Chapter 070
Carried Away

Deep beneath Cyoria, in a recently excavated cavern separated from the main tunnel network, an army was being assembled. It consisted of about 200 people, about 120 of which had been gathered by Alanic through various means while the rest were mercenaries Zorian had hired for considerable amounts of money. Of course, this number did not include the many non-combat experts that would be responsible for figuring out how the Ibasan gate functioned. Nor did it take into account the many golems that Zorian had made for the occasion, about 80 of which were scattered through the area, or the 40 aranean mercenaries that were hired from the three different webs recommended by the Silent Doorway Adepts.

As far as armies went, this wasn’t much. But it was still a sizeable group, and getting it past Ibasan patrols without them noticing their passage was… difficult.

For ordinary mages, that is. Zorian could just send his simulacrum to sneak past these patrols and then just open a Gate to let the assembled forces through unmolested and unnoticed.

There was something very amusing about using dimensional gates to bypass Ibasan patrols, establishing a temporary staging ground deep in their territory, and then launching a surprise attack at their base.

Zorian was just in the process of attaching small metal cylinders to his belt, each one filled with potent alchemical mixtures, when he sensed Zach approaching him.

“You look worried,” Zach told him.

Zorian frowned. He didn’t notice it before Zach pointed it out, but yeah. He kind of was.

“A little,” Zorian admitted, continuing his preparations. “I mean, we’re risking another confrontation with Quatach-Ichl here. He’s one of the few people who has the ability to do us lasting harm. Every time we tangle with him, we’re taking a big risk.”

“Eh, it’ll be fine,” Zach said dismissively, giving him a strong pat on the back that had Zorian swaying in place for a second. He gave Zach a glare for that, but his fellow time traveler just grinned at him in response. “Besides, the annoying pile of bones isn’t nearly as dangerous as you think. I’ve fought him plenty of times, and I’m still standing. He doesn’t like to use necromancy in battle for some reason.”

Alanic, who was staring at the map of the Ibasan base along with Xvim, decided this merited a response from him.

“Most necromantic spells aren’t well suited for battle,” Alanic said, not taking his eyes off the map. “They take too much concentration and they need to overcome the target’s magic resistance to work. It’s faster and cheaper to just burn people to a crisp or cut them to pieces. The terrible necromantic spells that are sometimes bandied about in textbooks are torture spells meant to be inflicted on a subdued victim, not something you use in an even fight.”

There was a long pause as Zach and Zorian digested this. One of these days, Zorian decided, he really had to ask Alanic about his past. The old battle priest would likely refuse to talk about it at first, but maybe if he picked a right moment and was really persistent?

Well, whatever. It was a thought for some other time. He considered pointing out that a fight between them and Quatach-Ichl wasn’t exactly an even one, since the difference in power and skill between the ancient lich and any one of them was still a yawning chasm rather than anything resembling a close match-up, but he figured that would be missing the point. Alanic’s point was that Quatach-Ichl likely didn’t go for necromantic magic in a fight because it was suboptimal, and that was probably true – getting into a habit of toying with your opponents was quite stupid, and the ancient lich had been shrewd enough to survive for more than a thousand years now.

Truth be told, Zorian found those jagged disintegration beams that Quatach-Ichl liked to use to be plenty terrifying in their own way.

“You know,” Zorian suddenly said. “My past self would be horrified if he saw me right now.”

“Why?” Zach asked, arching his eyebrow in askance.

“This attack is pretty… audacious,” said Zorian. “There is no way my past self would ever consider this a reasonable risk to take. A part of me scoffs at this, dismissing it as simple cowardice, but there is another part of me that can’t help but wonder whether the time loop had eroded away my ability to recognize what is and is not appropriately cautious behavior. What if we manage to leave the time loop and deal with Red Robe, only to die two months later because we did something completely stupid out of sheer habit?”

To Zorian’s surprise, Zach actually seemed to give the question some serious thought. Zorian expected him to either dismiss his concerns or question how Zorian could possibly know what his past self would have thought of their current situation. Instead, Zach seemed to consider the issue in his head for well over a minute before responding.

“I doubt that’s going to happen,” he eventually said, his tone and mannerisms somewhat subdued. “I have… things I need to do after we get out. Social things. It will be at least a year or two before I can start picking fights with dragons or whatnot, and I don’t think you’ll start looking for trouble without me prodding you. A couple of years should be enough to let us adjust to a world without restarts, right?”

Zorian simply gave Zach a non-committal hum in response. Zach had a pretty rosy picture of Zorian in his head if he thought there was no way he could get himself into trouble on his own. Zorian still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life if… when they got out of the time loop, but he would probably need a lot of money and rare resources. He could easily imagine getting into trouble in the process of acquiring these, or once he amassed enough that people start to take notice or once he told people what he was actually doing with all these acquisitions.

Zach’s inordinate fondness for picking fights with giant monsters was definitely dangerous, but Zorian suspected his personal ambitions could be even more dangerous than that. A mage of Zach’s caliber can usually flee from giant monsters if they find themselves overmatched against it. Make a human organization interested enough in you, though, and they will hound you till the day you die.

He shook his head and steeled himself. Now was not the time to contemplate those topics too deeply. The opening moves of this attack were about to begin and Zorian had a crucial role to play in them. If they wanted to stop Quatach-Ichl from being alerted and summoned back to the base, someone had to sneak into the base and either assassinate or disable as many Ibasan leaders as possible before the main force of the attack hit. That someone was, of course, Zorian. Him and the aranean mercenaries he had hired for the occasion, that is.

Cloaking one’s presence thoroughly enough to avoid dedicated scrutiny was quite hard. In a contest between two equally skilled mages, one of which was trying to hide and one of which was seeking for the hidden one, the seeker would almost always come out on top. If your opponent could manipulate your very mind, however, dictating what you see, hear and remember… then even the most sophisticated detection spell could not help you find them.

Well, that was the theory, at least. Zorian was quite sure the Ibasans would catch on to their presence relatively soon. Mind magic was not exactly unknown among mages, even if few of them could manifest it as stealthily and flexibly as Zorian and his new aranean minions could. Still. They didn’t have to stay undetected forever – just long enough to track down and remove anyone who knew how to contact Quatach-Ichl.

“I’m going,” Zorian said out loud, speaking to himself as much as he was to the people around him.

“Leave a simulacrum with us,” warned Alanic.

Zorian hesitated for a moment. He had dismissed all his simulacrums before the operation began so that they wouldn’t be a drain on his mana reserves. It was annoying, because it meant he would have to rely on Daimen again to re-establish a link with Koth, but he felt this operation deserved his full focus. That said, Zorian shouldn’t be doing anything too mana intensive during the initial infiltration, so maybe leaving a simulacrum behind in the command room wouldn’t be a bad idea.

He executed a complex series of chants and gestures and then cupped his hands in front of him, causing a milky white sphere of ectoplasm to materialize in front of him. He felt the spell reach towards his soul, connecting it to the ball of ectoplasm in front of him. The moment he felt the connection snap into place, he plunged his right arm straight into the ball of ectoplasm and imposed upon it an image of himself, causing it to squirm and writhe like a living thing.

“That always looks so freaky,” Zach commented off to the side.

Zorian ignored him. This was the most sensitive part of the spell, since the caster had to keep their image firmly in mind as they manipulated the ectoplasm. If they faltered even for a second, the spell would either fail or produce a hopelessly false copy. This was because, although the spell was tapping into the caster’s soul to create the copy, it was tapping into something that described a creature of flesh and blood and trying to translate it into a form made out of magical fields and ectoplasm. A multitude of little and not-so-little sacrifices and compromises had to be made during this process, and a non-sapient spell couldn’t be trusted to prioritize things properly. The first time Zorian succeeded in producing a simulacrum, for example, he got a nearly-mindless wreck that nonetheless contained a vividly detailed internal bone structure. The spell sacrificed nearly everything else to get that one thing just right.

Of course, Zorian was now too well versed with the spell to fail like that, even with Zach distracting him with inane comments. The writhing sphere swelled in size and erupted into thin, rope-like pseudopods that formed a rough outline of a human being…

Two minutes later, a flawless-looking replica of Zorian opened its eyes and looked around. One would think that simulacrums would come into existence already aware of everything and ready to spring into action on a moment’s notice, but in practice they always seemed a little confused after being created and took about 30 seconds to gather their bearings and calm down.

“There,” Zorian said. “Anything else?”

“No,” Alanic said, shaking his head. “Go. Try not to get yourself killed, I guess.”

“I guess?” Zorian mumbled under his breath. “Thank you, Alanic, you really know how to make a motivational speech.”

And then he left. The attack on the Ibasan base beneath Cyoria had begun.

* * *

The initial stages of the infiltration went very well. Zorian used a combination of a floating invisibility sphere and clouding the minds of the Ibasan guards to smuggle himself and the aranea into the base, after which they split up into small groups to cover more ground in as little time as possible.

There were some complications. For one thing, there were some pretty insidious and powerful wards scattered around the base, arranged in no pattern that Zorian could decipher. These hadn’t been there when Zorian invaded the base in the previous restarts, which implied that Ibasans normally took those down before executing the invasion of Cyoria. Zorian was kind of baffled as to why they would tear down their own wards like that, though, even if they did intend to abandon the base after the invasion. For a moment he actually worried that they had been betrayed by some of their mercenaries, despite their precautions, and that the base security had been upgraded in response. However, the wards in question were arranged so haphazardly, the entire warding layout so full of holes, that Zorian eventually ruled out that idea. If the Ibasans had been expecting them, they would have done a better job of warding the place than this. As it was, the warding setup looked almost like a collection of individual wards, each of which had been erected by a different person without bothering to consult anyone else about what they were doing. In at least two places the wards clashed with each other so severely that they created ‘dead zones’ in the areas where they overlapped, canceling each other out.

Zorian had a rather silly urge to write a letter to Quatach-Ichl, criticizing him for not teaching his minions how to make a proper warding scheme. This sort of thing reflected badly on him too, you know, he ought to think of his reputation…

Anyway. Another problem was the Ibasans had these brown dogs that could smell the aranea coming, no matter how well cloaked, and wouldn’t stop barking. And they were either naturally mind blanked or had been made so artificially, because Zorian couldn’t detect or connect to their minds at all. He had been forced to kill and replace them with motionless ectoplasmic replicas, which took an annoying amount of time and mana on his part.

After that, everything went perfectly for a while. Numerous Ibasan leaders were eliminated, and though the base was starting to wake up to the fact something funny was going on in their base, they were still not aware of the extent of the problem on their hands. However, there was something that Zorian had not taken into account…

The Ibasans had fought against aranea before. Before the time loop – and even during the time loop, before Red Robe erased them from the time loop – the Cyorian web had been a huge obstacle to their operations. As such, they had a multitude of countermeasures and defenses aimed specifically against the aranea. Many of these were abandoned when the local aranea mysteriously disappeared, experts in charge of manning them re-assigned to other, more productive duties… but some of them remained intact. Just in case.

When the aranea moved near the center of the base they seemed to cross some invisible line that immediately triggered a base-wide alarm. It was loud, shrill, and everyone in the base seemed to immediately realize what it meant because they immediately started layering mental protection spells on themselves and grabbing their weapons.

[Oops?] the aranea closest to Zorian said hesitantly.

[I don’t even understand what got us,] another complained. [Human magic is such bullshit…]

Zorian snorted derisively. Well, it wasn’t like this was completely unexpected. He reached out with his mind, connecting himself with the network of telepathic relays that had been densely distributed across this entire section of the underworld, and ordered the miniature monster horde he had gathered to attack the base from all directions.

From one of the tunnels, a huge red centipede surged forwards, hordes of hook goblins and cave drakes following after it. The Ibasans concentrated their fire at the centipede first, trying to bring down the biggest threat, only to see most of their spells fizzle out due to the many wards Zorian had attached to it. From another tunnel, a swarm of floating, jellyfish-like monsters came pouring in. They looked slow and weak, but when Ibasans tried to bring them down they discovered that the jellyfish had an innate shielding magic that blocked their projectiles. Worse, the jellyfish could somehow interface with one another and merge their shields into a stronger, unified barrier. From the third tunnel, a horde of phalanx toads came rushing into the base. The Ibasans killed many of them, but there were five more for each they killed and they acted with unusual organization and discipline, spontaneously forming into coherent groups and sweeping everything before them with their spear-like tongues.

Finally, the fourth group of monsters didn’t bother moving through any of the existing tunnels – the rock worms Zorian subverted simply burst into the base from down below, having dug out their own entrance into the base.

The whole plan had a high chance of falling apart at this moment, Zorian knew. Although he and the aranea had gutted a lot of their leadership, they hadn’t gotten everyone that could summon Quatach-Ichl. If the Ibasans wanted to call the ancient lich for help, they could. However, Zorian had noticed in the past that Ibasans were generally reluctant to call upon their leader. Quatach-Ichl hated getting called to deal with ‘trivial things’. He didn’t usually kill people for disappointing him in such a manner, but he was rather prone of relieving them of their positions or reducing their salary – which were horrifying enough consequences for most people.

Zorian was hoping that the Ibasans, faced with what appeared to be an aranean attack, would decide to try and tackle things on their own, rather than immediately call Quatach-Ichl to help them.

Well, he seemed to have been right about that. The Ibasans chose to fight the monster invasion on their own. The trouble is, they were winning. The centipede was intercepted by trolls and bludgeoned to death with sheer force of numbers, the jellyfish shield was visibly weakening and the phalanx toads were being pushed back with a liberal application of fire. As for the rock worms, well… the Ibasans had rock worms of their own. Zorian had counted on the monster horde getting defeated, but not this fast. He wasn’t done killing the leadership yet, dammit!

He suddenly got a message from his simulacrum that Zach wanted to help out with the assassination.

Well. The plan was already failing, so he supposed there was no harm in letting Zach wreck things for a bit before they abort the whole thing.

As quickly as possible, he synchronized with his simulacrum and opened a gate between the command room and the Ibasan base, letting Zach pass through.

Zach took a rather long look at them battlefield, taking in how the battles were progressing first-hand, and then turned to Zorian.

“Do you know where those leaders are at the moment?”

“Err, sort of?” Zorian said. “I mostly had the aranea pinpointing their location for me, but they’re kind of busy directing the monster horde at the moment.”

“But you know the general area they’re in, right?” Zach prodded.

“Oh yeah,” Zorian nodded. He pointed at a big, solidly-constructed building not far from them. “Most of the surviving ones are in that building over there. The wards are pretty tricky so it will take me some time to–”

Before Zorian could finish speaking, Zach had already fired some kind of projectile at the building. It was seemingly tiny, more of a faint red pinprick of light than a proper-looking offensive spell, but its flight path was followed with a piercing scream so loud it made Zorian’s ears hurt.

The projectile slammed into the wall of the building and then burst into crescent spatial distortions that sliced through everything in the vicinity with no visible resistance. The whole heavily warded building fell apart like an apple thrown into an industrial blender machine, burying everyone in it under several tons of rubble.

“One problem solved,” said Zach, lowering his hand. “What about the others?”

“Well,” said Zorian, a little sourly. Only a little, though – truthfully, he had been expecting something like this when he agreed to involve Zach into this. “If the Ibasans didn’t already know they’re under attack by more than just aranea, they certainly do now. Let’s see if we can kill them before they realize just how disgustingly powerful you are and call Quatach-Ichl in panic.”

“Let’s,” Zach agreed.

Deciding there was no point in pretending this attack was just a minor aranean offensive anymore, Zorian sent a telepathic message to Xvim and Alanic to start the assault in earnest.

He received a confirmation almost immediately. It seemed Zach wasn’t the only one who was spoiling for a fight.

Zorian understood. They had all spent so much time and resources into organizing this attack, it would be almost a crime to call it off now.

It was time for Ibasans to see what it’s like to be suddenly invaded.

* * *

Beneath the city of Cyoria, a vicious battle was underway. The small army that Alanic had assembled, bolstered by the various mercenaries, Zorian’s golems and what was left of the dominated monster horde, advanced deep into the disorganized Ibasan ranks. However, the Ibasans weren’t just passive victims. Despite having their entire high-ranking leadership gutted by Zach and Zorian, despite the huge losses they suffered in the initial attack from the monster horde, despite the shock they must have felt at the appearance of another human army, the Ibasans still resisted the attack with considerable might. Their top leadership may have fallen, but local commanders quickly assumed control of the remaining forces and did their best to link up and coordinate their movements. Huge war golems charged into rapidly-forming defense groups, aiming to break them up, only to be met with screaming hordes of war trolls barring their way. The aranea led the remaining monsters into suicidal offensives, only to be countered with equally suicidal delaying actions from the Ibasans’ own war beasts. Zach and Zorian converged on any local commander that seemed to be especially good at their job, aided by a couple of Alanic’s men that seemed to be really accurate with a rifle and fond of head-shots, but there was always someone wiling and capable of replacing them once they moved on to other targets.

Currently, Zorian’s simulacrum was standing in the vicinity of the dimensional gate at the center of the Ibasan settlement, where Xvim and Alanic had moved shortly after the attack began. Unfortunately, the gate had been shut down by the Ibasans when they realized they were going to lose it – another thing that didn’t go according to plan. Even if they managed to win this, a powered down gate stabilization frame was much less useful as an object of study than a working dimensional gate.

“We should have brought more monsters,” Alanic said suddenly, standing not far from the simulacrum and observing the battlefield. “We should have brought more everything, really, but I don’t think we could have realistically recruited more people. We’re doing very well compared to the numbers arrayed against us, but it’s not enough. There are simply too few of us compared to the number of Ibasans gathered here.”

“We were afraid that if we sent too many monsters, it would spook them into calling Quatach-Ichl immediately,” the simulacrum pointed out. “Though considering how successful they were against the horde, I agree we were probably too conservative with them.”

“Speaking of which, did Zach and Zorian manage to eliminate the Ibasan leaders before they contacted Quatach-Ichl for help or not?” Xvim asked.

The simulacrum quickly contacted the original and asked him that same question. Ten seconds later he turned back to Xvim.

“It’s doubtful,” he said, shaking his head. “They had trouble locating the last two leaders. They’re dead now, but they had plenty of time to realize how dire the situation is and call for help.”

Xvim said nothing for a second, looking thoughtfully at the powered-down gate next to them.

“We shouldn’t have taken the gate from them so quickly,” Xvim said. “We should have left it in their hands for a while to give them an avenue of retreat. I think they would have tried to fall back into that undead mansion instead of fighting a lost battle if they had a choice.”

“Or they might have found a way to commandeer some of Sudomir’s undead minions if given enough time, making our current issue even worse,” the simulacrum said with a shrug.

“We’ll analyze what we did wrong later,” said Alanic firmly. “What we need now is solutions. How do we salvage this situation?”

“Shouldn’t we just retreat?” asked Xvim curiously. “Even if we take the base in the end, it will take us many hours to do so and cost many lives. On top of that, there is a high chance that Quatach-Ichl will come back before we are done and tip the balance in Ibasan favor.”

Alanic said nothing for a few seconds, clearly discontent with that idea.

“I have an idea,” the simulacrum eventually said. “Why don’t we just rip the gate stabilization frame out of the ground, pedestal and all, and carry it off to the surface for study. I mean, the original reason why we wanted to secure the base and do our research here was because moving an active dimensional gate was impossible. But we don’t have an active gate. We have an inert stabilization frame, so what stops us from simply carrying it off somewhere else before trying to figure it out?”

Xvim and Alanic gave him surprised looks.

“What?” the simulacrum asked defensively. “The idea has merit!”

“It does,” Alanic agreed. “I was just surprised to see you make such a suggestion. Sometimes I forget simulacrums like you are more than just extensions of Zorian and can have ideas of your own.”

“Same,” Xvim agreed.

The simulacrum scowled. Stupid flesh-and-blood people and their prejudices.

Soon, Xvim and Alanic ordered their forces to fall back a little and threw themselves into the task of cutting the gate stabilization frame free of the ground without damaging something crucial. The pedestal the frame was affixed to had some kind of root-like structure that extended into the rock beneath it, meaning that a surprisingly large chunk of the ground had to be taken along with the gate itself.

None of the problems were in any way insurmountable, though, and the whole thing was soon floated into the air and slowly pushed towards one of the base exits.

The movement did not go unnoticed, however, and when the Ibasans saw what they were doing they went completely berserk. Apparently they really hated the idea of the gate stabilization frame being carried away like that. From that moment on, the whole battle shifted in tone – instead of trying to minimize their losses and stalling for time, the Ibasans suddenly surged forward and tried to recover the stolen gate at all costs. Alanic’s forces shifted from trying to put pressure on the Ibasans to a strictly defensive posture, trying to keep the Ibasans away from the retreating gate with equal zeal.

The situation only grew more dire soon after that, as Ibasans realized that recovering the gate is a lost cause and started trying to destroy it instead.

“Why are they so upset about us taking the gate!?” Zach shouted while creating a thick prismatic wall in between the floating gate stabilization frame and the approaching Ibasan war party.

He was just in time. The moment the barrier snapped into place, three different projectiles slammed into it – a thin blue javelin of force that crackled with some kind of magical energy, an animated serpent made out of green fire and a large white sphere that had smaller red spheres orbiting around it. The wall flickered, cycling through different colors, and for a moment it seemed it would hold… but then the three projectiles combined together to release some kind of combined pulse that disrupted the barrier and it fell apart into multi-colored smoke.

The fire serpent, the only survivor of this clash of spells, surged madly towards the floating gate, seeking to detonate itself against its surface. It never reached it. A milky white sphere soon hit it in the flank, courtesy of Zorian, causing it to fall apart into rapidly fading clusters of green fire.

“They’re afraid of what Quatach-Ichl will do to them when he finds out they let someone acquire a sample of his work,” Zorian said. The simulacrum suspected the original had taken said information straight from the minds of nearby Ibasans. “He doesn’t even let his allies examine it. How do you think he would feel about this?”

The battle raged on. The simulacrum watched, rather discontent, as people fought all around him to either destroy or preserve the floating gate. He couldn’t do much himself, as any significant mana use would cripple the original’s ability to fight, so he was reduced to a role of observer for the most part. He watched the battle carefully, scrutinizing every detail in hopes of spotting something that required his attention.

The Ibasans charged forward again and again, supported by long-range spells from their allies in the back ranks, only to be repulsed. Zorian’s golems slowly dwindled in number, the volume of spell fire too much even for their heavy wards to handle. When they grew too damaged to be of much use, Zorian strapped alchemical bombs all over them and sent them into suicide charges to halt particularly troublesome offensives. Zach’s spells reaped a bloody toll on Ibasan forces, but not even his mana reserves were endless and the time he spent in recovery gradually increased as the battle grew more heated. One of the Ibasan mages decided to sacrifice his life for the cause – as he finished casting his last spell, he removed a ritual dagger from his belt and slit his own throat, using some blood magic to pour every shred of his life-force into it. The resulting spell produced an incandescent meteor that punched through every single obstacle in front of it, and would have no doubt reduced the floating gate into molten rubble if Xvim hadn’t used a series of dimensional gates to redirect it back at the Ibasans.

Finally, the simulacrum noticed something he felt merited his attention. On the edges of the main battlefield, a small group of friendly soldiers was being overwhelmed. Of the original fifteen, most were already dead. Only six still lived, and only three of those six could walk and fight properly. The simulacrum telepathically alerted the original to the situation, but was told everyone was currently busy and that sacrifices have to be made in situations like these.

The simulacrum then pointed out to him that one of the survivors was Taiven. The original immediately changed his mind and told the simulacrum to go and help them.

The simulacrum wouldn’t have actually obeyed an order to leave Taiven to her fate, but it was nice that he and the original were still on the same page in this regard. He teleported next to the group and immediately intercepted an incoming fireball with a well-placed dispelling wave. Taiven’s shocked face was kind of priceless.

“What are you waiting for?” the simulacrum asked the group. One of the Ibasans tried to sneak up on them by kicking up a cloud of dust with a ‘misaimed’ spell and using it as a cover for his approach. He received a force lance to the face for his trouble. “This position is lost. Why haven’t you regrouped elsewhere?”

“We can’t leave them!” Taiven protested, pointing at the three wounded soldiers next to her.

“I told you to leave us here,” one of the wounded soldiers said. “Just go. We’ll stall them to buy you some time.”

“We’re not leaving anyone behind!” Taiven insisted.

The other two healthy soldiers said nothing, but the simulacrum could see on their faces that they didn’t want to leave the wounded soldiers behind either. They were probably friends.

“How about this – you go and take these people to safety, and I’ll hold the Ibasans at bay?” the simulacrum offered.

“Zorian…” Taiven started, sounding both a little annoyed and a little worried.

The simulacrum wasn’t listening to her anymore, though. He could feel the Ibasans moving towards the group again so he conjured two large severing discs above his palms and launched them forward in front of him. The first wave of Ibasans literally fell apart before the discs, screaming horribly as they were effortlessly sliced apart by the two buzzing spell constructs. The commander of the Ibasan group tried to restore order to his unit, shouting orders and threats so loudly the entire base must have heard him. He fell silent when his own bodyguard slammed a knife in his eye socket, killing him instantly. The apparent betrayal (which was actually the result of Zorian puppeteering the man’s body, not genuine betrayal) further sowed chaos in the Ibasan group, stalling the attack.

The simulacrum then shifted his attention back to Taiven and her group, only to find the soldiers gone but Taiven still present.

“Let me guess,” the simulacrum sighed. “You sent the rest of them to safety but decided to stay behind with me?”

“I told you,” she said. “We’re not leaving anyone behind.”

In retrospect, he really should have made it clear he was a simulacrum right from the start.

“Listen,” he started. “I’m actually–”

[Stupid simulacrum!] the original’s voice thundered in his mind. [What the hell are you doing down there!? The rest of the soldiers are back but you and Taiven aren’t? Stop fooling around and spending all our mana, dammit! I need that to defend the gate!]

The simulacrum winced at the angry tirade in his head. The interruption left him confused for a second, unable to remember what he was doing right before the original contacted him.

He was further distracted when another volley of spells erupted towards the two of them, roughly half of it directed at him and the other half at Taiven. Taiven blocked her share of projectiles easily enough, and the simulacrum was just about to do the same for himself when he felt his mana reserves rapidly drain away. Apparently the original had decided to blow his entire mana reserves on something, leaving them both defenseless for a while.

“Damn it, original,” the simulacrum quietly grumbled.

Then the spell volley hit him, tearing straight into him and blowing his ectoplasmic form into rapidly fading pieces.

As his tattered remains started to unravel, he spared one last look at Taiven, who was looking at him with an absolutely horrified look on her face.

Only then did he remember what he had been trying to tell her before the original contacted him.

His last fading thought was that he really, really should have made it clear that he was just a simulacrum right from the start…

* * *

In the end, they managed to extract the gate stabilization frame out of the Ibasan base safe and intact. The frenzied attempts of the Ibasan forces to stop them had petered out after a while, the surviving soldiers retreating back to their base and allowing them to withdraw in peace. The forces assembled by Alanic and Zorian had paid a heavy price for this success, however, being cut nearly in half by the end.

Only time would tell if the researchers Xvim gathered would find out anything useful about the recovered gate stabilization frame.

As they suspected, Quatach-Ichl showed up not long after they finished their retreat, having received a call for help at some point in the fight. Zach and Zorian had been on edge for a few days after this, expecting the Ibasans to launch a premature invasion of Cyoria, much like they had in that one restart where Zorian prodded Eldemar into attacking Iasku Mansion… but what happened instead is that the remaining Ibasans started to withdraw from Cyoria entirely.

The invasion, it seemed, was being canceled.


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