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Chapter 077
Testing

Primordials were strange, enigmatic creatures. They were supposedly first-born children of the primordial dragon from which the world was fashioned, ancient and powerful. In life, their abilities had rivaled those of the gods themselves. In death, they had spawned a multitude of lesser primordials to continue their struggle. One would think that such fearsome beings and everything related to them would be vividly remembered by history, but this was not the case. In his search for primordial prisons outside Cyoria, Zorian had consulted many church documents, historical records and elementals, largely in vain. Primordials may have been powerful and frightening in their heyday, but they had been sealed away thousands of years ago. That was a lot of time for information to be forgotten, especially since the gods had actively tried to limit knowledge of them and their prisons while they had still been active in the world. Thus, finding any substantial information on them was quite hard.

Moreover, even when such information was found, it was hard to gauge how much of it was reliable and how much of it was pure fabrication. A lot of the stories that bothered going into the details of the nature of primordials were mutually contradictory, and there was no way to test any of them to see which one was closer to the truth than the others.

“In other words, you know virtually nothing about primordials except that they exist and that one of them is imprisoned in Cyoria,” Silverlake concluded after hearing their explanation.

“Yeah, pretty much,” Zach confirmed. Although they were searching for the locations of other primordial prisons in their free time, that hadn’t produced much in the way of actual results. “What does this have to do about confirming the truth of our story, though?”

“Patience, boy, patience,” Silverlake urged smugly. “A house must be built from the foundation up. In order to answer that question, I must first show you the truth about primordials and the way they were imprisoned…”

Oh? She could actually answer those questions? Zorian was torn between excitement and a healthy dose of caution. On one hand, this was a powerful witch that has lived through more than a century – surely she wouldn’t be making claims like that without a good reason to be confident? On the other hand… well, it was Silverlake.

After some thought, he decided to voice his concerns to the old witch in front of him.

“Ignorant brat,” she complained. “Do you think I’d be joking about something this serious!?”

Zach and Zorian shared a knowing look between each other.

“Well… yeah,” Zach said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Now that you mention it, that does sound like something I would derive dark amusement from,” Silverlake mused, rubbing her chin with her hand as she stared at the tree branches above her.

“Not exactly something you should be proud of,” Zorian pointed out unhappily.

“Anyway, do you want to hear what I have to say or not?” Silverlake asked loudly, abandoning her musing pose in favor of folding her hands over her chest and looking at them both defiantly.

“Sure we do,” Zorian said. As annoying as the old witch was, she had some very unique skills and insights that were almost impossible to find elsewhere. “Let’s hear it.”

Silverlake stayed silent for a few seconds. Before either Zach or Zorian could say anything about that, the entrance to her secret hideout flared into life again and another Silverlake stepped out of it, carrying a large brown book in her hands.

Zorian raised an eyebrow at this. Silverlake having some kind of duplicate was not that surprising. There were lots of spells that duplicated the appearance of a caster in some way, after all. Even if it was an actual simulacrum, Zorian still wouldn’t find it unusual, since Silverlake was clearly proficient in soul magic. The really interesting question was which Silverlake was the real thing: the one they’ve been talking to all this time or the one that had just walked out of her dimensional hideout?

He activated his newly-acquired soul perception and took a look.

It was not easy for Zorian to use his soul perception. Training it had been slow and frustrating thus far, though he had been told by Alanic that he was doing just fine by normal standards. He’d had the ability for less than a month, so it was to be expected that his control over it was crude and that he had trouble interpreting what it was telling him. Zorian imagined this was how non-psychics felt when they tried to train their non-structured mind magic into something usable.

Still, identifying whether something in front of him had a soul or not was well within his modest capabilities. With that in mind, he focused his soul perception on Silverlake and immediately realized that she indeed had a soul. She wasn’t an illusion, a remote-controlled puppet or a simulacrum, then. So they had actually been talking to the real Silverlake up till now; that was nice to know. Just to be thorough, he shifted his soul perception to the approaching book-carrying Silverlake and…

She had a soul too. What?

Zorian shifted his attention between one Silverlake and the other repeatedly, trying to work out what was happening here. It was no use, though – his soul perception simply wasn’t sophisticated enough to unravel this mystery and he didn’t want to start casting analytical divinations at the old witch and her weird clone. Blatantly scanning someone without their explicit permission was widely considered to be rather rude and insulting behavior.

The other Silverlake soon reached the one Zach and Zorian had been talking to and gave her the book she was carrying. The first Silverlake glanced at the book, nodded slightly and then snapped her fingers.

The other Silverlake seemingly imploded, badly startling both Zach and Zorian, her form collapsing into a smoky black ball. The ball existed for only a moment before reforming itself into a large black bird, which promptly hopped onto Silverlake’s shoulder. It was a raven, Zorian realized.

‘Of course!’ Zorian thought, slapping himself in the forehead. Silverlake had a raven familiar! The link between a mage and their familiar allowed both of them to assume the form of one another really easily, provided that the mage knew the proper spells.

And Silverlake no doubt knew the proper spells, because familiar magic was one of the things that witches were known to be really fond of. Hell, she’d even found the way to shield the raven’s mind from scrutiny, preventing Zorian from easily identifying it as a shapeshifted animal.

Zorian opened his mouth to say something but was interrupted when Silverlake tried to blow away the layer of dust on the cover of the book and ended up sending herself into a coughing fit due to all the dust suddenly flying into her face.

The raven cawed indignantly at this, flapping his wings a couple of times for emphasis.

“Shut up,” Silverlake said to the raven in between her coughing and wheezing. She glanced towards Zach and Zorian. “And why are you two just standing around like that!? Come closer and take this blasted thing away already! Who do you think I brought it for? Do you think I wanted to refresh my memory or something?”

Zorian stepped closer and Silverlake immediately pushed the large leather-bound tome into his hands. He grunted softly and took a step back, caught off-guard by her sudden movement and the book’s considerable weight. Damn, this thing was heavy…

“Read this and everything will become clear,” Silverlake said, finally getting her breathing under control.

Zorian eyed the heavy leather book in his hands suspiciously. The cover was brown and non-descript, with a title that proclaimed, in plain white letters, that this was a collection of cookie recipes. Flipping the random pages of the book seemed to reinforce this claim.

He glanced at Silverlake and saw that both she and the raven perched on her shoulder were eying him closely, waiting for his reaction.

With a small sigh, Zorian swiped his hand across the book and cast an appropriate dispel, shredding the illusion covering the book into pieces. Following that, he was confronted with a lot less innocuous title: Unspeakable Cults, Volume Four.

“You just can’t resist pulling these kinds of tricks all the time, can you?” Zorian asked rhetorically.

“You made a lot of tall claims today,” Silverlake shrugged. “It’s only natural for me to test them every now and then in small ways. If you two are really a bunch of old time travelers like you claim to be, a simple illusion wouldn’t have posed a problem for you. Besides, I can’t exactly leave a book like this out in the open without disguising it somehow…”

“What do you mean?” Zach frowned.

Unspeakable Cults is one of the most widely banned series of books circulating around Altazia and Xlotic,” Zorian explained, idly leafing through the book. All sorts of ghastly drawings and descriptions immediately assaulted his eyes. “It was written by an anonymous author that had a penchant for infiltrating secretive cults and mage organizations so he could observe their ceremonies and activities. No one is quite sure how he did it, but considering the furor the books created, it’s clear he didn’t make it all up. Anyway, after infiltrating all these cults and watching them for gods know how long, he wrote a series of eight books that go into great detail about what he had seen. Every debauchery he had seen, every messed up sacrifice or morally-bankrupt experiment is described in great detail, and he even illustrated some scenes with drawings and diagrams. Although the books contain no actual spells or ritual setups, they have been banned almost everywhere as blasphemous, degenerate filth.”

He closed the book, eying it in great distaste. He really didn’t want to read this stuff…

“I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what page I should be looking at?” Zorian asked Silverlake, staring at her pleadingly.

Silverlake just grinned at him nastily. Damn witch…

Zorian glanced towards Zach speculatively, but the boy immediately shook his head at him before he could even open his mouth.

“No, no, no,” Zach said quickly, extending his arms in front of him in a warding gesture. “Sorry Zorian, but this definitely sounds like a job for you. You have a lot higher tolerance for this kind of stuff than I do.”

Ugh. As much as Zorian hated to admit this, his fellow time traveler kind of had a point. Reading the minds of high-ranking cultists, Sudomir, Ibasan invaders and others had shown him enough of the dark side of humanity that he had been numbed to the horror of it all to a large extent.

He still didn’t want to wade into a book like this one, though, so he decided to get a little creative. He started casting divination after divination spell at the book, trying to divine the section of the book that Silverlake wanted him to read. This was harder than it sounded, because the book was heavily warded against divinations and did not ever mention primordials by name, but Zorian was very good at divinations by now. Especially these kinds of divinations. He’d had his simulacrums in charge of researching mountains of documentation for obscure clues for quite a while now, so a task like this was pure routine by this point.

After five minutes or so he found the section that seemed right and flipped the book open. Both Silverlake and Zach peered over his shoulder to look at the page he had picked.

“You’re no fun, boy,” Silverlake said, scowling at him.

Zorian took that as an admission that he had indeed found the right page to start at and began to read.

The chapter in question described a small cult of mages, ‘somewhere in Xlotic’, which worshipped an entity imprisoned behind some kind of ‘dimensional veil’. They did this by capturing unwary travelers, implanting some sort of magical worms into their brain and then forcibly establishing contact between their mind and the mind of the imprisoned entity. Normally, mental contact with the entity resulted in quick insanity as one’s mind was overwhelmed by the flood of incomprehensible thoughts and images, but the chemicals released by the worms as they fed on the victim’s brain tissue somehow allowed them to last longer under this assault. Drugged out of their minds to keep them talking and half-insane, the victims would then spend the next couple of hours screaming, pleading, cursing and babbling gibberish while the cultists diligently wrote down their feverish ravings for later study.

After repeating this process gods know how many times, the cultists eventually assembled a fair amount of information about this entity, which the cultists called ‘the Golden-Feathered Worm’. To Zorian’s eyes, it appeared clear that this Golden-Feathered Worm was actually an imprisoned primordial, even if the book never actually identified it as such.

Because of the relatively unpleasant nature of the text, the somewhat archaic language the book was written in and the unhinged nature of the ‘insights’ obtained by the cultists, it was tempting to just dismiss all of their findings as delusional gibberish. However, after re-reading the chapter a handful of times and thinking of it in some detail, he felt there was some actual insight hidden amidst the insanity. The victim’s mutterings of ‘eyes between spaces’, ‘time that moves in braids and spirals’, ‘bones that stretched inside and outside’ and other such nonsense all hinted at the idea that the Golden-Feathered Worm was a very dimensionally complex being.

‘The path of the Golden-Feathered Worm is the path of the self as the universe,’ the book said. ‘Indeed, the rest of his kind is also as such: each one a world unto itself, their flesh but a thin, porous cloak to hide the depths beneath.’

That was interesting, to say the least. The book was basically saying that primordials were not really creatures in the way Zorian commonly understood it, but more like living miniature universes. He… didn’t know what to think about that. It sounded crazy, and considering where it had come from, Zorian would normally dismiss the idea without a second thought.

He handed the book to Zach, who had given up on trying to read over his shoulder a while ago, but would probably still want to see what the book had to say. Zorian couldn’t wait to see his face when he got to the lovingly illustrated description of the worm implantation procedure.

“So?” Silverlake asked, not bothering to wait for Zach to read the book too. “What do you think?”

“I presume you’re referring to the idea of primordials being living universes masquerading as flesh-and-blood beings?” Zorian asked.

“Wait, really?” Zach asked incredulously, slowly leafing through the book. He was going through it too fast so Zorian assumed he was only skimming the text instead of meticulously poring over it like Zorian had done. “How does that work?”

“Read the book and you might get your answer,” Silverlake said blandly. What a lie. Zorian had read that chapter several times over and he still had no idea how that could possibly work. “But yes, that is what I was getting at.”

“Great,” Zach said. “But what does that-”

“I think we are living inside a primordial,” Silverlake said.

There was a brief pause as they both digested this statement.

“I think you’re going to have to explain that a little,” Zach said slowly, letting the book hang by his side for the moment so he can focus on her better.

“Well, provided that what you are saying is at all reliable,” Silverlake said. “You are saying that this Sovereign Gate thing can copy the entire world and create its very own miniature universe to house it all. Oh, and run the whole thing at absurd temporal dilation levels. That is not the level of power you get from a divine artifact. The gods may have been able to build such things, I don’t know, but I have never heard of them handing out something on this level of power. Surely such a device would require an absolutely titanic expenditure of divine energy to produce, no? Sounds like a lot of effort just to give a mortal a new toy to play with. On the other hand, if the Sovereign Gate is ‘just’ a modified, mutilated primordial… well, suddenly the whole thing becomes a lot more plausible. Turning one of their ancient enemies into an item like that and handing it down to a measly mortal to use and abuse sounds exactly like something the gods of old would do. Especially if the primordial in question had irritated them particularly badly by primordial standards…”

A long silence descended upon the scene as Zach and Zorian considered the plausibility of the story. Silverlake waited calmly for their reaction, hands clasped behind her back. She appeared to be trying to project an air of serenity and unshakable confidence with her stance and expression, but the effect was ruined by the fact she couldn’t stop herself from nervously tapping her foot against the ground as she waited.

Silverlake could be onto something, Zorian decided. It had always seemed to him that the Sovereign Gate was ridiculously powerful, even for a divine artifact, and this was as good an explanation as any as to why this was the case. He suddenly remembered the Ikosian myth of how the entire world they lived on had been fashioned by the gods out of the body of a defeated primordial dragon. He’d never taken the old myth very seriously, but maybe there was something to that story…

“You said there might be a very easy way to check if we’re telling the truth or not,” Zach said cautiously. “Is this related to that? Are you saying it’s somehow possible to check whether we are inside a primordial or not?”

“Well, perhaps,” Silverlake said, humming softly to herself. “You see, I have known about the primordial sealed away in Cyoria for quite a while, and have been carefully, carefully studying its prison from time to time. It was never the focus of my studies, but I reckon I know it quite well. If my speculation is correct, I should be able to notice some kind of change in the prison when I study it again. I refuse to believe that being recreated in the body of another primordial will not have a noticeable effect on it. Well, truthfully, my first instinct is to say that such an item couldn’t possibly affect beings on the level of primordials, even if they are sealed away… but from what you say about Panaxeth, I am completely wrong there, so whatever. Anyway, let’s go check!”

“Now?” Zorian asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Is there any point in waiting?” Silverlake challenged.

“I guess not,” Zorian admitted. “I’m just a little surprised at your… decisiveness.”

“I’ve just found out I could be trapped inside a body of primordial god-like monster that probably hates all humanity,” Silverlake said, looking like he was an idiot. “Of course I want to confirm or deny this as soon as I can! Don’t you?”

“A copy trapped inside a body of a primordial god-like monster,” Zorian corrected her.

“And you were preceded by countless other copies that lived out their short lives in vain, all their thoughts and accomplishments undone at the end of the month,” Zach added.

“A bunch of brats, both of you,” Silverlake told them. “Let’s just take a look at that primordial prison in Cyoria for now. You two know how to teleport, right?”

“We do, but there is no need for that,” Zorian said. “I have a much better way for us to get there quickly.”

* * *

After the three of them returned to Cyoria (via Zorian’s dimensional gate spell, of course), they immediately proceeded towards the place the primordial was imprisoned in – the massive circular abyss around which the city of Cyoria was built, known simply as the Hole.

Fortunately, accessing the Hole was not terribly hard. Although the incomprehensible amounts of mana gushing out of it were the foundation upon which the city rested, the Hole itself was not monitored very closely. The biggest concern the city had about it was that it was rather popular for people to commit suicide by throwing themselves into its depths, which meant they had to put a token patrol here and there to try and curb this behavior. These patrols were not very good and only checked the most obvious approaches to the Hole. So long as they didn’t bring too many people and avoided making a spectacle out of themselves, they could linger inside as long as they wished.

As they descended into the Hole’s depths, Zach and Zorian questioned Silverlake about her interest in primordials. Silverlake claimed it was not something she had ever been overly concerned with, it was just that she had been alive for a long time and even casual study could build up to something substantial when you keep chipping at the problem over several decades. She also claimed that, like them, she did not know of any primordial prisons other than the one in Cyoria.

Zorian wasn’t sure he believed her, to be honest. She knew Panaxeth’s prison well enough to give her confidence that she could detect changes in its dimensional boundary, but she’d only studied it casually? Zach and Zorian could only faintly detect the presence of the prison and little else, and it wasn’t like their attainments in the field of dimensionalism and divination were low. Furthermore, while their search for other sites of primordial imprisonment had yet to bear fruit, they did have no less than three promising leads already… and that was with them casually directing some efforts at the problem, rather than dropping everything to pursue the issue. He was supposed to believe that Silverlake couldn’t manage to find even one additional prison after spending gods know how many decades of interest in the topic? He had a feeling Silverlake was seriously underselling both her level of interest in this and her attainments in it. He even suspected that her incredible level of skill in the field of pocket dimension creation might come from pursuing this line of research.

He did not voice his suspicions, though. He could tell that, although Silverlake was putting forth a confident façade in front of them, the things they had said had deeply disturbed her and made her uneasy. If he was too pushy she might feel backed into a corner and lash out. Frankly, she had never struck him as the most stable of individuals to begin with.

They didn’t have to descend far into the Hole to get access to Panaxeth’s prison. Unlike the palace orb and other pocket dimensions that Zorian was familiar with, primordial prisons seemed to have larger and more complex anchors to the main reality that extended over quite a large area. In fact, considering that Zorian had once witnessed Panaxeth breaking out of his prison in the sky above Cyoria, he suspected that the anchor extended well outside the Hole itself… it was just that those parts of the anchor were too subtle for Zach and Zorian to detect them. In any case, once they had reached sufficient depth, Silverlake asked them to shut up and let her examine the prison in peace. So they did just that, sitting down on a couple of nearby rocks in silence while Silverlake did her thing.

Zorian paid close attention to the spells Silverlake was casting. Though one couldn’t learn a spell just from watching someone cast it, they could get a pretty good idea of what the spell was supposed to do if they were experienced or familiar with the relevant theory. Zorian was both, so there was a lot he could tell by watching Silverlake analyze Panaxeth’s prison. She used dozens of individual spells in her investigation, each one of them a lengthy and complex thing that seemed narrowly specialized for one specific function. Such unoptimized, hyperspecialized spells were probably something she had made herself, specifically to tackle the problem of analyzing a primordial’s prison. Furthermore, she cast these rather unwieldy spells with practiced ease, making no mistakes whatsoever, strongly suggesting she had done them often enough for it to become rote.

‘Casual interest’, sure…

As time went by, Silverlake’s face started to frown more often and her casting became more feverish, but she remained completely silent and focused on her task. She didn’t even mutter to herself, as she was often prone to do. Finally, after more than two hours of casting, pondering and intense staring at the empty patch of air in front of her (what was that even supposed to do?), Silverlake let her arms drop to her sides, sighed and then turned towards them.

“Alright,” she said. “You win. I provisionally believe your crazy story.”

“Provisionally?” Zach asked curiously.

“We’re clearly in a different world than we were up until a few months ago,” said Silverlake. “It does not necessarily mean your specific version of events is what is happening, but I have no better explanation at the moment. So for now, I’m accepting your story as valid.”

“Just to confirm, you actually detected a noticeable difference between Panaxeth’s prison as it was a few months back and as it is now?” Zorian asked.

“I suppose you could say that,” Silverlake said, a note of discomfort creeping into her voice.

“Why the glum face?” Zach asked, picking up on her mood. “Didn’t you expect to find just that?”

“I expected to either find that the prison is some kind of poor man’s knockoff of a real primordial’s prison or that it was thoroughly unchanged from how it was before and that you were trying to feed me a pack of lies,” Silverlake said.

“But?” Zorian prodded.

“But it’s the same prison as it has always been… just seen from a different perspective,” Silverlake said, lost in thought for a second. She scowled when she refocused back on them and saw them looking blankly at her. She clacked her tongue. “Bah! I can’t believe I have to explain myself to a bunch of amateurs like you… Well, let’s try it like this: you know how a dimensional gate looks like it’s composed out of two discrete portals but is actually just one dimensional construct with two ends? The prison in front of us is like that. I can sense the changes in it, but a closer look reveals they are clearly superficial. It’s the exact same object, just seen through a different lens. Panaxeth’s prison exists simultaneously in both the real world and… whatever the hell this place really ends up being. This Sovereign Gate of yours couldn’t duplicate primordial prison grounds, but it could make them attach themselves to this world in addition to their original one… and it’s giving me a headache. I don’t know how this could possibly work and I don’t know why someone would bother with this. Why didn’t this divine toy just neglect the primordial prisons entirely instead of going to all this trouble to ensure access to them even in a recreation of a real world? Argh…!”

She pulled at her hair for a second (not very hard, mind you, she seemed to do this just for dramatic emphasis) and then turned back towards the gaping abyss in front of them, staring at it in deep thought.

After a few moments of silence Zach asked the obvious question that Zorian was pondering as well.

“If the primordial prisons are objects that exist both in the real world and the time loop reality, doesn’t that make them a sort of a… bridge, for the lack of a better term?” Zach asked Zorian quietly. “If so, it might be possible to use them as a sort of conduit for opening a passage between this world and the real one. Hell, releasing one of them from their prisons might not even be necessary!”

“I wouldn’t place my hopes too high on such an idea,” Silverlake suddenly said. Apparently she wasn’t so deep in her thought that she couldn’t eavesdrop on their conversation. “Primordial prisons are hard to perceive, nevermind interact with. It would take vastly more skill to use them as a spell conduit than–”

She suddenly stopped and turned around to face them, an incredulous look on her face.

“Wait, what was that about releasing one of them?”

* * *

After convincing Silverlake that something funny was going on with the world at large and that their time loop explanation was at least a little bit plausible (and smoothing out some unfortunate misunderstandings), Silverlake reluctantly agreed to continue teaching them pocket dimension creation. In addition, Zorian had managed to talk her into selling them the analysis spells she used to study Panaxeth’s prison in exchange for both of the ingredients for her potion of youth. As much as she complained that such a trade was ‘profoundly unfair’ due to the mechanics of the time loop, she just couldn’t resist getting her hands on both of the ingredients she needed to complete her potion of youth.

Unfortunately, convincing Silverlake that they were onto something had one major unfortunate side-effect: she was suddenly extremely interested in them. She wanted to know everything about them – where they came from, who their family was, where their allegiances lay, what their skillset was, how much money they had at their disposal, everything. And when they had refused to cooperate with that, she started to spy on them. And then mobilized some of her contacts (apparently she wasn’t as much of a total hermit as it appeared at first glance) to gather information on them when it turned out they were too good at evading and foiling scrying attempts and other magic-oriented methods of spying. This would be very annoying even at the best of times, but what made this especially problematic was that Zach and Zorian were already doing all sorts of eye-catching things, arranging all kinds of high-value trades and throwing around ridiculous amounts of cash. This worked just fine as long as nobody was focusing on them, but the moment a bunch of nosy people were told to specifically look into what Zach Noveda and Zorian Kazinski were doing… well, suddenly they had a lot bigger reasons to be interested than one witch’s curiosity. Even if Silverlake backtracked and told these people that she changed her mind and no longer cared for the information, they wouldn’t stop their investigation now.

Ugh.

Caught off guard by this change in their routine and forced to temporarily lay low, Zach and Zorian turned to other things to amuse themselves with. In Zorian’s case, that something was the study of divine artifacts.

Sitting around in a secret, warded house, Zorian stared at the small collection of items in front of him. There were seven of them in total: a small silver pyramid, a dark brown wooden staff, a golden bell, a pitch black disc covered in seemingly random scratches, a large green gem with several light motes trapped within, a large bronze compass and a plain-looking iron dagger. The dagger had been recovered from the ruins inside the portal palace orb, while the others had been shamelessly stolen from private collections and treasuries of small countries. Although it looked unremarkable, this pile of items would likely inspire greed in even the richest of individuals living on the continent.

“You know that it’s almost impossible to find something useful by studying divine artifacts, right?” Daimen said, staring intently at the gathered items. Zorian had reluctantly invited Daimen to join him in this task, seeing how he had much more experience with this sort of thing than he did. “Entire groups have dedicated their lives to studying one specific divine item and came out empty-handed in the end.”

“Yes, I know,” said Zorian, picking up the dagger they had found in the orb and flipping it in his hand. They still had no idea what it did, other than being supernaturally sharp. Divine artifacts were immune to divination magics so the only way to discover their uses was to either use trial and error or search through historical records to see if there are any descriptions of the item’s powers in ancient texts. “But I have something most of those groups don’t – a willingness to destructively study the item in question for any clues and have it come back intact at the end of each month.”

Daimen made a sour face at him.

“This feels so wrong,” he said uneasily. “These are priceless, irreplaceable relics. It’s sacrilege.”

“Yet you agreed to come here and participate in it,” Zorian noted lightly.

“Well… I can’t say I was never tempted to do something like this,” Daimen sighed. “Are you sure they’ll be back to normal?”

“I’m sure,” Zorian confirmed, pointing at the dagger in his hands. “I already dismantled this dagger in the previous restart and it’s back to normal now. However mysterious divine abilities are, the Sovereign Gate clearly has no issues in duplicating these items over and over again.”

“That’s both reassuring and terrifying,” Daimen noted.

Zorian wondered what his brother would say if he told him that they were currently stuck inside some kind of weird primordial thing that may or may not be alive and just waiting for a chance to devour them all. Alas, as funny as it was to fantasize about his reaction to that, it wasn’t worth the drama to actually go through with telling him about it.

“So, before we begin, I’m kind of curious…” Zorian began. “How did Fortov react to that illusion disc I made for you?”

The disc was something the Daimen of the previous restart had come up with. In order to help him convince Fortov to open up and talk to him, Daimen came up with the idea of a disc that would, when activated, project an illusionary scene of their talk in the previous restart. Zorian was skeptical of the idea; why would seeing such an illusion convince Fortov of anything? But Daimen insisted it would work so Zorian humored him. He tapped into his memory of the evening and constructed the most realistic illusion of the event he could before binding it to a disc that he left in Fortov’s mail. Strictly speaking, that was the end of his obligations in regards to the matter, but he kind of wanted to hear what the outcome of that stunt turned out to be.

“Well, you could say it sort of worked,” Daimen said with a small grin.

“Oh?” Zorian asked with a raised eyebrow.

“He’s talking to me, at least,” Daimen shrugged. “That’s all I really wanted out of that disc, so I have no reason to complain.”

“How did you explain the contents of the disc?” Zorian asked curiously.

“I didn’t,” Daimen grinned. “I used the mystery as an incentive to talk to me. I said I would explain everything in a month.”

Zorian rolled his eyes at him.

“Anyway, I also have something to talk about before we dive into all this,” Daimen said, sweeping his hands over the gathered divine artifacts. “I’m pretty sure I have narrowed down the location of the Key piece that was lost in Xlotic.”

“You have?” Zorian asked, leaning forwards with anticipation. He had to say, his brother’s help was proving itself invaluable when it came to jobs like this one. If Zach and Zorian had to locate all the missing pieces of the Key all by themselves it would have taken them much, much longer than this. “Where is it? Is it the Tower of Hylos-Na? I hope it’s–”

“It’s the Ziggurat of the Sun,” Daimen interrupted him.

Zorian leaned back into his chair with a groan. Out of all the possible options, the Ziggurat of the Sun was definitely the worst one. It was situated deep into the interior of northern Miasina, in an area that was once lush grassland, but was now located deep within the Xlotic desert. There were no major human settlements nearby, just an endless expanse of desert. Simply approaching the ziggurat required a lengthy, difficult trek through these parched, desolate lands.

And any expedition that reached the ziggurat itself would be faced with the tiny issue of the ziggurat’s current inhabitants: sulrothum, a species of giant sapient desert wasps that had taken over the structure when the deserts had claimed the whole area. Sulrothum were almost three meters long, possessed incredible strength and toughness and there were hundreds of them living within the ziggurat. As for their friendliness, well… ‘sulrothum’ was a local human word roughly translating to ‘devil wasp’. Zorian kind of doubted they would allow them to peacefully search their base for ancient magical artifacts.

“Sorry,” Daimen said. “I know how you feel, but I’m pretty sure I got it right. The imperial ring is there, provided the sulrothum haven’t already found it and taken it elsewhere.”

“Which is a distinct possibility,” Zorian noted.

“At least you have that in-built Key detector, so we’ll know if the ring is no longer there before we waste too much time on securing the place,” Daimen shrugged.

“Of course the damn ring has to be in the most difficult location possible,” Zorian grunted unhappily. “Just getting there will be an issue.”

“Actually, I think I have a solution to both that and how to reach Blantyrre in a reasonable time frame,” Daimen grinned before throwing a rolled up poster at him. “Have a look and tell me what you think.”

Zorian caught the poster before it had time to hit his face, gave Daimen an unamused look because he was pretty sure his brother deliberately aimed the object at his head, and then unrolled it to take a look.

It was a propaganda poster, basically. It showed a pretty picture of a weird-looking wooden ship that was apparently commissioned by the king of Aranhal, one of the larger nations in Xlotic. It was an airship, Zorian realized.

An expensive, experimental airship designed by some of the best artificers in Aranhal as part of some kind of national vanity project. It was mostly done, the construction crew was just putting finishing touches on it currently and it was planned it would undergo a test flight in a few weeks.

“So?” Daimen said with a knowing smile on his face. “What do you think?”

Zorian stared at the poster for a second before looking Daimen straight in the eye.

“I think we have ourselves an airship to steal.”

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