Tangled Webs


One thing Zorian found interesting about the restarts was that small, seemingly inconsequential choices exerted incredible influence on what happened in the restart. Conversely, actions that he felt should throw everything out of whack often tended to have muted, or even non-existent effects. Case in point, the last time he had gone into the sewers to meet the matriarch, convincing Ilsa to grant him an access permit to enter the sewers had been trivial. Thus, when Zorian marched into Ilsa’s office a few days after the beginning of classes, after he realized Zach had decided to give up on befriending him in this particular restart, he expected the request to be easily granted.

He was wrong. No matter how much he reasoned and pleaded, Ilsa refused to allow a newly-minted mage like him risk his life in the underworld. He tried to demonstrate his (at this point rather advanced) combat magic skills, but Ilsa wasn’t interested and simply shooed him out of her office. It took nearly an hour for Zorian to calm down and realize what the difference was.

Last time he came with Kael. A self-taught genius mage who was also a single parent and had probably dealt with danger before in his life. If Kael thought Zorian was ready to go down into the tunnels beneath the city and was willing to accompany him to boot to make sure he was safe, then that was good enough for Ilsa. This time he came alone, though. No Kael, no permit.

Not that Zorian was going to be deterred by such a minor setback, of course. He knew at least one person who already had a permit to go down there and might be persuaded to help him.

“Roach, I hate you. You do know that, right?”

Zorian released a long-suffering sigh, opting to keep an eye on the tunnel in front of him instead of turning around to look at Taiven. He didn’t need to turn around to know she was making faces at him. “No Taiven, I don’t. After all, you only told me so five times already. Maybe I’ll remember it if you say it a few times more?”

“I just don’t get it,” Taiven complained, ignoring his sarcasm. “You refused to follow me down here when I asked you, saying it’s too dangerous. And then you come back to me a few days later, asking me to take you into the tunnels.”

Yes, and he was very much regretting it. Why couldn’t she have waited by the entrance like he had asked her to? He still didn’t know how he was going to explain aranea to her when they found the damn spiders. Hopefully the aranea would be savvy enough to hide in the shadows while he talked to them telepathically – kind of a hassle, but should be enough to arrange a proper meeting in the future somewhere more accessible.

“I mean, were you trying to piss me off?” Taiven continued, undeterred by his lack of response. “Because I’m feeling pretty angry right now, let me tell you…”

“Taiven, please, ” Zorian pleaded. “I said I was sorry! How many times do I have to apologize? You of all people should understand, considering how many times you pulled stuff like this on me.”

“Not quite like this,” Taiven grumbled. “At least tell me where we’re going.”

“I actually don’t know,” admitted Zorian. He was relying on one of the aranea scouts inadvertently contacting him by trying to read his mind, since he had no real idea where their home territory was. “I’ll know it when I see it, though.”

“Zorian, I swear, if this is your idea of a prank-”

“I’m totally serious,” Zorian assured her. “I’m pretty sure we’re getting close, it shouldn’t take too-”

An alien presence skittered across the surface of his mind, withdrawing immediately when it realized its intrusion was detected. Its telepathic touch wasn’t as subtle as that of the matriarch, but Zorian definitely received an aranea feel from it.

“Wait!” he protested, hoping that the aranea hadn’t physically fled already. “I want to talk to you, aranea! I have important information for your matriarch!”

“Zorian, what the hell are you talking about?” Taiven asked, thoroughly baffled at his actions. “And who are you talking to, anyway? There is no one here.”

Zorian said nothing, choosing to wait in silence for a while. Seconds passed in utter silence as Zorian patiently waited for a response from the spider. Taiven seemed to be torn between feeling irritation at his behavior and agitation at the potentially dangerous situation. Eventually, the aranea decided to re-initiate contact…

…by stepping into the open right in front of him and Taiven.

Taiven gasped in shock at the appearance of the huge hairy spider and immediately moved to draw her spell rod, only for Zorian to snatch her by her wrist and motion her to stand down. She gave him a baffled look before glancing at spider in front of them. The aranea stood motionless, observing them silently with its huge pitch black eyes but not making any threatening gestures. Taiven seemed to realize that the spider was no threat at the moment and relaxed, moving her hand away from the spell rod attached to her hip.

“Zorian…” she began, radiating a mixture of anger and worry at him.

“I’ll explain later, I promise,” Zorian said with a sigh before turning to deal with the aranea. “And you! Couldn’t you have been a little more discreet? Why couldn’t you have stayed in the shadows and contacted me telepathically?”

The aranea reconnected to his mind and sent a burst of amusement at him. [If you wanted to speak to me telepathically, why haven’t you called out to me telepathically to begin with? Aren’t you psychic yourself?]

Zorian grimaced. If only it was that easy. Finding information about mind magic from his fellow mages was like pulling teeth, since the mage guild took a very dim view on mind magic of any sort, no matter how benign. Nobody could tell him what being ‘psychic’ meant, much less teach him how to telepathically contact someone. He did track down a spell that allowed a mage to establish a telepathic connection with someone, but the spell was painfully crude – it worked only on other humans, the target had to be willing and able to lower their spell resistance, and the link only allowed word communication devoid of emotional and other connotations.

[I am untrained,] admitted Zorian. [I don’t know how to contact someone telepathically. I only know to how to piggyback answers on a connection someone else made.]

He wondered about that, actually. Nobody taught him how to do that, yet the concept seemed to come naturally to him. Is this what it meant to be ‘psychic’? Perhaps being psychic simply meant he was some sort of instinctive mind mage with inborn skills in the field.

[That’s so sad,] the aranea said. [You are incomplete. But I suppose it could always be worse. You could be a flickermind like your friend there.]

Zorian glanced at Taiven, suppressing a snort of amusement. It was a good thing he was talking to the aranea telepathically, because he could just imagine how Taiven would react if someone called her a ‘flickermind’.

“What?” Taiven asked, apparently having noticed his look.

“Nothing,” Zorian mumbled, shaking his head. [Miss aranea, I- err, you are a miss, right?]

It was hard to tell, but he was pretty sure the aranea he was talking to had a ‘female feel’ to her. Plus, the aranea were led by a matriarch, so it would make sense for outsiders like him to mostly meet the female members of the species.

[All aranea are female,] the spider said.

[What, really?] Zorian asked. [How on earth does that work? Do you just divide like microbes or spontaneously get pregnant or what?]

[Nothing that exotic. It’s just that our species is extremely sexually dimorphic, and the males are both smaller in stature and pretty much subsentient. We don’t consider them real aranea,] the spider explained. [If you talk to one of us and they’re smart enough to talk back, they’re female. The males would probably attack you in lieu of conversation, though you’re unlikely to ever meet one unless you somehow gain access to one of our settlements.]

Zorian digested that information for a few moments and then decided not to ask any further questions on the topic. It was interesting, but not really relevant at the moment, and he didn’t know how long he had before Taiven snapped from the pressure and started throwing around spells and demanding answers. She wasn’t exactly a paragon of patience.

[I’m sorry to be inconsiderate but I really need to speak to the matriarch.] Zorian said, doing his best to reproduce and send the weird aranea ‘spear of resolve’ concept that the matriarch said was her name instead of calling her ‘the matriarch’. Hopefully this would help convince the aranea to take him seriously when he told them about memory packets from another timeline.

[I have been listening to your conversation with Watchful Eyes That Miss Nothing of Importance for a while now, Zorian Kazinski,] the familiar presence of the matriarch announced.

Having the ability to throw your mind to any location inhabited by one of your subordinates must be really convenient.

[It is,] confirmed the matriarch. [Now. How about you introduce yourself and tell me how you know my real name? Then we can move on to this important information you have for me…]

[I am Zorian Kazinski, mage in training,] Zorian said. [And the reason I know your real name is that you told it to me yourself… right before you shoved a memory packet into my mind and told me to give it to you later.]

[I… don’t remember that,] the matriarch said hesitantly.

[I know,] Zorian said. [If you had been able to retain the memory of that encounter you would not have bothered with putting the memory packet inside my mind.]

[That’s quite a claim,] the matriarch said after a short silence. [How do I know that you’re telling the truth? This could be a trap. You could be related to the people that have been sending trolls at us all this time.]

[Honestly, I have no idea how to prove the truth of my words to you,] Zorian said. [Your other self was sure you would have a way to prove the authenticity of the memory packet, even without additional proof, and didn’t tell me anything I could convince you with.]

[I see,] the matriarch said. She was silent for a few seconds as she thought it over. [Give me access to your mind so I can see this memory packet for myself.]

[Of course,] Zorian said, offering no resistance when the matriarch delved deeper into his mind. He turned to his companion, who seemed to be at the end of her wits as she watched his silent staredown with the giant spider. “Taiven, I’m communicating with the spider telepathically. Everything should be fine, but if I fall to the floor and start screaming in the next few minutes, feel free to blast it to oblivion.”

He still had his suicide cubes with him, but it never hurt to have precautions. Taiven immediately nodded at his words and Zorian saw the aranea in front of him twitch her legs uncomfortably at the implied death threat. The matriarch said nothing, too absorbed in her work.

Several minutes later, the matriarch’s presence retreated from his mind.

[I… I need to think about this,] the matriarch said in a daze. [Come back in three days and we’ll talk.]

[Wait!] protested Zorian. [I need a way to get down here without going through any of the official entrances. Otherwise I will need to bring Taiven here every time I want to come down here, and I’m not sure she’ll want to talk to me after this.]

Zorian was immediately blasted with a mental image of the local section of the tunnel system, along with 8 different ways to access it from the surface without going through any check points. Wow, people weren’t kidding when they said the local underworld had more holes than a sponge. In any case, that was apparently the end of his conversation with the aranea, because the spider in front of him promptly leaped into the darkness and disappeared, leaving him alone with Taiven.

He cast a weary glance at said girl, only to flinch at the frown she was giving him.

“Okay, now that the spider is gone, I guess you can explain to me what on earth I just took part in. Start talking,” she commanded.

Stupid aranea and their indiscretion… what the hell was he going to tell Taiven now? Hmm…

“Before we get to that I would like to point out that if you had waited for me at the entrance like I asked you to-”

“Zorian!”

“Just saying,” said Zorian lightly. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m an empath. Do you know what that means?”

“Not… really…” Taiven said slowly.

“It means I can sense other people’s emotions,” said Zorian. “And sadly, the ability is currently an instinctive ability. I have no conscious control over it, and it often causes problems for me, so I have been looking for help in master it. Sadly, I have found no one willing to help me on the human side, so I… broadened my horizons. The spider you saw was an aranea – a sentient, telepathic species of spiders that I hoped to talk into teaching me how to control my powers.”

Taiven stared at him for a few moments, opening her mouth at one point only to simply close it soon afterwards. “And what did they say?” she finally asked.

“They’ll think about it,” Zorian shrugged.

Taiven shook her head in disbelief and started walking toward the exit, motioning him to follow.

“Let’s get out of here, monster charmer,” she said. “We should discuss things somewhere else. Somewhere I can sit down and have a drink.”

He followed.

- break -

True to her words, Taiven led him into an open-air tavern so they could sit down and relax while they talked. Well, so she could sit down and relax – Zorian didn’t find the experience all that fun, especially since she made him pay for her drinks out of his own pocket. Strangely enough, Taiven accepted most of his explanation without complaints, finding his decision to seek help from a species of monstrous spiders ‘ballsy’ rather than reckless and stupid, but things degraded from there. She was displeased that he had originally planned to meet with the aranea without backup and wanted to know whether he had done things like that before, and who had watched his back if he had. That kick-started a heated argument about the wisdom and necessity of ‘going solo’ and his ability to fight his way out should things ever go sour. Zorian honestly didn’t know whether she was upset because he was putting himself in danger, or that he hadn’t invited her along with him.

Probably the latter, since she quickly started insisting he should take her with him next time he went into the sewers to meet the aranea matriarch. She’d only get in the way and try to get him to spill his secrets to her, so he refused. Taiven didn’t like that at all, but seemed to realize nothing would be gained by pressing the issue directly. Instead she switched tracks and suggested she should help him develop his combat magic. Zorian knew this was a trap – that she simply wanted to wipe the floor with him in a ‘friendly spar’ in order to show him how overmatched he was against a serious opponent (and thus be more amenable to take her along like she asked) – but he agreed anyway. He was curious how long he would last against her, and he had nothing to lose except perhaps his pride.

That was how he found himself facing Taiven in her family training hall, fingering his rod of magic missiles and trying to decide how to approach this… practice spar. The training hall was, according to Taiven, heavily warded to protect people inside from spell damage, but usage of lethal spells was still not recommended. Sadly, while the ban on lethal spells was totally sensible for a spar, it completely eliminated a lot of his arsenal. He never really put much thought towards battles that weren’t ‘kill or be killed’ sort, so his spell choices tended towards the destructive end of the scale.

“I see you invested into a spell rod,” Taiven said with a confident smile. “Must have cost you quite a few pieces.”

Left unsaid (but heard loud and clear) was the implication that the money was wasted. Zorian had no chance in hell of overwhelming Taiven’s defenses with magic missiles, and they both knew it. That’s why he didn’t even intend to try – getting into a battle of attrition with someone who had bigger mana reserves than he did was a fool’s game. The prominently displayed spell rod was a deception, intended to give Taiven the wrong idea about his opening moves. His real ace in the hole was the shielding bracelet hidden under his right sleeve.

“I made it myself,” Zorian said. “So it didn’t cost me anything.”

“Really?” Taiven said, surprised. “I had no idea you were that good at spell formula. I mean, I knew you were interested in them, but…”

“You have your talent for combat and I have mine,” Zorian said smugly. He was quite pleased with himself for getting so good at spell formula – not only was this something he had been interested in since before the time loop, it was also something that could easily ensure his financial independence once he found a way out of the time loop. Spell formula were widely known to be a difficult field to master, and experts in the field were well paid for their services. Zorian was already good enough that he could start taking commissions today if he was so inclined, and would only get better as he went through the restarts.

“Whatever. In the end, you are overmatched even in the equipment department, despite your fancy self-made spell rod,” said Taiven, stretching her hand to the side of her and causing a staff mounted on the nearby wall to fly straight into her palm. He knew it was a spell staff even before Taiven channeled a burst of mana into it and caused a series of glowing yellow lines to light up across its surface.

“Show-off,” he said. He was definitely learning how to do that himself one of these days.

“Ready?” Taiven asked, pointing the staff threateningly towards him.

“Ready,” confirmed Zorian, twirling the spell rod in his hand.

Taiven reacted immediately, sending a small missile swarm consisting of 5 magic missiles at him. She was fast, far faster than him, and Zorian could see in her face that she considered herself already victorious.

‘You are way too presumptuous, Taiven,’ he thought, raising the hand that held the spell rod in order to erect a shield in front of him while throwing a vial full of white liquid at her with his other hand.

The missile swarm crashed into Zorian’s shield like a hammer. If Taiven had been facing old Zorian, the one that existed before the time loop, then this would have been the end – any shield he may have erected to defend himself would have been sloppily done and would have broken like glass under the onslaught. But she wasn’t. She was facing Zorian the time traveler, who had spent quite a lot of time repeating this month. Almost two years, by his count.

In the great scheme of things, two years was not a huge amount of time. Nonetheless, that was still two years of continual combat magic practice, most of it focused on a handful of spells - including shield. His shield spell was nearly flawless. The plane of force was practically invisible when not under strain, and Zorian could overcharge it a great deal to strengthen it further.

The shield held. The missile swarm crashed against it ineffectually, causing the nigh-invisible surface to turn opaque under the strain but doing little else of note.

Before Taiven could collect her wits and try another attack, Zorian sent a mana pulse at the vial flying towards her. The vial shattered in midair, as if crushed by some unseen fist, and a thick white smoke billowed forth from the spot as the liquid turned to gas.

The vial wasn’t anything special, just a simple alchemical mixture that caused coughing fits in whomever inhaled it, but it was enough to incapacitate Taiven, who stumbled out of the smoke dazed and off guard. Zorian mercilessly used her moment of weakness to send a smasher straight into her torso, hoping that was the end of the fight but half-expecting Taiven to throw a shield at the last second to save herself.

Something, perhaps his empathy, warned him to dodge when Taiven suddenly thrust her staff towards the incoming missile (and by extension, him). It was a good thing he did, because she didn’t cast a shield – she launched a massive battering ram of force that batted his attack aside like a snowflake and continued towards him unimpeded. Sadly, his dodge was only partial, and while he avoided the main thrust of the attack he was still caught in the outer area of effect. The attack sent him spinning like a rag doll and he soon found himself crashing head-first into the cold, unforgiving floor of the training hall. It was probably only because of the cushioning wards in the room that he didn’t end up with a cracked head or a concussion at the end of it.

Since Taiven seemed to be more interested in coughing her lungs out instead of trying to finish the fight, he remained on the floor for a while, waiting for his head to stop spinning. Apparently he made the coughing gas a bit stronger than he intended. He laboriously climbed back to his feet and walked towards the recovering Taiven.

“You have a very strange definition of non-lethal,” he told her.

“Serves you right, you cough cheater!” she growled.

“I got you good though, didn’t I?” Zorian smiled.

She huffed and swung her staff at him lightly, obviously expecting him to dodge the slow-moving object. In the interest of showing off, Zorian erected a shield instead, causing the staff to bounce off and wrench itself out of her hand.

Taiven looked at the shield curiously and gave it a couple of good hard knocks. The plane of force didn’t even turn opaque, much less give way to her hits.

“What the hell is that shield of yours made of, anyway?” Taiven asked. “It took 5 missiles without breaking and it looks… different. It’s almost entirely transparent; I can see it only because I’m standing so close to you at the moment. Back when we were fighting, I didn’t even see it until my attack hit. I thought you were trying to shield yourself with your hand or something at first.”

“It’s just a shield spell, just greatly overcharged and superbly executed,” said Zorian. “I spent a lot of time practicing that spell.”

“Still wouldn’t have helped you without that stupid trick you pulled,” Taiven scoffed. “This was supposed to be a spell battle, dammit!”

“You said you wanted to see how I fight,” Zorian shrugged. “By the way, how did you know where to fire that attack of yours? You had your eyes shut pretty tight from what I could see.”

“Oh. That’s just a little trick one of my teachers taught me,” Taiven said. “I doubt it would help you much, though – it’s pretty wasteful in terms of mana usage.”

“What do you mean?” Zorian asked.

“Well, it’s a pretty simple move that involves expelling a large quantity of mana and saturating the area around you with it. You can then sort of sense your surroundings through the resulting mana cloud. The information you gain is very rudimentary, but you can easily spot concentrated mana constructs like that magic missile you threw at me. I actually didn’t know where you were, even with the aid of the mana cloud, but I figured that if I aimed in the direction from which the attack came from I’d probably catch you as well.”

That sounded… awfully familiar. Zorian was pretty sure he used the exact same thing for his secret unlocking trick, except that he focused more on using the mana cloud as an extension of his tactile sense rather than perceiving mana sources. Of course there was quite the difference in scale from flooding a lock with his mana to saturating the entire greater area around him. He simply couldn’t afford to be that wasteful with his mana.

However…

“Taiven,” he began, “let’s say for a moment that I saturate a large-ish bubble of air around my head with this method. Would I be able to sense mana-charged marbles within that volume with this method?”

Taiven blinked and gave him a curious look. “I… suppose. You’d probably have to spend some time mastering the skill to get a cloud sensitive enough to detect such low-powered sources, though.”

“But it would be easier than trying to sense mana-charged marbles with my inborn mana sense alone, right?” Zorian pressed.

“Way easier,” Taiven confirmed. “Actually, just about any method would have been easier than that. Gods, you’d have to be, I don’t know, archmage-level good or something to sense a mana source that weak with no spells or other aids.”

Zorian suddenly felt incredibly stupid. Of course Xvim’s task seemed impossibly difficult – he was doing it wrong! Xvim probably expected him to use a method like this to sense the marbles. The asshole just didn’t bother giving him proper instructions on how to go about doing it. Or any sort of instructions, for that matter.

Gods, he hated that man.

- break -

Following an argument about who won their little spar (Zorian claimed it was a draw, Taiven claimed she totally won in the end), Taiven insisted on more fights to resolve the issue, and Zorian saw no reason to refuse. He lost all subsequent fights, of course – Taiven was strong enough to simply overpower him if she so chose and he no longer had the element of surprise on his side. Still, he felt he had done well, since Taiven actually had to work to bring him down. Even she admitted that if he caught his opponent off-guard and was ruthless enough in his opening moves he could bring down even professional battlemages, though she warned that he could easily get in legal trouble that way. The mage guild looked very dimly on people who escalated fighting into the lethal realm, even in self-defense.

And anyway, finding out what exactly Xvim expected of him made the whole thing worth it all on its own. Most of the skill was already familiar to him, so it only took a few hours until he was able to create a diffuse mana cloud around his head. Granted, he couldn’t really feel mana sources as such, but a marble was a physical object as well. Thus, when Friday came around and Xvim unveiled his oh-so-clever training method to him, Zorian calmly identified where the marbles were going as they zipped around (and occasionally at) his head. Xvim wasn’t impressed, of course. He simply started throwing a quick succession of marbles at him and demanded that he sorts them by magnitude of mana emissions. Which he couldn’t do, of course, since he was sensing them by more rudimentary means. Oh well, he wasn’t too concerned – now that he knew what to do, he fully expected to master the skill properly soon enough. Possibly by the end of the restart, unless Zach decided to tackle another dragon or something similarly insane.

Fortunately, Zach’s primary interest at the moment was trying to organize some kind of ‘mother of all parties’ that involved inviting the entire class to his mansion during the summer festival. Being aware of the time loop, Zorian was one of the few people who understood what Zach was doing. He was trying to get as many students as possible out of harm’s way without having to explain anything to them. Zorian had no idea what Zach planned to do with all those people when the attack started, or how he intended to deal with Ilsa and her insistence that everyone must attend the school dance.

3 days went by, and Zorian was back in the sewers. Finding aranea proved very easy, since they were expecting him this time. Any doubt that he wasn’t going to be taken seriously were wiped out when the forward scout he met took him to a familiar figure. The matriarch had decided to talk to him in person, rather than simply project her mind through one of her subordinates.

[Well, I have had time to digest the memories my… ‘other self’ sent me,] the matriarch began. [The story is… not as implausible as you might think, and the memories contained some pretty damning proof. I suppose we should ‘swap stories’ now, no? Of your experiences, I only know the basics you told your friends, and you know precious little of why I’m not scoffing at the idea of time travel.]

[I suppose that would make sense…] Zorian said carefully.

[But you want me to go first,] the matriarch surmised. [Very well. First thing you should know is that my web has been in a conflict with your so called ‘invaders’ for several months now. They were an infuriating, but manageable opponent… up until a week ago, when they suddenly developed a disturbing amount of precognition about our tactics and abilities. They had counters for secret skills that have been passed on from matriarch to matriarch for generations and have never been used within living memory up until that moment. They had counters for personal abilities that were unique to a single aranea. They even seemed to know how we were going to react in response to their increased threat and aggressive moves. In short, the amount of insight they possessed about us was downright implausible. Believe it or not, time travel was seriously discussed as a possible method they were using to obtain their information.]

[Not divinations?] Zorian asked.

[We know divinations, child,] the matriarch said. [If there is a field of magic beside the mind arts that we excel at, it is that. It is good that you mention divinations, though, because they hold a piece of the puzzle as well. You see, our web routinely tries to forecast the future with divination, with varying amount of success – highly disruptive events tend to make any future forecasts useless. What do you think happened when we tried to forecast the future during the past week?]

[It didn’t work?] guessed Zorian.

[Oh it worked. It gave wildly different results every time we repeated the forecast, no matter how little time passed between one forecast to the next, but it worked. So long as we didn’t try to extend the forecast beyond the day of the summer festival. Beyond that date, the forecast returns a blank. Each and every time. It is as if everything beyond that date simply ceases to exist.]

Zorian swallowed heavily. He had often wondered what happened to everything when the time loop restarted itself, but had ultimately dismissed the question as unknowable. He didn’t know whether to be relieved that he had no need to worry about leaving a soulless corpse in some alternate reality or disturbed that everything was literally being deleted when the time loop reset.

[I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about that,] he remarked. [You’d think that some of the human oracles would have noticed something like that.]

[You underestimate the difficulty of future forecasting,] the matriarch said. [It takes quite a bit of skill to read the future, and the process is time consuming and tedious. It doesn’t help that the results are often useless… or worse, misleading. And even if you do bother to forecast the future, odds are that you’re only doing it for few days at the time, since the predictions get more and more unreliable the further you try to extend the predictions. I hear complaints that such forecasts are a waste of time all the time from my fellow aranea, and our oracles can actually achieve a small measure of accuracy in their predictions. Still, I imagine you’re right – there are probably human organizations that have ran the forecasts and encountered the same thing, but are keeping quiet for a variety of reasons. Nobody likes a doomsayer… well, nobody of any authority, in any case. It would be nice to have independent confirmation of our findings, but I suspect few diviners would feel comfortable with sharing their secrets with a bunch of giant spiders. Perhaps if a certain young mage with an interest in divinations were to talk to them?]

[I’ll see what I can do,] said Zorian.

[I’ll give you a list of names,] the matriarch said. [Now how about you give us some details about the time loop and your experiences in it?]

Zorian gave them a basic rundown of the situation, leaving out many of the details he considered irrelevant and a tad too personal. The matriarch had only given him the bare bones version of their story as well, so he didn’t feel too bad about that.

[That bond between you and Zach is really inconvenient,] the matriarch remarked. [I don’t blame you for not taking a chance with it, but are you sure you can’t talk to Zach without triggering it? Who knows what useful things the boy knows about this whole thing? Surely if you inform him of your fears he will agree to keep his distance.]

Zorian wasn’t nearly so sure. He knew Zach meant well, but he always did have problems with patience and self-control, and none of his previous encounters with the boy convinced him he’d changed all that much in that regard. Zach would have probably found another time traveler immensely fascinating and kept pushing at the boundaries until the soul bond either activated fully or was shown to be harmless.

[I’m surprised you haven’t already ripped the knowledge from his mind,] Zorian remarked. [Isn’t he a… err, ‘flickermind’?]

[He isn’t psychic, but he does have some skill in shielding his mind,] the matriarch said, not at all ashamed to admit she had already tried to steal his memories. [Not well, but enough that I can’t do more than read his surface thoughts. Now stop dodging the question.]

Zorian sighed. [Everything I found out about soul bonds suggests that there probably isn’t any bond between me and Zach. Soul bonds tend to be really obvious to even basic detection spells. My divination instructor in one of the previous restarts showed me a spell for detecting soul bonds and I used it in school a few times – every student with a familiar is clearly connected to their partner, and the two soul-bonded twins are also clearly bonded to each other. There is absolutely no link between me and Zach that I can see. There is no way an accidental side-effect of an offensive soul mutilation spell has such sophisticated effects when even properly created soul bonds light up easily on detection spells.]

[Curious,] the matriarch said. [What is it, if not a soul bond, though?]

[Kael thinks that when the soul merge was terminated by our deaths, the link between us was cut rather than carefully untangled. As a consequence, a piece of Zach’s soul ended up fused to mine, and the reverse is probably true for Zach. The control function of the time loop probably got confused at that point, and rather than decide which one of us is the real Zach decided to simply loop both of us.]

[That would explain why Zach was absent during the first few restarts, and why he was so very sick when he finally did show up,] the matriarch said. [You probably both spent a number of restarts in a coma while your souls healed and integrated all the foreign bits, but he probably drew the short end of the straw when the spell was cut and ended up with far more soul damage than you.]

[It would,] agreed Zorian. [And honestly, it’s the most plausible explanation I’ve got.]

[So why don’t you want to talk to Zach, then?] the matriarch asked. [Oh, I see… the third time traveler.]

[Yes. It’s pretty obvious at this point that there is at least one more person inside the time loop besides me and Zach. That someone is aiding the invaders and has gods know how big of a lead on me in terms of time spent in the time loop, so I definitely don’t want to catch their attention. And they know of Zach. I mean, they have to – he really isn’t all that secretive about his status as a time traveler and his activities. But they aren’t doing anything about it. Zach is clearly trying to fight the invaders, so why leave him unmolested?]

[Because his actions don’t matter in the long run,] the matriarch guessed. [From what you told me, he’s trying to become strong enough to personally contest the entire invasion force. There is not much chance of that happening, even if he has all the time in the world to prepare.]

[That, and he’s possibly already been neutralized,] Zorian said. [I’m pretty sure that Zach is the key figure in this time travel business - the original time traveler. He has too much potential in terms of money, family legacy, mana reserves and so on – he could benefit from the whole time loop setup better than virtually anyone else, and I don’t think it’s accidental. Furthermore, if I am indeed in this time loop because I have a piece of Zach’s soul fused to mine, that means it’s him the time loop recognizes as the legitimate focus of the spell. The thing is, his past actions indicate ignorance of any sort of purpose or master plan, as if he had simply been dumped into the loop with no warning or information.]

[You think his memories have been edited,] surmised the aranea.

[I think Zach entrusted his secret to the wrong person,] Zorian said. [They couldn’t just get rid of Zach – as I said, he is the key to this spell – but they could eliminate him as a threat. Shift his attention to harmless directions and such. But I’m not Zach. I am not integral to this time loop in any way, and can be disposed of at whim. If I talk to Zach, and he’s being watched, or if Zach is unable to keep his mouth shut in front of wrong people, I could end up being… deleted.]

[Well…] the matriarch said. [You’re certainly one paranoid human. Then again, that might be the only reason why you’re still in possession of your entire memory, so maybe I shouldn’t talk. You do realize you’re going to have to talk to Zach at some point, right?]

[Hopefully not before I identify the third time traveler,] Zorian said.

[Then we should make it a priority to track him down,] the matriarch said.

[How?] Zorian asked. [I don’t even know where to start. It could be anyone.]

[Considering you said Zach managed to kill old Oganj single-handedly, it is clearly not ‘anyone’.]

[He wasn’t always that strong, though,] Zorian pointed out. [In the first few restarts, any decent mage could have overpowered him, even some of our classmates. For that matter, it could be a matter of backstabbing rather than losing in combat – someone could have drugged him or lured him into a heavily warded trap area.]

[Even a classmate, you say?] the matriarch asked speculatively. [That’s interesting. Didn’t you say Zach is fairly obsessed with learning more about the rest of your class? He would probably think nothing of sharing a secret with one of them, especially since they’re ‘just’ students… How well do you know them as a whole? Are any of them acting strange?]

[I’m… not really very close to any of them,] Zorian admitted. [I don’t think I would know if they started to behave strange, so long as they didn’t go completely out of character. I can think of a few that I’m sure aren’t time travelers but…]

[Try to investigate,] the matriarch said. [It would be terribly embarrassing if it turns out the third one was hiding in plain sight all along, no? Try to see if you can connect any of them with the invaders as well.]

The matriarch gave Zorian a list of human diviners that might know more about the irregularities related to future forecasting and they both agreed to meet in another three days. Zorian was a bit of annoyed that the topic of his empathy and getting it under control never came up but he supposed the matriarch wanted to see how useful to them he was before investing their time to teach him their (possibly secret) mind arts.

It was nice having someone on his side in this whole tangled mess. He just hoped he wasn’t making the same mistake with the aranea that Zach did with the person behind the invasion.

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