He didn’t bring the papers to his room, of course. He was confident that there was no tracking spell on anything in the stack, but he was also confident that Vazen would try to divine the location of the papers the hard way once he noticed the theft. He might even succeed, in which case Zorian didn’t want them to be near anything that would automatically implicate him in the theft. No sense in taking that risk when he could simply store the papers elsewhere.
Elsewhere, in this case, meant outside Knyazov Dveri – that way the papers would be out of range of virtually every divination spell cast from inside the city. Thus, after teleporting around randomly a couple of times to confuse any theoretical trackers, Zorian’s last jump took him deep into the forested wilderness to the north of the city, to a location that had a small, convenient cave nearby. He had found the place in an earlier restart, while he had been tracking down ingredients for Silverlake, and he had felt even then that it would be a nice place to set up camp at. It just needed some touch-ups here and there to make it suitable for his purposes.
He conjured a glowing lantern to light his way in the gloom of the cave and got to work. After a quick casting of an area-wide ‘spook animals’ spell to drive away all the bats and vermin that had taken residence in the cave, he set about using alteration magic to clean the place up and make some shelves and reading surfaces out of the rock. A while later, after he tested things for comfort and stability, he decided that stone chairs perhaps weren’t the best idea and instead constructed some basic furniture out of the fallen branches he found in the surrounding forest. There – good enough for his purposes.
“Now comes the hard part,” he spoke to himself.
It was time to start constructing the warding scheme for the place.
Three hours later, Zorian had layered every single divination ward that he felt could be useful and a few that he didn’t, and had rechecked the whole thing twice to make sure everything was stable and worked correctly. Truthfully… he wasn’t satisfied. He had an insufficient collection of different anti-divination spells to set up a proper, iron-tight warding scheme, and too little experience to properly judge what was crucial and what was not. In addition, if it took him this long to set up even this mediocre thing, how long would something more complex take? He really needed to get better at warding…
He shook his head to clear his thoughts. He needed to get better at a lot of things, but he had to prioritize. Defense against soul magic, then combat skills, then aranean mind arts. Those three things were urgent and couldn’t be put off. Everything else was secondary for now, even the mystery surrounding Vazen and the documents. If stealing the documents resulted in his early death, despite the many precautions he took… well, he would just have to set the whole thing aside until he was done with his current main goal, wouldn’t he?
No, his current defenses would have to be enough for now. He placed the papers he stole from Vazen on the nearby stone table he’d made from the cavern floor, sat down on a chair he’d fabricated from wooden detritus he’d dragged into the cave and began to read…
Hours later, when he was finally done reading and organizing the whole thing, he seriously contemplated burning the whole stack down and scattering the ashes in the wind. Safer that way, and probably more than a little cathartic. He had expected to find something heavily incriminating, but this was something else entirely. Why did the man keep all of his incriminating correspondence in one convenient place, anyway? If it had been Zorian in his shoes, he would have destroyed all the letters once he read them so they couldn’t be used against him. Was Vazen keeping them as possible blackmail material or something? If so, that was kind of ballsy of him, considering what kind of person the man was dealing with.
Said person being Sudomir Kandrei, the mayor of Knyazov Dveri. Because of course it was the goddamn mayor that was behind everything. No wonder that telling the police about the disappearances never went anywhere – even if somebody had seriously looked into it, they would have been told pretty quickly to drop the case by their superiors. Local governors in peripheral areas such as these were basically tiny tyrants that could do as they pleased, so long as they made sure not to piss off the wrong person or stir up trouble.
Not that knowing who was responsible for the disappearances shed any light on the man’s motives. When all was said and done, Vazen was merely the guy supplying Sudomir with various illegal materials and occasionally hiring shady people in Sudomir’s place so the mayor couldn’t be implicated in the deal. The merchant didn’t even know about most of the disappearances as far as Zorian could see. In fact, Vazen’s shady dealings with the mayor seemed to have been much more benign until about three months ago, when the man suddenly upped the game and started demanding much riskier merchandise, in far greater quantities, as well as started arranging full-blown assassinations like the ones directed against him and Alanic. One could tell from the letters that Vazen was getting progressively more disturbed and annoyed at his ‘customer’ for escalating things like that, especially since Sudomir refused to elaborate on what had caused this sudden change. The ‘deal’ that Vazen made with a company in Cyoria, the one that Gurey was so interested in, was basically a bribe that Sudomir had arranged for Vazen to calm him down and keep him cooperative.
The blueprints and recipes contained in the documents looked kind of interesting, but there was nothing there that Zorian found really notable or sinister. The names of the three businesses that provided the documentation were something he recognized, however – they were run by people that the aranea had identified as members of the Cult of the Dragon.
So. The mayor of Knyazov Dveri had some kind of connection to the Cult of the Dragon Below. Significant enough that he could arrange for them to hand over extremely valuable documentation to one of his agents for a mere pittance.
Well, the idea that this whole thing was connected to Ibasan invaders just got a lot more credible with this, though it was not Vazen that had links to them like he originally suspected. Still, the question of why he was after the soul mages around Knyazov Dveri remained. Why bother? What did the Ibasans get by doing that? Some of these people could only loosely be described as soul mages to begin with, and most of them weren’t a serious threat to the Ibasan force… or anyone really.
He sighed. Like always, every answer he found seemed to bring up two more questions in its wake. He placed the papers on a nearby shelf carved into the walls of the cave, opting not to destroy them just yet, and then went back to his room to get some sleep.
* * *
After he had gotten some sleep and had a chance to think about things, he decided to put off the investigation of Sudomir’s activities for some other time. No sense in stirring up the hornet’s nest further when he could just wait for some future restart in which he never stole Vazen’s documents and nobody knew they were even being threatened by someone.
However, as days passed without incident and nobody ever tracked down the documents to his little forest hideout, he began to relax. He didn’t restart the investigation or change any of his plans, but he figured this would be a nice, relaxing restart where nothing of real note happened. He slowly absorbed Alanic’s lessons in personal soul sight, fiddled with his wood golem (version three) in his free time, and made sure to cast the marker detection spell at least once per day (no change; the spell never showed anything except two markers).
And then, two weeks into the restart, he woke up in the middle of the night to see a black-clad figure with an obscured face and a knife in their hand standing over his bed.
Later on, he would wonder what had tipped him off that he was in danger, but in that moment he simply reacted. Without bothering to structure the magic into any real spell, he reached out to the blanket covering him and flung it at the assassin in a crude burst of telekinetic force. The man (probably; the build suggested a man) stumbled back as the blanket collided with him, not really hurt but surprised at the maneuver and disoriented by the sudden blindness.
Zorian scrambled to his feet, barely managing to get upright before the assassin succeeded in throwing the flimsy fabric off of him and lunged towards him. Three knife swipes later and Zorian was sporting a deep gash on his arm and a bleeding scratch on his cheek and knew for a fact that he had no chance against the man in a physical confrontation. He frantically searched the room with his eyes, trying to spot something to help himself with, and admitted to himself that sound-proofing the room may have been a slight mistake. Only slight, though, because even if he could scream for help he doubted anyone would be able to reach him before the assassin was done with him. No, the bigger mistake was that he opted to sleep with his rod of magic missiles and shielding bracelets in his desk drawer instead of taking them with him to sleep.
It was official: after this battle, regardless of outcome, he was going to cast magic missile non-stop whenever he had free time and mana to make it fully reflexive. He couldn’t afford to be this defenseless when deprived of his tools.
“If I die I will blow us both up!” Zorian yelled, and meant it. The suicide necklace, at least, was always with him. Maybe he should put something other than explosives there for situations like this.
The man hesitated for a second at the proclamation, but then moved to attack again. That second was enough, though – suddenly given a moment to concentrate, Zorian blasted the man’s mind with telepathic noise. The assassin flinched, aborting his attack, but he didn’t go down.
Not yet, anyway. When Zorian took advantage of his momentary dizziness to smash a nearby paperweight into his face, though, he went down in a spray of blood and didn’t get up again.
A minute later, after he had calmed down a little (and confirmed that the assassin, while still alive, wasn’t going to get up any time soon) he decided he couldn’t go to the police with this. They were effectively the mayor’s underlings, and Sudomir was likely the one who ordered the man bleeding on the floor of his room to kill him. Or had someone else arrange it for him, more likely, considering his behavior from Vazen’s letters. The fact that the assassin apparently had a key to his room, which was how he had bypassed Zorian’s intruder alarm, didn’t help his paranoia any. Regardless, he only really knew one person he could go to with this.
Already wincing at the lecture he was going to get, Zorian picked up the assassin’s unconscious body and teleported to Alanic’s temple.
* * *
Like Zorian hoped, Alanic readily accepted his explanation that the bleeding man he was carrying was an assassin sent to kill him and agreed to take him off his hands. He even gave Zorian a fast-acting healing potion to deal with the cuts and gashes the man inflicted upon him in their brief life-and-death struggle, and those weren’t exactly cheap.
Unfortunately, he also decided that Zorian was now going to move permanently into the temple with him. According to Alanic, he had been expecting something like this to happen ever since Zorian stopped his and Lukav’s killings earlier in the month and this was all the proof he needed that Zorian wasn’t safe out there. Who’s to say the attackers won’t try again and succeed? No, as far as the warrior priest was concerned, Zorian had to be under constant guard until the situation was resolved.
Zorian really hated that idea, as it meant being effectively under house arrest for the remainder of the restart, but Alanic made it clear there was no way to blow him off without also losing his help in mastering personal soul perception. So that was that.
Despite his misgivings, however, it turned out to be something of a blessing in disguise. Since there was not much to do in a small, boring temple, Zorian found himself spending most of his time endlessly casting magic missile in an effort to make it faster and more reflexive. He did make a promise to himself, after all. In any case, those efforts attracted Alanic’s attention, and he agreed to give Zorian advice on how to improve his combat magic. Admittedly, Alanic couldn’t help him much in his self-imposed goal of making magic missile reflexive – that was just a matter of sufficient repetition. Instead, most of his help centered around squeezing the most out of fire spells, which appeared to be his specialty.
Thus, whenever Zorian got sick of repeatedly casting magic missile, he worked on mastering the plethora of minor fire spells whose mastery Alanic claimed would increase his ability to wield fire in combat. One made a thin ring of fire around the caster, making the prospect of melee difficult for enemies unless they were willing to get burned; Alanic claimed a skilled caster could increase and decrease the radius of the ring from moment to moment, cause it to split into several weaker rings for better coverage, as well as move the center of the ring’s alignment up and down along the caster’s body. The second conjured a small flock of fully autonomous, sparrow-sized birds made out of fire to harass the enemy; that one was supposed to be practice for weaving animation magic into fire spells, as the usefulness of the spell depended entirely on how well animated the birds were. And so on, and on, and on. Alanic knew a lot of minor fire spells.
“Only twenty?” Alanic asked. “Come on, kid, I know you can do better…”
Zorian ignored him, patiently herding the twenty marble-sized fire orbs into gentle orbits around himself. Casting the spell itself was super-easy. Controlling the 20 conjured fire orbs simultaneously was not.
“I don’t want to tire myself out too quickly,” Zorian said, testing his control over the orbs by having a couple of them fly out of formation. He had already given himself a nasty burn the last time he used the spell by accidentally slamming one of the fire orbs into the back of his hand and was not looking forward to a repeat performance. The ability to direct the orbs as you wish was an interesting advantage, but that also meant there was little in the way of safety features inherent in the spell. “I’ll run out of mana too quickly if I start summoning 50 fire orbs all at once.”
“You shouldn’t be casting the spell a lot anyway,” Alanic said. “Sustaining the orbs is by far cheaper than constantly recreating them. The point is to take control of them, and recasting the spell doesn’t help you with that. You’re just letting your fear of getting burnt control you.”
“Well yeah, I don’t want to accidentally burn my eyes off or something,” protested Zorian.
Alanic sighed and shook his head. “You’re too tense for this. Take a break and we’ll continue this tomorrow.”
Zorian immediately dropped the spell in relief. No matter what Alanic said, he did not like that spell. Still, Alanic was the fire magic expert here.
“Can I ask you something?” asked Zorian. Alanic casually waved his hand, telling him to get on with it. “Is it true you can selectively burn targets with your spells? That is, flat out exclude people from being damaged by your fireballs and the like?”
“Ah. I suppose Lukav told you about that,” Alanic mused. Yeah, sure, let’s go with that. “Yes, that is something I can do. More than that, actually. It is nothing you would care to learn, however – it is a difficult skill that requires a lot of specialized training. Years of it. Unless you intend to specialize in fire magic – and you strike me as a generalist mage, to be frank – I would not recommend worrying about it.” He smiled. “Besides, by the time you mastered something like that, the ‘pocket meteors’ spell you are currently struggling with would be a joke to you, so it’s hardly a shortcut to not getting hurt with that.”
“Figures,” Zorian said. “But you know, a simple fire ward would make that spell a lot safer to practice. Why can’t I use it on myself before casting the spell again?”
“Danger sharpens the spirit,” Alanic said airily. “You’ll learn faster and take things more seriously with the threat of horrific burns hanging over your head. But mostly I just wanted to see how long it would take you to remember you can do that.”
“Ugh,” Zorian grunted. “You’re evil.”
There were no further attacks for the rest of the restart, and this particular one ended right on schedule instead of being cut short like the previous one was.
The marker detection spell never displayed a third marker in its detection radius, despite Zorian casting it several times a day towards the end.
* * *
For the next three restarts, Zorian deliberately avoided making any ripples and focused on growing his skills. Not a very exciting time, but by the end of it he was finally able to cast magic missile quickly and easily without any external aid. He had also mastered personal soul sensing well enough that Alanic started teaching him his arsenal of protective soul magic. In addition to that, he learned a plethora of new fire spells, made some improvements to the wooden golem design he was exploring, and practiced the rest of his combat arsenal on the monstrous wildlife living in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, Alanic had been becoming ever more suspicious of Zorian as his skills rose with each restart – no doubt the fact that he recognized quite a few of those skills as his own had a big hand in it – and had almost refused to teach Zorian at all in the latest restart. Zorian had eventually managed to talk the man into helping him by promising to tell him everything after the summer festival, but he suspected that pretty soon even that was not going to fly. By his estimation, he had at most two more restarts before Alanic refused to teach him anything without a damn good explanation, which he would be unable to provide.
But that was fine – by the time that happened, Zorian would no longer be defenseless in the face of hostile soul magic so the first of his goals would be achieved. He never really expected Alanic to teach him everything, anyway.
In the next restart, Zorian decided to lift his self-imposed ban of snooping around Sudomir and his activities. As cautiously as possible, he tried to find out more about the man. Sudomir being a well-known and public person, it wasn’t hard to get people to talk about him… but most of the information he got was either useless or highly suspect. The most interesting piece of information he found was that the man was often absent from Knyazov Dveri on various ‘official errands’, and that those errands had become especially frequent in the last few months. This was in line with Vazen’s letters, which also claimed the man had changed his patterns radically in the last few months.
When simple questioning failed to produce any new results, Zorian decided to be a little bolder and investigate the link between Vazen and the mayor. He didn’t want to deal with Vazen himself, but fortunately there was no need to. Vazen wasn’t a one-man operation like Gurey – he had other employees, and those other employees didn’t have the same paranoia and level of security that Vazen did. They brought stuff home from work to look over later, left their keys cunningly hidden behind nearby flowerpots, and rarely had any sort of magical defenses. One of them even kept a detailed daily journal with all sorts of interesting tidbits and remarks. Probably the most interesting thing he found out from Vazen’s employees was that he regularly sent mysterious packages to a place called ‘Iasku Mansion’ – a place that his employees were pretty sure didn’t actually exist. The place the packages were delivered to didn’t exist on the maps, save as a random section of the uninhabited forest far to the north of the city. Further into the wilderness than Zorian ever got, in any case.
After consulting some maps, Zorian realized that he had no idea how long it would take him to reach the spot in question. Weeks? Months? Damn, those two really picked an out-of-the-way spot for their exchanges, didn’t they? This was going to be such a chore…
He went to Lukav for help. The transformation specialist was noted to be an outdoorsman type, so he should have some advice on reaching out-of-the-way places like that one. Maybe there was some kind of enhancement potion that could help?
“No, I don’t think enhancement potions would be of much help in this,” Lukav told him while staring at the map Zorian provided. “They don’t last long enough, and it would take you at least two weeks to reach the place on foot. Tricky. Maybe it’s just my bias showing, but have you considered simply shapeshifting into a bird and flying there?”
“I haven’t,” said Zorian, surprised. “The idea never occurred to me. How complicated would that be?”
“Not complicated at all, but perhaps a bit pricy,” Lukav admitted. “You would probably need to waste a potion or two to grow accustomed to flying and moving in your new form. Maybe more, depending on how fast of a learner you are. Birds are very different from humans.”
He handed Zorian his price chart, and quickly pointed out the bird section.
“I recommend the eagle, personally,” Lukav said. “Good flier, excellent eyesight, and big enough that few things will dare attack you. Plus, it’s an eagle, what’s not to like? Not like you need to be inconspicuous where you’re going.”
Zorian looked at the price tag attached to the ‘eagle transformation’ potion. It was… doable. He could buy three of those if he had to, though he hated using up most of his savings like that. Even though he knew they would be back at the beginning of his next restart, it just felt wrong to fritter them away. He spent years saving that money, dammit! Besides, what if he needed those savings later in the restart for some reason?
“I guess I could try that,” Zorian said. “Incidentally, do you pay money for some rare animal that can be found deep in the forest?”
“Ha, no. If it can be found in forests around here, I’m more than capable of getting it myself,” Lukav said. “Sorry. Though if you are willing to risk your life in the local dungeon, there are a few things I would be interested in paying good money for…”
* * *
Gliding upward on an updraft of warm air, Zorian surveyed the landscape around him with impossibly sharp eyes. The experience was impossible to describe – everything was full of color and detail, like a veil he didn’t know he labored under had been lifted off his eyes. It reminded him of the time his parents had brought him to the doctor for an eye checkup and he was told he had to wear glasses. His father had been so disappointed about that, but the moment Zorian had donned the little pieces of glass on his face he knew he never wanted to take them off. This was just like that time, only even more extreme. If he tried, he could discern individual leaves on a tree from a mile away. The houses in the distance that would have been nothing but blurry blocks to his human self were instead rendered with perfect clarity, right down to that old tomcat hiding in the shadow of a chimney on that one house.
Being an eagle, Zorian decided, was awesome. Weird, but awesome.
He flapped his wings a couple of times to change directions, wobbling dangerously for a moment. He still wasn’t much of a flier, truth be told, and the less told about his landings the better. Thankfully, big birds like eagles spent most of their time in the air gliding and catching air currents, so he could get by. He fixed his eyes forward, in the direction of where ‘Iasku Mansion’ was supposed to be, and set off into the wilderness.
Flying over trees got boring pretty fast, though, even with ridiculously enhanced eyesight – the leafy canopy of the forest obscured the surface from scrutiny pretty effectively, so there was nothing to see for the most part. He could see snow-capped mountains in the distance – the infamous Winter Mountains that dominated the landscape of central Altazia, which were said to be the source of all ice and snow by some – an icy, merciless heart of winter that woke up once a year to cover the land in frost until it was inevitably beaten back by the forces of summer, winter giving way to spring.
Zorian would like to call that superstition, but for all he knew there could actually be a kernel of truth in that, like an insanely-powerful ice elemental living there or something. There was very little known about the mountains, largely because of how dangerous they were – exploring them was about as safe as trying to map lower reaches of the Dungeon, and not nearly as rewarding.
Finally, Zorian approached his destination. He had been worried he would miss the spot, since he didn’t have a map and everything sort of looked the same to him from his vantage point, but he needn’t have worried. Iasku Mansion was very obvious and easy to spot. It wasn’t, like he suspected, some inconspicuous clearing or standing stone that Vazen and Sudomir used as a drop-off point. It was, in fact, an actual mansion.
Zorian circled around the building a few times, trying to comprehend what he was seeing. The mansion gleamed white in a sea of green, somewhat worn down by the ravages of age and nature but clearly livable and cared for. Aside from the mansion, there was also a small warehouse attached. The warehouse appeared to be of much more recent construction, however – it had no moss on the roof, there were no cracks on the walls that his enhanced eyes could see, and it was far blockier and utilitarian in construction.
Zorian had no idea why somebody would build this thing here. If it was a fort or an observation tower, he could understand… but who would want to build a luxury dwelling this isolated and exposed to the dangers of the north? Sadly, his contemplation was interrupted when the crows that dotted the trees around the mansion took exception to his presence and a hundred angry caws filled the air.
Zorian focused on them momentarily. Though the birds were small and distant, the eyes he currently possessed had no problem in discerning their features. They weren’t crows. They were larger, and their pitch black feathers had small red decorations and an almost metallic sheen to them.
Iron beaks. The hell-birds of the north. Zorian didn’t fancy his chances against one of those in this form, much less against the huge flock stationed around the mansion. Though now that he thought about it, he could probably cast magic missile in this form now, couldn’t he? He might be able to bring down a couple of them before the rest tore him apart, then. That wouldn’t get him anything, though, so he stopped circling around the mansion and put some distance between himself and the iron beaks until they finally stopped making noise and threatening gestures.
He wondered what he had done to upset them so much. He supposed they just didn’t like a large predator circling menacingly around them.
Well no matter. Landing right next to the mansion would have been a poor idea anyway. Very exposed, and probably warded too.
He searched the surrounding area for an open space he could land at without breaking his neck (transfer of injuries between real and shapeshifted forms was weird and inconsistent, but Lukav assured him that being killed in one form means you’re definitely dead in the other as well) and finally found a clearing some distance to the west of the mansion. A little bit farther than he had hoped for, but beggars can’t be choosers.
After a frankly embarrassing landing that saw him face-plant into the grass, Zorian transformed back into human form and spent several minutes memorizing the place so he could use it as an arrival point for future teleports.
That done, he set off towards the mansion, hoping to get a closer look. He already missed the eagle’s awesome eyesight, but some things were better done from the ground and this way he would actually be able to teleport away from danger and make himself invisible. As far as he knew, iron beaks had no magical senses, so an optical cloak should be enough to evade their attention.
He was right – the iron beaks took no notice of him while he inched closer to the mansion, cloaked in an optical cloak and an aura of silence. Before actually scouting the place, however, a pack of winter wolves burst into the scene, led by a particularly huge specimen. Unlike the rest of the pack, the alpha didn’t have a white pelt. His was silver and shiny, and his mind felt different from the rest. Stronger, deeper, more complex. Sapient.
Zorian stood frozen, watching the group with dread. Twenty-two winter wolves led by an unknown super-special sapient variant. Fuck, he just had to push his luck, didn’t he? No way would they be fooled by his spells, considering how sensitive canine noses were…
Except… they kind of were fooled. At one point the Silver One suddenly stopped and started scanning the tree line, and Zorian’s heart skipped when its eyes briefly passed over Zorian’s location, but then the moment was gone and the pack moved on and disappeared somewhere on the other side of the mansion.
A minute later, when he was sure they were gone, Zorian slowly retreated into the surrounding forest and teleported away.
* * *
Zorian decided to leave the Iasku Mansion alone for the moment. He was virtually certain they were connected to the Ibasan invaders now, and definitely intended to get to the bottom of that place at some point. However, he had a feeling that investigating the mansion as he was now would probably involve a lot of dying. Plus, he had a hunch that the mayor was a necromancer, and definitely had one under employ even if he wasn’t, so losing a battle there might have more serious consequences than a premature restart. No, if he wanted to go there he had to finish Alanic’s lessons first and greatly increase his combat skills, at minimum.
Instead, now that his time with Alanic was coming to an end, he had to step up his effort to improve his combat magic so he could go talk to the other aranea tribes and learn the secrets of their mind arts. There were a lot of reasons why that was important, but the one that drove him the most was the possibility of unlocking the matriarch’s memory packet that still remained in his mind.
The memory packet wouldn’t last forever, Zorian knew. It was stable for now, the matriarch having pulled out all the stops to make it as resilient and durable as possible, but it would unravel and fail in time, and all the memories locked within would be gone. If Zorian wanted to fill in the blanks left in the matriarch’s last message and understand what made her reach the decisions she did, he had to gain access to that knowledge.
He had no delusions it was going to be easy. For one thing the other aranean tribes were in no way guaranteed to be friendly, and even if they were, there was no reason for them to actually teach a random human their secrets. And even if he could secure their cooperation, the memories of something as alien as the aranea were bound to be a chore to interpret. And even if he could master that, he still only had one shot at unravelling the memory packet without ruining the content or triggering whatever defenses the matriarch installed to prevent him from doing just that.
But that was a matter for the future – right now he didn’t feel very confident walking into a possibly unfriendly aranean hive. Since he didn’t feel like testing his mind magic against the masters of the craft, his current plan for dealing with hostile or treacherous aranea basically boiled down to quick-casting ‘mind shield’ and burning everything in sight via more conventional magic. Better combat skills were a must for that plan to work, though.
As it happened, he had something that should advance his combat skills, as well as make up for the money he lost to Lukav when he bought those two ‘eagle transformation’ potions – dungeon delving! He had basically ignored the dungeon entrance at Knyazov Dveri due to being sidetracked by the disappearance of local soul mages and Alanic’s lessons, but there was no reason to continue to do so anymore. Most of the wildlife around Knyazov Dveri had ceased to be a challenge at this point, anyway.
Thus, two days after his hasty retreat from the Iasku Mansion, Zorian walked over to the official entrance to the dungeons beneath Knyazov Dveri and requested a permit to descend into its depths. It didn’t cost any money, thankfully, and it was really nothing more than a formality to make sure you understood what you were getting into.
“Just remember, this part of the dungeon has never been pacified properly,” the man behind the counter told him, handing him a permit card that he had to show to the guards to be let through. “It means there are greater riches to be found down there, but also that things are much more dangerous. People disappear down there all the time. Nobody is going to look for you unless you join one of the local delver guilds. Which I personally recommend to young mages such as you.”
Zorian gave the man a non-committal hum and left, descending below on a long spiral staircase until he reached a small natural cavern that housed a small town. The inhabitants of the city above called it Delver Village, though officially it was just an extension of Knyazov Dveri. Not many people actually lived here – the buildings consisted mostly of guildhouses and businesses catering to dungeon delvers.
He had no intention of joining any of the guilds. Last time he checked they didn’t let new members like him out in the field for at least several months after they joined, which made them pretty much useless to someone in his situation. He did understand the logic of it – you didn’t want your new, inexperienced members to get horribly murdered out in the tunnels, and very few mages were particularly capable at his age – but that didn’t make them any less useless to him. He also didn’t have any money to buy anything from the shops, so he didn’t remain in the settlement for long. The people there were jerks anyway, asking for money just to answer basic questions or demanding that he join their guild before they would divulge any ‘secrets’. Thank the gods he could just read the answers out of their mind anyway.
* * *
Zorian stared at the patch of glowing mushrooms at the corner of a largish cave he encountered in his wanderings through the cave system under Knyazov Dveri. It appeared to be a normal patch of giant glowing mushrooms, little different from the ones he encountered elsewhere around here, but he knew better. He wasn’t fooled. His mind sense clearly told him there was an animal mind behind that mushroom… no wait, the mushroom itself had a mind? An illusion? Or some weird intelligent mushroom?
Deciding that it didn’t matter, Zorian leveled the combat staff he’d made for himself and fired an incineration ray at the ‘mushroom’. If he had learned anything in the two weeks he had spent down here, it was that absolutely everything wanted to kill and eat him – and not necessarily in that order. The rock mites, for instance, wanted to paralyze you and lay their eggs into your still-living body so their larvae could eat you alive from the inside out. Anyway, the point was that striking first was common sense with these things, and he had no intention of getting closer to the mushroom impersonator.
Sure enough, the moment it was hit by the ray of fire, the ‘mushroom’ immediately unraveled into a large tentacled form of the tunnel octopus. Figures. The ability of those things to mimic both the color and texture of their surroundings was as impressive as it was annoying to deal with. This one was out of luck, though. Caught off guard by the devastating fire attack, it flailed its tentacles about briefly in panic before collapsing dead on the floor of the cave.
Zorian threw a rock at it to make sure it was not faking it, and then relaxed. He would have probably died to one of those by now if he didn’t have his mind sense – it was, without a doubt, his main advantage compared to the other dungeon delvers. Thanks to it, he was able to evade the javelin worm ambush sites, tunnel octopuses and other hidden dangers to reach the richer, less exploited lower areas like this one. No wonder Taiven had been so excited about having someone with that ability in her team, back when she had first found out about it.
He instructed the floating spheres of light around him to scatter around the cavern and slowly inspected the walls for any sign of crystal and strange minerals. In general, crystalized mana seemed to be a much better money-maker than hunting creatures for parts, at least if you could access virgin areas like this one. Crystallized mana also had the benefit of being, well, static. If he found some in a particular place on this restart, it stood to reason that it should also be there for every subsequent one as well. That meant that, if he could map out where they were over several restarts, he should be able to blitz through a bunch of known sites in just a few hours and get an enormous cash infusion at the beginning of every new restart. Especially if he learned how to filter through Dungeon interference and became able to teleport while inside it.
Sadly, his inspection found nothing in this cavern. Looking at the charred tunnel octopus corpse, Zorian considered the possibility of just harvesting its brain and beak (the most valuable parts of it by far) and returning to the surface. He had already found two large lumps of crystalized mana and several small ones, so this trip was already a smashing success, and continuing further would mean going deeper into the dungeon, with all the danger that implied.
He continued on – not like he was ever really in danger thus far so even if the danger jumped up a notch he should… be…
Zorian rounded a corner and came face-to-face, so to speak, with some kind of floating pink ooze covered with eyes. It glowed, threads of light dancing throughout its smoky, translucent bulk, and its form writhed and shifted chaotically, ripples and pseudopods growing and retracting from moment to moment. For a moment it appeared to have not noticed him, its countless eyes – each its own color and shade – blinking and swiveling in their sockets with no rhyme or reason. But that moment passed quickly and its many eyes turned towards him, some of them extending on pseudopods so the creature could focus them on Zorian properly…
Zorian’s eyes abruptly shot open as a sharp pain erupted from his stomach. His whole body convulsed, buckling against the object that fell on him, and suddenly he was wide awake, not a trace of drowsiness in his mind.
“Good morning, brother!” an annoyingly cheerful voice sounded right on top of him. “Morning, morning, MORNING!!!”
Zorian looked at his grinning little sister incredulously. What? But he was just-
“Oh come on!” Zorian groaned, burying his face in his hands. “That’s it!? It just looked at me and I died? What kind of absurd ability is that!?”
“Umm…” Kirielle said.
“Forget I said anything,” Zorian said, giving Kirielle a brief hug before rising to his feet. Kirielle refused to let go, clinging to him like a barnacle, so he just carried her around as he walked to his bookshelf and retrieved his Compendium of Dungeon Denizens, volume four, and began leafing through it. “I was just having a dream, that’s all.”
“What kind of dream?” Kirielle asked curiously.
“I was going to be rich, and then I got killed by an… eyebeast?” Zorian said, as he looked at the description in the book. Even the name was stupid. Ugh.
“Oh,” Kirielle said. “A nice dream that ends in a nightmare. I hate those.“
“Me too, Kirielle. Me too,” Zorian said, snapping the book shut and placing it back on the shelf. The description in the book told him nothing useful about the damn thing. ‘Beware its deadly eyes’ indeed.
He thought about casting the marker detection spell again, but what would be the point? It never detected more than two markers in existence. Or less for that matter. At this point it was obvious that this was all it was ever going to show. Whatever way Red Robe used to get into the time loop obviously wasn’t identical to the one used by Zach and Zorian.
As for Zach, his movements indicated that he always opened the time loop by hightailing out of Cyoria. The direction was not consistent, though, and he seemed to wander around randomly around Eldemar during each time loop. He wondered what that was about. Clearly the boy was avoiding Cyoria, just like Zorian was, but beyond that he could not figure out what Zach’s goal was – Zorian had tried placing the locations Zach visited on a map and found no pattern he could see in it.
Whatever. Zach will be Zach. He had his own, more pressing problems to worry about at the moment.
“Right. Kiri, could you perhaps let go of me now?”