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Chapter 073
Plodding Ahead

Deep in the jungles of Koth, there was a large, circular hole in the ground that led to a narrow vertical shaft and a pool of greenish water at the bottom. Although the place was quite beautiful, very few people could come here to admire it. It was, after all, absolutely teeming with chameleon drakes.

Naturally, this was the cenote where they had recovered the orb of first emperors in the previous restart. Zach and Zorian stood on the edge of the cenote, observing the chameleon drakes milling around the place and discussing how to go about recovering the orb this time around. Occasionally a group of chameleon drakes wandered past them or scrutinized their location, but between their cloaking spells and Zorian’s ability to reach into their minds and edit their senses and memories, there was little chance of them being discovered.

“So how are we doing this?” Zach asked. “Do you think you can sneak us in?”

Zorian stared at the cenote for a second before shaking his head. The drakes inside the cenote tended to clump together in groups of five or more, and the orb cave seemed to be the place that held the largest group.

“It’s hard enough to keep the drakes from noticing us when it’s just one or two,” Zorian said sadly. “Those four independently moving eyes make their senses quite unlike humans. Figuring out how to fool their senses from moment to moment is too tiresome for me to do it on large groups.”

Zach didn’t seem surprised by this. He seemed to be getting more familiar with the limitations of Zorian’s mind magic. “Then we should just go in, spells blazing, then?” he offered. “I mean, why complicate things? We can take them, I’m sure of it.”

“I’d rather not fight a swarm of chameleon drakes today,” Zorian said. “How about this? You move back from the cenote a little and attack them. If their previous reaction is any indication, they should all swarm out to deal with you. When they do, I will teleport into the orb cave, claim it, then teleport out. Even if they leave behind a few guards, these will be no match for me.”

“And what if your attempts to claim the orb cause the hydra to appear?” Zach said with a frown. “I don’t want to be mean, but your fighting skills…”

“I’m no match for that thing, I know,” Zorian said, nodding. “I don’t have to actually fight it, though. I can always just flee if it appears. I’m good enough to survive its assault for the few seconds it takes to cast the teleport spell. Besides, I suspect the hydra can’t actually exit the pocket dimension inside the orb cave itself. It’s just too big. The last time it emerged from the lake at the bottom of the cenote, and I suspect this time it will be no different.”

“But if you snatch the orb and leave the cave, won’t the hydra have plenty of space near you to teleport itself in?” Zach asked.

Uhh… damn. He hadn’t thought of that.

“And even if the hydra doesn’t react immediately, simply having it inside makes the orb into a massive time bomb. The monster can clearly exit the orb whenever it wishes. What if we bring the orb to Cyoria and the hydra decides to enter the city while we’re sleeping or otherwise distracted? Imagine the damage it could do. If it decides not to react when we claim the orb, it might be a good idea to deliberately lure it out before we bring the orb to a populated area.”

They decided to try Zorian’s idea anyway. The execution turned out to be a little more complicated than Zorian had thought it would be. Apparently Zach alone was not threatening enough to whip the entire group of chameleon drakes into a frenzy and make them leave their lair. After all, he was just one man. He might have been ungodly powerful, but that wasn’t something that could be gleaned at first sight. Thus, the drakes initially simply sent a group of five young drakes at him to deal with him. Of course, when Zach effortlessly slaughtered those five, the entire cenote grew more agitated… but not agitated enough to rush out and swarm him. They felt pretty safe in their cenote base, so they just massed themselves together and decided to wait and see if Zach would actually dare attack them in their home. Inconveniently for Zorian, they picked the orb cave as their rallying point.

Thankfully, when Zach started to launch artillery spells at the cenote, they decided they couldn’t afford to turtle up like that. They rushed out to try and stop him, leaving only a handful of guards behind. Zorian quickly teleported in, claimed the orb and teleported out.

Mission accomplished. As for the hydra, it never showed up. Not when Zorian claimed the orb and not when Zach and Zorian waited for several hours in the middle of the jungle to see if it would eventually decide to emerge. Zorian didn’t know what to think about that. On one hand, this meant they didn’t have to fight a giant, teleporting, godtouched hydra. On the other hand, it was just like Zach said earlier – this meant that said hydra could pop out of the orb when they least expected it and ruin the entire restart.

“We really need to figure out how to actually enter the damn orb,” Zach said unhappily, turning the orb idly in his hands.

“We need to consider the possibility that the orb simply doesn’t have that kind of ability built into it,” Zorian told him, staring at the orb in Zach’s hands in a speculative manner. “Teleportation magic is tricky to make into magic items. There are recall rods that can teleport a person to a pre-determined point and teleport platforms that can allow teleportation between fixed points, but anything more sophisticated requires a living caster. It might be that the previous owners of the orb used some kind of specialized spell to enter and leave the orb dimension.”

“Lovely,” Zach said, throwing the orb into the air and triggering its deployment mechanism. The orb distorted and then collapsed inward with a soft whooshing sound. In a flash it was gone, no visible trace of its presence anywhere. “That means either searching for an obscure teleportation spell or creating one from scratch. That could take forever. As if we didn’t have enough time sinks already…”

He reclaimed the orb, causing it to pop back to existence again, and then deployed it again immediately afterwards.

“If you are right, though, then this is really poor design,” Zach continued. “Why the hell would you not include a way in when making something like this? It shouldn’t be that hard to place a teleport platform, recall stone or something similar inside. Then, when the owner of the orb commands it to, it pulls the person inside and deposits them there. That’s a viable method, no?”

He reclaimed and then deployed the orb again.

“It is,” Zorian agreed. “And maybe there really was such a place inside the orb, once. But teleport platforms and recall stones don’t last all that long without regular maintenance. Not for centuries, at least. And there is a chance that something inside actively broke the mechanism. Say, a giant rampaging hydra…”

“I didn’t think of that,” Zach scowled, reclaiming the orb again. “We just don’t–”

When Zach deployed the orb the fourth time, there was a much louder whooshing sound than usual and the two of them suddenly found themselves standing next to a gigantic pissed-off hydra. It immediately pounced on them with an unearthly roar.

Needless to say, the next few minutes were… somewhat hectic.

* * *

Defeating the hydra took longer than it had the last time they fought, but the fact they didn’t have to worry about Daimen and his men dying actually made the battle easier. Things were a little hairy in the beginning, when the hydra had caught them off-guard, but after that they just kept themselves out of the hydra’s reach and kept hammering away at it until it decided the situation was hopeless and fled into the jungle. That took hours to do, though, because Zach had already reclaimed the orb by that point and the hydra really didn’t like that. It didn’t help that Zorian was interested in how its multi-part mind worked and thus spent most of the battle studying it instead of fighting it for real.

They didn’t chase after it to finish it off. Having it out of the orb was enough for them. They did spend a lot of time discussing what happened, though, and came to a conclusion that it was no accident that the hydra had only emerged after Zach had deployed the orb. It was likely that the hydra couldn’t exit the orb while it was in its portable form and had to wait for Zach to deploy the orb before it could make the attempt. That, in turn, suggested that perhaps entering the orb without deploying it was similarly impossible… which would make their previous method of studying the orb while holding it in their hands a somewhat wrong-headed method of finding the entrance.

Regardless, after claiming the orb and chasing off the hydra that emerged from it, Zach and Zorian returned to their current base in Koth – the small aranean base that the Silent Doorway Adepts had established around the local Bakora gate.

Zorian’s previous suspicion that the Silent Doorway Adepts would get friendlier and more open to his arguments if he brought them a functional gate address to Koth turned out to be true beyond his wildest dreams. The aranea went absolutely crazy once they tried it out and confirmed it worked. It took little more than four days for him to convince them that the time loop was real and that they should work with him, which was less than half of what it was before. He still sent a simulacrum on a slow journey to Koth, though, both because he didn’t want to put all his eggs in one basket and because he needed it to establish a telepathic relay link to Koth by physically placing relay stones along the way.

Still, he was extremely pleased that he managed to get this deal with the Silent Doorway Adepts working. It wasn’t absolutely crucial for reaching Koth, but it would be absolutely necessary when they decided to retrieve the piece of the key that was lost in Blantyrre. Blantyrre didn’t have any notable human civilizations, meaning that ships traveling there were extremely rare. There was no convenient archipelago to serve as a bridge between continents and allow island hopping, so teleporting there was out of the question. The seas and coasts were wild and untamed, full of dangerous monsters and natural danger zones. Zorian had spoken to Daimen about it, and the conclusion was that it was theoretically possible for them to reach Blantyrre within the span of a month… but only just. They would have to fully dedicate an entire restart for the task, and they would be left with a measly handful of days to explore Blantyrre before the restart ended.

Thankfully, Blantyrre was seeded full of Bakora Gates. In fact, they were seeded much more densely there, as if whatever power that had made the gates originated from that continent. This was curious because, as far as anyone knew, humanity had never really lived there in the past. Scholars often quarreled about what this meant, but Zorian didn’t really care about those arguments – all he cared about was that the Bakora gate network was pretty much the only viable method he had of reaching Blantyrre in a timely manner. The fact that one of the imperial artifacts was lost in Blantyrre was one of the major worries he had about their chances to collect the entire Key. Now that he knew he could potentially reach the continent in as little as four days if he acquired the correct gate address, it was like a giant rock was lifted off his shoulders. Maybe they really had a chance of doing this…

“What about your brother?” Zach suddenly asked. “Didn’t you hand him a notebook full of descriptions from our previous restart? Surely he left himself information about where the orb is.”

“He did, but I already told him we would be claiming it for ourselves,” Zorian said.

“Ha. He must have loved that,” Zach said, smiling at Zorian slightly.

“Yeah, he wasn’t happy about that,” Zorian nodded. “He wasn’t too bitter, though. He knows he can’t handle the hydra without our help. He’d need more than a month just to find, vet and organize the extra mercenaries he’d have to hire to successfully retrieve the orb. He did make me promise I would let him have the orb once we were out of the time loop, though.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Zach shrugged. “I mean, I’ve really taken a liking to this thing, but he does sort of have a legitimate claim on it, and he’s your brother to boot. You owe me, though.”

“I owe you?” Zorian said, raising his eyebrow at him. “Owe you what?”

“Another portable palace like this, of course,” said Zach, waving the orb in front of Zorian’s face. “You’ll be trying to get crazy good at pocket dimensions soon, no? Surely, a measly little pocket dimension like this is no big deal.”

‘Measly’, he says. Information about pocket dimension creation was scarce, but what Zorian had found suggested that this orb was near the top end of what was possible to achieve. There were examples of bigger hidden worlds, but not many.

“Correction,” Zorian said blandly. “We’ll be trying to get crazy good at pocket dimensions soon. Are you seriously telling me you’ll pass by the opportunity to learn how to create one?”

“I’d never pass up the opportunity to learn something so useful,” Zach said with a grin. “But you’re the one who’s good at creating things, while I am more the kind of guy that breaks them. Plus, we’ve already established that you owe me. I’ve magnanimously decided to let your brother claim the orb outside the time loop as a favor to you. As recompense, you need to make another portable palace for me when we finally get out.”

“We’ll talk about that later, when we find out how feasible the idea actually is,” Zorian told him lightly. “However, I can tell you right now that you’re never getting an actual palace.”

“Whaaat?” Zach whined. “Why not?”

“Because pocket dimensions don’t create matter,” Zorian told him. He pointed at the orb in Zach’s hands. “If you want them to contain a piece of land like that one does, you basically have to ‘steal’ it by enclosing an actual place into it during the creation process. So if you want a portable palace… well, you first need to build the palace in question. Putting aside the actual costs of such a project, which are bound to be astronomical, I just don’t have the necessary skills to design and build a palace.”

“Oh,” Zach said. “Yeah, that makes sense, I guess.”

“Now, if you want a tastefully hollowed out rock or a nice wooden cottage… that I can definitely help you with,” Zorian told him. “Hell, I might even be able to fit in some actual glass windows if you want me to be extravagant!”

That triggered a lengthy argument about what kind of building would be possible for a single mage to build on his own, using only natural materials. The argument eventually culminated into a building competition where both Zach and Zorian did their best to construct the most luxurious residence they could with the materials they had on hand.

If any jungle explorer were to stumble upon the site several hours later, they would probably be baffled by the series of towers, ziggurats and blocky houses scattered throughout the entire region. Alas, this part of the jungle was very remote and no such explorer would ever come before the restart ended.

The bats and other animals that moved into the buildings after a few days definitely appreciated their new accommodations, though.

* * *

Zach and Zorian floated in the black void. The black sky that surrounded them was omnidirectional and featureless, containing only one point of interest – a roughly humanoid entity with softly glowing eyes. The Guardian of the Threshold.

It had been a while since they visited this place. They tried not to interact with the Guardian too much, lest they accidentally trigger some kind of safeguard and it realized there were two Controllers inside the time loop and that it should do something about that. However, now that they’d gotten their hands on a piece of the Key, it only made sense for them to come and visit the Sovereign Gate to see how it would react.

“Welcome, Controller,” the Guardian said, its voice just as soft and devoid of emotion as Zorian remembered it to be. The entity gave no indication it remembered their last visit to this place.

“We have questions for you,” Zach told the Guardian bluntly.

“I will do my best to answer them,” the Guardian agreed placidly.

They didn’t ask it about the orb immediately. Instead, they first confirmed the number of restarts they had until the time loop collapsed, just in case. They had 42 left, exactly as it should be. After that Zorian summoned a list of questions the two of them had prepared for the Guardian over the previous restarts, concerning Red Robe, the mechanics of the time loop and so on.

They didn’t get anywhere with that, of course. The Guardian either didn’t know how to help them or flat out refused to do so when they asked things they weren’t ‘authorized’ to know. They had expected that, but it was still frustrating to be foiled so thoroughly. In any case, once they had exhausted their prepared list of questions, they finally moved onto to the main purpose of this visit.

“Guardian, can you tell us more about the Key now?” Zorian asked.

“To find out about the Key, please bring me the Key for inspection,” the Guardian told him.

“Yes, yes… in order to find out about the Key, we must first have the Key. A perfectly logical requirement,” Zach said, rolling his eyes. “But we’re not here for that. Our question is this: if we bring you a single piece of the Key, does that count for something? Do we get to ask you questions about it?”

“Having only one piece of the Key will result in information about that part only,” the Guardian noted.

“That’s fine,” Zach said dismissively. “We brought you one of the pieces, so why don’t you take a look?”

“I do not see it,” the Guardian told him immediately. “Are you sure you have connected it to the control room properly?”

“Wait, we have to do what?” Zach asked incredulously.

As it turned out, simply having the pieces of the Key on them when they connected to the Sovereign Gate wasn’t enough. The Guardian neither knew nor cared what they had on their person when they entered this void it inhabited. Instead, it was up to Zach and Zorian to connect the orb to the Sovereign Gate so the Guardian could inspect it and confirm its authenticity.

How were they supposed to do that? The Guardian was naturally of no help whatsoever. It took them two hours of frustrated tinkering before they realized they had to use their marker as a sort of bridge, simultaneously connecting it to both the Sovereign Gate and the orb. Only then did the Guardian recognize it.

“This is indeed a legitimate piece of the Key,” the Guardian decided.

“Finally,” Zach huffed. “So what does this get us?”

“Nothing on its own,” the Guardian responded. “You need the entire key to unlock higher authorization than you have now. However, you can now ask me for information about it like you wanted earlier. Keep in mind that I have no knowledge of the object’s mundane functions. I can only give you information about it as it relates to the time loop.”

“So if we asked you about the pocket dimension contained in the orb…” began Zorian.

“I couldn’t help you,” the Guardian said. “I didn’t even know there was a pocket dimension encapsulated within the Key piece until you told me.”

There was a second of silence as both Zach and Zorian frowned at the information. This was not completely unexpected. It had been very obvious during their previous visit that the Guardian did not perceive the world in the same way humans did and often just plain disregarded things not related to its job. Still, this was disappointing to hear.

“Alright,” said Zach eventually. “So what can you tell us about the orb, then? What are its capabilities as it relates to the time loop?”

“It contains a memory bank that the Controller can use to store and organize their important memories across restarts,” the Guardian said.

Wait, what? Zach and Zorian shared a shocked glance, not having expected this at all.

“A memory bank…” Zorian repeated slowly.

“Yes,” the Guardian confirmed. “You should be able to sense an empty space inside if you focus on the Key piece correctly. Simply focus on the memories you want to store in the bank and push them inside. Once inside, they will persist from restart to restart and be available for viewing at any time, unless you choose to delete them at some point. Keep in mind that this ability only exists inside the time loop – once you leave and this reality permanently collapses, all of the memories you stored inside the Key piece will be similarly destroyed. Make sure to refresh on anything important you placed there before you leave.”

There was a brief silence as the two of them digested this information.

“I guess we now know what that mysterious empty space inside the orb was,” Zorian finally said.

“Yeah,” Zach said distractedly, lost in thought for a second. He then took a deep breath and turned to Zorian again. “It sounds very convenient.”

“Yes,” Zorian agreed. The ability was a little redundant to him, what with his ability to create memory packets, but he could imagine that an average Controller would find the ability absolutely invaluable. It was almost like having a notebook that carried over from restart to restart, only better. “Guardian, is there any limit on the amount of memories this bank can hold?”

“There are limits to everything,” the Guardian told him. “But you are highly unlikely to ever reach these particular ones. Even if you found a way to store your entire memory and did so in every single restart, you would not come even close to filling the available space inside the memory bank.”

Good to know. This gave him some very nice ideas… after all, if he could unload most of the notebooks had he kept in his head into the orb, he could really go wild in recruiting experts and having them continue their work across restarts.

“Do you think the other imperial artifacts have similar abilities?” Zorian asked Zach.

“Probably,” agreed Zach. “Hey, Guardian! What about the other pieces? Do they all give us an ability related to the time loop?”

“To find out about the other pieces of the Key, please bring them to me for inspection,” the Guardian answered.

Zorian snorted in amusement.

“Yeah, dumb question, I guess,” Zach said, clacking his tongue. “But I think they probably do all give an ability. No reason for the orb to be the only one. Now I’m even more anxious to get my hands on these things…”

“No wonder we haven’t been able to find a way to place temporary markers or remove people from the time loop,” said Zorian after some thought. “No doubt those two abilities are also tied to imperial artifacts. Probably the crown Quatach-Ichl is wearing and that dagger that is in Eldemar’s royal treasury.”

Zach gave it some thought.

“You may be right,” he eventually said. “Which do you think gives what?”

“Well, purely thematically speaking, I’d guess that the knife is what removes people from the time loop,” said Zorian. “Which would leave the crown as the artifact that allows for the placement of temporary markers.”

“Hm. It does make sense if you think of the temporary markers as subordinate to the main one,” Zach mused. “The main marker is the ruler, and the ruler needs a crown.”

The Guardian of the Threshold remained silent during this conversation, giving no indication it had heard anything. Pity. Zorian had hoped it might react a bit and therefore indicate how close they were hitting to the truth. He really wondered how that thing was made. It appeared to be a mindless automaton, but some of its responses were sufficiently lifelike that he had trouble treating it as a purely mindless thing.

“Guardian, will you remember that we’ve already brought you this piece the next time we visit or do we need to bring all five pieces simultaneously to get higher authorization?” Zorian asked.

“You must bring the entire Key if you want higher authorization,” the Guardian said.

“Damn,” Zach swore.

“We suspected it would be like this,” Zorian sighed.

They spent another hour pestering the Guardian about the orb and the memory bank it contained. They didn’t find out anything terribly important though, so they eventually disconnected themselves from the Sovereign Gate.

Unlike the first time they had gone here, this time they’d made much more thorough, sophisticated preparations. As such, they didn’t find their bodies ‘catastrophically damaged’ by the time they were ready to leave. Quite the contrary, the researchers left them well enough alone with no mind magic necessary. This was partially because they’d brought much more intimidating forgeries of their credentials and partially because they were trailed by two massive ‘bodyguards’ that kept watch while they were communicating with the Guardian. The bodyguards were, of course, just particularly lifelike golems that Zorian had made for the occasion. They were actually pretty terrible as far as golems went, but they looked human enough to fool casual inspection and that was the only thing that mattered. Their only job was to follow them around in utter silence, looking all grim and intimidating.

They didn’t immediately leave the time magic research facility. They had come here not just to have a chat with the Guardian of the Threshold, but also because they wanted to make use of the Black Room for the restart.

However, they had made a mistake this time – they decided to bring the orb of the first emperor with them into the Black Room.

It was a tempting idea. If they could bring a portable palace with them into the temporal acceleration area, then it didn’t matter much that space was so limited – they could bring everything they needed, even people, inside the orb. The main limitation of the Black Room would be broken. Sure, they still didn’t know how to actually enter the pocket dimension contained in the orb, but neither of them thought the procedure would forever elude them. And besides, they didn’t need to be able to enter the orb to test the viability of the idea. All they had to do was bring the orb with them into the Black Room and see what would happen.

Well, what happened was that the Black Room shut itself down almost instantly after initiating temporal acceleration.

After an hour of analysis and heated discussion with nervous researchers, Zach and Zorian found out that the price of temporally accelerating an area of space was based on the volume of space being accelerated. By bringing a palace worth of space inside, even inside a pocket dimension, the two of them massively inflated the mana cost of the operation procedure. Not to mention that the facility itself was not designed to handle that kind of strain. As such, the Black Room ran out of mana in less than a second and immediately shut itself down. The researchers, though still somewhat intimidated by them, gave them a severe tongue-lashing for even trying the idea without consulting them about it beforehand.

Oh, and they were really interested in studying the orb. Zorian actually considered letting them do so, just to see what a group of dedicated researchers like this could tell them about the artifact, but refused their request for the moment. He had to set things up very carefully before giving them the orb, or else he would simply be handing it to the Eldemarian authorities and starting a manhunt for the two of them.

“I wonder if this is true for the time loop as well,” Zach mused later, when they were out of the facility. “If we create our own pocket dimensions here, aren’t we also increasing the volume that needs to be temporally accelerated and thus creating a strain on the system?”

“Probably,” Zorian said. “But the time loop reality is so huge that even if we increased its internal volume a bit by opening additional pocket dimensions, the added power drain should be pretty miniscule. The problem with the Black Room is that it’s pretty tiny. The space inside the orb is actually many times larger than the Black Room itself. As such, bringing the orb into the Black Room is like trying to transport an elephant inside a tiny, one-man boat. No matter what clever method you use to make it fit, it still weighs so much it would sink the whole setup. I fear this idea is dead in the water.”

“Shame,” said Zach. “The orb does a pretty good job of isolating the space inside from the rest of reality, though. That’s kind of what the Black Room is meant to accomplish, only better. What if, instead of trying to bring the orb inside the Black Room, we simply ditched the Black Room altogether and retooled the entire facility to apply its temporal acceleration effect on the orb itself? I know the space inside the orb is much more massive than the Black Room, but maybe the effects of a better dimensional boundary overshadow that? And really, even if it produces less drastic acceleration, I’d rather spend half a month inside a palace than a full month inside a tiny cramped room…”

“An interesting idea,” Zorian admitted. “We’d need to get willing cooperation from the staff of the facility to pull something of that scale, though. No way could we pull this off ourselves, especially not on a super-secret research facility financed by the Eldemarian government.”

Zorian still made a mental note to revisit the idea later. Perhaps it wasn’t very feasible at the moment, but they needed every advantage they could get.

* * *

On one unremarkable Sunday morning, Zorian woke up to find Imaya’s house under siege.

Well, not a literal siege, but the throng of people gathered around the entrance was impressively large and thoroughly blocked anyone’s ability to get in or out of the house. Zorian was quite mystified by this, since he couldn’t think of anything he had done that would cause such an occurrence.

Zorian joined the other inhabitants of the house, who had awoken far sooner than him, in staring warily through the window at the mass of people surrounding the house. They seemed to be quite a diverse bunch, ranging from simple curious neighbors that had gathered to see what was happening to groups of healers, mages, various guild recruiters and newspaper reporters.

“Dare I ask what this is about?” Zorian asked Imaya, who was nervously wringing her hands as she eyed the gathered crown with a wary eye.

“It’s my fault,” Kael spoke up in an embarrassed voice. “I’m sorry.”

“What do you mean it’s your fault?” Zorian asked curiously. “What did you do exactly?”

“Well, you know how I keep working on better medicines? And how I’ve been recruiting other alchemists and healers in my work? Well, the results of that effort are getting… kind of impressive. Impressive enough to cause a stir. Especially when they come from someone as young as me with no real backer,” Kael explained. He shuffled in place uncomfortably and Kana squeezed herself closer to him, disturbed by the fearful, awkward atmosphere in the room. “I’m really sorry. I hadn’t considered this possibility at all.”

Zorian shook his head, not really angry at the boy. Part of the blame rested on him too – he should have paid closer attention to what Kael was doing and what kind of attention it was garnering. Though in all honesty, this was just a mild inconvenience for him. He could teleport in and out of the house at will.

“They were initially much more aggressive about trying to get in,” Imaya told him. “But those wards you placed on the house stopped them cold so they’ve been more restrained since then. The wards themselves drew some people here, though. I’m not sure, but I think some people from the Mage Guild are here to talk to you about that…”

It was only then that Zorian remembered that raising heavy wards around a residence required a special permit from the city’s mage guild. A permit that Zorian didn’t have. He had been warding places so often these days, with zero regard for local laws and customs, that he had almost forgotten that this sort of thing was regulated in most places.

Okay, maybe this was more than just a mild inconvenience…

* * *

In the mountains of southern Altazia, there was a fairly famous cave system that surrounded an ancient volcano. The volcano hadn’t been active in over a century, but the caves still held spacious caverns and winding corridors full of lava that never cooled. This was a magically powerful place heavily aligned with fire, and it was absolutely teeming with fire elementals.

And one of those elementals was Kilnfather, the elder fire elemental that Zach and Zorian were currently visiting.

Kilnfather wasn’t the oldest of the elder elementals living in this place, but he was the only one even remotely interested in talking with humans. The others lived deep in the lava fields of the volcano cavern system – simply reaching their strongholds would be a monumental task, considering the incredible heat and the omnipresent poisonous fumes of their home environment, and convincing a taciturn elemental to talk with you was a notoriously futile endeavor. So Kilnfather it was.

They met Kilnfather in a wide, spacious cavern of black basalt stone. Steam and poisonous fumes billowed up from the cracks in the floor and walls, but the air was entirely breathable with the aid of the right air filtering spells. As for the temperature, well… it was hot, but not unhealthily so. They could endure it for the few hours the talks would last.

The only thing Zach and Zorian really had to watch for was not to hurt any of the Kilnfather’s ‘children’…

Kilnfather looked like a giant gecko made out of cooling lava. He was black, with cracked skin that pulsed with inner fire, dimming and brightening in a regular rhythm. His eyes were big, yellow, slitted and shining. Surrounding him was a small throng of smaller black geckos that looked like tiny copies of him. If one looked at the smaller geckos closely enough, however, they would notice they were not elementals like Kilnfather. They were actual living beings.

The black geckoes had been, as far as anyone could tell, just regular animals until Kilnfather had implanted some of his elemental spirit into them, causing them to swell in size and develop powerful fire-based magic. Kilnfather loved his creations with all his heart, to the point where he styled his entire appearance after them, and some people speculated he was trying to shape them into a legitimate sapient species as time went by. He did not tolerate any violence towards his ‘beloved children’ and would immediately start hostilities with anyone who hurt so much as a scale on their back… and call the rest of the domain’s fire elementals for help if he thought he was outmatched.

The trouble was, sometimes these children started hostilities, forcing people to defend themselves… but the Kilnfather didn’t care. No matter the circumstances, his children were always in the right.

“Welcome, guests,” Kilnfather said, his voice deep and resonant. “Come closer, come closer. Mind my children, please. They can sometimes get a little… overzealous in their welcome, but they always mean well.”

“Kilnfather is as welcoming as stories say,” Zorian said politely. “Hopefully these two guests will be found worthy of your hospitality. Please accept our gifts.”

They directed the floating field of force that carried a small basalt chest towards Kilnfather, forcing it to stop at a respectful distance from the elemental. It opened on its own, revealing a plethora of rare stones and materials that were said to be attractive to fire elementals.

“Oh my, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have,” Kilnfather said, his large, bright yellow tongue darting out his mouth to lick his eyes one by one. “But it would be impolite of me to refuse a gift. What was it that you said you came here for?”

“Well…” began Zorian. “We were wondering if you ever heard of any of the locations where the primordials were imprisoned…”

* * *

House Letova was a fairly important House in Falkrinea. They were a new House, having achieved their status due to their knowledge of certain unique potions that nobody else could figure out how to make, but their future looked rather promising. Their potion business was booming, giving them plenty of money to throw around to make themselves heard and boost their political influence in Falkrinea and elsewhere.

Naturally, they guarded the secrets of their alchemy very, very closely. They invested a great deal of their newfound wealth into security, well aware that if their competitors managed to get their hands on their secrets their ascent to greatness would be greatly jeopardized.

Today, Zach and Zorian were trying to break into House Letova’s alchemy repository. They weren’t doing it because they honestly wanted to steal their alchemical secrets, though Zorian would take a look at their records if they succeeded, simply to satisfy his curiosity. No, they were doing it because they wanted to practice their ability to break into secure areas.

The problem was simple. They needed to get the imperial dagger that was stored in the Eldemarian royal palace. However, the palace was way out of their league at the moment. They just didn’t have enough experience in breaking into places like that. Thus, Zorian had hit upon the idea of targeting ‘minor’ Houses, gradually tackling greater and greater challenges until they gathered enough expertise in infiltration to tackle their real goal.

They had already tried their hand at breaking into some wealthy estates, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. House Letova would be their biggest challenge yet.

“You know,” Zach had told him before they launched the mission, “I am amused by the fact that you have qualms about stealing people’s secrets by rooting through their minds, but have no problems at all about physically rooting through their stuff.”

“It’s not the same,” Zorian protested.

“I know,” Zach said. “And don’t get me wrong, it actually sets me at ease that you have some standards about your mind magic usage. I can’t help but find it a bit amusing, though.”

“You don’t seem to have any problems going along with this,” Zorian remarked.

“Nah, I’ve done things like this all the time when I was alone,” Zach said dismissively. “Only with less sneaking in and more blasting the door off its hinges and powering through the wards. One of these days we’ll have to do these raids my way. It’s a rush. I bet you’d love it.”

Zorian snorted. “I bet I wouldn’t,” he countered. “Though maybe you’re on to something. Somehow I feel less conflicted about taking people’s notebooks, research documentation and the like than I do about taking their thoughts and memories. Mind magic is… something I can do on a whim. It’s easy, it’s convenient and I don’t think I’m a good enough person to resist the temptation to use it all the time if I get into the habit of using it lightly. But this kind of thing… it’s terrifying and stressful and takes effort to organize and pull off. I’ll probably never feel casual about it.”

“Hmm,” hummed Zach. “I wouldn’t be so sure. Almost anything gets pretty mundane if you do it long enough. But it is true that raids like this aren’t something you do on impulse alone. Anyway, we came here to steal alchemical recipes, not to talk philosophy. Are we doing this or not?”

“We’re doing it,” responded Zorian. “Let’s go.”

* * *

Nine restarts had passed since the restart in which Zach and Zorian had found where the orb of the first emperor was located. The two of them had worked on their skills, sought out experts and raided places for practice and critical secrets. They expanded their research initiatives massively, making use of the orb’s memory bank to store all the research notes that resulted from this, and then found new sources of money and materials to pay for all this. Sudomir was completely interrogated several times and his knowledge of the invasion and soul magic made full use of. They worked with Daimen to get in touch with his friends and colleagues, narrowing down the location for the piece of the Key that was lost in the Xlotic desert. They worked hard to understand and reverse-engineer the Ibasan gate and tried to figure out a faster, easier way to activate the Bakora Gates.

They managed to enter the orb near the end of this period. They had been forced to design a specialized teleportation spell to do so, which took multiple restarts due to the rarity of pocket dimension magic and the corresponding difficulty of finding the right experts and manuals. When they had finally managed to get in, they found that the pocket dimension did contain a teleport platform that served as an in-built entrance… but the platform had broken down a long time ago due to lack of maintenance. Once the platform was fixed, the spell was no longer necessary… but since they were in the time loop, this repair was undone at the end of every restart. Zach and Zorian eventually stopped bothering to repair the platform and just used the spell to enter and leave as they wish. The spell was the superior option anyway, since it allowed them to enter and leave the orb in any location they wished.

As for the contents of the orb… well, they hadn’t found any more giant hydras inside, much to Zach’s disappointment. They had found a lot of dangerous plants and animals, though, so it was hardly peaceful. They also found a great deal of potions, magical equipment, secret grimoires and valuable materials… virtually all of which had expired, rotted, broken down or were hopelessly outdated. They had high hopes that there was something good buried in all that trash and rubble, and were still stubbornly combing through it.

Mercifully, the general decay of the place also extended to palace defenses. It was clear the palace had once sported impressive wards and a frankly ridiculous number of traps (giant boulders rolling down the corridors… seriously?), but most of them had broken down over the centuries.

Currently, Zorian was sitting on the grass in the middle of an isolated meadow. Not far from him was a simulacrum absorbed in assembling a magical rifle, tirelessly pondering design improvements and occasionally testing out prototypes on a distant rock. Zorian didn’t want to disturb him, but made a mental note to himself to add better sound dampening wards on the final design – those magical rifles he had been building were painfully loud. Though considering how large some of the latest designs were getting, that was to be expected. He had told the simulacrum to design a better rifle, not a portable cannon, dammit!

In any case, Zorian himself was controlling a group of golems against a group consisting of Zach, Alanic, Xvim and Taiven. His four opponents were holding back a lot, or else the golems wouldn’t last very long, but that was okay. This wasn’t a test of his golem making skills – it was a combat exercise meant to test different tactics and figure out the most effective method of controlling and deploying his golems.

He took advantage of a short pause in the battle to quickly check up on his simulacrum in Koth. These days he no longer needed a long chain of telepathic relays to do so – the soul magic knowledge he got from Sudomir had allowed him to devise a method of establishing telepathic contact with his simulacrums through the soul they all shared. He found out that the simulacrum was busy arranging some kind of trade deal along with Daimen and left him to his devices.

Eventually the combat exercise ended and the other four joined Zorian in relaxing on the grass.

Well, they were relaxing until the simulacrum fired its prototype cannon again and startled them all with another devastating boom.

“Gods, Zorian,” Taiven complained. “That thing your copy is building is like a miniature siege engine and you’re still not satisfied? What on earth do you need a gun like that for?”

Zorian smiled at her.

“We’re going to kill a giant spider,” he told her. “And then we’re going to visit an annoying old woman with its remains…”

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