Inside the Black Room beneath Cyoria, Zorian sat cross-legged on the floor, eyes closed in concentration. Floating in front of him was a large sphere of water, its surface calm and smooth, without even the slightest ripple disturbing its surface. Around the sphere orbited numerous smaller spheres, each following a different orbit yet somehow managing not to crash into each other.
Without warning, a chunk of crystalized mana sailed through the air and punched straight through one of the smaller spheres in order to slam into the central sphere. The entire system of watery spheres trembled and wobbled for a moment, threatening to fall apart.
But it didn’t. After a few seconds, Zorian succeeded in regaining control. Soon, the only evidence of the impact was the chunk of crystalized mana currently floating in the center of the watery sphere and the fact that two of the smaller spheres ended up crashing into one another, forcing Zorian to absorb them into the central mass.
Zorian opened his eyes and glared at Zach.
“It’s so booooring…” Zach sighed, idly chucking another lump of crystalized mana at the sphere. Zorian temporarily shifted a portion of his concentration at the incoming crystal, seizing control of it telepathically and hurling it back at Zach. It did nothing, though, since Zach just lazily raised his hand and caught it in his palm.
Zorian shook his head in a mixture of amusement and exasperation. They had only been inside the Black Room for ten days at this point and Zach was already starting to get stir crazy.
For a moment he refocused on the water in front of him, causing all of the spheres to merge together into a thin stream and drain away into the miniature cistern which it had come from. Ten seconds later it was all gone, leaving behind only a wet chunk of crystalized mana. Zorian let it fall and caught it in his palm, before turning his attention to Zach again.
Truthfully, even Zorian found the situation hard to bear. They were trapped inside the equivalent of a tiny apartment, they had virtually no privacy and the lack of a clear day and night cycle was messing with their sleeping habits. He felt he could understand that one group that ended up butchering each other a lot better now.
Even so, this was something that had to be done, and they both knew it. The situation was hard to bear, but they were accomplishing things. Zach spent most of his time slowly honing his personal soul awareness and mental barriers, occasionally testing the latter against casual telepathic attacks by Zorian. When he was not doing that, he was either thinking up some way to distract himself or helping Zorian go through the numerous books and documents they brought with them to the Black Room. These gathered texts were either stolen from the stashes of high ranking cultists, looted from the various sites they attacked in their (thus far futile) search for the simulacrum spell, picked up from the aranean treasury beneath Cyoria or simply bought from the stores with their vast wealth. Zach wasn’t much of a researcher, but Zorian appreciated his help all the same.
As for Zorian himself, he spent most of his time going through the aforementioned books, practicing shaping exercises and working on his spell formula blueprints. He could not properly test the latter within the confines of the Black Room, both because of insufficient materials and because of the danger of his experiments backfiring in a small confined space, but a lot of spell formula work was theoretical in nature.
“If you’re so bored, why don’t you finish reading through those scrolls I gave you earlier?” Zorian asked, slowly drawing out mana from the crystal in his palm to replenish his reserves. Since the Black Room was completely cut off from the outside world, all of the ambient mana had been used up by now, forcing them both to use their supply of crystalized mana instead.
“Ugh. Did I ever tell you that I don’t really like reading?” Zach asked.
“Yes,” Zorian deadpanned. “Many times.”
“Well I’m saying it again,” Zach huffed. “I don’t like to read. I especially don’t like to read longwinded cryptic rantings written by demon-worshipping cultists.”
“Primordials aren’t demons,” Zorian pointed out.
“Whatever,” Zach said, throwing his chunk of crystalized mana at Zorian again. Zorian tried to catch the incoming crystal with his remaining free palm, but was a lot less dexterous than Zach and would have likely failed to catch it… if he hadn’t cheated by subtly altering the crystal’s trajectory to hit his palm. He threw the other crystal at Zach, deliberately aiming it over his head rather than straight at him, but Zach still caught it without problems. Was Zach always so accurate, or was this simply a product of endless practice over more than three decades of restarts? “I’m starting to question if those cultist texts are even worth anything. I don’t remember us finding anything useful in them thus far.”
“Well, if nothing else, they have the most comprehensive explanation of blood magic, including actual guidebooks and casting instructions,” said Zorian, picking up a non-descript book bound in brown leather from the stack beside him. The book appeared completely blank at first sight, but if one channeled mana into it in a very specific pattern, words would reveal themselves. “Who knows how long it would have taken us to gather this kind of illegal expertise otherwise.”
Zach gave him a silent stare.
“What?” Zorian asked.
“Mind magic, soul magic, and now blood magic,” Zach said. “It’s like you’re trying to become as sinister as possible…”
“What makes you think I want to learn blood magic?” Zorian asked, raising his eyebrow at him. “I mean, you’re kind of right, but what gave me away?”
“The fact you’ve gone through those books three times already is kind of a dead giveaway,” Zach said. “Since you’re so interested in the idea, I’m guessing there is more to it than stabbing and bleeding people for power, right?”
“Yes,” Zorian nodded. “There are basically three distinct ways to use blood magic. The first one is to simply use it as a power boost to enhance your spells in a critical moment. Needless to say, this is not very healthy for the mage in question. Life force is critical to our health in a way that our mana reserves aren’t. Even a slight expenditure of life force will leave you tired and weakened, and since life force recovers far slower than mana reserves the effects may linger for days or weeks.”
“Huh,” said Zach thoughtfully. “That sounds kind of like drawing upon raw ambient mana to get out of a bad situation, only better because you’re only risking your health instead of both your health and sanity.”
“Pretty much, yes,” Zorian nodded. “As far as I can see, drawing upon one’s life force is superior in virtually every way to drawing upon raw ambient mana.”
“But not every way?” Zach asked.
“Well, it is admittedly somewhat easier to kill yourself by overdrawing on your life force than it is by drawing upon raw ambient mana,” Zorian admitted. “Still, the risks are quite manageable in my opinion. Especially for us, what with our ability to undo any lasting damage caused by training or abusing it.”
“Can we simply undo such lasting damage?” Zach frowned. “How are you so sure this won’t be a problem?”
“That special soul awareness training Alanic is putting me through is essentially inflicting a form of life force damage on me,” said Zorian. “Most of the really big symptoms go away after a few hours of any particular session, but smaller ones linger for days afterwards. I tire more easily, lose most of my appetite, suffer from random cramps and pains and so on.”
Zach seemed taken aback at his admission.
“You never mentioned that,” he said.
“I didn’t want to whine,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “It’s a small price to pay for what I’m getting. Anyway, Alanic pushed me pretty hard in the previous restart, so these things never really had time to die down. Instead, they just kept getting gradually worse as the restart progressed. They were never crippling, but it was noticeable. When the restart ended, however, so did all the health issues I had accumulated in the previous restart.”
“And now?” Zach asked, frowning. “Are you getting sicker all the time in this restart too?”
“No, I’m pacing myself better this time,” Zorian said.
“Good,” Zach said. “Even if you can get your health back, it can’t possibly be good for your mind to spend an entire restart increasingly tired and in pain.”
Zorian hummed thoughtfully. That… was a good point.
“So what are the other two ways of using blood magic?” Zach asked after a while, breaking Zorian out of his thoughts.
“Right. The other two methods,” Zorian said. “Well, the second one is probably the most famous one. Or should I say infamous? It’s basically ritually killing people to extract their life force, which is then used to cast spells. Usually demon summoning.”
“What?” Zach asked, giving him a strange look. “Why demon summoning?”
“Casting spells with someone else’s personal mana is hard,” said Zorian. “It’s not toxic like raw ambient mana, but other people’s mana is extremely hard to shape and control. This is especially true when that mana was taken forcibly from the target. Using other people’s life force has the same problem, only worse, since life force is so much more potent than regular mana. If you want to do anything fancy with your stolen life force, you need to set up long and demanding rituals. It’s much easier to just summon demons with your own mana and use stolen life force as payment for their cooperation.”
“I thought demons asked for souls as payment,” Zach said.
“They accept both, and more besides,” Zorian shrugged. “It depends on the demon, really.”
“Well, whatever,” Zach said, clearly not terribly interested in the discussion about demons. “Since the first method is kind of neat, but situational, and the second method sounds exactly as awful as I feared, I’m guessing it was the third method that got you so interested in this stuff?”
“Right. The third method of using blood magic is related to enhancement rituals,” Zorian said, a bit of excitement suddenly shining in his eyes.
Zorian launched into a quick explanation of the matter. Enhancement rituals were complex magical rituals that granted permanent magical enhancements to the target. Superhuman strength, fast healing, flight, fire-breathing, inherent ability to see mana… these were just some of the many possibilities that a caster could acquire by investing in the field.
There was a price, of course, or else they would already be in widespread use. First of all, there was no such thing as a safe and easy enhancement ritual – they were all very dangerous and difficult, with the slightest mistake having the potential to kill, cripple or render insane. Secondly, enhancement rituals effectively turned the target into a magical creature… and magical creatures needed mana to live.
Every magical creature needed a certain amount of ambient mana just to stay alive and fuel their magical abilities. The more powerful they were, the higher the ambient mana levels had to be to support them. Stepping into an area too thin in ambient mana to support them wouldn’t immediately kill them, but they would find themselves quickly weakening and wasting away. This was the main reason why powerful monsters from the deeper levels of the Dungeon didn’t overrun everything – they would effectively starve to death outside their home areas.
A human, regardless of the manner in which they acquired their magical abilities, also had to pay the price to maintain their existence. A portion of their mana reserves was effectively lost, permanently tied down in the maintenance of the magical enhancement. Their mana reserves’ maximum would be permanently lowered.
It was a heavy price to pay, especially for a mage already suffering from below average mana reserves, such as Zorian. Mages interested in magical enhancements had to think very carefully about whether a particular enhancement was worth the price they would pay for it.
That said, while the price had to be paid… the size of the price was not set in stone. Depending on the sophistication of the enhancement ritual, the quality of the materials used in the procedure and the skill of the mage conducting it, the enhancement could either cost you half of your maximum mana reserves or a mere tenth of it.
Blood magic, by virtue of interacting with a person’s very life force, could allow one to integrate a magical ability extremely well into the target. So well, in fact, that the ability could become inheritable – a true bloodline. In fact, quite a few bloodlines began in this very manner.
Employing blood magic to integrate an enhancement ritual made an already dangerous undertaking even more risky… but the price for an enhancement so well integrated into the target was greatly reduced.
There was still a price. Even with blood magic use, Zorian would still have to give up some of his precious mana reserves to acquire permanent magical enhancements. However, the price was reduced enough that Zorian was no longer willing to ignore the possibility outright.
“It’s not a priority, of course,” Zorian finished. “But I definitely intend to experiment with the field in the future.”
Zach clacked his tongue in dissatisfaction.
“I have to say I’m not too fond of the idea,” he said. “Every time I think of ‘blood magic’, the image of those shifter children from the previous restart pops into my mind.”
Zorian flinched a little at the reminder.
“But I trust you not to descend to that level of depravity,” Zach hurriedly added. “Just… stay away from the whole ‘sacrifice people to summon demons’ part of the field, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Zorian nodded, a little more subdued.
He had originally wanted to point out that Zach could benefit from enhancement rituals even more than Zorian would, but decided this wasn’t the best time to raise that issue.
* * *
Zorian leafed through one of the books on more exotic shaping exercises, searching for something that seemed challenging, but not frustratingly so. Most of the exercises in it were pretty crazy stuff, though, even by his standards. He tried to remember where they had found the book while he leafed through its pages.
After a few seconds, he remembered. It was one of the books they had taken from the aranean treasury. They had also tried to break into that secret room on the ceiling where the Cyorian web presumably kept their real treasures, but failed. Despite Zorian’s growing skill at disarming magical security systems, all they had succeeded in doing was triggering the safeguards and ruining everything.
No matter. He would figure out how to get inside eventually. The setup was quite good, but it was no longer as arcane to him as it once was. He was pretty sure he could figure out how to dismantle the security spells in another five or six attempts.
“Why do you keep bothering with shaping exercises?” Zach asked him, not bothering to actually look at him. He was too busy juggling a dizzying number of crystalized mana chunks to devote too much attention to Zorian.
“Because I still haven’t reached the limit of my shaping ability,” Zorian said, sounding as if that was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Zorian, you’re already starting to get better than me in terms of shaping skills,” Zach sighed. “And my shaping skills are good enough to cast just about every type of magic out there. Including really demanding ones like medical magic. What the hell do you even intend to do with crazy shaping skills like that?”
“You can never have too much shaping skills,” Zorian told him.
“You spent too much time around Xvim,” Zach said. “The guy’s brainwashed you.”
“Every improvement of my shaping skills, no matter how minor, means I spend less mana on my spells,” Zorian said. “For a low-mana guy like me, every drop of mana is precious. We can’t all be inexhaustible mana monsters like you, Zach.”
“Hell yeah! I’m the only one awesome like that!” Zach said, puffing his chest in an exaggerated fashion. Unfortunately for him, the action caused him to lose control over the chunks of crystalized mana he was juggling. They clattered to the floor, some of them breaking up into smaller pieces upon hitting the ground. “Oops?”
Zorian snorted in amusement.
“Did you ever find any clues about your mana reserves?” Zorian asked curiously. “There has to be a reason why you deviate so much from everyone else when it comes to your mana reserves.”
“Sadly, no,” Zach said, stepping over the fallen crystals in order to sit down next to Zorian. “No one I consulted about it has any idea how that is possible. Most people think it’s some kind of undocumented bloodline of the Noveda. Although if so, it’s one that shows up rarely and irregularly, otherwise the enemies of our House would have noticed it and noted it in the past.”
“I suppose there is no chance of you just being very, very lucky?” Zorian asked.
“It’s rather unlikely,” Zach said. “I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that my shaping skills aren’t that much worse than yours, despite the massive disparity between us in terms of mana reserves.”
“Of course,” Zorian nodded. “I assumed that’s just decades of practice adding up.”
“Ha. Well, it’s not just that,” Zach said. “The fact I was able to keep up with the academy curriculum at all, even before the time loop, pretty much shuts down the theory I’m just lucky. I’m magnitude 50 in terms of mana reserves, but I can shape my mana as if I was magnitude 25 at most. That’s too… convenient to be natural.”
“Hmm, yeah,” Zorian said thoughtfully. “Still, magnitude 25 isn’t small at all. I’m surprised you managed to get your shaping skills as high as you did with that as your starting point.”
“I did have a lot of time to get it right,” Zach pointed out. “Considering you managed to catch up to me in a measly five years or so, I don’t think it’s really that impressive. Especially since my shaping skills are as high as they will ever be while yours just keep growing better and better.”
“I’m sure Xvim would be able to find you something to work on if you asked him for help with your shaping,” Zorian teased.
Zach scowled at him, but then suddenly gained a thoughtful look on his face. He kept staring at Zorian for a few seconds, making him increasingly uncomfortable.
“What?” Zorian asked impatiently.
“You know, if you’re really so determined about pushing your shaping skills to the best they could be, you should invest some time in learning medical magic. Or at least, the diagnostic half of it. Many of those diagnostic spells analyze the state of your magic, not just your body. You can use them to map the flow of energies inside of you and get a better picture of your own limits.”
That did make sense, sort of. Zorian already had a decent feel for his own mana, thanks to Xvim’s training, but this still sounded like an improvement in that regard.
“Maybe some other time,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “It sounds interesting, especially if I intend to seriously mess around with blood magic, but it does not fit into my current plan.”
“We have a plan?” Zach asked with mock surprise.
“Okay, so it’s a very loose plan,” Zorian admitted. “But it does exist. What, do you want us to make a step-by-step schedule or something?”
They decided to take a few hours to just relax and unwind. They played cards and board games, exchanged stories and even had a drawing competition. Sadly, they couldn’t agree if it was Zach’s portrait of Zorian or Zorian’s portrait of Zach that was better, so the contest was reluctantly pronounced a draw.
They still had ten days to go. Zorian didn’t regret coming here in the slightest, but damn would he be glad to be out of this place.
* * *
“Finally!” Zach said, spinning around with his arms stretched out to take in the forest around them. “Finally, after years of imprisonment-”
“Only 30 days, actually,” Zorian corrected.
“It felt like years,” Zach continued stubbornly. “Damn, I’d never imagined seeing a bunch of trees would make me so happy. Look, Zorian – trees! Trees!”
Zorian smiled, saying nothing. He too was glad to be out, but he wouldn’t dignify Zach’s overdramatic antics with a verbal response. As if seeking to spite him, Zach walked up to one of the trees and hugged it.
Zorian stopped walking and stared at the spectacle in amusement, wondering how long Zach would keep this up. Especially since Zorian could see a large amount of ants travelling up and down the tree in question, and they didn’t seem happy at Zach for disturbing them…
Suddenly, Zach flinched away from the tree with a muttered curse and started shaking the furiously attacking ants off of him. Zorian couldn’t help it – he laughed loudly at Zach’s misfortune, and then dodged backwards when Zach tried to shake off the ants in Zorian’s direction.
“Jerk,” Zach sniffed disdainfully.
“Come on,” Zorian said, motioning Zach to follow him. “We’re not far from Alanic’s place. Once we give him the report we prepared for him in the Black Room, we can go and do a ‘glad we’re out’ celebration or something.”
During their month in the Black Room, Zach and Zorian had taken the time to compile all the important information they had gleaned from the looted cultist texts. Zorian intended to follow up on that information himself, of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to give that information to Alanic as well. Maybe coming at the problem from two different directions would result in something.
“That does sound nice,” Zach said, trailing after him. “But I’m the one picking the place. No offense, Zorian, but you have no idea how to have fun.”
“I have a feeling I’m going to regret this, but fine,” said Zorian.
“It’s not true fun unless you regret it immediately afterwards,” Zach said sagely.
Alanic was surprised to see them on his doorstep, but his surprise quickly turned pleasant when he realized what they’d brought to him.
“Thank you for this,” he said. “I must say, I was a bit disturbed at how lightly you were taking this invasion, time loop or no time loop. It’s comforting to realize you really are putting some work into dealing with it.”
“It’s hard to stay outraged at something for years and years, especially when things get reset once a month,” Zach said. “But we aren’t ignoring it.”
“Just remember to compile a similar report with your findings by the end of the restart,” Zorian added.
“Of course,” Alanic said. “What do you intend to do now?”
“For the rest of the day? Get drunk,” said Zach. Ugh, was that what he was planning? “Afterwards, well… I guess me and Zorian will continue our search for the simulacrum spell. I’m sure I encountered it somewhere in the past, but I just can’t seem to find it. Why is a spell like that so rare anyway?”
Zach probably didn’t actually expect Alanic to answer that, but the warrior priest gave him an answer all the same.
“It’s because the simulacrum is one of the major stepping stones towards becoming a lich,” Alanic said. “If you can cast that, you’re halfway there already. Not to mention the spell itself being a complete nightmare for criminal investigators. So anyone who is known to have it is watched more intently by the Mage Guild, unless they are very closely aligned with them.”
“So… don’t tell anyone we can cast simulacrum, is what you’re saying?” Zach asked, largely rhetorically. Alanic gave him a blank stare. “Yeah, I figured. But wait, doesn’t that mean I should be looking for the spell primarily among groups of necromancers and liches?”
“Yes?” Alanic said, then frowned. “Hold on. You know the locations of necromancer groups and lich sanctums? Just… how many of these locations are we talking about?”
Fifteen minutes later, it had been determined that Alanic would join them on their simulacrum search. And also that Zach would sit down and write down a list of all necromancers, liches, demon worshippers, slaver compounds and other criminal sites he knew of… or at least the ones that he still remembered the exact location of, since he had forgotten quite a few of them by now. Unlike Zorian, he had never acquired some method of guaranteed perfect memory, and had never been all that good at remembering details anyway.
Zorian had a feeling that Alanic’s notes at the end of this restart would no longer be as small and sparse as they’d been at the end of the previous one.
* * *
“This is bullshit,” Zach complained, his voice slurring slightly. He downed another glass of hard liquor and narrowed his eyes at Zorian. “There is no way you’re so good at holding your liquor. You’re cheating somehow. You cheater.”
Well, he was certainly right about that. As a point of fact, Zorian was using the trick taught to him by Haslush, so long ago, and stealthily transmuting his alcohol into sugar. But why would he ever admit that?
He just downed his glass of sugar water and gave Zach a bright, self-satisfied grin.
* * *
In the Ishekatara Sea – the southern sea enclosed by the two ‘prongs’ of the Altazian continent – there was a pirate ship. Well, there were quite a few of them actually, but this one was important because its crew was mostly composed out of skeletons. The only living crew were a trio of brothers, each of whom was a necromancer of some skill.
The Skeleton Pirates, as they were commonly called by their victims, had been living a pretty good life until now. The trade companies in charge of most merchant ships were notoriously cheap, staffing their cargo ships with the smallest crew they could get away with. Meanwhile, skeletons required no food or pay, and could be packed like sardines into the pirate ship’s cargo hold without ever complaining about inhuman conditions or getting sick. As such, when a metaphorical skeleton crew of a merchant ship met the literal skeleton crew of the pirate ship, the result was rarely in doubt. The living sailors were severely outnumbered, and probably reliant on guns for defense, which didn’t work very well against skeletons.
The only issue was closing in on their victims before they could get away, but the pirate ship the three brothers used was special. Most of their victims wouldn’t even know they were coming until it was too late, and quite a few surrendered their cargo immediately when they realized what they were up against. After that, the skeleton pirates looted everything, throwing some of the skeletons overboard to make space for their new loot – the skeletons were easily replaceable, after all – and went off to sell their ill-gotten gains.
Sadly for them, their comfortable existence had come to an end. The ship’s sails were burning, there were several gaping holes blown in the hull, and the sounds of magical combat emanated from its interior. This time, it was the skeleton pirates who were getting boarded.
Inside the ship in question, Zorian was fighting a horde of skeletons.
“This is so stupid,” he complained, creating a shining beam of severing force to cut the approaching horde at the knees. He learned the hard way that destroying their heads did very little and that he needed to cut off their limbs if he wanted to take them out of the fight. “Why am I the one fighting mindless skeletons instead of going after living mages vulnerable to mind magic? Zach and Alanic better have a good explanation for-”
The ship shook from another explosion, but Zorian telekinetically glued his legs to the floor beneath him and thus managed to stay on his feet. The skeletons were not so lucky, and most ended up falling to the ground, providing an excellent opportunity to Zorian for finishing some of them off and maneuvering himself into a better position.
He had to hand it to the three pirate brothers running this ship – they’d put some pretty good wards on the vessel, or else it would have long since turned into a pile of sawdust from the intensity of the fight currently taking place. Though now that he thought of it, the pirates were probably powering such strong wards with the souls of their fallen enemies, so maybe it wasn’t as impressive as it first looked.
Or maybe the skeletons doubled as mana generators for the wards in addition to being the disposable crew of the ship? There was a certain amount of beauty in making skeletons pull double duty like that. Hmm…
Before the skeleton horde could fully recover and swarm him again, Zorian conjured an animated mass of ectoplasmic threads beside him and started herding all of the skeletons into it. Soon, the entire group was restrained and compacted together into a giant skeletal ball. Zorian then dragged said ball to the nearest hole in the hull and threw it out of the ship.
He then repeated the move with the other skeleton group in the ship. Now, if he was right about his theory the whole warding setup should-
Oh, there we go – the wards were already failing. Wow, they didn’t put even the slightest amount of mana storage somewhere as a precaution against a ploy like this? Or at least set things up so they would gradually fade away instead of suddenly crashing down like this? He retracted his earlier praise, this was very amateurish ward making.
He set off towards the heart of the ship, where Zach and Alanic were fighting the actual masters of the skeleton pirates, but when he finally got there the fighting was already over.
“For a group you claimed were such easy targets, it sure took you a long time to finally bring them down,” Zorian commented while walking over to them.
“I assume you’re behind the ship’s wards failing?” Alanic asked, tapping a nearby chest with his battle staff in order to trigger an electrical trap placed on it. Zorian nodded. “Thank you for that. They were very annoying. It has been a while since I fought in an area that suppresses fire magic so firmly.”
“I’m sorry, it’s been a long time since I fought them and I totally forgot they had these fancy wards covering their ship,” said Zach, knocking on his head with a nervous laugh. “After a while, I just sank their entire ship instead of trying to fight the crew, so my perspective on how easy they were to fight was a little skewed.”
Hearing that, Zorian didn’t have much hope that the ship’s treasure stash held the simulacrum spell. Still, in the interest of being thorough, he joined Zach and Alanic in disarming all the traps defending the treasure stash and searching through the contents. Even if simulacrum wasn’t here, there could be something else of note inside. But eventually…
“Found it!” Zach shouted, triumphantly holding a pitch black scroll case above his head.
“What, the pirates actually had the simulacrum spell in their stash?” Zorian asked, surprised.
“Yup, this is it. I remember it very well because the scroll case kept destroying the contents whenever I tried to open it, and it was so infuriating. Then I finally managed to get to the scroll inside and it turned out it was just a simulacrum spell. Man, I was so angry about that…”
Zorian stared at the black scroll case for a moment before motioning for Zach to open it. To his surprise, Zach didn’t bother unraveling the defensive trap on the scroll case or using a proper unlocking method – instead he sent some kind of magical pulse into the scroll case, causing it to fall apart into hundreds of jagged little pieces, as if it was suddenly sliced apart by hundreds of invisible blades.
Well… he supposed that was one way to defeat the trap…
“May I?” Alanic asked, extending his hand towards the piece of rolled-up leather that had been in the destroyed scroll case. Zach shared a look with Zorian, who shrugged noncommittally. The scroll was promptly handed to Alanic, who unfurled it and scanned the contents.
“It’s legitimate,” Alanic eventually announced. “Some of the simulacrum versions are incomplete or even malicious versions meant as traps for the unwary, but this seems like the real deal to me.”
Huh. Zorian had to admit he hadn’t even considered that possibility. He knew that some of the spells out there were fake or traps, but it was rarely a problem, especially if one was careful about their spell sources. He supposed that for illegal or highly restricted spells like this, the percentage of fake spells was much higher than average. Especially if they came on a mysterious scroll like this instead of a published book or something.
Alanic handed the leather scroll to Zorian, who slowly read through it.
Simulacrum, as Zorian already knew, created an ectoplasmic copy of the caster. The copy was fully autonomous, could think and act on its own judgement, and even cast its own spells. However, it had no soul and no mana reserves of its own. Instead, both of these were shared with the caster who made it. That meant that aside from the initial cost of creation for the simulacrum, as well as the running cost of maintaining its existence, the caster also had to pay for every single spell the simulacrum decided to cast.
He explained as much to Zach, who had read the description of the spell once but had since forgotten most of the details about it.
“It’s still useful,” Zorian noted. “Having another copy of me to help me with purely mental tasks would be infinitely useful. But it’s not quite as convenient as I thought it would be.”
“Yeah, it’s kind of disappointing,” Zach said. “It’s good as bait and an additional worker to boss around, but I don’t think you’ll be using it too much in battle.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” Zorian said. “Sure, I won’t be spamming double fireballs with my simulacrum or anything, but my telepathic abilities are quite cheap in terms of mana costs. And they are more useful as a devastating opener than as a long-term tool in battle, so it would be pretty useful if I could make twice as many telepathic attacks whenever I make my move. Double the Zorian, double the mind magic.”
“As if your mind magic wasn’t terrifying enough as it is,” Zach grumbled good-naturedly.
“There are two things you should keep in mind,” Alanic said suddenly. “One is that no simulacrum is an entirely flawless copy of yourself. Especially in the beginning, the copies are bound to be greatly degraded version of you, lacking the full extent of your abilities. As your proficiency with the spell grows, you will be able to get increasingly better replicas… but in the end, the simulacrum is just a reflection of you, rather than a flawless copy. This is especially obvious if you keep the spell going for long periods of time. I strongly recommend that you don’t keep your simulacrum active for more than a day, or else they will start developing their own personalities and goals that may run counter to your own. People have been killed by their own simulacrums in the past. Considering your simulacrum will be a master mind mage like you yourself apparently are…”
“Yeah, I get the picture,” said Zorian, wincing slightly. “Don’t leave the simulacrum running for too long, or it may decide to overwrite my mind with its own or something similar.”
“Yes,” Alanic nodded. “The second thing you should keep in mind is that, while a simulacrum isn’t identical to you in every way, it is a replica of you in most ways. For instance, some people react really badly to the knowledge that they are a copy of a person, which causes their simulacrums to break down or go berserk immediately after being created. I don’t think you and Zach will have that kind of problem, considering the supposed nature of the time loop, but it’s something to keep in mind if you ever decide to share the spell with someone else. Similarly, if you don’t like doing something, your simulacrum won’t like doing it either… so it’s a bad idea to foist things you hate upon your simulacrums. This also means that if you can’t bring yourself to sacrifice your life for another, chances are your simulacrum won’t want to sacrifice itself for your sake either.”
In other words, the simulacrum wasn’t his personal slave and would only obey orders that he himself would be willing to obey. Fair enough.
After a few more warnings and clarification from Alanic, the three of them left the burning ship and returned to Eldemar. The skeleton pirates would trouble people no longer.
* * *
Zach and Zorian spent the rest of the restart attacking the Cyorian cultists and occasionally going off on further raids on locations Zach remembered from his past. Since they had already found the simulacrum spell, these excursions were technically unnecessary, but they both decided to keep on doing them anyway. Zorian because he wanted the combat experience and had interest in some of the loot that Zach had never cared about, and Zach because he found fighting fun. Alanic joined them often as well, though as the restart gradually approached its end, he became more and more busy with his investigation into the invaders. Xvim was also offered a spot in these raids, but declined to go, saying he was ‘too old for that now’.
Four days after Zach and Zorian had left the time research facility beneath Cyoria, the place went into an uproar. It took them four days, but eventually they did realize that something was wrong with the way Zach and Zorian had used the Black Room. Of course, by this time Zach and Zorian were long gone and there was nothing they could do about it, but still. Zorian investigated the issue to see what they had done wrong, and was amused to find that what had really outed them in the end was the fact that they had never submitted a follow-up report to the proper government department. Apparently each group that used the Black Room had to submit a report, in triplicate, explaining in detail how they had used the Black Room and what their gains were. Since Zach and Zorian had never bothered to do so, the administrative assistant in charge of preserving the reports complained to the research staff, eventually triggering the investigation. If they had just sent the stupid piece of paper to the government office, chances were that no one would have said a thing. Zorian doubted anyone even read those things.
Three days before the end of the restart, Zach and Zorian finally executed a plan that had been in the works since the very beginning of the restart – they broke into the Royal Palace of Eldemar, quietly infiltrating the place at first, and then just blasting their way inside when they were discovered half-way through.
They only got about two-thirds of the way in before the palace defenses began to overwhelm them and they were forced to flee, but even this failed foray into the place told them two very important things.
First of all, the royal treasury actually did hold one piece of the Key within its depths. The dagger, if Zorian was interpreting what his marker was telling him correctly. They would have to figure out a way to break into the royal treasury if they wanted to assemble all five pieces.
Secondly, trying to break into the Eldemar Royal Palace caused an unbelievable amount of outrage. The palace guards had followed them for hours after their failed intrusion, only giving up when Zach and Zorian had descended into the deep reaches of the Dungeon to lose them. And even then, that had just given them a few hours of peace, during which Eldemar’s royals had apparently been organizing a state-wide manhunt for them.
It had been three days since, and the manhunt had never ended. All the newspapers and town gossips were talking about the failed break-in at the Royal Palace, and there was apparently a huge bounty placed on their heads. The bounty was a bit of a joke, since the Crown clearly didn’t know much about them – as evidenced by the lack of pictures or any clear descriptions in the bounty posters plastered everywhere. Thank the gods that both of them were experts in anti-divination spells and that they had the fancy red robes they’d stolen from the cultists.
Still, while the Eldemar forces didn’t know their identities, they clearly had some method of tracking down ‘those two people who tried to break into the palace’, because they unerringly kept coming after them every once in a while. The two of them were constantly on the run, with the longest period of time they had to sit down and relax being about six hours. It was frustrating, especially since neither Zach nor Zorian could figure out how their pursuers kept tracking them down.
“See, I was totally right in saying we should wait for the end of the restart before trying this!” Zach said as they ran towards the small forest nearby, the red robe he was wearing distorting his voice in unnerving ways.
“So what? I never disputed that!” Zorian responded, his voice similarly distorted.
Before they could say anything else, an ear-piercing screech sounded above them, quickly followed by another. Zorian didn’t even have to look at the source of the screeches to know it was those two giant crowned eagles coming after them, each with a pair of battlemages riding them. That thrice-damned group was incredibly annoying, always responding first to their every move, cutting off their retreat routes and disrupting their spells until the rest of the pursuers could catch up to them. Unfortunately, the eagles were fast and agile flyers, and the battlemages riding them incredibly good, so getting rid of them before their allies showed up was virtually impossible. By now, Zach and Zorian no longer tried to engage them – that just wasted time that could be used for running away.
“I don’t think we can keep this up for long!” Zach told him as he deflected some kind of multicolored lightning bolt into the nearby bush, which immediately exploded from the force of the spell. “How long?”
Zorian glanced at the city of Cyoria looming nearby. Though it might appear to their pursuers that they were just randomly fleeing around, the two of them had actually been deliberately luring them here. The end of the restart was fast approaching, and the invasion was about to begin…
“I think it will start right-”
Before Zorian could finish the statement, numerous artillery magic flares rose into the air from the hills surrounding Cyoria. The invasion of the city had officially begun.
Zorian grumbled discontentedly. Damn reality always ruined his dramatic timing.
“Nevermind, it’s starting!” he said out loud.
“Yeah, thanks a lot. I would have never known if you hadn’t told me,” Zach said sarcastically.
Zorian said nothing, simply stepping closer to his fellow time traveler. Immediately after, Zach finished his spell and they were both enveloped into a semi-transparent white sphere, which then shot into the air with dizzying speed.
Giant crowned eagles were apparently fast and agile enough to follow after the sphere, which surprised Zorian more than it probably should have. Still, the two of them had an entire army of surprised invaders to serve as their unwilling meat walls – the sphere unerringly homed in on the largest flock of iron beaks they could find and flew straight through it, splattering numerous birds to death and pissing the entire flock off.
Sadly for the pursuing eagles and their riders, furious iron beaks aren’t very discriminating about their choice of targets. Especially when one target was clearly more vulnerable than the other and was clearly trailing after it, suggesting that they were working together.
The two of them didn’t stick around after that – Zach directed the sphere into a nearby building, where it smashed into the wall and crashed inside. This largely got them outside of the iron beak line of fire, since the inside of a building didn’t let them concentrate their forces much and they had a much more attractive target outside anyway. Thus, once they had killed the handful of brave birds coming after them, they just left the area by teleporting to different sections of the city.
Truthfully, Zorian expected him and Zach to spend the entire night leading their pursuers into a series of conflicts with the invaders. Not because they hoped to get something by doing that, but rather because they felt their pursuers were just that stubborn. However, it would seem they had been uncharitable to their opponents, because after the third time Zach and Zorian led the entire pursuit group into an Ibasan army group, they seemed to realize the scale of what was happening and gave up on going after them in favor of helping the beleaguered Cyorian defenders.
Encountering Quatach-Ichl during that third confrontation and losing both of their giant eagles in the process may have had something to do with that.
Currently, Zach and Zorian were sitting on the roof of the Academy’s highest building and observing the fighting.
“Wow,” Zach said. “You know, those mage hunters are kind of impressive when they’re fighting someone else.”
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed.
“So what are we going to do now?” Zach asked. “Just sit down and watch the world burn for a few hours until the loop resets?”
“No,” Zorian answered, shaking his head. “I have a better idea. Let’s rob the academy library.”
Zach looked at him funny, raising an eyebrow at him.
“I’m serious,” Zorian said. “I know there is probably nothing really that important in there, but I have always wondered what kind of spells are kept behind those higher level sections that I was never allowed to go to.”
“That… is a good point,” Zach said. “I can’t believe I never tried that myself. If nothing else, just so I can say I did it.”
And thus, for the next few hours, Zach and Zorian rampaged across the Academy library. While the invaders and the city defenders fought bitter battles across Cyoria, the two of them were peacefully searching through restricted texts, unbothered by the librarians and other security, who had long since fled the building in light of the invasion.
When the restart finally ended and everything went black, Zorian’s only thought was that he hadn’t finished the book he was holding…
…and that they were definitely going to do this again.