Chapter 028

‘Life takes you to all sorts of unexpected places,’ Zorian mused, once again taking the knife to the winter wolf’s corpse. ‘If someone had told me, back in my first year at the academy, that I would need to know what the best way to skin a winter wolf was, I would not have believed them.’

Then again, he technically didn’t need to skin the animal – he just felt it would be a horrid waste not to, since winter wolf pelts fetched a pretty high price back in Knyazov Dveri. If he was going to venture into the wilderness, looking for monsters and dangerous animals to fight, he might as well earn some money doing it.

Finally, the bloody work was done. He was sure a real hunter could have done it in a quarter of the time and hassle, but he didn’t care – a success was a success. He placed the pelt in his bag and went off in the direction of the stream he had encountered earlier, intent on washing the blood and grime off his hands and clothes. At some point he intended to use spells to do these sorts of things, but since harvesting spells were based on animation they were sort of useless to him right now. Animation spells worked by embedding a portion of the caster’s mind into the spell, so until Zorian knew how to properly skin an animal the old-fashioned way, he couldn’t hand it off to an animation spell.

As he walked towards the stream, he kept an eye out for the reason he was in this particular section of the forest in the first place – a small cottage of an old witch called ‘Silverlake’, who was one of the possible sources Kael had named in his list. So far, Kael’s prediction that he wouldn’t be able to find the place on his own and that he would have to loiter around the area until she approached him herself had been entirely correct – no divination could track the cottage down, and he hadn’t stumbled onto it by simply wandering around the place. If he didn’t have Kael’s assurance that someone lived here he would have given up long ago. The only reason he even managed to pin point the area as well as he had was because the old witch had a habit of harvesting all of the alchemically-useful plants and mushrooms in the area and Kael warned him to be on the lookout for suspiciously picked-clean areas like this one.

With a sigh, he plunged his hands into the stream. The recent rains had caused it to swell into a small muddy river, but the water was good enough for washing his hands in and cooling off. That done, he crouched next to the water and idly studied his reflection. He looked like a mess. He felt like a mess too. While he wasn’t entirely out of shape, and this wasn’t the first time he ventured into a forest, there was a difference between taking a two-hour stroll through the semi-tame forest near his town and spending most of the week in the great northern wilderness, hunting winter wolves and dodging snakes and other dangerous wildlife. Thank the gods he had the foresight to put that anti-vermin ward on himself or else he would have been covered in ticks and leeches by the end of day one… and that was assuming the mosquitos hadn’t driven him mad before that.

And the worst thing about it all? He would never get used to it, because any muscle growth and body adaptation would be wiped out when this restart ended. He made a note to himself to look into the possibility of getting enhancement potions or rituals to improve strength and stamina, because spending the first week of every restart with every inch of his body tense and hurting wasn’t a fun prospect at all. Or at least a potion to ease the- wait, was the bottom of the stream moving?

He managed to throw himself back just in time to avoid the huge brown shape that jumped out of the muddy water and tried to envelop his head with its massive jaws. He quickly backpedaled as the huge lizard-like creature tried to haul itself onto the shore and sent a small missile swarm consisting of three piercers straight at its head. Thankfully, the lizard thing was actually pretty slow, its surprise attack notwithstanding, so all three missiles found their mark. The creature’s skull promptly exploded from the impact, showering bits of tissue everywhere, and it immediately slumped dead where it stood, its lower half still submerged in the stream.

Zorian immediately turned on his mind sense and scanned the creek for the possible presence of more such monsters and then, having discovered none, slowly approached the corpse to inspect it.

It was a salamander. A huge brown salamander with a massive triangular head and beady black eyes that probably couldn’t actually see anything. It was a miracle that something that big could actually hide in a stream this shallow, but the muddy water provided it with just what it needed to surprise him. Damn, that would have been humiliating – killed less than a week in by a giant salamander. Then again, he nearly fell into a ravine on his first day here, and there was that assassin vine that tried to choke him yesterday…

“Is there anything here in this forest that isn’t going to try and kill me the moment I take my eyes off of it?” Zorian asked out loud.

He didn’t expect anyone to answer, since he was alone and all, but he did receive an answer. Sort of.

“What do you think you’re doing, feeling all sorry for yourself?” a harsh female voice answered him.

There was no one present as far as Zorian could see, and his mind sense detected only animals, but he still managed to detect fairly quickly where the voice was coming from – the source of the speech was the raven perched on a nearby branch.

“Well don’t just stand there and stare at my familiar, boy,” the voice said, cutting in through the silence. “Quickly, haul it out of the creek before the stream washes it away! Do you have any idea how valuable giant salamanders of that size are? This is the find of a century!”

Zorian was tempted to point out that this ‘find of a century’ nearly killed him, but decided not to. If this was who he suspected, he needed to stay on her good side. According to Kael, asking the old witch for help was a bit of a long shot, but likely to achieve very good results if he could convince her to seriously try and help him. Silverlake was very powerful and skilled, but also very annoying to deal with. She wouldn’t kill him or do anything overtly hostile to him without provocation, but she was capricious and prone to wasting people’s time. Zorian figured it was at least worth a try to approach her for help.

“You would be Miss Silverlake, I presume?” guessed Zorian.

The raven answered him with a burst of laughter. It was really strange to see a bird laugh like that.

“’Miss, am I? Well aren’t you a polite one… don’t get too many of those, these days. Why, maybe I’ll even listen to whatever silly request you came here for!” the bird finally said. “Now why are you just standing around? Didn’t I give you a task to accomplish?”

With a sigh, Zorian turned away from the bird and started casting a levitation spell to haul the giant amphibian out of the water.

* * *

Silverlake (no last name, and he shouldn’t ask about how she ended up without one – Kael was very firm on that part) was not like Zorian had expected her. She was old, yes, but for a woman of 90 years she was incredibly lively and spry. In fact, Zorian had a feeling she had an easier time moving through the forest than he did. She wasn’t particularly unkempt, either, despite living in the middle of the wilderness – her pitch-black hair was devoid of a single white strand (she probably dyed it regularly), and the simple brown dress she was wearing was unremarkable but immaculate. If it weren’t for the wrinkles, he would have pegged her as less than half her age. Was this a consequence of some sort of potion regimen or was she just lucky that way?

Well, no matter. Zorian followed her back to her cottage, the giant salamander floating behind him on a disc of force, where she promptly started to butcher the beast with practiced ease. Her hands didn’t tremble at all as she handled the various knives and heavy jars at her place, and Zorian became even more certain she put herself through some kind of enhancement regimen to ward off the effect of aging.

She was a potion master according to Kael, and alchemy had always been one of the best ways to prolong your life and keep yourself healthy.

“Don’t think I didn’t notice you faffing around the area for the past few days,” she suddenly said, never taking her eyes off the salamander corpse. “Rather annoying, that. Also worrying. Means that someone told you where to find me. I don’t suppose you could shed some light on that, could you?”

“Kael told me where to find you,” Zorian readily admitted. It wasn’t a secret, really.

“Kael?” she asked, before frowning. “No, wait, don’t tell me. I’m sure I heard that name som- oh! Now I remember – he’s the little rascal that knocked up Fria’s granddaughter! But I heard he ended up marrying her afterwards, so I guess that’s not so bad. Actually, I recall that Fria had been quite happy about that. She had been afraid the girl would never find herself a husband.”

“Why?” asked Zorian curiously. Silverlake shot him a judging look, her brown eyes boring into his own, before returning to her work. “I mean, if it isn’t impertinent to ask. You don’t have to-“

“Relax, boy,” Silverlake snorted derisively. “I am a lot of things, but I was never very tactful. If I’m bothered by something you say, I will tell you. If you ask something impertinent, I will tell you to go screw yourself. I’m just thinking. Let’s see… as you probably suspect by now, Fria, Kael’s mother-in-law, is a witch like me. There are some nasty rumors circulating about witches and their daughters – about how they sacrifice male children, have orgies with summoned demons, poison their husbands for inheritance, how they’re too lazy to work around the house and other ridiculous bilge. It makes a lot of men reluctant to marry the daughter of a witch.”

“I see,” said Zorian. He had never heard about that particular issue, but it sounded plausible enough – witches had a really bad reputation for dabbling in various unethical and forbidden magics.

“It’s been years since I last seen Kael and his wife,” Silverlake said. “Or Fria, for that matter. I guess I should have been a little less harsh the last time they visited, but… well, what’s done is done. It’s strange the morlock saw fit to send you here when he himself dares not show his face to me.”

Zorian frowned. “I… think you’re misinterpreting the situation somewhat. I don’t know what happened between you and them, but the reason they haven’t visited you is because they’re dead. Fria and Kael’s wife both contracted the Weeping and died. As for Kael, he had been too busy grieving and taking care of his daughter to go on a trip like this. You are rather isolated.”

For the first time since he met her, Silverlake seemed taken aback by his answer.

“Dead? Fria is… and all this time I thought…” she mumbled, before halting and giving him a considering look. “Wait. You said Kael and his daughter. I see… hmm…”

Silverlake spent the next few minutes considering something. Zorian took the time to observe and study the cottage next to them. It looked rather flimsy and old, but it shone like a lighthouse to his senses when he discreetly cast a magic detection spell on it. How the hell hadn’t he noticed the thing earlier when he was searching for it? Those must be some powerful divination wards she placed on it. He couldn’t figure out how she was powering them, though – wards that strong needed a powerful source of magic, and this place wasn’t a mana well. There was no way Silverlake could be powerful enough to provide enough mana for the entire edifice, could she? Kael did mention that she was extremely strong and skilled in magic of both Ikosian and witch origin, and that he should never underestimate her, but this was still beyond what he was expecting.

Aside from the impossibly complex and powerful warding scheme, though, the cottage looked unremarkable. There were several racks next to it where various herbs and mushrooms were drying in the sun, but it wasn’t unknown for hunters and lumberjacks to have a side business of gathering herbs to sell in the nearby city so hardly something that would raise warning flags all by itself.

Silverlake snapped her fingers in front of his face, spraying droplets of salamander blood and other bodily fluids all over his glasses and breaking him out of his inspection. Despite his resolve to be polite to her, Zorian couldn’t help but glare at her in response. She just grinned at him, showing him two rows of gleaming white teeth. Apparently in all of her 90 years of life she hadn’t lost a single tooth.

Yes, definitely magic.

“If you’re done gawking at my home, we can continue our discussion,” she said. “I have a request for you. You have a way to get in contact with Kael, yes?”

“Of course,” said Zorian. “We’re friends, he and I.” Or they would be, once he returned to Cyoria in one of the future restarts.

“Then I would like you to deliver a message to him,” she said. “It’s nothing urgent, but I want him to know… that I regret how our last meeting ended and that I would very much like it if he came to visit me with his daughter sometime in the future. Oh, and that I want to teach his daughter the secrets of my magic. She is a descendant of a proud line of witches stretching back to time immemorial, and it is her birthright to continue it… should she want to. Got all that?”

“Sounds simple enough to remember,” Zorian said. “And… could I now trouble you with the reason I came here for?”

“No,” she snorted. “What, you think that just because you know a couple of people close to me and agreed to help me with a simple request like this that I’ll jump into whatever crazy problem you need help with?”

“You don’t even know why I’m here,” Zorian pointed out.

“Nobody ever comes to me for help with the little things,” she said with a grin. “If Kael sent you to me, that means he’s truly stumped for a solution.”

“I… suppose I can’t argue with that,” Zorian admitted. “You see, I-“

“I don’t want to hear it,” Silverlake said, pointing her bloody palm towards him to shut him up. “Until you make it worth my time, I don’t want to listen to your sob story. If you want my help, you’re going to have to earn it.”

“How do I even know you can help me at all, then?” asked Zorian. “I could end up paying you for nothing in the end.”

“You could,” Silverlake grinned. “You will have to risk it.”

Damn witch. She was probably just wasting his time, but…

“Fine,” he sighed. “What do you want from me?”

If anything, her grin just got wider.

* * *

Space blurred around Zorian, and then he was back in Knyazov Dveri, in one of the less traversed streets where he was fairly sure no one would see him teleporting in and out. It wouldn’t be a huge problem if it got out that he could teleport, but at the same time it would be notable and would attract attention to him. Few mages would be willing to teach the spell to a 15-year-old, and even fewer 15 year olds would be capable of learning it. It would be best if he were discreet about it for now.

Seeing how his arrival appeared to have gone unnoticed, he promptly exited the street and went towards the town square to grab something to eat, only to get distracted by the newspaper boy’s shouting.

“Shocking news!” the boy yelled. “A Cyoria mercenary company found dead to a man in their homes! Monsters stalk the streets of the city! Coincidence or conspiracy, read all about it in today’s edition! Shocking news, shocking news!”

Well… that sounded interesting. Zorian wordlessly shifted his course towards the boy and bought the newspaper in question. He then found a quiet corner to lean on and started to read.

Like he suspected, the mercenary company that was found dead was the one he and the aranea hired to participate in the ambush – there was a picture of the man who led the group next to the article and Zorian would recognize the man anywhere thanks to the distinctive scar he had above his right eye. Apparently they were all found dead at the start of the restart, with little clue as to who killed them and why. Naturally, that immediately produced a lot of interest from anyone, since it clearly wasn’t natural. The obvious conclusion – that someone managed to off an entire group of experienced battlemages in the span of a single night, not all of which were asleep at the time of death and some of whom were under heavy wards – was highly disturbing, but there were very few alternatives.

Another complication was that immediately after that discovery, there had been a stream of incidents involving various monsters moving out of the Dungeon and into the sewers… and sometimes then even emerging into the streets of the city. The experts were baffled as to why this was happening now, and the city leadership was hastily organizing an operation to descend into the Dungeon in order to bring the situation under control before the summer festival.

Well, that certainly put a damper on the invader’s plans. Zorian wondered how they would deal with that. In retrospect, it wasn’t hard to explain why monsters were invading the sewers and the streets of the city – the invaders were putting pressure on them from below, so they went upwards as a response. In the past restarts, the aranea were there to act as an unwilling anvil to the invaders’ hammer, preventing the inhabitants of the Dungeon from breaking into the upper levels. But the aranea were dead now, and with them gone a whole layer of Cyoria’s defense that most people hadn’t even known about had collapsed.

Zorian couldn’t suppress a nasty grin at the thought that maybe Red Robe ended up shooting himself in the foot when he enacted his ‘soul killing’ tantrum.

Interestingly, the mysterious murders and the monster attacks seemed to have had an effect on the academy too. There was a short sub-article next to the main one about the families who withdrew their children from schools in Cyoria, including his own academy. Jade, one of his classmates, had been pulled by her parents from the academy. She was listed among the names of notable students who opted to leave the city for their own safety – her father was a high-ranking member of House Witelsin – while the other notable names included… him?

Yes, there was no mistaking it – ‘Zorian Kazinski, younger brother of Daimen Kazinski’, was listed in the article as one of the students pulled from school by his parents. He wondered what that was based on – he was certain no one had managed to contact his parents before they left for Koth, so either the academy or the newspaper had decided to interpret his absence in light of current events and trends.

Zorian shook his head and closed the newspaper before continuing on his way.

* * *

After spending a week in Knyazov Dveri, Zorian had decided he kind of liked the town. It was a busy, lively pace where the arrival of a newly-minted mage like him was unremarkable and raised no eyebrows, yet not so large and prosperous that people like him were common and underappreciated. Thanks to the town’s position as a regional center and the presence of both a notable mana well and a dungeon access attractive to dungeon delvers, the town was full of shops catering to mages or requiring mage employees, and thus offered plenty of employment opportunities for a young mage… enough so that people sometimes offered him employment without him even asking about it.

He didn’t accept any offers, since a regular job would eat up a lot of time and would just distract him from his real quest, but it was something to keep in mind if he ever got out of the time loop.

“Why hello there. Mind if I join you for a bit?”

Zorian peered up from the map of the surrounding region he was studying and took a good look at the man who interrupted him. He was middle-aged, had a prominent mustache and a pot belly, and had a wide smile plastered on his face. Despite the fact that Zorian took several seconds to study him in silence, the man’s smile never faltered. Judging by the clothes he was wearing, he seemed to be one of the more well-off residents – a small time merchant, perhaps, or one of the craftsman-mages that had stores in the town.

He was probably going to get another job offer, then.

“Sure,” Zorian said, gesturing towards the empty chair on the other end of the table. “Help yourself.”

He thought for a moment whether he should get rid of the map while he talked to the man, but then decided not to bother. There was nothing incriminating on it anyway – a couple of marked down locations that would mean nothing to the man without some kind of context and some equally unhelpful notes scribbled on the margins. Silverlake had given him a task of gathering rare magical plants all over the damn forest, but gave him only the vaguest clues about where they could be found, so he was reduced to deciphering her statements and consulting the local herbalists for more information. And the local herbalists weren’t terribly cooperative. He had a feeling this was only the start of her demands, so he was trying to finish it quickly.

“Don’t mind if I do, don’t mind if I do,” the man said happily, plopping down onto the offered spot. “These old bones just aren’t what they once were, I’m afraid. Standing around does terrible things to my knees. I guess the years caught up to me, eh?”

‘The pot belly probably doesn’t help,’ Zorian thought inside his head, though outwardly he remained silent, waiting for the man to tell him what he wanted of him.

“I have to say, this looks like a nice place to relax in,” the man said, idly looking at the sheet of paper that listed the prices of some of the meals and beverages. “A little pricy, but quiet and out of the way. Private. Anyway, you don’t mind if I order us a drink, do you?”

“I don’t drink alcohol,” said Zorian with a shake of his head. And he didn’t trust any of the non-alcoholic beverages in a place like this, either – it wasn’t that upscale of an establishment, regardless of what the man said. “I’m going to have to decline.”

“Now that’s just unfair,” the man said. “Oh well, I guess I’ll have to drink alone then. Forgive the impoliteness but I’m rather parched and it just feels wrong, having a conversation in a tavern without a mug of beer to sip on occasionally.”

A few minutes later, the man took a swig from his mug and got to the point.

“Ah, that hits the spot,” he said. “With that out of the way, allow me to introduce myself: I am Gurey Cwili, of Cwili and Rofoltin Equipment. Though I’m sad to say old Rofoltin passed away two years ago, so I’m the only owner now. I kept the name as it is, though. Tradition.”

Zorian resisted the urge to tell him to get on with it.

“Anyway, I see you’re a busy man so I’ll get straight to the point – I’ve heard you’ve been going out into the forest to gather alchemical ingredients and hunting winter wolves. And also that you’ve been selling magic items on the side, too.”

“Yes, what of it?” asked Zorian. Nothing he did was in any way illegal. The winter wolves had sizeable bounties for every pelt brought to the nearest guild station for the express purpose of encouraging people to hunt them, as they tended to prey on the livestock, children, and lone travelers, and selling magic items and alchemical ingredients was hardly a crime. Some places had arcane restrictions about what could and could not be sold and by whom, but those were usually the consequence of regional monopolies granted to someone and Knyazov Dveri was under no one’s monopoly. He’d checked. “I’m a certified mage, if that’s what’s bothering you.”

He even had a badge to prove it. It was pricy, but he interacted too often with mages in the town to risk getting caught doing business without a license. Especially since he had gotten an impression that a couple of shop owners resented the competition he represented and would love to report him to the guild if they could find an excuse.

“To put it bluntly, I want you to sell your alchemical ingredients and magic items to me instead of my competitors,” the man said. “Don’t think this is some kind of threat or blackmail, though – I’m willing to pay you extra for the privilege.”

Zorian blinked. He didn’t expect that.

An hour later, the man had hashed out some sort of agreement with Zorian. The extra money didn’t mean all that much to Zorian, but the man did have something he wanted – a fully-equipped alchemical workshop that he wasn’t using all the time. In exchange for the right to use said workshop from time to time and the right to consult the man’s private library for botanical books, Zorian agreed to offer all his products to the man before he did to anyone else. The man seemed pretty pleased with himself at having closed such a deal. Honestly, so was Zorian – the local library had a miserable selection of books on plants and herbs, but Gurey claimed his own private library was not nearly so limited. Having access to a proper alchemical workshop was also convenient, and not something he could easily get elsewhere, unless he was willing to teleport to Korsa every time he wanted to make something. And he really didn’t have that much mana to burn.

“How come there is such a demand for potions and magic items here, anyway?” asked Zorian. “This city seems a little too small for the amount of magic shops. I understand the workshops since they can always export their products elsewhere, but how do shops like yours achieve such volume on the local market?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Gurey said. “Travelers. Or more accurately, settlers and adventurers. You see, this city is one of the last stops for settlers going further north as part of the ‘Great Northern Push’, as the government likes to call it. As one of the last centers of ‘real civilization’ on their journey, we get a lot of demand for critical supplies of all sorts.”

“Great Northern Push?” asked Zorian.

“Not a regular reader of the newspapers, I take it? It’s the whole thing with colonizing the Sarokian Highlands that the government has been pushing so hard lately. You must have noticed the posters around advertising free land and tax exemptions and what not. It’s part of Eldemar’s current strategy for achieving supremacy over Sulamnon and Falkrinea. The idea is that by taming the northern wilderness the country will get a major population and resource boost. All countries that have a border with the wilderness do this to a greater or lesser degree, but Eldemar has really invested a lot into this endeavor. Not sure whether it will be really worth it in the end, but I sure don’t mind the traffic it gives me!”

Hmm, now that he thought about it, there were traces of that even back at the academy – it was nothing horribly blatant, but textbooks and class assignments often worked in mentions of the Sarokian Highlands far more than one would expect, considering their low population and current importance.

In any case, the man soon left and Zorian returned to staring at his map. Goddamn witch.

* * *

“I don’t suppose that now that I have brought you the plants you asked for-“

“Don’t be silly, boy,” Silverlake said, snatching the bundle of plants from his hands. “You don’t really think a silly little fetch quest like this is all it takes to get my help? Think of this as an… elimination round. You were horribly slow, anyway.”

“Slow…” Zorian repeated incredulously. “It took me only 3 days. The only reason I could get them all so quickly at all was that I could teleport from place to place. Not to mention the danger involved – you never even told me those ‘redbell mushrooms’ of yours exploded into clouds of paralyzing dust if handled improperly.”

“Well that’s just common knowledge,” she said, waving her hand dismissively. “Everyone knows that. Here, grind these snail shells for me, please.”

Zorian looked at the small leather bag full of colorful red-and-blue snail shells and frowned. He knew that species of snail. They were used in production of certain drugs, and were very much illegal to harvest. More important than that, their ground up shells were a powerful hallucinogen and inhaling even a handful of dust would leave him delirious and incapacitated. He threw the annoying old woman a brief glare before simply casting a ‘dust shield‘ spell on himself – the same one he used to protect himself against the paralyzing mushrooms – before grabbing a mortar and pestle and getting down to work.

After he was done with that, the old witch promptly handed him the very bundle of plants he had spent three days gathering, rattled off a series of brief instructions and pointed him towards an old cauldron leaning on the wall of her cottage. Wonderful – apparently he was going to be making a potion the old way. He had been tutored by another witch as a child, so he wasn’t totally lost here, but the potion she wanted him to make now was unfamiliar to him. Not to mention that there was a reason why traditional potion making was considered obsolete compared to modern alchemy – it was harder, less safe, and usually gave worse results to boot.

Hopefully the potion she was having him make wasn’t the sort to explode in his face or poison him with fumes if he didn’t get it right. Oh, who was he kidding, of course it was. Frankly, if it weren’t for the time loop and the resulting immunity to simple death, he would be leaving at this point.

As he suspected, he botched that potion. Thankfully, every time he was about to make a particularly disastrous misstep, Silverlake stopped him. He just wished she found a better way to warn him he was about to make a mistake than hitting him with a willow branch. She could have poked his eye out with that thing!

He never thought he would say this, but he was starting to miss Xvim and his marbles. His old mentor was a saint compared to this crazy old woman.

“Well that’s no good,” said Silverlake, peering into the cauldron and idly stirring the foul-smelling purple gunk that Zorian ended up producing (it was supposed to be a viscous, sweet-smelling, totally transparent liquid). She gave him a bright smile. “I guess you’ll have to go gather a whole new batch of ingredients before you can try again, won’t you?”

Zorian stared blankly at the grinning woman, feeling her anticipation through his empathy. She fully expected him to explode at this and was looking forward to it! Sadistic bitch. Unfortunately for her, she was about to get disappointed. He wordlessly reached into his backpack and withdrew a fresh bundle of ingredients.

Her smile never faltered, but Zorian could feel her disappointment regardless. It made him smile inside, though he maintained his poker face.

“You gathered extra, huh?” she asked rhetorically.

“I have plenty of experience with abrasive teachers,” Zorian said simply. “I have another bundle besides this one, too.”

“Good. You’ll need it,” Silverlake said, knocking on the rim of the cauldron. “This was terrible. I don’t think two attempts will be enough. Hell, I’m skeptical you can get it in three! Go empty this crap you’ve made in the neutralization pit over there and start over.”

Zorian sighed and levitated the cauldron onto a disc of force before marching off into the direction of the neutralization pit. It was really just an open pit that had been lined with stones and painted over with alchemical resin so that alchemical compounds poured into it didn’t seep into the ground or nearby water supply. His alchemy teacher back at the academy would have been horrified at the mishandling of alchemical waste, but if the great Silverlake thinks an open pit is sufficient for disposal of alchemical sludge then who was Zorian to disagree?

That done, he placed the cauldron back over by the fireplace and started over. Silverlake was probably right that he wouldn’t get it right in the next two times either, though – the potion clearly required fairly delicate temperature management, but that was a very hard variable to control when using wood burning and a regular fireplace. An old witch with lots of experience like Silverlake probably knew by instinct how to control the fire, but Zorian didn’t have the faintest idea of how to do it.

That was generally the main problem of ‘traditional alchemy’, as it was sometimes called. It relied heavily on the ability of the practitioner to adjust their methods on the fly to produce a usable product. Unlike modern alchemy, which relied on standardized equipment and exact measurements, traditional alchemy was all about eyeballing it and improvisation. Expressions like ‘a handful of leaves’, ‘a slow fire’ and ‘a moderate amount of time’ were extremely common in traditional alchemical recipes. Zorian knew because he once broke into his grandmother’s recipe cabinet to see if he could learn something from them. ‘A pinch of salt’ apparently meant very different things to him and his grandmother, if the results of his secret potion attempts were any indication.

A further problem for him was that he was only really proficient in producing potions one by one, and the cauldron method was designed for producing batches of potions. There were some very important differences between production methods for single potions and for batches, but hell if Zorian could remember what they were at the moment.

“Who taught you?” Silverlake asked suddenly.

“Huh?” Zorian mumbled. “What do you mean? You want to know my alchemy teacher?”

“I want to know your potions teacher,” she corrected. “You’re still pretty terrible, but you’re not nearly as clueless around the cauldron as I thought you would be. Who taught you?”

“Err, that would be my grandmother, I guess,” Zorian said.

“A witch or just a housewife that picked up a few recipes?” Silverlake asked.

“A witch,” said Zorian. “Though not a particularly dedicated one, I think. She gave me some lessons when I was a kid, but it didn’t last very long. My mother didn’t really like her teaching me.”

Actually, Zorian was pretty sure his mother didn’t like his grandmother, period. Mother and daughter did not get along, in their case. Zorian always found it kind of hypocritical that mother spent so much time preaching to him about the value of family when she herself couldn’t stand her own mother if her life depended on it.

“Huh. Interesting. Don’t expect to get any fuzzy feelings out of me just because of that, though,” Silverlake said.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Zorian said lightly.

“Good. You’ll be happy to know I’ve decided on the price of my help for you.”

“Oh?” said Zorian, suddenly perking up.

“Yes. You see, a little birdy told me you’ve been wandering around the forest, picking fights with the wildlife. So this should be something right up your alley. Tell me… have you heard of a something called ‘the grey hunter’?


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