When Zorian woke up, he was back in Cirin, being subjected to Kirielle’s usual morning antics. That was a relief. When the red light illuminated everything at the end of the previous restart, he had been afraid there would be lasting consequences. There was a primordial involved, after all, and he felt they were not something that should be taken lightly. There was a precedent about them being able to affect souls, considering the role of primordial essence in the creation of shifters.
After chasing Kirielle out of his room, he sat down and performed a quick checkup of his mind and soul for any non-obvious damage they might have received. Only once his self-diagnosis came up empty did he relax.
He wondered what the red light signified. The cultists had obviously lost control over the ritual and it failed in a lethal manner, killing everyone in the area… but he wondered what the nature of that failure was and how extensive the damage had been. It might be that stopping the ritual mid-way was almost as dangerous for the city as letting it run its course.
Well, no matter – they would just have to find a way to foil it before it even started.
As a bonus, stopping the ritual early meant that Nochka and the other shifter children wouldn’t get horrifically murdered to power up the ritual. Previously, Zorian had been running on adrenaline, and had more pressing concerns to worry about, such as hostile mages trying to kill him… as such, he had been able to push the emotional impact of those sights aside and not think too deeply about them. Now, however, there were no such distractions present… and Zorian had a very vivid memory, especially after going through all those aranean memory magic training methods.
Damn it. Those memories would bother him for months to come, he just knew it. Especially the part about Nochka. It wasn’t like the suffering of the rest of the children left him cold or anything, but they were essentially strangers. He saw all kinds of awful things happen to strangers during the invasion, and was somewhat numb to it by now. But Nochka… he knew her. Even before he had gotten pulled into the time loop and she became his little sister’s friend, he had known her – albeit only as ‘that girl whose bicycle he pulled out of the river’. It made it hard for him to just shove the memories aside in favor of focusing on something else.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to look far for a suitable distraction. Zach showed up at the door to his home again, just like he had in the previous restart, giving him someone to talk to. Soon, the two of them found themselves sitting alone in a train compartment, departing from Cirin.
“No Kirielle this time, huh?” Zach said, humming thoughtfully. “I guess this isn’t going to be another vacation restart, then?”
“Another?” Zorian scoffed. “Some vacation the previous restart turned out to be.”
“Frankly, a lot of that is your own fault,” Zach told him. “If you really wanted to relax, you shouldn’t have poked around serious matters so damn much. Hell, if you ask me, a proper vacation would involve leaving Cyoria entirely. We can still do that now, if you want. I know this really gorgeous beach in Tetra, way down in the south of the continent…”
“No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Zorian said, waving him off. “Don’t get me wrong, I do need a small vacation… but I won’t be able to relax with all this bothering me in the background. Let’s take a couple of restarts to investigate all this new information and then we can relax.”
“Oh?” Zach perked up, leaning forward on his seat. “So you found out something from that mage you memory probed?”
“Lots of things,” Zorian nodded happily. The attack on the hole had been a very risky maneuver, even for a pair of time travelers like them, but the payoff was just as great as Zorian hoped it would be. It seemed that even inside the time loop, the old adage about big gain only coming with big risks was true. “Do you want everything or just the highlights?”
“Give me the highlights for now,” Zach said. “We can go into details later.”
“Alright,” Zorian nodded. He expected as much. “First of all, did you notice what those mages behind the shield were wearing?”
“Red robes,” Zach nodded. “Kind of like the one the third time traveler was wearing.”
“They’re not ‘like’ the one Red Robe was wearing, they’re completely identical,” Zorian said. “I’m sure of it. And that is interesting, since those robes are not something you can buy on the open market. They are made specifically for the inner circle members of the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon. No one except them should have one.”
“Red Robe could have simply stolen it,” Zach pointed out. “Though admittedly, I don’t have any idea why he would go out of his way to steal that robe specifically.”
“Those robes are supposed to be a marvel of magical engineering,” Zorian said. “They are made from very rare and impressive materials – specifically, scarletite threads and crimson sea silk – and densely embedded with powerful defensive magics and privacy wards. If they are as impressive as the mage I memory probed thought they were, I’m not surprised that Red Robe would want one. I want one too, now. We’re definitely stealing one in this restart so I can take it apart.”
“Hell, if they’re that good, we’re stealing them all,” Zach said. “If they’re made from crimson sea silk, we can sell them for huge amounts of money based on materials alone. It’s a bit unfortunate, though, since now we can’t know if Red Robe is just being practical by wearing those robes or if he really is a cultist.”
“I think there is a good chance he might be a cultist,” Zorian said. “He showed up pretty early in the restart when he went after us, and he was wearing the robes when he did. That implies he has one within easy reach of himself. The time he tried to kill you when you were barely out of bed is especially telling – it sounds like he came rushing at you as fast as he could, with minimal preparations, yet he still had it on.”
“That’s a good point,” Zach said, frowning. “Well, if that’s true, then he should be easy to find. Just how many members of the inner circle does the cult have, anyway?”
“Fifteen,” Zorian said.
“You got them all from that mage?” Zach asked in surprise.
“Not all, no,” Zorian shook his head. “I only managed to find the identities of five of them before the restart ended. But I know how many of them in total exist, and it shouldn’t be hard to track down the rest with the information I do have. Especially since I know the identity of the person leading the cult.”
“Man, I’m really starting to get jealous of your mind magic,” Zach said. “Whenever I tried to investigate the cult, I never really went anywhere with it. Forget about tracking down the leader, I couldn’t even identify high-ranking members. Not even truth potions helped.”
“Probably because all members of the inner circle, as well as anyone else in important positions, swore a geas to keep the names and identities of their fellow inner circle members a secret,” said Zorian. “Mind magic does not care about any of that, of course.”
“Yeah, yeah, rub it in,” Zach grumbled for a second. “Well, what are you waiting for? Are you going to tell me who the head crazy is, or what?”
“Vatimah Tinc, the head of the local branch of the Mage Guild,” Zorian told him.
There was a brief pause as Zach digested this.
“Well shit,” Zach finally said. “No wonder the invaders could set up bases beneath Cyoria and operate there unchallenged for more than a month. The man is in perfect position to block and sabotage any kind of investigation around Cyoria he doesn’t like.”
Zorian nodded wordlessly. Although Eldemar had several institutions dedicated to countering criminal activity and investigating suspicious incidents, the Mage Guild was the first line of defense in that regard. With them subverted, nothing else would work correctly.
“Talk about the fox running the henhouse,” Zach said. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since it was obvious for years that someone pretty high up was helping the invasion… but this kind of thing still catches me off guard. What the hell does someone like that hope to gain by helping the invaders, anyway?”
“Oh, that’s an excellent question. Thanks for reminding me,” Zorian said. “You see, I found out more about what the inner circle of the cult is planning with their ritual, and I can tell you it’s not what their regular members and their Ibasan allies are thinking.”
“They’re not trying to let a primordial run amok through the city in an attempt to appease their world dragon god that hates all humanity?” Zach asked curiously.
“No,” Zorian shook his head. “That’s what the regular members of the cult think. The inner circle know that while the ritual involved releasing the primordial into the world, the goal is not to let it do whatever it wants. The goal is to enslave it and get their very own living superweapon and bound wish genie. The imprisoned primordial is supposed to be Panaxeth, He Of The Flowing Flesh, and the inner circle of the cult thinks he can grant them everlasting youth and remake their bodies into something… better.”
“Better?” Zach asked, arching his eyebrow. “Is this the kind of better where you end up faster and stronger but covered in eyeballs and tentacles?”
“Well, in the case of that mage I memory probed, it mostly involves him being 21 and healthy again,” Zorian said. “And having a bigger penis.”
Zach snorted in amusement.
“Panaxeth is supposed to be a fleshwarper, rather than a shapeshifter in modern sense,” Zorian continued. “In theory, it should be possible for it to cure diseases, regress people’s age and remake their bodies into some superior form. It’s just a question of whether they can control it well enough.”
“Can they?” Zach asked curiously. “Control it, I mean.”
“No way to know, really,” Zorian admitted. “But I doubt it. The idea is to restrain Panaxeth with a binding spell keyed-in to his essence and then subjugate his mind. Even the cultists admit that Panaxeth’s ever-changing nature means the binding spell won’t stay effective for long. Meaning they have to enslave it within fifteen minutes or less.”
“You don’t think they can work that fast,” Zach surmised.
“I think it might be impossible even if they had all the time in the world to work their magic,” Zorian said. “Let me put it this way. When I invaded the mind of that mage at the end, I encountered powerful and sophisticated mental defenses on him. Better than I had ever seen before on a human mage. It took me mere minutes to dismantle them and start rooting through his memories. At the time, I thought the protections were there to compensate for the known weakness of the shield that protected the ritual ground. But that was just a secondary concern – their real purpose was to ward off any mental counterattack from the primordial while they tried to bend it to their will.”
“Ah, I get it,” Zach said. “You’re thinking that if you can get through the shields in a few minutes, the primordial could as well.”
“Yeah,” Zorian admitted. “It’s possible, I suppose, that I’m overselling Panaxeth and that he has no way to strike back at the minds of cultists trying to enslave him. But primordials are supposed to be these ancient beings that gave even gods pause, and Panaxeth’s powers revolve around manipulating living flesh, including the nervous system. At the very least, I expect Panaxeth to have incredible mental defenses at his disposal. I bet he could weather mental attacks from anything other than a master telepath with effortless ease.”
Zach and Zorian continued talking for another half an hour, discussing the various facts and secrets Zorian had discovered with his memory probe at the end of the previous restart. Eventually, though, the conversation started to wind down.
“Huh,” said Zach thoughtfully. “And here I thought the reason Quatach-Ichl didn’t follow us was because Alanic kept him too busy to do so.”
“In a way, that’s true,” Zorian said. “If Quatach-Ichl had left the battle to follow after us, his soldiers would have surely perished without his support… and I have a feeling he cares far more about Ibasan mages than he does for Cyorian cultists. In that way, Alanic and the rest of the mages that came with us did keep him busy. Still, if Quatach-Ichl thought there was a good chance the ritual would collapse without his support, he probably would have went after us anyway. Fortunately for us, the cooperation between him and the cult’s leadership isn’t exactly rosy. The leaders of the cult never told him they would be practically defenseless once the ritual starts, which gave him a skewed image of what kind of forces they had arrayed against us. He had no idea that the seven most powerful mages on that platform had no way to contribute to its defense.”
“They were afraid Quatach-Ichl would take advantage of their weakness to off them,” Zach surmised.
“Yes, exactly,” Zorian nodded. “Especially since they weren’t completely sure whether or not Quatach-Ichl was aware of what the true goal of the ritual is. He shouldn’t have been, but old, powerful archmages like him are hard to fool and keep in the dark about things. And if he knew they were trying to take control of the primordial, it wouldn’t be particularly strange for him to try and sabotage them once they release it from its prison.”
For about a minute, both of them were silent. Zorian because he no longer had anything notable to say, and Zach because he seemed to be considering something.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” Zach said, looking around their compartment. “Why are we still on this train? You didn’t bring Kirielle along with you and we’re well away from Cirin at this point. Can’t we just teleport directly to Cyoria already?”
“Well, yes,” Zorian said. “I just figured the train compartment is as good a place to talk as any, you know? Although I’d like to make a detour before we go to Cyoria, if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure,” Zach shrugged. “Where are we going?”
“The capital city?” Zach asked. Zorian nodded. “Why?”
“To see if we can find another Key there,” Zorian answered. “I’ve been thinking about the Keys, and how they’re apparently treasures of the first Ikosian emperor, and I think there is a chance the royal treasury has one or more of them. I mean, the crown of Eldemar has been trying to acquire the legacy of Ikosian Emperors pretty aggressively. Even if the treasury doesn’t contain a piece of the Key, it would be a good idea to break into their archives. They might know where the keys could be, even if they don’t actually have them. At the very least, their records and secret documents would be a good place to start in regards to our search for the Keys.”
“You… want to break into the royal treasury?” Zach asked. After a second of silence, he shook his head and laughed lightly. “Actually, yeah, that sounds like a good idea. We should check out the treasuries of Sulamnon and a couple of other large Splinter Nations too – Eldemar isn’t the only country trying to collect imperial artefacts, you know.”
“I know, but Eldemar is the closest and I’m guessing they already know about similar initiatives of other nations and how successful they are,” Zorian said.
“The only problem is that breaking into the royal treasury is no simple matter,” Zach told him seriously. “There is no way we can do it this morning, with no preparations whatsoever. And even with all our skills, I doubt we can do it without being discovered in the process. You wouldn’t believe how upset the royals get when an intruder successfully gets into the palace. It’s like kicking over an anthill – they would be after us for an entire month, and they’re actually pretty capable. It might be best to delay that kind of excursion till the end of the restart.”
“Fine,” Zorian said. It wasn’t like he expected he could just walk into the royal treasury and check thing up at his leisure. “But I still want to check out the defenses so I know what I’m dealing with. I assume from your words that you have already broken in there, so you can tell me the details from your perspective as we walk.”
“I never actually managed to break into the treasury,” Zach said. “Admittedly, I didn’t try very hard. I did it for a laugh, really, to see if I could do it. Well, it turned out to be harder than I thought. From the way the Ibasans managed to assemble their secret invasion, you might think the royals and their forces are incompetent… but you’d be wrong. They guard their treasures very, very well. If only they valued their loyal subjects as much as they do their possessions…”
The last part was mumbled under his breath, but Zorian heard it anyway.
“I knew this could bring a lot of unwelcome attention to us,” Zorian said. “That’s why I didn’t bring Kirielle with me this time. One of the big reasons why I decided not to tangle with House Boranova too much in the previous restart is because that had the potential to get everyone around us in trouble. I guess in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if Kirielle, Imaya and the others suffer due to our actions, since everything will be wiped clean at the end of the month anyway, but I just can’t let myself think in such a way.”
“No worries,” Zach said, waving his hand dismissively. “I actually appreciate that kind of attitude. I was kind of worried before that you’d try to make me do some awful stuff in the name of practicality, but you’re an okay guy.”
Zorian found it a bit amusing how trying to rob Eldemar’s royal family doesn’t qualify as ‘awful stuff’ in Zach’s eyes. It wasn’t unexpected, of course, considering how the royal family stood back and watched as House Noveda was looted by Zach’s caretaker.
“Anyway, we’ll be annoying all sorts of powerful people in this restart,” Zorian said. “The royal family, House Boranova and plenty more besides. I intend to go after the cult’s inner circle members, and they’re probably all very influential people.”
“So we’re just going to go around stirring up one hornet’s nest after another?” asked Zach rhetorically. “Nice. I’ve done that in a couple of restarts. Fun times.”
Zorian gave Zach a blank look. Sometimes, he really envied his fellow time traveler for having had literal decades of restarts to fool around and experiment in.
* * *
In the end, their visit to Eldemar transpired without complications, albeit this was largely because Zorian had Zach telling him what ideas would never work and warning him when something had the potential to alert the palace guards that they were being spied upon. Some of the countermeasures Zach described to him would definitely have tripped him up if he had been performing the attempt alone. The palace wards were so extensive they could even detect when someone was staring at the building for too long. Zorian still had no idea how something like that could even work, but he decided to trust Zach that he wasn’t playing a prank on him or something.
Somewhat intimidated by the defenses arrayed in front of him, Zorian decided to limit himself to a simple visual inspection, using captured pigeons as his remote-controlled eyes. The palace wards could detect spy animals, but they only reached so high into the air and pigeons had excellent eyesight.
As far as Zorian could tell, his actions were not detected. Even if they were, though, Zach and Zorian had already left the city before making the attempt, and Zorian was controlling the pigeons through a chain of telepathic relays.
The next day they went to Xvim and Alanic to try and convince them that time loop was real and that they needed help. There was a bit of an argument between Zach and Zorian about how to go about it – Zorian argued that they should take their time convincing them, while Zach insisted they should just dump everything in their lap right away and see what would happen. In the end, they decided to go along with Zach’s plan – if it worked, it would save a lot of time; if it failed, they simply lost a restart worth of their help, which wasn’t too debilitating.
Predictably, neither Xvim nor Alanic reacted well when faced with Zach and Zorian’s collected claims, but they both accepted the notes they had entrusted to Zorian in the previous restart and agreed to at least consider their story. It was more than Zorian had hoped to get out of them, to be honest.
Veyers still couldn’t be found. Zach confirmed that this was also the case at the very start of the restart as well – he had sought the boy out before coming to meet with Zorian, and Veyers was nowhere in Cyoria even then. As such, on the third day of the restart, Zach and Zorian decided to launch a more intense investigation into Veyers’ whereabouts.
Specifically, they decided to break into Boranova mansion and interrogate Andoril Boranova – the man who served as the boy’s caretaker ever since his parents had died in the Weeping.
By necessity, their break-in couldn’t be very subtle. Although they had fallen on hard times, the Boranova were still an old Noble House, and their manor had very good wards protecting it. Neither Zach nor Zorian were in the mood for spending several restarts gradually mapping their warding scheme in order to subvert it peacefully. As such, they decided to just barge in, make sure Veyers was not hiding somewhere in the house under heavy wards, kidnap Andoril and then teleport to a pre-arranged place so they could interrogate the man in peace.
The initial attack on the manor occurred in the middle of the night (since the city authorities would be more sluggish at that time, what with most people being asleep and all) and consisted of Zorian casting a number of ward analysis divinations of the mansion’s wards in order to locate the wardstone powering them. His probing of the building’s wards was instantly detected, of course, but it took time for actual people inside the building to organize, understand what was happening, and muster a response – before they could do anything, Zorian had already found the information he’d been looking for.
“Over there,” Zorian said, pointing his finger in the direction of the ward stone.
“Got it,” Zach said, quickly starting to perform a long chain of gestures. “I’ll clear a way for us.”
Soon, a devastating piece of artillery magic hit the wall in front of them, opening a brand new entrance to the mansion in question. They rushed inside, disabling the dazed mansion defenders they encountered before making a beeline towards the wardstone.
Zorian was shocked by how easy the operation turned out to be. No one could stop them – the mansion’s inhabitants were caught completely off guard by the suddenness and ferocity of their attack, and most of them tried to fearfully get out of their way instead of organizing some kind of hasty defense against them. In little more than a minute, Zach and Zorian had reached the ward room. The door was made out of thick, alchemically strengthened steel, and was virtually indestructible in the short amount of time they had to do this… but unfortunately for House Boranova, the walls were not similarly durable, and Zach unceremoniously blew the door off its hinges and strolled inside. After that, shattering the golden sphere that served as the anchor for the mansion’s wards proved trivially easy.
When the mansion’s wardstone fell, all of the wards defending the mansion followed. Sometimes, wealthy families like this one had backup systems in case treachery or accidents resulted in the failure of the primary wardstone, but apparently House Boranova didn’t bother with such contingencies. With no divination wards to get in their way, they quickly scried the entire mansion for Veyers, only to turn up empty.
No matter – they expected as much. They immediately set off towards Andoril, who was actually trying to organize some kind of defense after notifying the authorities about a break-in. The group he gathered around him actually provided the only worthwhile piece of resistance during the whole operation, but a lack of mental shields meant they suffered devastating losses before they realized what was happening and could counter Zorian’s abilities.
Andoril Boranova was knocked out and captured, and the two of them quickly teleported away from the mansion along with their prisoner. They made several teleportation jumps in quick succession, all of them using different teleportation spells and directions of travel, before finally arriving to a small underground box with no physical exits that they had prepared in advance for the interrogation.
Strangely enough, when they finally woke up Andoril and started asking him about Veyers, the man laughed.
It was a very bitter laugh, but a laugh nonetheless.
“Veyers, Veyers, Veyers! It’s always that kid, isn’t it?” Andoril sighed. “Alright, what did he do now?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zorian said, his voice resonant and magically distorted. Both he and Zach were hidden behind several layers of clothing and privacy spells, and the man should be incapable of casting anything, thanks to a magic-disrupting poison Zorian had fed him while he was unconscious. Hopefully the measures they had taken would be enough to keep their identities safe from various investigators, since they intended to let the man go after they were done questioning him. “Where is Veyers now?”
“I don’t know,” the man grunted, sounding annoyed. Zorian could read his thoughts easily enough, and knew he was telling the truth.
“Aren’t you his guardian?” Zach asked. “How can you not know?”
“As if that boy ever listened to me!” Andoril snapped. “They made me the boy’s guardian, but never gave me the authority to discipline him. He comes and goes as he pleases. I haven’t seen him for an entire week, ever since he got expelled from the Academy.”
“Why was he expelled from the Academy?” Zach asked.
“He lost his temper and erupted into a fireball centered around himself. No fatalities, but some of the people around him were burned, including a teacher that had tried to restrain him,” Andoril said. “The Academy said it was an attack. He says he just lost control over his magic, and that if the Academy’s education was worth a damn, he wouldn’t have such shoddy control over his abilities.”
“And what do you think?” Zach asked.
“I think Veyers did simply lose control over his magic and that the Academy knows it. They were just looking for a solid excuse to get rid of him,” Andoril said with a derisive snort. “I don’t blame them. I wouldn’t want him if I was in their place either. Damn it, Veyers, why do you always do this sort of thing…”
“You’re being surprisingly cooperative,” Zorian pointed out.
“I’m tired of taking the blame for everything that boy does,” Andoril said. “I didn’t see the boy for an entire week and the first news I heard of him comes in the form of being kidnapped by a couple of madmen looking for him. Madmen that are willing to launch a frontal assault on a Noble House’s headquarters situated inside a major city… and are powerful enough to succeed. I’m not dying for that kid.”
There was a brief pause as Zach and Zorian processed this. From reading the man’s thoughts, Zorian could tell that the way they masked their identity put the man somewhat at ease – if they had openly showed him their faces, he would have assumed they intended to kill him at the end, and would have been much less cooperative. As it was, he felt there was a good chance they would let him go if he told them what they wanted to know.
The fact that they were asking about Veyers rather than some other, more serious House secrets was also a factor.
The following hour-long interrogation shed some light on the quarrelsome boy that they had once shared a class with, partially through honest question-and-answer sessions with Andoril and partially through strategic use of thought reading, memory probes and short-term memory erasure. It turned out that House Boranova did have a bloodline, but most of their members never awakened it to its full potential. In its dormant state, the bloodline simply gave a person exceptional affinity to fire magic. Only the main line of the family knew how to ‘ignite’ the bloodline into its active state, giving the user more impressive abilities.
Although House Boranova hadn’t gone extinct during the Splinter Wars and the Weeping, they’d lost most of the core members of the family. Of the main line of the family, only Veyers had survived the tribulations, and his father had died without igniting the boy’s bloodline or passing on to him (or anyone else, really) the specifics of the process.
The consequence of this was that some of the more influential members of House Boranova started to question Veyers’s right of succession. He was too young, they said, and didn’t even have his bloodline ignited. What kind of heir of House Boranova didn’t have an ignited bloodline? What made him actually qualified to lead the House? Wouldn’t it be better to put someone more proven in charge during these trying times? Someone like… one of them?
The conflict threatened to tear the House apart, until the Veyers faction created a brand new ignition ritual by piecing together fragmented historical sources and a healthy amount of speculation. Pressed for time and reluctant to give someone else the legitimacy of an ignited bloodline, they decided to use the ritual on Veyers right away.
At first, it seemed to work. Veyers developed non-structured fire magic, just like his ignited predecessors, and he could open magical locks that could only be opened by ignited members of the house and access the family’s secret areas. The pretenders dropped their claims, and all was well for a while.
Unfortunately, it soon became clear that either the new ignition ritual was faulty or that some kind of specialized training regimen was required to stabilize the ignited state, because Veyers started losing control over his emotions and magic. He became prone to rapid mood swings, laughing uproariously in one second, only to be reduced to near-suicidal depression in the next, and then erupting into murderous rage when confronted. His non-structured fire magic started manifesting itself based on his subconscious desires, frequently spinning out of his control entirely, almost as if it had a mind of its own.
House Boranova hastily found various experts and magical exercises that allowed Veyers to regain some measure of control over himself. None of it was perfect, however, and the complaints about Veyers’s leadership returned in full force. Enraged, Veyers tried to have his challengers executed, but House Boranova was in too dire a position to start killing its own members… essentially, even trying to do so would likely result in internal war.
Gradually, Veyers sank into a pit of anger and bitterness at the perceived betrayal of his own family members, and started to lash out at everyone around him. And when he started going to the Academy, this anger was extended to the Academy and everyone in it, since their attempts to help him control his unstable magical abilities didn’t work fast enough for his liking. Just like his family, the Academy had failed him.
Unfortunately, since Veyers and Andoril didn’t get along very well, the man had no idea if Veyers had any friends or associates outside the House they could talk to. It was unlikely that anyone else in his family would know more, either – Veyers had burned his bridges with most of House Boranova, even the people who had supported him in the beginning, blaming them for the consequences of his failed ignition. At this point, he was pretty much an heir in name only. The only reason he hadn’t been stripped of his position already was that there were multiple valid candidates to replace him, and the Council of Elders was afraid they would tear House Boranova apart if they selected a replacement immediately.
They knocked Andoril unconscious and then left him lying in a field near Cyoria, set to wake up after a few minutes. After another half an hour to mask their trail, they both returned to Noveda Mansion. Zorian was technically living in his old dorm building again, but he and Zach agreed it would be better if he moved in with Zach for the duration of this restart. That way they would always be close enough to coordinate with each other to either flee or fight off attackers.
They made a lot of people furious tonight, after all, and they were only going to anger more of them in the near future. If their hunters ended up tracking them down, it was best if they didn’t let themselves be picked off one by one.
* * *
The furor created by their attack on Boranova mansion was a sight to see. Zorian had originally intended to attack the Cult’s inner members immediately afterwards, but decided to postpone that when he saw the scale of the manhunt launched against them. Cyoria’s authorities really didn’t like something like that happening right under their noses – between the attack on House Boranova and the frequent monster attacks that had been taking place in the past couple of days, Cyoria didn’t exactly look like a safe, civilized city.
Zach and Zorian ended up spending most of the next three days outside of Cyoria, visiting various sites that Zach had found in the past in search of the elusive simulacrum spell. There was probably a more efficient way to find the spell itself, but Zorian was a bit sick of information gathering and this way had the benefit of putting Zorian’s combat skills to a practical test against the various creatures and hostile mages that Zach knew about. Zach seemed to find this more fun as well.
They fought through an entire tribe of invisible mountain yeti in order to raid the makeshift treasury they had made from the remains of unfortunate travelers that had fallen to their ambushes. They eradicated a massive jewel wasp infestation from an ancient temple so they could access the secret vault around which their main hive was built. They successfully caught a massive man-eater catfish that was terrorizing the villages of Woga river and extracted a metal scroll case from its stomach, the spells it contained safely protected inside even after years of exposure to stomach acids of the giant catfish. They stormed the tower of a minor necromancer and raided a demon cult.
They didn’t find the simulacrum spell, but the restart was only beginning and Zorian didn’t feel like they were wasting time. Not only was he gaining valuable combat experience, he was also finding all sorts of interesting magics among their spoils. Although Zach had already sifted through these in search of magic for his own use, he had a different focus from Zorian, and many things he didn’t have any interest in were good enough to catch Zorian’s attention. Zach had very little interest in spell formula, for instance, whereas Zorian zealously studied every magic item they found in their wanderings, trying to divine their secrets in hopes of deepening his expertise.
Aside from searching for the simulacrum spell and sorting through loot, Zorian also delivered a number of interesting magical creatures to Lukav so the man could turn them into transformation potions. Initial results were interesting, though Zorian couldn’t tell yet whether to pronounce the initiative a success or not.
He also visited several of the experts that Xvim had named in his notebook of targets he should aim for. He opted not to attack and memory probe them yet, and simply tried to talk to them to see what he could gain from them peacefully. Sadly, it was like Xvim said – their best tricks they weren’t willing to share for any price. On the bright side, even the stuff they were willing to share was useful to Zorian – the female mage that specialized in magic sensing techniques was especially useful, allowing him to identify several dead-ends among his ideas and helping him narrow down which creatures had the most useful magical senses to try and obtain. Apparently an Eye Beast – the floating purple blob covered with eyes that had killed him in one of the restarts – was one of the best choices for this.
Sadly, when Zach and Zorian tried to search the cave system beneath Knyazov Dveri for the creature, they could not find it. Even when they checked out the place where Zorian had ended up getting killed by it so many restarts ago.
Five days after they were informed of the time loop, Alanic and Xvim finally summoned them for a discussion. Faced with their own words and secret codes contained in the notebooks Zorian recreated, they tentatively accepted the truth of the time loop. Xvim more so than Alanic, who still seemed to be having trouble accepting something as bizarre as time travel. On the other hand, Xvim seemed to be very ill at ease about the invasion and the plot to release a primordial inside Cyoria, whereas Alanic took that part in stride.
Together, the four of them slowly went through that final battle (which obviously wasn’t in the notes Zorian gave them), noting what tactics Quatach-Ichl used, what spells were used and how they fared, as well as the various information Zorian had ripped out of the mind of that cultist mage at the end. Many ideas and suggestions were thrown around, and many more would no doubt be handed out after Alanic and Xvim had the chance to pore over the information for a few days.
Alanic seemed to be especially outraged when he found out about the specifics of the child sacrifice involved in the ritual to release the primordial, and wanted to know the names of the children so he could have someone guard them. Zorian had no complaints about that – it was actually rather relieving to hear, and took some weight off Zorian’s conscience for not focusing on them too much.
After that, Zach and Zorian started going after the cult’s inner circle. These raids were far more subdued and sophisticated than their direct assault on Boranova mansion, but they were hardly undetected. For one thing, the inner circle of the cult consisted of powerful mages, many of which had influential positions in various organizations – they were rarely alone, and their homes were well protected. For another, Zach and Zorian were after their possessions as well as their secrets. Whenever they gained access to their target’s homes, they took anything that looked valuable, interesting or incriminating.
Just as the furor over the attack on House Boranova started to die down and the attacks of the monsters crawling out of Cyoria’s underworld began to subside, a new round of scandals erupted in the city as several prominent mages were attacked in their homes and robbed of their possessions. The outrage got so bad that the Crown of Eldemar announced they intend to send a group of royal investigators to inspect the city and its institutions.
It was a bad time to be a Cyoria city official.
* * *
With a dull thud, the only door connecting the Black Room beneath Cyoria to the time magic research facility closed shut. From the point of view of the outside world, it would open on the very next day. From the point of view of Zach and Zorian inside, they had just secured themselves an extra month of time in the restart.
“We did it,” Zach said happily. “I really thought we messed things up there for a second, but we did it.”
“We did mess things up,” Zorian said, inspecting the silky red robe in his lap. It was the fabled red robe worn by the inner members of the cult, one of the four that Zach and Zorian had acquired in their raids against the cultists. “Our forgery of the royal seal was incomplete and the guy inspecting our documents saw through it. I had to edit his memories.”
“Ah,” said Zach, deflating a little before his enthusiasm returned in full force. “Oh well, all is well that ends well. We didn’t forget anything, did we?”
Zorian glanced at the large pile of wooden crates they’d brought with them into the Black Room. There was a little bit of everything there – food, water, books to sift through, magical spells and exercises to test, piles upon piles of crystalized mana to make up for the lack of ambient mana in the Black Room, some interesting magic items for Zorian to study, board games to pass the time with and so on. He couldn’t see through solid objects, obviously, but they didn’t lose any of the crates in transit so it should all be there.
“I don’t think we forgot anything, no,” Zorian said, shaking his head. He put the red robe aside for the moment and gave Zach a tired look. “How come you are so excited about this, anyway? You realize you’re going to spend the next month cooped up with me in this tiny space, sifting through written records and going through repetitive exercises?”
“Don’t be a killjoy, Zorian,” Zach said. “This is the first time I’ve been in a time dilation chamber. This thing could do so much good for us. It’s exciting.”
Zorian chuckled knowingly. He would see how long this mood would last.