop plenty of times."

"Uh, wow," said Zach awkwardly. "That's… pretty messed up. I always did wonder why you were so reluctant to go attack more than one colony each day…"

Zorian nodded silently. He wasn't exactly dying of guilt over what they did, but that was one restart he never intended to reenact in the future. There was no way he could keep doing that without becoming a monster.

After a short silence, Zach spoke up again.

"You know, Zorian," he said. "After watching you fight against the aranea in that restart and against other monsters in this one, I couldn't help but notice your combat magic is a little… basic."

"I guess," Zorian said slowly, wondering what the other boy was getting at.

"It's not bad!" Zach hastened to add. "It's pretty good, all things considered. But, well… I don't think it's good enough for what we need to do."

"Fair enough," Zorian agreed. "I am working on it, though. I suppose you think I'm not doing enough?"

"Actually, I was going to offer to teach you some more spells," Zach grinned. "I'm not much of a teacher, but I don't have to be one in order to increase your arsenal of combat spells."

There was no reason to say no – Zorian was always happy to learn more spells, especially restricted ones like most combat spells. Of course, learning spells was not the same as being able to use them effectively in combat, which was why Zorian still relied primarily on classics like magic missile, shield, fireball and the like.

It quickly became obvious that many of Zach's favorite tricks wouldn't work well for Zorian. For instance, Zach loved the shield variations that created multiple layers of force instead of a single shielding plane – while extremely effective, they had extreme mana costs associated with them as well. He also loved using spells in large swarms to overwhelm enemy defenses, which was likewise an impractical tactic for Zorian.


"Okay then, this is one of those fancy hexagon shields you sometimes see in illustrations," said Zach, casting the spell deliberately slowly so Zorian could memorize the movements and chants. A ghostly sphere made of interlocking hexagons sprung out around Zach. "I personally find it too much of a chore, but it sounds like it can work well for someone like you. The main advantage is that if an attack punches through, it will only destroy one hexagon instead of collapsing the entire shield. Though this does make the shield as a whole somewhat weaker than the layered aegis I showed you earlier. Hence me not using it much."

"That does sound more suited to me," Zorian admitted.

"We should probably stop for today," Zach said, dismissing the shield. It promptly dissolved into glittering motes of lights instead of simply winking out of existence like a regular shield did. Pretty.

"Yes," Zorian agreed. "It's best I spend some time experimenting with stuff you've already shown me before I bother learning more new stuff."

"Don't be afraid to ask for help," Zach said. "Hell, maybe one day you'll even teach me something."

Zorian cocked his eyebrow at him.

"Who says I can't teach you something now?" he asked the boy.

"Eh, I meant something related to combat magic," Zach clarified, waving his hand through the air dismissively.

"So did I," Zorian immediately countered.

"Zorian, please," Zach snorted derisively. "Combat magic is my thing. I've been working on it for decades now. Even if you know some obscure spell I've never encountered, I probably already have something better in my arsenal. Any feat of combat magic you can do, I can either duplicate or exceed."

"Hmm," Zorian hummed thoughtfully. "That calls for a little test, I think. Do you think you're up to it?"

"Sure," Zach shrugged. "What do you have in mind?"

"See that rock over there?" Zorian said, pointing at a large stone some distance away from them. Zach motioned for Zorian to continue. "Keep an eye on it while I cast my spell."

"Alright," Zach said, retreating to a healthy distance and positioning himself so he could easily see both Zorian and the stone at the same time.

Slowly and carefully, Zorian went through the motions of the spell. Zach looked torn between confusion and amusement, since the spell was clearly just a magic missile, but said nothing and opted to just watch instead.

Zorian finished the spell. For a second, nothing seemed to happen.

Then the rock Zorian designated as his target exploded into a shower of stone fragments, causing Zach to flinch in surprise at the sudden, unexpected detonation.

"What?" he asked uncomprehendingly. He gave Zorian a suspicious glance. "Did you put an explosive glyph on that stone beforehand or something?"

"Nope," Zorian said, grinning widely. "I cast an invisible magic missile at it."

"Invisible magic missile?" Zach asked slowly.

"Didn't you know?" Zorian asked innocently. "A flawlessly cast force spell is perfectly transparent, making it effectively invisible. It took me quite a while to achieve this, but I'm sure a master combat mage like yourself has mastered this years ago."

Zach stared at him for a second before shifting his gaze to the shattered rock the magic missile had demolished.

"So," Zorian began, smiling brightly. "How long do you think it will take you to duplicate that?"

- break -

Three days later, Zorian was kind of regretting one-upping Zach like he did. Ever since then, his fellow time traveler seemed obsessed with duplicating Zorian's feat, refusing to understand that this wasn't something you could achieve by working on it really hard for a couple of days.

"I'm not even sure why you're so upset about this," Zorian finally told him. "It's just a neat trick that people like you have no need for anyway."

"It's the principle of the thing," Zach said, casting another magic missile at the tree in front of him. Zorian didn't think the poor plant would last long if this continued for long. "I'm the combat guy. It's my thing, and I've been at this for decades longer than you! I can't let you outdo me in this area."

Zorian sighed at the explanation. He was getting uncomfortable flashbacks to Taiven's little episode when she figured out how good of a combat mage he is. Was this a general combat mage thing?

Well, at least Zach was not crying over it like Taiven had… that would have been really awkward.

"At least let me show you how to do it properly," Zorian said. "You'll never succeed by going at it in your current fashion."

Zach stopped for a second, considering it, before shaking his head.

"Maybe if I still can't figure it out in a few days," he said. "I like to figure out these sorts of things on my own."

Oh well, he tried. With a helpless shrug, Zorian left Zach to his pointless attempts at brute-forcing a problem that required finesse to solve.

Eventually Zach either ran out of mana or got sick of casting magic missile – probably just got sick of it, considering his monstrous mana reserves – and decided to sit down next to Zorian for a while.

"Do you mind if I ask you a little about what you remember about the start of the time loop?" Zorian asked after a while.

"Feel free," Zach shrugged. "But keep in mind that the beginning of the time loop is very fuzzy in my mind and I keep having trouble remembering specific things about it."

"Yeah, you mentioned that," Zorian nodded. "But I've been thinking about what you've said, both recently and back when you still thought I was unaware of the time loop…"

"That was an asshole thing for you to do," said Zach, interrupting him. "I know I've said it before, but it bears repeating."

"You're never going to shut up about it, are you?" Zorian complained.

"Nope," Zach confirmed.

"Anyway," Zorian said, deciding there was no point in continuing that topic, "I remember you mentioning how you kept trying to convince everyone who would listen about the existence of the time loop. What was your logic behind that?"

"I found myself in some crazy time loop and there was an invasion of the city at the end of every month," Zach said. "Of course I wanted some help."

"So just to confirm…" Zorian tried. "Your earliest memories are of being confused by the situation you found yourself in, yes? The time loop was strange and novel to you, not something that felt natural?"

Zach frowned, lost in thought for a while.

"Yeah," Zach nodded. "Sounds about right. It doesn't feel like the time loop was something I was informed of in advance or specifically groomed for, if that's what you're asking. I guess that's a point in favor of Red Robe being the true Controller, huh?"

"Him being the original Controller still makes no sense to me," Zorian said. "Why would he tolerate you all this time if you weren't somehow critical for the loop? Do you remember ever experiencing a time loop being cut short for no apparent reason?"

"No," Zach said. "I would have remembered something that abnormal. I did experience a few unexpected restarts while sleeping, but I'm pretty sure those were due to assassinations."

"Hmm. I doubt Red Robe never died prematurely, so that means the time loop only resets when you die. That's a pretty obvious indicator it considers you more important than the two of us."

They continued discussing the issue for another ten minutes of so, with no solid conclusions by the end. Eventually they shifted to the topic of how to convince people around them they really were in a time loop and Zach started sharing some of his more amusing failures in his initial quest for allies…

"You told Benisek that you're a time traveler?" Zorian asked incredulously. "I can't believe you thought that was a good idea."

"Shut up," Zach said. "Aren't you friends with the guy?"

"Eh, sort of," Zorian admitted. "But I'm afraid our friendship didn't quite survive the time loop and its influence on me. I kind of feel bad, since it's not his fault he can't learn and grow like I do, but…"

"You don't have to explain that to me," Zach said. "I used to be casual friends with a lot of our classmates, but I feel completely alienated from most of them by now."

"Right," said Zorian. Best not to dwell on such a depressing topic. "So what exactly happened when you told Benisek about the time loop?"

"I thought he took it quite well at first," Zach said. "Then I came to school the day after and found that he told half the school I've gone completely nuts. Though funnily, everyone seemed to have a different idea of what kind of crazy thing I believed in…"

"Yeah, that sounds like Benisek," Zorian nodded. "So when you said you tried to convince everyone, you really meant everyone, huh?"

"Well, obviously I couldn't try to convince literally everyone in Cyoria," Zach said. "But it was a lot of people. Students, teachers, city authorities, you name it."

Zorian tapped his fingers against the ground around him, trying to think of some person from their class whose reaction to the time loop would have been amusing. Oh!

"How about Veyers?" he asked Zach. "Did you ever tell him about the time loop?"

"Who?" Zach asked, looking confused.

"Veyers Boranova," Zorian said. "You know, the guy who punched you in the face during class in our second year? He got expelled from the academy before the time loop began, but he had technically been our classmate, so I thought…"

He stopped when he noticed Zach was giving him a strange look.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Zorian… who the hell are you talking about?" Zach asked him slowly.

Zorian stared at Zach for a while, before he began to explain things in more detail.

"I'm talking about Veyers Boranova," he said. "Member of Noble House Boranova and our classmate during the first two years of our education. Tall, blond, and with vivid orange eyes that had a slitted iris and made him look sort of like a snake. You two hated each other… well, just about everyone hated the asshole, and he seemed to hate everyone around him, so I guess that doesn't say much but… Anyway, the point is that there is no way you could have forgotten the guy!"

Zach shifted in place uncomfortably.

"I have no idea who you're talking about," he finally admitted.

Wow. Now that… that was very, very interesting.