Zorian woke up in his bed in Cirin, Kirielle wishing him a good morning in that charming manner of hers. He was annoyed both at himself for not paying more attention to his surroundings and at the unknown attacker that did him in. It figured that he would survive all those close calls and near-death situations, only to get killed by a simple sneak attack.
He passed the train ride sketching magic item blueprints in his notebook. Most of them were trivial things, like plates that kept the temperature of a meal constant or explosive traps that triggered on their own when certain conditions had been met, but he was toying with the idea of designing a practice dummy. He had found a combination of alteration spells that should allow him to construct a dummy out of wooden scraps and soil, but making the animation core was no simple task. And then, even if he managed that, he would have to design a warding scheme to etch into the dummy’s surface, lest it disintegrate when he started hurling spells at it… possibly in an explosive manner, showering him with wooden splinters and shrapnel. He should probably also add at least a weak self-repair function, to prevent the dummy from falling apart from micro-fractures and such…
He didn’t expect to finish this project in the current restart.
In any case, this time Zorian didn’t wait much before contacting the aranea. Upon entering his room, he spent an hour crafting a rod of magic missiles for basic self-defense and then promptly marched off in the direction of the nearest Dungeon entrance.
Unlike his previous attempts to look for aranea, he wasn’t simply walking around, waiting to stumble upon their scouts – he was trying to sense their minds with his brand new mind sense. Sadly, he sensed nothing except an occasional rat and-
He stopped, sensing a mind of unusual strength from one of the rats ahead. He mentally ordered his floating light to intensify for a moment and was rewarded with a disquieting sight of a rat missing the top of his head.
For a full second, Zorian and the cranium rat stood still and watched one another in indecision, trying to decide on a course of action. Then – gently, hesitantly – the rat extended a telepathic probe at him, trying to worm into his mind. For one small moment, Zorian considered trying to take it on telepathically, but then discarded the thought as stupid and risky. He was completely untrained in telepathic combat, and that one rat was merely a conduit for the entire cranium rat collective. So instead he drew his brand new spell rod and fired a magic missile at it.
The moment he reached for his spell rod, the rat immediately dropped its telepathic probe and tried to run. It was too slow. The bolt of concussive force slammed into the tiny creature with a loud crack, pulverizing its bones and crushing it into paste.
Well, so much for that. Zorian extended his mind sense as far as he could, trying to sense the rest of the collective, but found nothing. Either this one was an isolated scout or the rest had some method of hiding from his scans.
By the time he had decided to move on, the pulped body of the cranium rat was already being enveloped by a green, translucent mass of crawling gel. The oozes that patrolled these walled-off sections of the dungeon were artificially engineered to be less dangerous and aggressive than their wild counterparts, but Zorian was never a fan of tempting fate and did his best to side-step the things as he moved past them. Acid burns were hard to heal, even with magic.
When he finally did find the aranea, the meeting was pretty disappointing. The aranea he met was one of those that didn’t know how to talk to humans, so it took him 10 minutes of telepathic pantomime that left him with a raging headache, and once the matriarch finally showed up she basically told him to get lost for a few days until she came to terms with the contents of the memory packet.
Not an unexpected turn of events, but he had been hoping that the matriarch had refined her memory packet into something that could convince her past-self a bit faster than last time. The matriarch was a bit pushy and conceited, but it was nice to talk to someone about the time loop. Also, the truth was that there was little he could do to unravel the mystery of the time loop without aranea help other than steadily gathering magical skills and keeping his eyes open.
As he walked back to his room to sleep off his newly-acquired headache, he tried to think of a way to advance faster in his magical studies. He needed a teacher. One willing to teach him spells most instructors would consider too dangerous for the likes of a freshly certified student. Who did he know that would… oh.
That just might work.
* * *
The next day, when Taiven came to recruit him into her little sewer expedition she found him practicing combat spells on one of the Academy training grounds instead of sleeping in his room. He could have easily warded himself against her divination spells at this point, but having her track him down was part of the plan: he was hoping to recruit her as a sparring partner, and possibly teacher.
He had always thought he had gotten over Taiven’s (oblivious) rejection of him, but apparently there was still some lingering resentment remaining because he noticed something very important in the previous restart. Something he should have noticed way sooner, had he not been unconsciously ignoring her and pushing her away. Taiven was not at all opposed to helping him out, especially if the help was somehow related to combat. Why was he insisting on learning combat magic alone, without an instructor, when he was friends with someone who specialized in that very field of magic?
So here he was, carefully casting magic missiles at the target in front of him, trying to make them as mana efficient as possible. He was hoping that Taiven would offer to help on her own when she saw him practicing, and he wasn’t disappointed. She did, however, attach a condition to her offer.
“So, in conclusion, I get a month of instruction from you, free of charge, in exchange for joining you on this sewer run of yours?” Zorian asked.
“Yup!” Taiven said happily, looking very satisfied with herself. Zorian could guess why – she just found a way to pressure him into accompanying her, and all it took was promising to do something she was inclined to do anyway.
“I suppose that’s okay,” said Zorian, mentally considering how he should approach this. He could, of course, simply trail after them and let them fumble around for a while – it’s what Taiven expected him to do, and he was pretty sure the aranea wouldn’t ‘attack’ while he was present. However, after some thought, he decided to go for a different path. “I have a request though. I am on speaking terms with a colony of sentient spiders living in the sewers, and I have a sneaking suspicion they’re the ones that supposedly took the watch. I’d like to try actually talking to them before you go in and start burning things.”
Taiven gave him a curious look. “You are friends with a bunch of giant, sewer-dwelling spiders?”
“Pretty much,” Zorian agreed with her. He would describe the aranea as acquaintances and allies of convenience instead of friends, but she didn’t have to know that. “I trust you and your friends can keep that a secret? I’m sure you can see why spreading that around might cause problems for me and the spiders both.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not a tattletale,” Taiven said dismissively. “And I’ve yet to see Grunt and Mumble engage in any kind of gossip, so your secret is safe with us, oh great monster charmer. You think they’ll just hand us the watch if we ask?”
“If the client’s story is not made up, then yes. I don’t see what use they would have for a pocket watch. But anyway, I have a request for you before you run off to do your thing.”
“Oh? And what’s that?”
“Teach me a fire spell more destructive than flamethrower,” Zorian said.
“How big are your mana reserves?” Taiven immediately asked, not at all disturbed by the request.
“Magnitude 12,” Zorian said.
“Hmm, a little lower than I thought, but decent enough I guess,” Taiven said. Zorian decided to keep quiet about the underwhelming nature of his natural reserves. “What kind of spells are you looking for, anyway?”
“Preferably something that can one-shot a troll,” Zorian said.
Taiven looked at him like he was crazy. “What? Roach, you’re far too green to go around picking fights with trolls. What the hell are you on?”
“Just humor me, Taiven,” Zorian sighed. “Besides, this is pure self-defense – I won’t be picking fights with anything.”
“Hmph,” Taiven shrugged. “Says a guy who goes around meeting giant spiders in the sewers in his free time. But alright, I guess if you’re going to do stuff like that you’ll need some stronger spells under your belt. I expect an explanation about that soon, though.”
“After the summer festival,” agreed Zorian smoothly.
“I’ll hold you to that,” Taiven said, poking him painfully in the chest. “Now, there are two spells that kind of fit your criteria, although they will only kill a troll if you can hit the troll in the face with them – fire bolt and incinerating ray. The bolt can home in on the target and is cheaper in terms of mana use. The ray is far more damaging, but also far more of a mana hog and you need to worry about your aim.”
“Teach me both,” said Zorian. The bolt seemed like something that would be more generally useful for someone like him, but he needed the raw power as well.
“You sure you have the shaping skills for this, Roach?” Taiven asked. “’Cause this kind of spell isn’t going to fizzle out if you fail – it will blow up in your face.”
Zorian snorted derisively. “Trust me, shaping skills are not something I’m lacking in,” he said. He raised his arm into the air, palm pointed towards the earth, and willed some of the dust and dirt to rise towards it. The dry, loose material that covered the training ground slowly rose towards his hand in a diffuse pillar, coalescing into a rough sphere once they reached his palm.
Once he was satisfied with the size of the sphere, he pointed his palm towards one of the targets and willed the mass of dirt rapidly forward, catapulting it towards the target. Sadly, the impromptu construct was too structurally unsound and disintegrated into dust halfway towards the target, so some of the effect was ruined.
It didn’t make the feat any less impressive to Taiven, though.
“Damn, that was impressive as hell,” Taiven said. “How can you do that? I don’t think I could do that... Lift a rock off the ground, sure, but diffuse material like soil? That’s a pretty advanced exercise. Hmm, if your shaping skills are that good, I guess there are a few more spells I could teach you…”
Zorian smiled. This had definitely been a good idea.
* * *
During the next several days, while he waited for Taiven to gather her team for the journey into the city’s sewers, Zorian got a crash course in combat magic from his friend. Taiven took a surprisingly broad approach to the topic, opting to teach him as many different spells as she could manage instead of having him practice a few until he had a firm hold over them. She claimed that he already had a core of spells he was properly proficient in, and that he needed variety and breadth of possible options more than he needed a new ace in the hole, but she later admitted she was testing him, trying to discover the limits of his shaping skills. Something she didn’t end up finding – Zorian’s shaping skills were better than hers; every spell she could cast, he could as well.
Not all of the spells she taught him were of the typical offensive sort he expected from her. Some of them, like the ‘spider climb’ spell that allowed him to cling to sheer walls and other stable surfaces, ‘featherfall’ that allowed him to survive high falls, or the various comfort spells that blunted temperature extremes and other environmental conditions, could be more properly classified as survival spells. Nonetheless, Taiven insisted that sometimes the environment itself was just as big of a danger to a mage as his living opponents, and that he needed to know these spells if he was going to waltz around the dungeon and similar places.
She was also fairly horrified by his lack of defensive spells. Not just a lack of any defensive barriers more substantive than the basic shield, though she wasn’t happy about that either – no, she was talking about wards. Wards were fairly useless once the fight started, since they were slow to cast, and few opponents would give a mage the time needed to cast them during a battle, but Taiven claimed they were absolutely essential for a mage who expected to get into a fight. So long as you weren’t ambushed or otherwise surprised, and actually knew you were going to be in a fight soon, you could at least cast some basic wards to improve your spell resistance and counter some of more common spells. And if you actually knew something about your opponent’s spell repertoire and specialties? Then you could really ruin their day with a few choice wards. This was the reason why humanity had been steadily encroaching on monster-held territory with every passing year – most magical creatures only had a handful of inborn magical tricks and abilities on their side and once you knew what they were you could devise a perfect counter for them in advance.
Unfortunately, you could only stack so many wards on top of each other before they started to interfere with each other and the whole edifice collapsed, and some of them inherently interfered with each other’s operation, so knowing how to combine them effectively was a bit of a specialist skill. Taiven was not very proficient with wards herself, being more offensively focused, so he would need to find somebody else for anything except the basics.
However, most of the spells she taught him were various offensive and defensive energy projections, largely ones revolving around fire and force, but also some spells based on cold and electricity. Among other things, Zorian could now cast the ever-famous fireball spell… exactly twice before he ran out of mana. So not very useful, honestly, but Taiven claimed that any mage worth their name should be able to cast a fireball, and that the utility of such spells would naturally increase along with his mana reserves.
“Actually, I’m curious… is there some way to speed up the growth of mana reserves?” asked Zorian. “I know that artificially increasing them has bad side-effects, but is there some kind of training method that would speed up natural growth?”
Taiven looked at him, looking apprehensive. “Technically, yes,” admitted Taiven reluctantly. “It’s as simple as using mana-intensive spells to constantly exhaust your reserves. It would kick the growth of your reserves into overdrive. However, that kind of unnatural growth would completely wreck your current shaping skills – your normal growth of reserves is so slow because your soul is making sure your control over mana doesn’t slip. Wrecking your shaping skills just to speed up the growth of your reserves is really short-sighted, Roach. Please don’t do it. I never would, and you know I’m not exactly the most responsible girl. Surely you can wait for a few years for them to grow on their own?”
Well he certainly wasn’t pressed for time at the moment, Zorian had to admit. “I suppose that makes sense,” he said. “I guess the reason why mana reserves plateau after a while is that there is only so much power a soul can safely handle. Increasing the cap artificially after that point messes up the mage’s shaping skills with no hope of ever regaining them. No wonder everyone recommends against doing it – no matter how benign the enhancement process, the result is still more power and less control over it.”
“There is always a trade-off between control and power,” said Taiven. “It’s just not apparent most of the time, since very few people try to develop their shaping skills to their limits. Many mages think that having more mana is always better, since you can always work harder on your shaping skills, but increasing your mana reserves without bad side effects is essentially impossible. It’s not true, though. No matter how much time they spend honing their shaping skills, people with huge mana reserves are outright incapable of performing some particularly finesse-focused spells – things like advanced mind magic, detailed illusions and complex alteration constructs.”
“Wait, you’re saying that I’ll lose the ability to cast finesse-based spells as my mana reserves increase?” asked Zorian in alarm.
“No, no, I’m talking about your natural mana reserves – your inborn capacity before you start to increase it through regular spellcasting. About magnitude. Most spells, even highly sophisticated ones, are designed for average mages – magnitude 8 to 12, in other words. You’re 12, so still comfortably within the intended range. Hell, I’ve heard of a one particular 15 magnitude mage that became a damn good illusionist, so even if you tip over a little it will hardly matter.”
Considering Zorian’s real magnitude was 8, he apparently had nothing to worry about. Still, it did make him wonder about Zach, who seemed to have magnitude in the low 60s. How did that kind of monstrous power factor in Taiven’s scheme?
“How about people with really high magnitude?” asked Zorian. “How high can you go before finesse-based spells become impossible?”
“I’ve never seen hard numbers, but I’d guess around magnitude 20 or so,” Taiven shrugged.
“How about the really high numbers?” Zorian asked. “Something like magnitude 60?”
Taiven blinked, seemingly baffled by the question. “Well, that would be downright inhuman!” she said finally. “Is that even possible? Anyway, I’m not sure whether that would even be a good thing, even for a battlemage like me. Anyone with such mana reserves would have to spend years longer than their peers just to gain a basic level of proficiency expected of a certified mage. Maybe as much as a decade even, I don’t know.”
Zorian thought about what a relative failure Zach was before the time loop and frowned. He had thought that Zach had simply been a lazy slacker, but maybe there was more to it than that? Then again, he had a feeling Zach was a special case. Those inhuman mana reserves were just that – completely outside the human range. He found absolutely no records of people like that in any of the books, and most of the experts he asked flat out told him such people didn’t exist outside of myths. Also, while Zach had been a crappy mage, he did succeed in getting certified so his huge mana reserves clearly weren’t as crippling as they should have been.
Maybe it was a Noveda House bloodline? One that gave their family huge reserves without the crippling loss of control, perhaps. Of course, the Noveda publically claimed they had no bloodline, but it wouldn’t be the first time a House had lied.
“I hesitate to even bring this up,” Taiven said, breaking him out of his thoughts, “but if you’re really desperate for a short term mana boost, you can always absorb ambient mana faster than you can assimilate it. I’m sure you’re aware of the drawbacks, though…”
Zorian nodded. There were two main forms of mana available to the mage: his personal mana and the ambient one that emanated from the underworld. Personal mana was something that all things with a soul possessed in varying amounts, and it was attuned to the person producing it – it bent easily to its creator’s will, and was innately more malleable and controllable than anything else they might use to power their magic, since it never resisted the caster’s efforts to shape it. Ambient mana, on the other hand, was both harder to control and toxic to living beings. Not enough to kill a mage just for using it once, but any substantial, prolonged use resulted in sickness and insanity. The mages of old believed that ambient mana was tainted by the World Dragon’s hate for humanity and shunned its use, but modern mages had discovered a few tricks to making use of it. One was by using it to power items, which had no minds to corrupt or bodies to sicken. The other was to assimilate the ambient mana into their personal reserves, negating its toxic properties. While the process of assimilation was too slow to power actual spells, being able to regenerate personal reserves faster was useful enough that the skill spread far and wide. These days, every student of magic was taught how to do it along with the other basics of spellcasting.
“I’ll get sick,” Zorian said. “And possibly mad, if I keep using it constantly.”
“Right,” Taiven said. “Using raw mana on a regular basis is pretty stupid, but if you’re in a real bind… well, it’s better to spend a few days bedridden with a fever than end up dead.”
“You’ve used it before,” guessed Zorian.
Taiven gave him a surprised look, like it was unexpected he figured it out. “Uh, maybe once? Or twice?” She shifted her stance, looking uncomfortable. “But keep quiet about that, will you? Most combat mages have done it a couple of times in their life, but Guild inspectors don’t accept ‘everybody’s doing it’ as an excuse.”
Zorian made a gesture over his mouth, indicating that his lips are sealed. It’s not like she didn’t know plenty of things to get him in trouble with, anyway.
“Let’s just get back to the lesson, oh great teacher,” Zorian said. “Since you’re so intent on teaching me mana-intensive fire spells, how about that fire vortex I heard you can cast…”
* * *
When the time came, Taiven and her two friends let Zorian take point as he led them towards aranea territory. They had already tried and failed to divine the location of the watch, which wasn’t terribly unusual if it really was taken by the aranea – the aranea had been engaged in a shadow war with the invaders for a while now, even before the time loop started, and their anti-divination wards were top-notch.
[We meet again, Zorian Kazinski,] the matriarch spoke telepathically to him. She was surrounded by 6 honor guards, though only 2 were actually visible while the other four hung from the ceiling while under some kind of invisibility spell. Zorian only knew they were there because he could sense their minds. [And once again you bring additional guests with you. Three of them this time. If this pattern continues, we’ll have to find a more spacious area to house them all after a few more restarts.]
[Funny,] Zorian sent back. [But actually, this is the group I was a part of when I first met the aranea. We were looking for a watch supposedly in your possession then, same as we are now. Sounds familiar?]
“What’s going on?” asked Taiven. She and her two friends were hanging in the back, looking apprehensively at the three spiders in front of them. “Why are you just staring at them?”
Before Zorian could say anything, the matriarch started waving her front four legs in the air for a while and then spoke.
“What’s this about a watch I hear?” she asked, turning her two biggest, forward-facing eyes at Taiven.
It took a few minutes of explaining and clarifications, but in the end the matriarch finally seemed to remember the event in question.
“Oh, now I remember,” she said. “Though the man in question certainly wasn’t any kind of innocent passerby, and the ‘watch’ is no simple time-keeping device – he had assaulted our web with a couple of other thugs and ended up dropping his bauble when we chased them off.”
[He’s one of the invaders,] the matriarch told him telepathically, so only he could hear. [Or at least he works for them. You say you saw him? Excellent, we finally have an entry point into the organization. A face, a name and face-to-face contact should be enough to divine where he lives… you know his name, don’t you? Excellent. Hopefully he gave away his real one. Did you shake hands with him when you accepted the job? No? Try to shake hands with him when you give him the device. Maybe put a tracking spell on it if you know how…]
Somehow, the matriarch was able to participate in two separate conversations at once, speaking out loud to Taiven and her two friends as she spoke telepathically to Zorian. Zorian himself was not similarly blessed, and mostly tuned out her explanation to Taiven in order to absorb what she was telling him mentally. Finally, she seemed to realize this and cut her telepathic communication with him short, allowing him to pay attention to what she had been saying to Taiven.
“…so I’m not sure what the device is for, but it’s clearly a magical item of some sort,” the matriarch said out loud. “It’s useless for us aranea, but we are well familiar with the concept of trade. We were hoping to trade it to some of our human contacts for something we can actually use, but since it’s our dear friend Zorian that’s asking for it, I guess we’ll give it to you as a favor. I’m sure Zorian will make it up to us… eventually.”
“Uhh…” fumbled Taiven, looking at him uncertainly. “Is… that okay, Roach? Are you…?”
“Yeah, I’m fine with that,” Zorian shrugged. Although as far as he was concerned he didn’t really owe any favors to the matriarch for this.
[I only said that for appearances sake,] the matriarch told him telepathically. [It would be weird if we just gave it up for no reason. Besides, as far as I’m concerned, you will repay my generosity by helping me track down your employer so we can wring him for information.]
“Fang of Victory will go and retrieve the bauble,” the matriarch said out loud, causing one of the two visible honor guards to suddenly skitter off into the darkness. “I’d ask you to warn your employer against further aggression against us, but it’s probably best if you keep quiet about talking to us.”
“Why did he attack you anyway?” asked Taiven. “You seem nice enough to me.”
“Most places will kill sentient monsters as a matter of course, if they find them within their borders,” Grunt said. He and Mumble were both pretty quiet thus far, so it was a bit startling to hear him speak up all of the sudden. Taiven gave him a dirty look for his remark. “What? I’m just saying he didn’t need a reason. Their presence would be offense enough for some people.”
“It’s a little more complex than that,” the matriarch said. “Humans clash with other sentient races, that is true, but that’s because most of them are highly territorial, murderous, view humans as food or all three. On occasions where that wasn’t the case, humans have shown themselves willing to make exceptions and take a more… nuanced approach. There are several dragons that deal with humans in a peaceful manner, the lizardmen of Blantyrre have long been a trading partner for human nations, and many of the splinter states bordering the wilderness have made secret or not so secret pacts with various spirits and monster clans living within their nominal borders.”
“You’ve thought about this a lot,” Zorian remarked.
“Though not well known, we have been peacefully interacting with humanity for quite a long time now”, the matriarch said. “The aranea have been living in the deeper levels of the dungeon for as long as this city has existed. When the foundations were being laid, several campaigns were launched into the local sections of the dungeon to clear out the threats lurking inside it. However, this power vacuum also allowed weaker races like aranea to move into the place. The dungeon around the Hole is prime real estate for magical creatures of all breeds, as you probably know, and the competition was fierce. Fortunately, while we aranea lacked the brute strength or destructive magical abilities of some of our competitors, we were far more willing to cooperate with humans to our mutual benefit. We contacted some of the humans that were willing to cooperate with us and gave them information about our mutual enemies – their strengths and weaknesses, where they lived, the timing of their attacks and movements… everything they needed to wipe them out, or at least weaken them to the point where we could finish the job. Information gathering has always been our specialty.”
Zorian found himself fascinated by the story, and more than a little surprised that the matriarch was willing to say all this in front of Taiven and her friends. Then again, Zorian never told them that aranea were mind readers, so their minds were completely unshielded - the matriarch probably had a pretty good picture of how likely they were to cause trouble for her. And they weren’t going to remember anything about this when this loop ended, either.
“Although giving information to humans helped us as well as them, we rarely did it for free – in return for our secrets, we demanded some of your own. Our human allies used the information we provided to make a name for themselves and further their careers, and in return they taught us some of your magic and helped us adapt it for our own use. Armed with our very own system of structured magic, the aranea grew in strength and versatility, solidifying their hold over this region and making the web that lived beneath Cyoria the most prestigious of aranean webs. The resulting prosperity caused their numbers to swell, and they sent a never-ending stream of colonists and breakaway webs to the surrounding region, where they proceeded to evict or subjugate every lesser aranean web they encountered. But although these aranea left Cyoria in search of their own destiny, no place had the prestige or opportunities that Cyoria offered, and thus viewed their mother web with envy and resentment. Soon, a number of these breakaways banded together and, armed with the experience of fighting the lesser webs for territory, drove the original web out of their homeland. It would not be the last time Cyoria changed hands. The conquerors were soon evicted by another group of invaders, and this group was evicted by another, and then they were evicted by us. We are the fifth web to hold this place and while our position is secure at the moment, any sort of weakness could cause the neighboring webs to get… restless.”
“Huh,” Zorian said. “So if you were, hypothetically speaking, absolutely decimated by someone and had your numbers severely reduced?”
“Our neighbors would launch a few probing raids at the very least,” the matriarch said. “But anyway, my point is that humans and aranea are not, nor have they ever been enemies. Well, barring some… isolated incidents. On both sides. In fact, it has been my explicit policy to encourage closer links between this web and humans living in Cyoria. I hope the day will come when aranea will be able to walk the street above in open daylight, just like any other citizen.”
“And I suppose you hope the humans will defend you from outside threats, like any other citizens,” Grunt said. “Like, say, from those rival ‘webs’ that want to take your territory?”
“I confess that possibility does factor rather heavily into my thinking,” the matriarch admitted. “The city authorities would be a lot less inclined to stand by and watch if we had an established, formal relationship with them.”
“So is this your recruiting pitch?” asked Taiven. “Are you trying to turn us into your agents?”
“More contacts is always good,” the matriarch said. “But no, I’m not trying to recruit you. I just sensed you were worried about Zorian’s association with us and wanted to assuage your fears somewhat. Anyway, Fang of Victory is coming back with the bauble so we’ll have to cut this short here. Talk to Zorian if you ever want to chat with us again.”
Sure enough, the matriarch honor guard soon returned with the watch. Zorian half-expected her to return with the watch gripped in her fangs, but it actually came back carrying some kind of leather harness full of pouches across its body, one of which held the watch. For a moment Zorian wondered how they made that, what with them lacking hands and all, but then realized he was being a bit foolish. The matriarch had already said they traded with humans for a lot of things – this must be one of them.
They quickly said good bye to the aranea and were on their way back to their employer, prize in hand.
“I don’t know what to think,” Taiven said when they put some distance between themselves and the aranea. “They seemed nice enough, but it’s a bit disquieting to find out we have an entire colony of these things living beneath the city, pulling their strings over gods know how many people.”
“Yeah,” agreed Mumble quietly. Zorian could definitely see why Taiven called him the way she did – he tended to talk really softly, making his speech very hard to understand sometimes. “Did you know Cyoria is kind of famous for its spider silk? The merchants who sell it are really cagy about where they get it in such quantities and have declared their source a trade secret. Most people think they have managed to create a spider species that can be farmed effectively and have a giant farm hidden somewhere, but I think it’s pretty obvious now where they get it…”
Zorian mostly kept out of the conversation, alternating between listening to their conversation (when they were saying something interesting) and studying the device they retrieved from the aranea (when they weren’t). It was, as the matriarch said, a magical item of some sort – shaped like a pocket watch, but not one. The hands didn’t move, and the screw that should have allowed a person to wind it was fused with the casing and seemed to be simply an ornamental bump put there to make the illusion superficially convincing. He tried to channel mana into it, but that didn’t result in anything substantial – the device probably required the user to channel mana in a very specific manner. Many complex magical items did.
The lessons in divining the secrets of magical items that Haslush gave him really paid off here. Considering its purpose, the device yielded its purpose surprisingly easily – to put it bluntly, it was equipment for burglary. More specifically, it was a ward scanner, designed to guide and enhance divination spells meant to seek out weaknesses in complicated warding schemes so they could be broken or bypassed more easily. Their employer had probably been trying to identify a hole in aranean defenses.
Still, while the purpose of the device was readily apparent to his divination spells, its method of operation stubbornly remained a mystery. After several unsuccessful attempts to pry the casing open without damaging the device, he finally decided to try something… experimental. He extruded a mana cloud from his hands, the way he did when picking locks, and directed it to trickle into the device’s insides through the gaps and misaligned seams. The resulting information was fuzzy, but told him that the insides were filled with brass gears and crystals. They were probably not meant to be pried open. How then…
Ah, so that was the trick! The hands of the clock weren’t just static – they were nothing more than an image painted over a glass cover. Zorian pressed his finger against the glass cover and pushed it into the casing. There was a soft click from the inside, and when Zorian released the pressure the cover immediately flew open, revealing a complicated interface full of dials and sigils. Very complicated interface… he wasn’t going to figure this out in the hour or so they had until they reached the client.
He was so taking this thing apart to see how it worked in one of the future restarts.
* * *
Finishing the job was done without complications. Zorian opted not to put a tracking spell on the device, since he didn’t know how sensitive the device was and didn’t want to ruin it. That turned out to be a good choice, as the man immediately cast several diagnostic spells on the device once Zorian handed it over, one of which Zorian knew to be a spell designed to detect simple tracking spells. Once the transaction was done, Zorian insisted they shake hands, claiming it was traditional in his village to do so after a successful business deal. The man rolled his eyes and mumbled something about yokels, but humored him anyway. Mission accomplished.
After they all shared a drink in a nearby tavern (Taiven insisted and wouldn’t hear no from anyone), the group separated. Zorian immediately descended to the sewers again and went back to the aranea.
[A ward reader, you say?] the matriarch asked. [It makes sense. He and his friends had been hanging out at the edge of our territory for a while, trying to stay hidden. I’m surprised he hired a bunch of students to get it, though.]
“Yeah, I’m not sure what he was thinking,” Zorian said. “Seems like a stupid idea to me.”
[We’ll find out in a few days, if all goes well,] the matriarch said. [That said, there are other things we must discuss. I believe I told you in the previous restart that I happened upon some pretty important information.]
“You did,” Zorian agreed. “I was wondering what that was about.”
[It’s about the invaders. First of all, your guess was right – they are indeed from Ulquaan Ibasa.]
“I knew it,” Zorian scowled. “What was it? Are they out for revenge or is this just sheer opportunism?”
[A bit of both,] the matriarch said. [They resent you for their exile and they think you’re weak, now that the Splinter Wars and The Weeping wiped out most of your battlemages. But that’s not the important part. The important part concerns a question so basic I’m honestly not sure why neither of us thought of it. Namely, why exactly did the invasion think they could conquer Cyoria in the first place?]
Zorian opened his mouth to answer ‘with the aid of the time loop, duh’, but then quickly closed it again. According to the matriarch, this invasion had been in the works far before the start of the time loop. Clearly, someone associated with the invasion got brought into the time loop eventually and started feeding information to them to make the whole endeavor scarily effective, but what about before that? Without knowing exact locations of Cyoria’s defenses, their initial bombardment would have been a lot less damaging than it was. Without knowing the Academy’s exact ward scheme and how to bypass it, their assault at the place would be practically doomed from the start. And on top of all that, the matriarch claimed the aranea were successfully keeping the invaders out of Cyoria’s underworld before the time loop. So really, the invasion never really had the chance to take control of the place.
“Perhaps they didn’t,” Zorian said. “Intend to conquer it, I mean. Cyoria is pretty important to Eldemar, but it’s not the capital, nor its industrial heartland. It’s the seat of Eldemar’s Mage Guild and the home of the world’s most prestigious mage academy, neither of which is likely to cooperate with the invaders. Most likely, they just intended to do as much damage as possible. Keep Eldemar’s magical might busy while they invade with the bulk of their forces elsewhere.”
[You’re very close,] the matriarch said. [They were indeed trying to cause as much damage to the city as possible, but it was to be much more than a simple distraction. Apparently, the date of the summer festival is very magically significant. It is the day of the year when the barriers between planes of existence are the weakest. In fact, the weakening starts exactly one month before the date, gradually reaching its peak on the day of the festival. And this year’s summer festival is even more special than usual. I’m afraid that us aranea don’t know much about astronomy, seeing as we live largely underground, but apparently this year’s summer festival includes some kind of… ‘planetary alignment’?]
Zorian took a deep breath, a shiver running down his spine. Of course! How could he have missed it till now? This year’s planar alignment, signified by several planets aligning with their own, an event that took place once every 400 years or so. The last time such an event happened, a city of mages took advantage of it to teleport their entire city all the way from Miasina to the southern coast of Altazia, performing the largest feat of trans-continental teleportation to ever be recorded. If someone wanted to mess around with space and time on a grand scale, this was the time to do it.
“Yeah, that would explain a lot,” Zorian finally said. “Like why the time loop was initiated now, of all times. But wait, how does that help them to do more damage to the city? Did they intend to teleport the city into the sea or something?”
[No. First of all, they intended to summon a large amount of high-level demons to help with the invasion. This was why they were willing to go through with the attack, despite their lack of success against us and their inability to do much to the academy and its wards. Demons, especially high-level ones, are virtually immune to mental attacks and highly resistant to magic. The aranea would be massacred in no time at all, and the mages would be too busy fighting for their lives to help out the city’s mundane defenders. Those same defenders would be up against trolls and fire elementals, who are immune to firearms, with winter wolves and iron beaks acting as support. ]
“That… that’s horrible,” Zorian said after digesting that for a second. “Why aren’t they doing that now?”
[They can’t, remember? No summoning anything while in the time loop. The whole material plane has been cut off from the spiritual ones,] the matriarch reminded him.
“Oh yeah,” Zorian said. “I guess that would throw a serious wrench in the works. I wonder if they actually went through with the invasion during the initial restart when they had no agent inside the time loop. They would have surely known their plan was doomed without demonic support.”
[They probably would,] the matriarch said. [The demons were ultimately a distraction, same as the rest of their forces. The invasion leadership didn’t actually think they were enough to do more than cripple Cyoria and they wanted it completely wiped off the map. No, the real target lies with the area around the Hole. While the defenders were busy fighting for their lives, a group of mages would secure the place and enact a grand summoning ritual.]
“Ugh,” Zorian grunted. “Let me guess: a really big demon.”
[No. They wanted to summon a primordial.]
Color instantly drained out of Zorian face. “What!? But… that would leave the whole city a lifeless crater! What about their own forces!?”
[Expendable,] the matriarch told him bluntly. [Everyone high enough to matter was ready to teleport away at the first hint that the summoning was successful, the rest were disposable pawns that were never actually expected to survive. Besides, you’ll notice that the actual invasion force is really light on human mages. Only a minimum of Ibasan mages was necessary to maintain some control over the various demons and monsters. And you’re actually rather optimistic in your damage predictions. The Ibasan leadership hoped that being summoned with the help of the biggest mana well on the continent would give the primordial enough power to linger on this plane for weeks. If so, it would rampage across large swathes of Altazia before finally running out of power or until the Altazians managed to organize a group of mages big enough to banish it back to its realm. Then Ulquaan Ibasa could just swoop in once it’s gone and mop up the demoralized survivors.]
Zorian was honestly at a loss for words. On one hand, the plan was utterly crazy, and a large part of him wanted to say it would never work. Where did they even find a ritual to summon a goddamn primordial of all things? But still, he’d watched the invaders bulldoze through Cyoria’s defenses far too many times to discount them like that. If they thought the plan could work, it probably could.
“Where did they find mages willing to do the summoning?” Zorian asked. “They must have known they’d be killed by the primordial’s rampage before they can escape, being so close to it and all. And do you happen to know which primordial it was?”
[The summoning would be done by the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon… probably known to you by the name ‘Cult of the Dragon Below’. Apparently they are fully willing to die in order to summon one of the ‘Great Mother’s children’. Those of their members not involved with the summoning are helping the invasion forces as regular mage support or simple saboteurs, in case of more mundane members. Actually, now that I think about it, they are probably acting as the invaders’ inside agents in general; we’ll have to infiltrate their group deeper for more information. Anyway, no, I don’t know which primordial. Just that it was one of the land-bound ones – the Ibasans didn’t want to risk it suddenly deciding it wanted to visit their little island and flying over.]
“I’ll bet,” Zorian said. “Of course, all this means we have a problem on our hands. No matter how formidable the invasion is while we’re trapped inside the time loop, it will be even more fearsome outside of it. They will have additional demon support on top of everything they already have, and we’ll have to spend some of our time thwarting the primordial summoning. I want to say those cultists are just totally crazy and couldn’t summon a crippled imp, much less a thrice-damned primordial, but the possibility is just so catastrophic we can’t afford to risk it.”
[Yes, this indeed complicates the matter considerably,] the matriarch agreed. [My original plan was to keep thwarting the flow of the invasion until the third time traveler is forced to reveal themselves, either through sloppiness or frustration; lure them into an ambush and mindrape them into catatonia; find a perfect counter for an invasion over several restarts; and finally, find a way to break the time loop and deal with the invaders for real. The part about dealing with the third time traveler still seems workable, but finding a perfect counter will clearly be impossible with such a large variable missing while we’re inside the time loop…]
Zorian was a tad queasy about how matter-of-factly the matriarch spoke of destroying a person’s mind, but he had to admit he knew of no other way to deal with the third time traveler. The only other way involved destroying his soul, and that was arguably even more morally reprehensible. Plus, he didn’t actually know how to destroy someone’s soul. And hopefully never would.
“Right,” Zorian sighed tiredly. “What a day. Do you have any other bombshells to throw at me?”
[Well… not as such, no. However, these recent developments mean that I will not have much time to teach you this month. Fortunately, you are at the level where you don’t really need a high-level user like me to guide you, so I have found you a suitable replacement. Zorian, say hello to Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty.]
One of the aranea that had accompanied the matriarch, a rather small and twitchy individual that seemed to have trouble staying still, suddenly jumped down from the ceiling and landed in front of him.
[Hi! I am Enthusiastic Seeker of Novelty and I will totally be your teacher this month! I know you humans have trouble with our names so you can just call me Novelty. I don’t mind!] She circled around him as she spoke to him telepathically, looking like some kind of weird puppy inviting him to play with her. [Anyway, when the matriarch asked for volunteers to teach you, I was like: ‘this is your chance, Novelty’. I was totally game! They won’t let me help with defense because I’m supposedly too young, but they told me you’re a baby at this psychic stuff and I can totally take care of babies! And hey, you can teach me stuff too! I was always curious about you humans, like how you can walk on your hind legs without tipping over all the time or…]
Zorian tuned out her chatter in favor of giving the matriarch a glare.
[Does she come with an off button?] he asked telepathically.
The matriarch simply projected a mixture of amusement and satisfaction in response.