Veyers was a frustrating part of the time loop mystery for Zorian. The fact that he had been deliberately erased from Zach's mind and that he started each restart dead made him a strong suspect for the real identity for Red Robe. However, that raised the question of how Veyers had managed to become a permanent looper. It couldn't have been through the method Zorian had used – everything he and Zach knew indicated that had been pure luck, and that deliberately replicating it would be both hard and dangerous. Zorian's conversation with Panaxeth had fully convinced Zorian that Zach was the original Controller of the loop, so Red Robe must have come later. That meant he had probably become a looper through the temporary marker given by the imperial crown… which meant that he had only had six months to figure out a way to permanently join the time loop.
Did Veyers really possess the skills necessary to pull that off? He was just an inexperienced teenager. He had a crippling condition that made his magic and personality unstable. He was not considered a social genius or a magic prodigy, even before his botched ignition ritual. There was no way he could have developed his magic sufficiently to pull it off in mere six months, and organizing a group that could have done so in his stead would have taken considerable amount of social shrewdness.
Not to mention that Veyers would have had to do all this while keeping Zach in the dark about everything. Zach wasn't very paranoid, and was probably even less so in the past, but that couldn't have been easy regardless.
Still, Zorian could see how it could have worked. Perhaps Zach had really come to like Veyers for some reason and had done most of the work himself. Perhaps he had brought the other boy into the time loop again and again, figured out a way to stabilize his magic, and helped him advance his skills in the fastest and convenient manner possible. Perhaps there had even been a time when Zach had gone through the trouble of recruiting Quatach-Ichl and other soul magic experts in order to figure out a way to crack the secrets of the temporary marker… so that he could bring his best pal Veyers permanently into the time loop.
In order to be Red Robe, Veyers didn't have to be a resourceful mastermind that achieved what he and Zach could not in just six months… he could have simply been an opportunistic, heartless traitor who stabbed Zach in the back after his fellow time looper had given him everything he could.
It was all pure speculation, of course. Concrete answers about Veyers were basically impossible to find inside the time loop. Veyers himself obviously couldn't be questioned, people he was related to knew nothing useful, Zach did not remember anything about the boy, and Red Robe had left the time loop. If there were answers regarding Veyers, they would have to wait until Zorian had left the time loop.
Once he had done so, however, things remained stubbornly unclear. He found out that Red Robe had gone through the trouble of evacuating Veyers and his lawyer friend immediately after crossing over to the real world. That greatly increased the chance that Veyers really was Red Robe in his mind. However, he was then informed by Zach that, in the restarts following his departure, both Zorian and Silverlake were very much alive. Devoid of any memories of the time loop, but alive. This was very much unlike Veyers, who was dead and soulless at the beginning of every restart. Didn't that basically confirm that Veyers was knocked out of the time loop by the imperial dagger and couldn't possibly be Red Robe?
Now, all of those questions had a chance of being answered, because Veyers was finally in front of them. They didn't even have to search for him – he had just shown up in class, alone and defenseless.
Zorian had to admit, he had been caught completely off-guard by the boy's arrival. If this was Red Robe, why would he do this? If this was the original Veyers, why would Red Robe allow this? Why, for the love of all that was holy, had Veyers suddenly come here?
Based on the reactions of everyone around him, Zorian could see that no one, not even Ilsa, knew the answer to that question.
After briefly staring down everyone, Veyers picked an empty spot not far from Zorian and Briam and sat down. He ignored everyone staring at him and started to unpack his books and writing supplies out of his bag, slamming them loudly on the table in front of them in a clear attempt to provoke some kind of reaction.
"Mister Boranova, what do you think you are doing here?" Ilsa finally asked him.
"What?" he challenged. "I'm attending the class I paid for. Is there a problem?"
"You are no longer a student of this institution," Ilsa told him, taking a deep breath and clearly suppressing a sigh. Her voice was tinged with annoyance and she gripped the teaching rod in her hand a little more tightly in her grip. "You know this."
"I know no such thing," Veyers said immediately, shaking his head and making exaggerated faces at her. "My tuition has been paid in full, I passed my first circle certification with flying colors, and I received no notification about any changes in my attendance status. How can I no longer be a student?"
"You attacked people on your disciplinary hearing, mister Boranova," Ilsa told him. "As a result, you were expelled from the academy. You know this, I'm sure of this. Why are you doing this to yourself?"
"That's a lie. I didn't attack anyone," Veyers said stubbornly. "I lost control over my magic and burned down some furniture. It happens, sometimes. You know this, I'm sure of this. Your institution had no problem taking my money back in the past, even though they were warned this would be the case. I was assured that so long no one was hurt and I paid for any damages, I would be allowed to attend. You have no right to expel me over that incident!"
"It wasn't me who made the decision, so I don't understand why you're telling me this," Ilsa told him. She didn't look particularly sympathetic towards him, and probably didn't really believe him much either. "Make a complaint to the academy's legal department if you feel you were wronged."
"Well, I will!" Veyers exclaimed. "And in the meantime, I will continue to attend the classes I paid for!"
Zorian looked in disbelief as Veyers continued to argue with Ilsa over his expulsion and right to attend classes. He found the entire situation surreal. It was obvious this Veyers wasn't Red Robe. He paid no special attention to Zach and Zorian, his mind and soul were largely unprotected, and his awful, confrontational attitude was exactly as Zorian remembered it. This was the original Veyers, untouched by the time loop… for better or for worse.
Why would Red Robe allow this? He had specifically evacuated the original Veyers from his friend's house at the start of the restart. Zorian had fully expected Veyers to have been taken to some secure place, far away from danger. Why would Red Robe go through all that trouble and then just let the original Veyers come to class and make a scene. It didn't make sense!
Zorian could try to search for answers by digging around in Veyers's mind… but the boy did have some basic protection from mental tampering. He was wearing a pendant with a big green marble embedded in it – it was projecting a mental shield around Veyers's mind and would start screeching and glowing if that barrier was broken or tampered with.
Zorian had seen such pendants before. The shield they created was easy to break, but the alarm on them was sufficiently trigger-happy that he couldn't bypass it quietly. He would cause a scene almost as big as Veyers's if he mentally assaulted him in the middle of class while he was wearing that.
Not that this would stop Zorian for long, of course. He just needed to pick the right moment and everything would be over in seconds. The only thing that worried him was that he suspected Veyers to be some kind of trap by Red Robe. Did the boy have some kind of trap placed inside his mind, waiting to be triggered by a careless mind reader? Was there someone spying on Veyers, ready to report them to the authorities when they were caught attacking him?
He started covertly scouting their surroundings while watching Veyers get increasingly agitated as he argued with Ilsa. The rest of the classmates were also starting to get restless, muttering to each other in increasingly loud voices. Few of them saw Veyers's actions in positive light, which no doubt made him even angrier.
"…must give me back the money I paid for this!" Veyers shouted, banging his hand against the desk for emphasis. "It's disgusting and shameless in the extreme that you're trying to claim my tuition after expelling me! How brazen and corrupt can you be!?"
"I could say the same thing about you, mister Boranova – how shameless do you have to be to make this kind of display here and disrupt my class like this?" Ilsa said in a tone that was calmer and more dignified than Veyers's, but still noticeably heated. "If you have complaints about money, go speak to the headmaster or the accounting office. I am not in charge of handling student money and I'm not familiar with the particulars of your case. All I know is that you have been expelled and that you are wasting everyone's time here with your antics. Please leave."
"Make me," Veyers challenged. His orange eyes light up with a fiery glow and a notebook he placed on the table ignited and burst into flames.
Evidently Red Robe didn't bother to fix his botched ignition ritual.
"Make me," he repeated angrily. "I'll burn this whole place down, I swear!"
"Veyers…" Ilsa said, pushing her glasses upwards to massage her eyes in frustration. This was the first time she was calling him by his first name. "Why must you do this? Don't you realize you're just shooting yourself in the foot? If you really plan to take the academy to court over this, behaving like this will only give them more ammunition."
"Trogmar, no!" Briam suddenly yelled.
It was useless. Trogmar, his fire drake familiar, had been completely infuriated by Veyers for some time already. Now that Veyers had lost control over his powers and started burning things, the fire drake decided it was done passively waiting for this threat to come to him and his master.
With a fearsome battle screech, the fire drake ripped itself away from Briam's desperate attempts to hold him back and leapt over the tables. It crashed into Veyers's table, scattering books in all directions, and hissed menacingly at the orange-eyed boy.
Swearing loudly, Veyers hurriedly pushed himself from his desk, fell on his ass in his hurry to evade the fire drake, and then erupted into a short-ranged fireball centered on himself.
Undaunted, the fire drake took the flames head-on and added his own fire breath to the blaze.
The entire class started screaming and scrambled to get out of the classroom and away from the burning battlefield.
Well, Zach and Zorian remained calm and collected. They each picked one end of the classroom and subtly protected their classmates from harm by channeling the flames away from them through invisible force fields and chilling spells. Aside from them, only Briam and Ilsa did not try to escape the place. Briam was desperately trying to rein his familiar in and drag him off from the fight, while Ilsa did her best to keep the fire contained and tried to restrain Veyers and the fire drake in order to stop the fight.
Ilsa would have normally realized that Zach and Zorian had something to do with the surprising tendency of the flames to swerve away from the students or lose power before they reached them, but Zorian was using some light mind magic to draw her attention away from that. It wasn't particularly difficult, since there was a big, eye-catching battle in progress, and that attracted most of her attention anyway.
Of course, the fact Veyers and Briam's fire drake were throwing fire everywhere and that everyone was making a huge racket in their attempt to vacate the classroom meant this was a perfect opportunity for Zorian to covertly disable Veyers's pendant and invade his mind.
He shared a silent look with Zach, who simply nodded at him. In the next moment, they both struck. Zach wrapped the pendant in an illusion that made it appear inert no matter what was happening while Zorian pierced the mental barrier it created and started reading Veyers's mind and subverting his will.
Eventually, Ilsa managed to separate the two combatants, aided in no small part by Zorian mentally forcing them both to back down. Briam immediately dragged off his familiar away from Veyers, calming the fire drake down and inspecting him to see if he got hurt in the fight. As for Veyers, he simply collapsed unconscious all of a sudden. Zorian found it easier to memory search people when they were not mentally struggling against him all the time, and he had already gotten everything he could have out of his surface thoughts alone.
He was just about to convince Ilsa to let him and Zach carry Veyers off to a hospital or something when she suddenly spoke up.
"You two… have you been here all this time?" she asked, glancing towards Zach and Zorian.
"Yes," Zach confirmed. "We know some basic spells, so we stayed to see if we could help somehow."
"A bit reckless, but commendable," Ilsa said. "Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished in this world. I need some uninvolved witnesses when I speak to the headmaster about this, and since you were here from start to finish, you fit the bill perfectly. You'll be coming with me after I clean up the classroom."
Zach and Zorian shared a look before lightly shrugging at each other. This was perfect, really – they got to stay close to Veyers for quite a while, giving Zorian plenty of time to rummage through his memories, and they didn't even have to make up some contrived excuse to do so.
"Okay," Zorian agreed easily.
Ilsa nodded at them, pleased they had no intention of trying to weasel out of it. She conjured a disc of force and levitated Veyers on top of it, before turning towards Briam.
Zach took the chance when her back was turned and telekinetically crushed Veyers's mind shield pendant into scrap. It gave off one final ear-piercing screech and a flash of light, invisible and inaudible through the illusion Zach placed on it earlier, and then went completely inert.
"Briam, you and your familiar are coming along as well," she told him.
"This… Teacher, I don't know what came into him! I–" stammered Briam, clutching the fire drake in his arms tighter to his chest. Trogmar had largely calmed down at this point, increasingly aware that his master was not happy with what he had done.
"I understand," Ilsa sighed. "I don't think you will receive a serious punishment… especially since Veyers is the other involved party. You really need to keep a better grip on your fire drake, however. Veyers started things, but this isn't a good look for you, either."
"Yes," he nodded quickly.
"Let's go, then," Ilsa said, gesturing towards the door.
She strode off towards the Headmaster's office, followed by Zach and Zorian, Briam and his fire drake, and unconscious Veyers on a floating ectoplasmic disc. She found Akoja and a number of other students waiting outside the classroom door, curious to see the resolution of the incident, and promptly recruited some of them as additional witnesses before telling the rest the class was canceled for the day and that they were free to go.
Zorian handed off his body to the mind of a distant simulacrum before focusing all of his attention on the memories locked inside Veyers's head…
- break -
"So… were you the one who pushed Briam's drake into doing that?" Zach asked him later.
"No, that was completely spontaneous," Zorian said, shaking his head. "I had nothing to do with it."
The questioning had lasted for hours, and Veyers had managed to wake up by the end of it. Without any memories of mental tampering, of course. He then yelled out all sorts of threats to everyone in the room and stormed off angrily, thus marking the end of that particular meeting.
Zach and Zorian decided to retreat to Noveda Mansion to discuss what happened.
"What did you get out of Veyers, then?" Zach asked. "You don't look very excited, so I'm guessing very little."
"Sort of," Zorian admitted. "As you might expect, he doesn't know who Red Robe is. He doesn't even remember what happened when he and his lawyer friend were evacuated at the beginning of the restart – that part of his memories was thoroughly erased, and I can't find out anything about it."
"Of course," Zach scoffed. "If he knew Red Robe's plans or identity, no way would Red Robe send him to class like this. What was even the point of that, I wonder? This was way too petty to be a legitimate part of Red Robe's master plan."
"I don't think this is something Red Robe thought up," Zorian said. "From what I could glean in Veyers's mind, our former classmate has had this on his mind for quite a while. Long before this month began."
"Wait, so this is his idea?" Zach said incredulously.
"If you could remember Veyers, you'd know this is exactly the sort of thing he would do," Zorian said. "He thought his expulsion was unfair and decided to do something about it. I doubt he saw the situation developing as it did, but he definitely came to class with the goal of making a stand against the academy and drawing attention to his case."
"So this had nothing to do with Red Robe?" Zach asked, frowning.
"No, this was just Veyers being Veyers," Zorian answered. "In fact, I suspect this was the reason Red Robe wiped out your memories of Veyers when he took a sledgehammer to your mind."
"What?" asked Zach, giving him a shocked look. "What do you mean? I don't understand."
"Veyers probably did this in every single restart while he was still alive," Zorian said.
"Come to our first class and start a fight with Briam's fire drake, you mean?" Zach asked.
"Yeah," Zorian nodded. "We always wondered why Red Robe bothered to erase your memories of Veyers, considering you wouldn't normally even interact with him…"
"…but if he normally showed up for class to make a scene, it would be very strange for him to suddenly stop coming," Zach said, eyes lighting up in realization. "If Red Robe is Veyers, he probably didn't want to go through this at the beginning of every restart just to keep up a charade. It's a waste of time, and he probably cringed inside at the thought of what an idiot he used to be. However, him being absent from class would immediately tip me off that something is wrong with him… unless I no longer remember him."
"That still begs the question, though… why would Red Robe allow Veyers to expose himself like this after going to the trouble of saving him at the start of the month?" Zorian asked.
"We didn't kill him," Zach pointed out.
"Yes, but how would Red Robe know for sure what we would or would not do to Veyers?" Zorian countered. "He was playing with Veyers's life by letting him come here. Plus, even if he scrubbed his memories clean of any sensitive information, he can't know for sure that he didn't leave anything of importance behind. It's just a pointless risk. If I was in Red Robe's place, I'd never let this happen. I'd trap Veyers in a dungeon and sedate him if I had to. Does Red Robe even care about the welfare of original Veyers?"
"I don't know if that logic really holds," Zach told him dubiously. "You also brought your little sister here, even though you knew this placed her in greater danger. You cared more about fulfilling her wishes than making her perfectly safe."
Zorian made a sour face at that. He hated when Zach was right like that…
"Anyway, even if Red Robe doesn't know what you would do, he does know me… well, presumably. I would never just kill Veyers for no reason, even if he does have some tenuous connection to our opponent. None of this is his fault, really. Does he even have any connection to the Cult or the Ibasans?"
"No, that's all Jornak," said Zorian, shaking his head. "And Veyers doesn't know about that, either."
"Right. So there is no reason for us to go after original Veyers," Zach said. "He's just a dumb kid with no way to threaten us. Killing him would be really petty. We didn't even kill the original Silverlake, even though she could be a real headache if time looper Silverlake manages to recruit her to her side."
"I guess," Zorian said, not really convinced yet. "I still think it's very weird. I thought him showing up was maybe some kind of trap, but it doesn't appear this is correct…"
"I put a tracker on him before he left," Zach said. "If he goes back to Red Robe…"
"He won't," Zorian said, shaking his head. "This is Red Robe cutting him off and letting him sink or swim on his own. He'll go either back to his family or maybe to his lawyer friend. Assuming Jornak goes back to his home, that is."
They talked about the issue for some time before Zorian decided it was time to leave. Sadly, another thing cropped up before he had a chance to set off.
Placed on the doorstep of Noveda Mansion was a simple white envelope addressed to 'Zach Noveda and Zorian Kazinski'. After thoroughly analyzing it for traps, the two of them opened it and found a letter waiting for them inside.
It was just a sheet of normal, non-magical paper with a few words scrawled on it in fancy, formal handwriting.
Thank you for showing mercy.
Perhaps we can come to an agreement after all.
You can pick a time and place for the meeting.
You know how to contact me.
There was no return address, signature, or name of the sender on the letter… but it was obvious who sent it.
Just as it was obvious that they couldn't refuse the invitation.
- break -
It was already late in the evening and Zorian was slowly making his way to Imaya's place. He wasn't in a hurry. His thoughts were still stuck on the letter they received back at the Noveda estate. A meeting with Red Robe… what could the third time traveler want to talk to them about? As far as Zorian could see, they were completely and unavoidably opposed to each other. There was very little they could agree upon, and they couldn't really trust each other to stick to any such agreement anyway.
Especially since Zorian strongly suspected Red Robe got into the time loop by backstabbing Zach. A person like that couldn't be trusted at all…
As he was passing through one of the many Cyoria city parks, he suddenly stopped and turned towards the small fountain in the center. He had detected a familiar mental and soul signature in that direction.
There was a young woman sitting there, on the edge of the fountain. She was roughly 20 years of age, tall and beautiful, with long black hair and a feminine figure – the sort of beauty that made men turn around as they walked and remained stuck in their head for a while. Also, she was completely unfamiliar to Zorian. He had never seen this woman before in his entire life, he was sure. And yet…
She grinned at him cheekily, patting at the spot next to her, as if inviting him to join her. Some of the men around him cast him dark, jealous glances in response.
Zorian ignored the invitation for a second, directing his attention to the roof of a nearby building, where a large raven was inconspicuously sitting and observing the scene below.
Zorian cautiously approached the smiling woman, his expression darkening. When he was closer to her, he stopped. He could feel a ward field spring into existence around them, but he did nothing to stop it. He could immediately recognize it as a basic privacy ward, meant to stop people from listening in on them.
"Hell, Silverlake," he said. "You look much better than you did the last time we talked."
"Ha ha, you flatterer!" she told him. "I feel better! My mind is clearer, my bones do not ache, and I no longer get tired as easily. Being young again is everything I hoped for, and more!"
"Is this really what you looked like when you were younger, though?" Zorian asked her curiously.
"I have no idea," she said with a shrug. "I don't have any paintings of myself when I was younger, but I do remember being quite a looker in my younger days. Anyone who could legitimately call me out on this little bit of vanity is long dead, so who cares?"
"Little bit of vanity…" Zorian repeated quietly.
"Yes, just a little bit," Silverlake said, pretending to adjust her hair while smiling at him brightly. "You know, you should try not to frown so much. It will give you wrinkles."
"You were surprisingly quiet so far," Zorian pointed out. "What's up with that?"
"Ah, you know… there's always something," she said dismissively. "An emergency here, an emergency there, and you suddenly lost two days with nothing to show for it. It's frustrating, but that's life."
"Indeed," said Zorian, glancing to the nearby roof where the raven was intently watching them. "I see you got yourself a new familiar. What happened to your old raven?"
Silverlake stopped smiling at him.
"I guess Panaxeth couldn't get him out of the time loop along with you," Zorian continued. "That must have hurt. I heard it's not healthy to lose a soul-bonded familiar like that. Especially for witches like yourself. Witches are known for having well-developed familiar-related magic, which probably translates into an even deeper link to their partner animals. Your soul must have suffered considerable damage when you were incarnated into that pretty new body of yours…"
"You know, you have been unusually passive yourself," Silverlake remarked. "I would have expected you to move faster and bolder than this. I'm guessing your arrival here has not been very smooth either."
"I guess you could say that," Zorian said. "I'm mostly recovered by now, though."
"What a coincidence. So am I," said Silverlake with a happy laugh. She suddenly gave him a serious look. "Besides, we both know it isn't my spellwork that really worries you and your 'friend'. It's the knowledge I possess about your skills, resources, contacts, and tactics."
Zorian frowned at her weird emphasis on the word 'friend', but in the end decided not to pursue that for the moment.
"Why are you here, Silverlake?" Zorian asked her seriously. "Aren't you afraid I'll kill you on the spot?"
"Ha ha! What, you'll attack me in the middle of a crowded park?" she said, sweeping her hand to point at the various people milling around them. Some of them were even curiously observing them, unable to hear what they're saying but clearly speculating what two mages like them could be discussing like this.
"It might be worth it to take down a traitor like you," Zorian told her.
"Ha. You know, I never told Red Robe most of the information about you that I possess," she said.
Zorian frowned at the statement.
"If I die here, however, the dead man's switch I made will activate and everything I know will fall into his lap," she said with a triumphant grin. She crossed her legs one over another and threw her head back in a self-satisfied pose. "Killing me here would be a very serious mistake. You're a smart, sensible kid, so I know you'll make the right choice."
After a few seconds, Zorian decided she was probably telling the truth. The way Red Robe had been behaving these past few days, it was obvious he lacked the sort of deep knowledge about Zach and Zorian that he should have had if Silverlake had simply spilled everything immediately.
"Alright. I guess you have a point there," Zorian admitted. "That still leaves the question of why you came here. You were clearly waiting for me. What do you want?"
"What? Not going to thank me for keeping your secrets?" Silverlake complained.
"Whatever your reason for doing that, I'm sure it's purely selfish and aimed squarely on maximizing your gains in this. I'm guessing you were trying to pressure Red Robe into making some sort of concession by not handing all the information over to him immediately, but it ultimately doesn't matter. All that matters is that any benefit we get out of this is purely incidental. What is there to thank you for?" Zorian challenged.
"So judgmental," Silverlake sighed dramatically. "It's because I'm a witch, isn't it? It's always like this… we're only good for making potions and doing people's dirty work, and then it's back to the woods with you…"
"I don't have time for this," Zorian told her, turning to leave. "I think I'm going to practice my aim on that raven over there and then go home."
"There's still time for you to join me, you know?" Silverlake called out, not a trace of panic or annoyance in her voice.
Zorian's back remained turned away from her, but he did turn his head towards her to give her an incredulous look.
"I know I sound stupid to say that…" she began.
"Yeah, you do," Zorian confirmed.
"…but I really think you should hear me out," she continued. "Remember when we were talking about your 'friend' and how weird I made the word sound?"
"Yes?" Zorian confirmed, finally turning around to properly face her.
"That was your cue to ask me what I mean by that, silly boy. Must I draw a picture for you or something? Zach is no friend of people like us?"
"People like us?" Zorian asked. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Well, I'm sure you know by now that I have entered into a bit of a contract with the primordial trapped in Cyoria," Silverlake said.
"A death pact to release it by the end of the month or die trying," Zorian said.
"Yes, more or less," Silverlake agreed. "But I'm not the only one who made a death pact. Your 'friend' has also made a death pact."
"That's bullshit," Zorian said. "Zach could leave the time loop at any time. Why would he need to make a deal with Panaxeth?"
"Not with the primordial, you numbskull," Silverlake rolled her eyes at him. "With the angels! He made a death pact with the angels to stop the release of the primordial… while making sure no one could find out about the existence of the time loop. Even if he prevents Panaxeth's release, so long as there is even a single person who knows about the time loop by the end of the month, he is going to die. Never mind people who literally originate from the time loop like me and you… even people you tell about the time loop must either die or have their memory erased, or he will not survive this month."
Zorian froze momentarily, his brain stuttering for a second. He fully expected Zach to have some sort of compulsion embedded inside his mind, but this…
"How do you know this?" Zorian asked her quietly. "Did Panaxeth tell you this?"
"The primordial cannot directly discuss this," Silverlake said. "He hinted at it, and Red Robe explained the details of it to me later. I don't know how he knows so much about it, but presumably Zach told him that personally while he still remembered."
"He could be lying," Zorian pointed out.
"Yes, but I don't think he is," Silverlake said. She gave him a knowing look. "And you probably don't think so either."
Zorian said nothing.
"Don't think for a second that Zach doesn't know about this, either," Silverlake said. "As someone who is laboring under this sort of contract, I can tell you right now that deals with primordials are not that easy to get out of. I already tried to erase my memories to void the contract, and it didn't work. The pact is branded directly into my soul, and I am constantly aware of its terms. I can forget the details of how I got it, but not the core contents of it. Zach is the same. Remember how he 'mysteriously' knew he had to find a way to beat the invasion? And how he – seemingly foolishly – insisted on trying to take it on all on his lonesome?"
Zorian still said nothing, though his posture slumped a little in response.
In retrospect, there were a number of things about Zach that fit this idea. His strong insistence that he would never use the temporary looper markers, for instance, which always seemed a little strange to his eyes… until he suddenly changed his mind about that.
Or the fact that Zach was clearly a very proactive and social person before he started working with Zorian, but became increasingly passive and even slightly fatalistic once they started working together.
"I understand what you're getting at, but I think you've badly misjudged the situation," Zorian told Silverlake. "I don't think Zach is out to kill me. And I don't think he would have been out to kill you if you had kept your trust in us and helped us make an exit for ourselves. With your help, we could have physically left the loop, laden with knowledge and resources of the time loop. Was it really worth it to give that up just for a chance of a younger body that you would have gotten eventually, anyway?"
"In the end, aren't you and Zach the only ones who successfully left that place?" Silverlake challenged, a defiant look on her face. "How do you know my presence would have made a difference? You don't. If I stayed, I would have faced extremely low chances of success while working for a person that needs to kill me once we got outside. You can hate me all you want, but I think I made the right choice."
"Hmph," Zorian scoffed, turning back to leave again.
"Do you seriously think you can trust Zach, knowing all you do now?" Silverlake called out.
"More than I can trust you," Zorian responded without turning back.
The raven on the nearby roof suddenly took flight and disappeared into the horizon.
Behind him, Silverlake shapeshifted into a raven before flying off herself, this time in the opposite direction her familiar went.
Well, Zorian actually strongly suspected that the Silverlake he spoke to was her raven familiar, whereas the raven on the roof had been the real Silverlake. As much as she tried to pretend she didn't fear him attacking her, he felt she wouldn't risk herself so easily.
He sped up his pace, putting some distance between himself and the people that were commenting on the spectacle of an attractive woman suddenly shapeshifting into a bird and flying off, before deliberately entering a dark, isolated alley devoid of people.
He kept walking for a while before suddenly stopping and turning around.
"Are you really going to keep following me all the way to Imaya's place like this?" he asked.
Only silence greeted him. The alley was dark and still, and there was no trace of anyone here beside him. He was stubborn, however, and kept staring at one particular patch of darkness without making any moves.
After a full minute of this, he was just about to start throwing magic missiles at the spot when the familiar figure of Zach stepped out of the shadows.
"Took you long enough," Zorian said, relaxing a little. But only a little. "You've been following me ever since I left the Noveda estate, didn't you?"
"Err, yes," Zach admitted. "Sorry. I just… I don't know. I had a bad feeling and decided to shadow you in secret. I figured that if I was right, I get to save the day, and if I was just being paranoid, you'd never even know. I guess I overestimated my stealth skills a little."
"Honestly, if Silverlake didn't put me on guard, it's entirely possible I could have missed you," Zorian admitted. He paused for a second. "You heard my conversation with her, didn't you?"
Zach's shoulders slumped a little.
"So it's true," Zorian said, getting a little angry. "Why the hell didn't you tell me?"
"I didn't know the details," Zach said defensively. "I didn't know I'd made a deal with angels, or even that it was a deal. All I knew was that I have these… instincts… that tell me things. I can't really talk about them…"
"Can't or won't?" Zorian asked.
"Can't," Zach said. "I get tongue-tied whenever I try."
"And if I read your mind to find out?" Zorian asked.
"I will have to kill you," Zach told him seriously.
"Oh," Zorian said, swallowing heavily. He didn't think he had any chance against Zach, even now. He did have that one trump card that nobody except him knew about, but he needed proper timing to use that, and Zach would probably kill him before he could set it up… "Err, good thing I never tried to forcibly read your mind while you were sleeping or something…"
"Yes, very good thing," Zach agreed.
A short, uncomfortable silence descended on the scene.
"You already decided to die at the end of the month, didn't you?" Zorian asked him. "That's why you had gotten so weird and philosophical lately…"
"I don't intend to murder you once this is all done, if that's what you're asking," Zach told him. "Silverlake is just a black-hearted witch with no understanding of things like basic human decency and personal integrity. If I wanted to survive at all costs, I would have gotten rid of you while we were still in the time loop."
"I can't believe this…" Zorian muttered. "If I had known about this earlier, maybe we could have–"
"It's divine magic," Zach said. "We wouldn't have been able to do shit. Just like Silverlake can't get rid of her death pact no matter how hard she tries. She's a witch. They're known for being skilled with geas. You just know she used every trick in the book to try and get out of contract, but she still failed."
"So you're okay with just dying at the end of the month?" Zorian asked.
"Of course I'm not fine with it!" Zach said. "It's just… if I have to murder my friends to survive, then what's the point of all this power and knowledge? It's not… it's not how I want to live my life, okay? Damn it… what the hell was my old self thinking to agree to this?"
Zach slumped against the nearby alley and lightly thumped his head against the wall.
What a horrible, convoluted mess, Zorian thought.
As if outmaneuvering Red Robe and Silverlake was not enough, he now had to figure out how to keep Zach alive when the end of the month came calling.
Sometimes, he thought the gods were still out there, watching him and laughing at his misfortune.