Chapter 069

Zorian could tell right away that the hydra in front of them was not normal. First of all, it was too big. He was no expert on hydras, but he knew that even the largest ones didn’t grow more than 10 meters in length. This one seemed to be at least twice that size, if the size of its heads was of any indication. Then there was the matter of how suddenly it had appeared on his senses. There was no way he could miss something like that with even casual inspection, nevermind the detailed sweep he had done on the cenote. The mind he was currently sensing was one of the most distinctive things he had ever witnessed through his mind sense, and it should have drawn his attention immediately. The hydra seemed to have nine minds – one for each head, and a ninth one that served as a kind of… overmind, for the lack of a better term. The individual heads seemed to be somehow suborned to the main mind of the hydra, which was probably in charge of coordinating the heads towards an overarching goal. It was kind of fascinating.

Then the hydra pointed all eight of its heads at them and roared. If they were dealing with a normal hydra, this would just be a cheap intimidation tactic. Instead, the roar was infused with potent wind magic, battering the whole group with a powerful gust of wind. Zach and Zorian simply glued their feet to the ground with non-structured magic, and Daimen protected most of his team with an impressively quick force wall spell. Sadly, that still left four people at the mercy of the incoming wind attack. Of those four, one was Chassanah, who simply stabbed his staff into the ground and held on to it with pure physical strength. Zorian was impressed – the old man looked kind of gaunt, but there seemed to be surprising strength hidden under his wiry frame. As for the other three, they were not as quick on their feet and merely released a chorus of short cries and screams as they were blown off their feet and sent tumbling into the distance. They didn’t die, but they wouldn’t be getting up any time soon.

Zach was the one who handled the surprise attack the best. While everyone else, even Zorian, was scrambling to withstand the roar somehow, Zach was already casting some kind of complex spell in retaliation. He transformed the entire area in front of him into a field of roughly-hewn stone blades before the windstorm even had time to die down, all of them wreathed in ominous red light. Then he slammed both of his hands into the earth before him, sending them all hurtling towards the hydra.

The monster took one look at the approaching cloud of stony death, its many eyes widening in surprise and fear, then immediately cut its roar short and withdrew all of its heads back into the cenote. The chameleon drakes, still arranged around the cenote, were not as quick. The rain of blades slammed into the area around the cenote, burying themselves deep into the jungle soil and impaling through any chameleon drakes that were unfortunate enough to be in the way. The lucky ones were slain on the spot by the stone shards. The less fortunate ones wailed like wounded pigs as the red light that infused the blades spread throughout their bodies and started liquefying their insides.

The surviving chameleon drakes lost any semblance of group cohesion and simply scattered in all directions, abandoning their former home, the pained cries of their dying brethren motivating them to keep going until they had left the range of Zorian’s mind sense entirely.

Zach wasn’t really paying attention to the chameleon drakes, though. They were just collateral damage. The moment he had launched the rain of flesh-dissolving blades at the hydra, before he had even known whether it would hit its target or not, he was already casting another spell. Thus, the moment the hydra withdrew back into the cenote, Zach sent a pair of pale blue balls of magical energy after it.

Zorian would later find out that the projectiles were meant to freeze the water at the bottom of the cenote, hopefully imprisoning the hydra in a block of ice. Unfortunately for that idea, the hydra didn’t retreat back into the water. It simply ducked out of the path of Zach’s attack and then decided to jump out of the cenote and charge at the group.

Seeing the giant hydra jump out of the cenote with the same ease a housecat jumps onto the kitchen table really drove in the point that they were dealing with something entirely out of the ordinary. Normal hydras were ‘just’ highly venomous and capable of impressive tissue regeneration, especially in regards to their heads. They were not known to be especially fast or agile out of the water.

The charge of the hydra was unstoppable. Daimen and his team launched a constant stream of different attack spells at the hydra, all in vain. Every projectile they launched was intercepted by the hydra’s many heads before it could hit its main body, inflicting damage that was soon undone by the hydra’s natural regeneration ability. A hydra’s regeneration was most potent in regards to its heads, even capable of overcoming fire damage and other things that usually foiled regenerators, but its main body was a lot more vulnerable. Daimen’s group clearly knew this, and thus aimed for the main body with every attack they made, but the hydra was too quick and canny for this to work.

Zorian refrained from joining in on the attack. If Daimen’s whole group couldn’t break through, his addition would likely be a meaningless waste of mana. He simply focused on figuring out how its mind works, conserved his mana and repositioned his golems so he could respond in time upon spotting an appropriate opening. Fortunately, the hydra seemed focused primarily on Zach, having identified him as its biggest threat.

Well, perhaps it was a bit callous of Zorian to say that… but in his defense, Zach looked quite happy at the fact that he had attracted the hydra’s ire with his earlier spell. Seemingly ignoring the massive hydra thundering towards him, Zach cast two lengthy spells. The first created a large ball of soft white light that just hung there above his head, seemingly doing nothing at all. The other produced no visible effects, but Zorian’s magic perception was pretty good by now and he could sense eight magical constructs suddenly springing into existence around Zach.

Soon, the hydra was close enough to Zach to attack. At that moment, all eight heads struck, surging towards Zach like coiled springs. Somewhere behind him, Zorian could hear some member of Daimen’s team scream out a warning to Zach, as if that was going to do him any good now. At the same time, though, the eight concealed spell constructs surrounding Zach also sprang into motion, surging forward to meet the hydra’s heads. Eight spectral shark jaws faded into existence, already in the process of biting down towards the attacking heads. The hydra, suddenly realizing it had blundered into a trap, tried to abort its attack.

It was too late. It was too big and had too much momentum. Whatever magic gave it such abnormal speed and agility had its limits. The spectral jaws slammed shut, slicing through hydra scale and muscle alike with ridiculous ease. Panicked, the hydra seemed to dip into some secret reserves of strength that allowed it to quickly extricate most of its heads before they were bitten off.

Most, but not all. One of the spectral jaws caught its target particularly well and then kept biting down. With a loud crunch, the jaws bit right through the hydra head’s spine, separating it from the main body.

The hydra’s remaining seven heads roared in pain and anger, the headless neck of its eighth head flailing around madly and spraying blood everywhere around it. This wasn’t a wound its regeneration could fix – the head wasn’t damaged, it was just plain gone. It would regrow in time, but this process would happen too slowly to have any influence on the outcome of this battle.

Zorian expected that Zach would now use the mysterious ball of white light floating above his head, but the spell remained inert. Instead, he once again created a field of stone blades in front of him. Before he could launch it at the hydra, however, it suddenly retracted its heads closer to its main body and wrapped itself into something resembling a scaly, fleshy sphere. Then it disappeared into thin air.

When it appeared again, it was suddenly next to Daimen and his group.

“Of course it can teleport as well,” Zorian mumbled to himself.

It should have been more surprising. Teleportation magic was usually very impractical for large creatures, because the costs increased explosively with the volume of the thing being teleported. Instead, it almost seemed appropriate. Zorian by now strongly suspected that they were dealing with some kind of ancient guardian from Awan-Temti’s time, back when gods still meddled in mortal affairs and granted potent powers to those that caught their fancy. It was to be expected that something like this would be equipped with strange and potent abilities.

He pointed at the air in front of him and a large, semi-transparent disc of force materialized in the air before him. Zorian hopped onto it and flew off in the direction of the hydra. He was fine with letting Zach face the hydra on his own, but Daimen and the people around him would probably need his help to stay alive.

Chassanah, who was still near Zorian by this point, copied his trick and followed after him on a force disc of his own.

The sudden teleportation, while very impressive from a creature that big, seemed to take a lot out of the hydra. Instead of striking immediately, it took a few seconds to uncoil and catch its breath before attacking again. This blunted some of the shock among Daimen’s group and allowed them to organize themselves somewhat before it struck.

When it did strike, however, it was devastating. A layer of shields was erected in front of the group, but it was smashed into rapidly fading smoke and motes of light in under a second. Desperate to keep the hydra away from himself and his men, Daimen conjured a giant ectoplasmic version of himself, which then physically tackled the hydra. The giant ghostly Daimen snatched two of the hydra’s heads with its ghostly hands and tried to wrestle it to the ground. This didn’t quite work, but it did keep three of the hydra’s heads too busy to attack anyone else and stopped it from moving freely on the battlefield, so it wasn’t really a failure either.

Kirma fired a swarm of drill-like projectiles at the hydra, each of them unerringly homing in on the hydra’s sensitive points – eyes, mouth, ears, nostrils. This was rather remarkable, as most homing spells were not nearly that precise in their aiming. Especially since the miniature drills were moving with incredible speeds, which would further complicate homing functions of most spells. Zorian could only imagine the lotus machine she carried was somehow responsible for that feat.

Zorian would have thought Orissa would be entirely useless in this kind of fight, since the hydra was unlikely to even notice bee stings. However, she surprised him. Her bees suddenly became encased in an orange aura that caused the air around them to ripple from the intense heat emanating off them. From that point on, they flew faster and burned all that they touched, like a thousand tiny flying furnaces. Occasionally she would make a quick gesture, causing some of the bees to detonate, creating tiny but intense explosions that charred the hydra’s tough, scaly skin wherever they touched it. And because the bees were so tiny, they could simply fly past the more durable, regenerating heads and strike at the hydra’s main body.

Zorian also added some pressure on the hydra himself, launching a force lance, an incinerating beam and two severing discs at the hydra as he flew towards the battle site. He didn’t really think he would inflict real damage with that, but every second the hydra spent on dealing with those attacks was a second it couldn’t spare on dealing with Daimen and the others.

Despite all of these efforts, the hydra still had seven heads left, and it was hard to keep them all constantly busy. Zorian had to sacrifice one of his golems to save Orissa from having her head bitten off when the hydra finally figured out where the annoying burning, exploding bees were coming from. Torun also sacrificed one of his larger eyes to survive an attack, causing the eye in question to burst into a copious amount of translucent slime that formed a thin, rubbery dome around him. The head that was targeting him bit down on the dome and, despite its apparent flimsiness, failed to punch through. The dome bent and stretched, but did not break.

Unfortunately, not everyone targeted by the hydra had such a life-saving method prepared. One of the mages was bitten nearly in half before anyone could do anything about it, dying on the spot. The other had his arm pumped full of venom when the hydra grazed it with its jaws. Daimen immediately cut off the limb in question and then directed one of the mages to teleport him and all the other wounded away from the battlefield.

Additionally, one of the men tried to circle the hydra and attack it from behind, only to have his legs shattered in response when the hydra revealed that its tail was also a potent weapon, able to strike at things with great force and speed. Zorian didn’t begrudge the man his agonized screaming – he still remembered how much it had hurt when the grey hunter had done the same to him.

Finally, Daimen found a good moment to spring his trap. The hydra managed to get through some of the defensive spells and sent one of its heads towards Daimen, who threw a mundane-looking red projectile at it. Sensing no great danger, the hydra simply bit down on the projectile to make it go away… shattering the potion bottle hidden inside the projectile right inside its mouth.

The hydra as a whole flinched back as it sensed the alchemical mixture pour down its throat, stopping all of its attacks. The affected head released an agonizing scream as it rapidly began to transform into glittering white crystal. Its natural regeneration was unable to halt the process and it seemed inevitable that the entire hydra would rapidly crystalize and turn into a lifeless, glittering statue.

Without hesitation, one of the hydra’s other heads bit down on the neck of the rapidly crystalizing head and tore it off in a shower of blood and gore. Now down to six heads, but safe from the crystallization poison, the hydra gave Daimen a murderous look and prepared for another charge.

Unfortunately for the hydra, this was when Zach, Zorian and Chassanah reached the battlefield and the tide shifted. Chassanah circled the battlefield, casting barrier after barrier and preventing anyone else from being killed or seriously wounded by the hydra’s multitude of attacks. Zorian had figured out enough of its mind to start messing with its aim and timing, and occasionally launched combat spells at it as well when he spotted a good opening.

Then there was Zach. Unlike Zorian and Chassanah, he didn’t bother with a force disc – when the hydra teleported away from him, he simply jumped into the air and flew off towards the new battlefield like it was the most normal thing in the world, his eight spectral jaws in tow. The mysterious white orb was still floating over his head, too. As he traveled, another three identical orbs joined the one he made earlier, equally passive for now. When he finally reached the hydra, the spectral jaws that trailed behind him surged forward, biting towards it, and it was instantly put on the defensive.

Naturally, this was when the hydra pulled another one of its surprise abilities. It roared again, breathing clouds of bright green gas in every direction. Everyone was forced to temporarily retreat from what was likely some kind of poison mist, giving the hydra some much needed respite.

The battle continued. The hydra lost another head, then two. The hydra managed to rob Zach of all of his spectral jaws and wounded another one of Daimen’s men. Zorian managed to hit the hydra’s main body with a shredder sphere, inflicting a lasting wound on it. All of his golems ended up being reduced to scrap, however. Daimen’s ectoplasmic giant was dispersed, but Daimen managed to slice off its tail in response. At first glance, it seemed like they were winning and that victory was only a matter of time… but the truth was that they were steadily running out of mana. The hydra might be on the verge of collapse, but so were they. Even Zach’s seemingly inexhaustible mana reserves were starting to run out.

They didn’t want to retreat. At least one person was dead, many had suffered serious injuries, and they had used a lot of expensive resources during the course of the battle. On top of that, while the hydra was grievously wounded, it would recover quickly if it was left alone. Far faster than their group would. If they fled and came back later, it would probably be back in top health, with all of its heads back.

The hydra didn’t want to retreat either. It had only three of its heads left, but it knew it could recover from this setback very quickly. Its enemies were visibly weakening, it just had to keep going and outlast them. Besides, turning its back to such dangerous enemies was lunacy – all of its instincts were telling it that doing so would be a mistake. Better to risk fighting to the bitter end than be cut down from the back as it fled.

In the end, though, they had all underestimated Zach again. Sometime during the fighting, Zach had created another white ball to join the four he had prepared earlier. He then spent the rest of the battle arranging the five balls around the battlefield and trying to maneuver the hydra into the center of their formation. Although no one except Zach knew what they were supposed to do, his performance was impressive enough that everyone did their best to help him with this. The hydra was wary of the balls in the beginning, but as time passed and they remained little more than glowing ornaments, it began to mostly ignore them.

Eventually, Daimen instructed his men to feign a panicked rout and the hydra recklessly followed after them, stepping right in the middle of the resulting formation. In that very moment, Zach made a strange hand sign and the balls activated. A web of brightly shining threads unfolded out of them, reaching across empty space to intertwine with each other and trap the hydra under a dome of delicate-looking threads.

The hydra experimentally brushed against the dome of threads and hissed in pain as they lacerated its flesh like a thousand interlocking razors.

And then the dome began to shrink.

Everyone watched, exhausted, as the giant hydra futilely fought to break out of the dome of razor threads closing in on it. It bellowed in rage again and again, defiant to the very end. Finally, with its entire body mangled and only one head left intact, it once again curled into a ball and teleported out of the sphere.

Unlike the first teleport, this one did not take it very far. In fact, the hydra appeared right next to the rapidly shrinking sphere, having transported itself just far enough to escape immediate death. It swayed on its feet as it unrolled, looking as if was going to keel over dead at any moment. However, before that could happen, it lifted its head one last time and gave Daimen a bitter, murderous look. Though it was actually Zach that was responsible for its current predicament, it had been chasing after Daimen and his men when it blundered into the trap, and it viewed him as the primary culprit of its current predicament.

Through his magic perception, Zorian suddenly detected a massive buildup of magic in the hydra. In fact, virtually everyone seemed to have detected it, considering how they flinched in surprise. Before anyone could do anything, the hydra opened its last remaining mouth and fired a beam of pitch black energy straight at Daimen.

Eyes widening, Daimen reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, unassuming mirror, thrusting it in front of himself as some kind of shield.

The beam hit. The mirror shattered as if hit by a bomb, the sound of its destruction reverberating throughout the surroundings with unnatural loudness. Daimen himself was blown back like a rag doll, the arm that held the mirror clearly broken. The black beam was gone, however, as if it had never existed in the first place.

For a full second, the hydra seemed to stare at the scene. Then, it shuddered for a moment and collapsed to the side, dead.

The battle was over.

* * *

The immediate aftermath of the fight was, in many ways, more nerve-wracking for Zorian than the actual fight had been. After checking up on everyone, it turned out that only one person had actually died in the fighting – Goliri Ardat, the guy that got bitten in half by the hydra near the start of the fighting. However, Goliri was best friends with one of the other men in the group, Alachi Gotrum. Alachi was devastated and furious that his friend had died, and he felt the primary person responsible for his death was Zorian. It had been Zorian who had insisted that they had to gain access to the deepest cave in the cenote, after all. The man had kept hurling insults at Zorian for over five minutes, and even tried to attack him physically before Zach intervened.

Unfortunately, that’s when two more members of Daimen’s team spoke up in support of Alachi. The guy who had lost his arm due to the hydra’s poison and the man who’d had his legs shattered by its tail were also very unhappy. They were essentially crippled, and they likewise blamed Zorian for it. Likely Zach as well, but they were too intimidated by his combat prowess to piss him off. Zorian, on the other hand, looked like an easier target.

During all of that, Daimen tried to play peacemaker and calm his men down, but he never expressed any support for Zorian. This pissed off Zorian more than it probably should have. He knew that this was his team and that he couldn’t just categorically side with Zorian just because he was his brother, but it left a bitter taste in his mouth that Daimen hadn’t said so much as a single word in his defense. Instead, it was Chassanah who eventually sided with him. The old man seemed to have taken a liking to Zorian.

This started another round of accusations concerning Zorian’s obvious proficiency in mind magic, with Alachi claiming Zorian was clearly mind controlling people and that police should get involved.

The moment police involvement was mentioned, Daimen seemed to shift tracks in his methods of resolving the conflict. He stopped the discussion, dragged Alachi to the side and erected a privacy ward around the two of them. Zorian had no idea what was said between them, but Alachi no longer bothered him after this.

As for the two crippled mages, Daimen told them that their wounds weren’t necessarily unrecoverable with the right treatments and promised to pay as much as he had to in order to get them back in top shape. This seemed to mellow them out a lot, and they no longer made any fuss either.

With that particular crisis somewhat resolved, they could finally inspect their gains. They dropped off most of the wounded at the nearest hospital (Daimen decided to just put his broken arm in a cast and return to the field) and gated back to the site of the battle.

The first gain was actually the dead hydra. Daimen and his team were quite excited about its potential worth. The sums involved weren’t much to Zorian, but that was just the time loop messing with his sense of proportion when it came to money. If they could really find an appropriate buyer for this thing, the hydra could get Daimen and his team enough money to turn a lot of heads.

The dead chameleon drakes would also be gathered and sold, although their value was far less than that of a hydra. Especially since Zach’s spells had really made a mess out of a lot of them, making many of the corpses borderline useless.

As they walked around, inspecting chameleon drake corpses, Zorian heard Daimen complaining to Orissa about his broken mirror. Apparently it was a divine artifact that Daimen had found on one of his expeditions and decided to keep. It was supposed to be utterly indestructible, and had saved Daimen’s life many times in the past, and now it was gone. He was thoroughly heartbroken over that, and Orissa pointing out that at least he was alive thanks to its sacrifice didn’t seem to cheer him up much.

“Ready, little Kazinski?” Torun said, slapping Zorian on the back a little harder than was necessary. “Let’s go get that orb that you’re so sure is down there, eh?”

Zorian said nothing. Before descending into the depths of the cenote, the group carefully checked the place again in order to see if there were any more giant magical hydras or worse things lurking nearby. They found no evidence of such, but they also failed to figure out how they had missed the hydra in the first place, which was worrying. The water at the bottom was frozen as a result of the two projectiles that Zach had sent down here at the start of the fight, but there was no evidence of any kind of underwater cave the hydra could have hidden itself in. It was like the hydra simply popped into existence out of nowhere when the chameleon drakes called for it.

When they finally entered the cave Zorian had pointed out, the orb was nowhere to be found. Zorian expected as much, though, and wasn’t really worried.

“Can you still sense it?” Daimen asked anxiously. He was probably a bit desperate to get some tangible results from gaining access to this place, so that he could justify the losses he suffered to get here… both to himself and to others.

“I can,” Zorian confirmed. He walked towards the far end of the cave and jabbed his finger at the empty air in front of him. “It’s here. It’s at this exact spot, even.”

He waved his hand through the air where he sensed the orb and it passed through it without resistance.

“Yet I can’t actually see it, or even touch it,” Zorian added. “How curious.”

Everyone who had even the slightest amount of expertise in divinations, or detection magic in general, immediately gathered around the spot, poking, staring and casting magic at it. After ten minutes of that, Daimen finally got a result.

“I can’t believe this,” Daimen said, running his hand through his hair in annoyance.

“You have something?” Kirma asked hopefully.

“It’s a hidden world,” Daimen said.

“A what?” Zorian asked, having never encountered that term before.

“A pocket dimension, like the one you think Silverlake is hiding in,” Zach told him. “They are normally almost impossible to find unless you know exactly what to look for. Thus, some people call them hidden worlds.”

“So this spot that little Kazinski has pointed out…?” Torun asked hesitantly.

“An entrance to the… pocket dimension where the orb resides,” Daimen said, giving Zorian a complex look. “Damnit. All of Awan-Temti’s other belongings are probably there too. No wonder we hadn’t found any trace of his group in all this time. We would have never found this without Zorian, even if we had spent years combing this place.”

“But we did have him, and thus the expedition is saved,” Torun said with a careless shrug. “What are you being so gloomy about?”

“What indeed,” Daimen mumbled.

“Anyway, now we just have to figure out how to break through this invisible door thing and we’ll be free to loot Awan-Temti’s tomb to our hearts’ content, yes?” Torun asked.

“Yes, but I’d like to point out that this is probably where the giant magical hydra had come from,” Chassanah butted in. “What if there are more of them inside? What if there are worse things waiting for us there? We shouldn’t be reckless.”

“Yes, Chassanah is right,” Daimen nodded. “We lost too much here as it is. I want to hire more fighters before we try to set foot there.”

“I’d like to stay here for a while and study the entrance point for a bit,” Zorian said, frowning. “Something doesn’t feel right about this.”

“Fine,” Daimen sighed. “But don’t do anything before consulting me! Look, but don’t touch.”

Zorian nodded. Over the next two hours he scrutinized the pocket dimension entrance point while paying attention to the way his marker reacted to it. He also asked Daimen to teach him whatever spells he had used to confirm the presence of a pocket dimension. Daimen mumbled something about how he would normally charge an arm and a leg for a confidential magic like that, but taught him the spells anyway.

After two hours had passed, he was finally certain of his conclusions. He called Daimen over and asked him for permission to ‘do something’.

“Something?” Daimen said warily.

“Something,” Zorian nodded.

“And if I refuse, you and Zach are going to come back here when my back is turned and do it anyway,” he surmised.

“Well…” Zorian hesitated.

“Absolutely, yeah,” Zach immediately confirmed.

Zorian gave him an annoyed glance. Not that he disagreed with his fellow time traveler, far from it, but he could have been more diplomatic about it.

Daimen cupped his face in his hand for a moment. Perhaps he was imagining things, but Zorian thought he heard a brief prayer for patience directed to one of the silent divinities.

“Just tell me what you want to do, okay?” Daimen finally said.

“I want to think we’ve misread the situation,” Zorian said. “It’s not that the orb of the first emperor is hidden away in a pocket dimension. The pocket dimension is the orb of the first emperor.”

Daimen gave him a blank look. Zorian took this as an indication he should keep going.

“I agree with you that we’re dealing with a pocket dimension,” Zorian said. “But my marker is quite insistent that the dimensional anchor we’re looking at is not just an entrance to a pocket dimension. It is the very orb we’re looking for. This may sound a little crazy but–”

“You think the orb is a portable hidden realm,” Daimen surmised.

“Yes,” Zorian nodded. “I think this entrance we’re looking at is simply how the orb looks when it is… deployed.”

“I see,” Daimen said speculatively. “And you think you can collapse it back into an actual orb?”

“I’m willing to try, at least,” Zorian said. “Though you should probably get yourself and your team out of the cenote before I make the attempt. Just in case.”

After a few seconds, Daimen turned towards his team, who had been silently listening to the conversation, and told them to establish a defensive perimeter around the pocket dimension entrance and a fallback point outside the cave. It seemed he had no intention of letting him and Zach try this on their own.

Zorian clacked his tongue unhappily. If things went south again, he had no doubt that most of these people would blame him for everything again. Well to hell with them, he was still doing this.

The moment Daimen announced that everything was prepared and that he could begin, he cupped his hand below the invisible dimensional anchor and tried to connect to the orb with his marker. It took some tries, but he eventually succeeded – the surrounding space rippled like hot summer air for a moment after which something resembling a glass globe materialized in the air and plopped down onto Zorian’s waiting palm.

Orb of the first emperors: obtained.

After a second of shocked silence, everyone rushed forward, uncomfortably crowding Zorian’s personal space in order to take a look at the artifact.

The orb in Zorian’s hand looked… interesting. The orb was a perfect sphere of crystal-clear glass, completely unmarred by the passage of time. Running his fingers over it, Zorian could not feel even the slightest scratch on its surface. Seemingly encased inside the glass was a ruined palace, partially destroyed and overgrown with trees, vines and other vegetation. The palace and the trees were extremely detailed and lifelike, to the point that Zorian could count the individual leaves on the trees if he focused on them long enough. It reminded Zorian of one of those novelty snow globes that Cyorian merchants liked to sell, the ones that had high-qualify models of famous buildings encased in the glass.

Eventually Zorian handed the orb to Zach, if only so people would crowd around him instead of Zorian in order to get a good look at the orb.

“That palace… it’s not just a model, is it?” Zach said, sounding fascinated. “It’s a real thing, contained inside the orb.”

“Obviously,” Orissa said. “Why would it be a ruin otherwise?”

“So Shutur-Tarana made himself a portable palace to carry around with him at all times?” Zach asked rhetorically. “I like it.”

“Yes, now imagine just how much stuff there could be stored there,” Torun said happily. “Ah, little Kazinski, I forgive you for everything. You’re the best thing to have happened to this team.”

Although Zorian was dying to study the orb in more detail, he had reluctantly decided to leave the orb in Daimen’s hands for now. Trying to take it away would probably spark another fight and it wasn’t like he had enough time to truly devote himself to its study right now. The attack on the Ibasan base beneath Cyoria was fast approaching, which meant that both Zach and Zorian would be forced to devote the majority of their energies into that for the next couple of days.

“I have to say this whole thing makes me feel very conflicted,” Zach said as they left the group.

“Why?” Zorian asked curiously.

“Well, on one hand, we only found the orb so quickly because Daimen pointed us at the right spot to start at,” Zach said. “So if we ever get out of the time loop, the right thing to do would probably be tell him how to get it as a thanks for his help.”

“But?” Zorian prompted.

“I really like the idea of having my own portable palace,” Zach said with a dreamy grin.

Zorian snorted derisively. “You shouldn’t get excited just yet. For all we know the ruins really are full of slumbering giant hydras or something.”

“That just makes me more excited,” Zach said. “That thing was a great opponent. Clearing a whole nest of them would be amazing.”

Oh, right. For a moment he had forgotten who he was talking with.

They spent the rest of the way home arguing about what the best setup for a modern portable palace would look like. The main point of contention was that Zach wanted to make an arena full of actual monsters to fight with, whereas Zorian argued that sophisticated training dummies were better because they were less likely to break out of their containment and rampage throughout the entire place.

“It’s just not the same,” Zach complained, shaking his head sadly.

In the end they had to agree to disagree on the issue.

* * *

All the preparations were complete. Soldiers were recruited, human mercenaries and aranea hired, golems made, wild monsters dominated into serving as combat support, additional equipment bought and several limited combat exercises performed. The scale of the operation was sufficiently big that the authorities had sent a team to investigate what was happening, requiring some quick mind magic and forged documents to avert disaster. It helped that many Houses had small (or not so small, in some cases) private armies to protect their interests, and that many of these Houses had estates in or around Cyoria, which made their group stand out a lot less than it might otherwise.

All that was left to do now was to wait for Quatach-Ichl to leave for Ulquaan Ibasa so they could make their move. There was some worry about that, as Quatach-Ichl didn’t seem to be getting ready to leave. Xvim had raised the issue that they might have tipped Quatach-Ichl off somehow, and a fierce discussion sprung up about whether to go ahead with the assault anyway if that was the case. Thankfully, the question turned out to be irrelevant in the end – Quatach-Ichl still left on schedule, and the mission could proceed.

The first task was simple: kidnap Sudomir, hopefully neutralizing the entire Iasku Mansion in the process. In order to do that, though, they had to lure the man out of his nigh-unassailable home.

Thus, Zach and Zorian stole a pair of fancy red robes from the Cult of the Dragon Below and teleported to Knyazov Dveri, where they proceeded to smash up store fronts, set several warehouses on fire and used alteration to call out Sudomir as a ‘traitor to the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon’. Zorian also used his mind magic to guide a herd of wild boars directly into the town square, after which he released his control over them and let them run amok as they pleased.

The city guard tried to stop them, of course. They were actually pretty brutal about it, going so far as to have snipers try to pick them off from the rooftops, despite the fact that Zach and Zorian clearly avoided killing anyone themselves. Still, they were barely a challenge. Zach and Zorian simply knocked them out or otherwise incapacitated them, and then continued with their extended provocation.

After a while they stopped with the attack and left. This was partially because they were afraid Sudomir might opt not to show up if he thought the danger had not yet passed, but it was also because there was a chance the city authorities would call in Eldemar’s military if things went on long enough.

It took nearly five hours for Sudomir to show up in the city, upon which he was greeted by irate shop owners and city officials, demanding an explanation and some kind of compensation. Not even the twelve dangerous-looking, grim-faced body guards that followed after him everywhere could make them pause.

Zach and Zorian observed for a while and then struck like a lightning bolt. Sudomir himself got incapacitated early in the fight and the twelve bodyguards he had brought with him turned out to be decidedly average and unable to deal with them. Especially since they weren’t trying not to kill anyone this time.

“I’m glad the kidnapping went off without a problem,” Alanic told them when they dragged Sudomir back to their base, “but did you really have to cut off his arms?”

“Don’t look at me,” Zach protested. “It was Zorian’s idea.”

“He’s a dangerous necromancer,” Zorian defended himself. “I couldn’t risk him hitting us with some nasty piece of soul magic in the middle of the battle and this was the quickest way I knew of stopping that from happening. He said he was hard to kill so I figured that he wouldn’t die from blood loss.”

“I can’t believe my previous selves thought you weren’t brutal enough,” Alanic mumbled under his breath. “And why is he not unconscious? I thought we agreed you’d knock him out before bringing him here?”

“We couldn’t knock him out,” Zach admitted. “We tried five different drugs on him, and none of them worked.”

“Though he did pretend to be unconscious after we hit him with the fifth one,” Zorian pointed out. “Zach wanted to try knocking him out ‘the old fashioned way’ by hitting him in the head with a rock, but I vetoed that. So we just glued his mouth shut, tied his legs together, put a bag over his head and brought him over.”

“I see,” Alanic said, looking in the direction of Sudomir’s brand new prison cell with a frown. “I wonder what he did to himself to get such resilience.”

“Well, you’ll have plenty of time to find out,” Zach shrugged. “Later, though. We should be starting the assault on the gate now, yes?”

“Not yet, no,” Alanic said, shaking his head. “Let’s ask Sudomir a few questions concerning the Ibasan base. He might know some crucial detail about its defenses or some such.”

Both Zach and Zorian were anxious to launch the assault as soon as possible, both because that would give the researchers more time to study the gate if they succeeded and because the longer they waited, the bigger the chance the Ibasans would realize what was coming and raise the alarm. However, Alanic’s suggestion made a lot of sense and he knew more about these sort of mass engagements than they did. If he thought a few more hours spent interrogating Sudomir wouldn’t doom the operation, he was probably right.

* * *

The interrogation turned out to be fairly mundane and unexciting. Sudomir was surprisingly calm and polite for someone who had been brutally attacked in broad daylight, de-armed and then carried off for mind magic assisted interrogation. It didn’t even take all that much mind magic to make him tell the truth. However, he also did not seem to know anything terribly useful about the layout and defenses of the Ibasan base. Sudomir and the Ibasans may have been cooperating closely with each other, but neither side fully trusted the other, and a lot of things were kept secret between them.

Eventually the three of them ran out of questions to ask, much sooner than they expected they would. Well, they ran out of questions related to the Ibasan base, anyway. Rather than stop, Alanic simply decided to expand the scope of the questioning beyond that topic. This wasn’t exactly what they agreed on, but Zorian said nothing for now. He could sense that Alanic’s questions were all building up to something. Some question that Alanic desperately wanted answered.

“Why are you gathering so many souls in your mansion?” Alanic eventually asked Sudomir. “What on earth do you need half a million souls for?”

Ah, so that was what was bothering him…

“W-What?” asked Sudomir, sounding shocked for the first time since the questioning began. “How do you know that?”

Alanic gestured towards Zorian, who immediately launched a mental assault on Sudomir’s mind, forcing him to answer the question.

“Ghhhk!” Sudomir grunted, grinding his teeth as he fought against the compulsion. “Damn it, that’s not… It’s… I need it…”

“For what?” Alanic pushed.

“For the wraith bombs,” Sudomir ground out eventually.

“Wraith bombs?” Zach asked curiously. “As in, you pack a wraith into a bomb and throw it at people?”

“Ha ha, yes! Yes!” Sudomir said, suddenly breaking into hysterical laughter. He was no longer fighting against Zorian’s mental compulsion for some reason, as if he realized there was no way he could win there and decided to just give them exactly what they want. “Not just one wraith though! Hundreds! Thousands even! And you don’t throw them at people. No, no… you throw them at cities.”

“What?” Zach asked, frowning.

“Wraiths can multiply,” Alanic said quietly. “Give a wraith some time and lots of victims, and it will make another wraith out of every human whose soul it consumes.”

“Yes, exactly!” Sudomir said, nodding furiously. “Just think of what would happen if you dumped thousands of these things in the middle of a major city. Unless the outbreak is contained immediately, the whole city would be overwhelmed in a matter of hours! Only the Triumvirate Church has enough experts in ghost fighting to counter a wraith outbreak after it gathers some steam, and they were decimated in the Weeping. If I had enough wraith bombs in my possession, Eldemar would have to appease me. They’d have to…”

There was a brief silence during which Sudomir seemed to get lost in his own world and everyone else was processing what he just said.

“You’d have to use this wraith bomb of yours on at least one city before anyone took your threat seriously,” Zorian eventually pointed out.

“Yes, of course,” Sudomir said, giving him a patient look, as if he was asked something obvious by a small child. “That goes without saying. I was thinking of targeting Sulamnon first. That would immediately spark another round of Splinter Wars. Sulamnon wouldn’t care about any excuses from Eldemar’s government. Not if it was obvious that the wraith bomb came from Eldemar. With another continental conflict under way, Eldemar would have no forces to spare on suppressing me. In fact, they would surely be tempted to make use of my… assets to help them win the war. I…”

For a moment, Sudomir looked like he was about to continue with his explanation, but then he suddenly froze up and some of the mania that had taken over him seemed to drain out of him.

Only for a moment, though. Almost immediately, the spark of madness returned to his eyes once again, except this time it was slightly different. There was violence and aggression lurking there now, and his face twisted into an outraged snarl.

Sudomir’s flesh suddenly turned green and his body started to swell in size. He grew a tail and horns, his eyes became slitted and his teeth sharpened to dagger-like points. Zorian, who had actually seen Sudomir transformed into a giant monster once before, realized what he was looking at and started to shout out a warning to Zach and Alanic.

Alanic was already reacting, though. The moment Sudomir started to transform, he rushed up to him and slammed his palm against his chest. A multitude of yellow ribbons covered in some sort of religious writing sprang into existence around Sudomir. They circled around the captured necromancer once before sinking into his flesh, causing the transformation to stop and Sudomir to be instantly wrenched back to his human form.

Sudomir stared at Alanic in shock for a full second, at a loss for words.

“Oh…” he finally said. “Well. That didn’t work out as well as I hoped.”

Alanic made a slashing motion with his left hand and then lightly poked Sudomir on the forehead with his index finger. This caused Sudomir to suddenly become wreathed in dark red light and then collapse into unconsciousness.

“Let’s go,” Alanic said, motioned for Zach and Zorian to follow him out of the cell. “We’ll continue this interrogation later. For now, we have an Ibasan base to capture.”


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