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Chapter 081
A Civil Conversation

The tavern was a bright, lively place. Not very crowded, which was why Zach and Zorian had chosen it, but there were plenty of people talking, drinking, eating and walking around. Some of them gave their table a glance from time to time, but that was just idle curiosity and they went about minding their own business soon afterwards. Nobody really paid attention to them, nor to the new arrival that had joined them at their table.

They didn’t even realize they were in the presence of a millennia-old lich that was currently plotting to destroy the whole city.

Then again, that was to be expected. Quatach-Ichl’s disguise was practically flawless. Even Zach and Zorian had been fooled until he had revealed himself, so how could a bunch of random bystanders notice something was wrong? Even now, with the lich within a hand’s reach of Zorian, he was struggling to notice any obvious tells that the man in front of him was actually a walking skeleton instead of a real flesh-and-blood creature.

Seconds ticked by in total silence, the two sides silently staring at each other. Zorian would have liked to claim that he was furiously thinking about the implications of this sudden visit and devising the proper way to tackle it, but the truth was that he was thoroughly shocked and was having trouble formulating any kind of coherent train of thought at the moment. He could hardly believe that Quatach-Ichl had casually walked up to them in a busy tavern and started talking to them like there was nothing wrong. What the hell was he even thinking!? This was surprisingly impulsive behavior for someone who was supposed to be more than a thousand years old.

Fortunately, Zach was more adept at retaining his presence of mind in these kinds of unexpected situations. The benefit of greater experience granted to him by the literal decades he had spent in the time loop, Zorian supposed.

“You look better than I would have expected you to look,” Zach commented.

“How so?” Quatach-Ichl asked curiously. He made a couple of gestures at the passing waiter, ordering a something for himself. Zorian wasn’t sure what, but the waiter seemed to have understood him and responded with a casual nod in return.

Why was a lich like Quatach-Ichl ordering drinks, even though he doesn’t need to drink? Probably for the sake of appearances, but still. Could he even drink? Was his disguise good enough to allow that?

“You look surprisingly… fleshy,” Zach clarified, taking a sip from the massive keg of beer in front of him.

“Ah, that,” Quatach-Ichl said. “Truthfully, this is how I usually look. The skeleton form is something I reserve for battles and intimidation purposes.”

Having spied on the lich a few times in the previous restarts, Zorian knew this wasn’t quite true. Quatach-Ichl also habitually appeared as a skeleton when interacting with the Ibasan forces and other people involved in the invasion… though perhaps he counted that under ‘intimidation’.

“It’s pretty bold to just approach your enemies like this,” Zach commented.

“Are you going to attack me in the middle of this tavern?” Quatach-Ichl countered.

“I’m seriously considering it,” Zach said, his face twisted into a small frown.

“No, you’re not,” Quatach-Ichl said, giving them a knowing smile. “Putting aside the morality of involving all these defenseless bystanders in our dispute, starting a fight here would be just as bad for you as it would be for me. The ruling powers of this country would be just as interested in your activities as they would be in my own – probably even more so, since you two would be easier to blackmail and take control of than me.”

He was right, of course. The two of them had come here without disguises, in their real identities. If they were to fight the Ibasan lich here, the authorities would track them down within a matter of hours, and the level of skill they would be forced to show during the fight would intrigue and alarm just about everyone involved. Once they started to look into Zach and Zorian, all sort of interesting things would come out. Even if the two of them won the fight with Quatach-Ichl and somehow managed to avoid any dead bystanders or property damage along the way, the restart would be effectively over. At that point they could just as well end the restart and start over.

Well, the truth was that the smartest thing to do would probably be to just end the restart immediately. Having this ‘conversation’ with Quatach-Ichl was equivalent to playing with fire. Not even the ability to end the restart on a whim could perfectly guarantee their safety. Sudomir could detect when Zorian started messing with his soul marker, so Quatach-Ichl could doubtlessly do it too. With him so close to them, and having come here prepared for anything, it was entirely possible they might not be able to activate the marker in time before he made his move. Plus, an unscrupulous, ancient mage like him would no doubt have a whole host of subtle tricks in his arsenal, and they would possibly not even realize they were being attacked until it was too late.

Despite that, Zorian had to admit he was curious. He wanted to take the risk and hear what Quatach-Ichl had to say. This was a potential disaster, but also a potential opportunity. It was the first time they’d had the chance to engage in any kind of meaningful conversation with Quatach-Ichl, and Zorian had a feeling this kind of thing was not an easy thing to replicate between restarts.

“What you say is true, but it seems to me that you’d still be the bigger loser if we fight,” Zorian said. “If your actions become known to–”

“You could have easily made that happen by now,” Quatach-Ichl said calmly, cutting him off. “I don’t know how much knowledge you have about what I’m trying to do, but I’m guessing quite a bit. You could have easily made your findings public by now, but you didn’t. Instead you limited yourselves to raiding our supply caches and striking at the more careless members of our little conspiracy.”

Zorian frowned. He supposed this was what Quatach-Ichl had been referring to when he said they had been ‘interfering with his activities’. However, the fact of the matter was that Zach and Zorian habitually did that kind of thing in every single restart, more in order to acquire additional funding than anything else, and it had never caused them to run afoul of Quatach-Ichl as a result. Minor complications like that didn’t usually arouse his attention. So the true reason Quatach-Ichl had managed to find them must be located elsewhere, and Zorian could think of two main possibilities. For one thing, this was the first time they’d gone after Quatach-Ichl directly, and maybe the ancient lich could detect that somehow. The second possibility was that Silverlake had overestimated her ability again and tried to gather information on Quatach-Ichl herself, with predictable results.

He was leaning towards the second possibility.

“So you saw we moved against your group and noticed we could have probably done even more damage if we really tried and thought to yourself: ‘man, I really need to have a friendly chat with those guys’?” Zach asked.

“Why not?” Quatach-Ichl challenged. “We may be enemies, but so what? Enemies talk to each other all the time. Half of the world’s diplomats would be out of jobs otherwise. Well, all of them, if you’re a cynical old bastard like myself and see all international interactions as fundamentally hostile, but you know what I’m saying. The point is that you could have reported your findings to the authorities, but decided not to. And I could have easily gone after some of the people close to you in retaliation for the raids you’ve done on my allies, but chose to have this discussion with you instead.”

Both Zach and Zorian glared at him lightly in response to that thinly-veiled threat at the end. Quatach-Ichl pretended not to notice the look.

“Anyway, what I’m saying is… we may be enemies, but we aren’t irreconcilable enemies,” Quatach-Ichl concluded. “Surely we can reach some kind of agreement here?”

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree with you there,” Zach said. “You want to destroy Cyoria, gather the souls of everyone who dies and feed them all to wraiths, release a primordial to rampage around the region and trigger another round of Splinter Wars. Unless you’re willing to drop this whole invasion thing and go back to your island, we pretty much are irreconcilable enemies. Don’t mistake our current passivity for willingness to quietly watch by the sidelines while you execute your mad schemes.”

“Aha. So I was right, you do know quite a lot…” Quatach-Ichl said slowly, neither alarmed nor angry at Zach’s statement. “However, if you’ll forgive me for being a little blunt… why do you care?”

Zach raised an eyebrow at him.

“I’ve looked into you a bit before coming here,” the ancient lich continued. “Neither of you are all that closely connected to the city itself. You are a scion of a dead house that has been taken advantage of, and Zorian here is just a talented outsider attending school here. I’m really not sure why people of your caliber would waste time on basic magic classes like that, but there are all kinds of people in this world, I suppose. Personally, I’d have gone crazy in a matter of weeks if I had to impersonate a complete beginner at magic for several years but… eh, I’m getting a little off-track. The point is, each of you has only a handful of people here that you really care about. We could easily arrange for them to be outside on the day of the invasion. Do you really care that much, in your heart of hearts, about all the random people that are going to die?”

If Quatach-Ichl had asked Zorian that at the start of the time loop, before he had largely come to terms with his place in the world, got to know all the people around him and witnessed in excruciating detail just what the invasion of Cyoria actually looked like… maybe he really would have answered ‘no’ in his head, like Quatach-Ichl clearly expected him to.

But now…

He remembered the image of Nochka and the other shifter children, naked and in cages, reaching out to him and screaming for help. It was closely followed by the memories of all the people who helped him in all these restarts, and who would likely die in the invasion if he did nothing to stop it, as well as all the different scenes of slaughter and looting he had witnessed over the restarts. He decided that yes, he very much did care. And he was pretty sure Zach did too.

“Don’t you?” Zorian challenged.

“Not really, no,” Quatach-Ichl said seriously. “I come from an age where it was quite normal to round up all the mages and combat-capable men in a conquered town and mount their severed heads on pikes just outside the city walls as a warning to all who would dare defy you. I find modern sentimentality in regards to war casualties insincere, hypocritical and faintly disgusting.”

“Ah,” said Zorian with distaste. He supposed this only made sense. Quatach-Ichl was more than a millennium old, and came from a different, more bloodthirsty time. For all that he was considered ‘tough but fair’ by his own soldiers, the army he once led against the Old Alliance was famed for their brutality towards the conquered populace. It was said to be one of the main reasons his side had lost the war against Eldemar.

“What’s with that look on your face?” Quatach-Ichl said, rolling his eyes at him. “Be honest, now… if you were really such a moral and upstanding citizen, why would you go to so much trouble to hide your true level of power and all the various projects you seem to be financing? Why would you move against me on your own instead of coordinating your actions with the law enforcement and the military? Whomever you are connected to, it clearly isn’t Eldemar’s government. So I ask again: why do you care so much about what happens to Cyoria?”

Huh. That was interesting. It was obvious that Quatach-Ichl had come to them mostly to fish for information rather than because he truly believed he could come to some sort of agreement with them, but up until now Zorian didn’t know what exactly he was after. Now, he was starting to suspect that Quatach-Ichl was mainly concerned with puzzling out the identity of the forces standing behind them.

In reality, Zach and Zorian were rogue agents, supported by no one… but there was no way Quatach-Ichl would think that. It would be virtually impossible for two teenagers like them to have reached the heights they did on their own, no matter how talented. Since Quatach-Ichl had failed to find their backers when he investigated them, he could only conclude that they were very well hidden.

The existence of a secret faction that he had not been aware of was doubtlessly bothering the old lich, making him hesitate to move against them until he knew more.

Zorian quickly sent a telepathic message to Zach, warning him not to let it slip that there was nobody backing them up. Quatach-Ichl would probably not believe them even if they openly admitted their lack of support, but it was best not to push their luck like that.

“We already told you, you just don’t want to listen: because of the many, many casualties that would result from your planned attack on the city,” Zach said. “And that’s just the start of the suffering. The wars that would no doubt follow in the wake of the attack would–”

“Oh come on, you can’t blame me for that,” Quatach-Ichl complained. “I mean, I can understand you blaming me for the destruction of the city, but another splinter war is inevitable. Surely you understand that? This peace we have right now? It’s just a short breather so the countries involved can recover from the damage the Weeping did to their command structure. Well, I personally think every peace is just preparation for war, but this peace especially so. Another round of wars is going to happen soon, regardless of whether Cyoria is attacked or not – I’m just trying to nudge the whole thing in a direction that best suits the interests of Ulquaan Ibasa. Same as your own country of Eldemar and everyone else involved, really.”

“I’m not entirely convinced that another war is inevitable,” Zorian remarked. Although there was obviously a lot of truth in that, since he had heard that sentiment expressed by various people he had interacted with over the restarts. “But even if that is true, there is a big difference between you and most of those countries. Their plans eventually end in something stable. You just want to keep everyone fighting forever so they cannot threaten your island.”

“What? No, I don’t. Who told you that?” Quatach-Ichl protested, actually sounding mildly incredulous.

“You don’t?” Zorian asked curiously. Truthfully, he was being deliberately provocative. He had no idea what Quatach-Ichl really wanted, but what he said just now was one of the guesses discussed by his subordinates and various members of the Cult of the Dragon Below.

“It’s a stupid idea,” Quatach-Ichl said, shaking his head in exasperation. “The leaders of your nations can be remarkably stupid sometimes, but they’re not that stupid. If we keep stirring shit up time and time again, sooner or later they will all decide to set aside their differences for long enough to wipe us out before getting back to killing each other.”

“Huh. So your actual goal is…?” Zorian tried.

“Heh. I guess it’s not that big of a secret anyway,” Quatach-Ichl said, smiling at him in a patronizing manner. “I want to mess up Eldemar and Sulamnon and make Falkrinea win the war.”

What?

“What?” Zach protested. “Falkrinea? Why them?”

“Who else?” Quatach-Ichl asked, his tone making it clear it was a rhetorical question. “Eldemar and Sulamnon would never seriously entertain peace with us – anyone who thinks they would is either an idiot or a traitor. Falkrinea though… they are the weakest of the Big Three in terms of military, and their heartland is very far from Ulquaan Ibasa. If they win and subdue Eldemar and Sulamnon, they will doubtlessly be quite disinterested in some fool’s campaign to deal with Ulquaan Ibasa. Keeping their former enemies suppressed should take most of Falkrinea’s strength. They will have little power or inclination for other major undertakings.”

Zorian was about to ask why he thought Sulamnon would fail to take advantage of Eldemar’s weakness instead when he remembered Sudomir’s plan with wraith bombs. He had intended to make an example of Sulamnon to prove he was serious about using his wraith bombs on defenseless towns, wasn’t he? Had Quatach-Ichl given him that idea? From the man’s memories, he knew that Sudomir himself did not think so, but Zorian wouldn’t put it past Quatach-Ichl to have subtly led the man onto the idea without him realizing it.

The conversation temporarily died down because the waiter had come to their table to deliver the drinks Quatach-Ichl had ordered. To Zorian’s surprise, the lich had ordered three kegs of beer to be brought to the table instead of just one – one for each of them. Zorian simply pushed his keg to the side and ignored it, but Zach calmly poured the contents of the new, smaller keg into the giant one already in front of him, which had been steadily getting emptier as they talked. This was no time to get drunk, Zach…

As for Quatach-Ichl, he simply left his own keg untouched on the table in front of him. He didn’t have so much as a sip out of it – Zorian suspected that despite looking like a flesh-and-blood person, he couldn’t really drink and eat food like one. It was probably an ectoplasmic body of some sort, similar to the ones employed by the simulacrum spell.

Since nobody wanted to discuss the invasion of Cyoria and similar topics in front of the waiter, a brief silence descended upon the table. Zorian made use of it to consider their interaction with Quatach-Ichl thus far. Sadly, the only conclusion he had was that it was all very strange. He really couldn’t see through the ancient lich’s plots.

Zorian had been watching their adversary like a hawk, but Quatach-Ichl never tried anything underhanded or gave any indication he wanted to drug them or target them with some subtle soul magic spell or whatever. He also never got visibly angry with them, even though this conversation probably wasn’t going the way he wanted it to, and even after Zorian ‘subtly’ scanned the beer he had ordered to make sure it was safe.

No, their interaction with Quatach-Ichl had been entirely peaceful thus far. Aside from clearly fishing for information about them and throwing in a ‘subtle’ threat or two in his statements, he seemed to really want to just talk.

Hmm…

“Well, I can see this is not going anywhere, so let’s put all that aside for now,” Quatach-Ichl said after the waiter left and a couple of seconds passed. “Instead, let me raise another issue – you have been looking into me in these past few days.”

“Big deal,” Zach scoffed. “Clearly you have been looking into us, too.”

“As a response to your own actions, yes,” Quatach-Ichl said with a small smile. “But you misunderstand. I’m not being outraged at you trying to get to know your enemy – I’m just wondering if there is more to it than that. Sure, you could have been simply looking for a personal weakness or a more effective tactic of dealing with me, but maybe… you actually wanted something from me?”

“You think we were trying to establish contact with you?” Zorian asked incredulously.

“It happens all the time,” Quatach-Ichl shrugged. “People regularly come to me for help.”

“They come to a sinister bag of old bones like you, begging for help?” Zach asked incredulously.

“Of course,” Quatach-Ichl said with a big grin, not the least bit insulted by Zach’s choice of words. “I’m a millennia old archmage. I have survived several world shaking events, and even participated in some of them. People seek me out for all kinds of reasons. Some want lost or restricted magics that are almost impossible to get otherwise, some want to borrow my strength and expertise, and some are simply curious historians trying to get first-hand accounts of bygone eras. I usually help the latter ones for free, being a man of culture and generosity that I am, but others have to make it worth my time. Don’t let that intimidate you, though – I don’t deal in souls or demand people’s firstborn sons or whatever you read about liches in all those slanderous books your government keeps shoving down your throats. I’m an honorable lich, only ruthless to my enemies, and I pride myself on my fair and honest dealing with others.”

“I see,” Zach said, tapping his finger on the table thoughtfully. He then leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “As a matter of fact, we do have something we want from you.”

“Oh?” said Quatach-Ichl, leaning forward as well. “Do tell.”

Zach opened his mouth and then paused for a second, no doubt purely for the sake of drama.

“We want the crown you’re wearing,” he whispered in a low voice.

For the first time since the meeting had begun, Quatach-Ichl seemed genuinely surprised. Zorian didn’t blame him. He was pretty shocked Zach had decided to bring that up, too. He didn’t say anything, though. Hopefully his trust in his fellow time traveler wasn’t misplaced and Zach actually knew what he was doing instead of simply being a little tipsy and ignoring the possible consequences.

In any case, the surprise on Quatach-Ichl’s face didn’t last long. He soon began laughing instead, leaning back in his chair and shaking his head.

“Oh, you two… I knew it was a good idea to come here,” the lich eventually said, having managed to compose himself again. “You’re not even joking, are you? I say, sometimes I wish I could go back to being as young and brash as this… do you even know what this crown is?”

“Of course,” Zach said. “It’s one of the artifacts of the first Ikosian emperor.”

“Good eye,” Quatach-Ichl said, giving them a thoughtful look. “It’s been quite a while since someone had recognized it for what it is. Most people think I’m just a megalomaniac for wearing a fancy crown all the time and leave it at that. How did you know? I thought you had never actually seen me before today, but I guess your investigation of me has been a lot more thorough than I suspected…”

“In truth, we knew you were in the possession of one of the imperial artifacts before we had even started investigating you,” Zach said.

“Oh?” Quatach-Ichl asked in interest.

“It’s because of this,” said Zach, retrieving the portable palace orb from his jacket pocket.

He extended the orb towards Quatach-Ichl, letting him inspect it in detail.

The old lich stared at the orb for more than 20 seconds in total silence, gazing into it with a serious face.

“The imperial orb…” he finally said. “I thought it was lost.”

“It was,” Zach nodded, yanking the orb back and shoving it back into his pocket. “And now it has been found again.”

“So it has,” Quatach-Ichl agreed. “However, I don’t understand how it is related to the crown I’m wearing. Unless you’re saying the orb can detect the other imperial artifacts?”

“That’s precisely what I’m saying,” Zach nodded. “Well, to be more precise, the owner of any of the imperial artifacts can detect all the others. If one can access their hidden functions, that is.”

What an impressive pack of lies. Not that Zorian cared too much about Zach lying to the murderous old lich in front of them, but it was kind of impressive that Zach could think up something so misleading, yet technically true. After all, the Key pieces did have hidden functions, and if one could access them, then they clearly had a marker as well…

“Truly impressive,” Quatach-Ichl praised. “I always knew there was more to the crown than I had managed to uncover, but the hidden abilities had always eluded me. I don’t suppose the orb is for sale?”

“Is your crown for sale?” Zach replied, countering a question with a question.

“Not for all the money in the world,” Quatach-Ichl said.

“Well then,” Zach shrugged. “You have your answer, then, don’t you?”

“And yet… I feel there is a reason you showed me that orb,” Quatach-Ichl speculated.

“How about a trade?” Zach tried. “You tell us what your crown does and in return we tell you what the orb does. Very simple and innocuous, and we both get to satisfy our curiosity without having to part with our precious priceless artifacts. How about it?”

“Very simple and innocuous, indeed,” Quatach-Ichl deadpanned. “But the thing is, I already know what the orb does. It’s just a particularly large pocket dimension, no?”

“No, no,” Zach said, shaking his head. “It does more than that.”

“It does? I see…” Quatach-Ichl said thoughtfully. “I think I’m still going to refuse that offer, though. I have a feeling that I would still end as the loser in that exchange. Give me something more to work with. Say… the location of one of the other artifacts you uncovered?”

“Sure,” Zach said, agreeing with the suggestion immediately. Of course he did. At the end of the day, the very nature of the time loop made this kind of information exchange inherently biased in their favor. Everything they said to Quatach-Ichl today, he would forget when the time loop reset itself. “Shall we go first, or do you want the honor?”

“It might as well be me,” Quatach-Ichl shrugged. He didn’t seem terribly concerned about revealing such an important personal secret. “It’s not such a big secret, anyway. I actually use it as a form of intimidation sometimes. You see… the crown is one massive mana battery.”

There was a second a silence following that statement.

“What?” Zorian said incredulously. “That’s it? Just a mana battery?”

“Ha!” Quatach-Ichl grinned. “I knew you’d react like that! It never gets old. However, when I say it’s a mana battery, I don’t mean it stockpiles ambient mana like the mana batteries modern mages make. I mean it stockpiles the personal mana of the wearer… and the mana inside it never gets un-attuned. It effectively makes my maximum mana reserves ten times larger than they naturally are.”

“T-Ten times!?” Zorian couldn’t help but blurt out. By the gods… and he thought Zach was a total mana monster.

Although Zach was more reserved, one could see on his face that he was also boggling at the utterly ridiculous amount of personal mana that Quatach-Ichl apparently had at his disposal.

The ancient lich seemed very pleased by their reaction.

“Of course, that is without considering the divine blessing I’ve received in the past, which doubled my already impressive mana reserves,” Quatach-Ichl continued. “Measuring of one’s mana reserves was in a rather primitive state at the time I had begun my mage career, so I don’t really know what sort of magnitude I would have according to the standards of modern mages, but I think I was about… magnitude 25? Something along those lines, I believe. The divine blessing then doubled my maximum without hurting my shaping skills in the slightest, so my natural mana reserves were huge even before I got ahold of this lovely little crown. So when I said my mana reserves are effectively ten times their normal size due to the crown? It’s actually even more impressive than it sounds.”

How… interesting. Zorian shared a long look with Zach. That explanation about the divine blessing that doubled his mana reserves… didn’t that sound rather familiar?

“So…” Quatach-Ichl eventually said with a grin. “Do you still think making an enemy out of me is a good idea?”

“This blessing you spoke about…” Zorian tried.

“Aha, no,” Quatach-Ichl said, raising his finger to stop him. “I honored my side of the bargain. Now it’s time for you to honor yours.”

“Fine, fine,” Zach sighed. “Aside from being a massive portable pocket dimension, the imperial orb is also a nigh-infinite memory bank, capable of storing a massive amount of personal memories and mental blueprints inside it.”

Quatach-Ichl considered it for a moment.

“Considering the scarcity of writing supplies in those times… yes, I can see how that kind of function would be invaluable. Not that impressive today, although the remaining records inside the orb, if any, would be incredibly valuable. To historians, if nothing else. How much did you find inside?”

“No comment,” Zach immediately said. The memory bank was completely empty, of course, as it could only be used inside the time loop, but Quatach-Ichl didn’t need to know that.

“Fair enough,” Quatach-Ichl conceded.

“As for the location of one of the other imperial artifacts…” Zach said. “Well, you can find the dagger inside Eldemar’s royal vault. You’re already attacking the country in question, so you should have no qualms about breaking into its royal vaults as well.”

“They have one of the imperial artifacts and they’re letting it gather dust inside the treasury,” Quatach-Ichl said, shaking his head sadly. “How typical.”

There was a brief and uncomfortable silence as both Zach and Zorian waited for the lich to say something more, but he never did. Instead he simply observed them silently, saying nothing.

“So, this blessing you spoke about…” Zorian tried again.

“It’s going to cost you,” Quatach-Ichl immediately warned.

“Well, what do you want?” Zorian asked him bluntly.

“Since you’re asking questions about the divines, I think it would only be appropriate if you offered something divine yourself,” Quatach-Ichl smiled.

Zorian thought about it for a second before pulling out the mysterious dagger they had found in the imperial orb and handing it to Quatach-Ichl. Giving the ancient lich a divine artifact of unknown powers in exchange for this kind of information would be monumentally stupid in any other circumstances, but he really wanted the proper answer to his question and the dagger would be back in his hands in the next restart anyway.

Quatach-Ichl gingerly accepted the dagger and immediately started casting spells on it, scaring Zorian quite a bit. This was the first time Quatach-Ichl had performed any sort of magic after approaching them, and Zorian watched him like a hawk to make sure he didn’t slip in something unsavory between all those divination spells he was casting at the dagger.

“It’s a divine artifact,” Quatach-Ichl eventually concluded.

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “Divine for divine, no?”

“What does it do?” he asked.

Zorian was pleased that not even a millennia-old lich like him could just casually figure out divinely-bestowed powers.

“I don’t know,” he admitted to the lich. “It’s just something we recovered from an old ruin.”

“So it could be totally useless or amazingly powerful,” Quatach-Ichl concluded, turning the dagger carefully in his hands and studying the lines and glyphs etched into its surface. Zorian knew he would find out nothing through that, though. They appeared to be purely decorative and said little about the dagger itself.

“No divine artifact is useless,” Zorian insisted.

“You’re wrong,” Quatach-Ichl said, shaking his head. “Gods were very impulsive, whimsical creatures. They made all sorts of pointless items purely as a joke back in their heyday, it’s just that most of them broke down or got thrown away as the years went by.”

“Divine artifacts can break down?” Zach asked curiously.

“Of course,” Quatach-Ichl nodded seriously. “Most of the surviving divine artifacts are not unbreakable because this is some inherent trait of a divine artifact – they are unbreakable because they wouldn’t have lasted for centuries if they weren’t.”

“Still, based on what you just said, the very fact this dagger lasted up until this day means it’s probably at least a little bit useful,” Zorian said.

“There is some truth to that,” Quatach-Ichl acknowledged. He looked Zorian straight in the eye. “Are you sure you want to trade this, though? You could be losing a real treasure, you know?”

“I’m sure,” Zorian said firmly. “Just make sure to give me an extra-detailed explanation if you’re so worried about taking advantage of me.”

“Ha! Decisive. I like that,” Quatach-Ichl said. “Well, since you’re not afraid to take a risk, I guess it would be pretty pathetic of me to shy away from it.”

With a dramatic flourish, Quatach-Ichl twirled the dagger expertly in his hand, showing impressive manual dexterity, and then… pushed the dagger straight into his chest.

The dagger sank into him like he was made out of water, right through the clothes, and then it was gone like it never existed. Quatach-Ichl also looked completely unharmed by the action.

He folded his hands over his chest and smiled at them.

“What exactly did you want to know?” he asked.

“You said this divine blessing of yours doubled your maximum mana reserves,” Zorian said. “Was that a typical size of increase for such blessings?”

“Hm?” Quatach-Ichl hummed, seemingly surprised at the question. “Well… that’s an interesting question, but I’m afraid I can’t answer that. People with divine blessings were rare, even in times when the gods still roamed the earth, and they tended not to advertise their identity and capabilities. If you think secrecy among top mages is bad today, you don’t want to know what the ancient archmages were like. So many legacies got lost because the old fools refused to let anyone see their work… but I digress. I suspect that the sort of blessing I received is relatively typical of its sort. Making someone’s mana reserves twice as big utterly dwarfs any sort of ‘natural’ increase one can obtain through other means, thus firmly cementing the god as actually godly, but it isn’t completely over the top. Plus, doubling something is a nice, simple-to-understand change.”

“Do you know how it actually works?” Zorian asked.

“In very general terms,” the ancient lich said. “It’s a sort of stabilization frame made out of divine energy, encircling the soul. Somehow, this allows the target to store and regenerate more mana without hurting their shaping skills. Nearly undetectable through classical magic, just like all divine works, but the fact it interacts with one’s soul means that skilled necromancers can eventually learn how to perceive it through soul perception.”

A stabilization frame? Was it perhaps… in the shape of an icosahedron? Did Quatach-Ichl design his gate stabilization frame based on the faint outline of the soul stabilization frame that encircled his soul? Zorian thought about hinting at it somehow and observing the lich’s reaction before deciding that was probably going too far.

“Is there any way to receive such a divine blessing other than getting it from a god?” Zach asked with a frown.

“Technically yes,” Quatach-Ichl said. “The angels are said to be able to bestow such blessings to this very day. However, they are extremely stingy with them and are said to only bestow them upon their most pious and capable servants. I rather doubt they would be impressed with either of you two. So in reality, no, there really isn’t any way for you to receive such a blessing. It’s a privilege that only ancient monsters like me and a few fanatical dogs of the church can wield.”

They asked a few more questions in regards to the soul stabilization frame and how it could be detected, probably rousing some of Quatach-Ichl’s interest in the process, but eventually the old lich decided he’d had enough of their questions and turned to leave.

“Well,” he said, rising from his seat. “I enjoyed this talk and you’ve given me a lot to think about, but I think this is a good time to stop.”

“Yes,” Zorian agreed. It was getting tiresome constantly being on his guard around the ancient lich, making sure he didn’t say the wrong thing or miss some sinister plot unfolding in the background.

“If you want to talk more, feel free to contact me through this,” Quatach-Ichl said, handing them a simple paper calling card, plain white and undecorated. The only thing on it was an address in Cyoria, typed in bold, black letters.

Zorian silently pocketed the calling card.

“I have a feeling we’ll see each other again, soon,” the old lich said with a grin, before turning around and calmly walking out of the tavern.

A long silence followed in his wake, neither Zach nor Zorian saying anything for a full minute, just listening to background noise of the tavern and playing the entire encounter repeatedly in their heads.

“I guess the most pressing question now is: what do we do?” Zorian asked. “Do we do the smart thing and immediately end this ticking time bomb of a restart… or do we play with fire and try to take advantage of this somehow?”

“I don’t know,” Zach sighed, pushing away his giant keg to the side. In the end he never did manage to completely finish it, though Zorian felt that was more due to the circumstances than a literal inability to do so. “It’s hard to think straight about this right now. I’ve got so many bad experiences with that damn bag of bones… I got trashed by him so many times, got so many of my plans ruined when he just swooped in and started wrecking the place… but if you forced me to give you an answer right now?”

Zorian sighed. He already knew what the answer was going to be.

“I always did like fire,” Zach said with a grin.

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