Sitting alone in the train’s compartment, Zorian stared through the window at the passing landscape, lost in thought and not really paying attention to what he was looking at. He was supposed to have disembarked already, but the events that had happened at the end of the previous restart were still at the forefront of his mind and he figured it was best to delay his plans for a few hours until he was less distracted. It wasn’t like he had some tight schedule to follow this early into the restart.
Closing his eyes for a second, he searched his soul for the marker switch he’d used to escape Sudomir and immersed himself in the impressions it gave him whenever he connected to it. The switch in question did not announce its purpose in words, but it made itself understood anyway – it was the abrupt end of everything, followed by a return to the beginning.
Revert to starting point. That was what the switch claimed its function was, and, as far as Zorian could tell, that is exactly what it had done when he’d used it at the end of the previous restart.
He had a way to end the current restart at whim. He could start over at any time without leaving behind a soul that could be interrogated and messed with. Hell, he wouldn’t be leaving behind anything – the world would end on his command. All it took was pressing a switch.
That changed everything. Necromancy, in many ways his worst enemy, was suddenly a lot less dangerous and frightening. The risk of having his suicide rings taken away or negated by fancy wards also became a lot less worrisome – the marker was virtually impossible to detect or take away from him. Many ideas he had previously dismissed on the grounds that they were too dangerous to attempt, such as exploring Iasku Mansion or pissing off Quatach-Ichl by aggressively going after Ibasan forces, were suddenly back on the table.
Getting killed or knocked out before he could react was still a danger, though, as was the possibility of being drugged into submission. He wondered if he could set up some sort of contingency to trigger the revert switch automatically upon his death… it would require delving deeper into soul magic, but that may be a smart thing to do anyway, and eliminating one of his major remaining weaknesses was no small feat.
A possible issue was that the revert switch might affect Zach and Red Robe as well, not just him. Was their restart cut short as a consequence of his action in the previous restart? Probably. It must have been, if the switch worked like he thought it did. There was a chance they’d failed to note the abrupt end, since he’d activated the revert switch very close to the time it usually ended at anyway… but since he intended to keep using the revert switch, that wasn’t going to last very long.
It didn’t really matter, though, even if they had noticed. Both Zach and Red Robe had already known there were at least two other time travelers in the time loop, so this told them nothing particularly important. Well, it might come as a bit of a shock to Zach, since he’d never had his restart cut short like that, but whatever. He could now experience what it was like for Zorian when the other boy went around fighting dragons and whatnot.
Opening his eyes, Zorian withdrew from the marker and refocused his attention on the passing landscape for a bit. It did not hold his attention for long before his mind drifted back to the events of the previous restart.
Truthfully, he hadn’t expected his gate exploration initiative to be as successful as it ended up being. He had expected to face better and more numerous defenses on the Cyorian side of the gate, and once he managed to step through it, he expected to emerge into another heavily guarded Ibasan base. He hadn’t expected to live long once on the other side. In fact, it honestly would not have surprised him if he had died before ever reaching the gate itself, nevermind actually accomplishing much on the other side. The first try had been primarily about testing the Ibasan defenses to see what he was dealing with.
Well, apparently he had been far too modest in his ambitions. He got everything he had been hoping for, and more. Now that he knew just how undermanned and unprofessional the defense of the gate was, and that there were no Ibasan reinforcements on the other side to come to their aid, he could afford to be a lot more direct in future attempts. Bringing a small army of golems and wiping out every defender so he could study the gate at his leisure actually seemed like a viable option. Granted, he would have to do it without giving the defenders a chance to summon Quatach-Ichl, but it seemed doable. As a bonus, said golems would be heaven-sent against the hordes of undead infesting Iasku Mansion. They were just as tireless as the living dead, and had no souls for the necromancer to mess with.
Of course, it was impossible to think about Iasku Mansion without automatically considering that final confrontation he’d had with Sudomir Kandrei at the end, and that soured Zorian’s feeling of success somewhat. He got out of the situation unscathed in the end, but the fact was, he got thoroughly outplayed and backed into a corner by a dangerous necromancer and had to rely on an untested ability to escape from his clutches. That wasn’t the way Zorian wanted his conflicts to go.
To be fair, though, the situation might not have been as bad as it looked. The restart was nearing its end by that point, so perhaps he could have stalled the man long enough to avoid any serious consequences. Failing that, he could have thrown a maximized fireball at his feet and hoped that reducing his body to fine ash interfered with Sudomir’s ability to snare his soul. It was hard to know how dangerous the situation truly had been without knowing more about Sudomir’s personality, or the limits of his necromancy skills.
Well, he was going to find out more about the man very soon. For one thing, Sudomir was the mayor of Knyazov Dveri, and therefore a public figure – there should be lots of information available about him, in both official and unofficial sources. For another, Zorian intended to keep attacking the gate beneath Cyoria and exploring Iasku Mansion at the end of every future restart. There was no reason to pass up on that, really – the defenses of the gate were sufficiently flimsy that it wouldn’t eat much into his schedule to organize an assault at the end of the month, and the revert switch made the idea of exploring a necromancer’s lair a lot less crazy than it was up until recently.
He definitely had to do something about the wards on the place, though. Sudomir seemed to have placed some very sophisticated stuff on Iasku Mansion, and Zorian didn’t feel comfortable just ignoring them. Who knows what kind of exotic, forbidden stuff a necromancer like Sudomir wove into his warding scheme?
Maybe he could avoid triggering the wards at all? If he could find some way to pass the initial authorization test upon stepping through the gate, the wards should stay dormant. There had to be a keystone or some such that let people pass through unmolested, there was no way Sudomir keyed in every individual Ibasan into the damn ward scheme.
After some thought, he decided that such a bypass would be useful, but would likely just delay the problem – if it was Zorian in Sudomir’s place, he would have definitely placed further tripwires around the mansion to foil such abuse. Considering how much Sudomir relied on his wards to deal with intruders, he was bound to have thought of that and more.
He was wrenched out of his musings by the voice of the station announcer, who informed him that the train was soon going to arrive to its next destination. Deciding he had delayed things a bit too much as it was, Zorian grabbed his luggage and went off in search of an exit.
It was time to visit the aranean colonies again.
* * *
The last time Zorian had tried to get instructions from the Luminous Advocates, the result was a frustrating negotiation process that had lasted for nearly three weeks and had consumed the entirety of his funds in exchange for useful, but decidedly non-critical knowledge. The one thing he had needed back then, they had been unwilling to teach him. Consequently, he had stopped bothering with them. Especially since he had since found other, much more reasonable webs to trade with.
The situation had changed, however. He was a lot better at mind magic now, so they should hopefully look down on him a lot less. He was also in a much better position to satisfy their assorted demands, thanks to the discovery of the aranean treasury back in Cyoria and the ability to steal money and resources from the Cult of Dragon Below by raiding their caches. Finally, after getting taught about aranean culture and customs from Voice of Peace, he had come to a conclusion that he had likely bungled his previous interaction with Luminous Advocates somewhat. He had come off as impatient and disrespectful, which probably had a lot to do with them dragging the negotiations out for several weeks – it was both the means of pressuring him into giving them greater concessions and a way of getting back at him for a perceived slight.
That was why, when Zorian went off to meet with the Luminous Advocates on the first day of the restart, he didn’t offer a trade proposal. Instead, he simply introduced himself and asked for a meeting sometime in the future. He was told to come back in two days. He did just that, at which point he presented the Luminous Advocates with a gift and spent several hours pretending he’d just dropped by to have a friendly chat with them instead of anything serious. Only then did he present his offer, starting with a very ambitious plan where he offered a lot and demanded just as much. They refused, of course, making a counteroffer that was ridiculously more in their favor, and so the negotiations began…
It took them an entire week and a half to agree on a deal in the end, which was slow and annoying, but still a lot better than before. The agreement, much like the one he’d had with the Filigree Sages in the previous restart, went beyond his primary goal of learning how to repair memory packets and also encompassed refinement of his basic telepathy skills, practice of mental combat techniques and further development of his ability to tap into and interpret aranean senses. The last one was not something the Luminous Advocates had any real experience with, by their own admission, but they were willing to lend him their considerable expertise on the topic. In fact, that was the part of the deal they seemed most excited about.
Of course, Zorian didn’t spend said week and a half idling around while the Luminous Advocates dragged their feet – he spent most of that time scouting out other aranean webs to see what they were able and willing to offer him. He visited the Talisman Bearers, Ghost Serpent Acolytes and Silent Doorway Adepts – the three ‘shady’ webs that the Illustrious Gem Collectors had informed him about back when he’d first sought other aranean webs to learn from. Back then he didn’t feel safe dealing with them, but his skills at shielding his mind had grown considerably since then. He also toured the seven webs in the vicinity of Cyoria that he’d found out about from the Filigree Sages – the Burning Apex, Red Brand Bearers, Deep Blue, Crystal Torches, Indestructible Silver Order, Stone Revelation Chanters and Riddles of Opening. All of them were interesting in their own way, but none of them could really help him with his memory packet repairing problem better than the Luminous Advocates could.
The Talisman Bearers were a magic-focused web – the most heavily magic-focused one that Zorian had ever encountered – and were thus a bad choice to go to when dealing with a relatively exotic mind magic issue like his. Still, visiting them had not been a waste of time in the slightest. Out of curiosity, he had bought several of the metal discs they used for their spellcasting to see how they worked. The spell formula designs etched into the discs blew him away – subjected to size and scarcity restrictions largely foreign to human spellcasting communities, the Talisman Bearers focused on squeezing in as many spells as they possibly could onto their primary spellcasting tool. The design was complex and incredibly dense, but it worked smoothly and efficiently, without the destructive resonances and disruptions that usually plagued such highly compressed spell formula constructs.
The discs were useless to Zorian in their natural state – he wasn’t an aranea, and these tools were very much intended for aranean use. Still, they were sufficiently similar to human spell formula that he could learn a lot from studying them. Considering how much he relied on items, any advantage in that area was noteworthy.
The Ghost Serpent Acolytes refused to see him. Apparently their god/guardian spirit told them he was bad news and that they should tell him to get lost. He had no idea what that was about, but it automatically made the web a lot more interesting than he expected. What did the spirit know about Zorian that pissed it off so much? He left the Ghost Serpent Acolytes alone for now, but he made a mental note to visit the web again in the next restart, before doing anything else, to see if they reacted the same way.
The Silent Doorway Adepts were another surprise, because the ‘doorway’ in their name came from the Bakora gate around which they built their settlement. That was very, very interesting. They got really uncomfortable when he started asking questions about it, too, blatantly trying to change the subject. They claimed the gate mystified them as much as it mystified humans, but Zorian wasn’t sure he believed that. There was definitely a story there, and their web was famous for having some kind of secret magic that allowed them to get into places. Still, it was obvious he wouldn’t be getting anything out of them on the topic, so he politely backed off and moved on to other topics.
Sadly, they had no interest in teaching him things. They pointed him back towards some of the webs he’d already known about, such as the Luminous Advocates, and that was that. That was not to say they were not interested in trade, though – they very much were. They showed passing interest in most of the stuff he offered, but what really caught their attention was crystalized mana. They really wanted crystalized mana for some reason – they were willing to take all of it off his hands, if he was willing, or as much as he could spare otherwise. In exchange, they offered a wide variety of magical items and tomes, all clearly of human origin… and many of them very much illegal. They also offered to put him in contact with some of their human ‘trade partners’, in case he wanted something they currently lacked. They also admitted, after some prodding, that they could provide him with information about other aranean webs – where they could be found, what they were famous for, and what their weaknesses were. They warned him, however, that they would cut all ties with him if he misused such information.
After some thought, Zorian asked them about alternatives to the Luminous Advocates when it came to mind magic specialists, agreeing to their price for such information. After a few hours, their representative returned with the information in question, giving him the names and locations for about eight more webs that were notable for their mind magic mastery. He thanked them for the information and left.
The seven webs around Cyoria all had some things in common. For one, they were all very friendly to humans and a lot easier to talk to than any of the other webs he had been interacting with recently. For another, they were all magic-focused webs – Cyoria was the epicenter of the aranean magical revolution, and all nearby webs had adapted to take advantage of that in some fashion. Finally, they were a lot more hostile to their neighbors than the other webs he had spoken with. The Burning Apex, Red Brand Bearers, Crystal Torches and Indestructible Silver Order all tried to hire him to attack their neighbors, and the Burning Apex outright stated that they intended to massacre the entire Riddles of Opening web whenever they got the chance, down to the last male and child. Oh, and all of them were very interested in any information about the Cyorian webs and any possible weaknesses they might have.
Zorian suddenly understood why Spear of Resolve had been so worried about her neighbors and wanted to get humans on her side.
Thankfully, none of the webs actually insisted that he had to help fight their battles, and were happy enough to engage in more peaceful forms of trade. Naturally, Zorian was primarily interested in mind magic instruction. The local groups, although primarily magic focused, did have decent grasp of their innate mind magic… especially when it came to telepathic combat. Most of them were fine in tutoring him in their abilities, although the Stone Revelation Chanters and Indestructible Silver Order required a higher level of commitment than he was able to spare in this particular restart. In addition, most of them also traded in exotic alchemical ingredients gathered in the deep dungeon, some of which were impossible to acquire on the open market.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to hide from a bunch of natural mind readers that he had contacted other aranea groups in the area while receiving tutoring in mind magic from them, so he could only get instruction from one of the local webs. Most of them didn’t care if he was also receiving instruction from the Luminous Advocates, though, except for the Crystal Torches, who refused to teach him anything if they weren’t the only ones teaching him.
He chose Deep Blue in the end, because they were one of the three major webs in the area and struck him as the most peaceful of the lot. Also, Deep Blue mind magic specialized in dominating and manipulating the various monstrous denizens of the Dungeon. Zorian figured their methods of dealing with creatures very different from themselves might also be useful in his quest to understand the aranean mind. And if not, well, being more effective at herding and neutralizing magical creatures was still a pretty useful skill to have.
Thus, he’d secured himself two tutorships from two different aranea groups for the restart. The Luminous Advocates complained, questioning the usefulness of a web like Deep Blue when he’d already secured the services of ‘the best of the best’, but Zorian couldn’t help but notice that they got rather more motivated in their teaching ever since he’d done that.
Trying to arrange for a third group of aranean teachers would definitely be a mistake, though. Best not be too greedy.
* * *
Not much happened until the very end of the restart. He dutifully kept learning mind magic from the Luminous Advocates and Deep Blue, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was advancing his studies in other magical disciplines and preparing things for the upcoming gate assault at the end of the restart. He was rapidly going through magical books he’d recovered from the aranean treasury in Cyoria, writing down any interesting spell he could find and outright memorizing ones that looked particularly useful. Ward analysis divinations, new combat spells, mind magic of the more structured kind… he’d learned so many new spells he had trouble remembering them all. He was also steadily trying out new shaping exercises, writing down which ones were easiest to work with, which ones had a trick to doing them right and which ones became much easier if he did some other exercises before them. He was surprised how lacking the various exercise manuals were in regards to crucial information like that.
By the time the restart was nearing its end, Zorian was ready for another attempt at the gate. He had adjusted his arsenal in light of what he had discovered about his opponents and thus had made six golems to bring along with him as support. He’d also captured several Ibasans during his trips to Cyoria, trying to discover a method of passing through the gate without triggering the wards on Iasku Mansion. Sadly, none of them knew the answer to that particular mystery. He could only hope that the actual gate guards were better informed.
Finally, he had tried to find out as much as he could about Sudomir Kandrei without attracting too much attention. Since the secret master of Iasku Mansion was also the mayor of Knyazov Dveri, he did that by teleporting to the town in question and started asking people questions and reading their minds while they talked. He found out that Sudomir had an excellent reputation among the people he governed – he was a capable administrator under whom the city grew a lot more rich and influential than it had previously been. He took full advantage of Eldemar’s northern colonization drive to catapult the city to prominence, and then generously spread the wealth gained from that among the locals. He was known to be a rather secretive and private person, but very friendly and talkative when actually interacting with others. He was a powerful and talented mage, with a specialty in wards. His wife had died during the Weeping, and he was hurt deeply by it, never bothering to remarry.
Interestingly, Iasku Mansion wasn’t as big of a secret as Zorian first imagined it to be. Quite a few people knew that Sudomir had some kind of secret hideout in the wilderness to the north, and that shady stuff happened there. However, most people thought that Sudomir’s brand of shadiness involved smuggling of restricted merchandise and organizing drug-fueled orgies and what not. Basically, they thought he was connected to organized crime groups, not that he was animating corpses and betraying the country.
On the day of the summer festival, Zorian went to Cyoria and descended into the dungeon below the city to wait for the invasion to start. He couldn’t find the group of hook goblins he’d used previously – him not being in Cyoria and killing monsters with Taiven had completely altered the distribution of monsters in the Dungeon compared to the previous restart – so in the end he settled for a female tentacle-tailed scorpion. Mostly because she had hundreds of young, and they followed her lead in everything. If he ordered her to attack the Ibasan base, they would do the same, with no need for specific directions coming from him.
Zorian slipped into the base while she and her brood distracted the defenders, much like he had last time. The golems, being much slower than him and very un-stealthy, were ordered to stay behind while he went off to subdue the more disciplined mages and war trolls stationed around the gate itself.
The war trolls were annoying. He needed the mages alive so he could interrogate them about the gate protections and the methods they used to summon Quatach-Ichl, but anything that would disable them would also fail to work against the war trolls. After some thought, he simply set up incineration traps a fair distance away from the gate and then started using a combination of guidance spells and gas bombs to bombard the area around the gate from a fair distance away. He turned the entire area into a thick cloud of sleeping gas, probably wasting more than half of the bombs needlessly, but whatever. The important thing was that the mages all ended up incapacitated and the war trolls came running after him, screaming their heads off.
They ran straight into the incineration traps, but rather than dying a horrible, fiery death, they survived the experience just fine. It took only a second for Zorian to realize what was happening. They weren’t regular war trolls – no, these were the same sort of hyper-resilient ones that he and Taiven had encountered in one of the previous restarts. The ones that shrugged off fire. He teleported away in time to avoid being crushed to a pulp by the huge iron maces the two trolls wielded, but it was a short-distance teleport and they were upon him again in a heartbeat.
The resulting battle, which consisted mostly of Zorian teleporting around and throwing things at increasingly angry and injured war trolls, resulted in expenditure of nearly all of his prepared explosives and the destruction of four of his golems when he was forced to summon them as distractions half-way throughout the battle. Damn it.
But at least he was alive and well, and the same could not be said of his opponents. The war trolls were eventually frozen solid by freezing rays, after which he shattered them into pieces just to be sure. Live and learn – next time he was using frost traps instead.
Checking up on the rest of the Ibasans, he found them losing against the tentacle-tailed scorpions. They managed to wound the mother, but that only made her spawn go berserk with rage and they surged forth with suicidal fury. The Ibasans scattered in front of them, and Zorian made sure to pick off anyone that looked like they were actually making a dent in the horde or trying to organize the defenders.
With most of the threats neutralized, he went back to the gate and banished the cloud of sleeping gas that clung to the place so he could reach the mages he’d incapacitated.
What he found from their minds was encouraging. First of all, the four he’d incapacitated were the only ones that knew how to contact Quatach-Ichl. That was why the other defenders came to beg them for help in the previous restart – they weren’t asking for permission to summon Quatach-Ichl, they literally didn’t know how to do it themselves. The method itself consisted of a simple sending spell, though one that required a particular keystone to actually reach the ancient lich.
He had seen the keystone in question before, he realized. It was the teardrop-shaped amulet of polished black stone that high-ranking Ibasans always wore. He thought it was a purely ornamental thing to mark their station to other Ibasans, since it gave off no magic and had nothing whatsoever etched into its surface, but apparently he was wrong. Even now he could not figure out how it was supposed to work as a keystone, and he didn’t dare analyze it too deeply, lest he trip some invisible tripwire and summon Quatach-Ichl to his location. He didn’t feel like receiving a disintegration beam to the face at the moment.
Also, the way to enter the gate ‘properly’ consisted of letting a high-ranking Ibasan step through the gate first. This signaled to the wards in Iasku Mansion that everything was fine and everyone who entered after them is with them and thus also okay by association. Zorian did not know whether these specific Ibasans were keyed into the wards themselves or if the wards were detecting the presence of the keystone they all had on their person, and he didn’t care. He simply pushed one of the unconscious Ibasans through the gate, amulet included, and stepped through afterwards. Just to be safe, he instructed his two surviving golems to immediately follow after him.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the wards failed to react to his presence and the gate didn’t close. Success.
“Let’s see what I can find before Sudomir realizes he has an intruder in his home,” Zorian mumbled to himself, stepping over the unconscious body of the Ibasan he pushed through the gate.
He motioned his two golem bodyguards to follow after him and then moved deeper into Iasku Mansion.
* * *
Considering it was one of the invasion points used to attack Cyoria, Iasku Mansion was surprisingly empty. Now that he didn’t have to dodge undead attackers all the time, Zorian had time to explore the interior and was baffled by how seemingly ordinary it was. It was an empty, but otherwise unexceptional mansion.
He encountered neither traps nor undead until he tried to move towards the very center of the mansion, where he suspected Sudomir was located. At that point he crossed some invisible threshold and he felt the wards try to probe his soul and fail. A heavy feeling promptly settled down around him as the wards concentrated their energies around him.
Knowing that the hordes of undead inside the place were making their way towards him and no longer caring about stealth, Zorian started testing the wards to see what exactly they did. He began by throwing one of his last remaining explosives in front of him and activating it to see if it would work. It did, but that didn’t necessarily mean the adjustments he’d made since last time were actually working. In the previous restart, his explosives had worked just fine at first, only to suddenly fail when he faced off against Sudomir. In all likelihood, the warding scheme only turned on its heaviest defenses when Sudomir commanded it to do so, and left them dormant otherwise to conserve mana.
Trying to scry on the dimensional gate to see if it had closed when the wards turned on him failed – nothing inside the house could be targeted by any of the divination spells he was aware of. Teleporting out didn’t work, and connecting a recall tether to a stone cylinder and launching it through the window as far as it could go didn’t allow him to recall himself out of the place either. The wards were also filling the entire mansion with a low-powered shaping disruption field – not enough to stop him from casting things, but definitely making his spellcasting take longer and require more concentration.
He considered simply escaping outside through the windows – a surprisingly viable option, since they were very large and could be opened easily from the inside – but decided not to. Sudomir seemed pretty talkative in the previous restart, and now that Zorian knew he had a guaranteed way out, he wanted to see what would happen if he talked to the man. Maybe Sudomir was the sort of person who liked to gloat? It was stupid, but there were people like that.
Over the next half an hour, Zorian fought against an endless stream of undead. Unlike last time, he was able to conserve his dispeller grenades and other items by relying on his golems to keep some of the animated corpses busy while he tackled the rest. He was sufficiently effective at whittling down the army of undead, in fact, that Sudomir eventually decided to withdraw his remaining forces rather than see them all destroyed. Or at least that’s what Zorian assumed, since all of the undead boars and black-clad corpses turned and fled at some point.
Huh. He did not expect that. He wondered whether Sudomir would even show up without Zorian being completely exhausted by his minions. Sudomir was clearly watching him, either through divinations or via some spying function embedded into the wards, so he surely knew Zorian was still dangerous to approach.
Shrugging, Zorian started analyzing the wards with the help of the ward analysis device he took from the aranean treasury. If Sudomir decided to stay away, that just meant he could deconstruct his warding scheme at his leisure, and that was still a win in his book.
Like he suspected, the wards did not like him trying to figure them out. If he hadn’t already outed himself as an intruder, he was certain that his current attempt at analysis would have branded him as such immediately. Zorian expected as much – that was why he hadn’t tried that the moment he stepped through the dimensional gate. What he didn’t expect was for the wards to actively fight back against his analysis. The shifting of the local ward fields around him and the repeated disrupting pulses directed his way were disturbingly adaptive, too intelligently used to come from a mindless spell construct. Was Sudomir somehow adjusting the warding scheme on the fly or were the wards themselves somehow intelligent?
The air in front of him shimmered in a vaguely humanoid shape, and Zorian immediately fired a force lance at the spot. The shimmer was unaffected, though, and soon solidified into a ghostly image of a familiar man. A tall, older, muscular man, dressed in an expensive brown suit. He had a huge mustache and a smiling, sunny expression on his face.
Zorian wasn’t fooled, though. While Sudomir’s illusionary projection tried to give off an air of happy indifference, his smile was noticeably more strained compared to how it was the last time he had seen him.
“Hi there!” Sudomir greeted him through his projection. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but this is a private residence. You can’t just come in here and start tearing the place apart! What did I ever do to you, anyway?”
“I’m surprised you’re willing to show your face so openly, Sudomir Kandrei,” Zorian stated, scanning his surroundings to make sure Sudomir was not trying to distract him with his projection while setting up a surprise attack.
“Ha! A mage of your caliber doesn’t stumble into a place like this accidentally,” Sudomir scoffed. “Your skills, your equipment… you already knew who and what was here, I’m sure. The interesting question is, who are you? It’s only polite to introduce yourself to people, don’t you know?”
“Why did you help the Ibasans organize their attack on Cyoria?” Zorian asked, not interested in giving any personal information to Sudomir and not really finding the man’s antics amusing. “The death toll is in the thousands, and will only grow larger by the end. What did those people ever do to you, Sudomir?”
“Ah. It’s nothing personal, really,” Sudomir shrugged, his smile dimming somewhat. “They’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Politics can be brutal like that.”
“Politics?” asked Zorian incredulously. “They’re trying to release a primordial to rampage around the continent and you think that’s somehow in your political interest!? I can understand how the Ibasans think this is a good thing for them, but what about you? Why would you want that to happen?”
Sudomir stared at him for a second with a judging look on his face.
“So you know about that too, huh?” he said, clacking his tongue in distaste. “Well, I don’t think I feel comfortable discussing my goals with you, my dear home invader. However, just between you and me, I’d wager the Ibasans are too optimistic about this primordial’s supposed danger level. It’s going to do a lot of damage, I’m sure, but to imagine it running around the continent, destroying things at whim? Not a chance. I give it at best a week before Eldemar gathers enough troops to kill it. And that’s assuming it’s not just a dumb animal that will wander into the first trap they set for it.”
“That’s a very reckless attitude to have about the scenario,” Zorian frowned. “What if you’re wrong?”
“Nothing in life comes without risk,” Sudomir said in a lecturing voice.
Ugh. He was going nowhere with this conversation, and the man was blatantly stalling for time. He dispelled the projection with a wave of his hand and started walking towards the center of the mansion again, his two golem bodyguards walking in front of him. There was no point in trying to analyze the wards again, since he couldn’t get through the weirdly intelligent safeguards Sudomir had put in place to prevent such things.
Another ghostly projection shimmered into existence in front of him, but he dispelled it before it had a chance to speak.
“Now that’s just rude!” a disembodied voice echoed all around him. No more projection this time – just sound that followed him around wherever he went. “We were having a conversation!”
There was a locked door in his way, so Zorian chucked one of his three remaining explosive cubes at it. It failed to work when he gave it a signal to explode.
“Sorry, but no explosions in my house,” Sudomir’s disembodied voice declared.
Zorian frowned. Just like in the previous restart. And he had adjusted his explosive to try and counter the effect too. Worrying. By themselves, anti-explosion wards were nothing new. Every important building had them. Most of the time, though, they were just basic things that could not stand up to Zorian’s craftsmanship. Sudomir’s wards could not only counter his basic explosives, but also his specialized work that was expressly designed to work inside a heavily warded area.
His hand instinctively grasped one of the explosive rings he carried around his neck. His old suicide method, which he opted to still carry around just in case. He quickly took off one of the rings and threw it at the door, wanting to see if they would work. The suicide rings were his most sophisticated work, after all, designed to work no matter what the circumstances.
The ring failed to blow up. Hmm. Maybe the wards worked on some exotic principle that totally shut down all spell formula-based explosives?
To test that theory, he threw a bottle of liquid explosive, alchemically made and devoid of any fancy spellwork, at the door in question. The bottle exploded as intended, sending dust and wooden splinters everywhere.
So alchemy-based explosives still work. Good to know.
“Just how many expendables did you bring with you?” Sudomir asked him through his voice spell. “It must have cost a fortune! I’m flattered that you spent all that money on little old me, but is that really the best use of your resources?”
After that, the remaining undead in the mansion started attacking him again, trying to ambush him from nearby rooms as he tried to navigate the confusing inner layout of the mansion. They failed to actually hurt him, but they slowed his advance to a crawl and ended up being enough in the end.
He literally ran out of time – the restart ended before he could track down Sudomir and confront him.
Oh well, there was always next time.
* * *
The next restart was largely similar to the previous one. He still contacted Deep Blue and the Luminous Advocates for mind magic instructions and largely spent the entire restart working on his mind magic. He did make a minor deviation at the start of the restart in order to visit the the Ghost Serpent Acolytes, though.
They told him the exact same thing they had in the previous restart: the Ghost Serpent says he’s bad news and that he should go away. Trying to find out why he was bad news yielded no results – the spirit the web in question worshipped refused to say what about him was ‘bad news’. The very knowledge of what sort of bad news he was, was in itself bad news. He was the worst news.
Bizarre. Well, disliking someone for no reason was no crime and, short of attacking the Ghost Serpent Acolytes, there was nothing Zorian could do about the situation. And if he attacked them, then he was kind of vindicating the asshole spirit in a way, wasn’t he?
His lessons with the Luminous Advocates progressed at a rapid pace. By the end of the restart, he was ready to attempt to repair the matriarch’s memory packet. It worked… sort of. The packet wasn’t exactly fixed, but he’d halted the degradation and bought himself another two months before it would start to decay again. That, the Luminous Advocates informed him, was the only thing that could really be done about a decaying foreign memory packet – you mentally stitch it together and it would hold for a time, but that process was in itself destructive to the packet, so there were only so many times one could repair it. Based on the size and condition of the matriarch’s memory packet, the Luminous Advocates thought it could only be repaired one more time without risking its destruction.
He had two more months to get better at memory packet repairs, after which he would get one more chance to buy some time. That meant that, depending on how good the second round of repairs went, he had about four or five more restarts at most to get good enough at interpreting aranean memories to read the memories stored in the packet.
He decided he had to get some experience with reading aranean memories. Actually reading aranean memories, not doing simplified exercises with aranean tutors. Of course, neither the Luminous Advocates nor Deep Blue would agree to work with him on that, and he would bet that no other web could be talked into it either. No, that sort of thing was virtually always a hostile act – something you do to your enemies.
So the solution was simple. He had to find some aranean enemies.
His first idea was to go after the Sword Divers. After all, they did try to ambush him once, and he still held a grudge about that, even if they didn’t remember any of it. It even worked for a time – he managed to ambush several Sword Diver patrols and captured them for memory reading.
His first two attempts to read the aranean mind ended up about as well as his first attempt at reading human minds. That is, not well at all. He improved quickly, however, and soon found out some interesting things about Sword Divers. They had a habit of attacking vulnerable mages, it turned out – they limited themselves to mages that tried to explore the Dungeon beneath Korsa, and they were very careful about whom they targeted, but they were definitely willing to attack anyone they saw as an easy target. They also lived very deep in the Dungeon, and any time they made the wrong person ‘disappear’, they just retreated from the surface layers until the searches and outrage died down.
And that is what the Sword Divers did when they realized someone was targeting them – they flat out abandoned the Dungeon beneath Korsa, retreating into the depths. Having read their minds, Zorian knew it would be weeks, perhaps months before they deigned to return, and he didn’t dare follow after them.
So he just looted their surface money stashes (more out of spite than because he really needed the cash) and went searching for more targets.
He asked both Deep Blue and the Luminous Advocates if they knew an aranean web they wouldn’t mind targeted. Surprisingly, it was the Luminous Advocates that were more interested – he expected Deep Blue to jump to the chance, considering their neighborhood, but they were actually pretty content with their current situation. They did offer him a job, however… one that they claimed would buy him pretty much anything he wanted out of them. Basically, they wanted him to get rid of the crystal ooze that was harassing their resource gathering expeditions into the deeper parts of the Dungeon.
Crystal oozes were virtually immune to physical damage, quite fast, absorbed most forms of magical energy, could shoot arrow-like shards of crystal at things that annoyed them, and even a tiny prickle from one of their crystal blades and shards would rapidly turn a living being into a crystal statue. They were sometimes called crystal basilisks, and they were one of those nightmare monsters that nobody actually wanted to fight unless there was no choice.
Deep Blue didn’t seem very surprised when he declined their offer.
As for the Luminous Advocates, they were apparently under constant threat from a web they called ‘The Demon Skin Web’ or the ‘Howling Ones’. Those weren’t their real names, but since that particular web refused to talk to any of the other ones and simply did the telepathic equivalent of screaming whenever someone tried to talk to them, the Luminous Advocates didn’t know what to call them. The Luminous Advocates indicated they wouldn’t mind to see them gone, or at least thinned out a bit.
Well, by the end of the restart, Zorian had found out a lot of things about them. Such as that they called themselves Challengers of the Unspeakable, and were the so-called ‘old aranea’ – the magicless, original webs that got conquered, assimilated or exterminated by the newer, magic-using webs originating from underneath Cyoria. They had watched all their old neighbors fall before the tide of magic-using newcomers, either through violent conquest or through magic-using immigrants, until they were the only ones left. As far as they were concerned, it was the Luminous Advocates who were ‘The Demon Skin Web’.
Tragic, but Challengers of the Unspeakable were also violent killers that actively raided their neighbors, and even nearby human communities when they could get away with it. Zorian had no qualms about raiding them back.
Finally, as the end of the restart approached, he started finalizing his preparations for another gate assault. This time his golem brigade would hopefully survive long enough to actually step into Iasku Mansion along with him, giving him solid superiority over Sudomir’s undead guards.
As they say, third time’s the charm.