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Chapter 051
Out of Control

The new restart began in the same manner as all of his previous restarts – with Kirielle mercilessly jumping on top of him to wake him up.

“Good morning, brother!” Kirielle yelled on top of him. “Morning, m- Hey!”

With a simple act of will, Zorian seized Kirielle telekinetically and levitated her into the air. She stopped her customary morning greeting with a startled yelp, her hands grasping around her in a panicky attempt to find some sort of purchase and stop her ascent. She struggled in vain. Perhaps if she had been expecting Zorian to levitate her off of him, she could have grabbed onto something in time, but she had been caught completely by surprise and was entirely at his mercy. After a few moments of wild flailing, she seemed to realize this and pouted at him.

“That’s not fair,” she complained, looking down on him from her vantage point above him. “Since when can you even do that?”

Zorian ignored the question, instead studying the magic he was using to levitate her with his mana perception. He was still a long way from mastering even the most basic forms of mana perception, but an entire month of Xvim’s tutelage was definitely showing its results. Even a rudimentary ability to sense his own mana flow helped immensely when performing unstructured magic like he was currently doing, allowing him to notice and correct minute flaws in his technique that would have otherwise destabilized the whole undertaking. It was somewhat embarrassing that he had neglected such a potent skill all this time, but maybe it was fortunate he had done so. It was Xvim’s guidance, as much as the shaping exercises themselves, that was responsible for his rapid growth in the skill, and he would have wasted a huge amount of time if he had tried to piece things together on his own.

Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, Kirielle suddenly started struggling again, swiping at him with her hands in an attempt to reel herself back down. Zorian promptly floated her further up in the air, causing her to miss his covers by a few hairs.

“Oh, come on!” she whined. “Zorian, don’t be such a jerk! Put me down!”

Zorian gave her an evil smile and started to float her sideways, away from the bed…

“Slowly!” Kirielle quickly clarified, catching on to what he intended to do. “Put me down slowly!”

He thought about letting her fall and then telekinetically catching her in the last moment before she hit the floor, but quickly discarded the idea. He wasn’t that confident in his unstructured levitation skills… or his timing, for that matter. He gently floated Kirielle down to the floor and got out of bed.

Unfortunately, Kirielle was rather fascinated by her brief experience with magical levitation, and was instantly upon him, bombarding him with an endless stream of questions. Well. That kind of backfired on him. He just couldn’t get her to calm down…

“How long can you keep doing that?” Kirielle asked.

“I don’t know,” Zorian said. And he really didn’t, but he was hoping that if he answered some of her more inconsequential questions, she would eventually give the matter a rest. As such, he tried to give her a more detailed answer. “It would depend heavily on how docile you were being and whether I had something else disrupting my concentration. At least an hour, assuming I had your cooperation.”

“Great!” Kirielle said happily. “In that case, I have an idea!”

* * *

Zorian slowly descended down the stairs, trying not to make too much noise. The idea, after all, was to surprise Mother, and he couldn’t exactly do that if-

“Zorian, get down here already!” his mother shouted, the sound of her footsteps making it clear she was rapidly approaching the bottom of the stairs. “Your breakfast is getting… cold…”

She entered the main hallway where the stairway was located and then stopped to stare at the spectacle. Zorian himself was fairly unremarkable, but Kirielle was floating in the air beside him instead of using the stairs.

There was a brief moment of silence as the two sides stared at each other, one in surprise and the other in expectation of an eventual reaction. In the end, though, it was Kirielle who eventually broke the standoff. The little imp just didn’t have the patience to stick to the plan.

“Mom, I’m flying!” Kirielle announced loudly, waving her hands up and down in mimicry of flapping wings.

Mother opened her mouth for a second to say something but then thought better of it. She silently rolled her eyes and turned her back on them, mumbling something uncharitable about mages and children.

“When you’re done playing around, come and eat,” she told Zorian, before disappearing into the kitchen again.

Zorian and Kirielle shared a glance. Conveniently enough, with Kirielle floating beside him as she was, they were actually at the same eye-level.

“It was totally worth it,” Kirielle opined.

Yeah. Yeah, it was.

* * *

“Thus it so happened that Sumrak’s quest for restoring his lost memories took him to Korsa, where he descended into the tunnels beneath the city in search of the mythical Scorpion Swordsmen, and the even more mythical Orb of Memory which they guarded,” Zorian spoke dramatically. “Little did he know, however, that the Scorpion Swordsmen were not nearly as honorable as the myths had made them out to be, and that his journey into the depths beneath Korsa would be his most dangerous adventure yet…”

Zorian swept his hand through the air with a flourish, and the illusion that was there promptly dissolved into ectoplasmic smoke, only to reform into a completely different illusionary scene.

Kirielle sat on the edge of her seat, listening in rapt attention. Over the various restarts, Zorian had more or less worked out what sort of things Kirielle found impressive and interesting, so it wasn’t very difficult to keep her attention these days. Which was good, because it made the long train ride at the start of the restart a lot more bearable, for both of them, than it would have otherwise been.

Only half of his attention was on the story he was telling, though – he was also considering what to do in this new restart. More specifically, he was considering whether to have another relatively quiet restart like the previous one had been, or if he should notify the Triumvirate Church about Sudomir’s soul trap. The first option seemed more sensible – he had only two more restarts (including this one) to raise his skill at interpreting aranean memories to levels necessary to open the matriarch’s memory packet, and he couldn’t afford to get distracted too much. Aside from that, the second option was very attention grabbing and had the potential of leading Red Robe straight towards him if he did it even slightly wrong.

The choice seemed obvious, but Zorian was getting concerned. Red Robe was being too quiet. Sure, the third time traveler may be laboring under the delusion that there’s a whole army of other time travelers out to get him, but Zorian would have still expected Red Robe to make some kind of move by now, even if strictly through proxies. That Zorian could detect no trace of Red Robe’s actions was slowly making him more and more paranoid. It didn’t help his peace of mind that both Taiven and Kael were even more certain than Zorian that Red Robe was planning something big rather than simply laying low. Stirring the hornet’s nest a little by exposing Sudomir to the authorities just might create enough waves to reveal what Red Robe was planning…

In addition to that, pointing the authorities towards Sudomir was bound to do wonders for his investigation into the invasion and their leadership. There was no way that an investigation into Sudomir would not point them towards the Cult of the Dragon Below and the Ibasans. That was almost certainly going to save Zorian months of work, if only because he could watch carefully who they’d arrest and then investigate those people on his own in future restarts. And if he could actually gain access to written records and the investigators’ memories? Absolutely priceless.

His main problem with trying to map out the organization of the invasion was that he was just one person and had to conduct his investigation under utmost secrecy. An official investigation would not labor under similar limitations. In fact, Zorian suspected that no matter how skilled and experienced he became over the restarts, he would never really be able to match the investigative power of the entirety of Eldemar and its counter-intelligence agencies. People who worked there had dedicated their whole lives to this sort of thing, and he knew for a fact that Eldemar had mind mages of their own under their employ. They could discover things that Zorian wouldn’t even think of looking for, because he didn’t possess the necessary background to know which questions to ask.

The more he thought about it, the more he liked the idea. He would have to be very, very careful, but this could be just what he needed to connect everything together.

Yes, he was definitely approaching the Church when they arrived in Cyoria…

“Hey, don’t space out now!” Kirielle protested. “You haven’t finished the story. We just got to the good part!”

“Sorry, sorry!” Zorian apologized hurriedly. He found it kind of amusing that what Kirielle considered ‘good parts’ usually involved fighting of some sort. Well, that or usage of some kind of epic magic. “As I was saying, the Scorpion Swordsmen had just led Sumrak to the supposed secret area where the Orb of Memory rested on a pedestal, beneath the Holy Stalactite, when suddenly his guides turned on him…”

* * *

Though Zorian had resolved to approach the Triumvirate Church about Sudomir, his first action upon settling a little in Cyoria was not to go to the nearest temple – it was to track down Xvim and tell him about the time loop. He saw no point in wasting time by waiting until Friday to confront him, as the sooner Zorian told him about the time loop, the sooner Xvim would accept it as true and start working with him again. In fact, Zorian had hoped that Xvim would be even easier to convince this time, since he was in possession of the password thingy that Xvim had given him in the previous restart.

Unfortunately, ‘easier’ didn’t mean effortless. Despite the password (that Zorian was certain he had memorized correctly), Xvim was highly suspicious of him. It took several hours’ worth of questions before he was willing to accept Zorian’s story even provisionally, and he didn’t seem terribly convinced even then. He told Zorian they would talk more on Friday and then basically kicked him out of his house.

Maybe he should have waited until Monday and spoken to Xvim in his office instead of visiting him at his home…

No matter. Depending on how things went with the Church, he might actually need a free week to set things up properly.

The next day, he went to a temple. Specifically, he went to a temple he had already visited in the previous restarts – the one with the nice green-haired priest and the future-divining high priestess. There was no particular reason to pick that temple over the others other than familiarity, but he didn’t think it would matter. Whatever temple he went to, they would still report to the same parent organization.

Batak was as polite and welcoming as always – he immediately greeted Zorian upon his arrival at the temple and ushered him inside. After serving them both some tea and engaging in some small talk, he probed Zorian for his reason of coming.

“It’s unusual to see a young man like you visit our temple,” Batak remarked. “Do you do this often?”

“Well, no,” Zorian admitted. “To be honest, I tend to avoid temples. I’ve had some bad experiences with them in the past. But I wanted to report something and ask for some advice, so here I am.”

“Oh? What kind of bad experiences?” Batak asked curiously.

Of course he wanted to know about that. Zorian would have thought that ‘something to report’ would have aroused Batak’s curiosity more, but apparently not.

“It’s a bit of a long story,” Zorian sighed. “The first thing you have to keep in mind is that I am an empath.”

“As in, you can sense other people’s emotions?” asked Batak. “A useful gift.”

“When trained,” Zorian nodded. “But as a child, I had no control over it. I didn’t even know I’m an empath. All I knew was that being around large groups of people made me sick and dizzy. And back in my home town of Cirin, the temple was usually packed full of people. The few times my parents brought me there, I ended up fainting and causing a bit of a stir…”

“That’s unfortunate,” Batak said sympathetically.

“Not as unfortunate as the old priest’s reaction was,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “He really took my reaction personally. He decided that I have some kind of ‘bad blood’ that was repelled by the holiness of the temple.”

“Bad blood?” Batak asked incredulously.

“My mother was of witch lineage,” Zorian clarified.

“Ah,” Batak said in understanding. “That makes more sense. While I don’t condone the man’s reaction, it was not entirely unreasonable to believe you have some witch-descended bloodline issue going on with you. Lineages were very important to witches, and they loved inheritable magic abilities. Many of their influential families had some kind of bloodline power to draw on.”

“Wait,” Zorian frowned. “Then my empathy…”

“It is entirely possible,” Batak nodded.

Damn. So it was possible that the bigoted old priest could have actually been right about him, at least in a way? Because if his empathy really was something he had inherited through his witch lineage, then ‘bad blood’ really did have a hand in his fainting episodes…

He didn’t know whether to be amused or bitter about that.

“I thought empathy was fairly generic, as far as special powers go,” Zorian said. “Lots of people have it, relatively speaking.”

“Special powers don’t pop out of nowhere,” Batak said. “Most are a product of potions, rituals, spiritual possession and the like. But sometimes these powers can get transferred to a person’s descendants while staying dormant for a generation or two before resurfacing. It’s a bit of a public secret, but when a child is born with a magic power ‘out of nowhere’, that almost always means the child has some interesting things hidden in their family tree. In regards to empathy being relatively common, well… I’m guessing that there are more people with, shall we say, interesting backgrounds than most people would be willing to admit.”

That was very interesting, because witches were endemic to Altazia, but empaths could be found all over the three continents inhabited by humans. Zorian didn’t think all those empaths in Miasina and Hsan drew their roots from some witch born in Altazia. Assuming that Batak was indeed right and ‘random’ empaths originated from an ancestor that deliberately made themselves psychic, that would mean that lots of people managed to turn themselves psychic over the course of history.

In other words, there was some kind of reliable method of turning normal people into psychics circulating around. It couldn’t be too easy, since empaths were still rather rare, but clearly it wasn’t impossibly hard either.

There was also the matter of his family. If his psychic nature was indeed some kind of pseudo-bloodline thing, then his mother and siblings were bound to have it as well, if only in a dormant fashion. He knew that most of them were not full-blown psychics, since he would have felt it if they were, but maybe Daimen was. His oldest brother did have an uncanny ability to understand people…

Well, there was no way to confirm it one way or the other. Daimen was in Koth, and Zorian didn’t think he could reach him even if he dedicated an entire restart just to get there. Unless he found a way to instantly reach another continent or something, they would never meet while the time loop lasted.

In any case, even if the rest of his family weren’t fully psychic, there may yet be a way to awaken their dormant mind magic talent. It was surely easier to unlock a dormant magic ability than to create it out of nowhere, so he couldn’t help but wonder if it was possible to, say, make Kirielle psychic in a relatively easy and painless fashion. Not that he would do that, as the idea of a psychic Kirielle absolutely terrified him, but maybe once she was older and able to handle the power responsibly…

“Anyway,” Batak continued after a short pause, “I believe you said something about wanting to make a report and needing advice?”

“Yes,” Zorian said. He then withdrew a blank, sealed envelope from his pocket and handed it to Batak, who frowned at him.

“An anonymous report?” Batak mumbled to himself.

Personally, Zorian didn’t feel this was very anonymous. Anonymous would have meant sending the letter through normal mail, without ever having to meet face to face with anyone. Unfortunately, as much as Zorian liked that idea, that would have gotten him nowhere. Such a report would not be taken seriously at all, and would likely be thrown into the trash before it ever reached someone important. If he wanted the Church to actually do something, he had to talk to an actual priest and have them vouch from him that his report had been made in good faith.

“I have to ask, is this absolutely necessary?” Batak said, concerned.

“The information contained in the letter concerns the crimes of a highly influential person with plenty of subordinates,” Zorian said blandly. “If my name is known, I would fear for my safety.”

“I see,” Batak sighed. “Very well, I will forward your report to my superiors as it is. I must warn you, however, that they are not terribly fond of anonymous reports. They are seen as unreliable. Rest assured that your concerns will be looked into, but it may take some time before the Church investigators get around to it.”

“How long is ‘some time’?” Zorian frowned.

“A few weeks. Possibly months, if something more urgent comes up,” Batak said.

Damn. So much for that idea. It seemed he would have to go with his plan B – talking to Alanic Zosk. He had wanted to avoid doing that, since he kind of doubted that the old warrior priest would just leave him be without any questions afterwards, but it seemed he had no choice. If he absolutely had to make a face-to-face report to someone, Alanic was probably his best shot. The man was almost certain to believe him and probably cared enough about Zorian to keep his identity secret.

He could always just end the restart prematurely if things got too out of hand.

“Well, with that out of the way, what can I advise you about?” Batak asked, pushing the letter to the side of the table.

“Souls and necromancy,” Zorian told him bluntly.

“Oh,” Batak said, suddenly sitting a little straighter. “That is… quite an unusual topic to ask about. Young man, the only advice about necromancy I can give you is: don’t use it.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Zorian shook his head. “What I want to know is why somebody else might do so. And also why they would feel the need to gather thousands of souls and keep them imprisoned in a giant crystal pillar.”

Batak gave him a blank look, glanced to the side of the table where Zorian’s sealed letter was innocently resting, then gave Zorian another blank look. Then he placed the letter in front of him again and wrote ‘URGENT’ on top of the envelope in big, blocky letters before setting it aside again.

Well. Zorian still intended to go talk to Alanic, since he had no idea how much influence Batak’s little remark would have on his superiors, but he was still touched by the gesture.

“You probably know this, but souls are very mysterious things,” Batak said seriously. “They have many functions, most of which we can’t even understand, much less influence. But their most important function is not, as many mages believe, that they allow one to produce and shape mana. It is the fact they serve as a living, breathing record of everything a particular entity is.”

Zorian raised his eyebrows in incomprehension.

“The gods originally gave souls to living beings in order to record their thoughts and forms, so that their lives may be preserved after death and their deeds properly judged in the afterlife,” Batak said. “For that reason, the gods, who had intimate knowledge of how souls worked, were capable of many miraculous things. So long as they had access to a person’s soul, they could bring them back to life, even if their bodies had been reduced to ash and scattered into the winds. They could peer into their soul to examine their entire life from the moment they were born. They could restore a person’s youth by regressing their forms to the state they once possessed. According to some stories, they could even create an identical copy of a person, indistinguishable from the original in every way.”

“Copies of people?” Zorian frowned.

“It is not that strange,” Batak said, waving his hand dismissively. “The simulacrum spell does something very similar. While simulacrums are in no way flawless, they are sufficiently real that some people have argued the use of the spell is inherently unethical. They believe that every time a simulacrum disperses, a person dies.

“Do you?” Zorian asked.

“No,” Batak shook his head. “Naturally, I follow my Church’s dogma, and it states that only things with souls are considered people. Simulacrums do not have them. But this is a digression, and I am not an expert on such magic. What is important is that soul magic has the potential of giving earthly mages godlike powers over their fellow man. It is little wonder, then, that many people have coveted such power over the years. Their efforts have been mostly in vain, but that doesn’t stop necromancers from committing atrocity after atrocity in an effort to unlock mysteries of the soul.”

Zorian considered this information for a few moments. The idea of souls as divine recording devices was totally plausible to him, since he could clearly see that simply sending his soul back in time could keep his memories intact. Which was rather curious, now that he thought about it – it was common knowledge that human minds were stored inside the brain. Was his soul overwriting his brain cells upon the start of every restart or was something yet more exotic going on there?

Though there was something about that story about gods making copies of people that was nagging him in the back of his head. He felt like he was missing something important.

“So why is soul damage so catastrophic to the body?” Zorian asked curiously. “Clearly the connection between the body and soul is not just one-way.”

“Clearly,” Batak agreed. “But nobody really understands the nature of that connection and the way it works. It is known that souls cannot think or feel when not embodied in something. The soul needs a body, even if it’s just an ectoplasmic shell… but the body equally needs a soul. It’s likely that such a catastrophic reaction to soul damage has a lot to do with a person’s life force, however.”

Zorian wracked his brains for a moment, trying to remember what life force had to do with anything. If he remembered correctly, life force was simply a special type of personal mana that wasn’t part of a mage’s mana pool and was used exclusively by the body to keep itself living and resist foreign magics. Since the amount of life force rarely varied much between humans, and couldn’t be used to power spells, the academy instructors hadn’t spoken much about it.

Wait. That was it, wasn’t it? Life force was something every living being had and depended on to stay alive. And it was basically just an exotic form of mana. And the outer portion of the soul – the part that can get warped and mutilated – was the one in charge of regulating a person’s mana flow. If a person’s soul was damaged, that would cause their very life-giving energies to spin out of control…

“I understand now,” Zorian nodded. “Though, if I could trouble you for a few more questions…”

Two hours later, Zorian wrapped up his conversation with Batak and left the temple. Strangely, the green-haired priest actually expressed a wish for Zorian to drop by some time for another chat. Strange. Zorian would have expected the man to be rather leery of him after discussing such a topic. He gave Batak a non-committal response, unsure whether he should take the man’s offer, and left for home.

* * *

The next day, Zorian went to Knyazov Dveri to talk to Alanic. Since he had saved Lukav from Sudomir’s schemes and helped Alanic drive off his own attackers, he figured that the man would be well disposed towards him and inclined to listen to what he had to say. Just to be sure, however, Zorian had made a little detour before talking to the warrior priest – he went to the house of Vazen, the merchant that did Sudomir’s dirty work, and stole all the incriminating evidence from his safe.

In the end, though, Alanic didn’t even look at all those papers Zorian had brought him. The moment Zorian started talking to him about a mansion full of undead and the soul trap surrounding it, he demanded that Zorian teleport him to the place immediately. Not tomorrow or in an hour or when he was done looking through all the gathered evidence – immediately.

So Zorian did just that, internally grumbling about all the effort he had wasted into preparing his case. Wasn’t Alanic in the least bit afraid that Zorian would teleport him into some sort of pre-arranged trap? No, apparently he wasn’t.

Once Zorian teleported them to the edge of Iasku Mansion’s ward, Alanic just stood still and stared in the direction of Iasku Mansion in total silence. This continued for quite a long time.

“Uh, are you okay?” Zorian finally said, unable to restrain himself any longer. “Shouldn’t you be casting spells to confirm my story?”

“There is no need,” Alanic said calmly. “I can feel the spiritual sinkhole tugging at my soul easily enough.”

Zorian looked at Alanic in alarm.

“We’re in no danger,” Alanic assured him. “The effect is weak and the souls of living beings are tethered to their bodies too strongly to succumb to it. It’s only because my awareness of my own soul is so high that I can easily spot it. You have some measure of soul awareness too, I see, but too little to notice such things.”

So a sufficiently good soul mage could tell that the soul trap existed just by entering its area of effect? No wonder Sudomir considered everyone with a hint of aptitude in the field a threat to his plans. Even if most of the people he killed and kidnapped weren’t on the level of skill that Alanic displayed, it only took one to blow his conspiracy wide open.

Suddenly, Zorian noticed a group of dark dots flying towards him and swore internally. Damn iron beaks.

“I hate to interrupt you, but some of the mansion’s guards are already coming towards us,” Zorian told Alanic. “If we don’t leave, we’ll soon be flooded with winter wolves, undead boars and the like. I speak from experience.”

“Oh, so you’ve done some sneaking around the place already?” Alanic asked curiously.

“Had you read all the information I brought you, you would have known that,” Zorian grumbled.

“Worry not, we’ll get back to the information later, when we start organizing an assault on this place with the army.”

Zorian gave Alanic a surprised look, startled.

“What?” Alanic laughed. “Did you think we were going to infiltrate this place? No, we’re bringing soldiers, artillery and several mage combat groups and sieging the place into submission. And you’re going to help me investigate the rubble.”

“What, I don’t get any say in this?” Zorian asked, unable to keep a bit of challenge from creeping into his voice. Damnit, this was exactly what he was afraid of…

“Don’t complain,” Alanic told him. “I know what you’re going to say: you don’t want to be involved. You want to go home and pretend this has nothing to do with you, right?”

“Well, yeah,” Zorian admitted. “I gave you all the information I know, what more do you want from me?”

“I truly doubt you’ve really told me everything you know. And the army will be doubtful as well,” Alanic sighed. “They will want to find you, and they would eventually succeed at doing so. If, on the other hand, you are clearly working for me, they will be leery of going after you. Strange as it may sound to you, you are far safer beside me than you are on your own.”

As if to punctuate his claim, Alanic pointed his hand at the approaching iron beak flock and snapped his fingers. A dazzling beam of electricity erupted from his palm and struck the leading bird. In the blink of an eye, the beam arced from one bird to another, jumping from target to target.

In but a moment, a twenty-strong flock had been reduced to a rain of charred corpses and blown-off feathers that descended on the forest canopy.

Okay, he had to admit, that was very impressive. Especially since he knew that Alanic was a fire specialist. It would seem his specialization wasn’t as narrow as Zorian had thought.

Still…

“How would the army even know I exist unless you tell them about it?” Zorian argued.

“I’ll have to tell them about it,” Alanic said, shaking his head. “I’m not much of a liar, and they can be rather shrewd and persistent. It wouldn’t take them long to figure out that I’m working with someone else, and they will naturally want to know who that person is.”

Ugh. How annoying. Should he just dismiss this restart as a failure and start over?

…No, not yet. Maybe he could get this to work.

“I need to stay anonymous,” Zorian eventually said.

“We will work something out,” Alanic said dismissively.

And that was that. From that moment onward, Alanic considered him his subordinate.

* * *

Zorian had to admit, it was kind of amazing how quickly Eldemar could mobilize its forces once it identified a serious threat. It took only four days for them to organize the assault on Iasku Mansion and mobilize the necessary troops. The Triumvirate Church was involved too, sending two groups of twelve warrior priests each to support the several hundred soldiers and nearly fifty mages that Eldemar itself threw at the problem. Four huge war golems and thirteen magic-enhanced cannons served as heavy support.

Zorian himself was not involved much in the preparations. He mostly just silently followed Alanic around, clad in a face-concealing robe that the warrior priest had given him. The few times he had to speak, he did so exclusively through a magic orb that could translate his thoughts to speech. He had made it himself, surprising Alanic somewhat. Apparently Zorian’s standards were a little skewed again, and what he thought was a mildly-useful trinket was actually something that was worth quite a bit of money in stores and took some practice to learn how to use.

From what Alanic had told him, the rest of the force thought he was some kind of elite investigator in the employ of the Triumvirate Church and were more than a little intimidated by him. Alanic seemed endlessly amused by that. In any case, very few questions had been asked about his presence, but the restart was still young and Zorian didn’t dare hope that could last. At least for now, though, his identity was secure.

He really felt out of his depth in all of this, though. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind at all when he had decided to make the Church aware of Sudomir’s schemes. Hell, Sudomir himself was probably long gone now – there was no way he hadn’t noticed all the preparations going on around him.

He told Alanic as much one day, but the warrior priest didn’t share his opinion.

“Sudomir has invested a lot of time and money into that place,” he said. “There’s no way he’s going to abandon it without a fight. Four days is not enough for him to evacuate his possessions from that place, and he probably had less than that. I doubt he noticed the preparations straight away.”

“If you had moved more carefully in the start, you could have probably arrested him before he realized what was happening,” Zorian said.

“Not at all. You can’t just suddenly arrest a popular and influential mayor like Sudomir like that,” Alanic said. “You need solid evidence, or else people will cry foul. What you gathered is a good start, but nowhere near enough. Attacking a mansion full of undead is a lot easier to justify, and I’m sure we will find plenty of evidence to convict him inside.”

Zorian shook his head, not really convinced, but he didn’t argue the point further. He would just have to wait for the assault to see how things went. Alanic and the army might be right, after all.

* * *

Considering the amount of forces the army planned to bring to bear on Iasku Mansion, there was no way to really launch a surprise attack on the place. Even with the use of teleportation, it would take quite a while to bring everyone over to their destination and assume proper positions. As such, the initial phase of the plan called for three groups of mages to arrive first and erect a large-scale teleport ward over the entire region – hopefully preventing Sudomir from simply teleporting out when he realized the sheer scale of the assault heading his way.

Well, that part of the plan went off without a hitch. Unfortunately, erecting the anti-teleportation had been like kicking over the hornet’s nest – almost as soon as the wards solidified, endless streams of undead started pouring out of the mansion, as well as from the storage facility next to it. Skeletons, undead boars, flesh golems, massive abominations of stitched human flesh (Zorian didn’t even know Sudomir had those; then again they were just up-scaled versions of a normal flesh golem) – the amount of reanimated soldiers Sudomir had at his disposal was mind-boggling. Zorian could only presume that he hadn’t faced such hordes in his own incursions on Iasku Mansion because by that point most of these joined the invaders in their attack on Cyoria.

Caught off-guard by the ferocious counter-attack, the army struggled to organize its forces. Fortunately, these were all disciplined and experienced soldiers, and they came here fully expecting to fight against undead hordes. It would take a lot more than this to demoralize them.

Cannons fired again and again into the approaching horde, thinning the ranks considerably. The four solid-steel war golems, although far inferior in numbers to the giant flesh-stitched monstrosities mixed into the undead ranks, proved to be far superior to them in strength and durability. The giant flesh golems failed to make a breakthrough, being thrown back again and again until they fell apart. Nonetheless, the chaos of that initial exchange meant that a lot of mages and ordinary soldiers fell to the horde. Ten mages and more than 50 normal soldiers became casualties in the first ten minutes of the battle.

After that, however, the army had had enough time to get a grip on the situation. As had the mages. After some initial difficulty, they finished some kind of multi-mage spell and a pair of giant fire vortexes suddenly sprang into existence in front of the approaching horde.

Almost like living beings, the two vortexes wove through the undead ranks, sucking up reanimated bodies into their center, where they were burnt to a crisp. The strange thing was that instead of growing weaker with time, the vortexes only seemed to be getting stronger with every undead body they consumed.

The few reanimated corpses and flesh golems that survived the artillery, war golems, and fire vortexes were met with a hail of grenades and high-caliber bullets wielded by normal soldiers and none of them survived to make contact with the assault force.

And then the top of Iasku Mansion exploded upwards. For a moment Zorian thought that Sudomir had perhaps once again panicked in the face of a determined attack and did something to screw himself over, just like he had during their last encounter, but then something inside the resulting dust cloud roared.

Something huge. The roar reverberated through the area, creating a shockwave of force that blew away all dust and debris shielding the top of Iasku Mansion from sight. As such, Zorian was treated to a sight of a massive metal platform that was almost entirely taken up by an equally massive skeletal dragon. Its gleaming white bones glowed with countless lines of yellow light that signified a staggering amount of spell formula etched onto the long-dead bones, and instead of being hollow, its ribcage seemed to be crammed full of some kind of metal machinery and likewise looked rather sophisticated in nature.

What.

What!?

Why did Sudomir have that thing!? Why hadn’t he ever given any indication he had something like that in the past!?

The skeletal dragon didn’t care about Zorian’s internal incredulity and muttered curses. Its entire surface lit up with a pale yellow light, creating some sort of ghostly mimicry of a membrane over its wing bones, and then it lazily took fight.

It set off straight towards where Zorian and Alanic were standing.

The battle for Iasku Mansion had begun.

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