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Chapter 088
Mysterious Ways

With the palace orb handed to the time magic researchers for study and experimentation, Princess had temporarily lost her home. They weren’t going to leave her in there while the researchers tinkered with the pocket dimension. That would probably end in tragedy, and they still needed her to intimidate the sulrothum tribes into allying with them, anyway.

Although Princess herself was not particularly heartbroken about being away from the orb, the situation did make moving her around a bit of a chore. She couldn’t live in the desert. While she could tolerate dry areas, she needed plenty of water to rest in. Thus, Zach and Zorian mostly kept her deep in the Kothic wilderness, where she was happily terrorizing the jungle wildlife, and used dimensional portals to move her where they needed her. Thankfully, while Princess was huge, she was also serpentine in build and very flexible. She could squeeze herself through surprisingly small openings. However, this still meant Zach and Zorian had to expand their dimensional gates to far greater sizes than they typically used, greatly increasing casting time and mana costs involved.

Princess did have her own, divinely-granted teleportation abilities. They had experimented with them somewhat, trying to see if the hydra had underutilized her gifts somehow, but they were disappointed in the end. Her teleportation powers were exactly what they appeared to be: a short-ranged teleport ability that Princess could use for entering and leaving the palace orb, as well as tactical positioning during battles. It was incapable of transporting her across large distances.

The logistics of hydra transport aside, their alliance building was moving along extremely well. The sulrothum tribes they were visiting were both less secure and less prosperous than the ziggurat tribe. Their settlements had no defensive wards, they had no guardian beast on the level of the divinely-touched sandworm and their equipment was far shoddier than what Zach and Zorian were used to. Thus, when a pair of powerful human mages came to them, riding on a gigantic eight-headed hydra and handing out gifts, none of them dared to simply snub them. Not all of them were eager to work with them, but all of them at least agreed to hear them out.

It helped that this time they had brought an actual sulrothum language specialist to translate for them. The bearded, middle-aged man had only agreed to work with them after Zach and Zorian used Neolu and her family connections to guarantee their trustworthiness, but he had been worth the trouble. Not only was he proficient in the hand language that sulrothum normally used for their communication with humans, he even understood some of their native clicking and buzzing that they used to talk to each other… though he couldn’t actually speak it, of course.

Curiously, the man was completely non-magical. Ibak, as he was called, claimed that spells were of little help to him in his job. They only put the sulrothum on edge, as many of them were wary of talking to mages. The devil wasps had great difficulty distinguishing spell chants from mundane conversations, so any time a known spellcaster started speaking they would be viewed with great suspicion.

At the moment, Zach, Zorian, Ibak and Princess were approaching another of the sulrothum tribes for recruitment. This one was particularly underwhelming, however, and Zorian privately wondered if they should even bother. The settlement was just a series of circular holes dug into a cliff, and Zorian had seen enough of such places by now to estimate the number of sulrothum living there. The tribe probably had less than a hundred members total. Since the group had done nothing to mask their approach and Princess was very eye-catching, the sulrothum scouts had long since spotted them and the entire tribe was a nervous hive of activity. This allowed Zorian to take a look at the decorations and weapons the group was sporting, and he was not impressed with what he was seeing.

“Why are all these tribes so much worse than the ziggurat one?” Zach asked out loud.

He probably did not expect an answer, but surprisingly Ibak had an answer.

“Because of the dungeon access,” Ibak said.

Zach and Zorian shot him curious looks, not really understanding.

“While humans like to build their cities on top of accessible dungeon layers, most other species do not, as their less sophisticated magical expertise makes them less capable of dealing with creatures crawling out of the Dungeon on the regular basis,” Ibak clarified. “The sulrothum living in the Ziggurat of the Sun are an exception, probably because of the giant sandworm you mentioned. The creature probably allowed them to reshape their local underground the same way human communities do, letting them exploit the place in relative safety. The other tribes do not have that, and thus appear underwhelming in comparison.”

“Huh,” Zach said thoughtfully. “I guess that sandworm is even more important than we thought. The wasps really lucked out with that thing.”

Before anyone could continue the discussion, Princess released a warbling cry and pointed one of her heads towards a spot on the horizon where a group of sulrothum was flying towards them.

Zorian frowned at the sight. He wasn’t surprised that Princess had noticed them before anyone else – she had eight pairs of eyes and was intensely vigilant by nature – but the direction they were coming from and their numbers were unexpected. They were coming from their left, rather than the sulrothum settlement in front of them, and there were twelve sulrothum in the approaching group.

“An emissary from a different tribe?” Zorian guessed. He doubted the tiny settlement in front of them would send out a hunting party as large as this… and if they did, the group would first enter their home to consult with their elders before confronting them.

“Probably,” Zach said. “I hope this becomes a thing in the future. This would go so much smoother if the surrounding tribes started coming to us instead of the other way around.”

As they grew closer to Princess and the humans accompanying her, the sulrothum group eventually slowed down and landed in the area in front of them. The sulrothum chose a spot that was a fair distance away from their own, trying to make their entrance seem less threatening, but in the end they did effectively block their path and Princess instantly became outraged at the temerity of these newcomers. If Zach hadn’t hurriedly calmed her down, she would have already been charging at them, heads roaring a battle cry.

In the end the two groups silently agreed to meet in the middle and negotiate. Zach, Zorian and Ibak ordered Princess to stay in the back and loom over the meeting threateningly, while the apparent sulrothum leader took two bodyguards with him and ordered the rest to similarly stay in the back and look intimidating.

Zorian was kind of biased, but he felt that Princess decidedly won the ‘aggressive posturing’ competition.

For the next ten minutes, Ibak and the sulrothum leader exchanged words while Zorian took the chance to study the group that sought them out. They were pretty impressive by sulrothum standards, he realized. They were all armed with iron spears and decorated with plenty of war paint, trinkets and various ‘magical charms’. The only person that wasn’t armed was their leader, who carried a plethora of metal rings and chains but no weapons. He also had a particularly large number of charm bundles hanging off of him, some of which actually looked like they might be doing something. Zorian immediately pegged him as a priest.

After a while the talking died down and Ibak turned to them awkwardly. Zorian could immediately tell that he didn’t have good news for them, though the sulrothum themselves remained non-aggressive. Curious.

“What is it?” Zach prompted.

“This group here comes from the Ziggurat of the Sun,” Ibak said slowly.

Oh.

He did think those spears were kind of familiar. However, weapons like that were hardly unique to the ziggurat tribe, so he thought nothing of it.

“They know we want to attack them, huh?” Zach mused out loud.

It wasn’t that unexpected, Zorian supposed. It wasn’t like they were being low-key in their alliance building. Quite the opposite, really. With that in mind, it was probably inevitable that the ziggurat tribe would detect their plans long before the actual attack was executed. Since their goal was to lure the high priest out of the ziggurat and not to catch the sulrothum by surprise, this wasn’t something they cared much about.

Still, they hadn’t expected the ziggurat tribe to seek them out for a friendly chat. Try to ambush them, maybe, but not this.

“Yes,” Ibak confirmed. “They want to know… what it would take for you to call your attack off.”

“What, no threats?” Zach asked curiously.

“No,” said Ibak, shaking his head. “Just questions about your motives. Not that I know much about that myself, of course.”

Zach ignored the accusatory tone in Ibak’s last sentence. While he probably wouldn’t betray them to the sulrothum, it wouldn’t make them look any less crazy or mysterious if they told him they were doing all this for a magic ring.

“How do they know we don’t want to simply take away their ziggurat?” Zach asked. “Ask them that.”

“That’s… are you trying to start a fight with them?” Ibak asked incredulously.

“I want to see how they react,” Zach said. “Just do it.”

Ibak muttered something that sounded like a curse in his native language and then started conversing with the sulrothum priest again. Interestingly, the sulrothum did not visibly react to the question at all. It wasn’t long before Ibak turned to them again.

“They say three of us are not enough for that,” Ibak said. “That you would have brought an army with you if you wanted to occupy something.” The sulrothum priest made another series of hand gestures. “They think you want something smaller. Something portable. They acknowledge your strength but wonder if a trade wouldn’t be preferable to bloodshed.”

“What we want they would never trade away,” Zorian said, shaking his head.

Should they tell them they were after the ring? No, that might make it harder to lure the high priest out of the ziggurat later… but maybe he would actually agree to hand it to them if he thought it would ward off a catastrophic attack on his tribe? The ring was important, but it wasn’t like they were asking him to hand over the sandworm control dagger or something.

“Tell them this is not something they are qualified to negotiate about,” Zach suddenly said. “We want to talk to their high priest.”

Zorian raised his eyebrow at Zach. Did he really think it would be that easy?

A furious exchange of hand gestures occurred between Ibak and the sulrothum priest, after which Ibak turned to them again.

“They say they are also not qualified to bring strangers before their elders,” Ibak said. “They are here merely to find out what you’re after and if the conflict can be averted. After that, they will report back to their tribe and receive further orders. They say meeting the leaders of the tribe may be possible, but you have to give them something to bring back if you wish for that to happen.”

Zach and Zorian looked at each other briefly. A quiet exchange of telepathic communication occurred between them and they quickly came to an agreement.

“I guess that makes sense,” Zach admitted out loud.

Zorian reached into his pocket and retrieved a metal watch from it. Using a quick alteration spell, he melted the portion of the casing and shaped it into a replica of the imperial ring before handing it over to Ibak.

“Tell them to hand this over to the high priest as our response,” Zorian said.

“He’ll understand,” Zach added.

Ibak raised his eyebrow at them but did as he was told. The sulrothum priest hesitantly accepted the ring, turning it in his chitinous hands. He seemed rather dubious about the explanation he was given, staring at both Zach and Zorian with his large faceted eyes in a searching manner, antennae nervously twitching in all directions.

After a while, he carefully placed the replica ring in one of the many leather pouches hanging off his body and nodded to them in a very human manner. He then waved towards his bodyguards, signaling they were done here. Apparently he realized this was all he would be getting out of them. A few minutes later the entire sulrothum group lifted into the air again and rapidly flew away in the same direction they came from.

The humans silently watched their retreat for a while, before Ibak decided to speak up.

“You brats are too damn mysterious about everything,” he groused. “I don’t even know why I agreed to this.”

“You’re getting paid handsomely for this,” Zach pointed out.

“Yet I’m still starting to regret this,” Ibak said. He looked towards the sulrothum settlement in the distance. “Incidentally, there is another group of sulrothum incoming. This time for the settlement we were going to visit before we got interrupted by this one.”

Zorian looked towards the settlement and noticed that Ibak was correct. The local sulrothum did not dare interrupt the ziggurat tribe emissaries while they were talking to Zorian and others, but now that they were gone, they seemed to be hurriedly assembling their own emissary group to intercept them.

“Are we still going to talk to them about allying against the ziggurat tribe?” Ibak asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Zach said, shrugging. “There is no guarantee that the high priest will accept our message in good grace. If we thought it would be that simple to get what we want, we wouldn’t have started down this path to begin with. We’ll keep gathering forces, putting pressure on him while he considers what to do.”

* * *

Neither Zach nor Zorian really thought the high priest would capitulate and hand them the ring without a fight. On the contrary, they felt sure it would make their task of eventually obtaining the ring far harder in this restart. However, on the off chance it did work, it would be pretty much an ideal solution to obtaining the ring in future restarts. Thus, they decided to give it a try anyway.

They didn’t expect to be approached by the same emissary group the very next day, inviting them to the ziggurat to talk with the high priest.

Ibak cautioned them against accepting the offer. It was an obvious trap, he said. However, Zach and Zorian did not care. Even if the meeting was just an excuse to ambush them, they still had to go. They were far more powerful than either Ibak or the sulrothum high priest realized, and were unlikely to die. As long as they met the high priest face-to-face and he had the ring on him, they would get what they wanted, one way or another.

Unfortunately, Ibak adamantly refused to follow them into the ziggurat, calling them suicidal fools. Zorian understood the man’s attitude. Ibak couldn’t possibly know just how capable he and Zach really were, so his concerns were well warranted. However, this didn’t make things any less frustrating and the argument was rapidly becoming heated.

The ziggurat tribe emissary calmly observed the argument for a few minutes before casting some sort of spell. Both Zach and Zorian instantly became wary, but it quickly became obvious that the sulrothum priest was casting magic on himself.

The spell was far lengthier and ritualized than what Zorian was used to when dealing with human and aranean mages, involving nearly a minute of buzzing and gesturing, and at the end of it the sulrothum priest burned a handful of scented materials as some kind of offering to the heavens. An entirely superfluous gesture as far as Zorian could tell, not impacting the spellcasting results at all.

This done, the emissary straightened himself up and faced them again.

“The fight: unnecessary,” he declared with a somewhat distorted but perfectly understandable human voice. “Talk: still possible. No need to pressure companion.”

Zach and Zorian stared at the sulrothum for a while before Zach spoke up again.

“You could have done this right from the start and you let us talk through a translator all this time?” he asked.

The sulrothum’s antenna twitched nervously as he tried to decipher Zach’s words.

“He clearly has only a rudimentary knowledge of Ikosian tongue,” Ibak said in an exasperated manner. “It makes perfect sense for him to prefer conversing with me, using more familiar hand gestures, than bothering with this.”

“My speech: poor,” the emissary added. “High priest: much better. Will be enough until we reach temple.”

After some more discussion, Zach and Zorian agreed to leave Ibak and followed the sulrothum back to the ziggurat. Despite their worries, they were not attacked at any point in the journey, not even when they entered the ziggurat itself. Instead the emissary dutifully led them through the empty corridors and straight into the temple, where the high priest and his honor guard waited for them.

Zorian was honestly a little surprised. The sulrothum had actually brought them in front of their high priest, just as they had promised. Sure, the room was also packed full of heavily-armed guards and several lesser priests, but it did not seem like they were walking into an ambush. The sulrothum were tense and agitated, but they did not move to attack them.

The high priest stood proudly in front of the huge sacred fire that served as the heart of the temple. Situated at the top of a large stone dais, the fire illuminated the entire place in dull orange glow. The air was uncomfortably hot and dry, even though Zach and Zorian had spent their time traveling through a scorching desert just before coming here. From his elevated position, the sulrothum high priest silently stared down on them, his multifaceted eyes unblinkingly studying their every move.

A deathly, uncomfortable silence soon descended on the scene. For several minutes, the two sides simply stood in their spots without making a move. Even Zach remained patient and unmoving, reluctant to make the first move.

Finally, the high priest seemed to reach a decision. He reached towards one of his hands and removed a familiar ring from it. He then placed in on his palm and thrust it towards them decisively.

“Take it,” he said. His voice was deep and resonant, and echoed dramatically throughout the room.

“Just like that?” Zach asked curiously.

“You do not want it?” the high priest asked.

“We want it,” Zach said. “I’m just a little surprised by your behavior.”

“I mirror your sentiments, human,” the high priest declared. “I, too, am… a little surprised by your behavior. If you wanted the ring, why did you not just come here and ask for it? Why bother with the hostilities?”

Zach looked at him like he was stupid.

“What are you talking about?” Zorian said. “Are you saying you’d have given us the ring if we had simply walked in here and asked you to?”

“Of course,” the high priest said. “We are children of angels. What child dares defy its parents?”

“The angels?” repeated Zorian confusingly.

The high priest stared at them silently for a few seconds.

“As I thought,” he said, lowering the hand that held the ring. “You do not know.”

“No, we really don’t,” Zach freely admitted. “What are you talking about?”

“Have you tried to contact the angels recently?” the high priest asked.

Zorian raised an eyebrow at him. What a ridiculous idea. As if anyone could just contact the angels to have a friendly chat of something. Besides…

“The spirit world cannot be contacted at the moment,” Zorian said.

“Ah, so you do know that much at least…” the high priest said, his antennae waving in the air lazily. “Good. Just before the angels fell silent, they graced us with their presence and gave us a warning. They said that in the coming month, a powerful human mage may arrive here and ask for the ring. If that were to happen… we are to simply hand it over without struggle.”

Zach and Zorian stayed silent, digesting the explanation. Angels specifically instructed the sulrothum to hand over the ring to them? Well, to the time loop controller, really. To Zach. Did that mean that angels were the ones to give Zach the marker?

It would certainly explain how Zach could have gotten a divine blessing when such things were supposed to be all but extinct in modern times…

“Why would the angels tell you to do such a thing?” Zach frowned.

“I don’t know,” the high priest said, cocking his head to the side like a curious bird. “You should tell me.”

“Well, did they actually give you a description of this ‘powerful human mage’?” Zach asked agitatedly. “Did they leave some kind of message for him?”

“No descriptions, no message,” the high priest responded curtly. “However, they did assure us not to worry about the loss of the ring. They said… that in the end, the loss would be just a temporary matter.”

Before Zach and Zorian could say anything else, the high priest threw the ring at them. Zach caught it in his hand and inspected it. However, that was largely pointless. Zorian could tell through his marker that the ring was genuine, and so could Zach.

“The heavens instruct; the children obey,” the high priest stated. “You have what you came here for. You may leave now.”

This was apparently the end of the meeting, because then the regular priests soon came to them, and politely but insistently ushered them out of the ziggurat.

* * *

Somewhere in the jungles of Blantyrre, not far from the coast, was an unremarkable dirt trail made by the local lizardmen. This was normally a quiet and rarely used road, but today this sleepy peace was shattered by an entire group of humans loudly and messily trudging through the region. Though sheer manpower and powerful magic, they cut down the vegetation that threatened to overgrow the path and continued inexorably towards their destination.

This was Daimen and his personal team looking for rumors about the imperial staff. This time, Zach and Zorian had decided to tag along with them for a while. It had been four days since they had managed to obtain the imperial ring from the sulrothum, and they were still somewhat under the impression of what they had heard in the ziggurat. They didn’t know what to think about the whole incident. Clearly the angels were aware that the time loop was going to be activated and took at least some precautions in regards to that… did that mean they were behind the whole thing?

Zach certainly did not remember even talking to an angel, much less receiving any sort of instructions from them. Of course, it was possible that Red Robe was responsible for that, having erased Zach’s memory of that for some reason, but then one couldn’t help but ask why they didn’t plan for that possibility and leave a message for him through one of their other servants. The ring situation proved they were both capable and willing to make such contingencies when it suited them, so why not for other things as well?

There were no easy answers for that. Even Alanic admitted that this sort of thing did not make much sense to him, though he did not seem to be too disturbed. The angels work in mysterious ways, he said, since they labor under many limitations and restrictions placed on them by the gods. Many times they simply couldn’t do the logical thing, or even tell you why they are acting the way they do. One just had to have faith that they knew what they were doing and not rely on them too much.

Well, at least this way they had a trivially easy way of recovering the imperial ring…

“See, I told you Princess was the solution!” Zach said, spinning the said ring on his finger.

“This is not how you expected things to go and we both know it,” Zorian told him firmly. He looked over to the side where Kirma was fiddling with the brand new divination compass Zorian had made for her. “So? What do you think?”

She didn’t answer for a moment, opting to instead cast a quick series of divinations through the device before turning it in her hands a few more times. Like her old one, it was a flower-shaped and made of metal, but with a much denser array of spell formula. Zorian was pretty sure his work was a massive improvement on what she had been working with up until now, but high level diviners were finicky and what worked for him might not necessarily work for her.

“Very impressive,” she finally concluded. “A bit bigger and heavier than I’m used to, but I can work with this. It feels a little weird to accept something this valuable for free, though.”

“Free?” Torun scoffed from their side. One of the floating eyeballs that followed him swiveled towards them while Torun simply kept scanning the jungle canopy for something. He had a bad habit of not looking people in the eye while talking to them, letting his floating eyeballs maintain eye contact instead. “He’s had all of us searching an entire continent worth of jungle for a straightened piece of wood without having to pay us a single thing. It was about time he started handing out gifts.”

“That’s not very fair,” Kirma protested. “We’re also doing this for ourselves, not just for him.”

“And I’m paying plenty of money to make this happen,” Zorian pointed out.

“Fake time loop money,” Torun said dismissively. “Doesn’t count.”

“Also, why don’t I get a gift?” Taiven suddenly asked, having snuck up to them from behind while they were taking. “Seriously, Zorian… you’re handing out expensive gifts to strange women, but you don’t have anything for your old pal Taiven? Shame on you!”

Zorian looked at her, amused. He’d thought she was still busy gawking at the jungle sights, since this was the first time she had ever stepped foot in one, but apparently she had calmed down a little and decided to seek him out.

Kirma gave Taiven a less friendly look, since she apparently didn’t like being labeled a ‘strange woman’ out of the blue.

“My gift to you is taking you with me to Blantyrre, even though you have no useful skills for the mission and no wilderness survival experience,” Zorian told her blandly.

“Eh, I guess that’s true,” she laughed nervously. “I really do appreciate it, though. Traveling to exotic lands, searching for ancient artifacts… this sort of expedition is exactly what I hoped to one day experience. It’s great! It’s just too bad I can’t put this on my job profile or something.”

She was entirely too giddy about the whole thing. On one hand it was kind of annoying to have her dance around the whole group like an excited little girl, on the other hand it kind of made him glad he had agreed to bring her along, since this clearly meant so much to her.

At least she wasn’t defenseless. The one time she had walked into a patch of carnivorous plants, she burned them all to ashes before anyone had even realized what had happened. Her inexperience aside, she was a decent combat mage.

Eventually, the group soon reached their destination – a small lizardmen village where they would supposedly find a reclusive sage that knew ‘everything’ about the history of the region. While the ‘everything’ was almost certainly an exaggeration, there was probably some sort of basis for his reputation, right?

Right.

The village was a humble one, with tiny houses made out of mud and straw. There was a river right next to it, and most of the adult villagers were currently busy tending to their boats, which they dragged onto the shore for easier handling. The children were either shuttling tools and materials between various work groups or chasing each other and play fighting while their parents shouted something vaguely threatening at them. Probably telling them to stop messing around or demanding they get out of the way if they wouldn’t help.

Their arrival caused a small commotion in the group, but they were mostly curious rather than wary. Most lizardmen never saw a human in their entire life, Zorian had learned, so they did not know what to expect of them. Since the group was accompanied by lizardmen guides hired in the nearby city-state and no one in the group carried an obvious weapon like a spear or a club, the villagers were not particularly frightened of them.

Annoyingly, this meant that some of the braver children tried to examine them closer or even touch them. One of them specifically picked Zorian as a target, probably because he was one of the shorter humans present, and kept asking him something while poking him.

Lizardmen language sounded nothing like normal lizard hissing. It was more like a high-pitched, warbling bird song. Zorian understood none of it, but by peering into the kids mind and listening to the snickering explanation of their lizardmen guides, he managed to puzzle out that the child was asking him if he was a ‘fairy’.

He hated this village already.

In any case, the group eventually set up a small camp just outside the village, with most of the group just idling around while the leaders of the village exchanged gifts with Daimen and went through various ceremonial gestures. The whole procedure was annoyingly lengthy, but apparently necessary. The reclusive sage they wanted to talk with was normally… well, reclusive. He wouldn’t deign to meet most people, but perhaps if they could convince the village elders to put in a good word for them, he might give them a chance.

Zorian was currently sitting on one of the cut down logs on the outskirts of the village, watching some of the lizardmen children fight the animated mud person he had created out of the ground to distract them from himself. Although the mud construct had the size and strength comparable to an adult human, the truth was that humans were notably smaller and weaker than lizardmen. Their vaguely crocodilian frames were wider and larger than human ones, and their skin was covered in tough leathery scales. Thus, even though the mud construct’s enemies were mere children, it was still being gradually overpowered. This was pretty much how Zorian had intended it to be, however. He didn’t really want to hurt the little brats, even if they were loud, grabby and generally annoying.

Not far from him, some enterprising lizardman woman had come to try and peddle her crafts and trinkets to the gathered humans, trying to exchange pottery and necklaces made out of colorful stones for metal tools and fabrics. She was currently ‘negotiating’ with one of the female members of the group, each of them loudly talking at one another, even though neither spoke the other’s language.

He took off his glasses and started obsessively cleaning them. Damn it, when was this damn meeting going to en–

“Why so impatient?” asked a voice beside him. “It is good to sit down from time to time and appreciate the simpler things in life.”

His heart skipped a beat when the voice started talking. He turned towards the source of the voice, shocked to find that there was suddenly a strange lizardman sitting next to him. And he did mean ‘suddenly’. The lizardman did not register at all on Zorian’s mind sense and seemingly materialized out of nowhere when he started talking.

He was also very, very weird-looking. Intricate pattern of blue and white lines was painted over his whole body, and he wore what seemed to be a massive deer skull over the top of his head. A multitude of bone armbands, necklaces and ankle-bands decorated his limbs and neck. Resting horizontally on his lap was a gnarled wooden staff with a huge pearl attached on top of it.

His posture and appearance gave the impression of someone old and worn down – eyes half-closed, scales cracked and faded in places, his posture hunched and drooping – despite that, he inspired a faint feeling of terror in Zorian, who couldn’t understand how he had been able to sneak up on his so easily.

“I hear you’ve been looking for me,” the lizardman said. He was speaking fluent Ikosian, which was kind of interesting but way down the list of questions Zorian wanted answered at the moment.

“What? Oh, you’re the sage we wanted to speak with,” Zorian realized.

“Indeed,” the lizardman said, fiddling with one of the bone armbands while watching the children play with Zorian’s mud construct. “I dislike this kind of attention, so I decided to just meet with one of you and be done with it.”

Zorian looked around and realized no one seemed to be paying attention to his conversation with the weird lizardman that had showed up out of nowhere.

“Only you can see and hear me,” he said casually.

This was such bullshit.

“Why did you pick me out of everyone else present?” Zorian asked with a small frown.

“I like you,” he said. “You took the time to play with the children. Don’t you remember what I said earlier? It is good to sit down from time to time and appreciate the simpler things in life.”

Zorian looked at him incredulously, not sure if the lizardman was being serious or not. He had only made that toy so the children would let him rest in peace.

“How did you sneak up on me?” Zorian couldn’t help but ask.

“I’m old,” the lizardman said, tapping the staff in his lap with his scaly, clawed fingers. “Ancient. It’s natural to have a couple of secrets.”

He did not offer to explain any further and Zorian did not press him.

The staff was probably some kind of divine artifact. Zorian checked it out with his marker, just in case it was the one they were after. It wasn’t.

“What did you seek me out for?” the lizardman asked, his half-closed eye focusing more firmly on him.

Zorian quickly described the origin and probable appearance of the staff to the old lizardman. The sage patiently listened to his explanation, saying nothing. He said nothing for nearly fifteen minutes, seemingly lost in thought. Occasionally he whistled to himself softly in the native lizardmen tongue, tapping on his various bone ornaments and drawing some kind of simple geometric diagrams in dirt.

Zorian patiently waited for the lizardman to come to his senses again, not daring to interrupt his musings. Unfortunately, when the sage finally turned to him again, he did not have a favorable answer for him.

“I cannot remember anything that would help you in your quest,” the lizardman said, shaking his head sadly. The various bone necklaces hanging from his neck clinked softly at the movement.

Zorian sighed. So much for that.

“However…” the lizardman continued, “I have an idea where you might look for more knowledge on the matter, if you feel brave enough. This staff… it is a very valuable thing, yes?”

“Yes,” Zorian confirmed.

“There is a particularly loathsome dragon mage terrorizing our people throughout the entire region and beyond,” the sage said. “I don’t know her name, but our people refer to her as the Violet-Eyed Disaster, The Covetous One or Typhoon. For centuries she has preyed upon our communities, snatching away any item that catches her fancy and killing anyone that tried to bar her way. Many important artifacts have been lost to her. If this staff of yours is as important as it seems, she has probably tried to find it and knows a thing or two about its whereabouts. Perhaps… it may already be in her possession.”

Zorian gave the lizardman an unamused look. An infamous dragon mage? There were few things in the world more dangerous than that… feeling brave indeed.

Still, the old guy’s logic was sound and the idea was worth checking out. Didn’t Zach already demonstrate the ability to kill Oganj, who was similarly an infamous dragon mage?

“So what do you–” Zorian began to speak, only to realize the old lizardman was no longer there.

He waved his hand through the air where the sage had been sitting next to him, but hit only empty space.

Groaning audibly, Zorian wandered off to find Zach and Daimen to inform them that arranging the meeting with the sage was no longer necessary.

* * *

Zorian woke up with a panicked scream as an endless deluge of ice cold water poured on top of his head as he slept. Stumbling and flailing around in panic, he tried to jump out of bed, but the wet fabric clung to him and made him trip. He tumbled awkwardly to the floor, frantically trying to rub the water out of his eyes while searching for his glasses.

When he had finally come to his senses and looked around, he found Kirielle pressed into a corner of the room by the door, a large bucket clutched tightly in her hands.

There was still water dripping from it onto the floor.

“Kirielle… what the hell are you doing!?” Zorian shouted incredulously.

“I, u-umm…” she stumbled, pacing nervously while clutching the bucket in her hands tightly. “I was trying to make you assume your true form!”

Zorian looked at her like she was crazy.

Actually, scratch that – she was crazy!

“True form!?” he asked her. “What the hell are you on about? You just dumped a bucket of cold water on my head in the middle of the night!”

“I read in the book that doppelgangers assume their true forms if you surprise them while they’re sleeping,” she said. “So, um, if you dump water on them when they’re deep asleep, they’ll drop their disguise and assume their true form.”

Zorian stared at her, unable to believe her explanation.

“You think I’m a face-changer?” Zorian asked her in a calm voice.

“Y-You aren’t acting like the Zorian I know,” she said while staring at the ground and refusing to look at him. “You have all these friends all of a sudden, you didn’t get angry at all when Imaya asked you about Daimen and… you’re way too nice to me.”

Zorian sighed and ran his hand through his wet hair to get it out of his eyes. He looked at the closed door, confused as to why the entire house hadn’t woken up by now because of all the shouting, but then he remembered he had put pretty strong privacy wards on the room.

“If you thought I was a doppelganger, you should have at least gotten someone to back you up when confronting me,” Zorian told her.

He made a couple of gestures and pressed his hands against his chest, evaporating most of the water out of his clothes.

“You’re too good at magic, too,” Kirielle added. “That’s another thing that’s weird. But, umm… you didn’t change forms, so I guess you really are Zorian.”

Zorian debated the merits of using an illusion to seemingly morph into some kind of grotesque monster right at that moment, but immediately discarded it as too cruel. As much as he wanted to rage and get back at her, she had good reasons for pulling off this stupid stunt.

He was getting entirely too careless around her, it seemed.

“Yes, I really am Zorian,” he told her in an exasperated tone. He took the bucket from her hands and lifted her up before marching back to his bed and plopping her right on top of it.

Right on top of the wet part, that is.

“Why!?” she protested, immediately jumping off the bed and inspecting her suddenly wet behind.

“Punishment,” Zorian said pitilessly. “You did say I was too nice to you, no?”

She gave him an angry look but said nothing.

“Anyway,” he said. “I suppose I can tell you a little bit about what’s going on and why things are so weird right now…”

* * *

Time marched on. The search for the staff in Blantyrre, the research on pocket dimensions and other points of interest, the training of people with the aid of Black Rooms and nigh-limitless resources… as the restarts started to accumulate, these and other projects started to gradually bear fruit.

Just like that, another five restarts had passed.

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