Zorian was starting to realize he didn’t understand Taiven nearly as well as he thought he did. And it wasn’t just the surprising amount of insecurity that lurked behind her seemingly endless optimism and confidence that made him think that – it was also the amount of thought and consideration she put into his time loop situation. When he told her about his situation, she actually listened to him without interruption, and even took notes, and then later came back with a list of questions and ideas. This was very atypical behavior for her. Taiven was pretty much a prime example of the ‘less thinking, more action’ philosophy, and she even admitted that she still wasn’t entirely convinced about the whole ‘time loop’ thing, so he was rather baffled about her motives and thought processes.
Still, while the list she had made with Kael’s help was kind of surprising, it contained nothing particularly revolutionary, and all of the points could be boiled down to four basic questions. Why didn’t he get help from more people around him than her and Kael? Why didn’t he tell the government or academy authorities what was going on and get their cooperation? Why was he pursuing so many magical fields instead of properly focusing on them, one at a time? And lastly, why didn’t he try harder to develop his combat magic!?
Zorian found the last one especially amusing. It was only a few days ago, after all, that Taiven was breaking down into tears over his ‘incredible combat skills’, yet now she was saying he should have put more effort into them.
You just couldn’t satisfy some people.
Alas, Taiven didn’t find her complete turnaround of opinion nearly as amusing as he did. Zorian’s logic for putting combat magic practice squarely in the ‘secondary goal’ pile – namely, that very few of his problems could be solved through direct violence and that he just wasn’t terribly suited for combat magic in the first place – had been summarily rejected by Taiven, who decreed that she would be helping to bring him up to snuff in that regard. Through sparring.
Constant, daily, dangerously serious sparring. He’d apparently had no idea what he was getting into when he’d decided to go along with her idea, because there was a huge difference between sparring with Taiven when she thought he was just a precocious amateur with a couple of tricks and sparring with her when she considered him a serious threat right from the start and wasn’t afraid of hurting him. She was vicious and merciless, and he was honestly afraid she would end up killing him if he didn’t give it his all, despite all the safety wards embedded into her family’s training hall. It was just a bit too intense for his liking.
Maybe she was still a little bitter about him improving so much in so short a time.
“Are you ready?” she asked him, twirling her combat staff playfully in her hands.
“No?” Zorian tried. He’d just finished another frustrating session with Xvim, and didn’t get to rest at all before coming over to Taiven’s place. The last thing he wanted to do right now was get smacked around in the name of training.
“Too bad,” Taiven snorted derisively. “We’re starting. Go!”
Yeah, he didn’t think that would actually get him anywhere. He immediately threw himself to the side, dodging her opening shot. Which wasn’t a magic missile or anything reasonable like that – no, she opened the battle with a powerful beam of force. ‘Force lance’, as the spell was called, was her new favorite when fighting him. He knew better than to try to shield against it this time – the beam was practically designed for cracking simple force barriers, focusing an immense amount of penetrating force on a tiny patch of the shielding surface. Some of the stronger, more advanced shields could withstand the beam, but nothing in Zorian’s arsenal could truly stand up to it. He had learned that lesson very painfully in the first few spars he’d had with Taiven during the past few days, and he still had bruises all over his chest and arms to prove it. Even at their highest setting, the safety wards couldn’t blunt the power of the spear-like beam completely.
No, the only realistic defense he had against that spell was moving out of its way. The good news was that beam spells like those couldn’t home in on targets, so dodging them was an option. The bad news was that a beam traveled blindingly fast and was really hard to evade at the distances he and Taiven fought at. Plus, he kind of sucked at dodging.
The last few days had forced him to learn quickly, though, and in this particular case he was fast enough to move out of the beam’s path.
He responded immediately with a gust of wind, trying to knock her off-balance and possibly blind her. Sadly, this was not the first time he’d tried that and she simply countered it with a weather shield before throwing a fully-powered fireball at him. Gods, she really wasn’t playing around, was she? He fired off a dispelling wave to negate it, since the alternative would be to tank it with a much more expensive aegis. Besides, cost concerns aside, the spherical shield would leave him immobile while in place, and Taiven would be sure to capitalize on that.
A force lance that quickly followed the fireball told him that this was indeed her likely plan – if he had stood still and tried to tank the fireball, the force lance would have caught him flat-footed.
He threw a small swarm of magic missiles at her, all of them on a very direct trajectory towards her. They were just bait, really, intended to take advantage of a certain predictable maneuver Taiven liked to do, where she countered such attacks by firing a massive battering ram of force that not only swept the attack aside, but also acted as a counter attack at the same time. That’s why he immediately followed up his barrage with a ray of electricity, which would be completely unaffected by her blast of force.
He guessed her response well this time. She had tried to respond with a force battering ram, but then caught onto his plan half-way through and dodged the beam he’d sent at her. As for himself, he used the disturbance in her attack rhythm to initiate a short-distance teleport, transporting himself behind her back. She noticed him, of course – she was probably using that mana-sensing trick she’d taught him so long ago – but she could do little else but raise a hasty aegis to shield herself against the blast of force he’d sent at her. He followed this up with a force lance, intending to give her a taste of her own medicine, but she expertly dodged that and sent an eight missile swarm at him, forcing him to fire another dispelling wave to deal with them. He kind of wondered why she still kept bunching up her projectile swarms together like that when she already knew that allowed him to take them all out with a single counter-spell. Maybe she couldn’t? He knew he had better shaping skills than her, so maybe that kind of fine control over one’s projectiles was beyond her.
He teleported again to evade another battering ram of force and then sent his own missile swarm at her, each missile following its own exotic trajectory to make them hard to track and take out.
That battle raged like that for another couple of minutes, before Zorian was forced to concede defeat due to running out of mana. It was a good fight in his opinion, if nothing else because he didn’t get any new bruises this time around. Taiven complained, of course, lecturing him about pacing himself better, but the simple truth was that she was driving him way too hard for him to be conservative with his mana use. He would rather be too frivolous with his mana use and lose due to exhausting himself than end up on the receiving end of an offensive spell again.
“You know, running out of mana like that in a real battle basically means you die,” Taiven said.
“And getting speared through the lung by a force lance doesn’t?” Zorian countered.
She stared at him. “Okay, yeah, you got me there.”
She walked over to a nearby bench and motioned him to sit beside her.
“Have you thought about that list Kael gave you?” she asked.
Of course he had. He even discussed with her some of the points she’d brought up over the past few days, although he suspected she didn’t like his answers all that much. Interpreting her question as a demand for a more long-winded, comprehensive explanation, he started telling her about the reasoning behind his decisions.
His reasons for not getting help from more people, and especially official authorities of any sort, were simple to explain. The more people he told about the time loop, the greater the chance that they would let something slip to the wrong person and lead Red Robe back to him. Unless they had something he really needed, and which he simply couldn’t get by any other way, it was best to keep them ignorant of the time loop. Truthfully, even telling Taiven was probably a pointless risk. He told her about the time loop for the same reason he kept taking Kirielle with him to Cyoria, despite his little sister being nothing but a huge liability and time sink – he wanted someone familiar to talk and confide to.
He kept his mouth shut about that last detail in his explanation to Taiven, though – he doubted she would appreciate hearing that. Instead he focused on the fact that virtually no one would be willing to believe him about being a time traveler, and that convincing them would probably take weeks and could easily cause quite a stir. This was especially true in regards to her ideas about contacting the city government or academy authorities. Zach had already tried to notify them about the time loop and had never been taken seriously – there was no reason to think Zorian would be any more successful at it than Zach was.
“Didn’t you say Zach is kind of an idiot?” Taiven asked curiously.
“Sort of,” said Zorian. “But in this case, I think he’s far more suited to the task than I am. There is no way I’d ever be as trustworthy to authority figures as Zach.”
“Ah, yes, the natural mind magic thing,” Taiven said.
“Well, that too, but I was actually thinking about how I’d probably never be as forthright and honest about things as Zach probably was,” he admitted. “I’d hide things and people would notice and be wary of me as a result.”
Taiven gave him a long, searching look. “You’re not even telling me everything, are you?”
“I’m telling you most things,” he said. “Everything I think is relevant.”
She stayed silent and gave him an annoyed look.
“Anyway,” he said quickly, looking to change the subject, “even ignoring that, contacting Cyoria’s authorities is a particularly bad idea because there is obviously someone high in the administration that is cooperating with the invaders. I’m almost certain by now that whoever is leading the Cult of the Dragon Below also has a high position in the city government – it would explain why the members of the cult keep getting lucrative contracts from the city and exemptions from all sorts of normal regulations – and it would make sense for Ibasans to also have someone in their pocket.”
“I keep forgetting that part,” Taiven admitted. “Which is pretty bizarre, now that I think about it. Finding out that some crazy cult has thoroughly infiltrated our city government is honestly one of the scariest parts of your story, but the part where I’ll apparently get erased out of existence at the end of this month sort of drowns out everything else.”
Ouch. She was still fixated on that. He did his best to move the conversation along, tackling her concerns about spreading himself thin next.
Her complaints that it would be better for him if he picked one or two things to really focus on held merit. Unfortunately, there was a reason why he was not doing that - he kept encountering various emergencies during his time in the time loop, which forced him to often drop topics or push them into the background to accommodate the newest priority that just sprung up on him. The second issue basically amounted to personal weakness – he could only focus on something for so long before he got thoroughly sick of it and had to do something else. Since he aimed to be a generalist mage anyway, he didn’t think of this as some huge issue he had to work on, but he understood why a tightly-focused spellcaster like Taiven would be annoyed with him for that.
“As for not trying harder at combat magic, well… we already discussed that topic enough, I think. You already know my opinion on the matter,” he told her.
“Yet you keep coming to these spars anyway,” she noted. “I know I was kind of pushy about it, but it’s not like I can really make you come if you decided to put your foot down.”
“Well, I do want to get better at it,” he shrugged. “No reason to refuse free practice. I just wish you would tone it down a little.”
“Oh, come on. What are you afraid of?” Taiven scoffed. “Aren’t you a big, bad time traveler that can’t really die?”
“Treating death as a nuisance could easily become a habit that would kill me for real once I’m out of the time loop. Unless there is a pressing need for it, or some downright amazing opportunity, I’d like to avoid dying too much,” Zorian said. “Also, you do realize that the time loop only resets when Zach dies, not when I do? If you end up killing me, you’ll have to live with the consequences ‘till the end of the month.”
The look she gave him told him that no, she did not realize that.
Yup, that was more like the Taiven he knew.
She mumbled something about sensitive little flowers and then leaned back on the cold wall behind them. Rather unhealthy, that.
“You know, you don’t have to rely on me to help you with combat magic,” she said. “There are quite a few combat magic instructors in Cyoria. With the amount of money you have at your disposal and the ability to keep spending it over and over again, you could get instruction from all of them. Combat magic may not be a priority for you, but keep that in mind. This is a killer opportunity, and you will never get anything like it outside of your time loop.”
Zorian frowned. “What do you mean?”
“A lot of mages simply won’t teach you if they know you’ve been taught by their rival or competitor,” she told him. “As in, they’ll refuse out of principle. There is quite a bit of difference in teaching your personal tricks to some young mage who is just starting out and teaching them to this extremely talented guy who has absorbed the teachings of several veteran mages. Hell, some mages won’t want to have anything to do with you if you seem too competent, period. They don’t want to create a competitor that will overshadow them and steal lucrative opportunities from them in the future.”
“No offense Taiven, but Daimen never had any trouble securing powerful teachers,” Zorian said. “If anything, the number of people who wanted to mentor him increased as his talent became known to people.”
“I don’t doubt it,” she said. “But I guarantee that some doors also became closed to him at the same time. For you, that doesn’t have to be the case – not only will prospective teachers never know who else taught you in the past or how good you really are, you can also do things like sign apprenticeship contracts without them really binding you to anything. Hell, you could accept some really shitty deals if it meant getting some of the really deep secrets people have. Just… think about it, okay?”
“I am thinking about it. I’ve been thinking about that sort of thing since the start of the time loop. It’s just that more pressing issues keep cropping up and eating into my time,” he said. “I’m surprised you’re bringing that up, though. Doesn’t that bother you? I mean, we’re basically talking about weaseling out the secrets that these people have spent their life gathering without compensating them in any way.”
“Well, yes,” she said. “But realistically speaking, I’d do it in a heartbeat if I was in your place. And frankly, so would nine tenths of those same experts you’re feeling sorry for. Are you seriously telling me you haven’t been doing something like that all this time?”
“Sometimes,” Zorian said. Ilsa stood prominently in his mind, since he’d flat-out become her apprentice to get her to teach him some of her stuff. “But I have been keeping a mental list of people I ‘owe’ in this way, and I was thinking of doing something for them once I get out of the time loop. It’s already quite a long list, though, and I don’t know whether I can even do anything for some of them…”
“Ugh,” she grunted, looking away uncomfortably.
“What?” he asked.
“You’re a really weird guy, Zorian,” she complained. “You can be such a selfish jerk at times, and then you say stuff like that and I realize I don’t understand you at all.”
“The feeling is mutual, Taiven,” he told her with a smile.
“What, that you think I’m a selfish jerk or that you don’t understand me either?” she asked.
“Both,” he said. Man, she really walked into that one…
She made an outraged sound and gave him a light shove.
“You’re violent, too,” he added.
“Whatever,” she said, getting up from the bench. “I’ll bring Grunt and Mumble to our next spar so you can have some variety. I think I can also call in a few favors from my former classmates who also went for combat-related careers and have them fight you a few times as well. Your spellcasting is technically flawless but you need better combat reflexes.”
Zorian gave her a curious look.
“Why are you being so proactive about this?” he asked her. “I know you hate me bringing it up, but it was only a few days ago that you hated the idea of me surpassing you in your own field. Why did you change your attitude so drastically? You don’t even fully believe in the time loop story, according to your own admission.”
“Because your life is on the line,” she told him seriously. “That’s the most important thing I got from your explanation. If it weren’t for that… well, I’d be hell of a lot more jealous and bitter about all this. But it’s not just an advantage, you have a heavy responsibility on your shoulders, and someone is trying to get you killed. In light of the chance that you might not make it out of this alive, all of my frustrations seem so… petty in comparison.”
Huh… was that why she was so insistent he needed to work more on his combat skills?
“Don’t die, okay?” she said when he didn’t say anything for a while. “You’re the best friend I have.”
Zorian fidgeted uncomfortably, unused to that kind of confession and mystified as to how he should respond to it. The snide, cynical part of him felt that was a pretty sad admission. He hadn’t exactly been a nice person in his pre-loop days, and he had nursed a grudge against her ever since she’d laughed at his love confession. If the invasion and the time loop had never happened, would he have gotten over that in time to salvage their friendship? Or would he have continued to push her away until she eventually gave up on him, completely unaware that she apparently considered him her best friend?
“I’ll try not to,” he eventually told her. He couldn’t promise anything. Telling her that he would definitely live and that she had no cause for concern would be a lie and they’d both know it. “Say, Taiven, did you put some thought into how we can make this time loop work to your benefit? You know, like Kael did for his alchemy?”
“Well, no,” she said, shaking her head sadly. “It’s useless, isn’t it? Practicing combat magic requires shaping skills and routines that cannot be transferred via written notes. What could either of us possibly do to help the other Taiven?”
“I could teach you various shaping exercises and note which ones work best for you, though,” Zorian said. “I could show you the different combat spells I found over the restarts and note which ones you handle the best and what the most effective way of training you in them is. Kirielle’s magic lessons are at least two times more effective now than they were when I first tried to teach her, so it should be utterly trivial to create a training program that would let you grow twice as fast as you would without it.”
“Just how much stuff do you think you can cram in one month?” Taiven asked skeptically.
“We won’t know ‘till we try it, will we?” Zorian countered. “And besides, there is no reason why the final training plan has to be limited to a month. Does every single new thing you learn necessarily build atop things you already mastered?”
“There you go. That means we can break down a training plan into month-long chunks and optimize them separately. We can get at least a year that way, especially if you branch out in some necessary support skills that you’ve been ignoring. Your lack of divination skills is really felt in any restart where I decide not to join you, for instance.”
Taiven looked torn. She was clearly excited about the idea but at the same time she felt… guilty about it?
“I don’t know…” she said. “That sounds really time consuming, and you don’t really get anything out of it. You said yourself that you already have too many things vying for your attention.”
She was right, of course. Still, he owed her something for all the help she’d given him in the past, and this seemed like a perfect way to pay her back. He would find the time if he could. Maybe not a lot of time, but still.
“I was going to look into combat magic-related shaping exercises anyway,” he said. “It might actually be a better idea to go through those together with you than to study them alone. You would know which ones are more useful better than I would. And besides, who says I have to hover around you all the time – I’m sure you can do a lot of testing yourself and then write a notebook for me to transfer into the next restart like Kael is doing. Or just tell me what you found out face to face before the summer festival.”
It didn’t take much convincing before Taiven was fully on board with the idea. In a way, this was what she had asked of him back when she lost her composure – to ‘show her how to cheat, too’. He promised to bring an initial batch of spells and shaping exercises tomorrow on their next spar and then left to take care of other obligations.
He wondered how long it would take for her to realize that she had agreed to spend day after day doing shaping exercises. He’d have to practice his Xvim impersonation for tomorrow.
* * *
In the ruins of the aranean settlement beneath Cyoria, Zorian patiently waited for Memory of Sublime Glories to finish memory probing the Ibasan mage he had captured and brought to her for interrogation. He had ventured deep into invader-held underground to retrieve this man, and was fortunate to stumble upon one of the middle-ranked leaders of the invasion force, so he had high hopes for the result of Sublime Glories’ memory dive.
In the meantime, he kept floating above the cavern floor not far from the aranea and her victim, holding himself aloft with the personal levitation exercise. In his left hand he held one of several small stones, which he kept disintegrating into dust in similarly non-structured manner. He had mastered both shaping exercises a long time ago, but the mild disruption effects present this far underground made them mildly challenging and thus a nice way to pass the time.
He was starting to run out of rocks when the aranea finally withdrew from the invader’s mind and approached him.
Obviously, he had not told Memory of Sublime Glories anything about time travel, so he was not surprised that her report didn’t mention anything remotely related to that. Still, she found out plenty of things of interest.
[The Ibasans are scared of you,] Memory of Sublime Glories said. [Well, not you personally, but the human nations on this continent are a source of constant worry for them. The technological revolution you are undergoing has not taken root on their island, and they fear they will gradually become powerless and irrelevant as time goes by. Since your nations have recently gone through several rounds of self-destructive wars and a deadly epidemic, and are at their most disunited in a long while, a lot of Ibasans feel that the time to strike at you is now. There has been a lot of agitation to launch some kind of invasion, but apparently there is also an influential faction that thinks such an invasion would be utter suicide and advocates trying to reopen diplomatic links to the continent. In light of that, this attack seems to have two main goals. The first is to make this nation look weak to others, thereby making any potential invasion by Ulquaan Ibasa look more attractive to their less warlike kin back home. Such a perception of weakness could also possibly ignite another continental war that would weaken everyone on the continent further. The second goal is to destroy any chance of official peace between Ulquaan Ibasa and Eldemar, thereby making the position of the reconciliation faction untenable.]
[They’re not scared that Eldemar might respond to the attack by outright invading Ulquaan Ibasa?] Zorian asked.
[Ulquaan Ibasa is remote and inhospitable, and Eldemar has continental rivals to worry about,] Memory of Sublime Glories said. [They expect a response, but nothing substantial. A series of raids at most.]
Zorian wasn’t so sure about that. Eldemar had been prospering for some time now, and the government was quite proud and aggressive. He wouldn’t put it past the current royals and the Noble Council to launch a full scale invasion of Ulquaan Ibasa out of sheer principle, costs be damned. Especially since the Ibasans were diplomatically isolated and not part of the byzantine web of alliances that prevented the larger Splinter States from simply attacking the smaller ones and absorbing them through force of arms.
As the aranea continued with her findings, however, it became obvious that the Ibasans had not simply relied on empty hope to discourage such an invasion. Sometime near the beginning of the month, just before the start of the time loop, the Ibasans had managed to overrun Fort Oroklo without alerting Eldemar that it had changed hands.
Situated on a small island to the northeast of Eldemar and named after the general that had defeated Quatach-Ichl’s army at the conclusion of the Necromancer’s War, Fort Oroklo was a small but important installation that served the dual purpose of being a monitoring station for keeping an eye on Ulquaan Ibasa and a supply base for Eldemar naval patrols. The Ibasans apparently called it ‘Fort Dagger’, because they considered it a knife pointed straight at their throat. So long as Eldemar held Fort Oroklo, they had a perfect staging ground for any raid or invasion on Ulquaan Ibasa.
Before Eldemar could launch an attack on Ulquaan Ibasa, it first had to retake Fort Oroklo – a heavily-warded fortress situated on an excellent defensive position.
[Some of this doesn’t make any sense,] Zorian complained. [According to you, the Ibasans are transporting their forces straight from Ulquaan Ibasa to Fort Oroklo, then from Fort Oroklo to some unknown point in the Sarokian Highlands, and then from there to beneath Cyoria.]
[Yes, what of it?]
[That’s not enough stops for an effective teleportation chain,] Zorian said. [Only two stop points for a journey of such distance, with the final destination point being deep underground to boot? There is no way that’s really what’s happening. If they were sending letters or small packages maybe, but no way could you transport an army like that. Even if Quatach-Ichl is the best mass teleporter in the whole damn world, the mana costs for such long jumps would be completely impractical on that scale.]
Admittedly, such a small number of stops would do much to explain how they could transport such an army through Eldemar territory without being discovered by Eldemar, but…
[They’re not teleporting in the manner we’ve seen you do it,] Memory of Sublime Glories noted. [They are using some kind of stone construct to open a dimensional passage between two points. Like a door to another land.]
[Can you describe that ‘door’ in more detail, please?] Zorian asked, frowning.
Instead of answering with words, the aranea promptly projected an image of said ‘door’ that she pilfered from the man’s mind straight into his mind.
It wasn’t a stone arch like he expected – instead, it was a collection of stone ‘bars’ arranged into a form of a large, skeletal icosahedron. Suspended in the middle of this bizarre geometric construct, like a window cut into the very air itself, was the dimensional gate. It appeared circular at first glance, edges marked by a warped, blurry outline that looked as if someone had ran a finger through a wet painting and smudged all the colors together. As the aranea helpfully rotated the image, however, it became obvious that the gate looked circular no matter from which direction it was seen. It was spherical.
Well… he supposed that answered some things. The gate spell was pretty much the pinnacle of dimensional magic, requiring both a lot of mana and extreme shaping skills to pull off successfully, but the invaders did have an ancient lich on their side. If anyone could casually open a gate, it would be Quatach-Ichl.
[They were inspired by ancient artifacts called Bakora gates,] the aranea added. [Though unable to actually figure out how the Bakora gates work or how to activate them, they realized that the ‘icosahedron’ thing around them is meant to stabilize the dimensional passage and make it last indefinitely. Or at least as long as you keep supplying it with enough mana. So they made their own version of it.]
[Wait, you’re saying that thing down there is constantly active?] Zorian asked incredulously.
[According to our prisoner, yes,] the aranea said. [As far as he knows, the door is never shut down.]
Gods, a permanent dimensional passage like that… no wonder the invaders could bring such a huge force beneath the city and keep supplying it. He fired off a bunch of additional questions about how the knockoff Bakora gate was made, what its limitations were and so forth, but found that their captive had no idea of any of those things. Anyone except the leaders of the invasion was unlikely to know such things, and possibly no one except Quatach-Ichl, who seemed to be in charge of maintaining the gates.
Annoying. Still, the fact that the invasion was supplied by permanently active dimensional gates did provide certain opportunities. For instance, it meant that if he could capture the gates fast enough, he could get access straight into the heart of Ibasan operations, perhaps even Ulquaan Ibasa itself. Destroying the gate in their main base would no doubt utterly cripple the planned invasion, unless a new gate was easy to build, which he doubted. Finally, it opened the possibility of stealing the design from whoever made the thing – something he definitely wanted to do if it was at all possible.
Hopefully the design wasn’t exclusively held by Quatach-Ichl or ran on children’s souls or some such, because that was one amazing piece of magic.
[What about the research facility I’ve told you about?] Zorian asked.
[Nothing that you don’t already know,] Memory of Sublime Glories told him. [Frankly, I think you’re going about this the wrong way. You say the previous aranea found out something important about that facility? Well, I don’t think they did it by reading the minds of Ibasan invaders. Admittedly, I cannot tell that for certain without getting access to some of their leaders, but they seem to neither know nor care about what’s down there. Except for the lich, and as we both know, they’d never succeed in reading that thing’s mind.]
[Well they clearly got information about it from someone,] Zorian said.
[Yes, well, it is a government facility. It stands to reason that someone from the government knows what they do down there. Chances are that if you want to find out about the facility through the same methods that the previous web used, you are going to have to target whichever government official that facility is reporting to.]
That… was a good point. He had no doubt that Spear of Resolve would attack a city official without the slightest bit of hesitation if she felt he had answers to her questions and she felt she could get away with it. And she could definitely get away with it, since she knew she was stuck in a time loop and none of the consequences would matter beyond a certain point.
[A valid point, but let’s refrain from antagonizing the city government for now,] he said.
[More than fine with me,] the aranea responded.
Having exhausted all of the topics Zorian could think of, they bid each other goodbye and agreed to meet the next day for his usual mind magic lessons.
* * *
Weeks passed, and while he didn’t make any incredible breakthroughs, his various projects kept slowly advancing forward. He absorbed everything about memory packet creation and reinforcement that Memory of Sublime Glories could teach him, he dutifully practiced what the other two Filigree Sages had to teach him, he scoured the academy library for interesting shaping exercises for both himself and Taiven, he built no less than three different golems with Edwin, and he learned a large number of spells from the books he and the Filigree Sages had found in the aranean treasury.
The most interesting of these new spells were a couple of highly illegal teleport variations that could punch through weaker teleport wards. If he could master those, he would get a major mobility boost within the city. Admittedly, it was possible that the city authorities could detect when someone was bypassing the city’s teleport redirect in that fashion, but even if they could indeed do that, that would still make those spells incredibly useful during the actual invasion, when they’d be far too busy with other things to deal with him.
Oh, and he also met with Raynie a couple of times. He was given a lot of information about the current political climate among shifter tribes and their history, which was kind of interesting but probably not really important for anything. The meetings were a nice distraction, though, so he didn’t care that he wasn’t really learning anything.
“So there is something I’m kind of curious about when it comes to shifter magic,” Zorian said. “I apologize in advance if I’m asking you to reveal some kind of tribal secret, but what exactly is the big advantage of being a shifter as opposed to just using a potion or a ritual to assume an animal form? I know that shifters can eschew material components that are otherwise needed to make a transformation shell and that you can do a partial transformation to access the senses and other traits from your alternate forms, but that seems a little underwhelming, all things considered…”
“Well, you have to remember that shifters originate from a different time, when other methods of transformation were far less developed and common than they are now,” Raynie said. “But there are some things you’re missing. The shifter transformation is much faster and safer than anything you can cook up with your alchemy skills, and you automatically get instincts to go along with your new form. A normal mage that transforms into an animal will have big problems moving in their new body and even interpreting the animal’s senses if they’re too different from what humans are used to. A shifter can innately understand how their alternate form works, so it doesn’t take much for bird shifters to learn how to fly as easily as birds or for wolf shifters to actually understand what their enhanced noses are telling them.”
“Ah,” said Zorian in understanding, remembering how badly he flew while transformed into an eagle, even after spending several sessions practicing his flight. “Yeah, that does sound like a major improvement over a transformation potion.”
“There is also a stealth factor to consider, as your cat shifter friends can attest,” Raynie continued. “It’s much easier to use transformation magics covertly when you can transform at will, whenever you want, to what extent you want, with no strange movements and material aids required. And since we’re on the topic of your feline friends, let me ask you something that I’ve been kind of curious about. Did you know all this stuff about shifters before you met the cat shifters, or did you only research the topic because you started hanging out with them?”
“I’d known about shifters for a while by the time I met them,” Zorian said. It was true, in a way. “I was searching for help with something and came to Vani for advice. He actually advised me to seek you out.”
“Me!?” she asked incredulously. She frowned. “Or do you mean shifters in general?”
“Both. But he recommended you by name,” Zorian said.
“Oh?” she leaned forward in her seat, curious. “And what exactly could I help you with?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I’ve already gotten help elsewhere, and I’ve been told by others that you couldn’t have helped me anyway.”
“Oh come on,” she huffed. “That’s just teasing. You can’t just say something like that and then say it doesn’t matter. Either you tell me or I send a letter to Vani, asking him what he sent you to me for.”
Ugh. He didn’t think she was serious, but if she was that could easily lead to awkward questions about why Vani doesn’t remember ever talking to Zorian in the past. He really had to learn how to watch his tongue better; he was becoming as bad as Zach.
“It’s very personal so I’d appreciate if you leave the matter alone, okay?” Zorian sighed. “The short story is that I had the misfortune to end up on the receiving end of a necromantic spell and had a piece of foreign soul spliced with my own. I wanted answers as to what exactly happened to me, and Vani suggested I approach your tribe for help. But since he had no idea how to actually find them, he named you as a possible contact.”
“Ah, that’s… more serious than I thought,” she said. “I’m sorry I pried. Are you…”
“I’m fine,” said Zorian, waving her off. “Don’t worry about it. I found a nice priest that helped me learn how to sense and protect my soul, so there should be no further incidents like that.”
“I see. That’s good,” she said. She stared to the side for a few seconds, considering something, before refocusing back on him. “So did you at least get any good abilities out of the whole thing?”
“I’m… not sure,” Zorian said evasively. “I’m still not sure what exactly the newest addition to my soul is or what it does.”
“Really?” she frowned. “But didn’t you say you learned how to sense your soul?
“So why don’t you just focus on the spliced part for a while and try to figure out what it is? That sounds important to know. I know you probably want to forget about whatever happened to you, but as a shifter I can tell you it’s very unhealthy to ignore parts of your soul because they won’t ignore you.”
“Hold on, how would I sense a part of my soul?” Zorian frowned. “That wasn’t a part of the lesson I received from the priest.”
Raynie opened her mouth to say something before quickly closing it. She stayed silent for a while, considering something.
“You know,” she finally said, “I’m not sure whether anyone other than shifters would even want to sense specific parts of their soul. No need, probably. Unless they intend to modify it somehow, and that’s usually a bad idea. And also not something a priest would do, unless they’re a very heretical priest. So your teacher probably didn’t even know that it could be done.”
“Oh,” Zorian said lamely.
“Do you want me to teach you how to do it?” Raynie asked.
“What?” asked Zorian. “Really? Aren’t shifters very secretive about their magic?”
“No?” Raynie said uncertainly. “Not about stuff like this, anyway. This is simple stuff, every shifter learns how to do this as a child. They have to if they want to make use of their abilities properly. I can’t see any harm in teaching you how to do it if you’re willing, and I kind of feel like I owe you for all the help you’ve given me during the practice sessions you organized.”
Huh, something good came out of that time sink? This restart was just full of surprises.
“Well, I’m willing,” he shrugged. “Name the time and the place.”
He didn’t have much hope that a technique designed to sense a part of your soul would give him anything particularly substantial about his soul marker, but it didn’t hurt to try and see if it led to something.
At the very least, Raynie implied it was a simple thing to learn, so it shouldn’t become another thing vying for his time.
* * *
As it turned out, the method for sensing parts of your soul turned out to be rather simple when someone actually pointed it out to you. Well, provided one had already gone through the trouble of developing a personal soul sense beforehand. The results he got when he used it to inspect his soul were… better than he hoped. He actually could sense his marker and the way it was woven into his soul, but unlike shifters, he didn’t get any instinctive understanding of its function and how to use it (if it could be actually used by the one it was stamped on). Which made sense, considering it was not actually a part of his soul in the way a shifter’s alternate form was.
Raynie herself seemed unfazed by the partial failure and told him to keep trying for a while. It usually took months for shifters to fully map out the way different parts of their soul interacted with one another, and while she doubted his case made him as complex as a shifter she felt it was too early to give up after a single day or two.
Fair enough. He supposed he could set aside an hour or two every weekend and see if it led anywhere.
In the meantime, the day of the summer festival approached and Zorian became consumed with preparations for the end of the restart. This time, he had something a bit more ambitious he wanted to try out.
He was going to try and infiltrate the Ibasan main base during the invasion and pass through the dimensional gate to see where it led. And then, hopefully, find someone new and more interesting to interrogate on the other side.