Far to the north of Cyoria, square in the middle of a heavily forested mountain range, there was a secluded valley devoid of any vegetation. Instead, it was covered in sharp, broken rocks of all shapes and sizes. There was no obvious reason for the place to be so lifeless and desolate, especially considering how verdant the surrounding mountains were. As he stood on a cliff overlooking the valley, Zorian wondered about that. Was the valley so rocky and desolate because of what made its home here, or was it the other way around and the valley’s inhabitants had picked it precisely because it was so suitable for themselves? Probably the former, but one could never quite know… there could be some subtle geomantic magic surrounding the place.
“Zorian,” Zach said, interrupting his thoughts. “The view is… nice, I guess. If you like rocks or something. But why the hell are we here, exactly?”
“You have no appreciation for nature’s wonders,” Zorian sighed. Assuming this was actually a natural wonder, that is, and not something the earth elementals had done to make their home more comfy for themselves, anyway. “You were with me when we talked to that hunter community a few hours ago, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” Zach nodded. “You told them we’re searching for elementals and they sent us here. Which is fine and all, but why are we searching for elementals all of the sudden? You should know by now that I really hate the whole mysterious act. If you don’t start explaining things right now, I’m starting a wrestling match with you right here on the edge of this cliff.”
Zorian gave him an incredulous look, before pointing at the sharp, spike-like rocks at the bottom of the cliff.
“Don’t think for a second I won’t,” Zach warned. “One restart cut short is a small price to pay if it will teach you not to do this crap anymore.”
“It wasn’t anything sinister,” Zorian sighed. “It’s just that it’s a pretty crazy idea and I didn’t want to bother you with it. I did say you could sit this one out, didn’t I?”
“You forget who you’re talking to,” Zach smiled widely. “I’m the guy who fought the most infamous dragon of our time just to see if I could do it, descended as deep into the Dungeon as I could before dying and took on the entire Ibasan invasion force all by myself. I’m no stranger to crazy ideas.”
“True,” Zorian said.
“Besides,” Zach said, sounding more serious this time. “We’re in this together. Stop trying to do things alone, it’s getting seriously annoying.”
“Fine, fine, I get it,” said Zorian, raising his hands up in defeat. “Look… the point of all this is to try and find where the other primordials are imprisoned.”
“What?” Zach asked incredulously. “We’re having so many problems with this Panaxeth thing, and you want to find more?”
“Yes,” Zorian nodded. “Well, maybe. As I said, it’s a pretty crazy idea. It’s just… I was thinking I might need to set loose a primordial into the world, and I realized that doing that with Panaxeth wouldn’t be a good idea. Panaxeth’s prison is in the middle of Cyoria, and too much attention is already on it. So I thought, why don’t I find my own primordial, then? One that is in some isolated place where nobody is going to disturb us while we work?”
Zach looked at him like he just declared he was secretly a shapeshifted dragon and started sprouting horns.
“You did this on purpose, didn’t you?” he asked.
“What, described the idea in the most disturbing possible way?” Zorian asked back with a smirk. “Yeah.” He shook his head. “It’s true, though – that’s essentially what I was thinking about.”
“Why, though?” Zach asked. “Is this about finding a way for you to leave the time loop?”
Zorian looked at his fellow time traveler in surprise.
“Don’t be so surprised,” Zach scoffed. “You already told me how space itself seemed to collapse when Panaxeth tried to leave his prison. It’s natural to wonder if that kind of spatial hole could be used to fashion some kind of passage out of this place. I’ve thought of it too. Admittedly, I have no idea how you could actually go about doing that…”
“Neither do I,” Zorian admitted. “But it’s the only thing I could think of.”
Zach hummed thoughtfully. “I thought you said the restart immediately collapsed when Panaxeth got out of his prison, though?” he said. “Last I spoke to you, you thought Panaxeth getting out of his box was one of the conditions for terminating the time loop. Did you change your mind about that or do you have a way around that?”
“It’s obvious the time loop can be fooled in many ways,” Zorian said. “As such, I thought that maybe if we enclose the area in a pocket dimension and then release the primordial, the time loop might not detect that as a breach.”
“Why do you… oh!” Zach said, eyes widening as he realized what Zorian was getting at. “Because the primordial is still technically imprisoned! It would have to breach the pocket dimension we created before the time loop would consider it ‘free’.”
“That’s the idea,” Zorian said with a nod.
“Would the primordial have any trouble doing that, though?” Zach asked with a frown. “I doubt we could make a prison anywhere near as strong as these divinely crafted prisons that are currently holding them.”
“We could always layer multiple pocket dimensions around ourselves,” said Zorian. “At least I hope. I don’t know how pocket dimensions work, but they can obviously be stacked on top of each other to some extent. Otherwise, the time loop wouldn’t be able to recreate the various pocket dimensions scattered around the world.”
“You know, this raises an important question,” Zach said. “Where are we going to find someone to teach us how to make pocket dimensions? I mean, that’s one of the rarest magical disciplines out there. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a mage that can create one. I admit I haven’t been looking for those secrets very hard, but still. What’s worse, you’re talking about pocket dimension creation of incredible scale and sophistication – we need someone who is incredibly good at this obscure magical skill, not someone who can barely do it. Finding such a person… I think this could be even harder than gathering all of the pieces of the Key.”
Zorian patiently listened to Zach’s concerns, nodding slightly from time to time. It was all so very true. And yet…
“I’m pretty sure I already know a mage that is very good at creating and manipulating pocket dimensions,” Zorian said.
“What? Who?” Zach demanded.
“Silverlake,” Zorian said, sighing heavily. He really didn’t want to admit he needed her, but…
“The crazy witch lady that sent you to kill the grey hunter?” Zach asked incredulously.
“The same,” Zorian confirmed. “Think about it. Why else can’t we locate her damn hut? I refuse to believe her wards are good enough to resist a systematic sweep of the whole area from both of us. It’s just not possible. And she isn’t editing our memories, either – unless she is a godlike mind mage that makes even aranea elders look like children in comparison, I would at least be able to tell my mind had been tampered with after the fact.”
“You think she hides her hut inside a pocket dimension?” Zach asked.
“I don’t see what else it could be,” Zorian said.
“Huh. Well, I guess we better find a way to get those stupid eggs soon, then,” Zach said with a careless shrug.
As if that would be the end of it. Zorian had a suspicion that even if they brought Silverlake the eggs, this would just be the start of their headaches with her.
Regardless, this was the end of that topic for a while. After a short discussion of the best route to take through the rocky labyrinth, they used a flight spell to float down the cliff and onto one of the bigger rocky outcroppings jutting from the valley. From there, they decided to conserve mana by trying to advance on foot. Also, the hunters claimed that the earth elementals did not appreciate people flying over their home and would hurl rocks at people who offended them in such a way.
An hour later, they realized they had taken the place too lightly. The landscape held no predators trying to ambush them, but it was exceptionally hard and dangerous to traverse on foot. The ground was rough and uneven, with a labyrinthine arrangement of ridges and rocky outcroppings, and it was often far less solid than it appeared to be at first glance. A careless step could easily result in it crumbling away beneath one’s foot, with disastrous consequences – the stones of the valley were very angular and sharp, and sometimes even shaped like knives and caltrops, so any falls or imbalanced flailing easily led to serious injury.
Neither Zorian nor Zach ended up injured, but it did make their progress terribly slow and miserable.
“Ugh,” Zach said, casually firing a weak disintegration wave at the nearby rock in order to smooth it out a bit. Once all the edges and spikes were gone, he sat down on the stone and gave Zorian a long look. “I must say, those hunters we talked to have quite a penchant for understatements. When they said the elementals were ‘a bit tricky to reach’, I expected something easier than this.”
“Well, they’ve been living in these mountains for months,” Zorian said. “Maybe for them, this is just tricky rather than a hard slog. But yeah, this is getting a little ridiculous. At this rate, it will take us a whole day to reach the center.”
“So… do we just fly there or what?” Zach offered.
“The hunters said the elementals fire on people flying over their home,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I know we could probably survive their barrage, but we’re here to ask for their advice. We don’t want to piss them off before the talks even begin. Let me try something.”
Having said that, Zorian quickly fished out a brilliant red potion out of his backpack and downed it.
Grey hunters had amazing senses. The most prominent of these, of course, was their ability to sense magic, but that was actually just the tip of the iceberg in regards to a grey hunter’s ability to perceive the environment. By now, Zach and Zorian had figured out that grey hunters also had an incredibly acute ability to sense air currents and the vibrations in the ground. Together with their amazing magic perception and other, more mundane senses, it gave grey hunters an almost omniscient awareness of everything in their immediate vicinity. The potions of grey hunter perception that Zach and Zorian had been creating in recent restarts mostly ignored all of these in favor of focusing on the grey hunter’s magic perception. This was both because they were treading new ground and had to prioritize, but also because even if they could condense the totality of grey hunter’s perception inside a single potion, it was doubtful that either of them could process the information without blacking out.
Recently, though, Zorian had decided to experiment a little with the tremor sense part of the grey hunter’s perception and commissioned a potion that would grant this ability from the alchemist they were working with. That was the potion he had just drunk, and this was going to be its first real field test.
About 10 seconds after he drank the potion, Zorian felt his skin tingle before his awareness… expanded. It was muted at first, but that changed quickly the moment Zorian took a step forward. He felt his foot hit the ground in a way he never had before, and the alien sensation almost brought him to the ground right then and there. A strong, vivid pulse emanated from his foot, spreading itself through the rocky labyrinth around him before being reflected back at him. In less than a second, he had a three dimensional map of his surroundings impressed into his mind.
“Give me a few minutes to get used to this,” he told Zach.
After fifteen minutes of pacing back and forth and jumping in place, Zorian was reasonably sure he could crudely interpret what his new sense was telling him. However, even this, which was probably just a shadow of what the real grey hunter was capable of, should allow him to effortlessly navigate through the valley. He motioned for Zach to follow him and they restarted their journey towards the elementals’ home.
Travel was very fast this time. Every step that Zach and Zorian took sent vivid pulses through the ground around them, mapping their surroundings in Zorian’s mind and allowing him to identify which ground was too unstable to support their weight. Zorian felt this was probably how the grey hunter always managed to detect buried traps that Zorian had tried to snare it with, even if they were totally non-magical. Every time it performed one of its damn jumps, the shockwaves generated by its landing would pulse through the ground around it, informing it of not just the layout of the ground around it, but also of its contents.
But that was a thought for another time, because it wasn’t long before they had finally reached the place they had been looking for.
They knew they had reached it because the rocks around them crumbled to pieces and six earth elementals stepped out of them to block their path.
They were a diverse bunch. One was a huge boulder with four stubby legs and a pair of massive rocky arms that could probably crush both of them to paste with a single hand swipe. The other was a six-legged cat-lizard-something carved out of shiny stone, its knife-like scales bristling at their intrusion. The third was a giant elongated human head, soundlessly bobbing up and down through the ground, which rippled and flowed like water in its presence. The fourth was an incredibly lifelike obsidian centipede, looking more like an actual monster than an elemental spirit.
The fifth and six earth elementals, though, were clearly the leaders of the bunch. Both of them were around three and a half meters tall, fairly humanoid in appearance and armed with actual metal weaponry that looked human-made rather than formed out of stone and the like. One of them had a muscular-looking figure and four faces arranged around its head, and carried in its hands a massive sword. The other looked like an old man, with a beard made out of knife-like stones and a long, whip-like tail trailing behind him. This one carried a huge mace in his hands, waving it in the air menacingly.
After a few tense seconds, the four-faced elemental stepped forward towards them.
“Forbidden,” he told them simply. Zorian kind of expected the elemental’s voice to be all booming and gravely, considering its size and composition, but it was actually very crisp and spoken at normal volume.
“We bring gifts,” Zorian countered, bringing out a box out of his jacket pocket and showing the contents to the giant elemental in front of him. Zach proceeded to do the same.
The boxes held a pair of fist-sized red stones, glowing with inner light. The so called ‘dragonheart stones’ were highly coveted by some magical creatures, including earth elementals. These stones were hard to acquire, as they could only be found deep within the Dungeon as a rule, and humans had no real use for them aside from making expensive jewelry and trading them to creatures that coveted them. Thankfully, Zach had encountered an entire cave full of them at one point, so it was simple enough to acquire some.
The moment the earth elementals saw the stones, they quickly changed their tune. The lesser elementals around them tried to scuttle over to have a closer look but the two leaders quickly caused them to stay back with a few menacing movements. After that, the four-faced elemental spoke again, again limiting himself to a single word.
“Come,” he said simply.
The four lesser elementals stayed behind, while the two humanoid giants led them to one of the large rock formations that turned out to be hollow. Inside, they found an interior that wouldn’t look terribly out of place in a human dwelling – there were tables, chairs, shelves, cabinets and even some potted plants. Items of obviously human making were scattered throughout the area, some of them hopelessly broken. Zorian assumed they were battle trophies to warn and awe human visitors against treachery, but it was hard to be sure – spirits were notorious for having very alien sense of aesthetics, so maybe the elementals just found the arrangement pleasing to the eye somehow.
In the back of the chamber, opposite of the entrance, stood the elemental they came here to see. Stonechild, the elder elemental.
Zorian didn’t know what he had expected to see. A massive stone monolith with a giant face carved in it? A miniature mountain? A larger version of the humanoid elementals that escorted them to this place?
What he definitely didn’t expect was to find himself facing what appeared to be a ten-year-old boy. And not one that was crudely carved out of stone, either – Stonechild’s form was incredibly lifelike and realistic, and he looked like nothing more than a real human child, if one whose skin was bit browner than was common this far to the north.
There was only one thing hinting at Stonechild’s elemental nature – his eyes were solid black, devoid of any internal structure a real human eye should have. It was as if someone set out to make a flawless human replica but then ran out of patience in the end and decided to just socket a pair of polished black gems into the eye sockets and call it a day.
“Welcome,” Stonechild said, his voice steady and very natural sounding. He smiled reassuringly at them. “We don’t get many visitors here, so my manners are a little rusty and I have little to offer you with. I apologize in advance for my poor hospitality. Would you like a glass of water?”
Zach and Zorian glanced at each other uncertainly. This… was not quite how they had imagined the great elder elemental would behave towards them.
“I could go for a glass of water, yeah,” Zach said with a shrug.
Stonechild nodded to himself in satisfaction and walked over to a nearby shelf, which held several ceramic jugs and a collection of glass containers of various sorts. Stonechild picked up what was clearly a pickle jar at first, but then hesitated for a moment before putting it back on the shelf. He then picked up a proper drinking glass instead.
Zorian watched as the elder elemental went about pouring Zach a glass of water, shifting in place nervously. Strange as it may sound, Stonechild worried him a lot more than the two hulking elemental guards that stood vigilantly by the entrance of this place. He didn’t look as imposing as them, but his appearance was a dangerous sign all on its own. It was well known that when it came to spirits, the more humanlike they were, the more wary one had to be around them. Not necessarily because that made them more powerful, but because it meant they understood humans well enough to pretend to be one. This understanding, in turn, meant they could counter, fight and manipulate humans in a way their more ignorant fellows could not.
Stonechild’s understanding of human mentality and culture made him a lot more dangerous than he would be if he was just a bit more powerful than your average earth elemental.
It was interesting to see this kind of an elemental here in total wilderness, though. Elementals were some of the most ancient spirits known to man, but also one of the most alien and incomprehensible. The vast majority of them couldn’t even speak in a human-comprehensible manner, nevermind understand human logic and attitudes. This inability of human and elementals to understand one another, coupled with the fact that elementals often occupied land that humans coveted and that elementals typically reacted to provocations by attacking any human within reach (most elementals had trouble telling human individuals apart from one another), led to many bitter conflicts between the two groups in the past. Elementals that understood humanity to the level that Stonechild did were vanishingly rare and usually involved the elemental in question allying itself to a human community for several generations. Most of them served as protector spirits of various Houses or brokered some kind of trade deal with the local authorities in exchange for being left alone.
For Stonechild to live in this kind of isolated location, away from any significant human community, yet still know so much about them… it was weird. Zorian suspected he might have originally lived somewhere in the south, but was driven away from his previous home by something.
“I hear you bring gifts for me,” Stonechild eventually said.
“We sure do,” Zach grinned. The two of them handed their dragonheart stones to the elemental, who accepted them without any apparent excitement or comment. He rotated the stones in his palms for a few moments before setting them aside on the nearby table.
“It is a good gift,” Stonechild said. “But is it really a gift? I would never claim to be an expert on humanity, but in my experience your kind is rarely this generous for no reason.”
“It’s a gift,” Zach said. “We do want something from you, but we’re willing to pay for it. Those stones are yours no matter what you do.”
“Even if I throw you two out right now?” Stonechild asked curiously.
“Even then,” Zorian confirmed.
“Hmm. I think I like you two,” Stonechild said. “So what is it that you want from me? I warn you in advance that I dislike fighting. Me and my kind will not be your mercenaries, no matter how much you offer to pay.”
“We’re only after knowledge,” Zorian said.
“Only knowledge?” Stonechild repeated, his black eyes narrowing slightly. “And yet you’re willing to pay such a heavy price, just for a chance to petition me for it. It is surely not ‘just’ knowledge, then. What kind of forbidden secrets are you after?”
“We want to know where the primordials were imprisoned,” Zach said.
Thus far, Stonechild had been very serene and self-assured in his mannerisms. It was somewhat at odds with his child-like appearance, to be honest. However, when Zach mentioned what they were after, Stonechild actually flinched a little.
“Why would you seek the ancient blood?” Stonechild asked, leaning forward towards them. “No matter what your reasons are, you’re only inviting disaster upon yourself. There is no gain to be had there.”
“You say that, but I heard there are people who gained great powers by binding the blood of primordials to themselves,” Zorian said. It wasn’t something he intended to do, but he still wanted to hear what Stonechild had to say about it.
“Artifacts of forgotten wars at the beginning of time,” Stonechild said, waving his hand dismissively in the air. “Should you find one of these out there in the vast world, unclaimed by anyone, that is obviously a great boon for you. But to tamper with the cages that hold back those of the ancient blood is utter foolishness. Since the time of their imprisonment, no one has ever received gift from their kind.”
“Are you saying they’re actively malicious?” Zach asked curiously.
“Do you hate the bugs eating your crops? Do you torture mosquitos for drinking your blood?” Stonechild asked. “We are all nothing to them – elemental and human both.”
“Right, right, we’re not people to them so they can do whatever they want to us,” Zach said. “It’s fine, though – we don’t really want anything from the primordials themselves. What we’re really interested is those fancy pocket dimensions that hold them.”
“Pocket what?” Stonechild asked, cocking his head to the side in confusion. Apparently he never encountered that particular term and couldn’t figure out the meaning from the context provided.
“Their cages,” Zach clarified. “The thing that holds them outside our reality.”
“Ah,” Stonechild nodded. “That is… less disturbing. But I caution you to forget the idea anyway. Cracking the prisons is probably beyond you… thankfully… but you might end up accidentally contacting the prisoner or attract unwanted attention. Few such prisons are truly unguarded.”
“We’d really want to take a look at one, anyway. Do you think we could come to some kind of agreement?” said Zorian, motioning towards the dragonheart stones with his head. “There are more stones like that where those came from. And we might have more gifts for you besides.”
“Even if I was willing to help you with this, I honestly do not know where the ancient blood was buried,” Stonechild said. “I cannot help you.”
The elder elemental disguised as a child glanced towards the stones for a second before shifting his attention back to them.
“However…” he said. “I might know a couple of other elementals that would be able to help you.”
“Ah, that’s fine too, I guess,” Zorian said. “I suppose you’d be willing to give this information to us?”
Stonechild smiled widely.
“For a price,” he said.
* * *
“Yes,” Glittering River of Stars said, sagging a little. “We will agree to let you observe us use the Bakora Gate in exchange for… I can’t believe I’m saying this… time travel related favors.”
“Finally. It was about freaking time,” Zach muttered under his breath.
It turned out he hadn’t been quiet enough, because River of Stars bristled slightly at his words and immediately turned to him.
“What would you know? This was a difficult decision for us! Even if you’re telling the truth about time travel, we have no way of enforcing this deal! You can renege on it easily enough, and we won’t even know an agreement existed in the first place!”
“Yeah, and that’s why your elders refused to accept a mere promise alone,” Zach shot back. “We paid you an absurd amount of crystalized mana and other valuables for this ‘favor’. Plus we destroyed that nest of serpent-bearded toads for you as a sign of good faith.”
“And if you’re telling the truth about the time loop, none of that will matter in the long run, will it?” River of Stars asked rhetorically.
Zorian thought about getting involved, but ultimately decided that any words would just be throwing oil into the fire. Truthfully, he understood the doubts and hesitation of the Silent Doorway Adepts all too well. He would feel the same in their position. He actually hadn’t expected this negotiation to succeed at all in this restart – he expected it would take at least two or three times before he learned how to approach them correctly. However, saying that out loud would be the equivalent of shooting himself in the foot. The aranea probably wouldn’t appreciate it much, and Zach would feel betrayed. His fellow time traveler had been getting steadily more annoyed with the colony as they dragged their many feet and the end of the restart inexorably approached, so he probably wouldn’t appreciate Zorian taking their side – even as a diplomatic tactic.
Thankfully, after staring at each other really hard, Zach and River of Stars decided to mutually back down.
“Whatever,” River of Stars said. “The elders have reached their decision, so there is no point in arguing this. Is there anything else?”
“Yes,” Zorian spoke up. “Do you have something that would help us convince your web we’re telling the truth in future restarts?”
“Ah, yes,” River of Stars said. “There was some discussion about that. We have… something. We have no idea how useful it will be to you, since we’ve never actually made any contingencies in case of time travel being real, but you of all people can afford to do some trial and error on this. Hold on.”
She was still and silent for about ten seconds, probably engaging in telepathic communication with the rest of her web.
“Prepare for a memory packet transfer,” she told him, before sending a telepathic probe at his mental shields.
Zorian allowed her to establish contact, and she immediately shoved a small memory packet at him. He quickly perused the contents, noticing it mostly held meaningless strings of numbers (well, meaningless to him at least) as well as some kind of detailed map of the region surrounding their web. He unraveled the memory packet and repackaged the information into a memory packet of his own – that way he wouldn’t have to worry about it decaying on him the way the matriarch’s memory packet did – and then gently pushed at the connection with River of Stars, signaling to her to end the connection.
She did as he asked, but she couldn’t help but take a quick peek at his memories as she withdrew. Zorian didn’t even try to stop her – instead, he simply pushed a memory of him being stabbed to death in one of the earliest restarts at her memory probe, causing her to flinch a little and hastily break contact.
“It’s rare to see a human so well versed in telepathic conflict,” she said, a little awkwardly.
“Thank you,” Zorian said. “Can we see the gate now?”
“Yes,” she confirmed, a little more respectfully. Apparently his little show of telepathic sophistication had humbled her a bit. Huh. He made a mental note to challenge one of their elders to a telepathic duel in future restarts, just to establish his telepathic credentials. Maybe they’d look down on them less if he did that. “I’ll lead the way.”
River of Stars led them down the twisting tunnels of the aranean settlement, far deeper into the colony than they’d ever been allowed to go before. There, in a large underground chamber, stood a circular stone platform that held a familiar black icosahedron that was the Bakora gate. Well, it was familiar to Zorian at least.
“You’ve never seen a Bakora gate before?” Zorian asked Zach, who was currently slowly circling the construct and inspecting it curiously. “In all those countless restarts, it never crossed your mind to seek one out?”
“No, why would it?” Zach asked, poking the black bars experimentally with his finger. “They don’t work and nobody knows how to activate them. I’m no researcher – if countless scholars couldn’t get anything out of them, what could I do? It’s really similar to the Ibasan one, though... you can clearly tell they were inspired by one of these things when they made theirs.”
“The fact that there is another gate-using group operating around is disturbing,” a nearby aranea commented. “You should have mentioned that information earlier when you spoke with us.”
“Sorry,” Zorian shrugged. “I didn’t think it was important. So how will this work exactly? Considering you gathered no less than fifteen araneas here, I’m guessing the activation requires some kind of group ritual?”
“It is a ritual, yes,” the aranea confirmed. Her name was Marvelous Geode, if he remembered correctly. Well, her name was quite a bit longer than that actually, but that was what it shortened to anyway. “It’s not the ‘correct’ way to activate the gate, but it’s the only way we know.”
“What does the ritual involve, exactly?”
“Well…” she hesitated. “First of all, we need to establish contact with the spirit of the gate…”
“Wait, the gate has a spirit?” Zorian asked incredulously. He focused his mind sense on the gate for the moment. “I don’t sense a mind within it.”
“Of course you can’t,” she said. “The spirit is completely disconnected from the Great Web. Its mind is permanently dark, much like your friend’s mind is under that spell he keeps constantly active around us. Yet, the spirit is very much real.”
Marvelous Geode stood a little straighter, giving him a challenging look, as if daring him to contradict her. He didn’t. While the idea of the Bakora gate having a spirit was a bit weird, he would trust the Silent Doorway Adepts on this. They did get the gate to work, after all, unlike everybody else.
“So how did you find out about this spirit, then? Do you have someone with soul perception or something?”
“The spirit cannot be detected through the soul, either. Its soul is shrouded somehow, and does not show up on casual inspection, even if one is a necromancer. One has to contact the spirit in a very specific way before it will deign to reveal itself,” Marvelous Geode explained.
That… well, it certainly explained why this gate spirit had remained an unknown thus far. However…
“How did you even find out about this, then?” Zorian asked curiously. “Did you just tinker with the gate and end up contacting the spirit by accident or…?”
“Well, there was admittedly a whole lot of tinkering involved. The founder of our web was obsessed with the gate and invested a lot of her time and energies on it. That said, we were rather certain that there was a spirit in there so our tinkering was directed at establishing contact with the spirit right from the start,” Marvelous Geode said. “After all, Bakora gates were said to be able to open up dimensional passages to each other, entirely on their own. That goes against everything we know about magic items. I’m told you’re quite an artificer, so you no doubt know that magic items never really cast anything – they can only ever maintain a spell that is anchored to them, and anything else is an illusion achieved by shifting the spell in question into different modes. For the Bakora gates to be able to open and close dimensional passages to any gate in the network, they had to be some kind of spellcaster. And spellcasting requires a soul.”
Zorian hummed thoughtfully. Pretty solid logic there, he had to admit. By now, Zach had long got bored of staring at the gate and walked over to stand beside him. As for the rest of the aranea that weren’t explaining things to Zorian, they were busy carting large quantities of crystalized mana to the vicinity of the gate.
“The local area has insufficient quantity of ambient mana to power the opening of the gate,” Marvelous Geode explained. “Once the spirit is contacted and starts opening the dimensional passage, we have to evaporate a large amount of crystalized mana and funnel it into the gate or the process will fail.”
“Why not just move the gate deeper into the Dungeon?” Zach asked.
“They can’t,” Zorian said. “It’s well known that Bakora gates cannot be moved from their spots or they literally fall apart. Most experts are guessing that the icosahedron bars are only the tip of the iceberg and that part of the gate is embedded into the surrounding rocks and the like.”
“Yes,” Marvelous Geode said. “We have heard about that, which was why it was never attempted. There was some talk about drilling a hole to the deeper layers near the gate in order to create an artificial mana well… but nobody really knows just how much damage to their surroundings Bakora gates can take before they break down, so that idea never went anywhere. The gate is too precious to risk like that, even if it would save us a lot of money.”
With all preparations done, Marvelous Geode excused herself and joined the rest of her fellows in setting up the ritual to contact the gate spirit. After some frantic running and pushing, the araneas entered into a circular formation around the icosahedron, forming three concentric lines around the object. Then they all started casting.
Twenty minutes later, they were still going at it with no visible change.
Eventually Zach couldn’t take it anymore and leaned in towards him.
“Zorian, do you understand anything that is going on here?” Zach whispered to him. “I’m not an expert on aranean magic, but they seemed to be just repeating the same movements over and over again…”
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed, studying the ritual with a frown.
It was… strange. He could vaguely recognize the spell they were casting as some kind of soul magic ritual, similar to the protection rituals that Alanic had taught him. Things that even a person like him with no soul perception could use. These kind of rituals were lengthy and crude – the magical equivalent of groping in the dark – but sometimes it was enough. Lukav had used something similar when he had analyzed his soul in the past for damage and the like.
However, the ritual Silent Doorway Adepts were performing didn’t look like any ritual spell he knew of. Not that Zorian had witnessed all that many group rituals, but this was still…
He suddenly realized what was bothering him – the movements of the aranea weren’t nearly as synchronized as they should be.
“It’s not really a group ritual,” Zorian whispered back to Zach. “They are all performing the same ritual spell independently of one another. And then, when they’re done, they just start over and do it again and again.”
Zach stared at the fifteen araneas surrounding the gate for a few seconds, before leaning towards Zorian again.
“Are you saying,” Zach asked him incredulously, “that they’re basically annoying the gate spirit into revealing itself?”
“Uh, no. That’s not what I was getting at,” Zorian replied. “I think the ritual they use is flawed, and only works when everything aligns just right… but since they don’t really know how the gate functions internally, they can’t aim for those circumstances specifically. They can just repeat it over and over and hope that it eventually works.”
“Why have fifteen of them doing it at once, though?” Zach asked. “It the circumstances aren’t right for one of them, why would it work for the other fourteen?”
“If you look at them closely, you will see they’re not casting the ritual in unison – that’s what tipped me off as to what they’re doing, actually. They’ve staggered their casting so that they all finish the spell one after another. I think that, in practice, getting the ritual to work is just a matter of very specific timing. By constantly bombarding the gate with contact requests, they make it more likely that one will actually connect.”
“Ah, I see… so the ritual could conceivably be done by one person alone, but they would likely miss many windows of opportunity and take way longer than a group like this,” Zach said. “Well… this will be very annoying if we want to use this ourselves.”
“Yeah,” Zorian agreed unhappily.
Not only was the ritual an aranean creation, meaning Zorian would have to convert it to human-style spellcasting before he could make use of it, but it was also a very inelegant solution that would be a pain to set up for someone other than Silent Doorway Adepts. Even if he hired enough mages for this kind of setup to work, he would still have to teach them the spell itself and then train them to stagger their casting correctly. Even then, they would never be as good at it as the aranea, since they didn’t have years of practice with the setup like they did. And the aranea were already at it for half an hour and still going, so he shuddered to think how long it would take under less than ideal circumstances. Just how long would this-
A flash of bright light in the center of the icosahedron marked the opening of a dimensional gate instead. The aranea immediately stopped their repetition and scrambled throughout the chamber in a sort of organized chaos, evaporating the chunks of crystalized mana and feeding it to the gate mechanism. The spatial doorway steadily grew, eventually stabilizing into a circular hole in the air that led… elsewhere.
Zorian glanced at his pocket watch. It took the aranea about 40 minutes to open the gate, most of which was spent on contacting the gate spirit.
Marvelous Geode scuttled over to them, looking very pleased with herself.
“The passage is open,” she said.
“Does it always take this long to open?” Zach asked.
“Oh no… this was quite fast by past standards. Sometimes it takes as much as two hours before the gate spirit will deign to respond. This is an auspicious omen for this cooperation.”
Zach and Zorian looked at each other unhappily. Two hours…
“You can try going through it if you wish,” Marvelous Geode said.
“Where does it lead, anyway?” Zorian asked.
“Sulamnon, not far from the port city of Hitamtep,” she said. “Eldemar and Sulamnon have been engaged in a trade war for a while now, so trading there is quite profitable.”
“You’d probably get a better return by going to more distant lands, though,” Zorian noted. “Are there distance limitations on Bakora gate use?”
“In theory, no. In practice, getting to very distant lands is impossible for us. In order to connect with another Bakora gate, we need to first travel to said gate through some other means and contact its own gate spirit. Only after we receive a… sort of mental key from the gate spirit, can we use our own gate to reach it.”
“So each gate has its own secret password and you need to get it before you can travel there?” Zach summarized.
“It’s not very secret – the gate spirit will freely give you its key if you can contact it. But yes, that is essentially correct,” the aranea confirmed.
“Sounds like you could use someone that can freely travel over human territory and access distant Bakora gates,” Zorian noted.
“Well, yes. That is the primary thing that our elders hope to gain from this deal,” Marvelous Geode said carefully. “If you could help us acquire keys to distant gates, this could easily catapult our webs to unbelievable prosperity. Especially if you can secure us a connection to Miasina. There are no aranea there, as far as we can tell, so it’s pretty much virgin ground for us to settle… an entire continent worth of it.”
In the end, the two of them did step through the gate and explored the other site a bit. The Silent Doorway Adepts were, as it turned out, a territorially discontinuous web, with semi-autonomous colonies established around each of the gates they traveled to on a regular basis. The colony back in Eldemar was clearly the main one, though, and that probably wouldn’t change any time soon since the sub-colonies were denied the knowledge of the gate activation ritual.
They didn’t venture forth from the aranean colony too much. Two people with an obvious Eldemarian accent were unlikely to be viewed favorably by Sulamnese inhabitants – the two countries hated each other, after all.
The moment Zorian returned to Cyoria, he sat down on his work desk, called up a memory of the ritual, vividly preserved in his mind, and set about understanding it and taking it apart. He respected the aranean achievement and dedication, but there just had to be a better way of doing this.
* * *
“I see,” mumbled Zorian to himself, turning the telepathic relay in his hand. The innocuous-looking metal plate was connected to the long, long chain of telepathic relays that his simulacrum left behind him, like breadcrumbs, as it traveled ever further south. He occasionally received reports and memory packets from the simulacrum, detailing the issues his copy had encountered on the journey.
“Something good?” Zach asked.
“My simulacrum has finally reached Koth,” Zorian said. “Or at least the port town of Jasuka, which is generally considered to be the entry port to the region.”
“Man, finally,” Zach said. “The restart is going to end in less than two days. I was starting to wonder what was taking him so long.”
“It’s not that simple…” Zorian protested, feeling compelled to defend his copy. It was a hard and frustrating journey and Zorian was honestly grateful to his simulacrum for actually attempting his task seriously instead of doing a half-assed job or giving up half-way through.
“I know, I know,” Zach said, waving his hands in a placating gesture. “There is no need to get all protective of your precious copy. I’m certainly not going to complain about not having to do anything but wait while your simulacrums do all the work. And the traveling speed is bound to improve as your simulacrums figure out better traveling routes in the future. But you have to admit this is kind of disappointing.”
“Yes,” Zorian admitted. “Especially since all of my simulacrums get dismissed when we enter Black Rooms and get cut off from the outside world. We really need to figure out how the Ibasans stabilize their gates, or else I’ll need to send a simulacrum to Koth at least twice per restart.”
“We could always find a Bakora Gate in Koth, send your simulacrum there to open our own gate and then bring a bunch of Silent Doorway Adepts through it to ask the gate spirit for the password,” mused Zach. “Then we can just go and use the aranean gate in future restarts.”
“It’s a nice idea, but who knows how long it would take to set up?” Zorian asked rhetorically. “I don’t know if you noticed, but the Silent Doorway Adepts are a rather suspicious bunch. I don’t know how quickly we can convince them to cooperate in the future, but…”
“Yeah, now that you mention it, I don’t really like the idea,” Zach agreed. “How is your analysis of their contact ritual going?”
Zorian’s face twisted into a grimace.
“That bad, huh?” Zach asked with a grin.
“I’ll say this: there is a reason why they’re still using that stupid method instead of switching to something better. I don’t think I’ll figure out something better any time soon,” Zorian explained unhappily.
“You might want to work with them instead of away from them in the future,” Zach noted. “They’re annoying jerks, but I’m sure they’re as interested in making the contact ritual better as we are, and they have way more experience with it than you do.”
“I guess you’re right,” Zorian agreed. “I think-”
He stopped talking when he noticed his simulacrum was trying to contact him again. Huh. That was fast. Wonder what that was about…
“Uh, Zach?” he eventually asked.
“Yeah?” Zach asked curiously.
“Do you have anything you should be doing in the near future?”
“I’m bored out of my skull and you know it,” he said. “Why?”
“The simulacrum says he’s in the jungle to the west of Jasuka and that he’s found a perfect spot for the gate. He’s asking if we want to try opening one right now,” explained Zorian.
Zach thought about it for a few seconds. Or maybe just pretended to think about it – Zach had a flair for dramatics like that.
“Why not?” he finally said, jumping to his feet. “Let’s go see Koth.”
* * *
Gate was an amazing spell in Zorian’s opinion. Teleport was arguably a more useful piece of magic, despite the range limitations that forced mages to chain teleports if they wanted to cross any appreciable distance, but it just didn’t have the same emotional impact that a dimensional gate did. There was just something emotionally satisfying about crossing continental distances in a single step.
For example, Zorian had just followed Zach through the dimensional passage he and his simulacrum had opened, and suddenly went from a hastily secured underground room in Eldemar to a steaming, verdant jungle in Koth.
It was… louder than he thought it would be. The sheer cacophony of different sounds was impressive, but he imagined that would get tiresome very fast.
“You have no idea,” his simulacrum grumbled, having read his thoughts. “I especially hate that one bird that keeps making sounds reminiscent of a dying man’s scream. I really wish that bird would shut up already. I even thought of tracking it down so I could kill it, but I can’t seem to find it in all the foliage. You’d think something that loud would be trivial to track down, but…”
“Anything special we should keep in mind here?” Zorian said, cutting the simulacrum off before he could get going. He knew himself – once he started complaining, there would be no end of it.
“Yeah, the wildlife is absolutely terrifying,” the simulacrum said. “At one point I saw ants the size of my thumb dismembering some kind of jungle cat, and some of the snakes can fly. No wings or anything, they just kind of silently float through the air like they were swimming through water. And that was in the first hour or so.”
“Yeah, I heard the southern jungles make the Great Northern Wilderness look like a playground,” Zach said, picking up a dried branch off the jungle floor and taking a few experimental swings with it. “Not sure how much of that is true and how much of it is just southerners trying to make themselves look tough, but there is probably some truth to it. If nothing else these jungles should be more unpredictable than our forests, since the wildlife is more diverse here.”
“I was also told by the natives that foreigners often get sick not long after coming here,” the simulacrum said. “It’s not a single disease either – there is a whole bunch of things you could contract here. Most of them aren’t lethal, but they can leave you bedridden for weeks. Not a problem for a simulacrum like me, but you’re going to have to stock up on cures before you start wandering around the region.”
“Great,” Zorian clacked his tongue unhappily. “Another thing to worry about.”
“Hey,” Zach said suddenly. “Don’t get mad at me, but… didn’t you say your eldest brother is active around here?”
“Yes?” Zorian said, drawing the word out unnecessarily. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well,” Zach began carefully, “I know you don’t like him, but we’re kind of total strangers here. We don’t know the language, we don’t know the culture, and we don’t know how to navigate the local authorities. Your brother, on the other hand, probably does. And he probably has existing contacts all over the place that he could refer us to…”
Zorian made a really sour face at that. Yeah, he could see the logic in that. Especially since they were on a treasure hunt and his brother was… well, a treasure hunter. He probably could help. And, as much as Zorian hated to admit it, probably would be willing to help.
But he so, so, didn’t want to ask Daimen for help…
“We don’t have time for that right now,” Zorian said curtly. “The restart is ending soon.”
Zach chuckled in amusement.
“But you agree that we should see him?” Zach asked, face full of mirth. “I say, I didn’t think it would be that easy.”
“It’s a matter of survival,” Zorian’s simulacrum grumbled. “We can’t let our personal grudges get in the way of that. In the grand scheme of things, this is nothing.”
Well put, simulacrum number 2. Well put.
“That’s good,” Zach said. “You know, I’m really looking forward to meeting the guy. Maybe punch him in the face if he’s as bad as you obviously think he is…”
Zorian and his simulacrum shared an exasperated look between themselves. Still, he couldn’t deny that a part of him was interested in seeing how a meeting between Zach and Daimen would go. He hoped that Daimen still had that competitive streak and challenged Zach to a sparring match or something – watching Zach wipe the floor with him would be pretty damn satisfying. Not as satisfying as Zorian doing so himself, of course, but pretty close. Plus, he would be lying if he said he wasn’t interested in what exactly his brother had been doing down here in the south that occupied him so. And why were his parents coming here to meet with him, anyway?
Perhaps, before he sought out Daimen here in Koth, he should have a chat with mother at the start of the next restart.
If nothing else, that way he wouldn’t have to search for him all over Koth.
* * *
The people guarding the Ibasan gate beneath Cyoria were a cranky and unhappy bunch. In theory, their task was one of great importance – they were guarding the Ibasan route of retreat, making sure no Eldemarian battle force could close the gate, or even pass to the other side to wreak havoc on the base of Sudomir, their ally. In practice, this was seen as punishment duty. Having been stationed here, they were denied a piece of the action happening above, and thus the glory and looting opportunities that came with it. Besides, what were the chances that the beleaguered Cyorian defenders could not only afford to send some of their battle mages down here, but that they also knew exactly where to go in order to find the Ibasan gate site? No, the idea was absolutely ri-
“Hook goblins!” someone shouted. “We have hook goblins incoming!”
No one was worried at first. Hook goblins were ferocious and very deadly if one allowed them to get close, but they weren’t particularly tough and went down easily before concentrated spellfire. Indeed, the first wave was nothing special, lulling the Ibasan defenders into a false sense of safety. But as they killed one wave of hook goblins, then two, and then another, they realized this swarm of them was a bit larger than they were used to. Then a couple of mages got a strange headache at the most inconvenient of times and failed their spells, and some of the hook goblins managed to close into melee range…
The defenders dissolved into chaos. The troops manning the defenses may have thought the attitude unfair, but there was a reason why the Ibasan leadership considered most of them to be the dregs of their invasion force.
The commanders of the force delayed asking for help as long as possible, afraid of what their superiors would say if they proved unable to contain even a simple hook goblin incursion. What a humiliation that would be!
That changed when an entire regiment of steel golems came running into the gate chamber, following behind the last hook goblins. Each of them carried a rifle and a belt full of spell bombs, and they were far more resilient than mere hook goblins.
More importantly, they signified a clear Eldemarian attack on the gate chamber. This was no longer just an unlucky incursion of Dungeon denizens but an organized assault. In fact, most of the Ibasans suddenly realized that the hook goblins were probably just a setup to soften them up before the real assault force arrived!
At this point the Ibasan defenders abandoned their pride and tried to contact the small elite Quatach-Ichl had left by the dimensional gate itself. If this was an Eldemarian attack, then there was no shame in summoning Quatach-Ichl to save them…
Unfortunately, Zach had already taken care of the gate battlegroup by then, freezing the war trolls into icy statues and disabling the mages. No one would be coming to save them. The final nail in the coffin was when Zach and Zorian stopped hiding and joined the golems and hook goblins in finishing off the Ibasans.
The force arrayed before the Ibasan defenders was so overwhelming that many of them surrendered rather than keep fighting till the bitter end. This was a bit of an unforeseen problem, as neither Zach nor Zorian had the heart to just massacre people who surrendered in cold blood, but they also didn’t trust them not to start something while they were distracted. After some heated discussion, they ended up solving that by using sleeping gas bombs on them until they were all knocked unconscious.
They were just finished with that when a small metal plate hanging off Zorian’s hip suddenly shook and Alanic’s voice emanated from it, faint but crisp and perfectly audible.
“This is Alanic, code Tharo eight seven four. You should be done by now. Is the chamber clear?”
“This is Zorian, code Raha one one eight,” said Zorian back into the plate. He personally thought it was kind of unnecessary, but Alanic insisted that these codes were used every time they made contact with one another through the communication plate. “Everything is clear on my end. You can bring everyone into the gate chamber.”
Five minutes later, a seemingly endless stream of people poured into the former Ibasan base, led by Xvim and Alanic. Some of them were soldiers and battle mages, here to ensure the safety of the gathered people from the Dungeon denizens, but most of them were various artificers, scholars, dimensionalism experts, spell crafters, and so forth. They were all led into the center of the chamber and presented with the Ibasan gate.
They all gathered around the gate, scrutinizing it intently… some with obvious enthusiasm and some with professional stoicism.
“Alright everyone,” Xvim told them. “We have only a few hours to figure this thing out as much as possible, so do your best. Mister Kazinski and mister Noveda here are the leaders of this project, so please report all your findings to them. Don’t be fooled by their young age, they very much have the confidence of the authorities in this matter.”
And thus, almost a hundred respected experts gathered from all over Eldemar set about studying the Ibasan gate and how it could be recreated.