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Chapter 074
The Return

Simulacrum number four was worried. He really shouldn’t be, considering what he was and how many times the original had fought the grey hunter by now. If anything, he should be feeling excited – he had a good feeling about this attempt. Their skills had grown, they had become intimately familiar with the grey hunter’s capabilities and they had brought a number of surprises designed specifically to counter it. This could work. This could actually work, unlike so many previous attempts they’d made.

Maybe that was it. In their previous attempts, Zorian – and, by extension, simulacrum number four – had always felt the attempt was a long shot. Even if they failed, it was to be expected. This time he actually felt good about their chances, making him more emotionally invested in the outcome.

Then again, they actually had a pressing need for the grey hunter’s eggs this time. They could contact Silverlake without them, but talking to Silverlake was going to be much harder and much more annoying if they couldn’t bring her something she desperately wanted.

He unconsciously clutched the rifle closer to his chest, the sensation of it dispelling his current stream of thought. He remembered practicing with it over and over, but it still felt a bit alien to his mind… and so did the arms that held it. He was a brand new type of simulacrum that the original had thought up recently – instead of being embodied into an ectoplasmic shell like a regular simulacrum, he had been attached to a real matter golem body designed to mimic the original. This was a step up from the base spell in just about every regard, granting him vastly increased durability and halving his maintenance cost at the same time. It allowed Zorian to maintain twice the usual number of simulacrums and ensured that they wouldn’t be destroyed by relatively minor damage. The only downside was that making the golem bodies was very time consuming, and that the materials were expensive as hell. Or at least that was the idea, anyway. The simulacrum actually felt significantly stiffer and more restricted in his movements than he was used to, a clear sign that his joints weren’t working quite as well as the original had hoped they would. No doubt the original would find a way to fix or mitigate these issues as time went by, but that would make no difference for him personally. He really hoped he wouldn’t lock up or miss in the actual battle because of this.

Alas, the time for contemplation was over. A short message rippled out of his soul and into his consciousness, informing him (and the other three simulacrums gathered around the area) that the original was about to start the fight. He quickly checked up on his rifle one final time and then sent a confirmation that he was ready through the exact same method, using their shared soul as a conduit for communication. Very convenient, that. The original was already working on further upgrades, based on their studies of the hydra and the cranium rat collective, but that was still in the initial stages and nowhere near ready for field use. For now, ‘normal’ soul conduit communication would have to suffice.

And then it began. The grey hunter leapt out of its cave and immediately moved to attack Zach and Zorian, completely ignoring the simulacrums scattered around the area. A swarm of projectiles answered its charge, Zach and Zorian doing their best to keep it pressured without wasting too much of their mana reserves. Zach launched powerful beams of force at it, forcing it to keep dodging and breaking up its momentum. Zorian, on the other hand, borrowed Kirma’s trick – holding a greyish metal cube as a spell focus, he launched swarms of smaller, cheaper projectiles that homed in unerringly on the grey hunter’s weak points. He timed his attack to coincide with Zach’s, forcing the grey hunter to take at least a few hits from every barrage. Although individually weak and unable to truly threaten the grey hunter, they were apparently doing something because the spider was clearly getting angrier and more agitated as seconds ticked by.

Simulacrum number four trailed the grey hunter with the scope of his rifle, but did not shoot. The grey hunter was currently ignoring the simulacrums because it did not perceive them as a threat, but that wouldn’t last very long if they started blindly firing into the battle zone. No, if he and his duplicate brethren wanted to help Zach and the original, they needed to pick their moment carefully.

The problem with using the gun on the grey hunter wasn’t in whether or not it could dodge the bullet. It couldn’t. To Zorian’s knowledge, nothing was fast enough to dodge a projectile that moved faster than sound itself. The problem was that the spider never sat still long enough to get a good shot on it. Bullets didn’t track their target and using magic to make them do so was incredibly difficult. The most Zorian could do was curve their trajectories slightly towards where he wanted them to hit. And the simulacrums didn’t just have to hit the grey hunter – they had to hit it in a way that left the egg sack unharmed.

Basically, they needed the grey hunter to stay still for a second. A tall order, but the simulacrum was confident that Zach and the original could pull it off.

The grey hunter lunged towards Zorian. Zach was a bigger threat, but Zorian was more annoying and probably looked more vulnerable to its senses. If it could get rid of the annoying weakling first, it could then focus its full attention on the true threat and its victory would be assured. But looks could be deceptive. The grey hunter smashed straight into Zorian’s shield at full force and was stopped cold. The thick barrier of force that surrounded Zorian was a marvel of spell engineering, a custom spell that Zorian had designed with the help of a dozen professional spell crafters to make maximum use of Zorian’s exceptional shaping skills. The softly glowing threads, woven through every inch of the thick sphere of force, lit up like blazing lamps, distributing the incoming force away from the impact points and into the shield as a whole, lessening the strain on any individual point in the shield.

The grey hunter attacked the shield again and again in quick succession, and it finally gave way… but rather than the whole shield shattering, three small hexagons of force broke down instead, leaving the main structure unharmed. Before the grey hunter could take advantage of that the entire shield shifted and automatically rearranged itself, nearby hexagons sliding into place to close the gap.

Suddenly aware that Zorian was no easy target to be brought down quickly, the grey hunter tried to back off, but it was too late. Zach had positioned himself carefully while the grey hunter had been trying to batter down Zorian’s shield, and now launched a barrage of three hyper-dense stone spheres at the spider. The grey hunter spun around like an acrobat, deflecting the spheres away from itself with measured kicks, but Zorian took advantage of its predicament to launch a pair of metal cylinders at it. The grey hunter, accustomed to weathering Zorian’s annoying but weak attacks and not seeing any great concentration of mana in the cylinders, chose to ignore them in favor of the much more threatening stone spheres.

Just before they were going to impact the grey hunter, the cylinders detonated into a cacophony of sound, bright light, magical disturbances and aromatic smoke – all of it specifically optimized for grey hunter senses.

Dazed and disoriented by the flashbang grenades, the grey hunter stumbled and stopped. Just for a moment.

Simulacrum number four pulled the trigger.

Another deafening blast sounded out, closely followed by two more. Simulacrum number two didn’t fire, as he was positioned very inconveniently and there was a danger he could hit the egg sack if he fired. Of the three bullets, one missed the grey hunter completely – simulacrum number one had apparently aimed his shot so poorly that not even the trajectory correcting magics the original placed on the bullet could help. It didn’t matter, though – both he and number three had hit the grey hunter straight into its cephalothorax, the bullets had successfully breaking through its carapace.

It was a testament to the grey hunter’s toughness that, mere moments following this, it shook off the stun effect and retreated at top speed, as if it hadn’t just been shot twice in the head with high-caliber armor-piercing bullets. But it didn’t matter. It was living on borrowed time – from the moment those bullets sank into its flesh, its fate was sealed. The bullets were filled with the distilled essence of the crystal ooze – a magical creature every bit as powerful as the grey hunter, whose touch turned all flesh into inert crystal. The crystallization bullets, as Zorian called them, were already turning the grey hunter’s organs into lifeless crystal, and there was nothing the spider could do about it.

They grey hunter seemed to realize it too. It went berserk, lunging at Zach and Zorian with even greater zeal, and then tried to flee. They couldn’t allow that, of course. If it escaped, it would doubtlessly retreat into the deep dungeon and hide before dying, and other denizens of the dungeon might eat the egg sack before they could track down its corpse. Thus, walls of stone and force sprang up to bar its path, ectoplasmic threads and tentacles sought to entangle it and dimensional gates barred the path to its lair.

Eventually, the internal crystallization process advanced too far for the grey hunter to keep functioning and it started to visibly slow and then stop. Simulacrum number four and his fellow duplicates were then sent in to hack it apart and claim the egg sack, because the original was too much of a coward to do it himself. Then again, the grey hunter did mangle one of the simulacrums beyond repair as its last act before dying, so maybe he shouldn’t judge.

But anyway… the grey hunter was dead… and the egg sack was still intact.

It was time to visit Silverlake again. After some thought, simulacrum number four wandered off from the grey hunter’s corpse and sought out the original to talk to him about visiting the old witch. He was so looking forward to seeing her reaction when she realized what they had done, and it wasn’t fair that he wouldn’t get to see it just because he was a simulacrum! He was the one that shot the grey hunter! Well, he and number three, but number three ended up being killed by the grey hunter’s last hurrah.

He totally earned this and was not taking no for an answer.

* * *

After securing the corpse of the grey hunter, Zorian and his simulacrums went about carefully removing the egg sack attached to its underbelly without damaging it – a task far harder than Zorian would initially have assumed it would be. Then again, the egg sack had stayed attached to the grey hunter while it was doing all sorts of sharp movements and acrobatics, so it was a bit silly of him to assume he could just peel it off the spider as he wished. Still, it was nothing that Zorian and his duplicates couldn’t solve with a bit of time and analysis. After an hour or so, they finally managed to separate the egg sack from the corpse without ruining it.

They immediately set off to see Silverlake. They had no idea what it took to keep the eggs alive in the long term, after all, so it was better to deliver them to Silverlake as soon as possible. They also kept the grey hunter’s corpse, stashing it in the orb of the first emperor. Much of its value was ruined when its insides crystallized, but there should still be enough of it for a potion or two.

After some reasoned and totally calm discussion, Zorian also decided to take simulacrum number four with him to see Silverlake. Being accompanied by a simulacrum might help him convince her that he wasn’t just a precocious teenage mage and that she should actually take him seriously.

In any case, tracking down Silverlake’s home wasn’t hard this time around. She may have hidden it in a pocket dimension, but Zorian knew the general area it was in and had specialized divinations that could find such things. They didn’t try to break into the pocket dimension, though. That would have been threatening and rude. Instead, they got her attention in a more civilized manner – by taking the grey hunter’s corpse out of the orb and parading it around the pocket dimension entrance while chanting her name.

It didn’t take long before she decided to come out to meet them. She gave the dead grey hunter a quick, intrigued look before seemingly ignoring it in favor of focusing on them instead. She remained standing next to the entrance to her pocket dimension, though, a long iron rod clutched tightly in her bony fingers.

“Hello,” Zach said, giving her a sunny smile and a casual wave of his hand.

“What a curious bunch of visitors you are,” Silverlake said, unmoved by his friendliness. “It’s not every day that two baby mages manage to track me down to this place… and is that a simulacrum attached to a golem frame? My, aren’t you a clever sort.”

“Well, you’re a pretty clever sort yourself,” Zorian noted. “You figured out what my simulacrum is without casting any obvious analysis spells.”

He really meant that, too. Certainly he couldn’t pull off something like that. He’d have to spend several minutes casting analytical divinations before he could work out what he was dealing with. Granted, she may have done that before she stepped out of her pocket dimension, but it was still impressive.

“Well? Out with it,” Silverlake demanded. “Why are you bothering this old woman in the middle of her afternoon nap, making all this racket?”

“We have come to trade!” Zach said in an equally cheery tone, undaunted by her wariness.

“We have killed the grey hunter and retrieved its eggs fully intact,” Zorian said without preamble, waving his hand at the corpse of the giant spider on the ground next to them. His simulacrum, meanwhile, casually extracted the grey hunter’s eggs from the box he was carrying, letting Silverlake see them. Her eyes immediately lit up with greed and excitement. She hid it quite quickly, but it was there. “We thought you might be interested in them.”

“Oh? And why did you think that?” Silverlake asked him, inclining her head to the side, like a bird that spotted something interesting.

“Because you told me so in the past,” Zorian said blandly.

“Because I told you so in the past,” Silverlake repeated slowly, looking at him like he was stupid. “What a curious thing to say. Old I may be, but my memory is still going strong… and I don’t remember ever talking to you.”

Zach and Zorian had discussed extensively what to tell Silverlake before coming to this place. Telling her the truth about the time loop was dangerous, because she was likely proficient in both soul and mind magic. She was a highly capable witch, after all, and they were famous for dabbling in both of those fields. However, convincing her to help them through lies and manipulations would take a long time… and time was, amusingly enough, something they had a chronic shortage of. Thus, they had unanimously decided to just tell the annoying old witch the truth and see how she reacted. Even if she was hostile, they could probably handle it.

Probably.

“You don’t remember because the world we live in is constantly repeating itself. On the night of the summer festival, the world ends. Everything reverts to how it was the month before, and then carries on as if nothing was wrong. Like an endlessly repeating music box, you repeat your actions over and over in month-long intervals… constantly forgetting, constantly starting over,” Zorian explained, being deliberately a little melodramatic and mysterious.

Silverlake listened to his explanation with an arched eyebrow, looking surprised and amused in equal measure.

“My word, you came all this way just to deliver this kind of tall tale to me?” Silverlake said, chuckling lightly. “I suppose I can understand where you’re coming from. I have been told, on occasion, that I am rather repetitive in my arguments.”

“It’s not just you,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Everyone is reliving this month over and over. Only me and Zach here are immune.”

“Oh, but of course!” Silverlake said, slapping herself in the forehead. “Of course it’s like that! No doubt I too can get this kind of immunity at very favorable prices, thus saving myself from this awful, awful fate of… repeating myself for all eternity? I must say, the scammers these days are getting really inventive.”

“Actually, there is nothing we can do to help you retain awareness of previous restarts,” Zach said, clacking his tongue unhappily. “Kind of depressing, but there you go. We’re not here for that. As I have noted earlier, we’re here to trade – the grey hunter’s eggs in exchange for magical help.”

Silverlake stayed silent for a second.

“Ah, I see,” she finally said. “This is just you answering my question. I asked how you knew I needed the grey hunter’s eggs and you gave me an answer. I supposed if I asked you for an actual explanation…?”

“This is an actual explanation,” Zorian said. “It’s not my fault you don’t believe me.”

“Hmph,” Silverlake scoffed. “Out of curiosity, during this conversation that I have no memory of, did I ever actually tell you what I needed the grey hunter’s eggs for?”

“No, you did not,” Zorian admitted. “To be honest, I was rather angry with you back then and didn’t inquire too deeply. I came to you for help with a pressing problem and you sent me on all sorts of tasks, all of which I did without complaint. But my only reward was to be told to go after the grey hunter for its eggs. I was a lot weaker back then, so that basically amounted to sending me on an impossible task in order to get rid of me.”

“That does sound like something I would do,” Silverlake nodded sagely. “Which brings me to my next point – why are you so certain that I actually desire these eggs? Maybe I just sent you on a fool’s errand to waste your time, and didn’t actually care about the outcome.”

Well, the truth was that Zorian didn’t know this for certain. He was making an educated guess, based on things like her clearly having tried to acquire the eggs herself in the past. But she didn’t have to know that.

“I’m an empath,” he told her. “So I am certain you do want these eggs very, very much.”

Silverlake scowled at him.

“A mind mage,” she spat out in disgust. “I have the most rotten luck, I swear. I only like mind magic when I’m the one using it on others! Fine, fine, I admit it, I do want the grey hunter’s eggs… but they’re not as valuable as you might hope!”

“Meaning?” Zorian asked calmly.

“I have an important project that requires them, but it’s only one of the two critical components that I lack. If you had brought both of them, I would really be desperate to make a deal with you. But it’s a shame, a shame, for without the other critical component, the eggs are merely… interesting.”

Zach rolled his eyes at her.

“You’re just like Zorian described you,” he said. “Every time one of your tasks is accomplished, you come up with another one.”

“Well that’s not very fair,” she said reasonably. “I don’t remember ever giving you a task, after all. But that aside, I never said I will not trade for the eggs. I just said you better not hope to swindle something actually good from me in exchange for something that minor.”

‘Minor’, she says. Right.

“Out of curiosity, what is this other critical component?” Zorian asked.

“Bones and certain organs of a giant brown salamander that has grown past a certain size,” Silverlake said.

“That’s it?” Zach asked incredulously. “Those things are everywhere around here!”

“It’s not as simple as it sounds,” Silverlake said. “Yes, there are plenty of them to be found in the rivers and creeks around us, but they simply aren’t big enough… not mature enough. Giant brown salamanders never die of old age, you see. They simply get bigger. But they are a fairly weak type of magical creature, and they grow really slowly past a certain point, so almost none of them reach the size I need them to be. I need a salamander that has survived for at least one hundred years, and that’s incredibly rare.”

“They can’t be bred in captivity?” Zach asked.

Silverlake looked at him like he just asked the dumbest thing ever.

“Who would be willing to wait a hundred years for a creature to grow up?” she asked. “Nobody has that much time, boy. Besides, they’d probably all get sick and die before the hundred years are up. I have no idea how to go about raising giant salamanders.”

Zorian couldn’t help but remember how his first meeting with Silverlake had gone. If he remembered correctly, he had just been attacked by a particularly large giant brown salamander and had killed it in self-defense. This was the catalyst that had caused Silverlake to finally reveal herself to him. Back then he had blithely given her the salamander corpse, not even realizing how valuable it was… and Silverlake, after receiving something so apparently valuable from him, still decided to send him on a bunch of fool’s errands without even hearing him out.

That withered old bitch!

“Let’s stop dancing around the issue for a moment,” Zorian said, swallowing down his annoyance in favor of actually accomplishing something. “This is our offer: the grey hunter’s egg sack in exchange for a month’s worth of instruction in pocket dimension creation. What do you say?”

“Oh? Pocket dimension creation?” Silverlake said contemplatively, tapping her chin with her index finger. “So that’s what you’re after. That’s a pretty exotic and high-level skill. Are you sure you’re even capable of learning it?”

Oh, good – she didn’t deny she possessed the skill in question. Zorian had kind of been afraid that her hideout was just something she had found through luck and that she wasn’t actually capable of creating pocket dimensions herself. It would have been a pain trying to find someone else who had that kind of expertise.

In any case, Zorian didn’t try to convince Silverlake with words – instead, he simply opened a dimensional gateway straight to Koth right then and there. Silverlake was instantly on guard when he started casting a spell, but didn’t try to stop him. About half-way through, she seemed to realize what he was doing and relaxed. Instead, she got an intrigued look on her face, especially when the dimensional passage itself sprang into existence beside Zorian.

She circled the gate a few times, peering intently at it, before turning to Zorian again.

“Well, you are full of surprises. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stable, well-crafted dimensional passage,” Silverlake reluctantly admitted.

Zorian smiled. That was only natural. After all, Zorian’s gate creation skills were a fusion of more orthodox gate creation skills that Xvim had taught him, as well as the insights Zorian had made from studying the Ibasan permanent gates and seeing the Bakora Gates in action. He doubted many people had had the opportunity to study so many different gate creation methods.

“As you can see, I’m quite good at dimensionalism,” Zorian said. “And so is my friend Zach, here. You don’t have to worry about us not being able to follow your instructions.”

“Well that’s good,” Silverlake said with a wide, happy grin. “Then that just leaves the question of payment. You see… I don’t think the grey hunter’s eggs will be enough to pay for this.”

Zorian didn’t bat an eye at this. He’d fully expected Silverlake to discard their initial offer and reach out for more. Someone as greedy and insatiable as she was would never agree to a person’s first offer.

It was good then, that he had many more things to offer.

“I could dispute that, but I am feeling generous today,” said Zorian. He motioned for Zach to take out the orb of the first emperor, which he promptly did. “What my friend is holding is a portable pocket dimension holding an ancient ruin. It’s a lost artifact from the Age of Gods, probably impossible to reproduce in modern times. If you agree to this deal, we will allow you to study the artifact for the duration of our lessons. I’m sure you can imagine how beneficial this could be for your own pocket dimension creation skills.”

Silverlake clearly could imagine, because she stared at the orb with such intensity that Zorian was afraid she would attack them both on the spot and try to take it from them. But after a few seconds, she shook her head and tore her eyes away from the orb.

“Throw in that modified Gate spell of yours and we have a deal,” Silverlake said.

“Ah, no, I can’t agree to that,” said Zorian with fake sadness. “Still, that spell isn’t completely out of the question… if you agree to some additional concessions.”

Silverlake scowled at him, but Zorian completely ignored her displeasure. If she could be greedy, so could he. He could tell she really wanted that Gate spell, so why not get everything he could out of it?

“I suppose you have something specific in mind?” she asked him.

“I want to acquire the ability of soul perception,” Zorian said. “And unfortunately, the potion made out of dirge moth chrysalises is not an option.”

“Yes, that potion doesn’t keep well at all,” Silverlake confirmed. “It can last six months at most, and even that’s pushing it. But really, why are you bothering me with such a minor request? Just go kill some people. That’s how nearly all necromancers get that ability these days. Even if you have no talent whatsoever at soul magic, you should be able to get it after twenty or so sacrifices.”

“That isn’t an option,” Zorian said, glaring at her lightly. “At all. If I have to ritually murder people to get the ability, I’d rather give up on the idea.”

“Bah,” Silverlake spat. “What’s a touchy-feely, squeamish kid like you trying to get soul perception for, then? You’ll never achieve anything worth a damn in soul magic with that attitude.”

“I may need it to save my life,” Zorian told her. “It’s not something you need to worry about. The question is: can you do it? Can you make me a potion that can grant me soul perception in less than a month’s time?”

“Hmph,” Silverlake scoffed. “Do you even know how difficult it is to acquire soul perception through a mere potion?”

“Yes,” Zorian said decisively. “I really do. That’s why I came to you for help.”

Truthfully, most of what Zorian knew about that came from Sudomir, who had been extensively interrogated for his knowledge in previous restarts. Alanic contributed some, but the scarred battle priest was cagey about his knowledge of necromancy and outright admitted to be inferior to Sudomir in that regard. Anyway… apparently, all souls had some measure of soul perception in them by default, but it was tightly locked and unavailable for use. Alanic’s explanation for this was that soul perception was something the gods intended to be only activated after death, to help guide the soul to its destination, and that its premature activation on the material plane was ‘dangerously tempting’. Thus, the gods sealed it away until death, lest it lead people to heresy and sin. Sudomir’s explanation was that this ability was something inherent to souls themselves, and that the gods had selfishly sealed it away because they were afraid of humanity’s power and ingenuity. Considering necromancers tended to be wildly immoral, Zorian was kind of leaning towards Alanic’s side of the argument.

It didn’t matter, though. Even Alanic admitted that soul perception wasn’t evil by itself. The Triumvirate Church urged people not to deliberately seek it out, but at the same time they encouraged its use among their priesthood. Every high-ranking priest and quite a few lower-ranking ones had some measure of soul perception. With the disappearance of the gods, the Triumvirate Church had to find a way to make up for their loss of divinely-granted powers… and granting soul perception abilities to their priesthood on a mass scale was one of the methods used. It was the Triumvirate Church who developed and perfected the dirge moth potion – the most affordable and reliable alchemical method of gaining soul perception to date. It was just that the recipe for the potion was so simple and distributed so widely that it eventually leaked outside the Church hierarchy and became wildly employed in necromantic circles.

Zorian once felt it was strange that a potion only available in 23-year intervals would be so attractive to people… but then he found a fragmentary recipe for an alternative potion in Sudomir’s memories and immediately realized why. The ingredients required absolutely couldn’t be acquired either in stores or on the black market. These were the sort of things one needed to personally seek out in the wild and dangerous corners of the world… and most of the ingredients came attached to creatures possessing some method of attacking the soul. Even for Zach and Zorian those things were a major danger. In order to make a potion outlined in Sudomir’s memories, one would have to possess top-notch connections or a great deal of time to track down all the ingredients, have enough power to claim them, and then find someone with enough alchemical skill to make a complicated potion they had probably never made in their life and succeed on their first try.

On top of that, all such potions were based on the same basic principle – they brought the imbiber on the very brink of death, only to pull them back at the very last moment. Very much like that ‘special training’ Alanic had put him through, only even more extreme. Needless to say, if you made that kind of potion incorrectly, you were highly likely to die on the spot after drinking it. Dirge moths may only come every twenty-three years, but they were rather abundant when they did show up, thus allowing alchemists to actually practice with the ingredients.

Of course, there were other methods of getting soul perception. They just weren’t very useful for him.

For instance, one could simply be born with it. Some people had innate soul sight, called ‘ghost eyes’ by the scholars, much like he had been born innately empathic and capable of instinctive mind magic. He obviously wasn’t one of these. Some people, after almost dying, unlocked the ability by accident. But this was something that couldn’t be counted on, since nobody knew how that really worked. Finally, there was a really simple, accessible method involving a sacrificial ritual. All one needed to do was forge a temporary soul bond with a person and then kill them. Slowly. While keeping them conscious, because of course it wouldn’t work otherwise. This was the method Sudomir used, and the method that most budding necromancers used, since it was cheap and easy to set up.

Having experienced what the procedure entailed from Sudomir’s memories, Zorian knew he didn’t have what it took to go through that. He was, as Silverlake said, way too squeamish to basically torture a dozen people to death.

“If you know how difficult those potions are, then surely you understand that making one of those in a month is nonsense, even for me. Just gathering the ingredients alone–”

“Whatever ingredients you need, we will procure for you,” said Zach, cutting her off. “You only need to put them together into something that works.”

“Hmm,” Silverlake said, humming to herself thoughtfully. “You did kill the grey hunter while not damaging its egg sack in the slightest. That speaks well of your combat skills. Still, gathering ingredients for an old-fashioned soul perception potion will require you to have at least elementary soul defenses.”

“We have those,” Zach told her.

“You do?” she asked, sounding surprised. “Well fine then. So long as you take care of ingredient collection, I guess I can make you a potion of soul perception. But only that! I will not give you the recipe or allow you to watch the creation process itself.”

“Acceptable,” Zorian nodded. He waited for a few seconds, but it did not seem like she would say anything else. “So, do we have a deal then? In exchange for the grey hunter’s eggs, research access to the portable pocket dimension in our possession and my expertise with the Gate spell, you agree to teach us pocket dimension creation and make us a potion of soul perception.”

Silverlake stood silently, mulling the deal in her head. She frowned and grimaced to herself, occasionally breaking into indecipherable muttering and strange gestures. Zorian watched her suspiciously, worried that she was trying to slip in some stealthy spellcasting in all that nonsense, but it all seemed to be completely innocuous. Well, as innocuous as that kind of unstable behavior could be, anyway.

“I have a question,” she finally said. Zorian motioned her to continue. “Earlier, you told me that wild story about this month endlessly repeating itself and how I lose all memory of it while you don’t. Wouldn’t that mean that everything I gain in this deal is illusionary, while everything you gain from it will actually stay with you?”

“I thought you didn’t believe in that,” Zorian remarked.

“Let’s pretend I do for a moment,” Silverlake said without batting an eye. “Am I wrong?”

“You’re not wrong,” Zorian shook his head. “In the grand scheme of things, this deal heavily favors us. Everything you gain will be gone at the end of this month, while the knowledge we gain and the unlocking of my soul perception will stay with us for future use.”

“Then… don’t you think it’s stupid to tell me that?” Silverlake asked him curiously. She didn’t seem to be actually angry, merely interested in the logic he used to arrive to his decision. “I mean, I don’t actually believe that nonsense you’re spouting, but if I did, it would make me totally unwilling to accept this deal of yours.”

“I’m thinking towards the future,” Zorian told her calmly. “It’s not possible for me to absorb your pocket dimension creation skills in less than a month. We both know this. I will be coming over here with this same deal again and again, and I’ll need to continue from where we left off in the previous restart. I might be able to fool you at first with lies of having learned the basics from someone else, but that will quickly get untenable. At some point, I will have to explain how I know skills that are obviously yours… even though you don’t remember teaching me.”

“Well, that’s all good but… how does this help you right now?” Silverlake asked expectantly.

“Right now would be a good time to discover something I can use to convince the future you I am telling the truth,” Zorian said. “You might not believe me, exactly, but you’re clearly willing to entertain the idea for a time… as your current line of questioning amply proves.”

She scowled at him, but he ignored her displeasure.

“Basically, I am hoping you will eventually tell me something that I can show off to your future self in order to convince her that the time loop is real and we really have met before… even if she has no memory of it.”

Silverlake stared at him for a moment before breaking into cackling laughter.

Zorian sighed. He really didn’t see what was so funny about that.

“Boy, you are madder than I am!” She finally wheezed out, punching herself in the chest a couple of times to get her laughing under control. “Anyway, I accept your deal! And since I’m in a good mood right now, I’ll throw in a reward for you! You want a secret? I’ll give you a good one. The reason I need those grey hunter’s eggs and the body of a hundred-year-old giant salamander is because I’m working on a potion of youth.”

“You’re trying to stave off death from old age?” Zach asked, surprised. “Wow. That’s an incredibly advanced skill. I heard from Zorian you were a master alchemist, but I didn’t know you were that good.”

“Silly boy,” Silverlake chuckled. “I’m not trying to stave off old age. I already have that.”

They were both struck speechless at the admission. An immortal!?

“Ha ha!” Silverlake cackled. “Surprised, aren’t you? Yes, I could persist like this indefinitely. Don’t get fooled by my dashing good looks – I’m positively ancient.”

“How ancient?” Zach asked cautiously.

“It’s impolite to inquire about a lady’s age,” she said with mock bashfulness. “But it’s a three digit number, I can tell you that much. Anyway, I did a fine job of stopping time from ravaging my body, but this isn’t good enough for me. I want my youth back. And with those spider eggs you brought me, I’m only one step away from that goal.”

A short silence descended on the scene, Zach and Zorian being at a loss what to say about that.

“Pretty good secret, isn’t it?” Silverlake said.

She told them all this just so she could brag about how amazing she was, didn’t she?

“Yes,” Zorian coughed. “Yes, it is. Anyway, about this trade…”

“Come back here two days from now,” Silverlake said dismissively. “You came here completely unannounced, so you’ve caught me completely unprepared. My house is a total mess right now, completely unsuitable for entertaining guests. I need to get some extra chairs out of the basement, dust off the furniture and maybe prepare some refreshments. I think I still have some of that mushroom cake I experimented with a few years back. I know that sounds a little dodgy, but it keeps really well and it gives you such wonderful dreams…”

“The eggs stay with us until we meet again, then,” Zorian warned her, completely ignoring her banter.

“Hmph,” Silverlake scoffed. “Fine, be that way. Paranoid brats. Make sure to stash them in a dry, dark place with plenty of ambient mana around or they’ll get ruined and the deal will be off!”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Zorian nodded. The eggs were a lot simpler to preserve than he feared, then. “Just to make sure, this thing is safe, right? The eggs won’t hatch in a few hours and release a bunch of tough little spider monsters everywhere, right?”

“No, no, no… well, they shouldn’t…” Silverlake said, hesitating slightly.

“We’re stashing them well away from any populated areas,” Zach said decisively. “And when we go to retrieve it, we’re sending one of your simulacrums in first.”

“Hey!” the simulacrum currently present protested.

“Stop that,” Silverlake snapped at them. “It will be fine. Trust me.”

All three of them gave Silverlake an unamused look, clearly telling her how they felt about her reliability and trustworthiness.

“Kids these days, no respect for their elders…” she muttered angrily. “Well, off with you then! Go away. This has been such a pleasant meeting thus far, it’s best to end things on a high note. Don’t forget to bring gifts the next time we meet! Honestly, I can’t believe you two came to visit someone and didn’t even bring them a bottle of brandy or something. Don’t you know that gift-giving is an important tradition? No, don’t answer that, I was just lecturing you, not actually asking you for your opinion. Go. Shoo!”

And thus their meeting with Silverlake ended – with her shooing them away like a bunch of naughty cats loitering around her backyard. Still, they’d largely achieved what they came for, so Zorian was happy.

He just hoped she was actually going to keep to her end of the bargain.

* * *

When Zach and Zorian came to visit Silverlake again, she was standing next to a humble cottage, messily butchering a pair of giant brown salamanders. These were smaller specimens, incomparable to the giant that had tried to eat Zorian so long ago, so Zorian assumed they were not the sort she needed to complete her potion of youth… but apparently she still had some use for even younger salamanders. In any case, she welcomed them with a wide smile and an immediate demand to hand over the spider eggs. They did so, patiently waiting as she ignored them entirely for over a minute in favor of inspecting the eggs for damage and whatever else she was looking for. She ushered them into her cottage, which proved to be less of an actual cottage and more of a disguise for the entrance to her pocket dimension.

Well, the inner layer of her pocket dimension. The cottage itself was also hidden in its own pocket dimension, which is why Zorian couldn’t find it by just wandering the forest. But the cottage dimension was just the outer layer of her hidden world, one that could be deployed (thereby becoming actually accessible to visitors) and compressed (seemingly disappearing from the world entirely) on a whim. Nested inside this cottage dimension was another, bigger pocket dimension, which served as Silverlake’s actual home and base of operations.

In Silverlake’s own words, the cottage was ‘just a front to fool idiot visitors’.

As for the contents of the inner layer, it consisted of three things: a nice, luxurious two-story house, an expansive herb garden full of rare magical plants and a heavily warded alchemical workshop where she did most of her work.

Yes, a powerful witch that was clearly very proud of her traditions and made distinctions between alchemy and ‘potion making’ had a fully equipped alchemical workshop that would be familiar to any conventional alchemist out in the major cities. Zorian couldn’t help but find that a little amusing.

It had been five days since then, and thus far Silverlake was keeping to her side of the deal. Zorian was afraid she would try to shirk her duties as an instructor, giving them inscrutable training regimens that weren’t certain to work before disappearing into her workshop for the rest of the day, but this didn’t happen. Probably because they were deep inside her home base and there was a real danger that they could torch her home and herb garden if they felt cheated by her. Or maybe because she really wanted the Gate spell modifications and knew that the level of cooperation she could expect out of Zach and Zorian in regards to that would directly correlate to the level of dedication she showed when teaching them how to make pocket dimensions. Whatever her reasons, Silverlake actually gave them long, exhaustive explanations and even created a few fist-sized pocket spaces in front of them as a demonstration.

Creating a pocket dimension was deceptively simple. The basic idea was to stretch and fold a chosen volume of space into a miniature spatial bottle and sort of… cap it. This ‘cap’ was called the anchor point and it prevented the folded space from snapping back into its natural form the moment it was no longer being forced into shape, as space was naturally wont to do. After that, the pocket dimension could be gradually inflated to the maximum size the anchor point could bear.

Obviously, the creation of an anchor point was the most important part of pocket dimension creation. It was the place where the dimension was connected to the main reality, and served as both an entrance and as a foundation upon which the stability of the dimension ultimately rested. Its size, power and sophistication determined how big and stable a pocket dimension could be. If it was ever destroyed, the dimension attached to it would quickly meet the same fate.

Neither Zach nor Zorian had yet managed to successfully create a stable anchor point, no matter how minor. The process was every bit as hard as learning how to cast the Gate spell, except it required even more mana and attention to detail. Zorian was somewhat annoyed to realize that Zach would probably get the grasp of the ability far sooner than he would, simply because he had far more mana to burn on training than Zorian did.

It didn’t help that Zorian had heavily stunted his ability to recover mana by maintaining six different simulacrums. Funny how he invented a brand new method of using simulacrums, halving the maintenance cost of each one… and then promptly doubled the amount of simulacrums he kept going at any particular time.

Currently, Zorian was sitting on the ground in the Silverlake’s pocket dimension, reviewing reports from his simulacrums while he waited for his mana reserves to recover. One of the simulacrums was in Koth, brainstorming how to get to the other pieces of the Key with Daimen. Another was raiding the academy library for restricted theory books on advanced dimensionalism. The third one was arranging a trade deal with one of the minor experts they were approaching for work. The fourth and fifth ones were working on upgrades to the simulacrum’s golem frames. Not quite something he’d invest so heavily in normally, but he had little choice – all simulacrums went on a strike until he agreed to permanently station two of the copies on that particular task.

Finally, the sixth and last simulacrum was working on something very delicate and possibly dangerous – mental enhancements.

It was pretty low-key for now. He didn’t want an insane copy of him rampaging around, or worse, going after him. Additionally, the simulacrums were still essentially him, which meant they were not at all okay with thoughtlessly risking their minds. Taking into account the possible risks to his own safety, and the disturbing possibility that his own simulacrums might mutiny if he pushed things too far in this direction, Zorian had ordered the last simulacrum to limit himself to self-inflicted illusions for now. Things like figuring out how to block out noise and other distractions, add highlights and reminders to his perception, and so on. It was a very orthodox, very safe sub-field of mental enhancements. Because it only modified the caster’s senses, not their thoughts and emotions, there was only so much one could mess up, and little of it was unfixable. Human mages had done quite a lot of work in this regard, mostly because they had been trying to make divinations that could display their output though illusions projected on the caster’s senses. Of course, Zorian also consulted the various aranean webs too. The Luminous Advocates and Perfect Phantasm Crafters were the two webs most helpful to this project, though he had also received notable help from several otherwise minor webs such as Band of Fog and Dreaming Refuge.

“Boy, I told you to keep an eye on that cauldron,” Silverlake snapped at him, breaking him out of his thoughts. “It’s going to boil over if you keep daydreaming like that. Quit it. It’s unprofessional.”

“Ugh,” Zorian grunted unhappily, throwing a glance at the huge iron cauldron to his left. Silverlake did basically rope him into helping her with her alchemy – sorry, potion making – while he recovered. However it was only supposed to be for 10 minutes and she had only come back now to take over, after at least half an hour had passed.

“We never agreed I would be your personal assistant when we made the trade. I should start charging you for these things,” Zorian muttered, just loud enough for her to hear him. She pretended he didn’t say anything. He raised his voice at her. “What is that cauldron even doing? If you’re going to recruit me in your projects, you should at least tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s an experiment,” Silverlake said distractedly, too busy cleaning some kind of carrot-like wild root to look him in the eye while speaking. “I’m sure you noticed me chopping up those runty salamanders in the last few days. I’m trying to artificially concentrate the salamander’s regenerative essence to see if I can create a workable substitute for the hundred-year-old salamander that I lack. Probably won’t work, but eh. It’s worth a try.”

“Regenerative essence?” Zorian said, frowning. “Is that what the giant salamander is for?”

“Of course,” Silverlake said. “They can regrow anything, repair any damage. If you carve them carefully enough, both halves will regrow into fully healthy, functional copies. Useful thing, that. Most healing magic simply enhances and accelerates the body's natural healing abilities, so it doesn’t work well on some wounds. The salamander’s regenerative essence, if concentrated enough and combined with some other ingredients… why, it might even turn back the clock and undo the effect of old age!”

“Hmm,” Zorian hummed thoughtfully. Okay, so this was slightly more interesting than he assumed. Still… “So why are you doing it like this, doing the procedure under the open sky, in a simple iron cauldron? You have an alchemy workshop that nearly every professional alchemist would be envious of. Why not use it?”

“Hmph. Shows what you know,” Silverlake said. “I’m doing it this way because this is the superior option. It’s good enough for the job. Doing this with a complicated alchemical setup wouldn’t get stuff done any faster or give better results – it would just inflict wear and tear on delicate equipment and be a nightmare to clean up afterwards.”

Zorian had nothing to say to that. Her argument did make a lot of sense, after all.

They both stayed silent for a while. Eventually Silverlake finally finished preparing the wild roots and unceremoniously dumped them into the boiling cauldron. She watched the liquid bubble for a few seconds, before nodding sagely to herself and adding a couple of wooden planks to the fire.

“Do you know what the difference between alchemy and potion making is, boy?” Silverlake asked suddenly, glancing at him with narrowed eyes.

Zorian was tempted to tell her that potion making was just a subset of alchemy, but he knew she would consider that a wrong answer.

She was asking about potion making in the sense that ancient witches understood it, not in the sense that was currently taught in schools.

“Potion making focuses on using a cauldron, and nothing else, to make their wares,” Zorian said.

“Yes,” Silverlake agreed. “Sounds very foolish, doesn’t it? A botched potion can release clouds of poisonous or mutagenic gas, explode in your face or splash all over you and melt your skin. Hell, a correctly made potion can be just as bad! Very often, old witches carried a mark of their minor failures in the form of scars, strange odors and skin diseases from the years of exposure to magical fumes and concoctions. Modern alchemy is so much safer, so much more precise. Why, then, do you think the old witches do things in the way they did?”

Zorian cocked his head to the side, trying to figure out what she was getting at. What’s that got to do with anything?

“Because it was… cheaper?” he tried.

“Ha. Close,” Silverlake said. “It’s because alchemy, in its current form, requires an entire society built to enable it. Somebody has to build all the vials, containers, heaters, and other equipment. Somebody needs to grow, gather and track down the ingredients used in it. Somebody needs to transport and distribute it to those that need it… or have the right connections to use it. Somebody needs to guard the workshops full of valuable equipment from thieves and various miscreants. The old witches had access to none of that, so they had to make do with chucking things into a big iron cauldron and eyeballing things. It is, as you said, cheaper. Cheaper in terms of money and also cheaper in terms of social infrastructure needed to support it.”

“I see,” Zorian said after a while.

“These days there are virtually no witches that do not use alchemy in some form, in addition to their traditional cauldron-based skills,” Silverlake continued. “The ancient covens would have considered us all heretics, I bet. But the ancient covens have all died out to my knowledge, and that’s hardly an accident. Times change. The covens didn’t and paid the price for it. Alchemy has its place… as does potion making. Don’t be so quick to look down on it.”

“You made that entire long-winded speech just to deliver that little lecture at the end of it, didn’t you?” Zorian huffed in annoyance.

“You’re going to remember it better this way,” Silverlake cackled. She prodded the bubbling liquid in the cauldron with an iron ladle she used to mix it. “Well, whatever, I think we can leave this be for a few hours. You recovered yet, boy? I say, you sure take your time with your rest – it’s a miracle you got this far with such an awful work ethic. Why, when I was your age, we…”

Zorian sighed and got up, doing his best to drown out her moralizing. He sent a quick message through his soul to the simulacrum working on implementing sensory filters, telling it to work quickly. He was going to need those skills as soon as possible.

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