Alternatives


Despite Alanic’s proclamation that he was going to interrogate the prisoner, he did not immediately descend into the temple dungeon. Instead he started rummaging through a nearby cabinet full of potion bottles while Zorian slowly absorbed today’s newest revelations, opting to remain in the room for the moment. He was not in the mood for answering questions that Lukav would have for him once he got outside, and Alanic seemed like the sort of person who would warn him if he was being bothersome. Since Alanic said nothing about his continued presence, Zorian felt he had tacit permission to stay.

He had a piece of propagating, self-repairing magic lodged in his soul. Part of him marveled at the magical expertise of the person or thing that created the time loop system, but the greater part of him couldn’t help but wonder what exactly was crammed into said wonder of magical spell design. Alanic’s description, as well as Lukav’s inability to identify the spell despite his advanced-looking ritual, painted a picture of something far too complex and lifelike to be a mere identification tag.

This was important, he could feel it – he needed to know how the marker functioned as soon as possible. For one thing, if there was some kind of hostile contingency woven inside it, ready to screw him over once he tripped over some esoteric activation condition, he wanted to know about it. Not to mention that this particular piece of magic could very well be a key clue to understanding the time loop. What kind of secrets were locked inside of it? Kael had speculated that whatever spell had been placed on Zach to initiate the time loop had all sorts of safeguards and contingencies woven into it, and while the marker clearly wasn’t the source of the looping magic itself, it sounded like the perfect place to put those safeguards in. Maybe it had the time loop instructions manual encoded somewhere in its structure? Well, probably nothing so convenient, but still.

There was one thing that still bothered him greatly – if he had a marker in his soul that uniquely identified him as a time looper, why the hell hadn’t Red Robe tracked him down by now? His enemy was a proficient soul mage, after all. Zorian found it difficult to believe he was ignorant of the marker mechanism. With that in mind, he should have had little trouble locating every single time looper, Zorian included. But he didn’t. Why was that?

“Mister Zosk?” Zorian spoke up. “Could you spare a moment, please?”

“Call me Alanic,” the priest said, stopping his inspection of the cabinet with an annoyed huff. Zorian got the impression the annoyance was directed more at the cabinet than at Zorian, though. “What is it?”

“I know you said we’d speak tomorrow, but I’d just like to know how difficult it is to locate a marker like mine. How hard would it be for you to track me down with the best magic at your disposal?”

“By tracking your marker? Almost impossible,” Alanic immediately stated. “I’d need the original keystone from the maker of the spell to define the search criteria properly. That thing is far too complex for anything else.”

Zorian frowned. “Wouldn’t having my own copy of the marker sidestep that?” he asked.

“Well yes, but that would require you to be right beside me and serve as a willing focus of the spell. A tracking spell that requires you to be right next to the target is functionally useless, wouldn’t you think?” He suddenly gave Zorian a shrewd look. “But what you’re really wondering about is not you tracking down the person whose soul fragment gave you the marker, but them tracking you, aren’t you mister Kazinski?”

“Call me Zorian,” he said. If the man wanted Zorian to be casual with him, he should show the same courtesy. “And yes, that is basically what I’m worried about. How easy would it be for another holder of the marker to track me down?”

Alanic quickly walked over to a nearby bookshelf, plucked a plain brown book from its shelf and handed it to Zorian.

“The spell you want is on page 43,” Alanic told him.

Zorian quickly leafed through the book until he reached the indicated page. The spell in question was not an invocation, but rather a 10-minute ritual. It allowed the caster to locate a specified marker based on the copy of the marker in the caster’s possession, and it had a downright jaw-dropping range. If Zorian was reading this correctly, it could locate any and all copies of the marker over a circular area that extended well beyond Eldemar’s borders!

Yeah, it was not cheap in terms of mana use – it required enough mana that Zorian wouldn’t have been able to cast it at all before the time loop, and even now, after 3 years of restarts, it would take a sizeable chunk of his reserves. But still, for a nation-wide search spell it was shockingly accessible. He supposed its very narrow search focus allowed it to be hyper- efficient about mana use. Really, the only possible deal breaker was that the spell assumed the caster had a keystone imprinted with the copy of the marker, and would have to be slightly modified to switch the reference target of the spell from a stone held in the caster’s hand to a marker stamped on their soul.

Zorian sincerely doubted Red Robe was incapable of making such minor alterations to spells, though.

“I could be tracked from one end of the country to another,” Zorian mumbled disbelievingly to himself.

“Yes,” Alanic agreed. “Possibly even further. I don’t claim to have comprehensive knowledge of tracking spells so there may be a version with even greater range. Your insistence that the marker must stay on was quite surprising. I hope you have a good reason for leaving a giant target painted on your soul.”

“Ugh. I’m not happy about the situation, but I do. I really, really do. I’d also like to cast this tracking spell myself to see how many other people turn up in results, but we can deal with that tomorrow. I’ve already kept you from your interrogation long enough.”

“Unfortunately, I seem to have ran out of truth potions,” the priest said unhappily, throwing a glare at his potion cabinet. “Annoying. You can’t buy those on the open market and it takes days for Lukav to make a batch. It seems I won’t be interrogating anyone today…”

Oh. He agreed with Alanic, that really was annoying – he wanted to know who the guy was working for just as much as the priest did. He thought about offering his services as a mind reader to the priest but quickly shelved that idea. Aside from the very likely possibility he would make Alanic too suspicious of Zorian to help him with his soul magic problems, there was the fact that he wasn’t sure how much help he would be anyway. His mind reading skills were still very unreliable at this point. He’d feel pretty stupid if he outed himself as a mind mage and then failed to achieve anything of note – better try that in some later restart, after he gave his telepathic abilities some polish.

“No matter. I will figure something out. I’m afraid I’ll have to postpone our meeting for a day or two because of this, though. I’ll send a message through Lukav once I have sorted my business in order. Agreeable?”

“Sure,” Zorian shrugged. “Just don’t die before we meet again. Whoever wants you and Lukav dead can clearly throw a lot of resources at the problem so they’re unlikely to stop now.”

“The same goes for you, young man,” Alanic scoffed. “You seem to have an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time. Suspicious, that. If I were in the attacker’s place, I would definitely make sure to get rid of you before trying again. And no offense, but you look like a much softer target than me.”

Not having much to say to that, Zorian simply bid the man goodbye, had a brief conversation with Lukav outside the room to inform him of everything and then went back to his room at the inn. He would sleep on things before making any decisions.

- break -

With the next several days freed up for his own activities, Zorian decided to go visit Silverlake and see if the capricious old witch was in better mood to help this time. The trouble was, he could no longer find her cottage. His memory was extremely good, and he remembered exactly where it was in relation to surrounding natural landmarks, but when he physically got to the location there was nothing there. No cottage, no witch, no nothing. As far as Zorian could tell, it wasn’t an illusion and there was no ward in place messing with his mind to stop him from noticing it – he detected no mental tampering, his area-wide dispels revealed no optical flickering, and he physically passed through the area that the cottage stood on in the previous restart and met no resistance whatsoever.

How the hell did she do that? Dimensional shenanigans, maybe? Like a pocket dimension that can intersect with reality under some circumstance or something?

Whatever the exact mechanics, he clearly wasn’t going to reach Silverlake’s place without her inviting him first. Considering the last time it took him several days of wandering around and almost dying to get her attention, he decided to not bother with that and find something else to do.

Namely, investigating the rest of the disappeared soul mages. While it was true that Alanic seemed to be his best clue at the moment, it wouldn’t hurt to check the other locations as well. Thus, while waiting for Alanic to contact him again, Zorian proceeded to break into the homes of each of his targets before combing through them with every divination spell in his arsenal. The knowledge he picked up from Gurey’s little escapade was quite useful here, as a number of those homes were warded against entry and divinations, and that would have given him quite a bit of trouble in the past.

What he found out wasn’t much, but it did put at least one question to rest – the attackers had indeed been active long before the time loop started. Two of the houses showed signs of a struggle, and forensic spells dated those signs about a month to a month and a half before the start of the time loop. In addition, the house of the old curse-breaking herbalist lady looked pristine on first glance, but Zorian easily detected evidence of repair magic used on furniture and sloppily erased blood splatter on the walls – both dated 3 days before the start of the loop.

Zorian silently thanked Haslush for his divination instructions – without them, he would have never been able to tell such things with any degree of certainty.

He also made sure to search the houses for anything personally interesting while he was at it, and here he had greater success. The herbalist lady had intact notes about her curse-breaking side-business – Zorian pocketed those, even if he wasn’t able to make use of them at the moment. She also had a pretty extensive journal that listed where to find rare plants in the nearby forest as well as detailed some of her rare recipes. Zorian left that alone for now, but made a mental note to show it to Kael at some point and see if it was worth something. The ransacked tower turned out to have been imperfectly ransacked, and Zorian managed to find two different secret compartments that the attackers missed. One held a trio of high-quality combat staffs and a stack of blasting rods. The other held a bunch of spellbooks containing combat spells – specifically, the sort of combat spells you couldn’t buy legally anywhere because they were far too effective and lethal for the Mage Guild’s tastes. Naturally, Zorian swiped all of it for his personal use. He found more interesting stuff in other houses, but nothing he felt like taking at the moment. The familiar-obsessed guy, for instance, had mountains and mountains of books and journals dedicated to soul bonds, magical creatures, and familiar-related magics. It was interesting, but not something he needed at the moment.

In the end it was five days before Alanic finally contacted Zorian again. If Lukav didn’t insist that his friend was alive and well, just unusually occupied with something, Zorian would have feared the attackers got him.

Regardless, Zorian soon found himself seated in front of Alanic, ready to finally discuss things.

“I apologize for the wait,” Alanic said. “I’m afraid that the confessions I managed to force out of the prisoner had far more far-reaching consequences that I had initially suspected.”

“Oh? I don’t suppose you could tell me what those are?” asked Zorian.

“I’m afraid not. It’s not something you should concern yourself with,” Alanic said, leveling him a mild glare.

“Fine, fine, I get it,” Zorian said, raising his hands in a placating gesture. Truthfully, it did not matter much because he already knew what Alanic had found out. While the priest seemed to have some sort of natural mental defense, his friend Lukav didn’t. Zorian had simply pestered the transformation expert about the prisoner and read the man’s thoughts wherever he refused to answer.

Basically, the mage Zorian incapacitated was hired by none other than Vazen – the man who Gurey wanted him to rob (well, spy on) in the previous restart. Worse, the man appeared to be just an underling himself, with the real ringleader being someone more highly placed in the local hierarchy. Someone capable of interfering with the police and guild investigations.

It was certainly an interesting piece of information, and Zorian had some suspicions of his own about Vazen now. The man had concluded some kind of deal with a company in Cyoria, so it was entirely possible he was connected to the invaders somehow. He had intended to have another go at those documents anyway, but now they acquired a whole new importance.

“Good,” Alanic nodded. “What did you want to start with?”

“Well, first of all I’d like to know if you could help me defend myself against soul magic in the future,” said Zorian.

“Why wouldn’t I be able to help you with that?” asked Alanic curiously, cocking his head to the side slightly.

“I was told that spellcasters without some measure of soul perception can only cast the most rudimentary of soul magic,” said Zorian. And from his attempts to duplicate Kael’s spells, he knew that to be largely true – the only spell he managed to learn from Kael was the one that cloaked him from the soul perception of other necromancers, and Kael claimed that was baby stuff.

“Ah. You’ve been talking to a necromancer, I see,” Alanic said.

Zorian winced. “It… seemed like a logical course of action. I had a soul magic problem, and he was a soul mage.”

“Hmph. Necromancers,” began Alanic, taking pains to stress the word, “have a habit of targeting others with their spells, so of course they consider soul perception to be absolutely essential for their craft. If you just want to cloak your soul in some protective effect, it is hardly necessary to go to such lengths.”

Oh, is that why he could cast Kael’s soul sight invisibility spell but not the rest of his arsenal?

“Even for other things, it is possible to use lengthy rituals to get around that requirement. I believe you’ve already experienced an example of such a ritual when Lukav tried to determine what is wrong with you. Don’t be fooled by his lack of skill – Lukav is but a dabbler in this branch of magic, and if you dedicate yourself to the discipline you could end up much more impressive than he is.”

“But I’m never going to progress beyond unwieldy ritual setups without soul sight, am I?” guessed Zorian.

Alanic sighed. “Yes. But soul sight is too much of a temptation. It makes soul magic too easy. For the sake of your immortal soul, I implore you to turn away from that path. It is not necessary to go that far just to protect yourself.”

“I see,” said Zorian. “Out of curiosity, do you have soul perception?”

For the first time since Zorian met him, Alanic looked uncomfortable. “Yes. But that’s… different.”

‘Of course it is,’ Zorian thought. ‘Do as I say, not as I do, just like it always was.’

But he didn’t say that. Instead he asked Alanic what exactly he was willing to teach him.

“There are two ways I can see this going,” said Alanic, quickly regaining his composure. “Option one is that I teach you how to perform a plethora of protective rituals to foil hostile soul magic. They are, as you say, cumbersome – casting times can be up to 2 hours long in some cases, and setting up a ritual isn’t easy. They last a long time, though. Weeks if you perform them correctly. The advantage of this path is that you get a way to defend yourself right away – I’m fairly certain you could do the beginning rituals as you are now. Also, some of the rituals will allow you to affect souls other than yours, though none of the rituals I’m willing to teach you can be used on an unwilling target.”

“And the disadvantage is that if I’m ever caught unaware by the enemy, I’m screwed because there’s no way to shield myself on a moment’s notice,” finished Zorian.

“Exactly. That’s where option number two comes in. With the help of some meditation exercises and special potions, I can teach you how to ‘feel’ your own soul. If you hone the skill to a required level, this skill will allow you to cast any soul magic that has you as its target. You’ll be able to shield and analyze your soul with invocation spells, and it might even allow you to passively notice when someone is messing with your soul in some fashion.”

“I like that option,” Zorian said.

“I figured you might,” Alanic scoffed. “The problem is that this option isn’t some quick power up. It will take you months to reach useable levels in this skill, and that’s assuming you have the patience and willpower required to perform the exercises every single day for months on end.”

“I do,” said Zorian curtly.

“We’ll see. I should also mention that until you master the skill of sensing your own soul, this option will leave you just as helpless to soul magic as you are currently.”

“Yeah, that’s a little dangerous,” Zorian admitted. Still, the second option sounded way more useful and functional than the first one. Maybe if he wasn’t stuck in the time loop he would blanch at the idea of spending months of his life like that, but right now it was looking like a bargain. “I suppose there is a reason why I can’t learn both at the same time?”

“They’re both demanding skills in their own way, and I don’t trust you to be capable of juggling them both effectively,” Alanic said, his tone brooking no disagreement.

“Fair enough,” Zorian said. He was going to visit the man in future restart anyway, so he could potentially just pick different options on different restarts. “How about this: you teach me the very basics of the soul rituals, the things I can pick up well enough as I am now, and then we immediately switch to the personal soul awareness project.”

“I suppose I can live with that. You should note that the basics of soul rituals won’t do much for you,” Alanic noted.

“That’s fine. I’m mostly interested in option number two anyway. The reason I want the basics of soul rituals is because I still want to cast that marker tracking ritual you showed me, and modifying it to work with the thing attached to my soul is probably going to require some working knowledge of soul magic.”

“Probably,” Alanic agreed.

“Well. Now we come to the ‘make it or break it’ question,” Zorian sighed, fixing a weary gaze at Alanic. “What exactly are you asking of me in exchange for all this?”

Alanic rolled his eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, boy. Teaching people how to defend themselves against necromancers and hostile spirits is a part of my calling, as far as I’m concerned. I’d take a whole class to teach if people were actually interested. Unfortunately, such threats are considered something of a minor issue in the aftermath of the Necromancer’s War. So while yes, I do intend to send you on an errand or two, it isn’t going to be anything too onerous. Lukav tells me you can teleport?”

“I can, yes.”

“Excellent. I was thinking of sending you out as a courier from time to time to some of my more distant contacts. Nothing difficult or dangerous – just delivering some letters and packages for free.”

Half an hour later, Zorian had managed to hammer out some kind of agreement with Alanic.

Overall, Zorian felt the priest had been quite generous in his terms – his principal demand was that Zorian had to show dedication, or else Alanic would unceremoniously terminate the lessons and kick him out. Specifically, he had to show up at the temple every evening like clockwork, and show ‘diligence and enthusiasm’ for the lessons. Right. Oh, and there was the whole business with him being a courier from the priest on occasion, which was of little concern to Zorian – he thought of it as teleportation practice more than anything.

“Well then,” Alanic said, leaning back in his chair. “Now that this is all done, we can being with our first lesson.”

“What, now?” Zorian asked in surprise.

“Is there reason to postpone things?”

“No, no, I’m just surprised. Most of my previous teachers have been… well, no matter. What are we starting with?”

- break -

Over the next two weeks Zorian continued studying the other disappearances while attending Alanic’s lessons. He absorbed the basics of soul protection rituals in a few days and then moved onto the meditation exercises needed for personal soul sight, only to find out two things. First, the meditation exercises were incredibly, mind-numbingly boring. No wonder the man was worried about Zorian’s dedication, he could easily imagine someone dropping that after only a few days. But no, Zorian was stronger than that… and besides, he really needed that skill.

Secondly, those ‘special potions’ Alanic mentioned? What the priest hadn’t clarified at the time – and indeed, hadn’t explained before Zorian actually drank one – was that they were extremely powerful hallucinogens. Almost immediately after downing one, Zorian was assaulted with a cacophony of strange, incomprehensible sights and smells, sounds become distorted and unrecognizable, and his thoughts degenerated into a chaotic mess. It was a profoundly unpleasant experience, and once Zorian finally came to his senses and stopped drooling all over the floor of the temple (the jerk could have at least put a pillow under him!) he felt a powerful desire to punch Alanic in the face. The man had effectively drugged him helpless and was completely unrepentant about it too, claiming that without the help of those potions the entire process could take years. He would have to drink one of those once a week, apparently.

Which was all well and good, but it still didn’t explain why the man hadn’t warned him what would happen when he drank that potion. Personally, Zorian suspected schadenfreude.

Aside from the whole ‘potion incident’ thing, there was one tiny little detail he had failed to consider when he decided to accept Alanic as his newest personal tutor.

Alanic was a priest. Priests were, generally speaking, very religious people. It stood to reason, then, that they’d be very bothered by people who don’t care much about their own religion or have some gaping holes in their understanding of religious dogma. And with Zorian spending every evening in the temple, it really was too much to expect that Alanic wouldn’t notice just how… lacking… Zorian’s religious credentials were.

The good news was that Alanic wasn’t going to get rid of him because of this. The bad news was that he took it upon himself to correct this glaring deficiency. Thus, not only did Zorian have to suffer through boring meditation sessions every evening, they were now interspersed with longwinded lectures about the gods, angels, spirits, and man’s place in the natural order.

Heaven help him. Or not, he supposed. He doubted the angels would have a lot of compassion for someone in his position.

“…and thus, with the evidence that the gods have fallen silent no longer possible to ignore, and the unescapable fact that no more miracles would be forthcoming, the Holy Triumvirate decided to loosen the limitations on soul magic – a decision that did much to soften the blow of the Silence, but one that would have far-reaching negative consequences. But I can see that you are starting to lose focus so we will continue this tomorrow.”

Thank the gods. Zorian quickly vacated the temple before the man could have a chance to change his mind.

He was barely out of the temple gates when he realized he was walking into an ambush.

It was a crow that tipped him off. It looked normal enough, though it was curiously brave in not fleeing at his approach. He had however gotten into a habit of automatically scanning the minds of every animal he saw as telepathic practice, and the crow in question didn’t have any. That immediately raised an alarm in his head and he stopped, expanding his mind sense to maximum range.

In the next second he threw himself to the side, narrowly avoiding a hail of bullets that ripped through his previous location. Almost reflexively, he fired two force missiles in quick succession: one at the undead crow that had taken flight while he dodged – he didn’t need that thing pecking his eyes out while he was busy elsewhere – and another one straight into the air, seemingly at nothing. That one was what Taiven called a ‘screamer’ – a missile that produced a loud, shrill scream as it flew through the air. Zorian hoped that the noise would give pause to the ambushers, at least for a moment, but the real purpose of it was to attract Alanic’s attention and tell him there was a fight going on outside of his temple.

You know, just in case the gunshots weren’t clear enough on that.

The first bolt collided with the crow, causing it to erupt into a shower of feathers and fleshy bits (but no blood), but the second one didn’t have much effect on the attackers. Zorian was forced to immediately erect a shield in front of himself to tank a powerful beam of shining force, and was then pinned in place by a withering hail of bullets. He had to pour half of his mana reserves into strengthening the shield, but it thankfully held.

Also thankfully, the attackers had a piss poor sense of tactics – apparently the entire force wasted their ammo on the initial barrage, and thus couldn’t provide any further fire to keep him pinned in place while they reloaded. Zorian promptly took advantage of this to take cover behind a nearby tree, become invisible and then vacate the area as fast as he could without breaking the optical cloak.

It was a good thing he did, because the tree he had been hiding behind soon became a target of a massive fireball that reduced the tree to charcoal and did horrible things to everything around it.

These people really didn’t pull any punches, did they?

Tracking his attackers’ movements with his mind sense, Zorian could tell they weren’t fooled with his maneuver. They knew he wasn’t dead, and they were coming after him. Whelp, time to exercise the better part of valor and teleport away to safety!

A few seconds later, he sighed in resignation. Of course they erected a teleport ward around the area. Well, if that’s how they wanted to play then so be it! Closing his eyes he located the nearest gunman with his mind sense, connected with his mind and then hit him with the best telepathic attack he could manage.

He felt the target stop immediately, but apparently he’d failed to knock the man out. No matter. He disconnected from the man’s mind and moved on the next one and repeated the procedure. He grinned nastily when he felt the man’s mind shut down from the strain, the gunman falling unconscious.

Then he moved onto the rest of the ambushing force, attacking their minds one by one. Two thirds of them were strong enough to weather the attack, though they would likely be dazed for a while and suffer a nasty headache for the rest of the day, but a full third found Zorian’s telepathic attack too much for them. Sadly, the mage that supported them figured out what was happening and shielded his own mind against the tactic. Still, even if he didn’t get them all, he succeeded in taking away their momentum and slowing them down.

It cost him, though. His telepathic powers, exotic as they may be, were still magic… and like all magic, they used mana to power themselves. His empathy and mind sense didn’t seem to cost him anything that he could detect, and establishing a telepathic link with another was trivial in terms of mana expenditure – even for him, it was so minute as to be unnoticeable. But these telepathic attacks he had been doing? They were incredibly cheap, especially considering their effectiveness, but he had performed a lot of them in quick succession. He was almost spent.

He sure hoped Alanic got off his ass sometime soon, preferably before the mage could rally his forces and come after him again.

Suddenly, just as Zorian was about to start booby-trapping the place like crazy, another group of people teleported in and his heart sank. Well that just wasn’t f- wait, they were fighting the first group. Huh. It seemed Alanic had called for cavalry.

The sound of gunshots and flashes of spellfire filled the air again, but this time Zorian wasn’t the target. Zorian wisely decided to sit this one out, being mostly out of mana and not wanting for one of the newcomers to confuse him for an enemy and put a bullet in his head before he had a chance to explain.

Ten minutes later, the noise quieted down and Zorian made his way back to the temple. There he found Alanic talking with a mixed group composed of a four- man group of Guild battlemages and a small contingent of Eldemar soldiers. He was questioned on his role in the battle, but the fact Alanic vouched for him kept the man in charge of the group from dragging him back to the Guild station for questioning. Apparently Alanic had quite a lot of pull with the Mage Guild.

He was worried the attackers would blab about Zorian’s telepathic abilities, but apparently they were under the impression Zorian cast some kind of area- wide knockout spell rather than assaulting their minds directly. The leader of the Guild force even commended him on his restraint when faced with deadly force. Alanic gave him a severe look though. Zorian wasn’t sure if he did that because he figured out there was something fishy about the whole story or because he disapproved of Zorian’s ‘soft’ approach. He knew from previous conversations with the man that Alanic firmly believed in tough justice and striking back at threats as effectively as possible, so he might just be annoyed that Zorian had not used something more lethal.

Eventually he was given permission to leave (though warned not to leave his current accommodations in Knyazov Dveri for the foreseeable future) and beat a hasty retreat back to his room.

- break -

When Zorian reached his room, he felt totally drained and wanted to do nothing more than to crawl into his bed and sleep until tomorrow. That had been… intense. He thought he’d have gotten used to having his life targeted and being in life-and-death situations, but he apparently wasn’t anywhere near that mindset yet. The questioning that followed wasn’t really pleasant either, and he suspected he had overextended his mind a bit with his last stunt because his thoughts felt slightly more sluggish and fuzzy than they should, even accounting his tiredness into account.

But no, he couldn’t go to sleep yet. Today was significant in that he had finally finished modifying the marker tracking spell with Alanic’s help, and he wanted to test it right away. His mana reserves had recovered by now, so he was good for a try. He quickly fished out one of the wakefulness potions he had made over the last week and downed it in one go. His head cleared out almost immediately, and so he promptly started creating the ritual circle with the handful of salt and powdered quartz.

After the circle was made and triple-checked for faults, he slowly went through the ritual, mindful not to mess it up since it would take a large chunk of his mana reserves whether it succeeded or failed.

The moment he spoke the last line of the ritual, Zorian was suddenly given a sense of the location and distance of all markers within the range of the spell.

All two of them. One was in the very center of the search area – that was him, obviously – and the other was far to the south, somewhere along Eldemar’s southern border.

Zorian freely admitted he had not expected that. He had expected the ritual to locate either three markers or just one (himself). How can there be just two? Was one of the other time travelers out of range? Did he misunderstand something?

He would have to repeat the ritual at different intervals to see if another marker pops up at some point. On the very beginning of the next restart, certainly. But if the number of markers remained stubbornly at two, then that would mean that at least one of the time travelers didn’t have the marker. Probably Red Robe, because Zorian was sure that Zach had one. It would explain why Red Robe didn’t just make a beeline for Zorian when he realized he existed, and why he felt the need to ask Zorian how many other time travelers there were and who they were.

But that would mean that Red Robe became a time looper through some other mechanism than Zorian did, wouldn’t it?

“Nothing can ever be simple about this, can’t it?” he sighed, rubbing his eyes.

No matter. His immediate goals remained unchanged by this new complication – learn how to protect his soul, become a better fighter, and polish his mind magic into something usable and reliable. His mind drifted to the battle he was caught in today and he nodded to himself. His performance wasn’t flawless, but he got out of it alive and the growth of his skills was undeniable.

Despite all the issues he encountered, he seemed well on his way to achieving his goals.

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