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Chapter 087
Agents of the Crown

Deep in the jungles of Koth, in what was otherwise an unremarkable patch of rainforest, a situation was unfolding. The trees shook, the animals vacated the area in panic and the underbrush was trampled underfoot as a gigantic, furious hydra thundered through the area in pursuit of its target. Its eight heads fanned out and snapped angrily towards anything in the vicinity that failed to get out of its way, breaking low-hanging branches and killing any animal that was too slow to flee.

As for Zorian, who was its target, he simply kept running and dodging while marveling at the incredible speed with which the hydra was able to move through the thick vegetation of the rainforest. He had thought its size would make maneuvering difficult and allow him to easily keep ahead of it, but he had seriously underestimated its ability to just plow through everything in front of it without stopping. He was purposely running through the most difficult terrain he could find and he never even came close to losing it. It was constantly trailing just behind him.

A blue, translucent, ectoplasmic eye constantly trailed after Zorian, hovering above his head and staring at the hydra. It was through this eye that Zorian was able to keep track of the hydra’s movements and dodge its attacks, despite having his back turned to it. Otherwise, if he were forced to run blind or had to periodically slow down to turn around, the hydra would have grabbed him a hundred times by now. Though the spell itself was very simple, very few people would be able to process information from two different perspectives like that. The fact Zorian could look both in front of him and behind him at the same time, while maneuvering through a treacherous, obstacle-filled jungle floor was proof that his experiments with mental enhancement were bearing some fruit.

The chase led them next to a fallen, rotting log covered in moss and mushrooms. Without its main body slowing down at all, one of the hydra’s eight heads reached down and bit into it, lifting it out of the ground and launching it at Zorian. Half a dozen monstrous centipedes and one very terrified squirrel tumbled out of the rotting log as it sailed through the air, having hidden in it when they noticed the rampaging hydra approaching. Zorian reacted instantly, making a few silent movements and causing a bright red ectoplasmic hand to materialize in the air behind him and slap the log aside. It collided with the nearby tree where it exploded into a shower of rotting wood. Both Zorian and the hydra simply charged through the cloud of wooden shrapnel, one with the aid of magical shields and the other through the power of supernatural toughness and regeneration.

“Zach, what the hell are you doing there!?” Zorian yelled. “I’ve been running for ages here! Did you figure out the dagger or not!?”

Zach, who was trailing behind both of them while occasionally making funny poses and waving the dagger in his hand at the hydra, seemed to pause at the question.

“It’s hard, okay!” he yelled back.

“I’m running low on mana here!” Zorian said. “If you don’t figure it out soon, I’m calling this off.”

In truth, the hydra posed very little threat to Zorian. If the situation ever got too dangerous, he could have always teleported away or simply flown away too high for the hydra to reach. However, that would leave it free to turn around and shift its attention to Zach, which would defeat the whole purpose of this setup. The point of him leading the hydra on the merry chase through the Kothic jungle was to give Zach the time he needed to figure out how to use the dagger on the hydra. Something that didn’t seem to be going too well.

Oh well. On the bright side, if Zach couldn’t figure it out by the time Zorian ran out of mana, it would be Zorian’s turn next. Zorian would actually prefer if he was the one who figured out how to use the dagger, since he and Zach had agreed that whoever succeeded at this would get to ‘own’ the hydra. He had a good feeling about his chances, since, unlike Zach, he had soul perception unlocked. Surely that would–

“Hydra!” Zach suddenly shouted, dramatically pointing the dagger in the monster’s direction. “I am your master now! Kneel before me!”

No less than three of the hydra’s head glanced towards Zach, giving him a hateful, contemptuous look before returning their attention to Zorian again.

Before Zorian could say anything, Zach suddenly teleported right on top of the hydra and plunged the dagger straight into its back.

Zorian wanted to scream at his fellow time traveler for being such an idiot. Not only had Zach exposed himself to incredible danger, since the hydra’s heads could twist backwards to reach people foolish enough to climb on its back with incredible speed and ease, the boy had also invalidated all the effort Zorian invested into making sure the hydra was focused on him and him alone. Even if Zach got away from this stunt completely unscathed – and he probably would, in all honestly – the hydra would no longer ignore him from this point onward.

Indeed, the moment Zach popped into existence on top of the hydra’s back, before he even finished plunging the dagger into its flesh, the monster was already stopping its charge, all eight of its heads refocusing on this sudden new threat. However, the moment the dagger sank into its back, a strange thing happened. Instead of simply ignoring the puny wound and biting down on Zach anyway, the hydra suddenly stiffened as if paralyzed. Its many heads froze in the air, jaws still stretched wide for a lethal bite, staring at Zach with confused, uncomprehending eyes.

“No way…” Zorian complained weakly.

“Ha ha!” Zach laughed, wrenching the dagger out of the wound and quickly straightening himself up. The hydra’s back not being the most stable of grounds, he almost lost his balance upon doing that and had to spend several seconds to stabilize himself. The hydra remained completely motionless throughout all of that. Zach slapped the closest hydra head a few times playfully. “What did I tell you, eh? I really am your master now. Kneel!”

The command seemed to break the hydra out of its paralysis. Without hesitation, it dropped to the ground. Being a quadrupedal life form, it couldn’t really exactly kneel as such, so it instead just dropped on its stomach and lowered its many heads on the ground. The sudden motion completely unbalanced Zach, however, sending him tumbling down the creature’s back with a strangled cry. He hit the ground with a dull thud, landing on one of the exposed rocks, and then spent the next minute and a half rolling around in pain on the ground.

Zorian eyed the hydra for a few seconds before deciding not to approach for now. It was no longer attacking him, but he had a feeling that might change if he made any moves towards its new ‘master’.

“There is no way that was the correct command phrase to activate the dagger, is it?” he eventually asked.

“Ugh. Damn, this hurt,” said Zach, laboriously rising to his feet while using the nearby hydra as a stabilizer. He did his best to dust himself off and get rid of the branches and bugs stuck in his hair. “And no, that wasn’t the command phrase. The way to activate the dagger is to first cut yourself with it to establish resonance and then cut the hydra to forge a bond with it and finalize the deal.”

Zorian gave him a curious look. “How the hell did you figure that out?”

“I, err, accidentally cut myself with it while trying to mess around with it while running,” Zach admitted with an awkward laugh. He turned towards the hydra, whose many eyes diligently followed his every move. “Anyway, who cares about that! It doesn’t matter how I discovered the dagger’s usage, all that matters is that the hydra is finally mine! Well ours, but you know…”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Zorian said, clacking his tongue. He’d normally be annoyed about losing a bet like that, but it was probably better this way. There was no guarantee he would have uncovered such a curious method of activation himself.

He felt the hydra’s mind a little. He kind of expected to find the hydra resentful of being effectively enslaved like this, but he found the creature to be mostly curious instead. Confused and a little scared too, but mostly just curious. It did not seem to harbor any ill will towards Zach. Zorian had never heard of a monster control method that was that thorough and effective, and the hydra should be highly resistant to mind control due to its unique mind anyway. He had a feeling this was more than just control – in some strange way, the hydra was conditioned to regard the bond forged by the dagger as innately legitimate and did not struggle against its bindings at all.

Zorian was torn between being impressed by the maker of the dagger for pulling it off and disturbed that such a thing was possible.

In any case, the friendliness was only towards Zach. The moment Zorian tried to step closer the hydra immediately jumped to its feet and interposed itself between Zorian and its master, hissing and snapping its jaws at him menacingly.

“Oh come on,” Zorian complained. “That guy doesn’t need your protection from me. If anything, I would need to be protected against him if we seriously fought…”

The hydra didn’t understand human speech, and probably wouldn’t have listened to him even if it did. It was about to lunge at Zorian when Zach placed his hand on its flank and stopped it.

“Hey, knock it off,” Zach said. “That guy is our friend, okay? No eating friends.”

It took a few gestures and shouting before the hydra managed to understand what its new owner was telling it, at which point it gave Zach something reminiscent of an incredulous look, as if unable to believe Zach would be friendly to someone like Zorian, who had led it on a wild-goose chase for a better part of an hour.

“I know, I know… he can be very annoying, but he’s very useful and mostly means well,” Zach said sagely, patting the hydra gently on the flank.

The hydra directed one last unhappy hiss in Zorian’s direction before grudgingly standing down and indicating it would allow him to get close without attacking him. Possibly.

Zorian folded his hands over his chest and gave Zach an unamused look.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure she’ll warm up to you in time,” Zach told him, grinning widely. “Princess is just a little shy.”

What?

“W-What!?” Zorian blurted out.

“It’s a she,” Zach said, nodding sagely. “I know, I was a little surprised myself when I felt that through the link and–”

“No, not that!” Zorian snapped. “You’re seriously naming a hydra ‘Princess’?”

“Why not?” Zach challenged. “What’s wrong with that name?”

The newly named ‘Princess’ focused three of her heads on him, as if daring him to say anything.

Stupid reptile. It didn’t even understand what they were talking about but felt the need to side with Zach anyway…

“It’s a stupid name,” Zorian told him bluntly.

“It’s a great name,” Zach disagreed. “A royal name for a very royal girl. She’s a divinely empowered guardian of an imperial item… that’s pretty high-ranked if you ask me. Plus, you know how royals like to refer to themselves in plural? ‘We’ this and ‘we’ that… well, Princess here can talk about herself in plural and be completely factual! So there. It’s actually very clever and you were just too judgmental to figure it out.”

“Ugh,” Zorian grunted. “If that’s your logic, why not call her ‘Queen’ instead?”

“Because ’Princess’ is a more ironic name for a giant hydra,” Zach admitted.

Zorian spent the next fifteen minutes trying to argue the issue before giving up. It took another hour after that to coax Princess back into the imperial orb for transport – she wanted to follow around after Zach like a puppy, and was confused why he wanted to abandon her in the orb so soon after their bonding.

Zorian had to say, watching Zach awkwardly try to convince a clingy hydra that he would be back and that she should stay put was kind of amusing.

Perhaps it was a good thing that Zach ended up winning that bet after all.

* * *

After recovering the imperial orb and tentatively subduing the hydra guarding it, Zach and Zorian turned their attention towards the sulrothum at the Ziggurat of the Sun and the imperial ring in their possession. They already knew they could steal their ring if they launched a big enough attack on them, but that took a great deal of time and effort. Well, the presence of Princess on the battlefield would probably make an all-out assault a little easier this time around, but it would still be a major undertaking that would consume a lot of their time and resources that would be better spent elsewhere.

“It’s a pity Princess is too big to fit in the ziggurat corridors,” lamented Zach. “Otherwise we could just climb on top of her and charge in, trampling and brushing aside any sulrothum that got in our way.”

“If our attack was that unstoppable, the sulrothum would probably just pick up whatever they can and flee,” pointed out Zorian. “They’d probably flee underground, and it would be an utter pain to track them down then. Not to mention they have a massive sand worm on their side. We don’t want to get in an underground battle with them, I think, even with Princess on our side.”

“Hmph,” Zach mumbled unhappily. “How about we just infiltrate the ziggurat through this underground connection, then? We might be able to avoid a massive battle that way.”

“They have their pet sand worm constantly guarding that,” Zorian pointed out, shaking his head sadly. “I bet we’re noticed instantly through whatever exotic senses that thing has… and then it collapses the whole tunnel on top of us before we can do anything. Considering the layout of their Dungeon entrance, I think it was made by the worm in the first place, so they probably have no qualms about destroying it. They can always command the sand worm to create another one later.”

Zach was silent for a while.

“How about… just soul-killing the entire colony?” Zach finally asked. “I mean, it makes me a little uncomfortable to use tactics like that, but this is pretty much what the damn knife was made for.”

“It’s definitely an option,” Zorian said after a short pause. “However, we probably wouldn’t be able to get all sulrothum with this and we don’t know how many of them know about the ring and its importance. If we kill most of the colony but one of the survivors takes the ring and runs, things could get really bad. Right now we know where the ring is. If a shattered group of sulrothum survivors takes the ring and spends a day or two running around in the desert or, gods forbid, the depths of the Dungeon…”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Zach said. “It’s too risky. Even if we get them all, there are neighboring sulrothum tribes and other denizens of the desert to consider. If they discover the state of the ziggurat and loot the ring before we reach it, we would still have a problem on our hands.”

“Speaking of the neighboring sulrothum tribes, do we still go forward with the idea of arranging an alliance with them?” Zorian asked. “The idea is nice, I admit, but it may very well take more time and effort to do it that way than to just send our own army at the ziggurat.”

“Not if we use Princess!” Zach declared triumphantly.

“You want to use the damn hydra for everything these days,” Zorian scoffed. “You’re like a little kid who just got himself a new toy and now wants to show it to everyone. How the hell will that thing help us convince the sulrothum faster?”

“There is no need to be jealous, Zorian,” Zach chided. “You lost the bet fair and square. In any case, I think you greatly underestimate the impression of power we will project when we show up with a giant menacing hydra in tow. I bet those tribes will be tripping over themselves to stay on our good side after seeing that.”

“Or they’ll be too scared to even talk to us,” Zorian pointed out.

“Then we just smash them until they’re willing to listen,” Zach shrugged.

“This is starting to sound a lot less like arranging an alliance and a lot more like us bullying the neighboring tribes into being our reluctant army,” Zorian pointed out.

“Eh, I think of it more as an ‘aggressive demonstration’ than bullying,” Zach said dismissively. “We would have had to prove our strength for them to take us seriously, anyway. But really, so what if we end up cowing them into submission forcefully? We’re already attacking the ziggurat tribe without any provocation. We lost the moral high ground a long time ago, I think.”

True.

“Alright,” said Zorian. “Let’s try to make them willing allies if possible, though. I have another task I want to give them, and they probably won’t try very hard if our overwhelming force is all that keeps them in line.”

“Oh? Something important?” Zach asked.

“Maybe,” Zorian answered. “There is a magical creature called a tunneler toad, which lives deep within the Xlotic desert. They live in a series of hidden worlds left by some forgotten ancient civilization, called Ishmali Reservoirs by the ancient Ikosians, because they seem designed primarily as water reservoirs. They’re basically large caverns full of water, enclosed in their own pocket dimensions. The reservoirs are largely uninteresting, but the tunneler toads themselves have a curious ability to detect pocket dimensions and enter them with ease. In their natural habitat they use this to pass in and out of the Ishmali Reservoirs as they please, using them as a hidden nesting ground, but the ability is said to be usable on any pocket dimension they come across.”

“Ah, I see, this is for that blood magic initiative you want to set up,” Zach said. “Why do you need the sulrothum’s help for this, though? If the toads live only around these reservoir things, they should be easy to find. It’s not like the reservoirs can move, right?”

“They’re static but I’m afraid the records of where the reservoirs are located have all been lost in the Cataclysm, and no one had bothered to track them down again as far as I can tell,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “With much of the interior now covered in desert and taken over by sulrothum tribes and worse, the reservoirs have become extremely isolated. Not to mention that most people are neither master dimensionalists nor tunneler toads, so they would be unable to track down and enter these hidden worlds even if they wanted to. Thus, if we want to find tunneler toads, we must find a desert native that has heard about strange toads that sometimes seemingly vanish into thin air, only to just as suddenly reappear later.”

“Annoying,” Zach remarked with a frown. “Is this really necessary? We have lots of candidates for ability theft when it comes to magical creatures with relevant abilities.”

“None of them are easy to track down,” Zorian pointed out. “Not only are they rare and mostly extinct near human-dominated territories, the very nature of their abilities means these creatures can hide and retreat with incredible ease. The other may very well be even more annoying to find. If you think tunneler toads are bad, wait till you hear how annoying it is to track down a phase spider without it taking the initiative to reveal itself.”

“Right,” Zach said, clacking his tongue unhappily. “I guess I’ll try to be a little nicer to the stupid wasps.” He paused for a second. “So we’re really going to start dabbling in blood magic and enhancement rituals in this restart, then?”

“Yes. Although we should start with something relatively easy and well tested,” Zorian confirmed. “Eagle Eyes enhancement, for instance. Or any of the simple physical enhancements that aim to improve the user’s strength, stamina, regeneration and so on. Well-known, straightforward things that are unlikely to go catastrophically wrong when attempted by beginners like us.”

“Not really instilling me with a sense of confidence here, Zorian,” Zach complained.

“What can I say?” Zorian shrugged. “Blood magic is dangerous. If it makes you feel any better, I will be going first.”

“It does not,” Zach said. “We both know it will be me who has to take the biggest risks in regards to this. I have way more mana to burn on permanent enhancements and I am also proficient in medical magic, so I will be able to push my limits more and understand life force manipulation way better than you.”

Zorian didn’t dispute him. While he had no intention of piling most of the risk on Zach, his fellow time traveler was likely right in his prediction.

“Eh, don’t make such a grim face,” Zach said dismissively. “I already agreed we should do this when we talked before, didn’t I? I didn’t change my mind.”

“I kind of feel I’m pressuring you over this,” Zorian admitted.

“I’m not that easy to pressure,” Zach assured him. “You’ve been trying to pressure me to let you inspect my mind for a long time now, for instance, and I have never let you do it.”

“I still think that’s a mistake,” Zorian told him.

“And the answer is still no,” Zach said, grinning. “See? Pressure ineffective. I agreed with this creepy blood magic stuff because I honestly think you’re right. We’re too slow at figuring out primordial prisons. Only distasteful, unconventional methods like this can let us find a shortcut we need.”

“Fair enough,” Zorian said. Personally, he did not find blood magic to be that creepy, and even viewed it as a potentially useful tool for usage outside the time loop, but he understood where Zach was coming from.

They spent two more hours discussing various ideas before they both entered the pocket dimension inside the imperial orb for a very important task.

They had to convince Princess to let Zorian examine how her mind worked without trying to bite his head off for his insolence.

It would prove to be a very challenging task.

* * *

As days went by, some curious things began to be noticed by various countries of Koth, Xlotic and Altazia. The first one was that House Taramatula suddenly organized and launched a major expedition to Blantyrre in order to find the fabled imperial staff of Ikosia, sinking a massive amount of money and manpower into the endeavor. The level of support House Taramatula had given to the project was not as extensive as Daimen had hoped, but it was still major by virtually any means, and the frantic speed with which the whole thing was organized and executed was enough to give others pause. The Taramatula seemed almost desperate to track down the staff, and nobody could figure out why. The leadership of the House declined to answer any questions regarding the matter, contributing to the air of mystery.

More importantly, the Taramatula displayed the ability to open cross-continental dimensional passages between their land and their base in Blantyrre. This was not something Zach and Zorian wanted to make known, but proved to be utterly impossible to hide, given the scale of the operation. This information soon spread around like a wildfire throughout various spy agencies, especially ones based in Koth, who were immediately consumed by an intense desire to know everything possible about the situation. Amusingly, this included trying to track down information about the imperial staff. They thought the imperial artifacts were just historical curiosities, but since the Taramatula wanted the staff so badly, there had to be something special about it. Many people suddenly wanted to get their hands on the imperial staff, or at least hoped to understand what sort of power their rivals would possess should they successfully claim the item.

Zach and Zorian intended to steal the results of all such research near the end of the restart. Who knows, maybe the combined might of all these spy agencies would find something they had overlooked.

The second thing that got people’s attention, especially in Altazia, was intricate spell formula schematics, alchemical recipes, new spell compendiums and sensitive spy reports that started to surface all over the continent. Nobody knew who was responsible for this, how they had come up with all this in complete secrecy, or what their motives were… and it was completely unknown just how many people had received this assistance, considering many people had simply accepted their ‘gifts’ quietly and set out to exploit them in secret. Finally, the gifts seemed to be most heavily concentrated in Eldemar, which was a huge concern for everyone around them. This caused a frenzy of speculation and activity across the continent, as people tried to figure out what this meant and how to hopefully take advantage of it.

This was, of course, done by Zach and Zorian. They did it for a very simple reason: to muddy the waters and prevent their newly marked fellow time travelers from standing out too much. It was too much to expect all of them to behave themselves at all times or never make a blunder, especially in this first restart while they were still under heavy impression of their first repeat of the month. Introducing enough waves into their surroundings would hopefully keep most people too busy with other matters to pay attention to crazy stories of time traveling academy professors and the like.

Thus far, the idea seemed to be working, but it would remain to be seen if that would hold out until the end.

This done, Zach and Zorian turned their attention to organizing the search for the imperial staff in Blantyrre. While the bulk of the job was done by Daimen and his men, it was a necessity for Zach and Zorian to get regularly involved. For one thing, the descriptions of the imperial staff were vague and contradictory, so they were the only ones that could identify the staff with any degree of certainty, thanks to their ability to sense the presence of the Key. Additionally, they were necessary for transporting people and supplies all over Blantyrre, since they were the only ones that could easily open dimensional gates from one location to another.

Zorian had been quietly hoping that the immense amount of resources they had mobilized in the search would provide quick results, but his hopes were soon dashed upon the rocks of reality. Finding the staff turned out to be much, much harder than finding a Bakora Gate. The gates were rare and obscure, but fairly distinctive. The staff, on the other hand, was something incredibly common in Blantyrre. The lizardmen loved their staves – they were a popular symbol of authority, and virtually any lizardman ruler and priest had a staff to call their own. While this meant that the imperial staff probably hadn’t been thrown away and forgotten in some ancient treasury, it also meant that tracking it down was akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. The one saving grace was that the imperial staff was free of most decorations, being just a plain piece of dark wood, whereas the lizardmen liked to decorate their own staves with gems and feathers and whatnot. Then again, what was to stop the new owner from adding those things to the imperial staff to pretty it up? Ugh…

Influenced by such things, Zach and Zorian decided to approach Quatach-Ichl for lessons again. Originally they wondered if they should skip their interaction with him in this particular restart, due to all the new time loopers suddenly walking around, but in the end they decided they would risk it. This time, the topic they chose was tracking magic and search spells. This was a relatively safe topic to ask about, and it might help them find the staff faster. A foolish hope, probably, considering the staff was immune to normal divination, just like all the other imperial artifacts. However, Quatach-Ichl was familiar with divine energies in a way that others couldn’t match, so perhaps he knew of a way it could be done.

The topic was also potentially useful in tracking down Red Robe once they were outside the time loop, and it might give them an answer about how Quatach-Ichl had managed to detect their presence at the end of the previous restart. Zorian really wanted an answer to that last question, since he had thought his privacy wards were pretty much flawless at this point.

It was really unfortunate that he had been unable to find out anything of worth when he broke through Quatach-Ichl’s mental defenses, Zorian thought gloomily. While he was extremely proficient at performing memory probes by now, that type of magic took a long time to really get going and the ancient lich had given him very little time to work with before abandoning his body. He probably shouldn’t have tried to find out where Quatach-Ichl’s phylactery was located. That kind of information was incredibly important and was thus bound to be guarded with the greatest possible zeal. He should have gone for something fairly mundane. Maybe Quatach-Ichl would have been willing to risk things and spend more time struggling against his mental probe.

At the moment, though, Zach and Zorian were in the time magic research facility beneath Cyoria. The two of them were disguised as adult agents of the crown, and were having a private talk with Krantin Keklos, the head researcher and overseer of the facility.

Krantin was slowly turning the imperial orb in his hands, utterly fascinated with it.

“You understand that we require your complete silence about this matter, don’t you, Mister Keklos?” Zorian asked him.

The man suddenly looked up, a slightly confused look on his face. He had evidently been so absorbed in his study of the orb that he had lost track of time.

“Hm? Oh. Oh yes, I absolutely understand the need for secrecy,” Krantin quickly said, nodding furiously. “I assure you, me and my team are quite used to working on top secret projects and dealing with potential leaks.”

He took another long look at the orb in his hands.

“This thing… it’s absolutely amazing,” he said, obvious admiration in his voice. “I cannot put into words how glad I am to be given this honor.”

“I hope you remember you are not being given this orb just to satisfy your personal curiosity,” Zach said gruffly. He was playing the bad guy in their ‘fake royal agent’ scheme. “We have given you this honor because you are our nation’s foremost expert on Black Rooms, and we hope you can turn this pocket dimension into the largest one yet. Can you do it or not?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Krantin said. “While the volume of space inside is larger than anything we have ever done, the isolation from the outside world is also unprecedented. We can definitely turn this into a temporal dilation zone. Just…”

“Just?” Zorian prompted.

“W-Well, this is a very ambitious undertaking you are proposing here,” Krantin said, stumbling over the words slightly. Zorian could feel that, although Krantin was a little nervous, he was also determined to make the absolute most out of this opportunity he was presented with. “To create this thing you are proposing, we would have to considerably expand the research facility and design whole new methods of Black Room construction. While I am sure we can do it eventually, the amount of time involved is not small. We are a very small team and–”

“You want more money,” Zach said bluntly, cutting him off.

“And people,” Krantin nodded.

He seemed to sense this was important to them. In that case, he felt it was entirely appropriate to ask for increased commitment in terms of resources and available staff.

Zorian did not answer verbally. He just reached into his jacket and handed Krantin a promissory note from one of the local banks. He could have brought actual cash too, of course, but he knew by now that government facilities like this rarely dealt with such things and that dumping large stacks of paper money on them would be a huge mistake. It would raise all sorts of red flags in their heads.

Krantin wordlessly accepted the promissory note and glanced at it. He raised his eyebrow at the number printed on it. Zorian could tell he was appreciative, but not really impressed.

“This is just the initial sum to get you started, of course,” Zorian said. “You will get further funding once things actually start moving forward, as well as additional bonuses if the project is going particularly well.”

“Of course,” Krantin said, slightly more impressed.

“In regards to additional staff, that is a bit more complex,” Zorian said. “Due to the somewhat abrupt nature of this initiative, it will take at least a month before we can send some new people here on a permanent basis.”

“That’s fine,” Krantin said easily. “I can wait a month or several. Just be aware that the longer it takes for additional manpower to arrive, the more the project will stall.”

“I wasn’t finished,” Zorian said, shaking his head. “Although we cannot send people here officially, you will get several mages skilled in dimensionalism to help you move faster with the project.”

Specifically, the man would be getting Xvim, Silverlake, Zach and Zorian. With their expertise in dimensionalism and with the research facility staff’s experience in constructing Black Rooms, the project would hopefully result in something useful after a few restarts.

Krantin didn’t seem to like the idea, however.

“I don’t like experts outside my authority coming here, telling me how to run things,” he told them bluntly. “Even if they’re highly capable, they don’t know the wider context of why we do things the way we do. They would just slow things down and create confusion.”

“Are you the facility overseer or not?” Zach challenged. “Are you telling me that you cannot keep a couple of new arrivals in line or bring them up to speed in a timely manner?”

Krantin frowned at him, giving him a slightly angry look.

“These people are being sent here as help,” Zorian said in a conciliatory tone. “If, after talking to them, you feel they contribute nothing of worth to the project, you are free to send them away.”

“Just remember that their help has already been factored into our projections on how long the project will take,” Zach warned.

“Very well,” Krantin said, a little unhappily. “I shall give these people a chance, at least. We will see if they are as good as you say they are.”

It took them another hour to arrange everything. Zach and Zorian handed Krantin a whole stack of ‘official’ documentation, which the man merely glanced at before handing it over to the rest of his staff. He evidently didn’t even consider the idea that this was all just an elaborate ruse. Zorian hoped the people actually in charge of processing the documentation would be every bit as careless as their overseer, because many of the documents wouldn’t stand up to detailed scrutiny.

“Well,” Krantin eventually breathed out. “This has certainly been a productive evening. Was there anything else you wanted to talk about?”

“Actually, yes,” Zorian nodded, handing the man another folder full of documents. “There’s been a change in regards to the group that is planned to take advantage of the next Black Room period.”

This wasn’t how Zach and Zorian usually took over the Black Room beneath Cyoria when they wanted to use it. Normally they just disabled the true group and then showed up with bogus documents at the last possible moment, giving the facility staff little time to consider the issue. This time, however, they planned to bring an entire group with them. Thus, they had taken time to arrange things a little more thoroughly.

“Oh? The Retin’s group decided to cancel their scheduled Black Room use?” Krantin said, skimming through the folder. “Strange, they were all so enthusiastic about the whole thing…”

He gave them a knowing look. He clearly knew there was some foul play involved here, but he probably thought it was the government bullying a group into dropping their claim rather than some kind of deception.

He shook his head sadly, throwing the folder to the side.

“I’m curious,” he said. “This orb, the sudden changes in resource allocations and the like… are they related to these mysterious ‘gifts’ I keep hearing about through the rumor mill?”

Hah.

“We aren’t paid to ask those kind of questions, and neither are you,” Zach told him grimly.

“But probably,” added Zorian.

Zach gave him a warning look in response. He was a pretty good actor, all things considered. Did he used to do this sort of thing a lot during past restarts or was he just a natural?

“Alright, I understand. Forget I asked,” Krantin said, rising from his seat. “I guess we should both get back to our jobs. When can I expect these ‘experts’ of yours?”

“Three days from now,” Zorian said. That should be enough to see if their ruse worked or not. “We will also periodically drop by to check your progress and see if you need anything.”

“Give me sufficient resources and I’ll give you what you want,” Krantin assured them.

Zorian had no doubt about that. The real question was whether the results would come fast enough to be of any use.

He also swore mentally that if Krantin really produced impressive results with what they’ve given him, he would find a way to reward him for it in the real world.

Somehow.

* * *

In a typical restart, Zach and Zorian had a habit of holding meetings in all sorts of different places: parks, taverns, abandoned houses, constructed houses, tiny caves in the middle of the wilderness... they usually made a choice based on pure impulse and convenience. The novelty of holding a meeting in a new location was also a welcome reprieve from the soul-crushing sameness that dominated the time loop.

Now, however, they had a lot more people participating in these kinds of meetings. This completely changed their usual dynamic. They couldn’t decide these kinds of things on a whim anymore – they now had to find a space big enough to hold all of them in relative comfort and make sure everyone could gather there in a timely manner. Public places were pretty much out of consideration – a group of a dozen people of a variety of ages and occupations, plus some giant spiders, would turn heads wherever they went. Additionally, Ilsa got angry at them when they tried to arrange for a meeting in a cold, damp cave in the middle of uninhabited wilderness. Zorian didn’t understand what the big deal was, the centipede that tried to climb up her leg was less than a finger thick and the bats didn’t bother anyone, but afterwards everyone agreed to only hold meetings in actual buildings.

Thus, the two of them eventually decided to just hold all the meetings at the Noveda Estate. The place had plenty of empty, spacious rooms and very good privacy wards already in place. Though Zach complained that was the boring choice, he agreed with Zorian that organizing meetings elsewhere was more trouble than it was worth.

Thus, at this moment, there was a huge group of people gathered in one of the larger meeting rooms in the Noveda Estate. The actual meeting was already over by this point, but the group had not disbanded for the day. Instead they had mostly broken up into smaller groups that discussed things of mutual interest between themselves.

In one corner, the emissary from the Filigree Sages was having a loud and enthusiastic discussion with Nora Boole. The female spell formula teacher did not seem to mind that she was talking to a giant spider and instead relished the chance to discuss her field of study with a kindred soul. The Filigree Sages emissary, meanwhile, seemed immensely pleased to have found a human mage that was interested in their brand of spell formula. The two of them seemed completely oblivious to their surroundings and the passage of time, so consumed they were in their discussion.

Not far from them, Alanic and Kyron had covered a table full of various maps and were staring at it in silence. Every once in a while they would point at a random spot on the map and speak a few curt words at each other before falling silent again. Zorian couldn’t figure out anything from their brief, mysterious exchanges. In all likelihood, neither could anyone else – everyone seemed to be giving them a wide berth.

In the other corner, Zach was having a loud discussion with the emissary from the Luminous Advocates. This one was less friendly than the one between Nora Boole and the Filigree Sages emissary, though. Zach seemed to be trying to convince the Luminous Advocates to tutor him in mind magic, while the emissary was stubbornly pointing out that Zach wasn’t psychic and that this would be a waste of time.

Zorian suspected Zach would get his way in the end. Luminous Advocates were a lot less prideful with them after experiencing the time loop in person, and they now knew exactly how powerful Zach was. They knew they couldn’t afford to piss him off, and Zach was unlikely to quit once he set his mind on something, so they would probably cave in eventually. Whether anything would come out of such a lesson was something Zorian was a lot less sure about.

Not too far from them, a small group consisting of Kael, Taiven, Lukav and Daimen was sorting through the various rare materials Zach and Zorian gathered and exchanging stories. The talk seemed to be pretty mundane, focusing on amusing anecdotes and such.

One of the tables was completely monopolized by Silverlake, poring over their documents related to their study of the Ibasan gate. Zorian was pretty surprised at her behavior in this restart, in all honesty. She seemed far more enthusiastic and open about helping them now. It was interesting how dramatically she changed once she experienced the time loop with her own eyes.

Finally, there was Zorian. Like Silverlake, he wasn’t really interacting with anyone at the moment. Instead, he was inspecting a table full of divine artifacts that they had stolen for study. He had never made any progress in figuring out these things, but he certainly wasn’t about to give up. Especially since Quatach-Ichl had given them definite confirmation that it was possible to at least detect divine energies with regular magic.

Eventually his solitude was broken by Xvim, who walked up to his table and sat down on the chair next to him. He looked faintly displeased.

“Problems?” Zorian asked.

“I have a newfound appreciation for the amount of patience you and Mister Noveda possess,” he said blandly. “I’ve just spent the entire morning marking down a stack of student homework that was absolutely identical to what I had already done in the previous restart and realized this would happen a lot. An unpleasant realization.”

“Hah,” Zorian said. “You can always just ignore it.”

Xvim shook his head.

“That would go against my professional pride,” he said. “Just as I demand dedication from my students, I demand the same from myself. A little thing like this should not break me. I shall treat it as personal tempering, I suppose.”

“I see,” Zorian said, nodding. “I suppose you’d be quite a hypocrite if, after subjecting your students to such an infuriating initial treatment, you ended up losing your patience after only a handful of repeating months.”

Xvim hummed in response, not giving a verbal response. He glanced at the divine artifacts Zorian was inspecting.

“You realize, I’m sure, that no one has ever managed to figure out how divine artifacts actually work?” Xvim asked.

“Of course,” Zorian said. “But very few people had the opportunity to take one apart over and over again as a method of study.”

“Still, I’m surprised you’re wasting time on this,” Xvim remarked. “Wouldn’t it be wiser to spend more time on time loop related things?”

“I would actually classify this as very much a time loop related thing,” Zorian answered. “The time loop clearly works at least partially with the help of divine energies. Who’s to say they aren’t involved with our markers?”

“Oh?” Xvim asked, suddenly more interested.

“It’s just baseless speculation,” Zorian said. “But I’ve been thinking about what Red Robe could possibly have that other past Controllers didn’t that would allow him to break the limitations placed on temporary markers, and the most likely answer I’ve come up with is… Quatach-Ichl. I suspect divine energies are involved with the marker somehow, and that the reason Red Robe had been able to jailbreak it is because he had Quatach-Ichl’s help. His method of perceiving and possibly modifying divine energies may have allowed him to tamper with the marker in ways that are impossible to us… in which case our efforts to understand and modify the marker are doomed to fail right from the very start.”

“I hope you are not right about that,” Xvim said after a short pause. “Quatach-Ichl has been alive for centuries. Who knows how long it took him to develop such capabilities?”

Zorian had nothing to say to that.

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