Perhaps it was because she ‘knew’ that Zorian already had a date, much like everyone else seemed to believe, or perhaps it was simply a matter of Zorian being more circumspect with his intentions this time around, but Ilsa didn’t send any girl after him in the end. Not that Zorian had stayed at Imaya’s place long enough to see that in person, of course – that could have easily left him stuck with an unplanned date for the evening again – but he had left a scrying beacon in the house so he could check up on it periodically.
A part of him was annoyed he even cared about that. In the grand scheme of things, such petty drama did not matter in the slightest… there wasn’t enough time left in the restart for the consequences of ignoring it to really catch up to him. And besides, he could hardly be blamed for not showing up on a date he had never arranged to begin with! But, well, he was curious… and it wasn’t like checking up on the house from time to time was some huge commitment on his part.
No, most of his time was spent on hovering on the edges of the invasion proper, trying to spot breakaway groups small enough to ambush. Well, that and repeatedly telling himself that he didn’t have to interfere every time he saw the invaders kill helpless civilians, since they were going to be just fine when the loop restarted. The first thing was complicated by the variety of monsters that accompanied the mages, who all had very good senses and came in great numbers. The second was complicated by the sheer brutality the invaders displayed to everyone in their path. For heaven’s sake, some of them were breaking into random houses and murdering entire families inside! Not even looting anything, just committing mindless slaughter of non-combatants for no real reason. Madness.
He knew stuff like that happened during the invasion, of course, but it was never this… personal for him. He was there this time, witnessing the behavior in detail and cold-bloodedly deciding where to engage the invaders and where to move on. And he wasn’t talking about avoiding groups that were straight-up too big for him to handle – those were easy to ignore, since he had never felt compelled to help others if doing so would cost him his own life in return. No, he was talking about groups that were entirely manageable with his current skills… except that he couldn’t figure out a way to deal with them without killing everything. And what would be the point of that? He needed Ibasan mages alive so he could read their minds – that was what this was all about. An ambush that did not result in subdued mages to interrogate was a waste of time and mana, as well as liable to summon Quatach-Ichl to dispatch him. The ancient lich always personally intervened when someone got too successful against the invading forces.
And that was without even considering the possibility that Red Robe was secretly lurking somewhere out there in the city, waiting for a big enough disturbance to clue him in that a time traveler was back in Cyoria. He didn’t think that option was very likely, what with Red Robe completely abandoning his support of the invasion lately, but it was not an option he felt completely safe discounting. No, sticking to his original plan and avoiding unnecessary engagements was definitely the right choice to make.
Maybe it was a good thing his mind kept going back to the stupid date drama – if nothing else, it gave him something to distract himself with.
Fortunately for his deteriorating mood, he soon found a duo of Ibasan mages that had strayed too far from their main group and were only lightly defended. Well, relatively speaking. They had two war trolls and twelve skeletons as bodyguards, with another six war trolls vandalizing shopfronts not too far from where they were standing, but he was confident he could deal with that if he could surprise them.
He made his way towards the group, mentally nudging the iron beak whose senses he was tapping into to fly closer to his targets so he could examine them more closely. There was something deliciously ironic about using the invaders’ own scouts against them like that, but the real reason he was using the iron beaks instead of simply scrying on the invaders was that iron beaks had much better vision than he did and could also see in the dark. Very useful, that. He had also tried to employ the same trick on the war trolls that hung around the invaders, but found their senses very hard to process. Trolls had terrible eyesight, and were color blind to boot – their main sense was their ridiculously good sense of smell and, to a lesser extent, their hearing. Not to mention they were far less mobile than the iron beaks, and the Ibasans kept a much tighter leash on the brutes than they did on their iron beak flocks. Hmm… he wondered…
Acting on a hunch, Zorian focused on the nearest iron beak flock and tried to dominate the one flying on the tail’s end of the flock. It was surprisingly willful for an animal, but his attempt was not contested by anyone and the iron beak soon broke off from its group and made its way towards Zorian. Huh, that worked. Nobody seemed to be reacting to his actions, either. Convenient. Apparently the iron beaks were a bigger weak link of the invasion than he’d thought!
He removed a potion vial from his pocket and handed it to the dominated iron beak that had landed next to him. It took some time, but eventually he managed to telepathically convey to the magical corvid that it shouldn’t clutch the vial too tightly in its claws unless it wanted bad things to happen to it. That done, he directed it to dive bomb the Ibasan duo with the vial.
He would not have been surprised at all if his ploy had ended up as a failure. A lot of it depended on the iron beak executing everything flawlessly, since Zorian was only dominating the iron beak, not puppeteering it – a dominated creature executes orders to the best of its own ability, not the controller’s. That was nice, in the sense that there was no way Zorian could have puppeteered the bird precisely enough to pull off something this complicated. It did mean he was a bit of a helpless observer as a result, though. Oh well, even if the ploy failed it should at least act as a proper distraction for his own attack…
The iron beak exceeded his expectations. Not only did it approach the two mages from behind, entirely on its own initiative, it dropped the vial at the exact spot Zorian told it to aim at. The exact spot. That had got to be some innate magic ability at work – they were uncannily accurate with their feather attack too, come to think of it. In any case, once the vial hit the ground it exploded into a cloud of yellow gas that knocked out the two Ibasans in a matter of moments. Their bodyguards weren’t affected – the war trolls because their magically-enhanced metabolisms kept the knockout gas from working, and the skeletons because they had no metabolism to affect – but once their controllers went unconscious, it became ridiculously easy to goad the war trolls into attacking the skeletons. It took less than a minute before every skeleton was reduced into dust and splinters.
He directed his iron beak to make a few passes at the two trolls, and the bird interpreted that as ‘send a couple of feather volleys straight at their eyes (ouch), after which the two former bodyguards ran off to chase the bird in blind anger, leaving Zorian free to approach the two knocked-out mages unopposed.
This was the fifth group he ambushed tonight, and the first one where everything had gone so smoothly. He didn’t even have to personally fight in the end! He really should use iron beaks more extensively in the future.
After dragging the two unconscious bodies to some less exposed place, he took a deep breath and dived into their memories.
Memory reading, more than any other branch of mind magic, deeply resembled divination in the way it functioned. You had to decide what you wanted to look for, and if you were asking the wrong question, your answer would be worthless or misleading. In Zorian’s case, there were four main things he looked for whenever he read the minds of Ibasan mages: whether they knew about any mage in a garish red robe, where the primordial ‘summoning’ ritual was supposed to take place, what they knew about the goals of the invasion and, last but certainly not least, whether they knew anything about the time loop or time travel in general. The same thing he probed the minds of cultists about, really. He was lucky this time, in that one of the two mages lying before him was a higher ranking mage that should hopefully know more than the common grunts he had been dealing with thus far.
None of the Ibasans knew anything about a mage wearing red robes, and the two men he currently had at his mercy were no exception. Follow up questions regarding missing members which had left the group around the start of the time loop revealed that despite their inability to maintain discipline during the actual invasion, the Ibasans ran a pretty tight ship during the lead-up to it. Anyone who stepped out of line was severely punished by the Ibasan leadership, and the handful of cases where someone tried to abandon the invasion resulted in Quatach-Ichl hunting them down like dogs as an example to everyone else. Consequently, all such attempts had stopped long before the time loop had begun.
As far as Zorian was concerned, that pretty much killed the possibility of Red Robe being an Ibasan invader. He had suspected as much, considering how Quatach-Ichl treated Red Robe during that evening, but it was nice to have more confirmation. It was still possible he was connected to the Cult of Dragon Below, which didn’t (and couldn’t) exercise anywhere near the same control over its members.
As far as the location where the primordial ritual was concerned, none of the Ibasans officially knew anything about it… but it was apparently a sort of public secret among group commanders (such as the one whose mind Zorian was currently reading) that the ‘summoning’ was supposed to take place on top of the Hole, or at least as close to it as humanly possible.
Zorian felt pretty stupid when he found that out. Of course. Of course it was the Hole, the city’s biggest and most obvious landmark. He had even known that the Cult assigned special significance to the damn place, he just never… damn it. He shook his head. In his defense, the lower-ranking cultists were convinced that the ritual was going to take place in some super-secret place that nobody knows about.
As for the goals of the invasion, that was something Zorian found very easy to extract from the minds of his victims, as they knew very few actual facts about that. Only the very top of the Ibasan leadership seemed to know what they were really trying to accomplish here, and the common grunts were going along with the whole thing almost entirely because Quatach-Ichl was going along with it too. The ancient lich was held in very high regard by the Ibasans. As a thousand-year old lich, he was an almost impossibly ancient mage, and had power and skill to match his age. He was alive back when the gods still spoke to humanity, and was rumored to have been blessed by several of them. On top of all that, he had a reputation for being harsh but fair, as opposed to a lot of other Ibasan leaders who simply had a reputation for being harsh. He was something of a saint to these people, as strange as that looked to Zorian. The mindset was that if Quatach-Ichl said this was possible and worthwhile to pull off, then it was. It was just that simple.
Also, there was a general feeling among the Ibasans that Altazians were all a bunch of degenerate weaklings that would surely fall like wheat before the mighty men and women of Ulquaan Ibasa. Then again, that particular brand of rhetoric was common in Eldemar too, so he didn’t think it all that notable in the grand scheme of things.
As for time travel, his current victim knew nothing of it, just like everyone else he- wait! There was something. It wasn’t about the time loop, or time travel, but apparently Eldemar had a secret research facility deep, deep within the Dungeon, dedicated to researching time magic. Time dilation, to be more precise. The facility was heavily defended, with insanely good security measures – as they had to be, considering the sheer depth the facility was located at – so the invaders had decided to leave it alone. Some of the Ibasan leaders, notably Quatach-Ichl, were known to be unhappy about that. They felt something important had to be there, if Eldemar was willing to maintain a research facility in such a dangerous environment, and wanted to have it. Unfortunately for them, the rest of the leadership felt the number of troops and effort required to crack their defenses could not be justified with such speculative gains.
That was… interesting. Although the Ibasan mage he was memory-reading did not know the exact location of the facility, Zorian was pretty sure he did. The map left to him by the matriarch had a number of locations marked on it, two of which he had never been able to reach to check out. One was surrounded by Ibasan forward bases and patrolled too heavily for him to ever approach it successfully – Zorian presumed this was their main base. The other was ridiculously deep, and he never even tried reaching it – he did not think he could survive a journey into such depths. Frankly, he was kind of amazed the aranea managed to map the Dungeon that deep, considering even powerful mages would think twice about descending to that depth.
He had no proof, but he strongly suspected this was the time magic research facility discovered by the Ibasans. And considering the matriarch had marked it down as important, it almost certainly had some relevance to his situation.
He dived deeper into the man’s mind, looking for more information. He felt his victim’s mind quake under the severity of the probe but persisted anyway – any compunction about hurting these people had evaporated after watching them rampage around the city for several hours.
The path outlined by the matriarch wasn’t the only one, apparently, or even the main one. The government did not supply the facility through a perilous journey down the winding tunnels of the Dungeon proper – they did it by descending down through the Hole until they reached the desired depth, where they had drilled an artificial tunnel into the wall in order to connect the facility with the outside world. Of course, while that path avoided most of the dangers associated with such extreme depths, it was still insanely dangerous for anyone without authorization to be there, so that did not help him much. Maybe if he-
Oops. He pushed it too hard – overwhelmed by his (still rather crude and unsophisticated) memory probe, the man’s mind collapsed into a chaotic, undecipherable mess. He would be getting nothing more out of him. Damn it.
He fired two piercers at the unconscious mages, killing them both, and turned to leave, only to find an iron beak watching him closely from a nearby window sill. It was non-hostile, simply scrutinizing him. Zorian checked the feel of its mind, and found that it was indeed the very same iron beak he had dominated earlier, just like he suspected. His influence over it had dissolved a while ago, though, so that couldn’t be the reason why it was so docile towards him. Huh.
If nothing else, he’d expected it to resent him for overriding its will. He sensed no animosity from the bird, however – just satisfaction and schadenfreude at seeing the Ibasan mages dead. Either the iron beaks didn’t like the Ibasans much, or this particular iron beak was not a fan.
“So,” Zorian said. “How do you feel about helping me kill more of these?”
The iron beak cocked its head to the side, uncomprehending. Right, still only an animal, if a very clever and willful one. He sent the bird a telepathic impression of two of them killing more invaders.
The iron beak answered with a shrill screech and a burst of bloodlust so strong Zorian found himself taking a step back from the animal.
Hate. Grudge. Kill.
“Right,” he mumbled to himself. “I’ll take that as agreement.”
He didn’t bother to dominate the bird this time – he just instructed it to find another small group of invaders and started looking for more iron beaks to possibly subvert.
* * *
Zorian subdued two more groups after that, neither of which had anything new to teach him, before Quatach-Ichl suddenly teleported in front of him and blasted him in the face with one of those jagged red disintegration beams he loved so much. He died instantly, unable to raise any defenses in time.
Oh well, the night had been coming to a close anyway. At least he’d managed to experiment a little with the iron beaks flying around. Sadly, he had discovered that only a tiny minority of them were receptive to his control, and contacting the wrong ones invariably caused the entire flock to descend upon him like a murderous mob. The previously subverted birds also immediately switched sides back to their brethren when this happened, which he really should have expected but somehow was still taken entirely off-guard the first time it happened. In any case, the iron beaks definitely hated the invaders for some reason, but turning them against their masters was very difficult. Something kept them loyal, and the few mages whose minds he had questioned for an answer didn’t know what it was – they thought of iron beaks as dumb animals and paid no heed to their thoughts and motives.
He began the restart in the same general way he had started the last two - by scouting the state of the invasion, getting his mana crystals, helping Taiven clean up the Dungeon of monsters, and so on. Except, of course, that he was far more effective at all of those this time around. He also stole a better library card for himself immediately and recreated Kosjenka for Kirielle, among other minor additions.
The newest restart, much like the two that preceded it, showed no sign of future knowledge by the invaders. This was the third consecutive restart where Red Robe unceremoniously ditched them, and Zorian was starting to suspect this was now a normal situation rather than just a momentary whim. Most likely, Red Robe had completely lost interest in the invasion after their confrontation.
The question was - why? Why do that after he had spent all those restarts stubbornly handing out knowledge to them?
Well, perhaps a better question would be, why had he been doing that in the first place? What did helping the invaders do for him? Was it just a way to keep Zach focused on some highly visible, but ultimately irrelevant quest so he wouldn’t question things? Or perhaps a way to muddy the waters, so to speak, and hide the aftershocks of his own actions by regularly inducing a big splash at the start of every restart? Maybe. But the sheer amount of information he provided to the invaders made him think there was more to it than that. It was incredibly optimized to do as much damage to the city as possible – Red Robe must have sunk an enormous amount of time and effort to produce something like that. The outcome of the invasion mattered to him in some personal way. So why stop? What changed?
Zorian tried to think of it with a properly paranoid mindset. Red Robe thought that the aranea had brought an unknown, but large number of people into the time loop. These people were organized and also crafty enough to evade his notice for years. Not something that would be easy to hunt down and purge. Zorian had also displayed mind magic in their battle, so the one encounter Red Robe had had with these people involved one of the few types of magic that could permanently deal with him. All of this meant that the time loop got infinitely more dangerous for Red Robe all of a sudden. There was a legion of enemies plotting against him and lurking around every corner.
If Zorian was in Red Robe’s place, would he immediately begin to plot against this group, laying down traps and ambushes and trying to track them down? No, definitely not. He would get away as soon as possible, not just out of Cyoria but out of the entire wider region around the city. If he began the restart somewhere in the city, he would get the hell away at the start of the restart, much like Zach seemed to be doing. He wasn’t sure how long he would stay away, but Zach had yet to stop leaving the city at the start of every restart, and he was the reckless one out of the three of them.
Maybe it wasn’t so strange that Red Robe was staying away from the city at the moment. In hindsight, that bit of misdirection by Spear of Resolve had been far shrewder than Zorian had given her credit for at the time. But how long would it be before Red Robe realized that the legions of enemy time travelers simply didn’t exist.
There was another option. If Red Robe was helping the invasion in an attempt to optimize it, so that it could be as effective as possible once the time loop ends, and if the aranea were only ejected from the time loop instead of soulkilled, as Red Robe claimed… then any further optimization attempts would be a total waste of time. Once the time loop ended, the aranea would be alive and well again, and any plan developed in their absence would give worse results than the one Red Robe had previously developed. Admittedly, Zorian mostly liked this option because it meant that the aranea were recoverable, but it would also explain a lot of things. Such as Red Robe’s reluctance to use his soulkill spell more liberally. If ‘soulkilled’ persons were only gone for the duration of the time loop, that would neatly explain why he didn’t use it on non-loopers – that would be entirely counterproductive, since he would still have to deal with them eventually, except that he wouldn’t have the option to try out different tactics against them in the time loop, and couldn’t find out what worked best.
Zorian could only hope that investigating the invaders would bring some answers to his questions. Though if everything else failed, he supposed he could always behave like Zach and simply launch an endless stream of suicidal missions aimed at breaking into the time magic research facility, since that was clearly relevant to the time loop somehow. He was bound to succeed eventually, right? If Zach was able to kill Oganj with that method then surely he could break into one measly facility.
Hmm, maybe he was thinking about this wrong – he should outright recruit Zach into the attempt. He was still a bit leery of contacting the other boy, both because that would mean revealing himself to Red Robe if he was monitoring Zach and because he was not at all sure Zach would be of any actual help to him at this point, but if he was reduced to metaphorically banging his head on the wall then he might as well involve someone who has spent gods know how many years in the time loop honing the skill at doing exactly that.
Something to keep in mind when the time comes, anyway.
* * *
With the start of classes, Zorian decided to approach Raynie again while skipping on the mind magic training with Tinami. He still hoped to get to know the Aope heir better, but it was clear that trying to get close to both Raynie and Tinami at the same time was unfeasible, and Raynie seemed the easier one to handle. He did not recreate his initial request as closely as he had intended, but Raynie agreed to set up a meeting between them nonetheless.
Benisek had a spontaneous attack of clumsiness when he had tried to loudly congratulate Zorian and ended up sprawling on the floor of the classroom after tripping over his own two feet. It was a funny and mysterious thing, and Zorian hadn’t had absolutely anything to do with it, but it sure was nice that he’d only made a scene out of himself instead of himself and Zorian, wasn’t it?
Still, while he had high hopes that his attempt to get to know Raynie better would go better this time around, the fact was that interacting with her involved a lot of waiting time – he might as well try to get to know another one of his classmates in the meantime. And since female classmates had a high chance of producing the same kind of problems that Tinami had in the previous restart (because that was just how his luck worked, damn it), that someone should probably be a guy. Hmm, which one of his fellow male students looked interesting… oh! Edwin was really interested in golems, wasn’t he? He had both of his parents in the golem-making business and couldn’t shut up about them the last time Zorian had asked a mildly-topical question about the subject. Well… he might as well show Edwin his own golem designs and ask him what he thought. It would be interesting to see how his designs compared to ones made by someone hyper-focused on the field.
He waited until classes were over and then walked over to where Edwin and Naim were talking. Like always when he saw them together, he found it interesting how different the two of them were, both physically and in terms of personality. Edwin was a short boy, with pitch black hair and slightly darker skin tone that hinted his ancestors were relatively recent arrivals from the south, or perhaps even from Miasina. Naim was a relatively unassuming brown-haired boy of average height, distinguished only by the fact he was rather athletic and fit for your average student. Edwin was talkative and expressive, getting excited easily and often gesticulating heavily when he spoke. Naim was calm and restrained, like some sort of serene monk who had achieved enlightenment and could thus no longer be fazed by anything anymore. They were like the sun and the moon, yet somehow they’d ended up as inseparable.
He had to admit, he felt just a little bit intimidated by the prospect of approaching them. He was worried they would be suspicious of him, suddenly approaching them out of the blue like that. Zorian’s previous relationship with the two was polite, but very, very distant. They had hardly known each other. Then again, that was an accurate description of his relationship with most of his classmates bar Benisek.
But he need not have worried. Edwin was naturally a friendly sort, and only got friendlier when he found out why Zorian was talking to him. And while he did sense some exasperation from Naim, that was solely because of the topic of the conversation rather than Zorian’s presence as such. He was not as crazy about the topic as Edwin.
“That’s a nice stabilizer for the kind of small doll this is intended for,” Edwin said, tracing the relevant glyph sequences with his finger. “I don’t think it would work for something larger and heavier, like a proper, man-sized golem made out of solid steel, but it’s downright inspired for this. I’ll have to remember this. I don’t understand why you put these in, though,” he said, jabbing his finger at the trio of compressed nodes he used to fine-tune the design. “They’re inelegant and just plain unnecessary. The design works perfectly without them, and they don’t seem to do anything except randomly tweak things with no rhyme or reason.”
“Actually, the design doesn’t work without those,” Zorian said. “All of the prototypes were breaking down on me until I got sick of trying to make it work like it was supposed to and just forcibly tweaked things in the manner you’re looking at. It works fine now, but it makes altering the design a real pain. I’m hoping you can help me find the underlying issue that’s tripping me up.”
Edwin gave him an incredulous look. “Wait… so this is, like, an actual design. Not just theory work? You’ve built one of these?”
“Well, yeah,” Zorian said. “What would be the point, otherwise?”
“But isn’t that super expensive?” Edwin asked curiously.
“No, it’s just moderately expensive,” said Zorian. Though in all honesty, his sense of what was expensive and what wasn’t had probably gotten utterly skewed while he was in the time loop. “But I’m funding it out of my own pocket and no one can really stop me from spending my money on whatever I find appropriate.”
“Oh no, I’m not criticizing you,” Edwin grinned. “Hell, I wish I could do the same! You sure you don’t need an assistant or anything?”
“It’s… a possibility,” Zorian said hesitantly. He could see that Edwin was very serious about his suggestion, and it surprised him. He had thought he would have to make an effort to get him to cooperate on specific projects, and here he was proposing partnership. “How much time can you dedicate to this?”
Naim gave a short, amused laugh. He was largely content to quietly sit on the sidelines thus far, but apparently he couldn’t resist reacting to this.
“That sort of thing is all he does in his free time,” Naim said with a light smile. “The real question is just how long your patience will last before you tell him to knock it off already and go home.”
“Oh shut up, you,” Edwin complained. “Like you are any better, mister training. You have your martial arts, and I have my golems.”
“I have a lot on my plate lately, so I’m not exactly sure how much time I can dedicate to this. But I think I can spare a couple of hours every two or three days if you’re up for it.”
“I’m up for it,” said Edwin. “For a chance to see how my designs work in practice, I’d even be willing to wake up before noon during the weekend. What’s keeping you so busy anyway? The classes are only starting.”
“Ah, well, I do a lot of independent studies,” said Zorian. “The golem experiments you already know about, but I also do a lot of studying into spell formula in general, as well as alchemy, general purpose utility magic and so on. I do advanced shaping exercises and practice combat magic whenever I find the time.”
“Sounds a bit unfocused,” Edwin said. “Impressive that you manage to fit all of that into your schedule, though.”
“Yes, and you still found time to join in the monster hunts,” Naim noticed.
“I think of that as combat magic practice,” Zorian said.
Naim gave Edwin an amused look. Edwin scowled back at him.
“What?” Zorian asked.
“When I told Edwin I wanted to join a hunter group to practice my combat skills in real situations, he called me an idiot. He said no one else would be dumb enough to risk their lives for training,” Naim said, patting Zorian on the shoulder like an old pal. “Well, it seems there are two of us. Welcome to the idiot club, Zorian.”
“Right,” Zorian mumbled. “But wait, what other reason would a student like us have to join a monster hunter group?”
Naim shrugged. “Money. Fame. Duty.
Oh right, some people get paid to do that stuff. And aren’t stuck in a time loop that made stuff like fame and duty utterly unattainable.
Before he could actually say anything, another one of their classmates suddenly decided to enter the conversation.
“Forgive me for butting in like this,” said Estin Grier, suddenly speaking up from behind Zorian. “But I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. Do you mind if I comment a bit?”
There was a brief pause, as the three of them stared at the newcomer. In the end, it was Edwin that broke the awkward pause.
“We’re just talking, man,” Edwin huffed. “It’s not a private club or anything. Go ahead and say whatever you want to say.”
Zorian glanced at Estin, studying him for a bit. The boy was one of the students he once suspected might be Red Robe – well, just ‘the third time traveler’ back then, since he hadn’t met the guy yet – since his family emigrated to Eldemar from Ulquaan Ibasa. If he was being truthful to himself, the boy’s appearance had contributed to those suspicions – Estin was a tall, severe-looking fellow, with sharp facial features, dour expression, thick eyebrows, black hair and eyes of such dark brown they looked almost black too. Him being very withdrawn and rarely speaking unless prompted by someone or something did nothing to dispel the rather sinister impression he got from the boy.
But as far as Zorian was able to piece out, Estin was really just a normal, albeit extremely intimidating student. He had no links to the invaders and didn’t really behave like someone aware of the time loop.
“Very well,” Estin nodded seriously. “I was going to note that while most of the students didn’t join the monster hunts solely in order to test and hone ourselves in the crucible of battle, they surely considered that an additional point in favor of participating. One can have multiple goals for deciding something.”
“So… you also like combat magic practice?” Naim surmised.
“Yes,” Estin agreed. “That is one way to interpret that. And with that, we can see that there are three of us who wish to test our combat skills and grow. Perhaps we could help each other. Have a meeting so we can trade news and personal styles, spar, and other such things.”
For someone who stayed quiet most of the time, Estin sure was very verbose once he got going. Still, he was all for Estin’s idea, since he’d been curious about their level of combat skills ever since he’d heard they participated in monster hunts. Naim was also interested, so after discussing it for a while, the three of them decided to ask Ilsa to let them borrow a training hall sometimes in the future. One with actual ground, because apparently Estin’s magic ‘didn’t work well with indoor environments’, whatever that meant.
Estin also asked about Edwin joining them, but he wasn’t interested. Edwin didn’t like to fight, and had no interest in honing his combat skills. Zorian assured the golem enthusiast that he still intended to work with him on their golem designs.
He just had to figure out a way to fit these two new obligations into his already overloaded schedule.
* * *
Finding a training hall suited to their needs turned out to have been largely a non-issue – the academy had lots of training halls, and most of them were free to use by any student. Not all of them were billed as combat magic training grounds, but they all had basic safety wards in place and could be unofficially used as such. According to Ilsa, such ‘misuse’ of academy resources had been rampant for quite some time already, and was accepted as normal even by the teachers these days. As such, she recommended they just commandeer whatever place they needed for a few hours instead of waiting a week for the academy to give them an official time slot that may or may not suit them, at a training hall that may or may not be what they needed. They just had to make sure they weren’t interrupting a sanctioned study group or some such.
Armed with that knowledge, they toured some of the available options until they found a training hall that was really just a walled-off and warded section of academy grounds, and thus had plenty of soil and rocks that Estin apparently needed to really show off.
Estin, as it turned out, was one of those people with an innate magical ability. Specifically, he could manipulate earth, rocks and similar materials in an unstructured manner, much like how Zorian could work his mind magic. Estin was rather cagey about the specifics of how his ability worked, since it was apparently his family bloodline and they were trying to keep it semi-secret, but it apparently wasn’t immediately usable in its untrained form and Estin’s current abilities were a result of considerable talent and a lot of work. In the handful of mock-fights they did to familiarize themselves with each other’s skills, Estin used the ability exclusively to levitate large clumps of earth and rocks around himself, interposing them between himself and incoming spells with unerring accuracy. Well, if he could see the attack coming anyway – he didn’t fare so well when Zorian made his magic missile loop back and come at him from behind his back. It also took some time for him to form a sphere, and he didn’t seem capable of controlling more than four at any particular time, because when Zorian launched an eight-missile swarm at him he simply surrendered and asked him to tone it down in the future.
Still, it was a pretty useful trick he had there. Blocking with the spheres didn’t seem to take any attention from Estin, allowing him to focus purely on peppering his opponent with offensive spells while his spheres defended him. If he had something more dangerous than magic missile in his arsenal, or if he could actually weave a homing function into those magic missiles, he might have actually posed a problem for Zorian.
Well, a problem for him so long as he held back so very badly. He decided in advance that the only spells he was going to display was his mastery of magic missile and basic shield spells, and that appeared to have been a good choice because he was beating both of them pretty decisively even with that. Especially Naim. As a first generation mage with no special magic or familial history to draw on, he was limited to the same ‘magic missile and shield’ combination that Zorian claimed to be limited to, but without the years in the time loop to hone his skills at those two spells to near-perfection.
If he were fighting against pre-time loop Zorian, Naim would have wiped the floor with him. He had more than twice the mana reserves that old Zorian had, and had clearly known how to cast those two spells years ago and had been slowly honing them all that time. On top of that, he was highly fit and agile, and in his fight against Estin he simply dodged every projectile that the other boy sent his way. The old Zorian couldn’t weave a homing function into his magic missiles, and would thus not be any more successful than Estin in that regard.
But sadly for Naim, he wasn’t fighting Zorian’s past self, and thus ended up overmatched in his own game. Zorian’s shield was impenetrable to anything the other boy could dish out, and dodging didn’t work against Zorian’s attacks.
After this, Naim and Estin decided to move on to hand-to-hand combat, probably specifically to spite and one-up Zorian. Knowing he was useless in a fist fight and would just embarrass himself, Zorian immediately bowed out of that, conceding he had no chance against either of them. They were both very smug about that.
Well whatever, let them have their consolation prize. Better than being bitter at Zorian for besting them, that’s for sure. In any case, the two of them had no less than five rounds of that, and it became obvious by the end that Naim was just plain better at that than Estin was, despite Estin’s greater size and bulk. He would later find out that this was what Edwin had been talking about when he implied that Naim was just as obsessed with martial arts as he was with golems. He practiced martial arts religiously every single day, and was good enough to get invited to national contests in the field.
After that, they decided to share training methods and other advice – something that ended up surprisingly useful to Zorian, since both of them had found some neat little shaping exercises that Zorian never thought to look for, but which ultimately ended up with Zorian doing most of the talking and demonstrating. He expected as much to happen, though – he was the most experienced person among them, after all.
He left the meeting pleased with how it turned out. Considering that both Naim and Estin wanted to have another meeting like that, Zorian supposed they were pleased with it too, even though Estin was throwing him some sour looks when he thought Zorian wasn’t looking. When they did organize another meeting, though, it wasn’t just the three of them that showed up.
Briam, Kopriva and Raynie also showed up, wondering if they could join. Naim and Estin immediately dumped the decision on him, spontaneously designating him as the group’s leader. Lovely. He accepted, of course. If nothing else, he was pretty sure that sending Raynie away would not reflect too well on him and his plans to get closer to her.
The problem was that all three of them were very raw and untrained when it came to actual combat magic. Briam was admittedly already a member of the hunting group, but that was solely because he had his fire drake familiar – his spells were almost entirely centered around supporting that living flame thrower. Kopriva was in the process of becoming a member in a hunting group, but also not due to combat magic as such – she got in on the basis of providing her team with alchemical bombs and potions, and was heavily reliant on them herself. Raynie probably had some of her shifter magic to fall back on if really pressed, but she was keeping that part of her a secret and her mastery of classical combat spells was nothing to write home about.
Somehow, they still managed to make the meeting work, but it involved a lot more work and responsibility than Zorian was comfortable with. Since he was ‘the leader’, it mostly fell upon him to help the newcomers out.
At the end of the meeting he was sought out by Raynie, who handed him an envelope with the time and place for their meeting. It was the same restaurant she had used last time, which he supposed made sense if the owner was a personal friend of hers like Kiana claimed.
While this was happening, Zorian was in the process of finalizing his agreement with the Filigree Sages. In exchange for transporting them to Cyoria, guarding their ‘salvager crews’, and transporting their finds back to their home, Zorian had secured three different mind magic teachers, one of which was supposed to be an expert in memory reading and manipulation. Said memory reading expert also agreed to probe the minds of up to five prisoners that Zorian brought to her and share the findings with him. Finally, and a lot less critically, Zorian was entitled to a portion of the things the aranean salvager crews found in the settlement – only important because it gave him the excuse to closely monitor their activities, ostensibly so they wouldn’t cheat him out of his due, but really just so he knew how to properly ‘salvage’ the place in future restarts.
Embarrassingly, it took less than two days for the Filigree Sages to do what Zorian couldn’t manage in an entire restart. Apparently the solution to finding the Cyorian web’s treasury was to descend down the deep vertical shaft which the Cyorian aranea used as garbage disposal, except that halfway to the bottom was a hole in the wall that led to their treasury. The hole was big enough for an aranea to comfortably pass while lugging cargo, but Zorian would have to crawl to pass through the opening and into the main chamber. The shaft actually had numerous such tunnels of various sizes branching off of it, all but one of which were dead ends, but it wasn’t that hard to narrow it down once you knew what the trick was.
According to the Filigree Sages, shafts like these were the ‘secret’ to the ease with which the aranea could penetrate even very deep layers of the dungeon without getting slaughtered in the process. While a shaft like that did allow for some of the horrid things from lower layers to reach you easier, they were very defensible and could always be collapsed on invaders if incursions got too frequent. In cases where such shafts didn’t exist, aranea were liable to create them via application of stone shaping spells.
The actual treasury was… huge. A lot of space was taken up by huge spools of spider silk thread which were presumably the web’s primary source of income. But there was also a lot of raw currency there, both in the form of paper notes as well as precious metals and gems. A fair number of alchemical explosives and potions was also there, including heaps of different healing potions that the salvage crews claimed were optimized for aranean biology. They were very excited about those, and wanted Zorian’s help in contacting whoever made those – they seemed very dismissive about the possibility that the Cyorian aranea produced those themselves. There were quite a few spellbooks, alchemical recipe books, or spell formula blueprint compilations - many of them highly restricted, rare or very expensive. The Filigree Sages intended to cart all of them off back home for research purposes, but they agreed to let Zorian peruse them and copy a few choice bits for his own use. That would be enough to keep him busy until the end of the restart, so he was perfectly happy with that.
Finally, the vault held a lot of stuff that was really only of interest to aranea. Leather pouches and straps that aranea used for carting things around, nutrient blocks that were the aranea equivalent of dry rations, things like that. The Filigree Sages, at least, seemed very intrigued by those, marveling at the Cyorian web’s technological sophistication and ingenuity. It all looked very underwhelming to Zorian, but he supposed it wasn’t easy establishing a technological society when you have no hands.
Amazingly, the treasury was only the tip of the iceberg. There was another secret part of the settlement he had never found - a secret magic research room, which could only be accessed by selectively disabling a few choice bits of the warding scheme in one of the rooms, and then passing through the newly-opened hole in the ceiling. Sadly, there was a further layer of defenses even beyond that, and neither the Filigree Sages nor Zorian had been able to crack the wards on the second door thus far. The leader of the salvagers was starting to toy with the idea of simply smashing the door, but worried that there was some kind of self-destruct mechanism inside that would destroy the contents if the entrance was forced open. That was how Filigree Sages secured their own magic research rooms, apparently.
Finally, there was a room for storing records, which Zorian hadn’t noticed simply because it had never occurred to him to try and connect his mind to the one particularly lumpy wall in the back of the settlement. Apparently the bumps were ‘memory stones’ – magic items that could record thoughts and memories, and which were apparently the aranea’s equivalent of written records. Personally, Zorian didn’t think this method was nearly as convenient as written records, but the Filigree Sages claimed this was a much more natural and convenient method for them, so what did he know? The important thing was that the records room held information about most of the dealings and operations the Cyorian web had had with the humans on the surface, barring top secret ones, and that Zorian could possibly coopt some of their organization for his own purposes. The Filigree Sages had no interest in that, seeing as how they intended to simply cart off anything that wasn’t nailed down rather than establish some kind of long-term presence, so they simply pointed the room to him and told him to do whatever he wanted with it.
Embarrassingly, Zorian remembered noticing the wall the first time he searched the place and thinking its unique texture might be significant… so he dug it up with alteration spells and was disappointed when he found nothing but solid rock behind it.
It was after one of these meetings with the Filigree Sages that Zorian came back to Imaya’s place and found Taiven waiting for him. Curious. They didn’t have another monster hunt scheduled until tomorrow. Maybe she wanted to talk about upping their tempo? They were extremely successful this time around, thanks to Zorian making full use of his future knowledge, so maybe she wanted to strike while the iron was hot. If so, he would have to disappoint her – he had too many things on his plate to devote more time to that.
The moment he got closer and she noticed him, however, he immediately realized she wasn’t here about something like that. She was upset. She asked to speak to him in private so he led her to his room and locked the door. He had heavily warded it at the start of the restart with a permanent warding scheme, so there was no need to waste time on privacy spells.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“What’s wrong, he asks,” she mumbled.
Crap, she was upset at him. He didn’t remember doing anything to make her upset, though.
She took out a light blue crystal and slammed it at the desk of drawers next to his bed.
“What’s that?” she demanded.
“That’s a rhetorical question, surely?” Zorian asked, baffled. “It’s a piece of crystalized mana, of course.”
“Yes, but why do you have an entire crate of that under your bed?” she demanded.
Zorian frowned. “You’ve been rooting through my stuff without my permission?”
“No, your little sister was,” she said. “She and Nochka were playing princesses and making crowns out of crystalized mana for the two of them, Kana and Kosjenka. I walked in on them and asked them where they got those ‘pretty stones’ they were using.”
Damn it, Kiri!
“Okay,” said Zorian, taking a big breath to calm himself down. “Putting that aside for the moment, why has this gotten you so upset? Why does it matter if I’ve got a crate of crystalized mana under my bed?”
She balled up her hands into fists, seething in her own frustration and… self-loathing? What?
“Because everything!” she finally shouted, slamming her fist into the nearby wall and causing him to flinch back in shock. “Everything! Everything, everything, everything!”
“Taiven, please!” shouted Zorian, frantically trying to calm her down. “Just calm down, you’re not making any sense!”
Was she… crying?
“How can you be so good at everything!?” she half-shouted at him, pushing him away. “You’re good enough at alchemy that Kael praises you. You create golems in your free time. You’re so good at divinations that adult professionals accused me of lying when I told them how good at finding monster nests you are. And you’re apparently good enough at combat magic that they’re letting you teach your own group!”
“That’s not-“ Zorian tried to explain.
“Don’t try to lie to me!” she snapped at him. “I know you’re a better combat mage than me. You try to hide it, but I can tell. I’m not stupid!”
“I never claimed you are,” Zorian assured her.
She ignored him.
“I worked on this for years,” she cried. “I’m two years older than you and I worked so hard! Every day, every weekend, every moment I could spare. I made sure to focus; not spread myself too thin. I live for this. And then I find out that not only are you better than me in the one thing I focused on, you also have time for all these other things too! How!? How are you so much better than me? What am I doing wrong!?”
“Nothing!” Zorian hastily assured her. “You’re honestly pretty damn awesome, Taiven, and the only reason I got even close to your level is because I’m a dirty cheater who cheats.”
“Then show me how to cheat, too, damn it!” she shouted.
Before he could say anything in response to that, she… wrapped him into a hug and started sobbing into his shoulder. He awkwardly returned her hug after a few seconds, desperately trying to think of a way to handle this situation.
He couldn’t think of anything at the moment. In light of that, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that Taiven didn’t look like she would stop crying any time soon.