Although the Xlotic desert was usually depicted as an endless sea of sand, with only the occasionally broken up rocky outcroppings or secluded oases, its actual landscape was far more complex than that. There was plenty of sand, yes, but also vast fields of rock, barren hills and mountain ranges, remnants of dried-up lakes and riverbeds, and old Ikosian ruins scattered all over the place. And that was just the more mundane landmarks. Zorian had heard that there was a forest composed out of stony, seemingly fossilized trees in the deep desert, blooming with life and greenery during the rare times it rained in the area before reverting back to its seemingly lifeless appearance after a few weeks. Then there were the so-called ‘water volcanos’ – massive geysers of boiling water that occasionally erupted from the Dungeon in some regions, flooding the area around them for a brief while.
The area around the Ziggurat of the Sun wasn’t as unusual as those two examples, but it was still an unusual place. First of all, this was once a famous temple complex of the Ikosian Empire, and a great many ruins were scattered around the area – ruins of temples, lesser ziggurats, military forts, private estates and so on. Many of these ruins had been claimed by the local sulrothum, but many more had been overrun by various desert-adapted monsters, which had moved into them and had dug themselves in too thoroughly for anyone to dislodge them. Secondly, there was a seasonal river passing through the area – although it only persisted for part of a year, it was enough to make the area relatively vibrant compared to its immediate surroundings. Finally, the local underworld was particularly extensive and featured a large underground lake that no doubt contributed to making the land far livelier than it realistically should have been this deep in the Xlotic interior.
Zach and Zorian were currently traveling through this land on foot, warily observing their surroundings. Their journey had been relatively free of dangers thus far, but that could change in a flash if they weren’t careful. The heat was also slowly starting to get to them. Their comfort spells had done a fine job of warding off sunstroke and the worst of the desert heat, but this sort of magic was not all-powerful and Xlotic was quite an extreme environment.
It made Zorian wish they had just arrived here in their pretty new airship. Unfortunately, that hadn’t been an option. They were coming here to try and negotiate with the sulrothum for the right of passage, and the devil wasps would no doubt react badly to the sight of an incoming airship. Most likely they would just attack the vessel immediately, ruining any chance of successful negotiations.
Well, if Zorian was being honest with himself, the negotiations were not very likely to be successful anyway. Although sulrothum were known to have peaceful interactions with humans on occasion, they had a reputation of being an extremely fierce and violent species, and there was a long history of bloody conflict between them and humanity. On top of that, sulrothum were incapable of producing the necessary sounds to mimic human speech, and humans could not speak sulrothum either, making communication between the two species difficult.
Even though the odds of a peaceful outcome were low, though, Zorian still felt they had to try. No doubt he and Zach could forcibly take the ziggurat from the sulrothum if they really applied themselves, but there were hundreds of these things living there and this was their home. This was where they kept their children, their food stockpiles and water reserves, their workshops and trade goods… they were not going to give the place up easily. They might even decide to fight to the death, which would force Zorian to deal with sulrothum children and non-combatants somehow. He’d rather avoid that headache if at all possible.
“This should be enough, no?” Zach suddenly said. He hopped onto a nearby rocky outcropping and quickly scanned their surroundings. “I think we’re far enough into their territory. Any further and they might attack us on principle. Though really, I still think we’re going about this the wrong way. Sulrothum are famed for their savagery, no? I bet smacking them around a bit until they’re ready to talk would produce better results than just approaching them peacefully. Show them we’re serious, you know?”
“You might yet get your wish,” Zorian said, performing a brief sweep of the area with his mind sense, soul perception and his plain two eyes. There was some sort of snake hiding beneath a nearby patch of thorny bushes, but it was absolutely terrified of them and had no intention of attacking them, so Zorian ignored it. “If the wasps attack us immediately or refuse to even entertain our offer, we’ll go with your plan.”
“Ha. Great,” Zach grinned, before retrieving a water bottle from his backpack and emptying it on top of his head. He sighed in relief. “Ahh, I needed that…”
After some thought, Zorian decided to follow his example and did the same.
It did make him feel a lot better, he had to admit.
A minute or so of comfortable silence ensued.
“Shall we?” Zorian eventually asked.
“Yes,” Zach nodded. “Fire away.”
Zorian performed one of the many spells that produced a signal flare in some fashion – in this case, a brilliant red star that released a high-pitched ‘scream’ as it flew through the air – and fired it straight into the sky above him, announcing their presence to everyone for miles around.
They didn’t have to wait long. Not even fifteen minutes after Zorian had fired the flare, a trio of black dots appeared on the horizon. Their features were kind of hard to discern because they were approaching them from a direction that let the sun illuminate their backs, but Zorian was pretty sure he was looking at an incoming sulrothum patrol.
Soon, this suspicion was proven correct.
They were louder than Zorian thought they would be. The drone of their wings, beating several times a second to keep their large bodies aloft, was audible from a considerable distance. It kind of made Zorian wonder why they even bothered to try and mask their approach when anyone who wasn’t deaf could hear them coming. Regardless, as the sulrothum patrol got closer, Zach and Zorian shifted their posture in preparation for a possible attack. They didn’t think the sulrothum would just attack them with no provocation – if nothing else, they’d have brought more tribe members if they were going to be hostile right off the bat – but it was best to be prepared for everything.
Their landing was anything but graceful. Instead of gradually slowing down, the sulrothum dropped to the ground with reckless speed, impacting the gravel-covered earth in front of Zach and Zorian with considerable force and kicking up dust and loose stones in every direction. The shockwave even reached the place where Zach and Zorian were standing, though the weather shields they had protecting them simply deflected these stray irritants to the side with no action required on their part.
Well. The meeting had barely even begun and already Zorian was starting to dislike the damn wasps.
In any case, with the sulrothum right in front of them, Zorian could finally take a good look at one. He had seen the descriptions and illustrations of them in the books, naturally, but that sort of thing really couldn’t compare to seeing something in person. They were big – smaller than the three meter long giants that the books described, but not that much smaller – but also very spindly and fragile-looking. That impression was misleading, he knew – sulrothum were said to be strong enough to tear a man limb from limb with their bare hands and tough as coffin nails. Black, glossy chitin covered their wasp-like forms, and their faces were very much insect-like – alien and inscrutable. Their eyes, as black as their bodies and multifaceted like those of most insects, gave away nothing of their inner thoughts. They had a pair of short antennae on top of their heads, though, and these twitched madly in their general direction, revealing their agitation. Zorian had trouble interpreting their thoughts and emotions, alien as they were to his sensibilities, but he could tell that the trio was feeling twitchy and paranoid, ready to either attack them or flee at the slightest sign of aggression.
All three of them carried spears. They were appropriately sized for a creature of sulrothum size and strength, which meant they were pretty gigantic by human standards. The size and weight alone made those spears a significant danger, even though they looked somewhat crudely made. In addition to these close-quarters weapons, each sulrothum also carried a handful of smaller spears strapped to their backs. These were the notorious ‘heavy javelins’ that sulrothum used as their ranged attack method. Generally, every sulrothum raid opened with them hurling a storm of these javelins at their targets before closing in to clash with their foes face-to-face. Sulrothum bodies were strong and durable, and they did not fear close-quarters combat… but even so, they did not balk at softening up their targets a little before closing in.
Somehow, the spears and javelins made the sulrothum trio far more threatening than they should appear. Objectively speaking, the three devil wasps in front of them did not pose a significant threat to Zach and Zorian, but seeing them clutching those spears in their hands was a stark reminder that they were dealing with creatures that were not just sapient, but tool-users as well. As a rule, sapient monsters did not employ tools much – other than lizardmen and a few other species, most of them basically lived like animals. Their innate abilities were potent enough that technology largely seemed pointless to them. Why use a spear when your claws are sharper? Why build a house when the cold and the rain hardly hurt you? Sulrothum, though, went to the trouble of creating tools and homes that made use of their natural advantages and made them more potent than they would otherwise be. They shouldn’t take them too lightly.
“Hello,” Zorian greeted with as much friendliness as he could manage, when standing in front of a trio of giant, sapient, aggressive wasps. “Do you understand me?”
He really hoped they did. Sulrothum tribes usually made sure they had at least a couple of members that could understand the local human language, but this tribe lived quite a distance away from any major human power so it was possible they felt no need to bother. If they were ignorant of any human tongue, or only understood a dialect that Zorian himself did not speak, they were in trouble. Telepathic communication between entities that did not speak a common language was a crude and often unpleasant thing, doubly so if the people involved were as different in their perception of the world as humans and sulrothum were.
The three sulrothum erupted into a storm of chattering, punctuated by an occasional buzz of their wings and mad flailing of their antennae. However, they did not bother to face each other to do so, their attention on Zach and Zorian never wavering and their spears pointed firmly in their direction. Finally, the sulrothum on the left stepped forth towards them before twirling his spear theatrically and stabbing into the ground. He thrust all four of his hands towards them, palms open, in a gesture that was probably supposed to prove that he really was unarmed.
Then he made a series of hand gestures before leaning back and expectantly waiting for a response.
Zorian frowned. Was this how the sulrothum usually communicated with humans? It would make sense, he supposed. Most mages weren’t as proficient in mind magic as Zorian, and Ikosian spellcasting language already employed a lot of hand gestures so this method of communication wouldn’t be totally alien for a lot of people. Plus, sulrothum hands were remarkably similar to human ones, despite being giant wasps.
“Well that’s a bit of a problem,” Zach commented lightly.
Zorian ignored him.
“I do not understand that,” Zorian said, speaking loudly and slowly. “Please think your responses at me in human language. I will pick it up from your thoughts.”
The sulrothum froze for a moment before flattening his antennae over his forehead and hissing at him, sounding remarkably like an angry housecat.
“I think you got him a little angry,” Zach supplied helpfully from the side.
Yeah, thanks Zach. Real helpful of you.
The sulrothum reached to his side and grasped one of the several items tied to his waist – a small bundle of herbs and bones, wrapped in snake leather. All three had a couple of trinkets like that hanging off their bodies, but until now Zorian had not put too much thought into that. In any case, the sulrothum proceeded to wave the bundle in front of him, as if trying to ward himself against Zorian’s magic. Sadly for him, the bundle didn’t really do anything as far as Zorian could tell.
Zorian was mystified at the action before it occurred to him that this might be the equivalent of one of those silly ‘folk charms’ that old grannies and street sellers sometimes peddled to children, travelers and the like.
“I mean you no harm. I really don’t,” Zorian said, as soothingly as he could manage. It didn’t seem to help. The sulrothum in front of him just waved his little charm harder and the other two sulrothum were starting to get more agitated as well. “And really, your thoughts are safe! I can only see what you think in human terms, nothing else!”
This was effectively true. While Zorian could indeed see into the sulrothum mind, even their emotions were a pain to puzzle out, much less their surface thought. If he wanted to be able to read their minds, he would have to invest months or years of work to do so, much like he did with aranea. They didn’t have time for that.
The sulrothum in front of him was silent for a few seconds. Then, seemingly realizing that his ‘magic charm’ was not being effective, he stashed it back on his belt and shifted his posture into a more confident stance.
[Speak,] the sulrothum ‘said’ in his mind.
“Fine,” Zorian nodded. “First, let me introduce ourselves. I am Zorian and the person next to me is Zach. May I know who I’m talking to?”
[No,] the sulrothum replied.
[I will not give you my name, sorcerer,] the devil wasp clarified after a few seconds. [Everyone knows that names have power and that your kind can use them against us.]
What? This was news to Zorian…
Well, whatever. He would just think of the sulrothum in front of him as ‘Buzzkill’ for now, then.
“We seek passage through your territory and wish to present gifts to your leaders,” Zorian said. He didn’t mention anything about searching the ziggurat yet, since simply getting inside would give them useful information. At the very least they would find out if the Key piece was actually there if they could get in, due to the detection ability of their markers.
[Out of the question,] Buzzkill said resolutely. [You are not of the tribe.]
“Do you not accept guests in your home?” Zorian frowned. “I know we are different, but surely there is some kind of tradition of hospitality in your tribe?”
Buzzkill’s hands twitched into a beginning of a gesture, before he caught himself and laboriously started forming thought for Zorian to detect. The language he spoke was a strange dialect of Ikosian, possibly an archaic version of some local dialect, but Zorian had gotten relatively proficient in Xlotic dialects by now, and could puzzle out his meanings easily enough. It helped that they weren’t having some particularly high-minded discussion here.
[A wise one does not simply let strangers walk into his home,] Buzzkill stated. [We would need to make sure you are friends of the tribe. Signs would have to be consulted and proper rituals observed.]
“I… see,” Zorian said uncertainly. “And how long would that last?”
[Many days,] Buzzkill said. Zorian could be wrong, but he thought he detected a note of schadenfreude in his thoughts.
Zorian was silent for a while, considering the situation. A few more questions to Buzzkill regarding this whole process of ‘consulting the signs’ and whatnot did not yield anything except vague explanations and refusals to elaborate. It was all very secret and not to be spoken to with outsiders, apparently.
His questioning was eventually interrupted by an incoming telepathic message, however – one coming from Zach. He may not be psychic like Zorian was, but telepathy was not beyond the reach of normal mages – it was just rarely used because it required a great deal of training to use, even if one knew the relevant spells, and because of trust concerns. Now, thanks to the extensive training of his mental defenses over the last dozen or so restarts, Zach had lost some of his paranoia regarding mind magic, allowing them to silently exchange thoughts when the situation called for it.
Who knew, maybe one day Zach would actually let him perform a detailed examination of his mind to see if Red Robe had left any more surprises in there…
[I’m guessing things aren’t going too well?] Zach asked.
[Hard to say,] Zorian said. [Strictly speaking, he didn’t say no, just that it would require a lot of time and effort, and probably bribes, for us to be granted entry into their territory… but I don’t know.]
[Huh. Alright,] Zach said.
“Hey, big guy!” Zach suddenly spoke out loud, causing all three sulrothum to turn their heads towards him. “Be honest. You don’t really intend to let us meet your leaders, do you?
Buzzkill shook his wings a few times contemptuously, before laboriously forming words in his mind again.
[It is not my decision to decide that,] he said. [But I think not. We are wise to your ploys. Your kind is dangerous and scheming, and you forever lust after this place. It was once yours, and you have never come to terms with how it changed hands.]
Any further discussion was rendered obsolete when Zach and Zorian noticed a swarm of black dots on the horizon. There were at least 20 of them and they were coming straight towards them.
[I advise you to turn and leave this place,] Buzzkill said, sounding much more confident now. [You are not welcome here.]
Silently, Zach and Zorian seemed to have come to an agreement. They both immediately launched offensive spells at the sulrothum in front of them.
The three sulrothum reacted quickly, probably having expected hostilities to break out soon. Buzzkill wrenched his spear out of the ground and charged straight at them with a loud, screeching battle cry while the two sulrothum in the back reached towards the javelins strapped at their back. Neither of them accomplished their goal – a massive wave of telekinetic force and cutting wind erupted from Zach, smashing straight into them and sending them away like bowling pins. A human would have been reduced to bloody chunks if caught in that kind of attack head on, but the three sulrothum survived mostly intact.
Before they could reorganize, Zorian fired a pair of force javelins at them, each one carrying a different amount of damaging force in itself. The purpose of this battle wasn’t so much to kill the three sulrothum – they could have done that in the initial salvo if they so wished – but rather to puzzle out the limits of their protective abilities and intimidate the tribe somewhat so that they were more likely to negotiate when they come in force later. With that in mind, Zach and Zorian proceeded to throw the three sulrothum around like rag dolls, breaking their wings and limbs in the process and making sure that the incoming sulrothum forces could see the overwhelming power they represented.
Eventually the incoming sulrothum swarm finally arrived at the scene and it was time to leave. Zach and Zorian tanked one of the javelin salvos from the group, just to show they could, and then teleported away.
But they would be back, and they would bring an army with them next time.
* * *
“Alright, now that everyone is here, we can officially begin,” Zorian said, giving everyone present a cursory look. “I know that some of you have certain… misgivings about some of the people present, but it means a lot to me and Zach that you were willing to come here regardless.”
He gave Alanic and Silverlake a look while saying that, as they were pretty much the people this was directed at.
After Alanic had abruptly left the meeting last time, the meeting had been wrapped up soon afterwards. It felt wrong to just continue the discussion without someone as critical as Alanic being present, so they mostly spent the meeting bringing Silverlake up to speed in regards to their plans and activities.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, brat. Personally, I though the last meeting was a fun little reunion,” Silverlake said. “It’s not my fault Alanic decided to be a baby for no reason. Really, one would think a grown man like him would be at peace with his own past by now. Not to mention–”
“Silverlake, please,” Zorian interrupted her with a long-suffering sigh. “We’re here to talk about Quatach-Ichl and how to tackle him, okay? Let’s leave these kinds of personal discussions for some other time.”
Preferably never. He shot Alanic a grateful look for not rising to her bait and sparking another confrontation. Alanic did not visibly react, simply pretending as if Silverlake did not exist.
“Indeed,” Xvim said, tapping his finger at the table speculatively. “I assume you have some sort of a plan, already?”
“Only a basic outline,” Zorian said. “We definitely need to surprise him, and it should preferably be done near the very end of the restart. Quatach-Ichl’s movements become increasingly predictable as the date of the invasion approaches and most of the Ibasan resources are already committed somewhere by that point, meaning that Quatach-Ichl will have trouble marshaling most of his underlings to defend him or send them in pursuit of us if we can recover his crown. As for the actual execution of the ambush… well, we first wanted to try catching him with a soul-severing bullet, since that could end the fight immediately if it works.”
“Soul-severing… that’s the coin trick you used to disable him in the past, yes?” Xvim asked.
“I still can’t believe that actually worked,” Kael sighed. “I had to reread that part of your notes three times to make sure I caught that correctly. I don’t know what my previous self was thinking, sending you against an ancient lich armed with that. It shouldn’t have worked.”
“It was a pretty lucky win,” Zorian admitted. “It only worked because Quatach-Ichl did not see me as a threat and thus decided to catch an object thrown at him in his hand instead of simply deflecting it away or shielding against it. I doubt I could engineer such a situation artificially and there is no way a coin is getting through his defenses during combat circumstances.”
“Yeah, no way,” Zach agreed. “I’ve tried to nail him with items in the past. No chance of him overlooking something like that while you’re fighting him. He often actually sends thrown items right back at you with a casual gesture. He is quite proficient with unstructured telekinesis.”
“I’m not sure I understand how this maneuver is possible,” Xvim admitted. “Unusual circumstances aside, you employed an elementary piece of soul magic to shut down a lich. Liches are famous for being fiendishly hard to deal with, so why did a thousand-year-old one fall so easily?”
“Because it wasn’t Kael’s little spell that exiled the lich’s soul back to his phylactery,” Silverlake said. “It was his own soul defenses that did that. You may think that being vulnerable to a cheap trick like this is a weakness, but imagine for a moment what would happen if that coin the brat used was a fancy soul jar or the like.”
“His soul would get captured and his phylactery would be useless,” Xvim said. “I see. So liches like him make their defenses incredibly sensitive, so that even the slightest soul disturbance causes their souls to snap back to their phylactery.”
“Precisely,” Alanic said. “Losing a body and everything you had on your person is a blow to be sure, but it pales to the possibility of having your soul captured.”
“Most people don’t carry a one-of-a-kind divine artifact like the crown of the first emperor,” Zach noted.
“I’m sure Quatach-Ichl feels he can recover the crown from whoever claimed it off his… err, corpse,” Zorian said. “Considering his level of power, he’s not too far from the truth.”
“Besides, what good are awesome magical items like that if you’re not allowed to make use of them for fear of losing them?” Silverlake said. “I’d wear a fancy magical crown too, if I had one. Always wanted to try playing a princess as a little girl…”
“Unsolicited childhood fantasies aside, I’d like to remind you two that all liches are automatically powerful soul mages, and can adjust their soul defenses quite easily and rapidly,” said Alanic. “If you hope to banish Quatach-Ichl’s soul back to his phylactery, you only have one attempt per restart to do so. After that the lich will be expecting such a ploy and will likely take necessary precautions against it.”
“What about going one step further and making an actual soul jar in order to capture Quatach-Ichl’s soul?” Kael asked. “I mean, the last time Zorian tried this, he only had me to help and I’m… kind of a beginner at this. With Alanic and Silverlake here… well, they’re clearly both very capable soul mages, so perhaps they could make something more potent than that?”
Alanic and Silverlake shared a long, complex look before they both refocused on Kael again.
“No,” Alanic sighed, shaking his head sadly. “You are drastically overestimating our skills. Aside from having your phylactery destroyed, the biggest danger to a lich is having your soul captured. They spend a great deal of their energies making sure that can’t happen under any circumstances. An old, experienced lich like Quatach-Ichl…”
“The only realistic way of dealing with him is destroying his phylactery,” Silverlake finished for him. “Nothing else would work.”
“I see,” Kael said in a subdued manner.
“There is a reason why so many mages aim for lich-hood,” Silverlake noted. “As far as methods of immortality go, having your very own resurrection point is hard to beat.”
“Being undead is no true immortality, merely a twisted reflection of one,” Alanic stated.
Silverlake harrumphed at him, but said nothing. Instead, she turned towards Zach and Zorian and gave them a speculative look.
“What?” Zach asked.
“Did you two ever think about just… soulkilling Quatach-Ichl? You know, that trick the third time traveler used on the aranea and such? It would neatly solve this problem, not just in this restart, but in all subsequent ones as well.”
“We did,” Zach nodded slowly. “The conclusion was that we have to be very careful with that. The headaches we had with Veyers had taught us that a person behind heavy wards is essentially untraceable. If we soulkill Quatach-Ichl and it turns out he begins the restart behind some heavy wards or a place that nobody knows about, the crown might become completely unrecoverable.”
“Hmm,” Silverlake hummed. “You should really try to track down his movements and bases some of these days…”
“I’m going to have to agree with her on this,” Alanic said. “I know you say you’re stretched enough as it is, but even a mere chance of ridding the world of such an ancient lich would be worth throwing some effort in that direction. This is probably the best chance of anyone tracking down his phylactery in the foreseeable future.”
“That’s easier to say than to actually put into practice,” Zach said, shaking his head.
A small silence descended at the scene, only broken up when Silverlake decided to clear her throat and attract everyone’s attention to herself.
“In any case, I’ve done some digging in my personal records after you’ve explained the situation to me… I think I have something that might help you take down Quatach-Ichl,” she said, pulling out a weathered old scroll out of her bag.
“Oh?” Zach said eagerly. “Do tell.”
“It’s a trap field that prevents souls from escaping out of the area,” Silverlake said, throwing the scroll in his direction. Zach caught it, fumbling slightly with the catch due to not expecting the move. “For undead like Quatach-Ichl, it stops them from leaving until they shut down the ward. If you can lure him into the field, it should give him trouble for a time at the very least. I heard he moves a lot around the battlefield and loves to retreat to come back later. This ward is not nearly as obvious as an anti-teleportation field, but effectively has the same effect as one on undead.”
Huh. That did sound very useful against Quatach-Ichl.
“Anyway, I would be of little use to you in the actual battle against a powerful lich like Quatach-Ichl, but I can help you set up the battlefield beforehand,” Silverlake continued. “Aside from the spell I just gave you, I also have a few other surprises, though none are as effective as that one. And while Zorian is arguably a better warder than I am, he doesn’t have experience with these particular spells.”
“I’m probably going to take you up on that offer,” Zorian said. This restart was going to get pretty busy as their preparations approached completion, so any chance to offload some of his responsibilities on someone else was useful. “Every little bit of help is useful. As for Xvim and Alanic, I am hoping you two will help us battle Quatach-Ichl if the ambush fails.”
“Which it probably will,” Zach noted.
“Hush, child,” Silverlake chided him. “Don’t you know you will curse this whole endeavor with such talk?”
“Just being realistic,” Zach shrugged. “I tangled with Quatach-Ichl the most out of anyone here, so I feel I have the right to be a little pessimistic. Anyway, I actually have a suggestion of my own. I think I have an idea about something we can do to better prepare for the eventual battle against Quatach-Ichl.”
“And what would that be, mister Noveda?” Xvim asked.
“A practice fight!” Zach said with a cheerful grin. “I’ll play the role of Quatach-Ichl and you will all cooperate and try to subdue me. Admittedly, I am not an ancient lich of unfathomable power and experience, but I did recently become capable of creating my own simulacrums, so there is no danger of me getting hurt in the fighting. You can think of me as a discount Quatach-Ichl, I guess.”
Zorian flinched a little at his description. This was such a bad idea…
“Zach,” he protested. “There is no warding scheme in existence that would be able to handle the level of destruction involved in such–”
“I think it’s a great idea,” Alanic suddenly said. Zorian gave him an incredulous look. “I would like to also invite Silverlake to participate in these exercises. Even if she doesn’t intend to participate in the actual battle, these sort of mock fights would surely help her get a better perspective on what she is dealing with and help her fine-tune her preparations…”
Oh come on!
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Silverlake said, scowling at him.
This sparked a loud fight between them, the two of them slinging barbs and thinly-veiled insults at each other while Zorian’s mood steadily worsened.
[I hope you’re happy with yourself,] Zorian sent to Zach telepathically.
[It’s going to be great, you’ll see,] Zach sent him back, completely unapologetic.
Zorian looked at Alanic and Silverlake, who were still trying to out-talk each other, and then at Xvim, who looked like he wanted to attack both of them to make them shut up. Kael had decided to flat-out vacate the room at some point, which was probably smart of him. He was too weak to participate in the sort of ‘practice fight’ Zach was suggesting and staying behind might mean he would get pulled into the argument between Alanic and Silverlake.
“Yeah,” Zorian muttered to himself. “Great.”
* * *
In the end, despite Zorian cautioning against it, the group decided to hold the battle practice that Zach suggested. Alanic obviously supported the idea, and he managed to goad Silverlake into supporting it too in the end. Xvim, though annoyed with the way Alanic and Silverlake were acting, felt it was a sensible idea… and was probably curious about the level of magical skill that Zach and Zorian truly had, anyway.
Thankfully, the practice fight was not going to happen for a few more days, leaving Zorian time to tangle with other issues. Mainly, this meant making preparations for the attack on the Ziggurat of the Sun. Golems had to be made, terrain scouted and information on sulrothum gathered. Thankfully, Alanic had agreed to help them out during the fighting, despite his disagreements with them over the inclusion of Silverlake into the time looping ‘conspiracy’. Fighting pagan monsters that had seized a religious monument of the faith, Alanic said, was a worthy task for a battle priest like him. Unfortunately, having him gather a small army and having them assist in the endeavor, like he had done in some of the previous restarts, was apparently not possible. Those people had been willing to participate in secret operations on Eldemarian soil, but bringing them to the deepest stretches of the Xlotic desert to fight the sulrothum was bound to backfire. They would demand explanations and refuse to cooperate.
No, if Zach and Zorian wanted to have real people assisting them in their attack on the ziggurat, they needed to hire mercenaries and factions in Xlotic itself – preferably in the region closest to the Ziggurat of the Sun. As a bonus, such locals likely had first-hand information about sulrothum and their battle tactics, having been fighting them for decades now.
At the moment, Zach and Zorian were sitting around an open air table in one of Cyoria’s fancier taverns and discussing the issue. Zorian was slowly sipping his fruit juice, while Zach had ordered the biggest keg of beer that Zorian had ever seen served in this kind of establishment. Zorian had initially thought that the keg was undrinkable in any sort of reasonable time-frame, but Zach was making a valiant effort to prove him wrong on that account.
The contrast between the two probably looked quite funny, because the other patrons occasionally gave them funny glances and shook their heads in amusement.
“Anyway,” Zorian said, “the idea of consulting and hiring the locals for the fight against the sulrothum is good, but I’m running into issues of language again. I acquired a decent grasp of various Xlotic dialects by now, and Daimen and his connections help substantially, but this just isn’t enough when I’m trying to actually hire guides, scholars, mercenaries and whatnot. I think we may need to find an actual translator to help us out. I wonder if we can talk Zenomir into going on a trip to Xlotic with us…”
“Bah. Why bring an old man like that when we can bring a hot girl instead?” Zach asked. “Neolu is native to the region, and I bet she’d love to ditch school and go wander the world with us. Actually, I don’t have to wonder – I know she’d like that because I used to do that sometimes. Just… tell her I’m a time traveler and bring her along with me as I wandered the continent. Sometimes I’d bring others along too, but most people aren’t willing to accept the whole ‘time traveler’ explanation as readily as she…”
“Ah, I remember her,” Zorian said. “And you say she’s really easy to convince about time travel?”
“Yeah, definitely,” Zach nodded. “She asks for proof, of course, but that’s easy to give. I already know more than enough to convince her to join us. Though admittedly she might be a little more reluctant to run off with two boys than just one. I, uh… used to phrase my offer more like a romantic getaway than a business transaction.”
Zorian sighed in exasperation. Then again, if he had been stuck in a time loop like Zach had been, with no obvious danger pressing down on him, wouldn’t he do the same thing? He’d probably take advantage of the time loop to go after a girl or two…
“Why don’t we first try to talk to her about this before we take it for granted that she’d want to go along with this,” Zorian told him.
“At the very least she probably won’t mind getting us in contact with her family,” Zach said with a shrug. “Her family is rich and in a bit of a political crisis right now, so it should be possible to acquire their cooperation in exchange for helping them out with a problem or two. Finding us a translator or two is the least they could do for us.”
“A bit of a political crisis?” Zorian asked slowly.
“It’s a long story,” Zach said dismissively. He took a large gulp from his massive keg of beer and took a deep breath. He was going to get completely drunk again before this was all done, wasn’t he? “I’ll tell you later, if Neolu herself doesn’t tell you.”
“Hello there. Do you mind if I join you for a few minutes?” a voice suddenly asked from the side.
Zach and Zorian were very surprised to hear this request. They had set up a privacy ward around their table, which was a clear sign to everyone that they did not want to be disturbed. They turned their attention to the source of the request, which turned out to be an older man in an expensive-looking suit. He wasn’t one of the tavern workers and neither Zach nor Zorian had ever seen him before, so it was unusual for him to approach them like this.
Despite this, Zorian did not think for a moment that the man was just a curious tavern patron.
After all, if the man was just your average person, he would be able to sense the man’s mind. And he couldn’t. The man was completely blank to his mind sense, as if he didn’t exist at all.
Mind blank was not an easy spell to cast, and being under its effects immediately placed the man in the upper tier selection of mages.
Zorian silently communicated this to Zach through telepathy, after which they shared an uneasy look between themselves.
“Sure,” Zach eventually said. “Have a seat.”
The man smiled at them confidently, as if he had always known they would have accepted his request. He took an empty chair from a nearby table and dragged it off to join them around theirs.
Zorian scrutinized him, trying to see if something in his features would jog his memory. He was a pretty striking person, though, so it was unlikely he would have forgotten him if he had dealt with him in the past. He had very proud posture, like someone who had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and his clothes and immaculate appearance reinforced it. His skin was darker than was common in this corner of Altazia, suggesting southern origins. Perhaps he was someone from Xlotic whose attention they somehow attracted? It wouldn’t be impossible for a powerful mage from Xlotic to eventually make their way to Eldemar.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” the man said politely. “I guess I should introduce myself. I am Saruwata Merenptah and I’m afraid I’m here to discuss something a bit… unpleasant. You see, I have recently noticed that you have been gathering information about me and interfering with my activities, so I have decided to come here and see if there is any way we could discuss this in a civilized manner and maybe come to a peaceful solution. I do not consider myself an unreasonable man.”
What an exotic name… it definitely sounded Xlotic, but he was pretty sure that kind of name was obscure even there. He definitely didn’t remember about interacting with any person named like that, and he had a pretty good memory thanks to his mental powers. The rest of his story, though… what the hell was he talking about? He gave Zach a questioning look, but his fellow time traveler shook his head in the negative. Zorian turned back to the man and gave him a serious look.
“I’m afraid you made some kind of mistake, mister Merenptah,” Zorian said.
“No, I don’t think I have,” Saruwata said confidently. “My name may be confusing you somewhat. I rarely use my old name when interacting with the public, so most people have forgotten it. Just the way I like it, to be honest.”
“How do you expect us to know who you are if you hide your identity like that?” Zach asked, his tone somewhat unfriendly.
Zorian didn’t blame him; perhaps it was because of the man’s unflinching confidence, appearing as if he was holding all the cards and the outcome of this meeting was already predetermined, or because of the mind blank he put on himself, but he was really starting to dislike this ‘Saruwata Merenptah’. He also noticed that the man’s soul was flawlessly stable, with not even the tiniest ripples marring its surface as they spoke, which meant he was a soul mage of the highest order. Not even Alanic could keep his soul so featureless.
“Ha ha!” the man abruptly laughed. His soul still remained completely calm, despite his obvious amusement. “So you’re saying you’re targeting so many people that telling you I’m one of your victims isn’t enough to narrow things down? Interesting, interesting…”
Zach scowled. “Mister Merenptah, I’m starting to think you’re asking for a beating.”
“If I tell you I’ve been around for a while, will this help?” the man said, grinning from ear to ear.
Master mage. Incredibly proficient in soul magic. Xlotic in origin. Someone they were targeting. Very old… older than he looks? Fake appearance? Obscure name… possibly an archaic one? Old enough to go out of fashion?
Zorian swallowed heavily.
“Quatach-Ichl?” he asked.
The man’s grin never wavered. Instead, a flash of sickly green light passed over his face for a moment, revealing a familiar pitch-black skull of a millennia-old lich. Then the moment passed and his face was the same flesh-and-blood mask he had been wearing up until now.
“I’m so pleased to deal with intelligent people,” Quatach-Ichl said, leaning back in his chair. “It makes things so much easier. So… do you think you’re ready to talk?”