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Chapter 078
Grinding Stone

Airships were not held in very high regard among people who cared about such things. The idea of a flying vessel was something that had captivated mankind since time immemorial, of course, but every concrete design for such a vessel had been disappointing. After all, although magic could make a ship fly easily enough, doing so on a long-term basis was very expensive in terms of mana. Moreover, this cost increased massively if one wanted to not just fly, but fly fast and retain a healthy amount of maneuverability in the process, too. This was why very few mages employed magical flight without a pressing reason to do so, even though flight magic wasn’t that complicated and many mages were capable of it.

As a result of this fundamental issue, most airships couldn’t actually fly around as they pleased, but instead had to follow fixed paths that took them through mana-rich areas that could sustain them in the air. And even so, airship designers still had to ruthlessly keep the vessel’s weight down during construction. This made the resulting product relatively fragile and greatly limited the vessel’s usefulness. They also tended to be rather expensive to build and maintain, as the materials which went into them tended to be on the pricier side and the design of the vessel itself was something that required a whole team of skilled professionals. It also didn’t help that there was no standard airship design available to the public, meaning that most airship construction teams started their projects from scratch and were often the only ones who could truly fix or modify the vessel.

Finally, there was a tiny, yet very important issue of how incredibly lethal an airship crash was compared to, say, the sinking of a sea-going ship. If anything went wrong, it was all too easy for everyone on board to die. There had been a number of high-profile airship accidents over the years, including a rather spectacular one where the Tetran airship Gepid plunged straight into the sea not long after starting its maiden flight. And even if one ignored the possibility of a simple malfunction, there was still the matter of the many flying magical beasts that could easily crash the airship if encountered at an inopportune time.

In light of all that, it was not hard to see why airships weren’t in more widespread use. They were not economically viable for private interests and state militaries generally found flying magical creatures to be more effective as an aerial combat force. Despite that, people stubbornly kept trying to make them viable. There was something about a flying vessel that people found irresistibly captivating.

There were considerable differences between regions, however. The states of northern Miasina, for instance, were the leaders when it came to investment into airship research. Due to the vast stretches of desert that surrounded them, the nations of Xlotic saw more potential in airships than Altazian ones. Building roads and railways in the inhospitable interior of northern Miasina was exceptionally difficult, and there were few population centers big enough to justify an expensive teleport platform. A free-flying, economically-viable airship that could traverse the Xlotic desert would be a huge boon to whoever made it.

Pearl of Aranhal, the airship Zorian wanted to steal, definitely hadn’t been designed with economic viability in mind. No expenses have been spared in its construction. Although Zorian had not been able to find concrete numbers anywhere, the final price tag was rumored to be positively astronomical. The airship’s capabilities, however, were said to be appropriately impressive for something that had so much money sunk into it. It was fast, maneuverable and surprisingly robust for an airship. Most importantly for Zorian, though, it boasted an experimental power core that allowed it to operate independently of ambient mana for long periods of time.

After some discussion with Zach, they decided not to make a move on the airship in this particular restart, however. Half of the restart had already passed and they were already committed on many other fronts. Besides, due to Silverlake’s earlier inquiries, people were still paying close attention to them. Zorian still decided to look around a little to get a feel for what they were dealing with.

Unsurprisingly, the airship was under significant protection. Not so much against thieves, since the idea of someone outright stealing the airship was kind of ridiculous, but against spies and saboteurs. The defenses were tight enough to thwart Zorian’s casual probing, but he was confident he could get through them in time. It might take several restarts, but it would happen. The bigger problem, in his opinion, was that the Pearl of Aranhal required a crew of ten in order to take off and land, which made the idea of two people stealing it somewhat problematic. He would probably have to wait for Zach to be able to cast the simulacrum spell before they could make the attempt. Another problem, though a comparatively smaller one, was that some small but critical pieces of the airship hadn’t been installed, and possibly not even made yet. Zorian was confident he could manufacture and install these components himself, but he would need access to the relevant blueprints first…

‘Once upon a time, one of my ambitions was to examine a train to see how its engines work,’ Zorian thought to himself nostalgically. ‘Now I’m casually planning how to steal and analyze an experimental airship in my free time. Even taking the time loop into account, it’s still amazing how far I’ve come since then. I wonder what my old self would have said to something like that…’

That, of course, was something impossible to answer. He shook his head and focused on more immediate matters. Currently, he was going to meet someone he hadn’t spoken to for a very, very long time – Zenomir Olgai, the old language expert he had once sought out to help him figure out what happened to him. Back then, he had been murdered by the invaders not long after talking to him, so he had reflexively avoided the man ever since, suspecting him a spy. However, none of his investigations of Ibasan collaborators and cultists pointed to Zenomir being one of them. Thus, when Zenomir’s name popped up while seeking out a translator that could help him with some of the documents he had acquired in Aranhal, he decided to pay him a visit. He even intended to drop some hints about the invasion while he was there, just to see if someone would try to murder him again because of it. Who knew, maybe Zenomir was part of some super-secret section of the invaders that other members didn’t normally know about.

As he approached Zenomir’s office, though, he suddenly stopped when he felt a familiar presence.

A bunch of cranium rats were lingering in the area, hidden inside the walls. The swarm quickly withdrew their telepathic probe when they noticed his mind was well shielded, but Zorian was practiced enough at mental shielding that even the faintest of mental attacks could not escape his notice.

He frowned. If cranium rats had been loitering around Zenomir’s office back when he had visited the man, it was no wonder that Zorian had ended up being a target. That only raised another questions though: why were the cranium rats paying attention to Zenomir? The man was somewhat famous as an incredible polyglot and language expert, but that shouldn’t be of much interest to the invaders.

After some thought, he decided to leave the cranium rats alone for now. He knocked on Zenomir’s office door and waited.

He waited for nearly fifteen minutes. Apparently he had arrived at a somewhat bad time, since the old teacher was talking to someone already. Another student, Zorian eventually realized. He took a quick peek at the student’s mind to make sure he was not connected to the cranium rats and found out that he wasn’t. He was just a student that had picked Zenomir as his mentor and was now arguing with him over something. Zorian didn’t linger inside his mind long enough to find out what, as he disliked invading other people’s privacy with his mental powers unless it was truly necessary.

Eventually the meeting ended and Zenomir called him in. Zorian gracefully accepted the man’s offer to sit down and went right to business.

“I’m here because I was told you could help me translate a highly technical document written in Aranhal Ikosian,” Zorian told him. “Or at least point me towards someone who is up to the task.”

“Ah yes, Aranhal,” Zenomir said sagely. “They do speak a particularly distinct form of our tongue, don’t they? Can you show me the sample of what you’re working with?”

Zorian took out a few pages of technical writing out of his school bag and handed them to the old language expert. He wasn’t worried about Zenomir recognizing them as illegally acquired. Unless he was inexplicably connected to Aranhal’s airship construction team in addition to his apparent link to invaders, the text should mean little to him.

Zenomir carefully put on a pair of reading glasses and glanced through the papers in silence.

“Lots of unknown technical jargon, I see. Airship construction materials? My, what an interesting topic…” Zenomir mused, before giving Zorian a good-natured smile. “I can see why you were referred my way, though it somewhat saddens me that a student of our fine academy did not think to seek me out right away. At the very least I’d give you my initial opinion free of charge, which is probably more than you got out of whoever sent you here.”

Zorian could tell that the man wasn’t really angry with him for this oversight, merely giving him a friendly warning that he had failed to take advantage of his academy membership to its fullest extent. Sadly, while Zenomir was both friendly and polite, the events that transpired after Zorian had talked to him the last time around and the cranium rats lurking in the walls had made it impossible for Zorian to really trust him. So he just nodded sagely at Zenomir’s reminder and moved on.

“Let me ask you something first,” Zenomir began. “Is this document that you want translated an isolated thing or are you planning on collaborating with someone from Aranhal on something?”

“The project I’m working on does involve a fair bit of interaction with Aranhal natives,” Zorian reluctantly admitted.

Thankfully, Zenomir seemed to think nothing of Zorian’s admission that he was going to interact heavily with people on another continent. Zorian would think this sort of thing would raise some eyebrows, but apparently not.

They spent the next ten minutes discussing what the translation job would entail. Zenomir asked him a couple of questions about the exact nature of this ‘project’ he was working on, but thankfully he backed off when Zorian told him it was confidential. He confirmed that this sort of translation job was well within his capabilities, though it would take a couple of days and wouldn’t be exactly cheap. None of this was a problem for Zorian, though, and he told the old teacher as much before the man raised another idea.

“I’m going to be a little bold here, but perhaps simply hiring a person to translate this document might not be the best course of action,” Zenomir said. “I think you should invest some time in learning the language itself. You’d be amazed how many layers of communication you lose by relying on external translation and I guarantee your partners will respect you a lot more if you can communicate with them directly.”

“I’m unlikely to interact with people from Aranhal after this project is done, though,” Zorian said, frowning. Plus, he was pretty sure there wouldn’t be too many respectful exchanges between him and the Aranhal airship construction team, language barriers or no. “That’s a lot of wasted effort for one job.”

“Learning a language is never a wasted effort, young man,” Zenomir lectured him. “It develops your mind and expands your horizons! Besides, it’s not as if you’re starting completely from scratch. Aranhal Ikosian is different from standard Ikosian, but not unintelligible.”

“That’s true,” Zorian admitted. It was more like a heavily divergent dialect with a lot of words borrowed from the native language spoken by the people before Ikosian conquest. Much like many of the local versions of Ikosian on Altazia, really. “It would still be a lot of work for someone who isn’t naturally inclined towards languages like you are, though. No offense, Professor Olgai.”

“Hmph. Wait here for a minute,” Zenomir said, quickly springing up from his chair without waiting for his answer, and then entered a nearby side-room in his office and closed the door.

He stayed there for over ten minutes. Judging by the quiet sounds emanating from behind the closed door, the man was shifting around boxes and searching through stacks of paper and books in search of something. Zorian sighed. This was taking way longer than he thought it would…

Finally, the old teacher returned to his office, carrying a tall stack of books, folders and loose sheets of paper. He was carrying so much that he had to use his elbows to manipulate the door handle, which he did with the practiced grace of someone who does things like that all the time. He dumped the pile on the table in front of Zorian and pointed at it.

“Tell you what, young man,” Zenomir said. “This here is a small selection of dictionaries, translation guides and random notes regarding Aranhal Ikosian that I had in my store room–”

“You just happened to have Aranhal-related stuff in your store room?” Zorian asked incredulously.

“Oh, I have all sorts of things gathering dust in there,” said Zenomir dismissively. “Some of the teachers are rarely in their offices, but I pretty much do most of my work here. So it’s handy to have most of my resources close by. Anyway, why don’t you take this and see how much of that document of yours you can translate yourself using this as a guide. If you impress me with your work, I promise I’ll help you translate the rest of your project for free.”

Zorian opened his mouth to point out that he’d rather just pay for translation but Zenomir wouldn’t hear it.

“Free!” Zenomir repeated. “Do you hate money, young man? Don’t be in such a hurry to part with it. I’m not very demanding, don’t worry. Just do your best and I’m sure you’ll do fine. Who knows, maybe you’ll even discover you have a previously undiscovered passion for languages, eh?”

Zorian seriously doubted that, but he could see there was no use in arguing with Zenomir about this. Besides, now that he thought about it a little, it might actually be useful to get some elementary proficiency in Aranhal Ikosian. He might need to interrogate the airship construction crew at some point, and that was going to be really difficult if their language was completely opaque to him. Not even mind reading helped in that case, since people’s thoughts were heavily shaped by the language they spoke.

“Very well, I’ll give it a try,” Zorian relented.

“Excellent!” Zenomir said, beaming at him happily.

“Still, is it really okay for you to just give me all this?” Zorian pointed at the pile in front of him. “Some of this stuff looks… irreplaceable.”

“It’s fine,” said Zenomir, waving him off. “You look like a serious young man. I’m sure you’ll return it all in one piece.”

Zorian didn’t say anything to that. He just stared at the pile of books and paper in front of him, lost in thought, for a few seconds.

“Well,” Zenomir suddenly said, clapping his hands. “Is there anything else you wanted to ask? If not–”

“Actually, yes,” Zorian said. “Are you a member of the Cult of the Dragon Below?”

Zenomir eyebrows shot up at the question.

“I’m sorry, what?” he asked.

“They officially call themselves the Esoteric Order of the Celestial Dragon,” Zorian said. “They are one of the newer religious organizations, one dedicated to the worship of the entity that is commonly thought to reside in the center of the world. They have a rather large presence here in Cyoria. Are you a member of the Order?”

“Ah, I think I have heard something about them once,” Zenomir mused, tapping his long white beard with his hand. “But no, I am not a member. Why do you ask?”

“Are you an agent of Ulquaan Ibasa?” Zorian asked, completely ignoring the old teacher’s question.

“Now wait just a minute here,” Zenomir said, finally getting somewhat angry. “What kind of question is that!?”

Hmm. He was being completely honest. He was not knowingly associated with either the Ibasans of the Cult of the Dragon Below.

With a small sigh, Zorian reached deeper into Zenomir’s mind, casually brushing aside the old teacher’s rudimentary mental defenses, and modified his short-term memory to erase this conversation out of his mind. The whole process only lasted less than a minute, due to the relatively trivial nature of the memory edit, after which Zorian withdrew from Zenomir’s mind.

The old teacher blinked a few times, gradually shrugging off the mental daze that Zorian placed on him so he could work in peace, before giving Zorian a surprised look.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Uh, you kind of dozed off for several seconds there,” Zorian said, pretending awkwardness.

“Ah. I guess old age is finally catching up to me,” Zenomir said ruefully, shaking his head. “Where were we, again?”

“Actually, I think we’re kind of done here,” Zorian said. “But first, let me ask you a somewhat strange question. Do you have any idea why someone would want to spy on you?”

“Spy on me?” Zenomir asked incredulously. “Why no, I have no idea why someone would want that. Frankly, I wish more people would be interested in my work. If someone wanted to know more about what I do, why, all they have to do is ask!”

“I’ll cut straight to the chase, then,” Zorian said. “Due to some exotic inborn abilities that I have, I happen to know that there are rats lurking in the walls around your office. And not normal rats either.”

“Ah, now that… is quite concerning,” said Zenomir. He sat down in his chair and frowned. He tapped on his beard a few more times, deep in thought. “Hmm. Rats in the walls…”

After a minute or so, Zenomir slapped his palm against the table, scaring Zorian back into attention.

“Aha!” Zenomir said triumphantly. “I’ve got it, I think. I don’t think these rats, if they are indeed spies as you suspect, are here for me. As it happens, the headmaster’s office is very close to mine. The headmaster is rarely in it, but a lot of visitors and academy documentation passes through the place.”

Zorian had to agree this did make a great deal of sense. As a place of such importance, the headmaster’s office was probably protected by heavier and more sophisticated wards and other defenses… but the corridors approaching it might have been overlooked due to cost-cutting and such. He would have to take a walk through the academy to see if there were other places that cranium rats linger as they did here.

“Of course, this will have to be reported,” Zenomir’s shoulders suddenly sagged. “I can already sense a headache coming. So much paperwork…”

“I don’t suppose you could exclude me from the report?” Zorian asked. He would mindwipe him again if he had to, but he would rather avoid doing that.

“I might as well,” Zenomir sighed. He apparently didn’t have a single suspicious bone in his body. “No reason for both of us to suffer. Though I have to ask you to keep quiet about this, or else the academy might go after you for ruining its reputation.”

Zorian assured him that he had no intention of spreading this around, picked up the stack of books and papers the man had given him and then left. Instead of exiting the academy immediately, though, he took the extended route that saw him passing next to the headmaster’s office a couple of times.

It turned out that, yes, all approaches to the headmaster’s office had cranium rats lurking in the walls. It seemed that Zenomir’s theory was very much correct.

Well. That was one mystery solved! It had been a while since he had solved one of those without raising at least one new question in return.

Somehow, it made him feel like he was finally getting close to a solution for all this.

* * *

In an unremarkable, out-of-the-way cave system situated a healthy distance away from Cyoria, Zach, Zorian and two aranea were training their magical skills.

Zach was tinkering with a large wooden chest, practicing his pocket dimension creation. His ability in this area was slowly but surely overtaking Zorian, despite him dismissing some of his simulacrums and focusing more of his energies on the issue. As far as Zorian could tell, this was purely due to Zach’s massive mana reserves and the resulting ability to sustain the mana-intensive training longer than Zorian ever could. Zorian wasn’t any more talented or hard-working than Zach was, after all, and every advantage and training method he had was also something Zach had access to as well. It made perfect sense that Zach was pulling away from him in this regard, but that didn’t stop Zorian from feeling kind of jealous and annoyed with the situation. A petty part of him was tempted to start hiding some of the relevant shaping exercises and tricks he had found while combing through the various spellbooks and training manuals in order to close the gap somewhat, but he resisted the impulse. That would be stupid and self-defeating. Zach getting better was a good thing.

That aside, neither Zach nor Zorian had really progressed far in terms of pocket dimension expertise. The chest that Zach was fiddling with still functioned on essentially the same principles as the marble-storing boxes they had practiced with previously. It was the simplest form of pocket dimension, which involved expanding the available space inside a container. Essentially, it allowed a mage to produce an enclosed space that was larger on the inside than it was on the outside.

There were a lot of limitations involved with this procedure. The pocket dimension required mana to keep existing, so such an item could only be stored in areas where ambient mana was abundant enough to sustain them. Or be provided with an in-built power source of some sort. A complicated, fiddly spell formula had to be embedded into the walls of the container, or else the space expansion would expire after less than a day, just like any other spell. Finally, the weight of the object inside did not disappear, so a chest with several tons of rock inside would still weigh several tons, no matter how small it looked.

Of course, weight concerns aside, cramming too much stuff into your pocket dimension container isn’t a good idea to begin with. If the container is damaged, the pocket dimension anchored to its interior would immediately fall apart, forcing the contents back into mundane space. Typically, this meant the pocket dimension would explode, showering everything around it with high-speed shrapnel of its former contents. For this reason, it was also a good idea to make the container as sturdy and damage-resistant as possible. Zach and Zorian learned that very quickly after cramming too many marbles into a box whose bottom could not handle the weight, thus creating their very own marble-flinging cluster bomb.

The more time the two of them sank into studying pocket dimensions, the more Zorian realized how incredible the portable palace orb they recovered in Koth was. It had some kind of internal power source that could sustain it indefinitely and made it completely self-sufficient from its surroundings, it weighed no more than a regular glass orb of its size would and it contained an incredible amount of space and matter inside. Zorian was tempted to dismiss all of this as evidence of divine tampering, except that Silverlake stubbornly insisted that all of this was potentially achievable through familiar mortal magic. Yes, even the power source thing. Somehow.

Then again, she did maintain a rather large pocket dimension with some pretty potent defensive wards in an area that really shouldn’t be able to support such. How was she doing that, anyway?

Well, it wasn’t something that could be figured out by idle contemplation. He put the matter out of his mind for now and focused his attention to the two aranea next to him. Both of them had been sent here by the Silent Doorway Adepts at Zorian’s request. Ever since he had become capable of giving them a large list of novel gate addresses and a sizeable amount of strategic information about their local region, they became much more willing to cooperate with him and humor his requests. In this case they allowed him to recruit two of their best ‘retrievers’. Thieves, basically. Zorian called them Ghost and Veil, though these were only shortened versions of their real names.

Ghost and Veil were originally meant to show him how to use his mental powers to infiltrate guarded sites more easily, but he found them to be surprisingly friendly and curious for a pair of thieves and spies. They fulfilled their part of the bargain without any reservations, and were even willing to go beyond what was originally agreed upon… provided he traded some instruction and secrets of his own to them in return.

As such, they were currently gleefully practicing some of the magic he had given them on each other, steadily refining the somewhat clunky spells that had been converted from the human spellcasting system into an aranean one and thus suffered from a fair bit of inefficiencies. Zorian left them alone to their work for the most part, only involving himself if he saw them making an obvious mistake, but he made sure to survey the results of their work at the end of each day. When he finally found a way for him and Zach to leave this time loop, he intended to bundle up little improvements like this into one giant package and then gift them to the various aranean webs that had helped him over the years.

As for Zorian, he was tackling something that he had wanted to obtain for quite a while now. He was learning the aranean skill of ‘going dark’ – the psychic equivalent of the mind blank spell.

The skill was pretty hard to obtain, since the aranea saw it as inherently shady, meaning that most of them weren’t even willing to admit they knew how to perform it, much less trade it to someone who could very well be hostile. It was only after a lot of prodding and some high-value trades that Ghost and Veil agreed to teach it to him. Even then, they made him promise in the strongest possible terms that he would use it sparingly.

They need not have worried. Zorian had heard enough horror stories about the mage equivalent of the skill to know he had to be careful about this. Mind blank was well known to be insanity-inducing if used on a long-term basis. Mages that left it active for too long became increasingly paranoid, becoming obsessed with imaginary plots and threats. They would inevitably begin to view everyone around them as a threat, alien and untrustworthy, and withdraw from society as much as possible to pursue their own inscrutable goals. There was a highly-publicized case a few years back where a very rich mage went down this path and eventually turned his isolated estate into a foreboding death-trap filled with layers upon layers of traps, golems, powerful wards and vicious guard beasts. His children were not very amused when they realized he had blown all of his wealth on that and that they wouldn’t be inheriting any of the money that they had been counting on.

This ‘going dark’ was harder than he thought it would be, though. He knew that mind blank was a difficult, high-level spell, but he had naively thought that being psychic would negate that somehow. It was a mind-related thing, after all, so why wouldn’t his innate talent work on it? But no. If anything, that only made things harder. Even mundane mages felt a surge of wrongness upon cutting their minds off from the world, suffering from vertigo, illusionary static noise and headaches before fully mastering the spell. For psychics like Zorian, though, it was a little like plucking out your own eyeballs because you knew you could grow them back later. Even though one knew that no permanent loss would occur, the very idea just felt wrong on a deep-seated, visceral level. It wasn’t easy to make yourself do this to yourself.

He was stalling, he realized. He took a couple of deep breaths, trying to calm himself for another attempt. Okay. The 27th time was the charm…

He sank his awareness inward, carefully mapped out the borders of his consciousness and then sort of… folded his mind upon itself.

It was horrible. It can be scarcely described in words alone, but he felt like his whole world had gone dark and confined, pressing down on him. He almost dropped the attempt right there, just like he had so many times before, but he gritted his teeth and persisted.

As the borders of his consciousness contracted, getting smaller and smaller, he breathed deeper and deeper, a deep fear welling up from the depths of his soul and causing him to pause. He had an unreasonable, unexplainable feeling of being entombed alive, imprisoned in a cage made out of his own flesh and skin, and it took him an unknown amount of time to take that final step.

With one last, desperate push, his mind finally finished folding upon itself and stabilized. The sense of wrongness was still there, but muted and manageable.

Everything seemed so unnaturally quiet all of a sudden, even though nothing in his surroundings had really changed.

Well okay, that wasn’t entirely true. Ghost and Veil had stopped casting spells at each other and were looking at him with interest.

“You did it!” Veil said excitedly. She was using a vocalization spell instead of resorting to telepathy, since Zorian’s current status kind of prevented that. “Amazing! I thought it would take you at least another 30 tries!”

“It’s not that amazing,” Ghost said dourly. “It’s a decidedly average progression for someone of his level of skill.”

“He’s a human, though,” Veil objected. “I don’t think it’s fair to judge him by our standards.”

“You’re right. We should be even stricter,” Ghost said. “After all, he’s not nearly as reliant on his mental powers as we are.”

“I’m right here,” Zorian complained.

“Don’t listen to this killjoy,” Veil told him. “Just enjoy knowing that everything will be a lot easier from now on. The first time is always the hardest. Oh, and you should be extra careful about not shutting yourself from the Great Web for too long during these initial steps. The ability degrades the mind much faster if not done flawlessly, and your first handful of attempts probably won’t be that good.”

“Just like mind blank, then,” Zach noted from the side, not taking his eyes off the chest he was working on. “Until you’re sure you mastered the spell, it is recommended you keep it on for no more than half an hour maximum.”

“Umm, sure. I’m not too familiar with human time measurements, but let’s go with your friend’s suggestion on that,” Veil said.

Zorian nodded absent-mindedly. Frankly, he was tempted to end the effect immediately but he knew he had to acclimatize himself to it if he wanted to use it even remotely seriously. He was just about to ask the two aranea if there was anything else he had to watch out when Zach suddenly jumped up and started laughing triumphantly.

“It works!” Zach said, swinging his chest around and then raising it above his head. It was actually mildly impressive, because Zorian knew for a fact that the chest was quite heavy and not something he personally could swing around like that. “It’s finished and it totally works!”

“What were you working on, anyway?” Zorian asked. Clearly Zach hadn’t been working on just another expanded chest, or else he wouldn’t be so happy to succeed.

“This?” Zach asked rhetorically, shaking the chest held in his arms. “Why, it’s an icebox of beer holding, of course! Not only can it hold a large number of beer bottles, it also keeps them at a nice, cold temperature for perfect consumption!”

“An icebox of… wait, you made all this fuss about a simple expanded chest with a chilling field added on top?” Zorian asked unhappily.

“Oh hush, you know it’s a genius idea,” Zach said. “Don’t be so cranky. I think the mind blank is already affecting you.”

Ugh. Zorian doubted this was true, but he immediately dismissed the effect anyway. Better to be safe than sorry.

There was plenty of time to work on this later.

* * *

Eventually, after an annoyingly long time, Silverlake agreed to meet with them again. By then, the investigators she had sent after them had thoroughly disrupted their plans and a lot of the restart had already passed, so they were not as enthusiastic about the whole thing as they might have been. Zorian really hoped this could be avoided in future restarts, somehow, because there was no way they could tolerate these kinds of delays and disruptions on a persistent basis.

Surprisingly, she wanted to meet in some public space in Cyoria, not in her forest hideout. After some back-and-forth, they agreed to hold a meeting in one of Cyoria’s less visited parks. There would be some minor danger of being overheard, but it was likely that anyone that did hear them would dismiss them as speaking nonsense.

“You’ve put me in a very unfavorable position,” Silverlake told them the moment they met. “I think I believe you about this month endlessly repeating itself, as crazy as that sounds, but that means that I basically have no leverage against you whatsoever. You can promise to pay me back in all sorts of ways, but I have no means to enforce any of that. Even if I feed you truth potions and decide you sincerely mean to honor your promises, who’s to say you won’t ever change your minds in the future? If you decide to renege on your side of the deal, I will never know.”

“So what’s your decision, then?” Zorian asked. There was nothing he could say to make her feel better about that.

“What else?” she laughed. “I’ll work with you and hope you’re not planning to screw me over. What other choice do I have?”

“We were worried you’d ask to put us under a geas,” Zach admitted.

It was a reasonable fear. Forced magical oaths were one of the things witches were infamous for using.

“Geas have limited usefulness these days,” Silverlake said, shaking her head sadly. “They were feared once upon a time because mages were comparatively rare and often had a very limited selection of spells at their disposal. In those times, finding someone who could lift a geas placed on you was legitimately hard. These days you can just walk into your local mage guild branch and hire someone to get rid of it within a few days. Placing a geas on you would just create resentment. No, I’m afraid I’ll have to use the carrot and the poison strategy.”

“Err, isn’t that supposed to be the carrot and the stick?” Zorian tried.

“We just established that I don’t have much of a stick when it comes to you two, no?” Silverlake said. “So I can’t really counter-attack, but I can make myself a poisonous pill to swallow. Incidentally, I would like to point out that I have made myself immune to all truth potions I know of and that my mind has been rigged to collapse should my mental defenses ever be violently shattered. This is something I did long before I met you two, so even attacking me first thing in the restart won’t negate it. Just an interesting tidbit, you know?”

“Yeah, we know,” Zach said with exasperation. “Subduing you and trying to forcefully get your secrets out of your mind would be a total chore and take way too much time, so we better ask nicely.”

“Exactly,” Silverlake nodded happily.

“So what’s the carrot part of the deal?” Zach asked curiously.

“I am an alchemist of incredible skill and I have lived for a very long time. I know how to make many wondrous potions and know incredible secrets… none of which I can be persuaded to share with you in less than a month’s time. At the very least, I am confident that you’ll seek me out eventually for my secret of how to stop aging and restore your youth. I know, I know, you’re in the prime of your life now and old age seems distant… but when your body starts to fail and your mind dims, I am confident you’ll become interested to discover what I know about the topic.” She paused dramatically for a moment. “Of course, if you were really smart, you would strike while the iron is hot and come to me while you’re still young and I haven’t worked out how to get these blasted eggs on my own. That way I won’t think you’re desperate for a solution and you’ll have lots of things that interest me. You’d be able to get a much better deal that way…”

“How do you know we won’t be able to figure out such a thing ourselves?” Zach asked.

“What, you think youth potions grow on trees or something?” she scoffed. “This is something that takes an absolute master of alchemy to accomplish. You may be decent enough in comparison to your average alchemist, but it takes a lot more than that to tackle this kind of problem. Besides, you seem to be paying other experts to do your alchemical research and complicated work for you. That says everything about your future alchemical expertise, really.”

There was some truth in that. Zorian did have a healthy amount of interest in alchemy, but he liked spell formula better and it was impossible to focus on everything at once. Even in a time loop and with a small army of simulacrums running around.

“So I guess you’re not really interested in refining your eternal youth potion over multiple restarts with our help, then?” Zorian asked.

“Good heavens no, why would I want to do that?” she asked incredulously. “That would just remove what little leverage I have over you, and for what? I’m confident I’ll get it right eventually. I have time, even without the time loop. I’ve been working on this for a very long time, what’s a couple of years more?”

“I see,” Zorian said. “Well, I am glad you are at least willing to work with us on this. Though I do hope your future selves will not sabotage our work with spying and delay the meeting for most of the month like you have.”

“I don’t know about that,” Silverlake said, not in the least bit apologetic. “Your story is very crazy and requires checking. It’s hard to speed that up.”

“Ha, well… don’t be so sure about that,” Zorian said, reaching into his backpack to retrieve a handful of Kael’s notebooks that the morlock boy had given him permission to share with others. “Let me tell you about the wonders of notebook transfers across restarts…”

* * *

With Silverlake’s cooperation secured, the restart ended uneventfully, the only notable difference being the larger number of notebooks that Zorian was transferring into the next restart. Considering that the orb’s memory bank was practically limitless in size, this was not a big deal.

The next several restarts were somewhat routine. They were learning pocket dimension expertise from Silverlake, looking deeper into Veyers’ ties with the Cult of Dragon Below, figuring out the activation procedure of the Bakora Gates and the construction methods of the Ibasan ones, doing small preparations for the airship theft, experimenting with divine artifacts and sifting through the ruins inside the portable palace orb. Zorian was messing around with mental enhancements while Zach was steadily getting closer to being able to create his own simulacrums.

Their various other operations, such as hiring various experts to do research and development for them, also continued at a steady pace.

Just like that, another six restarts had gone by.

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