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Chapter 083
Scorpion

Zach and Zorian were sitting in one of the many empty rooms in the Noveda mansion. This wasn’t something that often happened. Despite this being his home, Zach didn’t like to spend too much time in the place. Very few people lived there, relative to its size, which gave the mansion an empty, almost abandoned atmosphere that Zach found uncomfortable. Even before the time loop, he liked to spend most of his day outside, visiting friends and wasting time.

Zorian kind of wondered about these friends of Zach. He had never really seen Zach interact with any of them through the restarts. From what Zach told him, though, most of them were in the same situation as Benisek – kind of friendly with pre-time loop Zach, but not really that close to him and very ill-suited for dealing with the implications of an endlessly repeating month. Much like Zorian pretty much stopped interacting with Benisek, Zach seemed to have totally stopped bothering with these casual friends he had once had. It was a bit sad, though maybe Zach intended to continue interacting with them more heavily once he was out of the time loop…

Regardless, the reason for their uncharacteristic presence in the Noveda mansion was simple: the place still had a well-crafted, perfectly functional warding scheme and the two of them didn’t feel like traveling outside of Cyoria and creating a temporary base just to have this discussion. Thus, they simply retreated into one of the private study rooms that could be found in the estate and hoped this would be enough to foil any spying attempts by Quatach-Ichl or others.

The room was pretty nice. It was small but luxurious, with heavily decorated wooden furniture, several marble statues, magical lighting and temperature control and bookshelves lining every single wall. The center of the room contained a table and some chairs, and sitting in the center of that table was the object that Zach and Zorian had gathered to discuss.

The ring. One of the pieces of the Key that they had to bring to the Guardian of the Threshold in order to reopen the time loop exit and one of the artifacts associated with the first emperor of Ikosia. It was made out of solid silver and largely featureless, with no notable decorations or gems. A few faint lines and sigils covered its surface, only visible upon close scrutiny. It did not seem very imperial, unlike the crown that Quatach-Ichl was wearing or the palace orb.

If they had not possessed the tracking function of the marker on their side, it would have been very hard to pick it out as special from the rest of the small trinkets that the sulrothum high priest had been carrying. Just like the palace orb, it seemed completely immune to divinations of any sort.

They already knew what it did. Maybe it was because they already had plenty of experience with the palace orb, but figuring out how the ring functioned only took a visit to the Guardian of the Threshold and half a day of tinkering with it. It was just that the end result was… not as useful as they had hoped.

“Interesting thing, isn’t it?” Zach said, picking the ring up and making it spin on its edge like a top. “Heh. Of course, it’s more useful for me than it is for you… but that may be a good thing. At least we won’t have to struggle with the question of who to assign it to in the future, like we do with the palace orb!”

Zorian clacked his tongue at the analysis. The ring had an intriguing main function: it somehow granted the wearer an ability to use soul perception through it. As far as Zorian knew, there was no other item with a similar function, which made the ring quite interesting and unique… but also very useless for people like him who had already unlocked soul perception through other means.

Zach, of course, was another story. Due to the safeguards on his marker, unlocking his soul perception was anything but easy. Most methods to do so required one to be brought to the very edge of death and tampered deeply with the user’s soul to achieve their goal. The soul perception potion Silverlake made for Zorian did the same, which was why they had not bothered to have Zach try it out thus far. They just didn’t think it would work and didn’t want to cut a restart short for now. The soul perception ring basically negated any need for such dangerous unlocking, giving Zach a way to practice soul magic easily.

Frankly, Zorian suspected the ring was created specifically with the goal of solving this kind of issue. Since it was extremely difficult for a controller with an intact marker to unlock their soul perception through classical means, it made sense for Shutur-Tarana to prepare a workaround for his successor.

“It’s a bit inconvenient that the ring is so hard to get to, though,” Zorian remarked. “The ring only grants you soul perception while you wear it. No ring, no soul perception. If you started each restart with the ring on you, like the controller was probably supposed to, then that would be a minor issue. As it is, it will take us a week at minimum to get ahold of it in each restart, and that’s after optimizing things…”

“Yes, that does suck,” Zach agreed. “I definitely intend to try and figure out a way to gain soul perception ‘the right way’, so that I don’t need to depend on it, but this is still good. I doubt finding an alternative will be easy and we know from your example that simply unlocking soul perception is just the first step in the process and that a lot of training is needed to use it – with this, I can get started on that right away.”

“I guess that’s true,” Zorian nodded. A part of him was annoyed that Zach got to skip a large chunk of the work Zorian had to do to gain his soul perception ability, but he knew that was just his jealousy talking and that this was objectively a good thing. “It still feels to me like the ring is relatively underwhelming, at least compared to the other two examples we know about. Even its time loop related skill is not that exciting.”

Like all Key pieces, the soul perception ring had an ability that could only be accessed inside the time loop by the current controller. Specifically, the ring could place a tracking marker on target souls, allowing the ring bearer to track their movements with ease. According to the Guardian of the Threshold, the markers persisted across restarts, allowing them to know exactly where people started their restarts and what their usual routines were.

Or at least that’s the effect they would have had if Zach and Zorian had started the restart with the ring. Since they hadn’t, the value of the tracking markers was greatly reduced.

In any case, Zach and Zorian had tested the ability on various animals and random bystanders and found that the marker placement was fast and stealthy, that the ring could keep track of marked entities across intercontinental distances, and that divination wards didn’t seem to hamper the effect in any way.

This sounded pretty amazing, and it was, but the markers had a serious flaw. Namely, anyone skilled in soul magic could detect when they were placed on them. This meant that Quatach-Ichl was effectively immune to it, as was Sudomir, Silverlake and a whole plethora of other potential targets.

“They can’t all be amazing,” Zach shrugged. “And truthfully, I think the real issue is less with the usefulness of the ring and more with how late we got ahold of it. If I had the ring with me right from the very start, it would have been an absolutely priceless treasure. The tracking ability alone would have saved me a ton of work and some dying. Currently, we’re both so good at divinations, memory reading, stealth spells, various tracking magics and things like teleportation that the ring is no longer very impressive to us. But that’s just us being awesome, not the ring being underwhelming.”

Zorian hummed thoughtfully. There was a lot of truth in that.

“Besides, it may be a good idea to place these tracking markers on all of the high ranking cultists and Ibasans to see if they’re doing something we don’t know about,” Zach said.

“That would take quite a bit of effort, though,” Zorian pointed out. “The ring just gives you the distance and direction of your target, and only one at a time as well. You’d have to constantly pay attention to the ring, cycling through all of the tracking markers and matching the information you receive to places on the map to see where they actually are in actually useful terms. Then you’d have to go out personally to check up on any interesting movements to see the details of what is going on, or send a simulacrum, and–”

“You’ve done more complicated projects before, Zorian,” Zach said, waving him off.

Zorian raised an eyebrow at him.

“You… do realize it’s you who will be doing this, right?” he asked Zach. “After all, you’re the one who’s going to be wearing the ring. What with you needing its soul perception granting abilities…”

The look on Zach’s face when he realized he just dumped a huge amount of work in his own lap was truly priceless.

* * *

Although Zach and Zorian had successfully retrieved the imperial ring from the Ziggurat of the Sun and found out what it did, there was no time for celebration. Quatach-Ichl’s surprise visit had completely changed the dynamics of their current restart, and they had to prepare. One of these preparations was gathering everyone’s research notes and the like. Normally this would be done just before the very end of the restart, but since there was so much chance of things going wrong this time around, Zorian decided to speed things up a little.

At the moment, this meant visiting Kael in his basement alchemy lab to see how his projects were progressing. This would be normally rather mundane, but nothing seemed to be entirely mundane in this particular restart. Apparently Silverlake had figured out who Kael was at some point in the restart and had talked to him a few times already. Sadly for Silverlake, Kael had given her a chilly reception. Their previous interaction seemed to have left a bad impression on Kael, something that did not surprise Zorian in the very least, so he was not at all eager to reacquaint himself with her. The fact that she showed unhealthy interest in his daughter Kana, due to her witch roots, probably didn’t help. Sadly for Kael, though, that didn’t deter Silverlake in the slightest, and she decided to barge in on this meeting to give them both her personal opinion on what Kael had been doing all this time.

“It’s terrible,” she stated without preamble.

Zorian had pretty much expected that. Kael probably did too, but he was too much personally invested into his project to just ignore the provocation.

“It’s not terrible,” Kael said in a clipped tone, not even bothering to look at her. “There, now it’s your word against mine. What now?”

“Now I win, because I’m a wise, experienced witch and you aren’t,” Silverlake said smugly. “Really, I don’t understand why you’re so angry with me. Are you really still so angry about the way I spoke to you back when we first met? Don’t be so petty! They’re just words. I guess I was a little harsh, but can you blame me? Fria totally broke the rules when she took you under her wing and taught you all these things. A harsh word or two is really nothing compared to what I could have done… bah, kids these days don’t know what’s good for them.”

“It’s not terrible,” Kael repeated, completely ignoring her attempts to pick on their shared past. “In fact, the potions and the research I have produced over the restarts are so good that they produce an uproar among Cyoria’s medical and alchemical community if I release them too carelessly.”

“Well I’m not saying it’s worthless,” Silverlake clarified. “But considering the amount of resources you had at your disposal and the sheer advantage given to you by the time loop… it’s underwhelming. It’s terrible. So many missed opportunities. So much lost potential.”

Zorian did not try to inject himself into their bickering, but Silverlake’s statement made him frown. No doubt Kael’s methods could be better than they were, but what exactly was she talking about? In his personal opinion, Kael’s work was pretty incredible.

Back at the beginning, when Kael had told him he wanted to research things with the help of the time loop, Zorian had agreed to help, but didn’t really think Kael’s work would have any wider impact. He knew this would be a tremendous personal boon for Kael, of course, allowing him to figure out the best recipes and production methods for known potions. The sort of thing that established alchemists don’t share with anyone except their apprentices. But affecting the medical field as a whole? He knew that Kael was something of a young genius that had been specifically recruited by the academy because the folk healing remedies he had been producing to support himself and his daughter were good enough to get some influential people to take notice, but still. Alchemy was a very profitable occupation and many alchemy-based Houses and organizations had experienced, well-funded researchers on their payroll. What could one beginner alchemist, working in his basement, do that they could not?

Indeed, at first Kael focused primarily on improving his personal alchemical technique. He experimented with replacing expensive alchemical components with cheaper ones, with increasing potency of the standard cures, with cutting down the production time and skipping certain steps… small things, but they added up. They added up in ways that Zorian honestly hadn’t expected. It turned out this sort of production optimization was rarely done on such a small, personal scale by the big alchemical groups. They usually produced their potions in large batches, so figuring out the best recipes and production procedures by a single alchemist working on an individual potion or two was of very limited usefulness to them. Plus, if something could be done by a lone alchemist with a relatively cheap setup, it was much easier for it to be stolen by outsiders or leaked by angry former employees and so on. Thus, they rarely invested too much into that kind of research.

Granted, there were no doubt plenty of individual alchemists that worked exclusively with small scale setups, and they had done plenty of research on their own… but they rarely shared these insights with anyone who wasn’t family or a chosen successor, and many times ended up taking them to their grave. The fact that Kael had done years of research, funded by considerable resources and in cooperation with many individual alchemists and Healers that Zach and Zorian had helped him contact, and was entirely willing to release it to the public… it was a lot more important than Zorian realized.

This wasn’t all, of course. Thanks to the support Zorian had given him, Kael was eventually able to be much more ambitious in his projects. Though he still pursued simple refinement of the production process, he had already picked most of the low-lying fruit in that regard. Now he was going after things like trying to combine several medical potions into one, experimental self-diagnosis potions that allowed a person to feel the state of their body with great clarity, and attempted cures for diseases that didn’t have any accessible cures on the market. Of course, Zorian had a feeling this last one was what Kael really wanted to focus on. The death of his wife and mentor during the Weeping had clearly left a great mark on him, and seemed to serve as his primary motivation to try so hard in his alchemical pursuits. But these sort of ambitious projects were quite hard, and Kael was having very limited success there. Especially since, in every single restart, Kael had to re-familiarize himself with what he had been working on before he began building upon it.

“Missed opportunities, huh?” Kael said, leveling Silverlake with an unamused glare. “So what would you have done in my place, then?”

“For starters, I would have been far more liberal and unrestrained with human experimentation,” Silverlake told him immediately.

Both Kael and Zorian flinched at this.

“Oh, look at you two babies!” Silverlake cackled. “You’re living in a time loop, are you not? When are you going to do human experimentation if not now? You are surrounded by perfect test subjects! Any damage you do will be conveniently wiped out at the end of the month and you have the unprecedented ability to test various versions of a medical potion on the exact same patient without your previous attempts affecting the later ones and muddying the waters in regards to which one is really better. Really, it’s practically criminal that you’re not taking advantage of this…”

“First of all, I don’t care that I’m trapped inside a time loop and people won’t really suffer and die – I did not go down this path to hurt people,” Kael told her firmly. “Secondly, even if I didn’t balk at this on ethical grounds, it’s still a terrible idea. The other alchemists and healers aren’t stupid. Any potion developed through unchecked human experimentation will be obvious as such – people will surely realize that I couldn’t have possibly developed such a potion without going through an inordinate amount of test subjects and send the authorities to check up on me.”

“At which point they will find absolutely nothing, because you did everything in the time loop, erasing all the evidence,” Silverlake said. “They’re just accusations. Just keep insisting you’re a genius and you figured it all out in a dream or something equally absurd. You’re way too skittish. I think you’ll find that a lot of powerful people won’t care that you’ve done everything nicely and according to law. So long as you make too many waves they will want you under control or gone.”

Kael was silent for a few seconds.

“You might be right,” Kael conceded after a while. “But I don’t care. I already said my main problem is with the ethics of the whole thing, not whether or not I can get away with it in the end.”

Silverlake glanced at Zorian.

“No way,” Zorian said, shaking his head. He had seen just how messed up ‘unrestrained’ human testing can get while trawling through Sudomir’s memories. While Silverlake probably had a lot tamer things in mind than that, he’d rather not risk it.

Silverlake ignored him, tapping her chin with her finger and muttering something that sounded suspiciously like ‘if you want to do something right, you’ve got to do it yourself’. This being Silverlake, though, Zorian had no idea if she was being serious or was just trying to piss him off.

“Well, never mind that, then,” Silverlake shrugged. “Second idea, then. Did you two ever contemplate recruiting governments for help? They already have existing logistics and infrastructure, and the amount of resources even a minor statelet has at its disposal is vast.”

“Yes, but we decided against it in the end,” Zorian said. “Governments do things very slowly. Getting them to commit to anything worthwhile would take far more than a month, unless I was willing to use mind magic to speed things up. Which I’m not.”

“Ah, but I wasn’t suggesting you try to negotiate a deal with them or beg for handouts,” Silverlake said with a grin. “All you have to do is ‘leak’ your potion formulas, research notes and other secrets to various governments and their research teams. Make it seem like they originate from their rivals and bitter enemies to light a fire under their ass and then simply stand back and watch what they do with it all. No need to convince them of anything – just dump things into their lap and swoop in at the end of the month to steal all their work.”

That… might actually work.

“Huh,” Zorian said. “You do raise a good point there.”

“You shouldn’t have said that,” Kael said. “She’ll be absolutely insufferable from now on.”

Silverlake just cackled in obvious satisfaction.

“Well then,” she said. “Do you want to hear the rest of my ideas?”

* * *

Once all of the preparations had been done, Zach and Zorian went to the address Quatach-Ichl had given them to contact him.

They had already discreetly checked the place out earlier and knew the place was actually a just a small, seemingly-innocuous corner store. The ancient lich had never given them any secret phrases or contact methods, so they were a little mystified as to what they were supposed to do when they arrived there. Just call for Quatach-Ichl by name? However, it turned out that they need not have worried. The man behind the counter seemed to immediately know who they were and what they were at the moment he saw them. He pointed them towards a door to the storage room, which wasn’t actually a storage room, where Quatach-Ichl had already been waiting for them. His black, metallic-looking skeleton just sat there on a chair in one corner of the room, tapping his fingers against his leg bone and observing them as they approached.

Well. That was kind of creepy. How the hell had the lich known they were coming? Surely he hadn’t spent the whole day here, just in case they decided to drop by…?

“Wow, you were waiting for us all this time?” Zach said loudly, bluntly drawing attention to the fact. “We must really mean a lot to you.”

“I left a spare body in here and ‘jumped in’, so to speak, when I was informed you were coming over,” Quatach-Ichl said, rising from his chair and making a few casual gestures in the air. A cloud of ectoplasm rapidly condensed around the black bones and then solidified into a familiar fleshy guise. He smiled at them lightly. “Still… I will admit I was rather looking forward to this. After speaking to you that day, I couldn’t help but check up on some things and I must say you’re even more unusual than I thought.”

“Oh?” Zach prompted.

“For instance, there is no evidence that you are anything other than regular human teenagers,” Quatach-Ichl said. “I thought, before seeing you up-close, that you may be shapeshifters or possessor entities wearing teenage bodies. Having seen how perfectly your souls slot into your forms, I can effectively rule that out. I have also managed to get a better glimpse at what you are doing and I have to say… you are even more capable than I thought you were. It is really curious that you have managed to amass so much magical skill, money and contacts while being so young… and even more importantly, while evading the notice of people who keep an eye out for such things.”

“Well, those people clearly aren’t very good at their job because someone managed to organize an entire invasion right under their noses,” Zach deadpanned. “In comparison to that, overlooking a couple of precocious teens is a minor matter, don’t you think?”

“Ha! There is a lot of truth in what you’re saying,” Quatach-Ichl laughed. “The security around here is terrible. Still, the only reason we have been able to pull this off is that we have many of the local authorities infiltrated and that I secretly take care of… problematic elements. We are not completely undetected in the way you two appear to be. Furthermore, we are operating in ‘impossible’ fashion, using magics that nobody is aware are possible, and we have only recently ramped up our activities to their present level.”

“So have we,” Zach pointed out. “If you’ve been observing our activities as closely as you claim to have, you’ve surely realized we only started to ramp up after seeing you do the same.”

“That’s a curious way to put it,” Quatach-Ichl said, cocking his head to the side in a questioning manner. “As far as I can tell, you didn’t just ramp up your activities… it’s more like you hardly even existed up until a few weeks ago. And many things you’re pursuing have no conceivable connection to stopping us.”

There was a brief silence as both sides quietly studied each other and their reactions.

“Well,” Zorian said eventually. “I hope you don’t expect an answer from us in that regard.”

“Oh no, of course not,” Quatach-Ichl said, shaking his head. “I’m just thinking out loud, that’s all. So. I presume you have an offer for me, yes?”

“Yes,” Zach nodded. “We want you to help us break into Eldemar’s royal treasury and retrieve the imperial artifact stored there.”

Quatach-Ichl gave them an incredulous look.

“Alright, you’ve got me there,” he said after a second. “I honestly didn’t expect that at all.”

What followed was an exhaustive, two hour long session of questions and answers where Zach and Zorian tried to prove to the ancient lich that they weren’t crazy for trying to pull this off. They showed Quatach-Ichl the various building plans and other information that they had gathered about the royal treasury in the past, pointing out that they already did most of the work and just needed his help with overcoming a few final hurdles.

They weren’t lying, either. They actually already knew how to bypass most of the defenses without being detected, it was just that the final stretch of defenses was extremely closely guarded and was basically impossible to breach in secret. As far as they could tell, any opening of the treasury was automatically a big deal and sent an alarm to people in charge of defending it. This was even true for when the royals were going in. It was just that the official openings were always announced well in advance, so the guards knew to ignore the alarm in those occasions. Thus, Zach and Zorian needed to fight their way in after a certain point, stay inside long enough to find and claim the dagger, and then escape without getting trapped inside. This was beyond them at the moment, but if they had help from someone on the level of Quatach-Ichl, it might be enough for them to succeed.

Quatach-Ichl initially thought the idea of assaulting the royal treasury was stupid and bound to fail. He even accused them of trying to get him to sabotage his own invasion plot by drawing attention to himself in this manner. However, greed was a powerful motivator and once Quatach-Ichl realized that the break in had a large chance of actually being successful, he started to seriously consider it.

There was a big problem with the negotiations, of course. Both sides wanted the imperial dagger. Sure, the royal treasury no doubt held all kind of valuable treasures and documents, but very few of them were priceless in the same way that the dagger was. Quatach-Ichl had lived for more than a thousand years, and had all the money and mundane wealth he could possibly wish for. Some of the other artifacts stored inside could potentially be interesting, but it wasn’t a sure thing and they wouldn’t have time to sift through them all to pick the cream of the crop. No matter what they offered, Quatach-Ichl wouldn’t budge in the slightest. As far as he was concerned, they could have anything else in the treasury, so long as he got the one thing he truly cared about – the imperial dagger itself.

Truthfully, this was all according to plan. Zach and Zorian always knew Quatach-Ichl wouldn’t agree on a deal that would involve him giving up an imperial artifact. In fact, Zorian strongly suspected that Quatach-Ichl would immediately attack them once they were outside to claim the imperial orb from them as well. However, so long as they managed to break into the royal treasury proper, they did not care much. Even if they failed to wrest the dagger and the crown away from the lich in the aftermath, the whole thing would still have been worth it. This was because getting into the inside of the treasury would give them a chance to analyze the main wardstone that protected the entire complex, hopefully letting them outright bypass the defenses in the future.

Thus, they eventually ‘reluctantly’ agreed to let Quatach-Ichl claim the dagger in exchange for the first-claim right on everything else they encountered inside.

Quatach-Ichl gave them a strange look after that, not saying anything for a while, before suddenly turning more jovial and praising them for their ‘sensible attitude’. Half an hour later they hammered out a deal and agreed to meet in two days in Eldemar City…

* * *

Zach and Zorian were calmly walking through the treasury corridor, escorted by four stony-faced guards. They ignored the guards and employees they occasionally encountered along the way, behaving like their presence was completely natural. Three times they encountered invisible detection fields that would have announced their presence to ward supervisors deeper inside the treasury complex, and it took less than two minutes for Zorian to subvert each one into letting them pass without alerting anyone. After a while, they encountered an actual security checkpoint with a couple of mages and gun-wielding soldiers. Zach just casually greeted the group while Zorian flashed an access badge in front of their faces without saying anything. The guards gave them questioning, uncertain looks but didn’t bar their path. There was no official visit to the treasury scheduled, but the group was escorted by guards and had the symbol of royal authority. The group continued on.

Quatach-Ichl trailed after those two, observing everything curiously. After they put some distance between themselves and the security checkpoint, he decided to speak up.

“The mystery grows,” he commented, glancing at the four guards marching beside them. “These guards you have dominated into helping us have very few giveaways that they are being manipulated into doing this. No jerky movements, no hesitation… other than being a little overly serious, there is no clue they are being controlled by another. I had no idea you were such a capable mind mage. If you had such abilities, wouldn’t it be easier to manipulate someone with legitimate access to this place into secretly retrieving the dagger for you?”

“Impractical,” Zorian said simply. He didn’t want to explain that his ability to control people was really quite limited. He may be a powerful mind mage, but he never invested much effort into figuring out how to execute those kinds of long-term compulsions. Even the aranea considered that kind of ‘deep mind editing’ to be sinister and repellent, to say nothing of himself. His specialty was telepathic combat and memory reading, not enslavement.

“You know, Ulquaan Ibasa has much more relaxed laws regarding mind magic than any country on the continent,” Quatach-Ichl lightly commented.

“Are you seriously trying to recruit me at a time like this?” Zorian asked incredulously.

“I’m just pointing out you’d get a lot more appreciation for your skills if you emigrated there,” Quatach-Ichl shrugged. 

Zorian said nothing in response. They soon reached the point of no return – the doorway that could not be opened without throwing the entire treasury into high alert.

Even opening the door was not easy. It was incredibly sturdy, as were the walls it was attached to – they could not be battered down with raw force or blown off their hinges. Two keys were required in order to open it, neither of which could be safely acquired, and using them required the presence of the Chief Treasurer, who had to lower the local wards in order for the keys to work. Even if everything was done correctly, the treasury opening alarm would still sound, and defenders would swarm over to see what was going on if no opening had been scheduled for the day.

There were other entrances to the royal treasury, including a ‘secret’ one that could be accessed through the dungeon, but all were defended just as heavily.

At the moment, the only solution Zach and Zorian had for this door was to outright attack the local wards until they shut down and then use the copies of the two keys they had produced earlier to open the door. Which kind of worked, but the local wards were no joke. Bringing them down was a very time consuming process for the two of them, leaving them low on mana and beset by every defender in the building.

“We’re going to need your help here, as discussed,” Zorian told the ancient lich.

Quatach-Ichl simply nodded absent-mindedly, studying the door in front of him.

Then they began. All three of them started assaulting the warding scheme, subverting, negating and pushing back the defensive field. Zach and Zorian were both very good at defeating wards by now, but Quatach-Ichl completely blew them out of the competition there… and not just because of his monstrous mana reserves, either. His skill at dismantling magical defenses was incredible. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t that unusual. The lich had been alive for more than a thousand years. He probably had deep knowledge and sophistication about every form of magic there was.

The warding scheme did not take their aggression passively. It was the type of ward that actively struck back against attackers and it pushed back against them endlessly. Waves of telekinetic pressure and temperature extremes assaulted them, strange rainbow light tried to put them to sleep and nearby decorative wall tiles exploded into clouds of miniature razors. They were undaunted. Zach and Zorian had known those defenses were there before they had even started, and all three of them were capable of easily defending themselves from attacks on this level.

By now, the entire treasury was in high alert and the first defenders were starting to approach them at high speed. Zach was about to direct some of his energies into dealing with them when Quatach-Ichl casually swept his arm backwards and fired one of those jagged red beams he was so fond of using onto the ceiling behind them. He must have hit something critical because the entire section of the corridor immediately caved in, showering everything in a thick cloud of dust and gravel and cutting them off from the approaching first wave of defenders.

“Pointless distractions,” Quatach-Ichl said curtly. “Just focus on the wards.”

The wards didn’t last long after that. Once they were gone, Zach and Zorian inserted the keys into the door, which started to slowly open with a heavy grinding sound. There was no way to speed this up, but they didn’t have to wait for it to fully open. The moment a small crack was produced between the door and the wall, Quatach-Ichl used some strange dimensional spell to twisting the resulting opening into a man-sized portal. Zorian decided he really needed to learn that spell. Being able to effectively squeeze through even the tiniest opening was pretty neat.

Once they were through, they were faced with another problem. A pair of huge, hulking golems made out of some kind of glossy black material barred their path. They both held strange shotgun-like guns that fired metallic webs instead of bullets and they were incredibly resilient. They were clearly intended to keep intruders busy rather than actually kill them, so Zorian didn’t think it was a good idea to try and tangle with them.

He deployed the palace orb, retrieved a pair of huge golems out of it and sent them to keep the treasury golems busy while they continued on.

“Interesting golem design,” Quatach-Ichl commented. “I don’t recognize the manufacturer.”

After a second of thinking, Zorian decided he felt like bragging a little.

“I made them,” he admitted.

“Oh? A man of many talents, I see,” Quatach-Ichl said. “I must admit I always thought golem making was just a squeamish man’s necromancy, but recent advances in the field are pretty impressive. Perhaps I might commission some work from you in the future.”

The actual treasury wasn’t just one giant room filled with gold coins and priceless magical artifacts, like Zorian had idly imagined. Instead it consisted of numerous individual vaults, each with its own reinforced door that had to be battered down to claim the contents inside. Nothing was clearly labeled, which meant that finding anything specific was a total chore unless you knew exactly where to go. Since Zach and Zorian had a marker that let them sense the dagger’s location, though, it wasn’t long before they managed to track it down. Quatach-Ichl claimed it immediately for himself, giving them a challenging look. The two of them had no intention of fighting the lich for the dagger, though. Or at least not in this place.

In any case, this dagger wasn’t the only thing they wanted out of this place. They also wanted to locate the main ward stone of this place and it wouldn’t hurt to also smash up a few more vaults to see if there was something particularly interesting inside. They both made a handful of simulacrums and sent them to scatter all over the place… but were caught a little off-guard when Quatach-Ichl proceeded to create enough simulacrums to accompany each one of theirs.

Apparently he did not trust them to have even their simulacrums out of sight. Or maybe he was just that curious about what they were up to. Either way, they decided not to make a big deal out of it and simply went about their work.

Eventually, they managed to find the main wardstone. It was hidden under the metal floor and shielded from most divinations, but Zorian managed to track it down anyway. He didn’t have enough time to study it in great detail, and it couldn’t be moved without destroying it, but even that brief examination gave him plenty of ideas for the future. The treasury wardstone was a real work of art, and Zorian definitely intended to come here again to take a few more looks at it.

As for the vaults, they held all sorts of wealth, rare materials and mysterious items… but it was really hard to figure out what was truly useful to them and what wasn’t in the short amount of time they had. They ended up piling everything they recovered into the palace orb for later study and just forgot about them for now.

“That orb is much bigger and more convenient than I thought it would be,” Quatach-Ichl’s simulacrum mused idly beside. “I think I may have underestimated its usefulness just a little.”

Quatach-Ichl actually had his own pocket dimension containers, but they were apparently a lot less expansive than their own, which meant he had to be much more selective about what to take from the place than they were.

Of course, the Eldemarian guards and military were anything but idle while they were doing that. It was less than five minutes before they managed to break through the collapsed corridor and four giant golems wrestling each other in the middle of a corridor, and then the fighting began.

In all honesty, they had probably stayed too long inside the treasury. Too many forces had rushed to the place, making it very hard for them to fight their way out and escape. They couldn’t simply open a gate to outside with the simulacrum trick, because apparently the treasury wards were thorough enough to shut that idea down. The ward stone was too tough to be destroyed in any reasonable amount of time. If it were just Zach and Zorian, this may very well have been the end of this particular restart.

However, they had Quatach-Ichl on their side, and he had apparently already prepared a contingency for this kind of situation.

The only warning Zach and Zorian received about what was about to happen was when the sounds of distant screams and detonations started resounding in the distance, as if the treasury defenders were fighting another enemy outside as well as them. Before they could ask Quatach-Ichl what was happening, a nearby wall collapsed as a huge sphere of black metallic bones slammed directly into it and crushed it under its weight.

The sphere quickly uncoiled into a large, crocodilian skeleton that swept through nearby space with its tail, sending treasury defenders flying away like wooden toys. Fireballs, force blades, disintegration beams and a wide variety of grenades rained down on it immediately afterwards. Some of them were even doing damage.

But it was too little, too late. Before their attacks could deal anything more than superficial scratches, it noticed Quatach-Ichl and immediately barreled towards him.

“Please tell me that’s a friend,” Zach said.

“Ha! You can say it’s a pet of sorts,” Quatach-Ichl laughed. “Jump on it when it gets close and make sure you hold on. If you let go, you’re on your own. There is no way I’m coming back for you.”

If someone had told Zorian a few years earlier that he would be riding through the streets of Eldemar on the back of a giant skeletal crocodile-thing, after having robbed the royal treasury in the company of a thousand-year-old lich… well, he would have told them that they have an overactive imagination. Yet, that was exactly what had happened. Zach, Zorian and Quatach-Ichl managed to fight their way out of the treasury while riding the lich’s ‘pet’ and simply kept rushing forward. By the end the poor crocodile thing ended up falling apart, having sacrificed itself to save them from one last coordinated spell barrage by the Eldemarian military, but by then they had already left the radius of the city wards and teleported away.

Now for the hardest part: dealing with Quatach-Ichl…

* * *

Zach, Zorian and Quatach-Ichl were hiding inside a small cave under a random field. It had been more than half a day since they had broken into the royal treasury, and they had the exact same problem that Zach and Zorian had had when they had made their attempt at the treasury in the past – somehow, the Eldemar forces were tracking them down everywhere they went.

[How annoying,] Zach commented to Zorian telepathically. [I was specifically paying attention for something like this and I never noticed any sort of tracking mark being placed on us or on any of our possessions.]

[I can’t detect anything being done to our souls, either,] Zorian replied. [It’s really frustrating. How exactly can they track us so unerringly? They clearly don’t know our actual identities, just like they hadn’t known in the previous restart we’ve done this, so it must be something like a tracking mark or magical tether. We’re both experienced with detecting those kind of things, so why can’t we find it?]

Quatach-Ichl, who was currently sitting on the floor of the cave in complete silence, looked like he was engaged in some kind of intense meditation. Zorian could tell through his soul perception, however, that Quatach-Ichl seemed to be doing some rather intense personal soul searching. He could tell because the lich’s soul was usually perfectly calm and controlled, but now it churned and pulsed as if caught in a storm. Presumably the lich thought the tracking method had been placed on their souls and was trying to locate it. Zorian had done the same with no results, so he didn’t get his hopes up that Quatach-Ichl would find anything this way, but it was worth a shot. At least he wasn’t flipping out and trying to kill them for dragging him into this mess.

Maybe if they–

“It’s a tether made out of divine energies,” Quatach-Ichl suddenly said, rising from the floor of the cave and dusting himself off.

“Divine energies?” Zorian repeated incredulously.

“Like the ones that make up my soul stabilization frame and power divine artifacts,” Quatach-Ichl said. “There must be an item somewhere in that building that automatically connects to the soul of any being that comes within a certain distance of it. How insidious. If I didn’t have so much experience sensing the piece of divine magic in my own soul, I would have never been able to detect it.”

Damn it, divine magics were so unfair. No wonder they hadn’t been able find the way the Eldemar authorities were tracking them…

“Can you sever it?” Zach asked.

Quatach-Ichl shook his head. “Perceiving divine energies is one thing. Affecting them is another. I have no way to get rid of the tether, although I can tell it’s not permanent. It will eventually weaken and fade away.”

“Eventually being…?” Zach tried.

“A couple of weeks at least,” Quatach-Ichl said calmly.

“You are too calm,” Zorian pointed out. “Clearly you have already found a solution.”

“Yes,” Quatach-Ichl said smugly. “The tether may be made out of divine energies, but it ultimately has the same weakness that all such magical tethers have – a maximum distance it can support before it snaps. If we go outside the range of the item we are tethered to, the magic will break and we’ll be free to enjoy our ill-gotten gains.”

“Ah,” Zach said. “Wow, this is easier than we thought, then!”

“Of course, being made by a divine artifact, the tether no doubt has a downright absurd maximum range it can support… and Eldemar’s authorities will probably take the anchor item out of the treasury to keep us in range of the effect if they notice us trying to break the tether this way. So not only do we have to travel extremely far away from here, we must do it so quickly that Eldemar’s authorities cannot keep up with us.”

Zach and Zorian looked at each other before turning back to the grinning lich. He probably thought he had them – that they had no method of traversing vast distances quickly enough and that he would be able to squeeze some kind of concession out of them in exchange for helping them break the tethers on their own souls.

Well… he was wrong.

“I don’t see the issue here,” Zorian shrugged.

“No?” Quatach-Ichl asked. “I’m not sure you understand… just teleporting around a little isn’t–”

“No, we get it,” interjected Zach. “It’s just that, no matter how ridiculous the range of this tether is, going to Xlotic is probably enough to make it snap. And if not that, then we can just continue on to Koth instead.”

Quatach-Ichl stared at them with an uncertain look on his face.

“Do you want to come with us?” Zorian asked innocently. “It probably isn’t so easy for you to put so much distance between yourself and Eldemar on such a short notice.”

“Yeah, you’ve helped us a lot tonight, so it’s only right for us do something for you too,” Zach nodded, playing along.

They didn’t actually expect Quatach-Ichl to agree to their suggestion. After all, going with them involved stepping through a dimensional portal without knowing where it really led. That wasn’t something you did unless you thoroughly trusted the other person, and Quatach-Ichl didn’t even trust them enough to leave their simulacrums wandering around unsupervised.

They opened a portal to Xlotic, and Quatach-Ichl followed after them, surprisingly calm. He did not comment at all on the fact they knew how to cast something as rare and difficult as a dimensional gate, or the fact they arranged for said gate to open to another continent on a moment’s notice. He simply observed everything around them, his eyes sweeping over the desert horizon with a thoughtful expression.

“Cities to rubble, fields to dust…” he murmured quietly. “What a depressing sight.”

Hum. Zorian had never really thought about it before, but Quatach-Ichl was probably the only living person that had seen Xlotic as it had been before the Cataclysm.

In any case, Quatach-Ichl then closed his eyes and once more started sensing his soul for the tether. He opened his eyes ten minutes later and nodded to them.

“It’s gone now,” he said. His voice was devoid of any trace of joy or satisfaction, though, which set off some alarms in Zorian’s mind. “Apparently Xlotic is far enough that the tether ended up breaking when we crossed over here through the gate. Or maybe once the gate closed behind us. Can the tether maintain connection through a dimensional gate, even if the people are far outside its range in terms of actual distance? Interesting stuff. Too bad this is hard to reproduce and study. And too bad none of this is real, no?”

Zorian couldn’t stop himself from flinching a little at that statement. Quatach-Ichl narrowed his eyes at the movement.

“I thought so,” he said, voice serious. He started to slowly circle around them, eyes never breaking contact with them. Like a predator. Zach and Zorian assumed fighting stances, but did not make any aggressive moves. “I should have figured it out earlier. I really should have. The fact everyone got cut off from the spirit planes all of a sudden should have been a massive warning as to what was happening, but it sounded so incredulous that human beings could cause something so grand in scope and effect. When I found that the aranea beneath Cyoria had just suddenly dropped dead one day, I was just happy an obstacle had disappeared and did not think on it as hard as I should. It was only when I talked to you that things started to become clear… but I, in my arrogance, refused to see the truth.”

“We have no idea what you’re talking about, bag of bones,” Zach growled at him.

“It all clicked when you just casually opened a dimensional gate to another continent,” Quatach-Ichl continued, ignoring his claim. “There had been something about your attitude that had bothered me right from the start, when I first talked to you in that tavern, but it is only now that it starts to make sense. You showed up out of nowhere, loaded with money and skills that make no sense in light of your past and age… like two adult mages badly pretending to be a couple of teenagers. You are fine with giving up divine artifacts in exchange for information and throw huge amounts of money on speculative research… as if material possessions don’t matter to you, only knowledge. You don’t like me killing people, but you have no problems butchering Eldemar treasury guards to get what you want… like those guards were never actually real to begin with.”

Quatach-Ichl stopped his circling. Silence descended on the whole scene for several seconds, with nobody saying anything. Though everything was still and quiet, tension invisibly started to ratchet up.

“This whole thing… is some kind of giant illusion, isn’t it!?” Quatach-Ichl finally concluded. They said nothing, and the lich took their silence as a confirmation of his idea. “I should have seen it sooner, but I was too full of myself. How could I, mighty Quatach-Ichl, be snared into some kind of illusion like that? I instinctively rejected the truth until it was staring at me right in the face. But now… now I’m going to have some answers. Some real answers!”

He attacked, his organic guise melting away to reveal the black skeleton wreathed in green light that lurked beneath the skin.

They were ready for him.

Quatach-Ichl immediately went for soul magic this time, not even bothering with disintegrators and energy spells. Presumably because, while he wasn’t actually certain how this ‘illusion’ he was caught in worked, he had already noticed Zach and Zorian did not seem to value physical things much and thus suspected these weren’t their real bodies. If he wanted to defeat them, he needed to aim for their souls.

Well… he was kind of right about that, but Zach and Zorian had come here prepared. Their souls were fortified with defensive wards and they were not as defenseless and terrified in the face of soul magic as they once were.

Pulses of ghostly light assaulted them, but they warded them off with some effort. They responded with more mundane attack spells like incineration rays, ground liquefaction spells, destructive black blades of spatial force and so on. Quatach-Ichl defended himself with haste, force fields and animated sand creatures, but responded solely with soul magic attacks.

After a few exchanges, Zach and Zorian decided to reveal the next layer of their preparations – the trap wards they had placed on the area beforehand. The truth was, Quatach-Ichl really was kind of stupid for following them here through an unknown portal, because this was one of the several places where Zach and Zorian had prepared a trap for him. Granted, they had thought they would have to force him here through the gate, but this way worked too.

However, Quatach-Ichl had evidently prepared himself too. Before the wards could fully activate, the ancient lich removed one of his ‘decorative’ bracelets and crushed it.

Four cubical constructs made out of black bones materialized around Quatach-Ichl, as if emerging from some kind of hidden pocket dimension around him. Each of them had four skulls embedded into their sides, their eye sockets burning with a dim green flame. Through his soul perception, Zorian could detect that each skull held a trapped soul inside of it. Powerful ones too – they had probably been harvested from talented and experienced mages, not some random bystander.

The skull cubes pulsed, seemingly synchronizing with each other, and then started unfolding into their own warding scheme then began to overpower the ones Zorian and Silverlake prepared in this place.

Well. Time to go all-out, then. Zorian deployed the palace orb and summoned Alanic, Silverlake and Xvim, who had been patiently waiting there for just this moment.

The fight quickly heated up, spells flying left and right. Quatach-Ichl was forced to give up on using exclusively soul magic to attack them. Soul magic had never been especially suitable for actual fights, which was why Quatach-Ichl didn’t usually use soul magic as his first resort. Now, faced with five dangerous enemies, he could no longer afford to use such suboptimal tactics.

Zorian expected Quatach-Ichl to retreat at this point. He could no doubt tell he had no chance of winning this fight, and those skull cubes floating in the sky were effectively negating the trap wards that Zorian and Silverlake placed on the area to keep him from simply teleporting or flying away.

But Quatach-Ichl didn’t do that. He kept fighting like a man possessed, throwing vast amounts of mana into every single spell. Finally, after a particularly well-executed haste spell, Quatach-Ichl managed to produce a wind gust spell sufficiently powerful to lift them off their feet and scatter them. Normally they would have glued their feet to the ground to prevent that, but the sand of the Xlotic desert simply wasn’t hard enough to let them do that – something they hadn’t realized until it was too late.

Quatach-Ichl immediately followed it up with a huge pulse of soul magic that aimed to stop everyone in the vicinity. Zorian fortified his soul immediately before it hit… and then realized it was just a distraction.

Before anyone could recover from the wind blast, Quatach-Ichl hasted himself again and thrust his hand towards Xvim, hitting him with two spells in quick succession. The first was a powerful dispel which stripped the man of all his personal defense spells… including his mind blank. The second was some kind of mind magic spell.

Shit…

Zorian didn’t hesitate. He immediately used his telepathy to plunge into Xvim’s currently unprotected mind and started a mental tug of war with Quatach-Ichl, trying to eject the lich from his mentor’s mind.

The spell Quatach-Ichl had cast was some kind of memory probe, he quickly realized. Powerful, but very crude and destructive by Zorian’s standards. It probably hadn’t done any permanent damage to Xvim yet, but it probably would if this continued for long. Thankfully, although Quatach-Ichl appeared to be very good at mind magic, he was still using a structured spell and didn’t have that much experience in actual telepathic combat. Soon, the lich decided to retreat from Xvim’s mind on his own.

Alanic recovering and trying to melt him down with a massive fire spell probably had a lot to do with that. Not even Zorian could trawl through someone’s memories and pay attention to a fight at the same time.

In any case, Zorian suspected that Quatach-Ichl had gotten what he wanted out of Xvim’s mind in the end. His body appearance was hard to read, but he looked like he was a little… rattled.

“Wait!” Quatach-Ichl said. “Stop!”

They didn’t stop, of course. Not until he suddenly took his crown off his head and threw it on the ground in front of them. And then did the same with the imperial dagger they retrieved from the Eldemar’s royal treasury.

Huh. Zach and Zorian signaled the others to stop fighting for a moment.

“Take them,” he said.

“You’re just going to give them to us?” Zach asked curiously.

“We both know they are meaningless to me,” Quatach-Ichl said curtly.

“How much did you glean from those memories you stole?” Zorian asked curiously.

He glanced towards Xvim, but his mentor gave no indication that the experience had shaken him up to any significant extent.

“Enough to know how meaningless this all is. At least for people like me,” Quatach-Ichl said, sounding a little defeated. He laughed hollowly. “Ha ha ha! You really got me good! I have to say, if you just–”

It only took a moment for them to be caught off-guard. They had unconsciously relaxed a little after Quatach-Ichl seemingly gave up and no longer made aggressive moves, and the lich immediately took advantage of it. He once again put himself under the effect of haste and then rushed straight at them, literally running up to them… and then he exploded.

Later, Zorian would wonder what exactly tipped him off and made him immediately activate his marker’s restart switch when he realized he Quatach-Ichl was rushing at them. Was it because he unconsciously sensed something through his soul perception? Because of some unexplainable hunch? All he knew was that, when Quatach-Ichl started detonating his own soul in that last suicide attack, Zorian had already initiated the restart ending protocol.

They still ended up being caught by part of the blast before the restart ended. Zorian’s soul was engulfed in a soul-corroding, excruciatingly painful blast of spiritual energies before everything went dark.

His last thought was that he hadn’t even known a soul could be detonated like that…

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