Chapter 067


Zorian had to admit he was somewhat surprised at the way the Taramatula family treated him and Zach. They clearly knew about Daimen's family not approving of his relationship with Orissa, and the two of them made a spectacle of themselves upon arrival too. Zorian fully expected them to be wary of them, even unfriendly. Instead, the moment Daimen had confirmed Zorian was really who he said he was, they treated them both like honored guests. They summoned what must have been half of the whole extended family to greet them, introduced them to many of these people personally, gave them a brief tour of the place and offered to get Zorian something to drink at least three times before they accepted that he wasn't thirsty.

That kind of reception made Zorian more than a little uncomfortable. He knew they were just being polite, and that all these smiles and pleasantries weren't very genuine, but he simply wasn't used to that kind of treatment. It didn't help that very few of the Taramatula spoke Ikosian, which made it hard for Zorian to make himself understood. He only knew a few words in the local language, most of which were colorful local curses that his simulacrum had felt the need to include in his report for some reason, but people around him insisted on trying to talk to him anyway.

Normally, this would be Zorian's clue to start peering into people's surface thoughts in order to decipher what they wanted from him. This wouldn't totally solve the problem of differing languages, since people's thoughts were in no way completely divorced from the language they spoke, but it would help. However, being too liberal with mind magic in a gathering of mages was a recipe for disaster. The risk of discovery was too high. This was especially true because the Taramatula were bee controllers, which probably meant they specialized in some form of mind magic to begin with.

Someone in the Taramatula family didn't feel the same way about him, though, because he just felt a telepathic probe smashing against his defenses.

Zorian, who was just in the middle of answering one of Ulanna's questions, immediately stopped talking and turned towards the source of the probe. The mind magic had been crude and unsubtle, allowing Zorian to zero in on the person responsible almost immediately. It was a young teenage girl, who was currently doing her best to look innocent and doing a terrible job of it.

"Is something wrong?" Ulanna asked with a frown, following Zorian's gaze and scrutinizing the girl with interest.

"No, nothing," said Zorian, shaking his head and turning back towards her. "I must have imagined things."

He didn't want to raise a fuss over this. It would be his word against hers, and it would probably be seen as petty and oversensitive to make a big deal over the whole thing, even if they believed him. Besides, the probe had been more amusing than threatening. The girl was terrible. He could fight off that level of attack in his sleep.

He did kind of wonder if this was something the Taramatula leadership instructed the girl to do, or if it was something she decided on her own initiative. On one hand, Zorian found it hard to believe that the Taramatula would entrust a task like this to someone this unqualified. On the other hand, this way they could escape consequences if they were caught much more easily. They could always claim it's just a kid being stupid and ask for leniency in light of that fact.

After a moment of consideration, he casually sent a telepathic probe of his own at the girl, wormed his way past her flimsy mental defenses and hit her with a weak mental shock as a friendly warning not to try that stuff again in the future. It was just a tiny little jolt, probably didn't even hurt, but she reeled back as if slapped and quickly found a way to excuse herself from the meeting.

Zorian sniffed disdainfully. What a baby.

Ulanna frowned at the scene but didn't say anything. He was pretty sure that she, at the very least, was ignorant of what the girl had tried to pull on him.

Eventually they were introduced to Orissa as well, the woman that Daimen was apparently so in love with. She was a tall, shapely woman, confident in her posture and movement. Very dark skinned, as was typical of all people of Koth. Beautiful, but so were all women that Daimen went for. She was one of the more reserved Taramatula they were introduced to, though Zorian couldn't tell if that was because she was usually like this or if she was simply leery about them in particular.

Overall, Zorian couldn't really see anything special about her. Nothing that would explain, at first glance, how she managed to capture Daimen's heart so firmly. Skill, maybe? According to Ulanna (who was, as it turned out, Orissa's aunt), Orissa was one of the more capable Taramatula members.

"Your brother has good taste," Zach whispered to him, tracing a vague hourglass figure in the air.

"You know nothing about her except that she's good looking and that she can behave herself in public," Zorian pointed out. "How is that 'good taste'?"

"With those looks, what more do you want?" Zach asked him, grinning.

"I can't believe I'm defending Daimen here, but I'm sure it's not that shallow," Zorian said. "Daimen had plenty of beautiful girls throwing themselves at him in the past and he never thought to marry them. I'm sure there is more to her than just looks."

"I'm sure the looks helped," Zach said.

"Oh, definitely," Zorian agreed to that. "I don't think I've ever seen Daimen go for a girl that wasn't beautiful. It's just that I don't think she could have won him over by beauty alone."

As if sensing that the two of them were talking about him, Daimen soon extricated himself from the main mass of people and sought them out.

"What are you two doing, whispering to each other on the sidelines?" he asked, approaching them. "Don't you know that's rude, especially when you're the guests of honor for the occasion?"

"We don't even speak their language," Zorian pointed out. "Kind of makes it hard to mingle."

"Well you certainly won't learn if you don't interact with people," Daimen said.

Zorian frowned, a flash of annoyance rippling through him.

"Did you come here just to lecture me?" Zorian asked him, an edge of warning in his voice.

"Still so prickly," Daimen sighed. "Look, since you're not really interacting with anyone, why don't we go somewhere private and have a nice friendly chat."

He looked at Zach with a speculative look. In response, Zach smiled broadly at him and gave him a stupid little wave, like this was the first time they saw each other.

"Right," Daimen said, looking mildly amused. "I guess you want your friend to join us, then?"

"That's right," Zorian said. "He followed me all the way to Koth, it would be a jerk move of me to simply sideline him now that I'm here."

"Sure, I guess," Daimen said with a shrug, motioning for them to follow him. "He's not your boyfriend, is he?"

Zorian scowled, resisting an urge to fire a lightning bolt at him.

Zach, on the other hand, was a little less restrained and launched a kick in Daimen's direction. A kick which Daimen easily dodged, Zorian was sad to note.

"Oh don't be so touchy, you two, it was just a little joke," Daimen said, waving his hands placatingly in front of him. "You two should know all about little jokes, what with the stupid prank you pulled on me when you arrived. Right?"

Zorian clacked his tongue unhappily. Okay, so he kind of got them there.

Daimen led them across the estate towards the little guest house near the northern edge of the complex, taking care to make a big arc around the building where Taramatula bee hives were housed.

"You don't want to go near there," Daimen warned. "The Taramatula keep multiple types of bees, and the combat ones tend to be pretty aggressive around strangers. Your scent is new, so you getting too close would probably send them into a frenzy. The keepers would calm them down, but still. Very scary, seeing a huge cloud of magical killer bees descending towards you."

"Speaking from experience, I take it?" Zach asked.

"Yeah, they didn't like me either, at first," Daimen confirmed. "I have no idea why the Taramatula didn't tell me to watch out for that when I first moved in, but I suspect it was some sort of hazing thing. They wanted to see how I would react to being put in that situation, I guess."

"Are you sure they weren't just bitter their daughter chose to marry some foreign commoner and wanted to scare you off?" Zorian asked curiously.

"Nah, I'm pretty sure they're pleased with her choice," Daimen said, sounding completely unconcerned. "The local politics still makes my head spin every time I try to understand it, but the Taramatula have thoroughly solidified their position in the local scene. What they want most right now is powerful mages on their side, and… well, I don't want to brag too much, but I'm kind of amazing."

"The only amazing thing about you is your ego," Zorian muttered under his breath.

Daimen either didn't hear him or chose to ignore the comment.

"Well, I'll be honest with you and admit they would have preferred if I married one of their… less prominent family members," Daimen said. "Someone who wasn't so close to the main branch of the family. But I made it clear to them right away that this wasn't going to happen. I wasn't after Orissa's hand because I coveted their status and influence, I was after her because I loved her. It was either Orissa or nothing."

Zorian considered asking Daimen what exactly was so amazing about Orissa, but decided he didn't actually care about the answer that much and stayed silent.

Eventually, they reached their destination – a humble little building that looked like somewhat disrespectful accommodations for a person who was soon to marry into the Taramatula family. However, Zorian knew from talking to Ulanna that this wasn't the actual housing the Taramatula assigned to Daimen. He had a spacious room in the central building, one much more fitting for someone like him, it was just that he mostly chose not to use it. He spent most of his time here, in this out-of-the-way guest building, which had been assigned to him as his own private workshop after he complained that his assigned room wasn't secure enough to do his work in.

Daimen ushered them inside the building, which was overflowing with maps, strange devices and what appeared to be old artifacts recovered from gods know where.

"Don't touch anything," Daimen warned them. "I'll kill you if you break something."

Zorian knew it was just a stupid expression, but he couldn't help but imagine Daimen actually trying to kill the two of them and eventually realizing what he had gotten himself into. It put a sunny smile on his face. Oh how glorious that would be...

"I don't like that smile," Daimen noted. "Seriously Zorian, don't touch anything. This is work related."

"I'm just messing with you," Zorian said, shaking his head. "We'll leave your things alone, no need to worry. How is your expedition faring, anyway?"

Daimen collapsed on his chair with a long suffering sigh, snatching a clay figurine of a bearded man off the table and staring at it for a few seconds.

"It's… going," he said, eventually. Very informative. "I'm close to finding it, I know I am, but I just can't seem to zero in on the actual location. I don't understand. We combed through the whole region – and I know it's the correct region – but everything is just…"

He shook his head and returned the figurine back to the table.

"Anyway, I'm taking a bit of a break right now," Daimen said. "I figured it might clear my head a bit. Let me see things with a fresh perspective and all. But enough about me, let's talk about you. I've been wondering… how did the two of you get here so fast? I don't know about you Zach, but Zorian couldn't have possibly just disappeared from home until after our parents went on their own journey to Koth. That leaves… not a lot of time to actually get here."

Zach and Zorian shared a look between each other. The two of them had debated what to tell Daimen about their goals and situation for a while, and the general conclusion was that they had no real option besides flat out telling him the truth. Zorian didn't have a very high opinion of his brother, but Daimen was anything but stupid, and he knew Zorian personally. Not very well, but still. There was little doubt in Zorian's mind that Daimen would immediately see through any stupid story they might concoct about their visit. And in Zorian's experience, Daimen wasn't the type to quietly accept that sort of thing.

They needed his full support and the only way to impress the gravity of the situation upon him was to tell him about the time loop and their need for the Key. Hopefully Daimen would be less aggravating to convince than, say, Silent Doorway Adepts.

"We opened a Gate and stepped through it," Zorian eventually said.

Daimen gave him a weird look.

"A Gate? As in, a dimensional passage?" he asked.

"Yes," Zorian confirmed. "We created a portal straight from Eldemar to here in Koth."

"You're saying nonsense, but you look completely serious," Daimen noted. "Either your acting has really gotten good or you're taking me for an idiot. Zorian, if you're going to lie to me, at least check things beforehand to make things at least slightly plausible. Do you have any idea how hard it is to cast the Gate spell?"

"Oh yes," Zorian nodded seriously. "Took me a while to get the hang of it."

"I'm sure," Daimen rolled his eyes. "I mean, you mastered the spell so well you can apparently open the doorway all the way from Altazia to Southern Miasina. How does that even work, by the way?"

"Well, first I made a simulacrum and sent it to Koth…" Zorian began.

"Oh, so you can make simulacrums too? Way to go brother, you sure are a prodigy," Daimen praised mockingly.

"Then, when my copy arrived here, we coordinated with each other to open the passage between our two locations," Zorian continued, ignoring his jab. "With two casters working on the spell at both ends of the passage, distance was not an issue."

"That's…" started Daimen, and then stopped and hummed thoughtfully to himself for a few seconds. "Okay, I think that could actually work. Congratulations, I guess. At least one part of your story holds water. It's still silly though, because you cannot possibly cast either of those two spells. Hell, I can't cast either of them, so how could you?"

Zorian was just about to respond, but Zach was faster.

"What if we prove it to you?" he asked.

"Prove it to me?" Daimen asked incredulously. "And how do you propose to do that? Opening another Gate to Eldemar?"

"Of course," Zorian nodded. "Seeing is believing. Nothing we could say would be as convincing as just showing you the truth. Fortunately, I left another simulacrum back home, so we can open a portal there whenever I want."

"Zorian, there is taking a joke too far, you know…" Daimen sighed.

"It costs you nothing to humor us for a bit," Zach pointed out. "At worst you get to watch Zorian make a fool out of himself for a bit."

Daimen considered this for a second and then chuckled for a moment.

"Yeah, you have a point there," Daimen said, grinning.

Jerks, the both of them.

"So should I open a portal right here, then?" Zorian asked innocently. "Since I obviously can't do it, it shouldn't be a problem, right?"

"No way," Daimen told him. "I'm not risking my workshop just so you could prove your point."

Zorian grinned at him.

"Annoying brat," Daimen grumbled. "Alright, whatever. I have no idea of what you two are up to, but I'll play along for now. In return, though, I want your promise that you'll tell me why you're here afterwards. Why you're really here, that is, not another bullshit story."

"Deal," Zorian said, agreeing to the request with ease. He was going to do that anyway, so it cost him nothing to promise such. "When do you have the time?"

"I'm not doing anything right now," Daimen said, shaking his head and rising to his feet. "Let's go. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I can get back to my work and Orissa."

Zorian almost felt bad for his older brother. The demonstration Zorian planned to give was just a beginning. There would be no peaceful routine for Daimen in this restart, at least if Zorian was successful in convincing him he was telling the truth.

Almost. But not quite.

"I thought you said you were taking a break from work," Zorian pointed out.

"Shut up," Daimen responded. "You know what I mean."

"He's 'working' with his fiancée," said Zach with a lecherous smile on his face. "I'm sure it's hard, physical labor."

Daimen muttered something about teenagers but otherwise didn't comment on Zach's assertion.

"Do we need to leave the Taramatula estate for this?" Daimen asked. "If you end up causing another scene by triggering the defensive wards or something, I'll be pretty cross with you."

Zorian hummed thoughtfully.

Most wards were not made with detecting gate creation in mind, but one could never know for sure what an unknown warding scheme would react to. Not without launching into an extensive analysis of the wards themselves, which could itself trigger something and raise the alarm. Without knowing how the local wards were laid out and what their sensitivity thresholds were, Zorian could only advocate caution. As such, the group left the estate, leaving a message with the guards that they'd be back 'in a bit'.

Unsurprisingly, that would turn out to be a huge understatement. It was probably fine, though – Zorian had seen the look the Taramatula guards gave Daimen when he said he'd be back 'before they know it', and he had a feeling this wasn't the first time Daimen pulled this sort of thing.

Maybe asking himself what Daimen saw in Orissa was the wrong thing to ask. A better question was, what the hell did she see in him?

- break -

Zorian sat on one of the hills overlooking Cyoria, observing the city. Or at least pretending to do so – in reality, most of his attention was on Daimen, who was standing beside him and staring at the city in utter silence. Zach was lying on the grass next to them, whistling some annoyingly catchy tune and tracing outlines in the clouds with his finger, not even pretending that the city interested him. The whole situation was a strange sight to Zorian's eyes, and not really how he had expected the situation to develop once they brought Daimen back to Eldemar.

When the group had been back in Koth, and Zorian proceeded to cast the Gate spell successfully, he had expected Daimen to… well, do something. Be shocked, or at least surprised. Maybe even become aggressive towards them, demanding an explanation or doubting their identity again. At the very least, he expected his brother to be visibly incredulous at the feat and have trouble deciding how to respond. Instead, Daimen just got very quiet and serious, not saying much and observing everything around him with uncommon intensity. He cast a number of spells that looked fairly exotic to Zorian's eyes, but which he suspected were meant to tell him whether or not he was stuck in an illusion, detect if his mind was being tampered with, and reveal any hidden presences lurking around them. That done, he cast the Mind Blank spell on himself, followed by three different privacy wards, and then threw some kind of metal sphere through the dimensional passage. Some kind of remote magical sensor, obviously. Only once the sphere told him there was no obvious trap around the Eldemar side of the gate did he agree to cross over.

Seeing Zorian's simulacrum upon arrival made him frown, but he did not comment upon it. In fact, he did not comment much on anything that happened since then, opting to just silently scrutinize everything. Zach and Zorian teleported him around Eldemar for a bit, just to drive home the point that yes, they really did open a passage straight back home, and then brought Daimen here to this hill when they realized the man was just passively following after them and not reacting to things.

Frankly, Zorian was getting a little concerned there. They had been on this hill for half an hour now, and Daimen was just standing there like a statue, staring at the city with this weird glassy expression. Did they… break Daimen or something?

"Talk to us," Zorian finally said, not able to restrain himself any longer. Zach stopped whistling for a moment and inclined his head towards them, waiting to see whether Daimen would react.

He did. As if woken from a dream by Zorian's statement, he took a deep breath and slowly turned in place until he faced Zorian.

"Who are you really?" Daimen asked curiously. His voice was calm and unhurried, but Zorian could detect an undercurrent of frustration and anger lurking there. He may have mind blanked himself, but Zorian had years of experience of reading people's emotions and matching them to their facial expressions and mannerisms.

"I'm Zorian, of course," he told Daimen, equally calm and unhurried. He had expected this might happen. If a person you know suddenly got impossibly good at something or developed mastery in brand new fields out of the blue, it was reasonable to decide they could be possessed or an impersonator.

"No, you're not," Daimen said lightly, shaking his head. "Zorian is… too young to be capable of all this. My brother works hard and is almost as smart as me, but he just didn't have enough time to get this good. So you can't be him. Who are you and why did you go to the trouble of setting this up?"

Zorian had half a mind to dispute this assertion that he was 'almost as smart' as Daimen… but he had to be honest and admit that Daimen was, if anything, being overly generous there. Things never came to Zorian as naturally as they did to Daimen.

"Why are you so calm if you think I'm someone other than your brother?" Zorian asked curiously. "If I thought Kirielle was replaced with an imposter while I wasn't looking, I sure as hell wouldn't be calm about it."

Daimen frowned at his mention of Kirielle. Maybe he didn't know that Zorian was supposed to watch over her while their parents went to Koth? It was rather unexpected of him to agree to that, so maybe Mother never notified him of that little fact.

"I'm calm because raging at you would solve nothing," Daimen said. "I need answers, and I doubt I could force them out of either of you two. You are a mage capable of creating simulacrums, teleporting across the country at whim and opening Gates to another continent. Your friend here has been more low-key, but his relaxed manner makes me think he's actually the more dangerous of the two of you."

"Indeed," Zorian commented.

"I don't know, Zorian, I think a lot of people would be way more terrified of you than they would be me," said Zach, still lying around on the grass, completely ignoring the tense situation developing beside him.

"So I can do little except try and see what you want and hope that Zorian is still alive," Daimen concluded, ignoring the comment.

"I see," Zorian sighed. "I suppose it's not too surprising for you to reach this conclusion from where you're standing. However, you are wrong. I am Zorian. Your logic makes sense, but only if you make certain assumptions about the passage of time involved."

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Daimen said, frowning. "Stop trying to sound mysterious and explain yourself."

"Very well," Zorian said. "The truth is that it has been a while since we last saw each other, brother. It might seem like I'm implausibly capable, but it took me almost six years, instruction from experts that most people don't have access to, and enough money to finance a small country for a year to get this good. I'm six years older than I should be, but I'm still Zorian."

"That's… ridiculous," Daimen said. But there was a sliver of doubt in his voice. Or was it hope? He probably didn't want to believe Zorian had been replaced by someone.

"So was our claim that we made a dimensional doorway across continental distances," pointed out Zach. "And yet we're here, aren't we?"

"That's different," Daimen protested. "At least that's theoretically possible. This… I can't think of a way this could work. You can't just add an extra six years of life to a person without anyone noticing anything. Not even the best time dilation chambers could give him that. Besides, he implied he was interacting with the world at large while he lived out those six years, so time dilation couldn't be what he's talking about. Where does that leave us?"

"It leaves us with a world in which time repeats itself," Zorian told him. "On the eve of the Summer Festival, everything is reverted to the start of the month. All that you did in the previous month is undone, and you forget. Everyone forgets. You lived through this exact same month so many times, making the same motions, same decisions, oblivious to this… time loop that the world is bound in."

Well, at least Zorian assumed so. Any changes in a given restart could be somehow traced to actions of either him or Zach, and surely none of their actions thus far were big enough to propagate all the way to Koth, right?

"We remember, though," Zorian continued. "We can advance our skills across restarts and learn from our mistakes. Which is how I got as good as I did in such a seemingly short amount of time."

"You're telling me I've been essentially doing nothing for the past six years?" Daimen asked him incredulously.

"Try several decades," Zach said. "Six years ago is when Zorian ended up gaining the ability to retain skills and memories across restarts. The time loop has been going on for decades before that, though."

Daimen looked like he was going to say something but then started pacing around the grassy hill instead, mumbling something unintelligible to himself.

Seeing how they were back to waiting for Daimen to snap out of it again, Zach just shrugged and went back to tracing the shapes in the clouds again.

After about five minutes, Daimen suddenly stopped and approached Zorian again.

"I'm not saying I believe you…" he began hesitantly. "Because I don't. It's crazy. But I'm willing to hear you out in more detail."

"Fair enough," Zorian nodded solemnly. He cupped his hands in front of him and created an illusionary image of a slowly-spinning planet in front of him. Above the planet was a simple drawing of an upturned triangle connected to a single horizontal tine through its tip. "In the beginning, there was just the world we all lived on and an ancient artifact called the Sovereign Gate…"

- break -

The pretty illusions and the detailed story did not convince Daimen that their story was true. Not fully, anyway. He was forced to admit that Zorian probably was who he said he was, if only because he knew too many random details about their childhood days, but he found the time loop to be quite a crazy idea. There were not a whole lot of other answers that would explain things, though, so Zorian was hoping it wouldn't be long before he fully accepted things. It helped that he had introduced Daimen to Xvim and Alanic, who were somehow more convincing to Daimen than his own brother. If Zorian was interpreting things correctly, Daimen found him pretty unnerving now, which was both kind of annoying and kind of flattering.

But no matter; while Daimen was busy coming to terms with the truth of the world, other preparations and operations continued unimpeded. The Silent Doorway adepts were finally convinced to give them a chance in this restart too, and Zorian threw himself into the task of helping the aranea understand their Bakora Gate better. There was also the vague plan of transporting some of their mages to distant Bakora gates in order to obtain their gate keys for future restarts, but that was still in the beginning stages.

The time to take advantage of the Black Room beneath Cyoria also came and went, and this time Zach and Zorian were no longer the only people inside. Kael and Xvim also joined them. Kael couldn't exactly practice his alchemy inside the Black Room, but he wanted time to rewrite and reorganize his research notes a little, since their size and the haphazard manner in which they were written were making the whole thing gradually unmanageable. He claimed it took him most of the restart thus far just to figure out what he did in the past and how to build up upon it. As for Xvim, he was switching his time between prodding Zach and Zorian whenever he felt they were slacking off and experimenting with various shaping regimens. Like Kael, he also had a mountain of notes, but he claimed there was no need for him to rewrite and organize anything. Perhaps it was because he was older and more experienced with note-taking, or maybe he just read fast and had an absurdly good memory, but he had no problem with quickly absorbing the notes that Zorian gave him at the start of each restart.

Alanic and Taiven declined to participate. Alanic claimed there was no point in him being there, while Taiven said she didn't want to be stuck in a tiny little room with four men for a month. Which was… fair enough. He really should have thought of that before he even brought the idea up for her consideration.

Zach commented, with a suggestive grin, that he wouldn't mind giving up his spot in one of the future restarts so Zorian and Taiven could have the Black Room all to themselves 'to experiment'. Thankfully, Taiven took it in good humor and just rolled her eyes at him.

It was not long after they returned from the Black Room that Zorian finally succeeded at something that had been bothering him for quite a while now.

"I did it!" he exclaimed, barging into Zach's room one day. "I finally succeeded!"

He was greeted with the sight of Zach sitting on the floor in front of one of the aranea that the Silent Doorway Adepts had sent to Cyoria to act as their representative. Zorian had placed telepathic relays between Cyoria and their main colony, making such an arrangement less problematic than it would otherwise be. Normally, finding Zach talking to one of the aranea without Zorian being present would be quite an unusual sight. The aranea didn't have much respect for a non-psychic like Zach, and Zach didn't tolerate their condescension well. However, Zorian could identify the aranea in question at a glance, thanks to one of her main eyes being covered with a milky white membrane, having been ruined in some magical accident in her youth. Frozen Thoughts Spanning Across Bottomless Chasms was somewhat deviant by aranean standards, and held a deep fascination for non-psychic beings and how they perceive the world. Zorian suspected it had something to do with her sight being crippled at a relatively young age, and the wider aranean philosophy of considering non-psychic beings as fundamentally crippled. Regardless, Frozen Thoughts was one of the rare aranea Zorian met over the restarts who actively preferred interacting with Zach over him, and it wasn't unusual to see her seek him out, even when she had no official business to bring up.

Zorian wasn't entirely sure why Zach was so willing to indulge Frozen Thoughts' curiosity, when he clearly didn't think much of aranea in general. Perhaps he just found the situation novel enough to be interesting, or maybe he was just too polite to tell her off, but he treated Frozen Thoughts with a surprising amount of understanding and patience.

"Well," Zach said. "Congratulations, I guess. What exactly did you succeed at?"

"I found a way to open the secret research facility hidden in the ceiling of the Cyorian web," Zorian said. "Without destroying any of the contents, I mean."

"Oh?" Zach said, sitting up a little straighter. "Anything interesting?"

"I'm still going through it all, but at first glance most of it seems to revolve around their efforts to translate human magics into forms more compatible with the aranea," Zorian said.

"Makes sense," Frozen Thoughts said. "Isn't that the whole point of living beneath Cyoria? At least for us aranea."

"Right," Zorian said. "Well, that means that little of it will be useful to me directly… but I may have struck gold here regardless. I think the other aranean webs are going to be very interested in this. With the kind of knowledge in my arsenal, I might be able to arrange for heavier concessions from the aranean webs we meet. Maybe I can even talk them into teaching me some of their really good stuff, and then use that to get more really good stuff out of other webs and so on…"

"I'm amused that you feel comfortable discussing a plot like that right in front of me," Frozen Thoughts said. "But I can't really blame you. My web would have probably been even more ruthless about taking advantage of that kind of opportunity if they were in your situation."

"That's interesting to hear," Zach said speculatively. "Perhaps we might delegate some of our skill gathering to your web, then? Zorian is understandably a little skittish of going full raider on your people, but if we were to supply you with a bunch of secret aranean techniques and equipment and left it up to you how you use them to acquire more… well, I'm sure that Zorian wouldn't inquire too deeply about the methods you used in your dealings."

"I'm right here, Zach," Zorian complained.

"So was Frozen Thoughts when you explained your master plan, but that didn't stop you," Zach grinned. "Besides, I feel most of the araneas we met think a little too highly of themselves and could do with a little humbling."

"I'm… going to put this topic off for now," Zorian said. "Anyway, I did find one thing in the research facility that could be interesting. The web actually had a whole project dedicated to trying to adapt some of their mental techniques to human psychics. The idea, as far as I can tell, was to create a limited skillset for a sort of… human vassal. They didn't call them that, of course, but that's kind of what it amounts to. The psychic would get instruction from them, the sort they cannot really get anywhere else, and in return they would serve as the aranean spokesperson and, in their own words, a 'problem solver'. There would be no coercion or mind bending involved here – the documents were quite clear on that, as the web leadership wanted everything to be completely aboveboard if one of the psychics was subjected to mental examination and other scrutiny. The psychics would be kept in line through a simple threat of withdrawing support and teaching assistance to anyone who doesn't cooperate. And possibly legal persecution, since they intended to implement this only after they worked out some kind of formal deal with the Cyorian administration."

"So almost exactly like those mages and families that swear fealty to established Houses," Zach noted.

"Yes, that is probably where they got the idea," Zorian confirmed. "That's why I called them vassals. Anyway, most of these skills are too rudimentary for someone like me. I'm already too good at telepathy, mind reading, mental combat and the like to benefit from the bulk of the program. However, the web was also experimenting with providing the most loyal of these vassals mental techniques like those used by aranean elders to enhance their thinking. I'm still poring over the information, but the research notes seem pretty complete. The Cyorian web seems to have documented a lot of the obvious dangers and pitfalls involved in adapting these kinds of 'inner techniques' to human minds. With access to this, I might actually be able to start tinkering in this field without doing something irreversible to myself."

"They must have left quite a trail of insanity behind them with such experimentation," Frozen Thoughts speculated. "Tinkering with that kind of thing produces a lot of complications even in our own communities. Trying to adapt these techniques to human minds probably involved a lot of dramatic failures."

"The documents never say what happened to the humans involved with the experimentation, but I suspect you are right," Zorian nodded.

"If you want my advice, I suggest you start dabbling in this field by going to the Perfect Phantasm Crafters," Frozen Thoughts told him.

"Them?" Zorian asked, surprised. "I didn't know they were experts on these kind of techniques."

"They aren't," Frozen Thoughts said. "But pretty much all aranean webs have some measure of expertise in these, and the Perfect Phantasm Crafters are one of the webs with better understanding of the differences between human and aranean minds. Additionally, their brand of inner techniques is relatively safe and inoffensive. They focus on the so-called self-illusions. Techniques that leave most of your thoughts untouched, merely altering how you perceive the world – highlighting some things in your vision, blocking out sounds, and so on. On the face of it, the idea of deliberately deceiving yourself may seem kind of dubious, but it can be very useful and it's easily undone. If you want to get started on this without risking insanity, the Perfect Phantasm Crafters are probably your best bet."

After some more questions about the matter, Zorian left Zach and Frozen Thoughts to whatever discussion they had been having before he had barged in and left. He had too many things to worry about in the current restart to start an extensive new project like this, but it was something to think about in the future.

- break -

"So what do you think of the Taramatula?" Daimen asked.

Zorian glanced at his brother, trying to decipher why he had suddenly asked him that question. Like usual, Daimen always had a mind blank on when he knew Zorian was around – in the beginning he had dropped that thing once he had realized he was really his brother and not some imposter, but when he later found out that Zorian was a master mind mage he started zealously applying it on himself whenever they met.

Since Daimen was clearly so paranoid about mind magic, Zorian had held off on confronting him about his own psychic nature and how much he really knew about it. Besides, Daimen was still reeling from the realization that he was just a copy in an endlessly repeating pocket universe, so he felt it would be a little bit mean to dump too many things on him at once. He had time. That particular question wasn't very time critical.

Currently the two of them were taking a slow walk across the outer boundaries of the Taramatula estate, ostensibly to just enjoy the view but actually so they could have a conversation without fearing someone would eavesdrop on them. Zach was not present at the moment, since Daimen requested this to be a private meeting between the two of them. Instead, he stayed behind in the central building of the estate, exchanging stories with the tutor that the Taramatula had provided to both of them free of charge – after the relatively embarrassing showing he and Zach had during their initial reception, the Taramatula decided they really needed a lesson in the local language and customs. Especially since it soon became obvious that the two of them would be visiting their place quite often in the near future, due to their frequent meetings with Daimen.

The estate itself was quite large, with a massive central building ringed by a multitude of smaller ones. At least a quarter of the smaller buildings housed bees instead of people. All of the structures were sparkling white, not because they were painted such and kept clean, but because they were built using some kind of pearly white stone that didn't seem to get dirty. The central building had more color, though, being obviously intended as more ostentatious and eye-catching. Colorful, complicated braids and geometric shapes framed all of the doors and windows, and zig-zagged across open walls. They weren't painted on either, and instead seemed to be made out of semi-precious stones and magical crystals embedded straight into the structure of the walls. Zorian wasn't sure, but they may have doubled as reinforcement for the building's warding scheme, so there was a possibility they weren't just ornamental.

Taramatula were also very fond of statues, most of them depicting stern-looking people that were presumably prominent ancestors of the family, but there were also a fair number of ones depicting various magical creatures. And giant bees, of course. What would a bee-focused family of mages do without statues of giant bees? All of the statues were carved and painted to be as lifelike as possible. The people of Koth were very fond of realism in art, and Taramatula were no exception.

"They're surprisingly hospitable and friendly," said Zorian. "I expected them to be more arrogant and conceited, considering their status."

"This is actually pretty typical of how most minor nobles behave," Daimen told him. "I interacted with a lot of them over the years, and they're rarely overtly unpleasant. Even if they think you're beneath them, they will rarely let that show unless you go out of the way to annoy them in some fashion."

"I concede to your expertise in the matter, then," Zorian shrugged. "Anyway, I kind of like them."

"I'm glad," Daimen said. "I guess you'd have no issue with taking my side when Mother and Father come, then?"

Zorian gave him an incredulous look.

"What?" Daimen asked defensively.

"You think my opinion actually matters to them?" Zorian asked, raising his eyebrow at him. For that matter, he was surprised that Daimen cared about his opinion either. "But sure, throw my support of you right into their face if they ask. Not like their opinion of me could get much lower."

"Zorian, that's… a little too harsh towards your parents, don't you think?" Daimen tried.

"Nope," Zorian answered unrepentantly. "I never mattered to them. Not until you made it clear you have no intention of settling down and taking over their family business and Fortov showed them what a failure he really is. Then they expected me to drop all of my dreams and plans and remake myself into what they needed me to be."

Daimen was quiet for a while.

"I see," he eventually said. "You were so reasonable and calm during our meetings that I almost forgot what a perpetual ball of anger and resentment you tend to be."

"Screw you too, Daimen," Zorian told him simply. "What exactly did you bring me here for, anyway?"

"Well, first of all I wanted to say I'm very impressed with what you've achieved so far," Daimen began.

Zorian gave him a strange look. Daimen was praising him? What the hell was going on here?

"Don't look at me like that," Daimen protested. "I really am. Six years is not that long in the grand scheme of things. You're still effectively a year younger than me, yet you've accomplished so much. I think that most people, even if they were handed the same opportunity as you, wouldn't have gotten as far in such a short period of time."

Zorian stayed silent for a few seconds, unsure how to respond to that.

"Thanks, I guess," he finally said. "Does that mean you accept the time loop as real now, then?"

"Yes," Daimen nodded. "I guess I do."

"In that case, I'm going to be frank with you," said Zorian. "We originally sought you out because we need your help with something."

"Of course you do," Daimen said matter-of-factly. "A treasure hunt of some sort, I'm guessing?"

"Yes," Zorian confirmed. "Remember what I told you about the third time traveler and how he stranded us all here? Well, there is potentially a way for us to unlock the exit. However, to do that we need to gather five pieces of the Key that holds dominion over the Sovereign Gate. And one of these pieces in supposed to be lost here in Koth."

Daimen listened to his explanation very calmly at first, nodding slightly here and there to indicate agreement and that he was paying attention, but then he suddenly flinched and straightened his back, as if struck by some realization.

"Wait… the Sovereign Gate is an ancient imperial artifact!" Daimen exclaimed.

Zorian looked at him like he had gone mad.

"Well, yes," he said slowly.

"Which means these 'Keys' you're looking for are probably also ancient imperial artifacts," Daimen concluded.

"Yes," Zorian confirmed, still not understanding why Daimen seemed so animated about this. "The ring, the crown, the dagger, the orb and the staff of the First Emperor of Ikosia. Supposedly, the orb has been lost here in Koth. One of the emperors personally led an invasion force into the region to conquer it, but the army was scattered and driven deep into the jungles, where most of them perished. Including the emperor, whose body and possessions were never found. And he was reportedly carrying the orb with him at the time, so…"

Zorian stopped talking because Daimen began to laugh, first quietly and then progressing into a full-blown maniacal cackling. Seriously, what was wrong with him?

"Daimen?" he asked uncertainly.

"Of course. Of course!" Daimen said. As if that explained anything. "It all comes back to this in the end, doesn't it?"

"I don't suppose you're going to tell me why this is so funny to you?" Zorian asked him, voice laced with annoyance.

"Because, my dear little brother," Daimen told him, "that orb is what I'm after, too."