Aranhal, the unfortunate nation that had lost its airship prototype to Zach and Zorian, had been affected deeply by the theft. It was a huge blow to their prestige to lose their prized creation in such a dramatic manner, possibly more so than a mere technical failure would have been. If the design itself was flawed or the builders had assembled the vessel incorrectly and it crashed during its maiden flight, that would have been kind of embarrassing… but mostly for the project itself and the factions that supported it. Having a bunch of thieves break into the construction site and steal it away, though? That reflected badly on the whole country. It didn’t help that Aranhal couldn’t suppress the information that they had engaged the thieves in an airship battle and lost. The airship they had lost in the ensuing battle couldn’t be simply swept under the rug, after all. Many people ended up losing their positions over this scandal, information gathering groups in the entire region were going crazy trying to figure out which group was responsible for the feat and rumors were flying that a massive audit of Aranhal’s government agencies and armed forces was in the works…
Zach and Zorian, the causes of the entire furor, were only dimly aware of all this. They kept an eye on the news and reports coming from the region, but it didn’t seem like Aranhal was getting any closer to tracking them down, so they gradually lost interest. Zorian did find it kind of interesting how many otherwise obscure groups and individuals were roused into action as a result of their theft, though. Perhaps it would be a good idea to stir up some similarly great outrage back in Altazia, just to see if something particularly interesting would show itself in its wake…
That was a thought for some other time, though. At the moment, Zach and Zorian were simply relaxing on their new airship as it flew over the empty, sun-scorched desert. They weren’t going anywhere in particular – they were just meandering from one random place to another, testing the ship’s flight systems and enjoying the view. As an added bonus, aimlessly flying around the Xlotic desert was a pretty good way of foiling any attempt to eavesdrop on them. No matter what kind of exotic methods of tracking them down and spying on them Quatach-Ichl had at his disposal, they probably couldn’t reach across continents and reach them here.
“Wow, the view from here is amazing! And look, those four tower-like rock formations over there? Those are Retam’s Fangs, where the prince of Ixam and the rebel queen Hanfa swore an alliance to unite their forces and repel the Ikosian forces encroaching upon their land. Even though they failed in the end, I always thought their story of forbidden lovers fighting a doomed battle against insurmountable odds was so romantic…”
Zorian glanced to his side, where Neolu was leaning over the airship railing and animatedly babbling about anything that caught her eye. Bringing her along with them when they boarded the airship kind of interfered with the idea of maximum security, but Quatach-Ichl already had plenty of people to choose from if he wanted to kidnap someone to question about Zach and Zorian, so whatever. He was more amazed that she was willing to go along with them, to be honest. A couple of acquaintances come up to you one day and tell you that they’re time travelers and want you to join them for a joyride in their stolen airship and you just… accept the offer?
“I’m hardly an expert on ancient Ikosian history, but wasn’t that alliance a matter of pure pragmatism? And didn’t the prince of Ixam have his father’s permission to broker a deal with the rebels?” Zorian asked curiously. “What exactly makes this a case of ‘forbidden love’?”
Neolu gave him an unamused look.
“Err, never mind,” Zorian said quickly. He didn’t want to start an argument about a silly topic like that. “Forbidden love it is.”
Neolu’s expression brightened immediately, and she clapped her hands happily.
“We should come down and look around!” she said enthusiastically. “I hear nobody has been here for nearly a decade, since it’s so deep in the desert now. I want to take a souvenir or two. Ooh, my sisters will be so jealous when I show them…”
Zorian really didn’t understand her. She readily accepted their claims about the existence of the time loop – although she was indeed more wary of the story when it was both Zach and Zorian talking to her about it rather than just Zach – but the way she spoke and behaved made Zorian wonder how much she really believed them. She didn’t seem to care at all about the impending end of the month that would rob her of everything she achieved here.
In any case, they had no reason to refuse her request. It wasn’t like they were pressed for time, or even going anywhere in particular, so stopping by for some sightseeing and to pick up some pretty rocks was okay. Besides, Zorian believed that once Neolu experienced the scorching heat of the desert outside the airship, she would quickly decide to cut their visit short.
Two hours later, he realized he may have underestimated Neolu somewhat. Being a Xlotic native, she seemed to possess a much higher comfort threshold for hot, dry climates than he or Zach did. She was also far more athletic than he had given her credit for, because she was jumping about and maneuvering herself across the rock landscape with far more grace than he would have expected from a teenage girl wearing a dress.
Maybe it was some kind of a bloodline? House Iljatir, like many magical Houses, was rather secretive about its family magic and special abilities, but they probably had them.
“Hey, Zach,” Zorian called out. His fellow time traveler, who was just in the process of carving ‘Zach was here’ into one of the stone formations, turned to him with a questioning look. “What is House Iljatir’s special thing?”
“I don’t know,” said Zach. “Something divination-based. Neolu got all apologetic when I asked and said she wasn’t allowed to tell me and I didn’t push. I didn’t think it mattered.”
“Something divination-based, huh?” Zorian mused thoughtfully. Hmm. Depending on what exactly that represented, maybe she had an actual reason for trusting them so easily…
“Yeah,” confirmed Zach, either not realizing or not caring that Zorian was mostly talking to himself when he repeated his words. “Those three blue circles she has imprinted on her cheeks and forehead? They’re supposed to represent eyes.”
“Oh. I was kind of wondering about that,” Zorian said.
“You could have just asked her,” Zach said, shaking his head and turning back to finish his inscription. “She’s a really easy person to talk to, you know? Even if you ask something she can’t tell you, she probably won’t get mad at you.”
After mulling it over for a few seconds, Zorian decided to do just that. He approached the cheery girl that joined them on this trip and waved at her to get her attention. She seemed to be in the process of trying to capture one of the small blue lizards that made their home in this place, though, and was so focused on her task that she did not notice him. The little creatures were totally harmless, but very fast after soaking in the sun for hours on end and quite tricky to catch.
“Neolu?” he asked.
She jumped a little in surprise at his sudden interruption, before refocusing on him. Her eyes, blue like the markings on her cheeks and forehead, stared at him uncomprehendingly for a second before an idea seemed to occur to her.
“Catch one for me!” she commanded, pointing at one of the distant blue lizards with her finger. The lizard instantly reacted to her sudden move, darting so fast into a nearby crevice that it looked like it teleported.
Zorian raised his eyes at her, his mouth stretching into an amused smile.
“Err, please?” she added with a nervous smile of her own.
“Fine,” Zorian sighed. After a second of consideration, he decided to go for the simplest option – he reached into the mind of the nearest lizard and manipulated it into coming over on its own. Once it approached close enough, he simply scooped it up and handed it to the girl next to him, who immediately started to coo and fawn over it. Didn’t girls usually find reptiles creepy and disgusting?
“Look at you, so gorgeously blue and gloriously spiky,” Neolu said, turning the lizard over so she could see him from all sides. The lizard looked decidedly unamused with her manhandling, and would have started biting her fingers by now had Zorian not been constantly calming it down. Neolu gave him a curious look. “How did you do that?”
“Mind magic,” he answered honestly. Using mind magic against animals was not illegal, and didn’t typically scare people.
“Oh. That’s kind of cheating,” she frowned. She stared at the little lizard in her hand for a few seconds before sighing dramatically. “I kind of want to keep it, but… no, that would be wrong. I don’t have anywhere to keep it, I don’t know what it eats, and it would probably be lonely without its fellows.”
She lowered the lizard back to the ground and Zorian released his mental hold on it. Surprisingly, the little lizard didn’t immediately run away after that. Instead, it opted to give them confused looks and it shuffled in place uncertainly.
“Go along little guy, you can go home now,” Neolu said. “Don’t forget me, okay?”
The lizard blinked at her in confusion, probably wondering why the big creature didn’t eat it when it when it had the chance, before turning around and darting away into the distance.
“Sorry about that. I get a little weird sometimes,” Neolu said, turning back towards him. “I guess you wanted to tell me something? Is it time to leave?”
“No, I was actually just going to ask you about something,” Zorian said. “You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I’m kind of curious… how come you accepted our story so easily?”
“Shouldn’t you already know the answer for this?” she said curiously. “You’re the ancient time traveler who has seen it all, right?”
“I’m not that ancient, actually,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “I spent about seven years in this time loop, not counting the time dilation rooms.”
“Time dilation rooms?” Neolu asked curiously. “What are those?”
“It’s a long story. Ask me some other time, okay?” Zorian said. “The point is that I have not seen it all – not even close. Truthfully, this is the first time I’ve had any significant interaction with you.”
“Boo! Am I so boring?” she pouted.
“Not at all,” Zorian said hastily. “It’s just…”
“It’s fine, it’s fine…” said laughed. “I’m just teasing. Well, mostly. You say I accepted your story really easily, so that means you tried to convince many other people thus far. Depending on how far down the list I am, I might actually be offended…”
“It was mostly Zach who tried to convince all our classmates and anyone who would listen, so that statement is based mostly around what he told me of his experiences,” Zorian said. “He said most people reacted really badly to his claim of being trapped in an ever-repeating month. Especially in the beginning, before he honed his skills to downright implausible levels and memorized which secret and prediction this or that person found convincing. You though… you always accepted his story very easily. Even in this restart, where you know we stole an airship and both of us approached you instead of just Zach–”
“Why would it matter that you both approached me about this?” Neolu asked with a frown.
“Err…” Zorian fumbled.
“Oh. Oh! I get it,” Neolu giggled. “I guess I can see it, he can be kind of cute…” She suddenly stopped and gave Zorian a panicked look. “I mean, not that you’re not, but you’re a bit too quiet and passive for my taste and– gods, I should have just pretended to be scandalized about this, shouldn’t I? Okay, okay, shutting up now…”
“You know, you still haven’t answered my question,” Zorian pointed out, amused.
“What? Oh, about me being easy to convince…” Neolu said, giving him a short, nervous laugh. “Right, I don’t really have an answer to that. I guess you’re expecting some big mystery here but there isn’t any. I’m just kind of foolish, I guess. We know each other, I could tell that you had no malicious intentions towards me and you provided all the proof I asked of you… even if you were delusional or lying, I probably wouldn’t have been in any harm.”
Zorian gave her a speculative look. The way she phrased her statement gave the impression she trusted a mere hunch about their good character to keep her safe, but the surety in her voice made Zorian think there some something a lot more concrete involved there. Perhaps something… divination-based?
“And if I asked you how you were so sure we had no malicious intentions towards you?” he asked curiously.
“Woman’s intuition,” she said cheerfully, her voice sounding like she had been just waiting for a chance to use that response.
“Well, regardless of the reason, I thank you for your trust,” Zorian said.
“No problem!” Neolu said, giving him an appreciative look for not pushing her on the issue. “Was there anything else you wanted to ask?”
“Yes, actually,” Zorian said. “This may be too personal, but why did a girl from Xlotic decide to go all the way to Cyoria to attend a magic academy? It’s a somewhat curious thing to do, you know?”
“Ah…” Neolu sighed, her good mood suddenly deflating somewhat. But only somewhat. “That. Well, my mother is actually from Eldemar. She used to tell me stories of her homeland when I was little, and I always wanted to visit the place. So I begged my father to let me come and he couldn’t say no to me. That’s the reason I usually tell people when they ask me that question. And, I mean, it’s kind of true! I really did want to visit. And Cyoria is really interesting and I’m not really sorry for being there…”
“But?” Zorian prompted.
“But if it was for that, I probably wouldn’t have gone so far as to sign up for school here,” Neolu said. “I would have simply visited for a few months. The truth is my father has made some pretty serious enemies back in Nelentar, and there were concerns they would go after his family to get to him. Especially after me, because… um, father doesn’t really trust my judgment much.”
How… very surprising. Then again, most people would say that Zorian’s parents were in the right and that Zorian was being unreasonable when he clashed with them, so maybe he should be more open-minded about Neolu’s reasons for acting the way she did.
“In the end, it was decided I would be sent to Eldemar,” Neolu continued. “That way I would be out of danger, I get to fulfill my long-time wish to visit my mother’s homeland and the whole thing can be explained back home as my father spoiling his daughter a little too much. Three birds with one stone, no?”
“Indeed,” Zorian agreed. Though he personally found it sad that Neolu’s father sent his daughter to Cyoria to keep her safe, only to have the city invaded by Ibasans in the end. That didn’t exactly go according to plan…
“Anyway! I actually think the whole thing turned out really well in the end, so I have no regrets. You don’t have to feel sorry about me,” Neolu said. “Though to be honest, I’ll probably be glad when I’m done with the academy and can come back home. I… kind of miss my family. You probably don’t understand, being able to see yours any time you want and all.”
“Err, yeah… you’re probably right about that,” Zorian said slowly. He didn’t bother clarifying that it was not quite for the reasons she was thinking of.
They wandered the rocky landscape for a while after that, after which all three of them returned to the airship and continued their aimless wandering through the desert. Neolu somehow talked him into helping her take away a large green rock from the site, even though it was pretty much worthless as far as Zorian could tell, and he couldn’t possibly fathom what she intended to do with it, and she was inordinately happy about that. She spent about half an hour humming to herself and inspecting the rock in great detail before eventually seeking him out again.
“Zorian, can I ask you something?” she asked him, then immediately continued with her follow-up question without waiting for his answer. “This time loop of yours… it’s going to end someday, right?”
“Yes?” Zorian said, unsure what she was getting at.
“So one day, this month will run its course as it always does… and I will live on and remember instead of endlessly forgetting?” she prompted further. “And you will remember this day and act accordingly?”
“I… that’s the idea,” Zorian said, faltering slightly. They never told her that there was a good chance they would be destroyed in the end, having failed to leave the time loop before it collapsed. He didn’t really want to tell her about that if he didn’t have to, either.
“What do you intend to do when that happens?” she asked, biting her lip. “About me, I mean.”
“About you?” Zorian asked, caught a little off-guard by the direction this was going in. “Well, it depends on what you want us to do, I guess.”
“I don’t know what I want,” she admitted. “I just know I had fun today and I don’t want to forget it all.”
Ah… and here he thought the realization she would lose everything at the end of the month hadn’t affected her in the slightest. Maybe the implications of the time loop just hadn’t hit her up until now? Unfortunately, there was very little he could do to comfort her in regards to that. Aside from lying, of course.
“But,” she continued, “since that is not possible, I have a somewhat selfish request out of you and Zach: when we meet again at the end, don’t pretend this never happened. You don’t have to tell me about the time loop, but don’t be a stranger. I know I’m probably not the most exciting person you’ve met over the years, but you’re not allowed to forget me, okay?”
Zorian gave her a strange look.
“Well… okay,” he said slowly.
“Yay! New friends!” she exclaimed, causing Zorian to sigh a little. She really reminded him of a little kid in some respects. Or Novelty.
He really missed that silly little spider sometimes…
“I hope you realize we won’t be stealing this airship in the final version of this month,” Zorian said. “So this particular memory is… probably never going to be recreated.”
Neolu seemed to give it a serious thought.
“That’s probably for the best,” she eventually decided. “From what the papers are saying, you killed a lot of people when you destroyed that pursuing airship. That wasn’t very nice.”
“I… really don’t understand you,” Zorian admitted, shaking his head. “You know that, but you’re still here. And you want to be friends with us.”
“All those people will be alive when time resets again, so it’s fine,” Neolu said with small shrug. “But hey! Even without the airship, you can still open doors between continents, no? That’s how we reached your airship in the first place. So you can take me to see all these places anyway!”
Zorian opened his mouth to point out that revealing they could perform intercontinental travel spells was still a huge deal, but in the end he just shut his mouth and remained quiet. Considering Neolu’s peculiar personality, she was probably one of the few people who could handle such a revelation without totally freaking out.
“I guess you’re right,” he eventually conceded.
Besides, what was incredible cosmic power for if not for taking a girl out on a casual vacation into uninhabited desert filled with crumbling ruins and bloodthirsty monsters?
Maybe Zach was becoming a bad influence on him…
* * *
In the end, it was not hard at all to talk Neolu into helping them find the translators and contacts they needed to operate more freely in the Xlotic region. Most of these were going to be in her home country of Nelentar, since that was where she could wield her family influence the most and where her knowledge of local knowledge and customs was most pronounced, but that was still plenty useful. With such a solid starting point, it wouldn’t be hard to extend their net wider throughout the region.
They ended up dropping her off in Nelentar with a pair of simulacrums while they returned back on the airship to discuss something else. Namely, the Quatach-Ichl situation.
“It’s been a few days now,” Zorian said. “We’ve both had time to calm down and think about it. Do you still think we should take a risk and try to broker some kind of deal with Quatach-Ichl?”
“Well yeah,” Zach said. “I mean, what’s not to like? It would be trivially simple to give him divine artifacts, or even pieces of the Key like the imperial orb, in exchange for rare magic and knowledge. Then we can do it again in the subsequent restart with him none the wiser. I feel a dark spark of joy at the very thought of such a scenario. If there is anyone that I don’t feel the slightest bit guilty doing that to, it’s him.”
“I’m not sure how far we can take that, though,” Zorian said nervously. “He’s bound to notice something is wrong at some point. Especially if we trade for magical instructions – if Xvim and Alanic could notice when we were displaying their own techniques, Quatach-Ichl can surely do the same. And I’m fairly sure he would react far more violently to the idea of someone stealing his secrets.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zach said, shaking his head. “It just means we have to be smart about this. We ask him about pocket dimensions in one restart, then about soul magic in the next, then about dimensional gates and so forth. We try our best to get the most we can out of each interaction, and only when we have exhausted a full list of topics do we consider revisiting some of them. If we’re pursuing a different topic each time, he shouldn’t be able to notice anything is wrong.”
“Yes, I’ve considered that idea too,” Zorian mused. “But that rests on the idea that the lich is actually trustworthy.”
“He did come to talk to us instead of simply trying to assassinate us or kidnapping people we hang around with to blackmail us,” Zach pointed out.
“It’s hard to tell how much of that is his real attitude and how much he was simply afraid of rousing some kind of sleeping dragon, though,” Zorian pointed out. “He clearly thinks there is some kind of secret force supporting us. If he knew we were on our own, I have a feeling he would have been much more domineering.”
“Well, that problem has an obvious answer, at least,” Zach laughed. “We just need to make sure he never finds out!”
Zorian supposed he was right about that. It didn’t make Zorian feel any better about the idea, though.
Reaching into his pocket, Zorian retrieved a piece of paper and unfolded it. It held a simple address in Cyoria, transcribed from the calling card that Quatach-Ichl had given them. He had thrown the original into a public trash can an age ago, of course. Even though it looked perfectly normal and he couldn’t actually find anything wrong with it, it was better to be safe than sorry.
“What are you thinking of?” Zach asked after a few seconds.
“I’m just wondering how much of Quatach-Ichl’s attitude that day was real and how much of it was a carefully crafted mask,” Zorian said. “He did come there in what was effectively an ectoplasmic disguise and maintained perfect control over his soul throughout the entire meeting. For all we know, every word and expression could have been carefully calculated to leave a specific impression.”
“Eh, I don’t think so,” Zach immediately said, shaking his head. “I did have short interactions with him from time to time in various restarts, you know. None as extensive as the one that day, but it adds up. And the Quatach-Ichl we met that day was very much like what I remember of him in the past. He had that same uncaring, informal manner of speech that looks so out of place on a terrifying old-as-dirt lich and the casual way he threatened us, more like he was stating facts than trying to be menacing… it sounded very much like what I was used to. No doubt there was some level of deception and social manipulation going there, but I don’t think he was faking most of it. Like that move with the dagger near the end of the meeting – plunging an unknown divine artifact into his ectoplasmic form may have been intended to send us some kind of message, though I struggle to figure out what it was, but more likely than not it was just him having a bit of a theatrical streak.”
“I did get the impression that he likes to brag, yeah,” Zorian agreed thoughtfully. “He seemed to delight in drawing attention to his abilities, great age and other advantages. Like his insane mana reserves, for instance.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me,” Zach grumbled. “I guess now I know how people felt about me all this time. But yeah, I think he’s pretty much what he advertises himself as: an old, incredibly powerful lich with little concern about appearing humble or dignified. I think it’s partly because of his great age. I read once that, contrary to what most people think, ancient peoples tended to be a lot more rude and forthright than modern ones. A lot of immortals throughout history found it hard to keep up with changing social mores. For instance, not that long ago people had very little concept of privacy and thought nothing of having sex in the same room as their children. Public torture and executions were considered to be almost akin to a free entertainment show you could visit rather than something horrifying. And you heard yourself what Quatach-Ichl thought about the proper treatment of conquered populace. In all likelihood, the way Quatach-Ichl behaves is a sort of compromise between what he feels is reasonable based on the ancient environment he was raised in and what he thinks he can get away with in the modern era.”
That was an interesting point. Zorian couldn’t help but remember that one time he decided to describe the process of butchering animals to some of his classmates in Cyoria who had never been outside the city. He was surprised and amused when he realized how horrified they were at his description of how the animals were killed and processed. It seemed so silly and hypocritical to him, since he was pretty sure they ate meat just fine and would continue to do so in the future.
And that was between people belonging to the same general age and culture. Quatach-Ichl probably experienced this sort of thing magnified a hundredfold. Perhaps when Zach and Zorian told him about how wrong it was to kill all these people in Cyoria, he thought of them the same way Zorian did about those squeamish kids that couldn’t handle how their meals were prepared behind the scenes.
“You know surprisingly much about the topic,” Zorian pointed.
“Back when I didn’t know when this time loop was going to end, I looked around for any information I thought might be applicable to my situation,” Zach shrugged. “I was kind of going crazy from the endless repetitions and I thought maybe the books about immortals and their ilk would be of help. Unfortunately, it turned out our situations weren’t very comparable. It turns out most ageless people think the world is changing too much and too fast for their tastes, not that everything is too cyclical or boring or whatever.”
“I see,” Zorian said, leaning back. “So, just so we’re clear: we’re really doing this?”
“I think we should,” Zach confirmed. “It’s dangerous, yeah, but the gains would be so very sweet. Doubly so because we’re effectively stealing knowledge from that bag of old bones…”
“The situation in this restart is not very good for what we talked about, though,” Zorian pointed out. “The restart is more than halfway done by this point. If we’re going to try and get the most out of any individual topic within the span of a single restart, we should wait for the next one to start.”
“I don’t think it would be wise to just ignore Quatach-Ichl in this restart, though,” Zach frowned. “He will probably decide to move against us if he thinks he cannot turn us to his side somehow.”
“Yes, but I had another idea about that,” Zorian said. “What if… we recruited his help in breaking into the Eldemar’s royal vault?”
Zach gave him a surprised look.
“That’s a pretty interesting idea, but how would we possibly divide the spoils?” Zach asked. “I mean, both sides will want to claim the dagger in the end…”
“Well, no doubt Quatach-Ichl will try to betray us in the end in order to claim the dagger for himself,” Zorian said. “But…”
“But that’s fine, because we want to fight him in the end,” Zach surmised.
“Yes,” Zorian confirmed. “After all… how else can we get ahold of his crown?”
He just wondered how they were going to explain all this to Alanic. If he hated the idea of them raiding Eldemar’s royal vaults and working with Silverlake, he was going to be positively thrilled with their latest idea…
* * *
After a considerable amount of preparations, it was time for Zach and Zorian to assault the Ziggurat of the Sun and try to claim the imperial ring that was supposed to reside somewhere inside. Their forces for the task were relatively modest – aside from two of them and their simulacrums, they also had Alanic, about 20 mercenary mages from the Xlotic region and a small army of golems that Zorian had made specifically for the occasion.
They did not choose to arrive in the Pearl of Aranhal. The airship was ill suited to fight masses of flying opponents like sulrothum, and it would get immediately recognized for what it was by the mercenaries, which would cause all sort of issues down the line. They had enough trouble convincing these people to cooperate with them in this seemingly crazy operation as it was.
Instead, they brought the whole group to their destination – a sulrothum outpost not far from the ziggurat that Zorian’s simulacrum had secretly infiltrated and taken over a few hours earlier – through the usage of dimensional gates. The display of such high-level magic did much to quell the mercenaries’ concerns, which was a nice side-effect that neither Zach nor Zorian had really counted on. They would have to remember in the future that implausible displays of magic did not just alarm people, but could sometimes actually set them at ease.
After organizing themselves a little, the entire group was split into two. The first one, composed out of all of the mercenaries, most of the golems and one simulacrum of Zach and Zorian each, was ordered to march out of the sulrothum outpost and launch an obvious, frontal assault on the structure. This was, of course, little more than a distraction… but a distraction that the sulrothum probably wouldn’t be able to ignore.
According to the military personnel and sulrothum experts Zach and Zorian had talked to in the past few days, humans usually dealt with sulrothum strongholds by bombarding them through artillery magic from extreme range. Unfortunately, neither Zach nor Zorian were all that proficient with artillery magic. It was a magical discipline designed for sieges and outright warfare, and typically involved titanic amounts of mana being shaped by multiple mages acting in concert with one another. Zach knew a bit about it, since his monstrous mana reserves allowed him to cast some simple ones all by himself if he really needed to, but Zorian only had a theoretical grasp of the field. Fortunately, the 20 mercenaries they hired were proficient with artillery spells and had experience in anti-sulrothum tactics to boot.
The devil wasps had no choice but to come out of their base and confront them. Even if they suspected the attack was a distraction, they had to assign at least some of their forces to disrupt the bombardment.
After a few minutes, three more pairs of simulacrums, each group holding a Zach and a Zorian, departed from outpost under magical cloak. Their job was to find their way into the ziggurat and find where the imperial ring was located.
Meanwhile, the original Zach and Zorian, Alanic and the two most powerful golems patiently waited for their moment…
* * *
Simulacrum number one nervously watched the cloud of giant black wasps on the horizon. It was his job – as well as the job of Zach’s simulacrum and the many golems the original made for this day – to defend the artillery mages from being harassed by the sulrothum so they could work in peace. In general, their whole group was supposed to make itself as threatening as possible so the sulrothum would have to send the majority of their forces out of the ziggurat, thus leaving it open easy for infiltration by the simulacrum teams. He was fine with that. However, how was he supposed to do that when the damn devil wasps refused to attack and just kept flying back and forth out of their attack range?
“What the hell are they doing?” the simulacrum asked the Zach-simulacrum beside him. “They can clearly see that we’re setting up an artillery magic position here. Do they think we’re bluffing or something?”
“No, I think they’re waiting for something,” Zach-simulacrum said. “An order from their leaders, maybe? I think–”
A loud roar resounded in the distance and a huge serpentine form erupted out of the sand, directly beneath were the area the sulrothum swarm was flying in. No, not serpentine… worm-like. A huge brown sand worm raised its head towards the sky, its toothy maw unfolded like a hellish, fleshy flower. As for the devil wasps, they seemed to be… cheering?
“Damn it, they managed to tame a fully grown sandworm?” The leader of the mercenaries whined. “That’s going to be a nightmare to fight.”
Simulacrum number one had to agree. Although he could easily detect incoming sandworm attacks due to his mind sense, it was hard to deal with attacks that came from underground. Especially since the sandworm was huge, meaning they had little chance of stopping its attacks and could only move out of the way whenever they detected it coming.
“I have an idea,” Zach-simulacrum said, quickly performing an alteration spell that hardened the sand beneath them into a stone platform and then raising it high into the sky.
“There,” Zach-simulacrum said, smiling. “It’s a bit expensive to maintain, but now the stupid thing can no longer reach us. For all their huge size, sandworms are useless against things that can fly.”
He had barely finished speaking when the sandworm suddenly shook, almost like a dog trying to dry itself off, and a series of translucent, glowing, yellow wings grew out of its sides. They were long and paper-thin, reminiscent of dragonfly wings, and looked comically inappropriate for lifting a creature like that into the air… but as the creature’s many golden wings started slowly undulating like oars on a boat, the sandworm slowly lifted itself into the sky and then reoriented itself towards them.
Zach-simulacrum immediately deflated.
“Now this just isn’t fair,” he complained.
Simulacrum number one looked at the flying sandworm, which was currently flying towards them while accompanied by a swarm of devil wasps and decided he couldn’t agree more.
* * *
Zorian stood in the ruins of the sulrothum outpost they arrived in, observing the state of the battle. In the distance, Zach’s simulacrum was desperately trying to keep the giant, flying sandworm busy while Zorian’s own simulacrum protected the mercenaries from the sulrothum swarm. Curiously, when the Zorian’s simulacrum tried to influence the sandworm’s mind, he found it completely impossible to infiltrate. Usually he could at least make some headway when making such an attempt, even if the creature was heavily magic resistant, but the sandworm’s consciousness seemed to be protected by a mental equivalent of a stone wall – incredibly solid and unyielding. That was probably worth checking out in more detail in future restarts.
In truth, he thought that part of the battle was going really well. Yes, the mercenary group failed to get off all but one artillery spell and was constantly getting pushed back, but it served its job as a distraction marvelously. The sulrothum even sent another swarm of warriors at them at one point, trying to take them out sooner, which caused simulacrum number one to rant expletives at him over their soul link for a full minute or so, but was pretty convenient for the plan as a whole.
No, the problem was that the simulacrum pairs sent to infiltrate the ziggurat weren’t doing so well. Somehow the sulrothum discovered all three of them the moment they got close enough to the main structure, which probably meant there was some kind of subtle alarm ward protecting it. One of the teams then died trying to charge the front entrance, the other sacrificed itself to provide the third one a chance to punch a new entrance through one of the outer walls of the ziggurat, and the third one managed to get inside but was currently blocked in one of the corridors and would likely get swarmed by the defenders soon.
On top of that, the sulrothum figured out where the original forces first appeared and decided to send a group of warriors to check it out. That was how the outpost ended up in its current, ruined state.
“Although we haven’t found the ring, yet, it’s now or never. I’m commanding the simulacrum that managed to get inside to open a gate for us. We’re going in.”
“Understood,” Alanic said solemnly.
“Finally,” Zach said, cracking his knuckles.
Zorian took a deep breath and waited, tapping into the soul link he had with his simulacrums and paying close attention to his simulacrum inside the ziggurat. Opening a dimensional gate was a lengthy process requiring a lot of concentration, which meant it took some time and effort for the simulacrum to find himself in the position where he was able to do so. Finally, after using up all fifteen of his remaining grenades in one massive attack and having Zach’s simulacrum charge forward and sacrifice itself to get him some space, the simulacrum managed to successfully open a dimensional passage between itself and the original.
Zorian sent his two remaining golems through the dimensional gate to clear the way, and then he, Zach and Alanic all rushed inside.
There, they found a mangled artificial body of Zorian’s simulacrum that ended up sacrificing his fleeting life to finish the spell in time. Rather than interrupt the gate-opening spell and save himself, the simulacrum chose to ignore the incoming attack from one of the sulrothum warriors and kept casting the spell till the very end.
Curiously, now that the two battle golems Zorian sent as a vanguard had cleared the entire corridor, there were no more sulrothum coming. That final grenade attack and the arrival of a new batch of invaders seemed to have caused them to temporarily withdraw and regroup.
“Let’s go,” Zorian said, pointing towards the corridor on the left.
“Any particular reason to go in that direction?” Zach asked. “I mean, that seems to be the place where most of the devil wasps are coming from…”
“Yeah, it is,” Zorian admitted. “I don’t know where the ring is, but I’m operating under the idea that our luck is horrible and thus our target is obviously in the most dangerous part of the ziggurat.”
“Oh,” Zach said. “Yeah, that does make sense.”
Zorian turned to Alanic walking next to them, who was ignoring their banter in favor of scanning the walls for some reason. Probably looking for some clues as to where they are – all of the walls still retained detailed carvings of various religious scenes. Most of them were from Ikosian era, but some of them had been crudely ‘repurposed’ by the sulrothum, who did their best to modify the carvings into something that fitted better with their own religious beliefs. Alanic was very unamused by their efforts, if his deepening frown was of any indication.
“Alanic, we’re going to have to rely on you. Zach and I have been using our simulacrums to fight for a while now, and we need some time to recover our mana reserves a little,” Zorian told him. “Do you think you can–”
Two sulrothum warriors suddenly charged out of the corner in front of them, both of them carrying spears and decorations that looked far fancier and better constructed than what they had encountered thus far. They were probably elite warriors of the colony, and they screeched out a challenge and charged at them the moment they saw them.
Alanic’s expression didn’t change in the slightest. He simply waved his battle staff lightly and two tiny, highly compressed balls of fire flew forwards at incredible speeds. They impacted the warriors’ faces, burning a hole straight through them, and the two sulrothum died on the spot.
“Don’t worry,” Alanic said. “Leave it all to me.”
He had barely finished speaking when a literal horde of sulrothum converged all of a sudden.
The entire corridor erupted into burning flames.
* * *
After much bitter fighting and several temporary retreats, the group finally managed to achieve its goal. One of the battle golems was rendered inert, the other was missing one of its arms and had three spears sticking out of it and slowing it down, Alanic had received a nasty-looking wound across his chest and Zach was almost out of mana.
But they had found it. They had found the imperial ring.
Unfortunately, they found it because the person wearing it decided to come to them. Apparently they caused such a commotion that the sulrothum high priest decided to confront them personally, accompanied by his highly-trained, well-equipped honor guard. He was a particularly large sulrothum, equipped with menacing-looking bone armor and holding what was unmistakably a spell staff. He was clearly a mage, and if the low-level magical aura he was emanating was of any indication, probably a soul mage to boot.
He was also decorated with an absolutely ridiculous amount of little trinkets and various jewelry, one of which was the imperial ring that he had on one of his hands. If Zorian didn’t have the marker’s function to detect pieces of the Key, he would have never spotted it among all that junk the high priest was wearing.
They couldn’t fight him. Maybe when they were in their top form, but not now. However, Zorian just couldn’t bring himself to flee without at least trying to pull off one last thing…
He summoned most of his remaining mana and launched a massive mental attack on the high priest. Just for a moment, he smashed aside his mental defenses, suppressed his will and forced him to perform one simple action.
In one smooth movement, the high priest ripped the imperial ring off his finger and threw it at Zorian, who immediately caught it in his free hand.
Then the effect was broken and the sulrothum high priest looked dumbfounded at what he had just done.
“Zach, get us out of here now!” Zorian urged him.
Just before they teleported away, leaving their poor damaged battle golem behind as a distraction, they heard a shrill, outraged scream from the high priest at the unfairness of it all.
Zorian nodded sagely in his heart. Yes, sometimes the world really was extremely unfair.