Chapter 030
A Game of Shops

“I want you to help me rob my rival.”

Zorian blinked in surprise before giving the man an incredulous look. What?

“And… why the hell would I do that?” he asked the man curiously.

Gurey grinned triumphantly. “I knew I was right about you,” he said. “You didn’t even pretend to be outraged at the question.”

Zorian frowned. “I’m just not a very excitable person, that’s all. It doesn’t mean I’m going to actually help you rob someone,” he shot back crankily. “In fact, I can scarcely imagine a situation where I would agree to such a thing. I was just curious what possessed you to broach the topic at all. This isn’t some kind of attempt at blackmail, is it?”

“Oh no, I’d have to be pretty stupid to try and blackmail a man who hunts winter wolves and giant trapdoor spiders for a living,” Gurey assured him quickly. “Not that I have anything worthwhile to blackmail you with, anyway. No, I just felt I had an interesting deal for you and that I had nothing to lose by making an offer. You don’t seem like the sort that would get all high and mighty on me just because I employ a few shady business practices. I figure the worst you’d do is say no.”

Zorian was silent for a moment. He supposed that Gurey had him there – even if Zorian actually cared to turn Gurey in, it would still be his word against Gurey’s. Proving the man’s guilt would be a hassle, Gurey would likely get a mere slap on the wrist even if convicted, and it would lead to far greater scrutiny of Zorian’s activities by nearby powers than he was comfortable with. All in all, it would mean an entire restart wasted on a pointless crusade that had no meaning inside the time loop and would quite possibly attract the attention of the academy authorities – previous restarts had made it clear they were very quick to involve themselves when one of their students had a brush with the law or the police, and he was still technically enrolled there. And if the academy found out about his whereabouts and activities, it was entirely possible Red Robe would also find out about it through cranium rats or his other spies…

No, even if Gurey was planning to murder someone, Zorian would not intervene. A simple theft… well, he wasn’t sure he would actually care all that much even if he wasn’t stuck in the time loop and he certainly didn’t care at all now.

“Well, the answer is definitely no,” said Zorian finally. “I know that wanderers like me have a reputation of being opportunistic, but I’m afraid my ethics aren’t quite as flexible as that. I’m not going to stoop to banditry or burglary or whatever it is that you have in mind for this… ‘deal’ of yours.”

“Ah, I don’t think you quite understand what I’m talking about here,” Gurey said. “You think I want you to steal something physical and that I’m offering you money in exchange, yes?”

Zorian raised an eyebrow at him.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Gurey shook his head. “I know better than anyone that you’re raking in too much money at the moment to be tempted by petty burglary. Ethics aside, that’s too much risk for too little gain. No, if this operation goes off without a hitch – and I think you’re capable enough to pull it off – there will be nothing missing and no indication that a crime has occurred at all.” He leaned towards Zorian conspiratorially and whispered the next part. “ You see, what I’m trying to steal is not material wealth, but secrets.”

Oh. Oh! Well that changed things considerably. He still didn’t want to have anything to do with Gurey’s deal, but he at least understood why the man felt comfortable discussing such an offer with him. Spying on other mages was technically illegal, but everyone knew it was a common and universal practice. Hell, according to some stories every Noble House worth its name had its own division dedicated just to that. You just had to make sure that you weren’t caught. Even the academy, which generally tried to give students a very rose-tinted version of mage culture, admitted that such ‘professional espionage’ occurred all the time. Some of it was entirely legal, such as analyzing a rival’s products and spellwork with divination spells, or poring over publically available documents to see if they’d let something sensitive slip by without noticing… but such legal methods were usually very limited and mages often resorted to shadier methods. Bribing assistants and apprentices into selling out their master’s secrets, hiring burglars to raid archives and research notes, dedicated scrying campaigns, seduction plots… the possibilities were endless, and new ones were devised every day. As well as countermeasures for such.

Zorian recalled a particular fable that spoke of two mages that spent years devising ways to steal each other’s secrets and thwarting the other’s attempts to do the same to them. Eventually, after a decade of back-and-forth, they both succeeded in reaching each other’s inner sanctum at the same time… only to find out that neither had any secrets worth stealing. They had spent so much time and effort trying to one-up each other that they’d never gotten any actual work done.

Well, that was an obvious exaggeration, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise Zorian to find out that every magical business (and probably quite a few non-magical ones) in Knyazov Dveri did do at least a little bit of illegal espionage as a matter of course. The world of business was a cutthroat environment. Zorian knew from his parents’ stories that even seemingly simple and honest farmers were willing to renege on their contracts if they thought they could get away with it. To someone like Gurey, this sort of thing was probably just business as usual.

But it wasn’t business as usual for Zorian. And frankly, Gurey was completely right when he said that the whole thing was a huge risk for little gain. He opened his mouth to give Gurey a firm (but polite) refusal, but was interrupted when Gurey pushed a brown, leather-bound book in his hands.

Zorian looked at the book in surprise for a second, idly wondering why it had no title, before giving Gurey a searching look. The man motioned him to open it.

Zorian did, and promptly found himself leafing through pages of hand-written notes and complicated diagrams. It was a journal of some sort. That’s why the book had no title or markings. A research journal of some mage, if he had to guess.

“What is this?” he asked, giving Gurey a suspicious look.

“A sample,” Gurey said with a grin. “As I said, I know it would be foolish of you to do something like this for money – well, for the sums I am able to pay you, at least – so I came up with something that will hopefully be more attractive to you. Feel free to peruse that thing at your leisure and then come see me in my store tomorrow to give me an answer. Just remember, there is more where that came from!”

Gurey then immediately left, leaving Zorian alone with the mysterious journal/thing. Curious, he opened the book at the beginning so he could see if it perhaps had a title written on the first page. The first few pages were blank, but he did reach the title page in the end.

‘Breaking and bypassing wards and other magical defenses,’ it said. ‘By Aldwin Rofoltin.’

Rofoltin? That would be Gurey’s deceased business partner, wouldn’t it? Intrigued, Zorian sat down on the edge of his bed and began to read.

* * *

Having read through Rofoltin’s book, Zorian had to admit he was feeling a little… underwhelmed? It wasn’t a bad book by any means, but by the way Gurey had presented it, he’d expected more. As it was, the most useful thing he found inside was the step-by-step instruction of how to build your very own magic-analysis goggles, complete with a spell formula blueprint. That was convenient, as he had been meaning to build one of those for a while now and there were no publically available creation manuals on the topic that he could find – the spell formula blueprint alone probably saved him a restart-worth of work.

Other than that, there was little of real use in there… but perhaps that was what Gurey had been aiming for. It was a sample, as he said, meant to entice Zorian into cooperation by alluding to the possibility of granting Zorian access to the rest of Rofoltin’s books. If Gurey’s old partner had 5 other books like that, and each one had just one useful thing like the goggle thing, that was a couple of months of saved time right there. And if Gurey was keeping the good stuff for the end like Zorian suspected… tempting. Far more tempting than he’d thought this would be.

Shaking his head at his own greed, he locked his room behind him and set off in the direction of Gurey’s shop. He would have to check with the man what exactly he expected of him, but… chances were he was going to say yes. In truth, this sort of thing wasn’t that far off from what he had been planning to do on his own at some point. Chances were that he was going to have to learn how to break into people’s homes and spy on mages sooner or later – gathering information about the time loop, Red Robe and soul magic was bound to require it at some point. At least this way he would get some guidance from someone who’d done it before, get a chance to practice his skills on what was probably a far less difficult target, and get paid for it to boot.

Realizing he was in no hurry to actually confront Gurey, Zorian eventually slowed down and decided to take the scenic route to the place. He idly observed the people and buildings as he wandered the town, suddenly aware that he knew very little about the place, despite living in it for a while now. He had been so busy with other things that actually exploring Knyazov Dveri sort of slipped his mind. He didn’t even peruse the town’s Dungeon access, though that one was intentional – he had decided to hold back on doing that until he had a chance to judge how much of his time and attention his other tasks in this restart would take, and ultimately decided to leave that for some other restart. The Dungeon wasn’t going anywhere. In any case, now that he had taken the time to explore the town a little, he could say with some certainty that he hadn’t missed much. He had already visited most of the shops to determine what the best price for the ingredients he was gathering was, and aside from that the town was fairly average. It was similar to Cyoria in the sense that it was clearly a city that had experienced rapid growth in recent times – the old core of the city was easily recognizable by the single-story buildings painted in the traditional yellow color that usually signified Eldemar’s native architecture, while subsequent layers radiating from it had newer, multi-story buildings. Other than that, he hadn’t noticed anything particularly noteworthy, though he would have to set aside some days for exploration just to be certain.

Finally, he reached the building that proudly proclaimed it housed a business establishment known as Cwili and Rofoltin Equipment and walked inside. The little bell attached to the door rang out as Zorian entered, notifying Gurey of his arrival – a solution surprisingly devoid of magic, for a magic store – and the portly man soon poked his head from the back room he was currently in to see what he was dealing with. His eyes lit up immediately when he recognized Zorian.

“I’ll be with you in a second!” the man yelled before getting back to whatever he was working on in the back. Zorian took the chance to study the shop a bit while he waited.

Just like the first time he had been here, he was once again struck by how diverse the products sold by Gurey’s store were: he offered everything from wilderness-appropriate attire to the various magic items, potions, survival guides, dried herbs and other magical materials used by alchemists and artificers, and so on. And actually, it was even more impressive than it first appeared – Zorian knew from his previous talks with the man that Gurey actually offered a great deal more than what was displayed at the shelves of his store, so long as the customer seeking them was properly vouched for or knew how to ask the right questions.

Gurey once told a story about a customer who tried to buy the decorative potted plants he strategically placed around the shop to liven up the place, and while Zorian understood Gurey’s mirth at the incident, he also understood how someone might have decided they were for sale. With all the other things Gurey was selling, it really wouldn’t have surprised Zorian to find out that he dealt in potted plants as well.

“Ah, Zorian, my friend…” said Gurey, walking out from the back and approaching him. “Did you read it? An interesting book, isn’t it?” he prodded.

“It was… somewhat useful,” said Zorian noncommittally. “Not much on its own, but if there really are a couple more where that came from, it might actually be worthwhile for me to work with you on your… problem.”

Gurey frowned, apparently expecting him to be more impressed with his partner’s work. He opened his mouth to speak, but Zorian interrupted him.

“Before we discuss this any further, I’d prefer if we move to somewhere more private. Do you have a room I could set up some basic privacy wards in?”

“I have better,” Gurey said smugly, quickly shaking off his previous disappointment. “I have a room with privacy wards already present… and not just the basic ones, either. Follow me.”

He led Zorian to a small, inconspicuous room with a single desk and two chairs… a room whose walls, floor and ceiling were full of magical glyphs and geometric shapes made out of crystalized mana. Gurey placed his hand on one of the circles and the whole complicated spell formula pulsed twice in bright blue light before becoming seemingly inert. Zorian wasn’t fooled though – those pulses signified the more mana-intensive portions of the ward scheme becoming active. Much like many powerful warding schemes, the one he was looking at had two modes – the normal, mana-conserving one that could be powered indefinitely from its mana source and the advanced, super-charged one that burned through mana faster than the ambient mana levels could provide it with but was far more effective for the time it was active.

The sound of Gurey clearing his throat jolted him out of his thoughts and he realized he had been studying the wards for quite a while now. Oops.

“Is this one also ‘somewhat useful’?” asked Gurey with a smirk when he realized he had Zorian’s attention again.

“No, this is quite impressive,” Zorian admitted. “Is this also made by your former partner?”

“Yes,” Gurey nodded. “He was quite good at this. Setting up wards, I mean. Also breaking and bypassing them, but I understand those two are related. Learn how to make a ward and you’re 90% there to figuring out how to defeat it.”

“That’s the conventional wisdom, yes,” agreed Zorian. He decided not to dance around the issue any longer. “So… I’m guessing your former partner was your go-to person for these kinds of deals in the past, and now that he’s dead, you need to find someone else to do your dirty work.”

“My, you’re direct,” Gurey laughed nervously. “But you’ve hit the nail on the head, more or less. You see… magic was never my thing, as strange as that may sound from an owner of a magic shop. That was always Aldwin’s thing – he was the one that worried about the spellcasting part of the business while I was always more comfortable on the more mundane, civilian side of things. Making contacts, closing deals, finding new business partners, that kind of thing. I’m a really terrible mage when it comes down to it. I can barely cast anything at all.”

Zorian gave him a curious look. “I’m pretty sure I saw you manipulate mana plenty of times, and activating the greater privacy mode of this room couldn’t have possibly been a matter of just channeling mana into that circle.”

“Oh, I was always very good at using magic items,” Gurey said. “You don’t need to be a proper mage to do that. Lots of practice and some specialized shaping exercises and you’re set. If you’re fairly wealthy like me and live on a mana well, you can even commission items that draw power from the ambient mana instead of from my own miniscule reserves… but we both know there are severe drawbacks to such items, and this sort of job really needs a proper spellcaster.”

Zorian nodded. He had been considering the possibility of using ‘self-casting’ magic items to make up for his below-average mana reserves for a while now, but there were a lot of problems with it. The core, inescapable issue was that souls of spellcasters were pretty damn good at spellcasting, while even the best-made magic items… weren’t. Making an item that allowed the caster to skip some of the steps during spellcasting was simple enough, but creating something that was capable of casting a spell entirely on its own upon command? Hard. Possibly very hard, or even impossible, depending on what spell you were trying to imprint into the item. Warding schemes and one-use magic items like his suicide explosive cubes got around the issue by having the maker cast the spell during creation, after which the spell formula simply stabilized it and kept it from degrading, but that workaround wasn’t very useful for the majority of spells.

And then there was the issue of powering said items. Not every place had much in the way of ambient mana, and even places that did often couldn’t provide the amount necessary for the spell at once. That meant that most self-casting items needed an internal mana battery, which brought a whole host of problems of its own. No battery was totally efficient and reliable – they all leaked mana in varying amounts, and could easily blow up if overcharged or poorly constructed. And that was without even getting into the number of actual combat spells that were specifically designed to make mana batteries blow up from internal pressure.

All in all, the creation of self-casting items was something that Zorian put squarely into the ‘probably not worth it’ category. He wasn’t nearly good enough with spell formula currently to pull it off, and even if he were, it was still a very difficult sub-field of magic item creation that gave very dubious gains. Though he did eventually intend to track down a blueprint for a blasting rod – probably the simplest of self-casting items that blasted whatever it was pointed at with a torrent of barely-constrained energy, usually fire. A fittingly named item, and one of the few self-casting items that was known to be reliable and effective in actual combat, at least at close range. It was not a priority, however – such an item would be more of a last resort, side-arm sort of weapon than something to build his skills around.

“I’m not as useless at this sort of cloak-and-dagger stuff as you might think, though,” Gurey said. “As I said, Aldwin was the spellcaster, but I was the one who identified the targets. You can’t spy on a threat unless you know they are a threat, after all. And I was always very good at spotting who our competition was and keeping an eye on their activities. People underestimate how much information you can get simply by being well connected and giving a few expensive gifts to people.”

“You mean bribes,” said Zorian.

“Zorian, my friend, you have much to learn,” Gurey said, shaking his head. “Bribes are illegal. There is no law against generosity. Giving that bottle of expensive wine to your drinking buddy or inviting someone to that fancy annual dance that they’ve always wanted to attend is just being nice and no one can prove otherwise.”

“Right,” Zorian sighed. “I guess I shouldn’t talk, since I’m willing to go along with your plans. And speaking of which, why don’t we get back to the reason we’re here in the first place. What exactly do you want from me and what are you offering?”

“Very well. I presume you know about Vazen’s General Store?”

“The biggest magic-related shop in town?” asked Zorian.

“That one, yes. Cwili and Rofoltin Equipment was once bigger and able to compete with them on a more equal footing, but since the death of my partner two years ago those days have passed. Recently they have closed a deal with another company from Cyoria, but they have been silent about the contents of the deal. Everyone knows they have bought a bunch of spell formula schematics, alchemical recipes and production licenses, so it’s obvious they intend to seriously branch out into the production side of the business, but the exact details have been successfully kept secret. That is a problem. Depending on what Vazen intends to produce, some things are going to decline sharply in value, while the price of the raw materials used to make them goes up to a similar degree.”

“I see. You need to see what your rival will release so that you can prepare for the impact it will have on the market,” mused Zorian.

“Well, that and so that I can see if it is possible to counter his move in some fashion,” Gurey said.

“I suppose you know where I can find that information?” Zorian asked. “Not in the shop itself, I hope. That place is bound to be heavily warded.”

“It’s not nearly as warded as you might think – some basic counters to stop teleportation and divination, and that’s about it. But the place is always manned, even during the night, so you’re right that they’re not something you’d want to tangle with. Fortunately, you don’t have to. In the end, Vazen’s own paranoia is his undoing – I have found out that instead of keeping the documents in his heavily guarded shop, he has brought them into his much less protected home. Apparently he doesn’t even trust his own employees.”

“How protected is his home?” asked Zorian.

“Well, my information might be a little outdated since I got it two and a half years ago, from my then-living partner who scouted the entire building, but I doubt much has changed. It has an anti-divination ward and all the doors and windows have intruder alarms and that’s it. The documents themselves are kept in a safe, though, and that is bound to have much more serious defenses.”

“Not too bad of a setup, to be honest,” Zorian said after thinking about it for a minute. “The divination ward stops casual espionage and makes it impossible to just scry-and-teleport inside, while the alarms on entrances make it impossible to simply sneak inside without magic.”

Covering only the entrances with the wards was a common mana-conserving measure. True, it made the wards useless if the attackers could phase through walls or were willing to make their own entrance by blowing a hole in the building, but thieves capable of phasing through solid matter had bigger fish to fry than robbing small-time shop owners and blasting holes in the walls would kind of defeat the point of trying to acquire the information undetected.

“You can teleport, though, right?” asked Gurey. “I mean, I’m sure you can – the speed of movement over large distances that you’ve demonstrated pretty much requires it – but how good are you at it?”

“I can teleport,” Zorian said hesitantly. He didn’t think he was making it that obvious, though he supposed he couldn’t keep leaving in the morning and coming back before the sun set with things only found deep in the forest without someone questioning just how he was doing it. “I’m getting pretty good at it, in my opinion. It takes me a while to shape the spell, but I can consistently pull it off.”

“Excellent. The intruder alarms shouldn’t be much of a problem, then,” Gurey said with a grin. “Aldwin had this neat trick where he could turn an item into a teleport beacon of sorts, and then simply teleport himself to its location without having to have been there in the past. I’m sure I can get some innocuous-seeming thing through the door, you just have to cast the spell on it. I don’t know how to cast the spell myself, but Aldwin did write it down in one of his journals…”

“Spell, you say? No spell formula involved?” asked Zorian curiously.

“No. ‘Spell of recall’, I think it’s called. It’s a two-part spell – you first cast a personal teleport beacon on an item, and it immediately forges a connection between you and it. You can then cast the second spell at any time, causing yourself to be ‘recalled’ at the location of the item. According to Aldwin, it was meant to be used for rapid escape – you cast the first spell on a retreat point and then use the second spell to teleport there if you end up in a bind.”

“Why not use a regular teleport for that?” frowned Zorian. “Sounds like a lot of trouble when a normal teleport will suffice. After all, you’ve already been to the location you’re teleporting to if you’re setting it up as a retreat point.”

“I really don’t know. You will have to find that out yourself if you’re interested,” Gurey said.

“Hm. So assuming this spell works as advertised and you can smuggle something in like you said you would, I ‘just’ have to defeat the protection on the safe to get to the documents.“

“Yes. That part will be all you, since I have no idea where it is or what protections it has,” confirmed Gurey.

Zorian stared at the man for a while before taking a deep breath.

“Lovely. Unfortunately for you, I am not the professional ward breaker you seem to think I am,” he told Gurey. “When you said you wanted my help with this, I had thought I would just play support or something. Something like this is, to put it bluntly, out of my league. I’m sorry, but unless there is something you’re not telling me, there is no way I’d be able to pull this off.”

Gurey leaned forward and gave him a conspiratorial grin. “Even if I gave you Aldwin’s spellbook and his notes on how the spells are meant to be used?”

Zorian blinked. “What?”

Two hours later, Zorian left Gurey’s shop with three new books under his arm. They had agreed to make the attempt at the documents three days before the summer festival, ostensibly to give Zorian the time he needed to practice the spells in Aldwin’s spellbook but also because that way, should the whole thing go pear-shaped, Zorian would only lose three days of the restart.

Zorian hummed to himself in satisfaction as he walked back to the inn. It was nice to catch a windfall from time to time. After the whole annoyance with Silverlake and the mysterious disappearance of soul magic practitioners, he had begun to think that this whole restart had been a giant waste of time. Now… well, at least he’d gotten some shiny new spells out of it, ones of the sort that he could never have acquired through any legal avenue.

Things were looking up.

* * *

After his talk with Gurey, time passed quickly. It was difficult to practice the spells found in Aldwin’s spellbook, as most of them only interacted with wards and required an actual warding scheme as a target. Thankfully, Zorian had managed to find a warded house whose owner had left on a trip, allowing Zorian to practice on it to his heart’s content, provided he kept out of sight of the main road. He also occasionally warded objects himself for practice purposes, usually when practicing the more destructive spells, but that just wasn’t the same as interacting with an unknown ward.

Surprisingly, Gurey was also willing to have Zorian practice the spells on his shop’s warding scheme, so long as he didn’t do anything permanent. Zorian wondered about that. All things considered, Gurey was being far too accommodating to him. He suspected that the portly man thought of him as an investment and hoped to turn him into a more long-term asset, and as such was rather more generous to Zorian than he otherwise would have been, but he had no way to be sure. There did not seem to be anything malicious about it, so he mostly ignored it and tried to be simply grateful for his good fortune.

There were essentially three ways of dealing with wards. The first one was to starve the ward out, depriving it of mana until it simply fell apart. The second was to identify a way to disrupt its structure, causing it to fail on the spot. And finally, the third one was to trick it into not activating in the first place. ‘Siphoning’, ‘breaking’ and ‘bypassing’ were the terms used in literature for the three methods. Each one had its advantages and disadvantages, but for the task Gurey entrusted him, he would have to rely on bypassing the wards on the safe.

Siphoning had the advantage that it always worked – every ward could be siphoned to death with enough time and effort, it was just a question if the attacker was willing to devote the necessary resources for the task. Some wards could last for months after being isolated from their power sources, even when actively drained of mana during the isolation. Unfortunately, it required that the attacker have complete control of the area around the ward, as siphoning operations were difficult to set up and maintain – anything less than total control made it too easy for the defender to wreck the setup. It was mostly used for sieges and bringing down legacy wards that had outlived their usefulness.

Breaking was the fastest method of neutralizing wards – just disrupt the structure of the ward and let it collapse on itself. Unfortunately, many wards collapsed explosively or had other unpleasant side effects if simply broken, often resulting in the destruction of the warded thing and sometimes the one doing the breaking as well. A lot of wards were also simply too powerful to be broken by a single mage, or even a group of mages, unless the attacker had identified a particularly glaring weakness. So all in all, breaking a ward was often not possible, and, even more often, not desirable even if the possibility existed. Still, if one wanted to get rid of a ward quickly and had power to spare, breaking the ward was the way to go.

Finally, there was bypassing the wards – the preferred way of dealing with them, if at all possible. If the attacker knew how the ward functioned, either because he had been given access to the schematics of the warding scheme or because he had analyzed its structure via divination spells, they could take care not to activate any of the triggers that made the ward recognize there was a problem to be countered. Depending on how the ward functioned, it might even be possible to put additional layers on top of it to neutralize it completely. If an attacker wanted to keep their intrusion secret, bypassing the wards was a must, as it was the only method that left the wards intact after they were done.

Since the idea was to leave no trace of his home invasion, he obviously couldn’t break or siphon the wards on the safe – he had to trick his way past them and leave them intact. There were lots of ways to do that in the books Gurey had given him, since Aldwin was primarily interested in that sort of solution to the wards himself, but until Zorian took an actual look at the safe he couldn’t tell which ones he should use. So he settled on simply practicing all of them.

As the date of the summer festival approached, Zorian decided to visit Vani one more time to see if the man had any news on the missing soul mages. He didn’t, though he admitted he hadn’t tried to find out anything about that very hard. It was a matter for law enforcement, Vani had claimed, and getting involved would just paint them as suspects. He was probably right, and Zorian knew there was no point in snooping around now that the case was being investigated by the police, but he definitely intended to launch a personal investigation in future restarts to see what was going on there.

Vani had asked him whether he had found the shifter tribe, but Zorian admitted that he sort of gave up on that. He couldn’t go to Raynie, as she was in Cyoria, and nobody else could direct him where to go. Or maybe they could, but didn’t want to – the result was the same in either case. Besides, he was skeptical in regard to how much they could actually help with his issue.

Finally, the day had come. Gurey had managed to get a small plaque inside Vazen’s house by stuffing it inside an envelope and mailing it to the man along with some ridiculous advertisement. Zorian couldn’t believe that had actually worked, but it had, and now they just had to wait for the man to go to work before he could teleport inside and search for the safe. Vazen was a 40-year-old bachelor, so there was supposed to be no one in the house with him gone, but Zorian had prepared a set of concealing clothes for himself anyway (that he intended to throw away immediately after the operation) and was willing to teleport out at the first sign of trouble.

After an hour of waiting, Vazen left the house and Zorian teleported inside. Gurey remained outside under an invisibility field, acting as a lookout – if he spotted Vazen coming back, he would press a button on the stopwatch Zorian had given him, which would cause a ring on Zorian’s hand to heat up.

The house was, thankfully, completely empty… but also completely lacking in safes, warded or otherwise. Even after he’d added an additional layer to the wards in order to exclude the inside of the house from the anti-divination ward, his spells still gave no results… probably because the safe was itself warded against divinations. Frustrating. It was obviously hidden behind something, but Zorian couldn’t figure out where. There were no hollow walls, secret hatches beneath the carpet, places where the floor was scraped due to constant movement of furniture, and so on. Just as Zorian was about to give up and hit the books for an exotic divination spell that could work despite the ward, he finally found it. It was in the fireplace, of all things – if he hadn’t noticed how relatively clean it was (and reminisced about how much he hated cleaning the one back home in Cirin), it would have never occurred to him to look there.

The fireplace was not built for convenient access, so interacting with it was rather annoying – the safe was positioned to the left, making it impossible to actually see the lock without the use of a mirror. Still, that was just an inconvenience, not a real obstacle. He began casting analysis spells at the ward that protected the safe, trying to find a way past them.

He had just enough time to register that there was a very weak, localized ward present in the fireplace before he was forced to jump back and erect a shield in front of him. A deafening explosion erupted from the fireplace, enveloping the whole room in blinding, choking ash as the ward triggered the explosive trap in response to detecting his analysis spell. His shield protected him from the blast, but the ash cloud was hell on his lungs.

He teleported out, grabbed Gurey and then teleported again – this time away from Vazen’s house. The operation was a bust.

* * *

In the aftermath of the botched operation, the whole idea had been scrapped. Security was bound to go up now that Vazen knew there was someone after the documents, and Zorian didn’t fancy going against the new and improved defenses when even the old ones nearly killed him. Gurey was, if anything, even more shaken about the whole thing than Zorian was. He apologized profusely for the whole episode and ranted about how such lethal traps were illegal and how he couldn’t believe Vazen would employ such a thing, which Zorian found more than a little amusing. It helped explain why Vazen seemingly didn’t bother to report the break-in to the police, though.

Personally, Zorian was feeling pretty annoyed with himself. Despite what Gurey seemed to think, this was all on him. He really should have checked the fireplace for traps. Hell, he should have checked the whole house for those! Just because Gurey had said there were no other defenses didn’t mean he should have taken it for granted. The man had even said his information was outdated…

Well, no matter – he got some nifty spells out of the whole thing and he knew what to watch out for in subsequent restarts.

He thought about confronting the grey hunter at the end of the restart, but then decided against it. He would have just died messily, and he’d had enough brushes with death in this particular restart.

He went to sleep and woke up with his sister wishing him a good morning.


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