Chapter 058

Questions and Answers

Xvim's office was fairly typical as far as teacher offices went – a small room dominated by a large table and several bookcases, with much of the free space taken up by mysterious stacks of paper that every teacher piled up in their offices for some reason. It was relatively cramped even in normal circumstances; with four people inside, it crossed solidly into uncomfortable territory. There weren't even enough chairs for everyone! Though that was admittedly something easily solved with basic conjuration spells.

Of course, much of Zorian's current discomfort stemmed from the nature of the meeting he and Zach had stumbled upon, rather than the lack of elbow room. Interaction between Xvim and Alanic could make the rest of this restart very uncomfortable, or even force a premature end to it. Still, the suddenness of this development, as well as the cramped nature of their current environment, greatly amplified the threatening undertones of the meeting and Zorian couldn't help but wonder how much of it was deliberate. Did Xvim and Alanic purposely arrange for this meeting to happen here and now in order to exert additional psychological pressure on them? Bit of a risky move, if they did. Some people reacted really badly to being cornered. Zorian would not have pulled such a stunt, were he in their place.

But no matter. It could be that he was reading too much into it and they just didn't consider things that way. Besides, it wasn't like they were really cornered. Zorian could start a new iteration at any time, after all.

After exchanging an uncertain look between themselves, Zach and Zorian greeted their two teachers back, moved into the room and made themselves as comfortable as possible under the circumstances.

As they settled into the room, Zorian found himself wondering what kind of information the two men had exchanged. Alanic had probably told Xvim everything he knew about them, but that honestly wasn't much and mostly just proved that Zach and Zorian were keeping some things secret from Xvim. Xvim, on the other hand, had a far more complete picture of what was going on than Alanic… but would he really tell the warrior priest about the time loop? And would the other man believe Xvim, even if he would?

Considering the way the two teachers were watching him, he reckoned he would find out the answers to those questions in very short order.

"Surprised to see me here?" Alanic asked them challengingly.

"Yes," Zorian freely admitted. "It's very… interesting to see you here. I didn't think you and Xvim knew each other."

"We don't," Alanic shrugged. "I grew concerned about some things about you two and knew you would never tell me the truth. So I tracked him down to see if he knew something that could help me."

"And you just happened to visit him at the time we have a session scheduled with him?" Zorian asked, raising his eyebrow at the man. "That's some curiously lucky timing."

"Luck has nothing to do with it. This is actually my third meeting with your mentor, mister Kazinski," Alanic admitted readily. "I came here today specifically to meet with you two."

"Ah," Zorian nodded.

"Alright, let's stop dancing around each other and get to the point," Zach said, apparently not in the mood for verbal sparring. He turned towards Xvim. "How much did you tell him?"

"Given the nature of the situation, we felt it would be foolish to try and trick one another," Xvim said. "I told mister Zosk everything I know about the time loop… a courtesy I wish the two of you had extended to me as well. It is quite obvious at this point that you know far more about it than you've chosen to tell me. A rather poor way of repaying my cooperation and generosity, if I may say."

Ouch. Zorian supposed he could add 'delivering guilt trips' to the list of Xvim's many talents.

"People react very badly if you try to tell them everything," Zach said, completely unapologetic. Unlike Zorian, his experience with Xvim and Alanic was both recent and relatively short. He didn't care much for Xvim's appeal to emotions. "I know because I tried it. Give too many details and people either freak out on you or dismiss you as a lunatic. And this was back when I didn't know half the stuff I do today. It's hard enough to convince people the time loop is real."

"I feel I have been fairly open-minded about this," Xvim noted.

"It took Zorian several years of mind-numbing shaping exercises for you to take him seriously," Zach said, rolling his eyes. "And even then, you tend to stall for weeks if he mucks up his timing or says the wrong thing. And that's Zorian – when I tried to convince you, you didn't entertain my story for a second."

Xvim frowned deeply, but said nothing.

"Okay, this is getting a little too heated," Zorian said, trying to stave off an argument. "First things first. Mister Chao, mister Zosk… I apologize for keeping you in the dark. Keeping some of the story secret from you made perfect sense from our perspective, but I can understand why you would feel a little betrayed by our behavior."

Alanic snorted derisively. Zorian suddenly remembered something.

"Actually, do you mind if I ask you something?" Zorian said, looking at Alanic. "What did Xvim say that convinced you the time loop is real?"

"So you know how to convince me yourselves in the future?" Alanic guessed. Zach and Zorian immediately confirmed his supposition. "To be honest, I'm still not convinced this is not nonsense."

"Oh," said Zorian, visibly deflating. Damn.

"So why the hell are you giving us grief over this if you don't even believe what we're saying?" Zach demanded, folding his arms over his chest defensively.

"Because I can tell you believe what you're saying," Alanic said. "So at worst you're delusional, rather than just a bunch of liars. I am somewhat hurt that Xvim here got to hear this tale from you, but you apparently don't think I'm worth convincing. It's not like I would have cut all ties with you if I didn't believe you, you know? I would have just thought you were a little crazy."

Zorian gave Alanic an unamused look.

"You say that, but if I came to you with soul defenses that you yourself had taught me and used time travel as my explanation when you confronted me about it, it would matter a lot whether you believed my story or not," Zorian told him.

"Ah, so they are my techniques," Alanic said, nodding to himself. "I admit that had been bothering me for a while now. It's one of the things that caused me to seek out Xvim. It was just so unlikely that a shifter knew how to teach you some of those things…"

"I did learn some of my soul awareness from a shifter," Zorian said. "But the majority of it comes from you."

"Right. I can see how that could be a bit of a problem," Alanic mused. "While a time loop would explain things, there are simpler explanations than time travel for something like that. You could be a powerful mind mage, for example…"

"I am," Zorian admitted.

Three surprised looks were immediately directed his way. Even Zach was caught off guard, probably because he expected him to keep this little factoid a secret at all costs.

"Hey, they wanted the whole truth. Let them have a taste of it," Zorian shrugged. "Yes, I am a powerful mind mage. It's one of the things I had focused on over the restarts."

"An excellent choice for someone in your situation," Xvim nodded approvingly. "Endlessly useful and it would be quite dangerous to train outside the time loop."

Alanic gave Xvim a mildly scandalized look.

"So, anyway… I come to your place and demonstrate the soul defenses you taught me," Zorian told Alanic, looking him straight in the eye. "You ask me how this is possible and I say time travel. You don't believe me and check me for mind magic. As it turns out, I am a mind mage. What now?"

"Things get complicated," Alanic admitted.

There was a short pause as everyone considered things in the privacy of their own minds.

"Well, this didn't go as planned," said Xvim, giving Alanic an annoyed glance. The scarred battle priest shrugged at him unrepentantly. "Let us put hypotheticals aside for the moment. I will concede that simply telling us everything may not be as simple as it first appears. Nonetheless. I will have to insist that you try just this once. If you don't… then both of us will withhold our lessons from you for the duration of this restart."

"Additionally," Alanic quickly added. "If you honestly tell us everything, I will tell you what you need to do to stop me from getting suspicious at you in future restarts."

Zorian hummed thoughtfully. The carrot and the stick. Truthfully, the threat didn't worry Zorian much – losing their lessons for the two weeks or so left in the restart would be kind of annoying, nothing more.

He shared a look with Zach, who shrugged uncaringly.

"I'm fine with this," Zach said. "We already planned on doing something like this in the future, didn't we? Worst case, we get an example of what not to do when we try for real."

Thinking about it some more, Zorian had to agree with this. This wasn't nearly as planned and controlled as he wanted the eventual reveal to be, but what else was new? Few things went entirely according to plan, even in the time loop. He may as well tell them everything and see how they react. He opened his mouth to speak, only to be interrupted by Xvim.

"We would prefer if Zach were to tell the story, if you will," Xvim said.

"Me?" Zach asked in a surprised tone, pointing a finger at his own chest. "Why? Zorian would explain it way better than I could. Not only did he figure most of this stuff out before me, he knows you two far better than I do."

"Perhaps," Alanic conceded. "But it is far easier for me to gauge your honesty than it would be to judge Zorian's."

Zach shot him an uncertain look.

"They're not using mind magic on you," Zorian said, shaking his head. "I'd be able to tell. But between this and some of Alanic's past comments, it seems likely that he has some supernatural way of checking people's honesty."

He then frowned. Something was bothering him. A memory that danced at the edge of his awareness, trying to make itself known. Suddenly, he realized what this reminded him of – Kylae, the priestess that predicted the future, had also claimed she had some way of telling if he was being honest with her.

"You know, you are not the first priest that claimed he could tell if people are lying to them," Zorian told Alanic. "Is this some kind of ability priests possess that I'm not aware of?"

"It's an ability connected to soul magic," Alanic said. "But higher ranking priests are quite often trained in soul magic, so you're not far from the truth. The outer portion of the soul – the aura – reacts to its host's thoughts and emotions to some extent, and those with soul sight can learn how to read and interpret its movements. Since most people have no awareness of their own soul, and thus no control over it, a soul mage can often get far stronger and reliable tells about people than you would get by relying on body language and intonation alone."

"But I can sense my own soul, so it's not a reliable indicator where I'm concerned," Zorian surmised.

Alanic nodded.

"But I can't actually detect and manipulate my aura to such an extent," Zorian noted. "All you've taught me is how to harden it to resist spiritual attacks."

"And I only have your word for it," Alanic shrugged.

"Alright, alright, I'll do the explanation," Zach said, interrupting their exchange. He waved his hands in front of him, conjuring an illusion of the planet above Xvim's table.

"This is the world," Zach said, pointing at the gently spinning green-and-blue sphere. He then shifted his hand to point at green blob that looked vaguely like Altazia. "And this place here is roughly where Cyoria is. Beneath the city there is a time magic research facility studying a powerful ancient artifact, likely of divine origin. The researchers think it's an advanced time dilation chamber, and in a way they are right. When activated, it takes a detailed record of everything in existence… and copies it."

Zach waved his hands again, and the ghostly planet forked into two identical spheres – one floating to the left of the original, and the other to the right. The difference was that the left copy was no longer spinning, standing still as if frozen in time, while the right one was rotating madly like a spinning top.

"The copy of the world exists in its own pocket dimension that is under tremendous time dilation. From the point of the copy-people living in this copy-world, the original world is frozen between moments. A hundred years passes in a fraction of a second. Not that they know this. The only tell that the world is a copy bound to its own pocket dimension is that the spiritual planes have been cut off from the material world."

From the corner of his eye, Zorian saw Alanic suddenly stiffen.

"Time does not flow normally within the copy world," Zach continued. He adjusted the illusion again, altering the right planet slightly. It still spun, but there was a subtle, stuttering quality to it now, since every couple of rotations it reverted to its initial position before fully completing the spin. "Instead of always going forward in time, the world is periodically reverted to its original state. Everything is utterly undone, the land and its people constantly recreated from that initial record of the real world that was used to make the copy-world in the first place. Time repeats itself over and over, month after month after month. From the perspective of someone living in such a world, it would be like they are trapped in a time loop."

Zach leaned back in his conjured chair and gave Xvim and Alanic a dramatic stare. Zorian had a feeling Zach was kind of enjoying this, despite his earlier complaints.

"As a matter of fact, there is someone like that," Zach announced. "Three of them, in fact."

"Three?" Alanic asked, raising his eyebrow.

"Three," Zach nodded. "There was supposed to be only one – a single person aware of the repetition, a mysterious marker stamped onto his soul to make sure he retains his memories through the restarts. Zorian thinks that is me. If so, I do not remember being this chosen one. A second person found a way to retain awareness across restarts and messed with my mind, deleting many of my memories. Much later on, I decided to take on an ancient lich head on in battle and he tried to blend my soul with Zorian's as punishment."

That got him a curious look from both Xvim and Alanic, but Zach didn't try to elaborate on that, choosing to instead finish his story.

"We survived, but the experience granted Zorian a functional version of my marker, granting him awareness of the time loop," Zach said. "Unfortunately, it also eventually motivated the second time traveler to leave the copy world. For reasons I won't go into right now, this means nobody else can leave without cheating the system somehow. And the fake world is running out of power and will collapse in little more than four years."

"And there you have it," Zach finally concluded, erasing the two illusionary planets with a wave of his hand and directing a bright smile at the two teachers. "We are all copies of the real thing, living in a looping, hyper-accelerated copy of the real world. A copy that will soon disappear, taking us all with it. Nothing you do really matters, and unless we can figure out a way to break the system, nothing we do will matter in the end, either. Zorian, did I miss anything?"

Zorian suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Just a million details, that's all. And did he really have to phrase things so provocatively? It would have already been hard to convince them, there was no need to make the job harder. But fine, he would play Zach's game.

"An Ibasan invasion force is going to invade Cyoria at the day of the summer festival. The Cult of the World Dragon intends to release a primordial in the center of the city while the defenders are distracted. The mayor of Knyazov Dveri is a necromancer and intends to harvest all of the souls killed in the conflict in some mad scheme to resurrect his dead wife as a lich and legalize necromancy," Zorian enumerated blandly.

"Eh, that isn't strictly time loop related, so I was going to bring it up afterwards," Zach said dismissively.

A long, uncomfortable silence descended upon the room. Both Xvim and Alanic seemed at loss for words, simply staring at the two of them in indecision and occasionally sharing strange looks between each other.

Zorian imagined that was how he and Zach had looked when they first stumbled into their meeting, so this was kind of poetic punishment in his eyes.

"So," Zach said, clapping his hands. "Any questions?"

- break -

Several hours and many, many questions later, Xvim and Alanic decided they had had enough and stopped the meeting. They didn't get everything in the end, not even close, but at the very least they knew the major details surrounding the time loop mechanism and invasion of Cyoria.

"Damn, that was exhausting," Zach told him afterwards as they wandered the city. "So much for your nice, relaxing restart to calm down and plan, huh? Between this and the Veyers thing, this is turning into a pretty exhausting month."

"I've had worse ones," Zorian said. "But yes, this was not quite what I had in mind when I told you I wanted a restart or two to unwind a bit."

"Do you think it will be worth it in the end, at least?" Zach asked. "They looked rather incredulous towards the end there."

"It's the invasion stuff," Zorian said. "If I hadn't lived through it, I'd have trouble believing it too. It sounds almost as far-fetched as the time loop itself. I'm not worried about that, to be honest. Unlike the time loop, the stuff about Ibasans, Cult of the World Dragon and Sudomir is pretty easy to confirm. I just hope they won't panic and do something stupid when they confirm that part of the story."

In the end, they had to meet with Xvim and Alanic two more times in the next four days, giving further explanations and details to their two increasingly nervous teachers. Like Zorian feared, they fixated more on the invasion of the City and Sudomir's plots than on the time loop. He understood, but was kind of annoyed anyway.

Another thing that was annoying was that Alanic, despite his earlier promise, didn't tell them how to stop his future iterations from getting suspicious at them. His explanation that he wanted to 'check things first' was kind of understandable at the beginning, but now Zorian was starting to feel a little cheated.

He was therefore pleasantly surprised when Alanic came to him on the fifth day of their first talk to give him the promised information.

"So we just have to claim we're junior members of this shady church organization of yours and that's it?" Zorian asked the man incredulously. "You would have just accepted a claim like that?"

"The Mesalian Order is not 'shady'," Alanic told him with a small glare. Sure, Alanic, sure. "It's just not well known. And of course I would not just accept it. But neither would I drop everything to confirm your identity, especially if you forge a legitimate-looking letter of recommendation and give me something else to focus on. Like Sudomir, for example."

"If I tell you about the mansion, everything blows up soon afterwards," Zorian said, shaking his head. "I'm pretty sure I already told you that."

"So don't tell my future self about the mansion, then," Alanic shrugged. "Use some other piece of information. There is no shortage of crimes that man is guilty of. I'm sure we can work something out in the coming days."

"Fair enough," Zorian nodded. He took a long look at Alanic, and noticed how tired and disheveled he looked. It didn't look like he was getting a lot of sleep these days. "So. Does this mean you believe us about the time loop?"

Alanic released a long-suffering sigh.

"I don't know what to believe anymore," he said. "But I figure there is no harm is helping you with this. If there is no time loop, the trick will be useless to you. If there is a time loop… well, you and Zach seem to be our only hope for a decent ending to all this."

At this point Imaya found them talking and gave Zorian an earful about being a poor host (he hadn't offered Alanic anything to eat or drink). Rather surprisingly, she then managed to talk Alanic into joining them for dinner. He didn't expect that. After prodding him a bit, Alanic admitted that he was so busy checking up on things he and Zach told him that he didn't have a proper meal since yesterday.

Imaya was terribly smug about the whole thing.

"What was that you said?" She asked with a smirk on her face. It was a rhetorical question, of course. They both knew what he had said. "Something about how he was 'obviously' not interested and how it was a 'pointless courtesy'? Seems that old people like me do know a thing or two about being a proper host, eh?"

Zorian let her have her little victory. She did turn out to be correct in this case, after all. In any case, Alanic was back the next day, though he didn't want to eat this time (Zorian had offered; Imaya couldn't say anything now) and instead wanted the two of them to visit Lukav about something.

"Are you sure we shouldn't have taken Zach with us as well?" Zorian asked as they put some distance from Imaya's house.

"I want to discuss shifters and the primordial," Alanic said. "From what I understood of your story, Zach has nothing to contribute there that he didn't hear from you first. I can't see a reason to bring him along. Unless you think he'll be insulted he's left out of the talks?"

Zorian considered it. If they were doing something exciting, like fighting monsters and the like, then maybe. As it was, Zach was already getting annoyed by their talks with Xvim and Alanic, complaining how much time they take and how boring they were. He probably won't care much that Zorian did this without him.

"No, probably not," he said, shaking his head. "I'll just fill him in later about what we talked about."

"Good. Let's hurry to the edge of the city so we can teleport to Lukav's place," Alanic said.

"There is no need," Zorian said with a self-satisfied smile. "Let's just find a deserted alley and I'll teleport us out straight out of the city. The teleport beacon hasn't been able to stop me for quite some time now."

If Alanic was surprised by his claim, he did not show it. Zorian supposed it was a minor thing after the revelations in the past few days. They found a sufficiently isolated place and soon arrived not far from Lukav's house, just outside the village he lived in.

He spoke with Alanic while they walked, the warrior priest telling him about some of the theories he had thought up over the past few days. Most of them centered on the release of the primordial from its prison dimension.

"So you think this whole time loop was created to stop the release of this thing?" Zorian said. "I can see where you're coming from. On one hand, both the time loop and the primordial release ceremony are clearly reliant on the planetary alignment to work. It's not a coincidence that those two are happening at roughly the same time. On the other hand, the time loop did start a month earlier than it was supposed to, for some reason. Each restart just happens to end at the time of the primordial's release. And on top of it all, the one time the primordial was released prematurely, the time loop immediately reset itself on its own."

"Seems like an open and shut case to me," Alanic pointed out.

"Nothing is open and shut about this time loop business," Zorian sighed.

"If you say so," Alanic said. "We're almost there. Let me do the talking in the beginning."

As it turned out, this was not the first time Alanic talked to Lukav about the topic. He had already told his friend about some of the things he found out from Zorian – specifically, the part where a group was trying to sacrifice shifter children in order to set a primordial loose into the world – and asked for his advice on tracking down the sacrifices before the ritual takes place. Lukav asked a lot of questions, and eventually Alanic grew annoyed and decided to just bring Zorian along on his next visit to clarify things.

Not that Zorian could truly help Lukav understand the issue, since he didn't truly understand it himself. Primordial essence was almost as big of a mystery to him as it was to Lukav.

"I don't understand why they're killing all these children," Lukav complained. "If the primordial essence is just a key to access the prison dimension, you'd think they needed only a drop of essence to work the magic. They could just… I don't know, bleed them a little?"

"A bridge, not a key," Zorian said. Not that he truly understood what the difference was, but Sudomir had phrased it like that so it was probably important. "Apparently that means they need as much primordial essence as possible for the ritual to work, so they're draining the victims of everything they have. Partial extraction of life force just doesn't cut it."

"Even if it wasn't necessary, they would have likely killed them in the end," Alanic said. "You don't set up a ritual like that and then leave witnesses afterwards."

In the end, Alanic didn't get what he wanted out of the meeting. He was trying to find a way to track down the sacrifices before the ritual began, as well as a way to locate the exact position of the anchor point of the primordial prison (something more accurate than Zorian's 'inside the Hole, somewhere'). Unfortunately, the only advice Lukav could give him in the end was to try and contact the local shifter tribes for help.

Alanic then left his friend's house, but Zorian stayed behind. He wanted to talk to Lukav about his idea to accelerate his training with the help of transformation potions. The idea was to transform into magical beings with useful special abilities and then use the experiences gained in that form to upgrade his own abilities. He was especially interested in creatures that possessed a form of advanced magic perception, since he was unhappy with his rate of growth there. Xvim claimed he was advancing along 'adequately' there, but Zorian didn't really have time to be merely adequate.

Lukav gave him both the good news and bad news. The good news was that his idea was solid. It was a known training aid, just one that was sparingly used due to extreme expense of such transformation potions. Not an issue for him and Zach. The bad news was that transformation potions like the ones he wanted couldn't be found on the open market. This was the sort of thing you needed good connections and various licenses to obtain. Especially in the sort of quantity he would need.

Fortunately, Lukav was perfectly capable of making potions like that and willing to help Zorian out. All Zorian had to do was bring Lukav an appropriate magical creature in good enough condition and pay a 'moderate fee', and the man was willing to make a transformation potion or two out of it. Any leftovers not used to make Zorian's potions would belong to Lukav.

Zorian had a feeling he was being thoroughly cheated there, but at the end of the day it was just money and he should probably be glad that Lukav was willing to essentially break the law for his sake. He still had an urge to learn how to make transformation potions on his own so he wouldn't have to rely on the man.

Something to think about, at least. He made a note in the list of ideas he was making in his free time and moved on.

- break -

The next couple of days were surprisingly peaceful. Alanic and Xvim agreed to continue teaching them, cutting down on their usual questioning of them whenever they saw them. They were still clearly keeping in contact with each other, discussing the time loop and the invaders, but for now they kept their conclusions to themselves and plotted something in the background. Zorian was a bit concerned about that, but not enough to lose sleep over it. Their minds were sufficiently open for his empathy to work on them, and they didn't feel like they had any malicious intentions towards him and Zach.

Zorian wasn't doing anything substantive during this time, his motivation suffering due to his recent dealings with Xvim and Alanic. He tried his hand at drawing again to pass the time, messed around with theoretical spell formula and learned some new spells from Zach.

He also let Taiven talk him into several rounds of physical combat. Normally he would never agree to something like that, no matter how bored, but recently his golem-making skills had progressed enough that his lack of fighting skills was becoming an issue. He couldn't make golems fight any better so long as he only knew the crudest basics of normal fighting. After talking to Edwin, his fellow golem enthusiast in the class, he had found out that Edwin was (rather reluctantly) taking martial arts lessons to pre-empt this very problem. That was how he met Naim, actually. And no, there was no solution except to learn how to fight the hard way.

Taiven absolutely demolished him, of course. She was superior to him in strength, technique and practical experience. It was not nearly as bad as he feared, though – she actually toned down the violence to something manageable and gave him some solid advice about what he was doing wrong.

She still kind of sucked as a teacher. Zorian was pretty sure the student wasn't supposed to end the lessons covered in bruises. He should look into hiring a proper fighting instructor someday. Maybe Naim knew a good one.

Another thing to add to his list.

- break -

It was another quiet day. Most of Imaya's household, plus Zach and Taiven, were gathered around the kitchen table, playing a game of cards. Since there were only so many players that could join a game at once, and since they were horrible players on their own, Kana and Kirielle were each attached to another person. Kirielle was attached to Zorian, of course, since he was her brother. She gave terrible advice and complained loudly when he didn't listen to her, giving clues to other players as to what his hand looked like. Kana, on the other hand, was sitting in Imaya's lap – Kael was away currently, negotiating some kind of deal with one of the alchemists in the city, so Imaya decided to take her under her wing while she played. The little girl mostly just watched the game, but occasionally Imaya prompted her for advice and she dutifully suggested a card by silently pointing at it with her finger.

Imaya always played the suggested card, no matter how terrible the suggestion. And she was still doing better than Zorian and Kirielle.

He wondered if it would be okay if he started glancing at people's thoughts from time to time. It was cheating, but he had Kirielle dragging him down and they didn't, so it kind of evened out, didn't it?

He studied his opponents a little. Right now, Zach was solidly winning the game. He was kind of suspicious about that, but if his fellow time traveler was cheating somehow, Zorian couldn't figure it out. Imaya was second, despite the occasional 'help' she solicited from Kana. Taiven was in third place, but she had a solid three point lead on him. Considering his current cards and the confidence all three of them radiated, he doubted that was going to change in this game.

"Play this!" Kirielle demanded, pointing at a card. Another poor choice on her part.

He played it anyway. Let her see the consequences of her folly, for once.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Seeing how this was shaping up to be another loss for him, he immediately handed the cards to Kirielle and volunteered to check up on it.

As it turned out, the visitor was Xvim. Apparently his mini-vacation was over.

"Greetings, mister Kazinski," Xvim said. "Am I interrupting anything?"

"No, not really," Zorian said. "Well, sort of. But it's nothing really important so don't worry about it. Please come in."

Surprisingly, Xvim didn't want to jump straight to business like Zorian thought he would. Instead, he accepted Imaya's offer of something to drink (tea) and took the time to talk to everyone in the house (except for Kana, who didn't talk). He got especially interested in Taiven, since he realized halfway through their talk that Zorian had told her about the time loop.

Zorian almost had a panic attack when he realized this – he was virtually certain that he was on the verge of another crisis, and would spend the next few days running damage control. He never actually told Taiven and Kael the whole truth about the time loop, after all. Thankfully, Xvim seemed more interested in the training regimen he was devising for Taiven and his help with Kael's alchemy research, rather than her opinion on time loop mechanics.

Eventually he managed to get Xvim alone for a while and explained to him that she and Kael only know a part of the truth, and that he would appreciate if things stayed that way. Xvim didn't seem to approve, but promised to respect his wishes.

Xvim also used this opportunity to ask why he was never informed about Kael and Taiven during their talks, and Zorian admitted he totally forgot to tell Xvim and Alanic about those two. It wasn't really relevant to 'the whole truth' in his mind. Xvim accepted this explanation without complaint, but still wanted to talk to them about their perspective on things.

In the end he, Zach and Xvim barricaded themselves in Kael's alchemy lab to have a proper talk in peace.

"So. More questions, huh?" Zach said with distaste.

"Yes. But not the kind you are thinking of," Xvim told them. "I actually came here to talk to you about your plans for the future."

"Well, they are still in the process of being made," Zorian admitted. "You have to understand, it has only been a single restart since we found out we're trapped in this world. The lead-up to that was very stressful, and this restart was supposed to be something of a short vacation. I have been slowly assembling some kind of plan in my head, but it's still very rough."

Currently, Zorian's plan for moving forward was very simple. Use time loop cheats to amass a lot of funds. Recruit various experts across the city (and perhaps the country and beyond) as their researchers, investigators and teachers. Take over the aranean criminal contacts and see if they could be harnessed for something useful. Trade with aranean settlements for their mind magic secrets. Raid mage guild records and various magical libraries (including the academy library) for information and forbidden magic.

"I think you should use your mind magic more," Xvim told him.

"What?" Zorian frowned. That wasn't advice he heard very often. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that you should attack mages and steal their secrets with your mind magic," Xvim told him bluntly. "Not only spells and training methods, but also things you could use to convince them to cooperate with you."

"Are… are you sure you should be giving out that kind of advice?" Zach asked him incredulously.

"You have very little time to catch up to Red Robe and find a way to reach the real world," Xvim said. "Even for me, the enormity of the task in front of you would be rather daunting. You should use the tools you are given."

Wordlessly, Xvim reached into his jacket and handed Zorian a thick notebook. Opening it, Zorian found it full of names, addresses and accompanying short notes.

"There are people that should be able to help you, whether to increase your skills or track down some crucial piece of information or material component. Not all of them will be willing to help you out, however, and sometimes the things you need most out of them, they will not be willing to part with. In such cases… I suggest you employ more aggressive, even illegal persuasion methods."

By the end of Xvim's explanation, the notebook felt incredibly heavy in Zorian's hands. It was just a trick of the mind, he knew, but it didn't help him feel better about it.

"You have no idea what you are asking of me," Zorian told him bitterly, fighting the urge to throw the notebook at Xvim.

"Probably not, no," Xvim agreed. "I was never in your kind of situation in my entire life, and I have serious doubts I would have risen to the challenge if I was. Especially at your age."

"You're asking me to attack people who have done nothing wrong, just because they have something I want," Zorian said. "That kind of stuff changes you. I couldn't even do that to giant spiders without feeling terrible afterwards. And really, I don't want to be the sort of person who became used to stuff like that."

"Then feel free to ignore my advice," Xvim said. "I'm only giving you advice; I have no power over you. If you feel you can do without reaching for methods like these, or that going along with it would cost you something you cannot afford to lose… then don't do it. It's as simple as that."

There was a short silence where Xvim and Zorian stared at each other, Zorian clutching the notebook so tightly in his hand his fingers went white. Zach seemed to be at loss what to do, watching them both uneasily as if waiting for a fight to break out.

Eventually, Xvim broke the standstill by reaching out and pushing Zorian's hand, still clutching the notebook, towards Zorian's chest.

"Keep the notebook, whatever your decision," Xvim said. "It will be useful regardless."

Following that, Xvim politely excused himself and left. After he was gone, Zorian looked at the notebook one last time before slamming it loudly on top of Kael's alchemy table in frustration.

"Worst vacation ever," he announced bitterly.

Zach said nothing.